Georgia Tech Announces an Online Masters Degree in Computer Science

Major news from my alma mater, Georgia Tech, today: the university is offering an Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) for less than $7,000. The collaboration is among Georgia Tech, Udacity, and AT&T.

From the official announcement:

All OMS CS course content will be delivered via the massive open online course (MOOC) format, with enhanced support services for students enrolled in the degree program. Those students also will pay a fraction of the cost of traditional on-campus master’s programs; total tuition for the program is initially expected to be below $7,000. A pilot program, partly supported by a generous gift from AT&T, will begin in the next academic year. Initial enrollment will be limited to a few hundred students recruited from AT&T and Georgia Tech corporate affiliates. Enrollment is expected to expand gradually over the next three years.

Here is Sebastian Thrun, c0-founder of Udacity, on how this degree will revolutionize education:

I co-founded Udacity to bring the very best of higher education to everyone worldwide. With Georgia Tech, we have a partner whose computer science program is among the best in the world! And equally importantly, with AT&T, we partner with a Fortune-500 company which is relentlessly innovating in the space of digital access to information. This triumvirate of industry and academia is now teaming up to use 21st Century MOOC technology to level the playing field in computer science education. And while the degree rightfully comes with a tuition fee — after all, to achieve the very best in online education we will provide support services — the bare content will be available free of charge, available for anyone eager to learn. We are also launching non-credit certificates at a much reduced price point, to give a path to those who don’t care about Georgia Tech credit or degrees, but still want their learning results certified.

Thrun is enthusiastic about this opportunity and likes this launch to the day he proposed to his wife.

As for why CS is the first to be the first degree of its kind as a MOOC? Per the FAQs:

Computer science is defined by the ability to train and test students within a rubric of discrete, quantifiable problems and solutions. This makes computer science much more amenable to the massive-online format.

Only a matter of time until physics, math, and other STEM fields get added. Welcome to the future!

Is The Avenues School the Best Education Money Can Buy?

A fun profile in New York Times Magazine of Avenues: The World School in Chelsea, a for-profit (to the tune of $43,000/year) school in New York City. What happens when each set of parents is entitled to an opinion on how the school should be run? Chaos:

In September, Avenues opened with 740 students, from pre-K to ninth grade. And with those students came 740 sets of parents, many of them determined to design the perfect 21st-century school in their own high-earning, creative-class image. They were entrepreneurs and tech millionaires, talent agents and fashion designers, Katie Holmes, hedge-fund managers and artists who refuse to live above 23rd Street. And they wanted to be heard. The school subsequently formed a parents’ association, but it had no rules. So there was a debate about who got to go to the meetings and who got to vote. Bylaws had to be created, which, in Avenues’ case, meant collecting the rules and regulations of 30 other private schools so as to determine the best way to even make bylaws. “There was nothing in place,” says Jacquie Hemmerdinger, head of the standards and values committee on the Avenues Parents Association, “and they empowered 700 parents.”

A committee was created to manage events, like galas and book fairs and bake sales, even though, as a for-profit school, Avenues couldn’t hold any events that raised money. (Did Avenues even want book fairs, some wondered? That was debated, too.) A task force was formed to investigate the safety of the neighborhood after at least one mother fretted that her child had seen the upper outlines of a homeless man’s backside en route to a playground. The complaint became known as the butt-crack e-mail. Other debates waged over the classrooms (were there enough books?); pickup (it was mayhem); identification cards (the photos were too high-resolution); and the school uniforms (was anyone enforcing the policy?). “I think we underestimated the degree of their energy and creativity,” says Gardner P. Dunnan, the former Dalton headmaster and Avenues’ academic dean and head of the Upper School. “They would take over if they could. They are New York parents.”

And then there was the food committee. After the PowerPoint presentation concluded in the black-box theater, the questions started flying: Why so much bread? What was the policy on genetically modified organisms? Why no sushi?

My question: what does it mean for the identification cards to be too high resolution? New Yorkers!

Read the entire story here.

Cheating on a Game Theory Test: One Professor’s Experience

Peter Nonacs is a professor in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at UCLA. He studies the evolution of social behavior across species. In this blog post, he recounts how one of the tests he gave in his Game Theory class he allowed the students to cheat (collaborate with one another):

So last quarter I had an intriguing thought while preparing my Game Theory lectures. Tests are really just measures of how the Education Game is proceeding. Professors test to measure their success at teaching, and students take tests in order to get a good grade. Might these goals be maximized simultaneously? What if I let the students write their own rules for the test-taking game? Allow them to do everything we would normally call cheating?

A week before the test, I told my class that the Game Theory exam would be insanely hard—far harder than any that had established my rep as a hard prof. But as recompense, for this one time only, students could cheat. They could bring and use anything or anyone they liked, including animal behavior experts. (Richard Dawkins in town? Bring him!) They could surf the Web. They could talk to each other or call friends who’d taken the course before. They could offer me bribes. (I wouldn’t take them, but neither would I report it to the dean.) Only violations of state or federal criminal law such as kidnapping my dog, blackmail, or threats of violence were out of bounds.

Gasps filled the room. The students sputtered. They fretted. This must be a joke. I couldn’t possibly mean it. What, they asked, is the catch?

I like the conclusion:

The best tests will not only find out what students know but also stimulate thinking in novel ways. This is much more than regurgitating memorized facts. The test itself becomes a learning experience—where the very act of taking it leads to a deeper understanding of the subject.

Medical School is Outrageously Expensive

Bloomberg has an article on how outrageously expensive medical school is:

Median tuition and fees at private medical schools was $50,309 in the 2012-2013 academic year, more than 16 times the cost when Moy’s father became a doctor. The median education debt for 2012 medical-school graduates was $170,000, including loans taken out for undergraduate studies and excluding interest. That compares with an average $13,469 in 1978, said Jay Youngclaus, co-author of a February 2013 report on medical school debt. The 1978 amount would be about $48,000 in today’s dollars.

The median four-year cost to attend medical school — which includes outlays like living expenses and books — for the class of 2013 is $278,455 at private schools and $207,868 at public ones, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, a nonprofit group of U.S. schools.

Keep in mind that most medical schools don’t subsidize the tuition with any kind of merit scholarships, and you are certain to have almost everyone graduate with massive debt. Ben Bernanke’s son apparently has $400,000 in debt:

Even Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s son can’t expect to escape the debt burden. The elder Bernanke testified before Congress last year that his son is on track to leave medical school with $400,000 in loans. The figure may include accrued interest and undergraduate costs. His son attends Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, according to the school directory. Bernanke, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment.

 

The Trouble with Online Education

In the wake of Coursera announcing partnerships with twelve new universities, Mark Edmundson (author of Why Read?) has a fantastic op-ed in The New York Times. He argues that online educations tends to be a monologue rather than a dialogue. The Internet teacher, even the one who actively responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is the gist of the message:

We tend to think that the spellbinding lecturers we had in college survey classes were gifted actors who could strut and fret 50 amazing minutes on the stage. But I think that the best of those lecturers are highly adept at reading their audiences. They use practical means to do this — tests and quizzes, papers and evaluations. But they also deploy something tantamount to artistry. They are superb at sensing the mood of a room. They have a sort of pedagogical sixth sense. They feel it when the class is engaged and when it slips off. And they do something about it. Their every joke is a sounding. It’s a way of discerning who is out there on a given day.

A truly memorable college class, even a large one, is a collaboration between teacher and students. It’s a one-time-only event. 

I absolutely agree. The best professors I’ve had in college were magicians in front of the stage: able to guess student’s emotions, and to tune their lecture accordingly. The corollary to the argument is that Internet courses can work, but it requires extremely motivated students to slog through the lectures. This motivation, arguably, is easier to find (and tune) in students who attend live lectures and interact with their professors.

The Influence of Texas on Textbooks

What happens in Texas doesn’t stay in Texas when it comes to textbooks. That’s the premise of this New York Review of Books piece on the Texas School of Education and its politics. It’s a good piece which highlights a broken system:

When it comes to meddling with school textbooks, Texas is both similar to other states and totally different. It’s hardly the only one that likes to fiddle around with the material its kids study in class. The difference is due to size—4.8 million textbook-reading schoolchildren as of 2011—and the peculiarities of its system of government, in which the State Board of Education is selected in elections that are practically devoid of voters, and wealthy donors can chip in unlimited amounts of money to help their favorites win.

And:

The Texas State Board of Education, which approves textbooks, curriculum standards, and supplemental materials for the public schools, has fifteen members from fifteen districts whose boundaries don’t conform to congressional districts, or really anything whatsoever. They run in staggered elections that are frequently held in off years, when always-low Texas turnout is particularly abysmal. The advantage tends to go to candidates with passionate, if narrow, bands of supporters, particularly if those bands have rich backers. All of which—plus a natural supply of political eccentrics—helps explain how Texas once had a board member who believed that public schools are the tool of the devil.

An example of revisionist book writing:

For the most part, however, the board seemed determined just to sprinkle stuff its members liked hither and yon, and eliminate words they found objectionable in favor of more appealing ones. Reading through the deletions and additions, it becomes clear that a majority of board members hated the word “democratic,” for which they consistently substituted “constitutional republic.” They also really disliked “capitalism” (see rather: “free enterprise system”) and “natural law” (“laws of nature and nature’s God”).

The conclusion of the piece:

Texas certainly didn’t single-handedly mess up American textbooks, but its size, its purchasing heft, and the pickiness of the school board’s endless demands—not to mention the board’s overall craziness—certainly made it the trend leader.

On Harvard and Wall Street

Why do so many Harvard students end up going into finance upon graduation? It’s a topic I’ve blogged about before, but Ezra Klein chimes in to the discussion and explains that the liberal education at Harvard is failing the students, and this provides a golden opportunity for Wall Street:

What Wall Street figured out is that colleges are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates. Kids who have ample mental horsepower, incredible work ethics and no idea what to do next. So the finance industry takes advantage of that confusion, attracting students who never intended to work in finance but don’t have any better ideas about where to go.

It begins by mimicking the application process Harvard students have already grown comfortable with. “It’s doing a process that you’ve done a billion times before,” explains Dylan Matthews, a Harvard senior.

“Everyone who goes to Harvard went hard on the college application process. Applying to Wall Street is much closer to that than applying anywhere else is. There are a handful of firms you really care about, they all have formal application processes that they walk you through, there’s a season when it all happens, all of them come to you and interview you where you live. Harvard students are really good at formal processes like that, and they’re less good at going on Monster or Craigslist and sorting through thousands of job listings from thousands of companies whose reputations they don’t know. Wall Street and consulting (and Teach for America, too) turn applying to jobs into applying to college, more or less.”

Yet that’s only half of it. A bigger draw, explained a recent Harvard graduate who majored in social science and worked at Goldman Sachs for two years, is how Wall Street sells itself to potential applicants: As a low-risk, high-return opportunity that they can try for a few years and, whether they like it or hate it, use to acquire real skills to build careers.

In other words, Wall Street is promising to give graduates the skills their university education didn’t. It’s providing a practical graduate school that pays students handsomely to attend. Sometimes, the enrollees end up liking their job in finance, or liking the lifestyle that it affords them, so they stick around. Sometimes, they don’t. Either way, Wall Street is filling a need that our educational system should be filling.

So it seems universities have been looking at the problem backward. The issue isn’t that so many of their well-educated students want to go to Wall Street rather than make another sort of contribution. It’s that so many of their students end up feeling so poorly prepared that they go to Wall Street because they’re not sure what other contribution they can make.

Your thoughts?

Gaming the College Rankings

In education news this week, there’s a big story on an administrator at Claremont McKenna College who admitted to falsely reporting SAT statistics since 2005. The scores for each fall’s freshman class were generally inflated by an average of 10-20 points each. While seemingly insignificant, these scores most likely affected Claremont McKenna’s overall rankings in the U.S. News & World Report for best colleges.

The New York Times notes that in recent years, colleges have been gaming the system by twisting the meanings of rules, cherry-picking data, or simply lying:

In one recent example, Iona College in New Rochelle, north of New York City, acknowledged last fall that its employees had lied for years not only about test scores, but also about graduation rates, freshman retention, student-faculty ratio, acceptance rates and alumni giving.

Other institutions have found ways to manipulate the data without outright dishonesty.

In 2008, Baylor University offered financial rewards to admitted students to retake the SAT in hopes of increasing its average score. Admissions directors say that some colleges delay admission of low-scoring students until January, excluding them from averages for the class admitted in September, while other colleges seek more applications to report a lower percentage of students accepted.

What I don’t understand is why there isn’t some standardized system for colleges to report their scores, admissions statistics, and the like. For example, when I take the SAT or the GRE, the company who administers the tests forwards my scores on my behalf. There is no ambiguity that these are my scores, and they are valid. I understand that colleges aren’t obligated to report their figures, but I think some kind of verification process would be helpful for millions of students that rely on this kind of data as they are (supposedly) making an informed decision about which college they want to attend.

The Importance of Teachers

Nick Kristof summarizes the research of having good vs. bad teachers as a fourth grader:

Having a good fourth-grade teacher makes a student 1.25 percent more likely to go to college, the research suggests, and 1.25 percent less likely to get pregnant as a teenager. Each of the students will go on as an adult to earn, on average, $25,000 more over a lifetime — or about $700,000 in gains for an average size class — all attributable to that ace teacher back in the fourth grade. That’s right: A great teacher is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to each year’s students, just in the extra income they will earn.

The study, by economists at Harvard and Columbia universities, finds that if a great teacher is leaving, parents should hold bake sales or pass the hat around in hopes of collectively offering the teacher as much as a $100,000 bonus to stay for an extra year. Sure, that’s implausible  — but their children would gain a benefit that far exceeds even that sum.

Conversely, a very poor teacher has the same effect as a pupil missing 40 percent of the school year. We don’t allow that kind of truancy, so it’s not clear why we should put up with such poor teaching. In fact, the study shows that parents should pay a bad teacher $100,000 to retire (assuming the replacement is of average quality) because a weak teacher holds children back so much.

Fascinating research. The full paper behind the research is here (PDF link). The researchers are careful to leave the following note, however:

[M]ore work is needed to determine the best way to use VA (value-added approach; a teacher’s value-added is defined as the average test-score gain for his or her students, adjusted for differences across classrooms in student characteristics such as prior scores) for policy. For example, using VA in teacher evaluations could induce counterproductive responses that make VA a poorer measure of teacher quality, such as teaching to the test or cheating. There will be much to learn about these issues from school districts that start using VA to evaluate teachers.

 

On AP Exams and College Credit

I strongly disagree with Michael Mendillo’s argument of not letting high school courses count for college credit. He argues:

Advanced Placement courses are taken by students 15 to 18 years old. At those stages in their education, students focus on remembering facts and, under the best possible situations, learning the methods of assembling and evaluating those facts. For high-school students who do well in, say, AP physics, that would be a terrific start to being a physics major. They could enroll in the highest introductory-level freshman physics course offered. The original goal of the AP concept would have worked.

For students not majoring in science, however, that same success has quite a different consequence. Lost to these nonscience students is an exposure to cutting-edge science and the methods of science taught by professors active on a daily basis in their exploration of nature. In how many AP classes in high school does the physics instructor say, “At the last American Physical Society meeting, one of my students presented a paper on this very topic”? Or, in an astronomy class, “My upcoming observations using the Hubble Space Telescope will address this dark-energy issue”? Identical scenarios exist, of course, for science and engineering students who miss out on university-level introductions to the humanities and social sciences taught by active scholars in those areas.

The end result is that in many introductory college courses, the top students are simply not in the classrooms. For them, faculty-student interactions are not possible and the overall value of a university education is diminished. All of these aspects of educational disservice are due to the existence of the AP system.

I took ten AP courses in my high school. The remarkable difference between the AP courses and the regular (“gifted”) courses I took was that the AP courses were significantly more difficult, thorough, and taught students invaluable comprehension skills (rather than rote memorization). I believe that AP courses are actually superior to many freshman college courses. In an AP course, you are instructed five days a week for a semester (and two semesters for subjects like biology and chemistry). You can’t compare that to college courses taught three times a week and condensed into one semester.

The AP exam is a three hour duel; it is more comprehensive than the typical college final. If you received a 5 on AP Biology or AP Calculus, I have no doubt in my mind that you know your stuff and should rightly get the chance to skip these introductory courses in college. I did and I never regretted my decision. In fact, because I exempted out of so many introductory college courses, I was able to take fewer courses every semester, which allowed me to devote more attention to each of my classes than I otherwise could have done with a denser schedule. As a result, I asked more inquisitive questions, had a chance to work on extracurricular problems, and learned the material more deeply than if I never got my AP credits.

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What do you think? If you’ve taken AP courses and did well on them, how did you feel about exempting those courses in college?