Thursday, July 31, 2014


Friday Fragments

This one is specifically for the registrars out there.  How do you handle attendance reporting to the feds when you combine accelerated courses with semester-long ones?


Yesterday’s University of Venus piece about the decisions academic women have made about whether and when to have kids is well worth checking out, but it also brought me up short.  

We’ve hit the point as an industry at which having children is a career decision.  There’s something fundamentally wrong with that.

Obviously, having kids restructures how you spend your time.  But it also puts a lot more restrictions on your realistic options.  Cheap but interesting housing is suddenly out of the question if it’s in a bad school district and you can’t afford private options.  Suddenly, moving every couple of years is far less appealing.  (That matters at the early stage, at which people are trying to climb the faculty ranks.  It matters again in administration, where the market is national.)  Given the geographic dispersion of opportunities -- spread out, in an era in which they otherwise tend to concentrate -- having kids forces some very difficult decisions.

It shouldn’t.  Parenthood should never be required, but it shouldn’t be effectively forbidden, either.  Many adults will want to become parents at some point, and a good thing, too.  (Those of us in regions with declining numbers of 18 year olds can speak to the impact on higher ed after birthrates drop.)  If we’ve constructed an industry in which parenthood is disqualifying, then we need to reconstruct our industry.  Something has gone very wrong.


If you haven’t seen it, this story about the Hoboken, New Jersey school district abandoning a “one laptop for every student” policy is well worth reading.  In a gallows humor kind of way, it does a nice job of catching the gaps between intentions and facts on the ground when it comes to technology, classrooms, and adolescents.  Laptops broke frequently; kids played Crazy Taxis in class; townspeople dropped by to use the free school wi-fi, since the kids publicized the password.  

The same tech tool can look very different in different hands.  The Boy frequently gets my tech hand-me-downs, and he uses them very differently than I ever did. (The first thing he did with his new phone, for example, was to get a spiky, neon-green case for it.  The second was to install Kik.)  Imposing tech without considering the reality of the user and the user’s environment can get weird, quickly.


Apparently, UT-Austin is charging students for on-campus wifi.  They have multiple tiers of service, and students can choose based on what their professors have assigned.

As an administrator, I actually get it.  Wifi access costs money, and demand increases dramatically every year as students bring more devices to campus and watch streaming video on all of them.  Demand is increasing much more quickly than institutional revenue is.  Tying revenue to demand offers a double win: it promises to increase revenue and dampen demand, thereby making a balanced budget sustainable..

But from an educational perspective, it’s a nightmare.  

We know that the best educational outcomes tend to come from courses that blend online and onsite activity.  Suddenly putting up a toll bridge on the online part -- one that will hit some students far harder than others -- is likely to have unwelcome impacts.  And I can’t imagine a more counterproductive policy when it comes to encouraging the use of Open Educational Resources, which are supposed to save money.  (“Yes, it’s free, but it’ll hog your data.”)  

As with data caps on cell networks, it also fails to distinguish between peak periods and slow ones.  In that sense, it falls flat as a way to manage traffic.  

I understand the need to cover costs, but honestly, this is what technology fees are for. Trying to calibrate at this level is just asking for trouble.

For the UT Austin story - I looked it up, and it's not (just?) wifi but also wired connectivity in the dorms. I think your comments still stand - but it makes sense to me to charge students who want to play graphics-intensive online games in their dorms more. What I saw did not apply to, say, the library or the classrooms, so I don't know… maybe a link for clarification?
"We’ve hit the point as an industry at which having children is a career decision. There’s something fundamentally wrong with that."

It's not just academia, it's true throughout the economy. As a result, we're on the edge of a crash in the birth rate. Things are going to be pretty ugly in another 20 years.
The problem is that our economy now relies on educated women in the workforce (they make up a majority of college graduates) while operating in a culture (civilian or business) that has not changed. There are also realities that are rooted in biology, including the importance of parental (as opposed to day care provider) bonding.

Affordable day care is nice, but who provides the day care? Other women with the same problem! Parental leave is nice, but is it paid and does the promotion clock stop for good? The latter can be fixed, by the way, but not easily.

When I was thinking about the transition from millenia where a hunter and gatherer group easily moved from place to place, or when family members all worked in the same place (a farm), I realized that large cities provide a similar environment: employment mobility without moving. That might be one of the real reasons behind the flourishing of major cities, as mentioned in your recent "location" column.
The issues surrounding WiFi are similar to those that appear in the so-called “tragedy of the commons”, in which a resource or facility that is free for all to use invariably tends to get over-utilized, so much so that it eventually becomes so crowded that it becomes unusable for anyone.

One of the cures for this problem is of course to start charging for WiFi access, which will supposedly drive the utilization rate downward to more manageable levels. But this will certainly anger many students, since they will now have to pay for something that was previously free. Yet another conspiracy to get more of their money.

But WiFi access is not free, and somebody has to pay for it. Some sort of throttle needs to be provided, to prevent the WiFi networks from getting completely clogged. Currently, a lot of mobile device users go onto WiFi networks to get around the caps that their mobile network providers impose. Perhaps caps need to be imposed on WiFi network users as well. But how does one do this without a whole bunch of unintended adverse side effects, in which, for example, a professor suddenly finds that his or her students can no longer access his online course material without paying an extra fee?

It would be nice, for example, to be able to charge for recreational and entertainment access to WiFi (music, gaming, downloading movies, etc), but still provide free access for educational uses. But how do you distinguish between these two types of activities, without getting a whole bunch of people angry with you? The alternative is to do nothing, and let WiFi networks get so clogged that no one can use them.

But I guess this is what we pay administrators for—to be able to make these tough calls:-)

One of my worries for the future of academia is that the combination of the two-body problem and the strong disincentives to having children will combined to make the professoriate less reflective of society at large (even as it makes important strides in terms of gender and racial/ethnic diversity). That will make it even easier for politicians to vilify the academy as out of touch, elite (liberal) snobs.
"Graphics-intensive online games" don't actually use a lot of bandwidth. They require low latency to avoid choppy frame rates (i.e. lag) but the graphics are not downloaded as you play, they're already on the computer. The game server just uses coordinates and other low-volume data to keep track of where you are and what you're doing.

The biggest draw on bandwidth is video and it's hard (from a network perspective) to tell when it's educational or not. There are a lot of educational videos on Youtube, including all of Khan Academy, but there are a lot of cats and twerking Stormtroopers as well.
When I graduated, back in the 80s, having kids was a career decision. Parental leave was more limited, daycare harder to find, and some career paths (like technical sales) that involved moving a lot became problematic. So I don't think that this is a new problem.
"As a result, we're on the edge of a crash in the birth rate."

"The birth rate among U.S. teens and young women dropped to record lows last year, while the rate among older women hit highs not seen in a half century, according to government statistics released on Thursday."

People still have kids; what happens is that women simply lose their careers, just like they always have. We just feel differently about it now.

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