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April 2017

The Problem is Not With the Graduates (Beware of the Sirens)

Commencement season is upon us, which means that the "You're not special" book, authored by the son and namesake of historian David McCullough (son who probably would never have been asked to deliver any Commencement speech if he hadn't had such an illustrious father) is once again gracing the displays at most bookstores. It's apparently not a popular book, although I suppose it is more popular with the buyers than with the intended recipients of the book. I once read somewhere that TV series about high school aren't aimed at high school students but people whose high school years weren't as happy or successful as they had hoped, and I suppose a lot of the Commencement literature at Barnes & Noble is really aimed at older adults who wish they'd been given better advice when they graduated. 

It seems like people love to complain about Millenials' entitlement these days. I've had many Millenials in my classes, both at Lehigh and at SMU, and they all cared about learning material that would help them distinguish themselves in the workforce. That was our unspoken contract, at least in an engineering college: I'm going to do my best to teach you things that will help you set you apart once you're in the workforce, and you'll do your best answering my homework problems. I've never found my students entitled, and by now we're talking about several hundreds of undergraduates and Master's students. 

But I also moved to Dallas last summer and it didn't take me long to realize there were plenty of entitled young adults in the world (at least in the U.S.) In Uptown Dallas, you see (which is a feeder for the University Park neighborhood where SMU is located, with an excellent public school system separate from the Dallas schools), the dream of just about every 25-year-old native Dallasite seems to find a man who will earn a good living so that she can spend her life getting blowouts and manicures. Those 25-year-olds are the Americans non-Americans think about when they imagine Americans to be shallow and self-centered. I also attend public events at SMU where the local community (meaning University Park, for the most part, but with views expressed by elderly people who are more thoughtful and eloquent than average, and very outspoken American patriots) spoke powerfully about the sort of America they wanted to live in, which is not aligned with the degradation of civil discourse we have observed under President Trump. Dallas might be a conservative city (although that's open to debate), but it knows what it stands for, and degradation of women and immigrants isn't part of the plan.  

The problem, I think, is really with the 25-year-olds. At the "100 days of the Trump presidency" event, the audience (largely elderly, except for a few outliers like me) came out quite vocally in favor of a principled America whose President shows profound respect for the office. I was surprised audience members were not more willing to rubber-stamp  all the policies coming out of the Oval Office at the moment. If it doesn't happen in Dallas, in which big city is it going to happen? But the elderly people in Dallas show respect and have manners. The 25-year-olds behave as if they are owed success or (for the women) at least a good husband impressed by the beauty of their curls, courtesy of the local hair salon. 

I could go on the topic forever, but to keep the post of manageable length, I'll stick to the 25-year-olds in Dallas, who once were 20-year-olds, probably at SMU, where they were thoughtful and kind and held the door open for their professors with an assiduity I've never found elsewhere. The problem, as I see it, is really with what happens after graduation, when young adults slip away from the mentoring of their parents and teachers old enough to be their parents, and focus on impressing their friends with non-existing job status or prestige. Young adults don't want to wait to come up through the ranks anymore because their friends boast fancy titles, whether deserved or not, and they want the same. They become very shallow individuals, living in apartments co-signed by their parents so that they can impress their friends, driving leased cars so that they can show off in front of their fellow drivers. Maybe they were shallow all along, I don't kn0w - I suppose the most likely victims were the people who were most susceptible to it, the ones worried about not wearing the right clothes, not getting the right job offer.

Many young adults these days don't really want to feel successful. They do when they graduate from college, but it doesn't last long. Many young adults these days, in fact, want to feel envied. That's what happens when they lose the connection with their elders (parents, teachers and mentors) and focus only on the other young adults around them. And I don't think it's an issue with the students politely listening to graduation speeches, although it is always entertaining to listen to people who haven't accomplished anything in life debate about the worthiness of this or that Commencement speaker, when the school has to deviate from household names. (This is not the case at SMU's Commencement this year. The NIH Director will deliver the address. This is not a read on SMU specifically. SMU, in fact, has gone out of its way to instill a strong sense of ethics into its graduates.)

So what message is appropriate for most graduates, knowing how their peers turned out when they were just a little older? Beware of the sirens. That will perhaps be the title of my book, if I write a book about this. They don't want to wait anymore. They don't want to learn in the shadows. But sometimes the siren song of who they (we?) hope they are meant to become does them more harm than good. It's as if 25-year-olds had been told too often they should behave "as if" (meaning: as if they'd already become successful), and then they wonder why they seem so offputting to everyone. Although perhaps they are not off putting to the native Dallasites, since that's how they've been conditioned to be.

But if I were to offer some words of advice to the graduates, I would say: keep track of how you are behaving. Make sure you're not annoying the person you mean to impress. Anyone with a bit of experience in the workforce has learned to distinguish the "real deal" from the hot air. You can curl your hair just right and sport a designer's brand of aviator sunglasses, but that still doesn't mean you're going to get the life you want - even if your daddy threatens to sue the awful people who don't do your bidding.

And the real problem is why so many parents in America these days feel the need to live vicariously through their children - why their life wasn't enough, why they need to see their kids' lives as an extension of their own to feel vindicated - but that has no place in Commencement speeches.         

Parcel lockers and other things

Twelve years in the boondocks of Pennsylvania, and I've never had an package stolen before. The interesting thing is, shows it as delivered to the ParcelPending lockers in my building (in Dallas where I live now). This is supposed to be a more secure way to receive packages. When the Amazon delivery person puts a package in a locker for you, you get an email with a 6-digit code that will allow you to unlock the box. Unfortunately, the system is only as good as its weakest link, which is in this case that the Amazon delivery person has to key in the apartment number. And he's made mistakes before (not sure if it was the same guy), but the resident whose apartment number got mistakenly typed in by the delivery guy gave the concierge my package the next morning and the concierge sent me a message. And once I got packages for another apartment, and I gave them to the concierge right away. Mind you, we've only had ParcelPending for a few months.

This time around, my orders page shows that my package was delivered on Friday, and it's Tuesday evening and I still don't have it. So I think by that point the probability is getting high that my package was stolen. (I posted a message on the building's online bulletin board that got sent to all residents, so by now the only other option would be that the resident would got my package is away far from his email on, say, a cruise in the Caribbean, in April. Not impossible, but not terribly likely either.)  

Now of course I can't complain to Amazon, because Amazon considers the package delivered, although its delivery guy made the mistake of typing the wrong apartment number. (Go ahead and try to prove that, though. And of course no one cares about getting the logs, if they exist somewhere in the ParcelPending system, showing which residents received Amazon packages on Friday. The only thing I can prove is that Amazon shows my package delivered to a locker while the ParcelPending website shows I haven't received a package through their system in weeks.) ParcelPending has such bad Google reviews I'm not sure I even want to waste time calling them. 

And a resident somewhere in the building has my package, and this is not the sort of building where you'd think residents want to make extra money by selling books they stole from other residents. Dallas has a lot of good sides but the young professionals crowd in my area is definitely not the reading type. More the blowouts and manicures and all the fashionable yoga outfits kind of crowd. (What can I say, I wanted to live close to work and it's a very walkable neighborhood close to the arts district.) In the package I had two paperback books by the Argentine novelist Julio Cortazar, one by Octavio Paz and one by Jorge Luis Borges. I don't expect whoever stole my books to easily find a buyer on Amazon Marketplace for all four, although perhaps they'll go and resell them to local chain Half-Price Books. Or, more likely, they put it in the dumpster, just for the fun of it. They'd be the type.

I'm not sure what makes people think it's okay to steal other people's packages, although I suppose some of the younger residents have been so spoiled by their parents (you just have to look at their cars in the parking lot - no way they could afford those cars by themselves) that they think everything belongs to them, if they can just get their hands on it. I just don't understand the point of it. Especially when they might be the one missing their package next time.

I'm very sad to have that theft happen - I was really looking forward to reading those books - but more broadly for those of you with only a limited interest in hearing me whine about my stolen package, I think the whole model of Amazon Locker or ParcelPending is going to have to be seriously revised if it's ever going to take off. Because the system is only as strong as its weakest link and in this case the weakest link is the Amazon delivery guy. And people might give their neighbors their packages if Amazon leaves it in front of the wrong door, but people who find a package that is not for them in a locker won't go out of their way to give it back. At least in my case we're all in the same building, so it's not difficult (for a normal person). The only thing that will make the parcel lockers work is if they have a scanner so that the system can recognize the proper address without human interaction. I also think the drones idea is ridiculous, because there will be people who will make it their pastime to get those drones and steal the packages. The presence of a delivery person helps protect against the temptation of theft. But of course in my case, the delivery person was part of the problem.


Back in October 2015, MIT launched a new credential called MicroMaster, "which enables online learners to take a semester’s worth of master’s-level courses on the edX platform, then complete a master’s degree in a single full semester on campus at MIT" (quoted from this MIT news release). Success metrics are difficult to define - the article states that, for MIT's first MicroMaster in supply chain management, "over 127,000 students have enrolled in at least one course — including representation from 189 countries — and more than 7,000 have signed up for verified ID certificates in at least one course" and qualifies that of "incredible success", but many students who enroll in M.O.O.C.s never complete the course, even when they sign up for verified ID certificate. Yet, it is clear there is significant interest, and the program is an innovative way to help students get a taste of Masters' level course as well as reducing the tuition cost, for students willing to forgo the campus experience for one semester. Making graduate education more affordable also helps create a more skilled workforce. Interestingly, MIT's MicroMaster in supply chain management offers a path to a degree not only at MIT but also at several other participating universities.  

Other universities offering online MicroMasters include Columbia (Business Analytics), UC San Diego (Data Science), University of Adelaide (Big Data), Georgia Tech (Analytics: Essential Tools and Methods), RWTH/Aachen University (Managing Technology and Innovation), University of Maryland (Cloud Computing), Thunderbird (International Business Management) and more. I'd be curious to see how the various MicroMasters offering analytics MicroMasters under one name or another fare given the intense competition in the field. (You can see the full list of MicroMasters here.)

NPR also ran an interesting article on MIT's MicroMaster a few weeks ago. You can read it here

I like the idea of blended learning to make degrees more affordable and help students get a credential even if they decide not to go for the full Master, but I feel it will always be hard for online courses to hold their own against on-campus courses if students don't have the opportunity to ask questions and interact with their classmates the way they do in an on-campus setting. So the value is purely going to be cost-based, and if students make it to campus, they may find that some students who have pursued their Master on-campus all along might view them as "second-tier" and might question their accomplishments in passing the course.

Unfortunately, it is a valid question, although I haven't seen much discussion about this. I teach analytics to Master's students this semester and I am using the Analytics Edge textbook by Bertsimas, O'Hair and Pulleyblank, which is also used in the highly popular MITx course of the same name. It turns out, a non-negligible number of students who took the MITx course posted their answers online in places like github or Rpubs. I'm not sure what they were trying to achieve - perhaps they hope a prospective employer will be impressed by their skills in R, or perhaps they want to help everybody else cheat - but as online courses take on popularity, and students try to gain attention of employers, this issue will only rise in importance. 

Most of my students take pains in writing their own solutions to the assignments, but they're Master's students who will have the name and prestige of SMU on their degree and genuinely want to learn, so the pressure for them is not the same as for someone who tries to get a foothold in the analytics sphere without yet having a formal credential. Many of the MicroMasters offered by edX are about analytics or computer science. Honor codes aren't going to be enough. The issue of cheating - or, more broadly, the use of online help to obtain course credit or a formal degree credential - will have to be addressed, since cheaters obviously risk hurting the reputation of a degree program or may prove themselves incompetent when they arrive on campus. Of course, replacing exercises every time a course is offered would be a good step, although I'm not sure if any textbook will have enough exercises to make this sustainable in the long run. And even if the exercises are new, students can still resort to professional services where people will be happy to do their homework for them for a fee, as described in an August 2016 article in The Chronicle of Higher Ed ("The New Cheating Economy").  

Because of this, I think higher education today is moving toward a model where course grades for the semester will be determined by proctored, in-class exams, and assignments will be posted as study guides but won't be graded. (Interestingly, that was the model my engineering school followed when I was in college.) Obviously you can't proctor the 7,000 students who enrolled in a verified certificate for a course of MITx's MicroMaster in Supply Chain Management. But something has to be done. Perhaps students who want to enroll in a Master's program after a MicroMaster should be made to pass an entrance exam first. This way they would be tested on the competences they are supposed to have acquired in the MicroMaster. The number of students who make it to campus would be constrained by classroom size and the like - MIT has said it expects to enroll about 40 students a year in the blended program - and so hopefully that number would be manageable enough to administer such an exam. As competition intensifies for good jobs in, for instance, analytics (I've heard that there are so many programs in analytics these days that many companies with open positions get deluged with applications of recent or soon-to-be grads), more students might be tempted to cheat to gain credentials and more students who don't cheat might be tempted to belittle MicroMasters to sell themselves to employers as holders of a "real" Master's degree. Universities that don't think it's going to get ugly are kidding themselves.