Sunday, February 28, 2010

Washington D C feedback

Artie Bienenstock (Stanford's Emeritus Dean of Research) came back from DC this week with the story that several told him "that HP book is terrific"... nice to hear it's getting some 'press'

I spent two days at the NSF-sponsored CyberEducation symposium Friday and Saturday. One of the key topics is educators (esp. the pedagogically pure) need "proof" that these Cyber tech ways of educating are effective. The HP book documents (mostly in Stanford Eng'g Dean Jim Gibbons' words) how well the Honors Co-op program worked -- see pp. 236-241). John Seely Brown also described this more briefly in "A Social Use of Information" a few years ago.

What the book did not describe was how and why the experiment ended, after thirty years of relatively significant success. And the ending is disturbing, to me at least. The official answer is that Stanford administrators got greedy (they use a less pejorative word) and tried to substitute faculty time via email for the on-site tutors -- the faculty, not paid extra for the extra work, said "the hell with you" and voted to end the program, and move their work to the extra-curricular extension program for which they did get extra pay. The unreported and under-researched answer is more compelling -- WHY didn't the beneficiary companies and their off-campus students rebel, go to the Stanford admin, and say, "YOU CANNOT ABANDON THIS!"

I think the answer is that the Valley changed, even more than HP changed. From a mindset that engineers are truly important, and long-term employment is a tremendous goal, the Valley has shifted dramatically to a 'hire-and-fire' mood, where outsourced R&D (yes, Virginia, Santa Claus forgot to show up for this one) and high rotation between companies is accepted if not fully encouraged. HP for four decades had less than 2% annual attrition of professional folk; the Valley average today is reputedly twenty times higher than that. In such a world, the onus is on the student, not the company, to take advantage of further education. And benefits like those that HP derived -- a common skillset and vocabulary across multiple countries that linked their labs -- seem archaic at best, and immaterial to be sure.

As for "proof" for educators today, Gibbons himself said that they never reported the results -- if the results were cited today, they'd be dismissed for their irrelevance (anything happening forty years ago cannot be of value today, right?) if not the fact that it is a "failed experiment". On the other hand, engineering is a relatively 'factual' pursuit in coursework, and some 15,000 students over thirty years outperformed (by a full third of a grade point) an equal-sized extremely selective graduate engineering pool. Wags at our meeting said "well, they were focused and motivated since they were more mature" but that ignores the fact that for the first decade, the same "motivated, focused, mature" individuals did worse by a full third of a grade point until the right technology and tutor focus was put in place.

We could in fact learn from history, if we wanted to. But NIH (not invented here) runs deep...