Obsolete By The Time You Read This

Technology marches on while our social institutions generally don’t. Eventually a force pushes the existing order beyond its tipping point, and there’s a bit of mayhem until a new equilibrium is reached. Think of knocking a wasp nest off the rail of your back porch after Aunt May has been stung for the third time. For the profession of teaching, that force is AI.

I know that I’ve been periodically yammering on this blog about the technological transformation of higher education for the last twelve years, and, by outward appearances, it may seem that the peasants haven’t yet grabbed their Instagram pitchforks and stormed the Ivory Tower. But I think AI is the qualitatively different icing on the cake, for a few reasons.

First, open-access AI has demolished the academic cheating industry. Here is the stock price of the “educational support services” company Chegg since OpenAI released ChatGPT:

Instead of buying an essay from an online paper mill in Pakistan or Kenya, students who are unwilling to learn can now get what we insist they deliver for free.

Second, AI has now improved to the point where its text output is equal to or better than that of most human students. Below is a partial screenshot of how ChatGPT analyzed “Why Are There No Arab Democracies?” by Larry Diamond (Journal of Democracy 21, 1). Yes, AI can now understand articles and even books that one uploads in pdf form.

AI has rendered the written assessment of student learning, as traditionally formulated, a pointless endeavor.

Third and most importantly, rapidly advancing AI will change how universities institutionalize knowledge. Many traditional fields of study, perceived by students and administrators as ossified vestiges of a pre-digital world, are already marginalized. Universities will use AI as yet another rationale for allocating greater resources to other methods of inquiry.

Last point, tangential to classroom praxis but not to higher ed as a whole: AI portends the death of academic writing as a genre, to which I say, good riddance. The overly educated often refuse to communicate in the vernacular to obfuscate the fact that they actually have nothing to say. Or that they do have something of value to say, but never learned how to say it. If all you do is spout vapid gobbledygook, you’re now redundant, because AI can accomplish the same task much more efficiently. If AI can convey your good ideas more clearly than you can, time to admit that all those years of formal education never trained you to write well in the first place. You need to up your game — possibly with the help of AI.*

*This blog post was not written by AI, though you couldn’t tell if it was.

You Can’t Go Home Again?*

As part of my first-ever sabbatical, I have jumped into the way-back machine: after almost thirty years, I am once again a student. When I last frantically scribbled notes in a classroom, I was learning Vietnamese in Vietnam. Now it’s Arabic in Jordan. Some of the benefits of jumping to the other side of the pedagogical fence:

It’s been a long time since I’ve known what it’s like to not know. After decades of teaching, I have well-developed mental schema that help me organize and analyze new information. I’m used to retrieving comparable examples to aid comprehension directly from memory or, at minimum, knowing how to find relevant information elsewhere — i.e., “third book from the left on the bottom shelf.” Now, trying to learn a language, I’m often completely lost, because I don’t have much of an underlying blueprint for how things are supposed to fit together. At least some of my undergraduates must find themselves in the same situation. Maybe I should explicitly state to them that this sensation is normal and not an effect of innate inability.

As a student, it becomes obvious that bad alignment between course content and delivery creates unnecessary confusion, which is detrimental to learning. If the syllabus says prepare X, practice Y, or complete Z, then students shouldn’t be wondering why X, Y, or Z isn’t discussed in class, isn’t formally assessed by the instructor, or doesn’t correspond to a task in the LMS/VLE. Course components should neatly stack atop one another like Lego blocks so that students can easily recognize what to do, when to do it, and why they are doing it. Without a clear map, students can easily wander off in unproductive directions. So if your syllabus says one thing, your LMS course shell presents something very different, and neither one closely tracks the textbook, you’ve got a problem.

*Borrowed from the novelist Thomas Wolfe, lest I be accused of plagiarism . . .

Academia’s Double Standard

It’s the holiday season, so it is time again to spread some cheer. This post is about Harvard University, its president Claudine Gay, and academic elites. The usual disclaimers apply: this is my opinion, based on a steady drip of news reports (e.g., here and here) rather than a full dissection of everything Gay has gotten published during her career.

Gay’s publications indicate a history of pasting entire paragraphs from other people’s work, making only minor word changes, and not attributing the original authors. In other words, evidence of serial plagiarism. Yet the Harvard Corporation’s investigation into the matter, which it was forced to undertake after its initial threat of litigation failed to bury the story, did not follow the university’s own policy on academic misconduct.

Given Gay’s pedigree — high school at Philips Exeter Academy, freshman year at Princeton, transfer to and graduation from Stanford, PhD at Harvard, hired by Stanford as an assistant professor and tenured, then back to Harvard as dean — she was undoubtedly aware of basic citation standards.

But then so were the dissertation readers, journal editors, reviewers, and hiring committee members who failed to act as a check against intellectual theft — probably because of Gay’s early imprimatur as a member of academia’s uber-elite. Meanwhile, those of us who lack the stamp of a Harvard, Yale, or Princeton must constantly prove that we are worthy of being part of the club, and even when we do, we are relegated to the cheap seats at the back of the auditorium.

Gay is not alone in benefiting, at least for a long while, from this double standard. Cases include Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino and her colleague at Duke, Daniel Ariely, who fabricated data according to the third-party investigators at Data Colada. Then there are the lies of former UCLA doctoral student Michael LaCour, brought to light by two graduate students at UC-Berkeley.

As I wrote in the blog post linked above, people like Gay, Gino, Ariely, and LaCour were granted entrée into the small circle that sits atop the academic food chain, in part because the reputations of those with whom they associated put their own actions above reproach. A much stricter standard gets applied to everyone else. 

A Game Design Checklist

As usual, teams of students in my economic development & environmental change course are building games in a semester-long project. I created this game design checklist as an individual low-stakes assignment. I told students to share their checklists with teammates so that they could collaboratively identify faulty aspects of their team’s game and fix them. My hope is that the checklist will help ensure that students follow the design criteria that I have specified, something that has previously been a problem.

I have twenty students in this course. Seventeen completed the assignment. Of those, one uploaded a blank checklist to Canvas. Another copied and pasted my design criteria into the checklist and did not write anything specific about the game her team is building. So a total of five students, twenty-five percent of the class, earned a zero on the assignment. Looks like the pandemic of learned helplessness continues.

What ChatGPT Can Do

Taking the ball — Simon’s post from last week — and running with it: here is an AI version of the “victory of the already-advantaged” college application trauma dump.

You are a high school senior who is applying to college. Your mother is a corporate lawyer and your father is an engineer. You grew up in an affluent neighborhood and attended a private high school. Write a college application essay that discusses how an anxiety disorder negatively affected your childhood and how it represents a challenge that you triumphed over.

Triumph Over Adversity: Overcoming Anxiety to Pursue My Dreams

As I sit down to write my college application essay, I find myself reflecting on the twists and turns of my journey thus far. I grew up in an affluent neighborhood, the child of a corporate lawyer mother and an engineer father. I attended a prestigious private high school where the opportunities seemed endless. However, beneath the facade of privilege and opportunity, there was a silent battle I had been waging throughout my childhood—anxiety.

Anxiety has been a constant companion in my life, a persistent shadow that often threatened to engulf me in darkness. It was not the type of anxiety that stems from external stressors, but rather an internal struggle, a whirlwind of irrational fears and doubts that manifested itself in various ways throughout my formative years.

One of the most significant challenges I faced was social anxiety. The affluent environment I grew up in fostered high expectations for academic and social success. As a teenager, I often found myself paralyzed by the fear of judgment and rejection. I would hesitate to speak up in class, avoid social gatherings, and overthink every interaction. This fear of scrutiny held me back from forming meaningful connections and experiencing the full richness of high school life.

Additionally, my anxiety often manifested as perfectionism. I felt compelled to excel in every aspect of my life to compensate for the internal chaos. It was a relentless pursuit of perfection, a quest that left me feeling drained and inadequate. I would meticulously review every homework assignment, agonize over exams, and second-guess my abilities. The pressure I placed on myself became overwhelming, causing my anxiety to spiral even further out of control.

However, as I reflect on my journey, I am proud to say that I did not let anxiety define me or dictate the course of my life. Instead, I chose to confront my fears head-on and seek help when I needed it. With the support of my family, I began therapy and learned valuable coping strategies to manage my anxiety. I slowly pushed myself outside of my comfort zone, one small step at a time. I joined clubs, participated in public speaking events, and embraced opportunities for leadership.

One of the most significant turning points came when I decided to participate in a debate competition. The prospect of standing before an audience and articulating my thoughts was daunting, but I refused to let anxiety hold me back any longer. Through perseverance and hard work, I not only overcame my fear of public speaking but also discovered a passion for debate. It was a triumph over adversity, a testament to my resilience and determination.

Through these experiences, I have come to understand that triumphing over adversity is not about eradicating all challenges; it is about learning to navigate them with courage and resilience. My journey with anxiety has taught me the importance of self-acceptance and the power of seeking support. It has also instilled in me a deep empathy for others facing their own battles with mental health.

As I embark on this new chapter of my life, I carry with me the lessons I have learned and the strength I have gained from overcoming anxiety. I am excited about the opportunities that lie ahead in college, where I hope to continue my personal growth and make a positive impact on those around me. My experience has shaped me into a compassionate, determined, and resilient individual who is ready to face any challenges that come my way. Anxiety may have been a formidable foe, but it has also been a powerful catalyst for my personal growth and self-discovery. I am now prepared to pursue my dreams with unwavering determination, knowing that I can triumph over adversity and achieve my goals.

What’s In A Name?

Some of my teaching duties are in an undergraduate interdisciplinary major — Global Studies — that includes a required 100-level course pitched at first-year students called, conveniently, Introduction to Global Studies. The course, taught by a close colleague, is in part intended to attract students to the major. The problem? Few first-year students take it; those that do intended to major in Global Studies before arriving on campus. Junior and senior non-majors looking to pick up what they think will be an easy three credits needed for graduation often comprise a large portion of the class. To make matters worse, the number of students majoring in Global Studies is dwindling.

Giving the course a sexier title might increase first-year enrollment, so I thought I’d try crowd-sourcing ideas. Any suggestions? The first thing that popped into my head: Mocha, Marriage, and Markets. However, this title might not be suitable, given that the instructor is not a mail order bride.

The Geometry of Active Learning

A brief post on the physical spaces we work in:

Steelcase Inc. conducted this study before the pandemic on classroom configurations. Students and instructors reported that classrooms outfitted with more casual, mobile furniture were more conducive to learning than those with traditional, row-by-column desk and table arrangements. While we all know, or should know, that self-reports about learning are generally bogus, I thought the study was interesting, given that faculty and students rarely get any say in how classrooms are designed.

Syllabus Quiz In Another Form: Annotation

This idea comes from Matt Reed at Inside Higher Ed, who in turn got it from Emily M. Farris at Texas Christian University: have students annotate, in ABC fashion, your course syllabus at the end of the semester.

I’m going to go a few steps further for the upcoming semester:

First, instead of my usual quiz on the syllabus at the beginning of the semester, I’ll have students annotate it on Perusall in response to my questions. The assignment should function as a close reading exercise, but it will be machine graded by Perusall.

Second, I’ll create a quiz on the Canvas LMS that will force students to explore the contents of the course’s Canvas shell. It has become apparent that most students only pay attention to the LMS’s “To Do” list of impending assignment deadlines that pops up on their phones. They ignore everything else I put into my course shells, including the “How to Get an A” advice. As with the Perusall assignment on the syllabus, the quiz will be machine graded by Canvas.

Third, I’ll create another Perusall assignment on the syllabus for the end of the semester, to get feedback on what worked and what didn’t, and to remind students of course learning outcomes.

Assignments, Platforms, and AI – Part 2

The follow-up to my last post: a new assignment that I’m calling, not very creatively, the argument analysis. Here are the directions to students:

Choose one of the peer-reviewed journal articles listed in the syllabus. Find an editorial published in the last year in one of the sources listed below that is about the same general subject as the article. List the bibliographic information for the article and editorial at the top. Then, in only four paragraphs, compare them according to the criteria below. Put the paragraphs in the indicated order and make each paragraph less than 200 words in length.

Which author: 

1. References the most comprehensive and relevant data? Why?

2. Infers the most valid relationship between cause and effect? Why?

3. Does the best job of refuting counter-arguments? Why?

4. Is the most persuasive to an audience of policymakers? Why?

I then provide a list of online news outlets that students can pull an editorial from.

Possible advantages of this over my old article analysis? First, the compare and contrast elements force students to engage in more complex thinking. With the article analysis, students sometimes focused too heavily on summarizing. Second, students engage with a recently published argument aimed at a general audience. Academic journal articles are written for a very narrow audience of specialists — not the people most students will be communicating with after they graduate. Also most journals whose contents are indexed in databases have moving walls that make their most recent issues inaccessible to students. Third, I’m hoping that students will be able to connect what they write about in the argument analysis to discussion topics, the reading responses, and maybe even potential future dissertation topics.

Even though the argument analysis is not machine-graded like the Perusall assignments are, I decided to simplify my life with a new rubric. My rubric for the old article analysis:

The rubric for the new argument analysis:

Fewer boxes to check so easier for me to use, but its criteria still hit my targets for the assignment.