30 November 2011

Arne Duncan: Barking up the Wrong Tree

No one should be surprised by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's call for reducing higher education costs. It's a trendy issue at the moment, not least because of the attention brought to student loan burdens by Occupy Wall Street. But telling that to higher ed administrators, especially financial aid officers, isn't the right audience. At my institution, at least, the cost to students has been rising not because the cost of providing education is rising but because the cost burden has shifted dramatically from taxpayers to students.

Utah Valley University's commitment to transparency allows a close look at what's really going on at one, presumably representative, state university. We publish an annual Factbook that includes budget data for the past 20 years. That data doesn't paint a pretty picture.

UVU's inflation-adjusted costs per FTE have stayed flat since 1990.
State appropriations haven't, so neither has tuition.

14 October 2011

Is Google's LMS a Blackboard Killer?

The Twitterverse is quite excited about the news that Pearson and Google have teamed up to produce a free Learning Management System (thanks for the tip, Mike Krywy). OpenClass has the potential, some say, of breaking the dominance of proprietary software such as Blackboard and—well, I guess all of the ones that Blackboard has bought in the past decade—in higher ed. But with support built in by Google, there seems to be the potential as well to overtake the proliferation of open source solutions such as Moodle and Canvas (which Utah recently adopted).

I haven't looked at the features of OpenClass yet. My first impression is that this isn't big as it sounds, at least on the immediately. But there is long-term potential to change the players in the field dramatically, depending on what Google and Pearson do here.

22 September 2011

The Fourth Amendment in a Licensing Economy

A friend of mine brought to my attention that OnStar, GM's auto navigation and communication service, will be collecting complete speed and location data for its users, even after users cancel their service. They've also added a provision to their privacy policy allowing them to sell the data, and specifically mentioned the interest of state users in that data.

That, of course, raises all kinds of legal concerns. In the article linked above, author David Kravets rightly points out the value of that data in criminal and civil cases, as well as the more remote possibility of mining the data to issue traffic citations. When the car's owner or driver is the defendant, that would certainly seem to challenge "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects."

But this isn't really a technology problem. If that data was stored on something like a flight data recorder in your car—and it in fact is in most newer cars—the Fourth Amendment uncontroversially protects it. Probable cause, in most cases supported by a warrant, would be necessary to use the data in a criminal case. The reason is simple: you own that data.

Here's where OnStar's policy becomes a problem: they own the data. Like most software and services, the driver of the car does not "own" the OnStar system; the software and right to use the service is licensed from OnStar and the service is bound by its terms of service.

21 September 2011

Declining SAT Scores: Maybe not just more (and worse) test-takers

A few weeks ago, the College Board announced that SAT participation is up but scores continue to decline. Intuitively that makes sense; when limited participation by the best students becomes something more like universal, scores should decline. So I was not inclined to take William Bennett seriously when he argued that record low SAT scores reflect a failure of the educational system; I stuck with the consensus that the lower scores reflect the universalization of college education.

As usual, Bennett is full of bluster and bad argument, but it turns out he might be right this time. Comparing the 1996 and 2011 scores shows that the high school performance of test-takers has (in principle) increased, not declined, even as the number of test-takers increased. In 1996, 44% of test-stakers were in the top 20% of their high school class. That year, 35% of test-takers had an high school GPA at or above the A- range, and the mean GPA was 3.20. This year's class looks quite a bit better: 62% are in the top fifth of their class; 44% had A- or better GPAs and the mean GPA was 3.34.

So it seems that students taking the SAT are, according to their high schools, getting better. But an assessment independent of the schools seems to suggest otherwise, at least in this case. I think a more serious look at what the SAT says about the quality of high school graduates is in order.