Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Experiments in HigherEd

The Economist has an article entitled The Digital Degree on the disruptive potential of online education. In the middle of a lot of hype, one finds this interesting concept that combines the benefits of online education and traditional universities:

Anant Agarwal, who runs edX, proposes an alternative to the standard American four-year degree course. Students could spend an introductory year learning via a MOOC, followed by two years attending university and a final year starting part-time work while finishing their studies online. This sort of blended learning might prove more attractive than a four-year online degree. It could also draw in those who want to combine learning with work or child-rearing, freeing them from timetables assembled to suit academics. Niche subjects can benefit, too: a course on French existentialism could be accompanied by another university’s MOOC on the Portuguese variety.

BTW, I liked this summary of the benefits of attending a traditional university:

Traditional universities have a few trump cards. As well as teaching, examining and certification, college education creates social capital. Students learn how to debate, present themselves, make contacts and roll joints. [Bold emphasis added]


  1. Mary Beard in CHE: What's So Funny? A neat overview of the history of theories of laughter. I like this line: "Confronted with the product of centuries of analysis and investigation, one is [tempted] to suggest that it is not so much laughter that defines the human species, as Aristotle is supposed to have claimed, but rather the drive to debate and theorize laughter."

  2. Here's a big one fit for the Annals of Research Misconduct: SAGE is retracting 60 articles published in their Journal of Vibration and Control [Update: The scandal has now forced the resignation of Taiwan's Education Minister]. Reason? A peer review ring:

    While investigating the JVC papers submitted and reviewed by Peter Chen, it was discovered that the author had created various aliases on SAGE Track, providing different email addresses to set up more than one account. Consequently, SAGE scrutinised further the co-authors of and reviewers selected for Peter Chen’s papers, these names appeared to form part of a peer review ring. The investigation also revealed that on at least one occasion, the author Peter Chen reviewed his own paper under one of the aliases he had created.

  3. The Philosophers Mail: How we end up marrying the wrong people:

    ... Given that marrying the wrong person is about the single easiest and also costliest mistake any of us can make (and one which places an enormous burden on the state, employers and the next generation), it is extraordinary, and almost criminal, that the issue of marrying intelligently is not more systematically addressed at a national and personal level, as road safety or smoking are.

    It’s all the sadder because in truth, the reasons why people make the wrong choices are easy to lay out and unsurprising in their structure. [...]

  4. The Economist: The Digital Degree. "The staid higher-education business is about to experience a welcome earthquake."

Wednesday, July 09, 2014


  1. Heidi Ledford in Nature News: We dislike being alone with our thoughts. "Many people would rather endure physical pain than suffer their own wandering cogitations."

    Here's my cynical take: A fun study makes bold claims in psychology, and gets published in Science. How long will it survive before it gets retracted?

  2. Patricia Fara in Nature: Women in science: A temporary liberation:

    The First World War ushered women into laboratories and factories. In Britain, it may have won them the vote, argues Patricia Fara, but not the battle for equality.

  3. Casey Miller and Keivan Stassun in Nature: A Test that Fails.

    Universities in the United States rely too heavily on the graduate record examinations (GRE) — a standardized test introduced in 1949 that is an admissions requirement for most US graduate schools. This practice is poor at selecting the most capable students and severely restricts the flow of women and minorities into the sciences.

    We are not the only ones to reach this conclusion. [...]

Tuesday, July 08, 2014


  1. Retractions of the Year? The Rise and Fall of STAP (a Special Section in Nature website on the STAP fiasco, with all the relevant links. I presume (but haven't checked) that all the links there are open access).

    Two papers published in Nature in January 2014 promised to revolutionize the way stem cells are made by showing that simply putting differentiated cells under stress can 'reprogram' them and make them pluripotent — able to develop into any type of tissue in the body. But soon, errors were found in the papers, and attempts to replicate the experiments failed. Haruko Obokata, the lead author, was found guilty of misconduct, and the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, where she worked, was threatened with dismantlement. Five months after publication, Nature published retractions of the papers, but the aftermath of the episode is likely to endure for much longer.

  2. R. Grant Steen in Publications (yes, there is a journal by that name ...): The Demographics of Deception: What Motivates Authors Who Engage in Misconduct? From the abstract:

    Journal IF was higher for papers retracted for misconduct (...). Roughly 57% of papers retracted for misconduct were written by a first author with other retracted papers; 21% of erroneous papers were written by authors with >1 retraction (...). Papers flawed by misconduct diffuse responsibility across more authors (...)) and are withdrawn more slowly (...) than papers retracted for other reasons.

  3. Joel Achenbach in WaPo: Science is open to error, misinterpretation and even fraud.

    Since science is a human enterprise, it is open to error, misinterpretation and, rarely but notoriously, fraud and fakery. Here’s a rundown of a few science mishaps, misapprehensions and debatable interpretations in recent years.

  4. Jalees Rehman in 3 Quarks Daily: The Road to Bad Science Is Paved with Obedience and Secrecy: "The recent events surrounding the research in one of the world's most famous stem cell research laboratories at Harvard shows us the disastrous effects of suppressing diverse and dissenting opinions."

  5. Dan Drezner in CHE: The Uses of Being Wrong: "Why is it so hard for scholars to admit when they are wrong?"

Experiments in Higher Ed: Fractal Courses at IIT-H

IIT-Hyderabad is experimenting with an undergraduate curriculum that contains many, many "single module" or "breadth" courses (typically, one lecture hour per week) in various disciplines at an introductory level, followed by a more traditional set of "depth" courses (which require two or more lecture hours per week) in the student's chosen discipline.

The idea, as I understand it, is to allow students to study a variety of subjects in engineering, sciences, liberal arts and creative arts and to get them to appreciate and integrate ideas from many different directions. This would not only give them a perspective and a context to place their own core field in, but also give them a leg up in interdisciplinary thinking.

Over at the IIT-H website, you can find a couple of presentations, both authored by the IIT-H Director, Prof. U.B. Desai, articulating the concept of fractal courses. They contain a model curriculum with a suggestive set of breadth and depth courses for students of electrical and chemical engineering.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Pinnacle of Human Communication


I needed this to figure it out: 9 Questions about 'Yo' You were Embarrassed to Ask.

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Hat tip to Joshua Gans whose post examines the informational content Yo.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

40th Birthday of Barcode Technology

From the Wired story 40 Years on, the Barcode Has Turned Everything Into Information by Marcus Wohlsen:

... [Putting] barcodes on chocolate bars and instant oatmeal did more than revolutionize the economy, or the size of grocery stores. Thanks to bar codes, stuff was no longer just stuff. After a thing gets a barcode, that thing is no longer just itself. That thing now comes wrapped in a layer of information hovering just beyond sight in the digital ether. The thing becomes itself plus its data points, not just a physical object unto itself but tagged as a node in a global network of things. Barcodes serve up the augmented reality of the everyday, where everything can be cross-referenced with everything else, and everything has a number.

Haberman himself knew barcodes meant more than just a better way to manage supermarket inventory. He saw linguistics. He saw metaphysics. He also understood that those deeper abstract meanings held the key to barcodes’ radical practicality. “Go back to Genesis and read about the Creation,” Haberman once told The Boston Globe. “God says, ‘I will call the night “night”; I will call the heavens “heaven.”‘ Naming was important. Then the Tower of Babel came along and messed everything up. In effect, the U.P.C. has put everything back into one language, a kind of Esperanto, that works for everyone.”

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Bias in Biology

Update: Vijaysree Venkatraman's Science Careers article does a good job of placing the PNAS study within the larger context of recent discussions about gender bias in STEM fields [Thanks to Madrasi for the comment-alert].

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Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed: Are the Stars Sexist. The 'stars' in the title are the academic elite of the male kind in biology departments in US research institutions.

... Men are less likely than are women to hire female graduate students and postdocs. And of particular concern, men who have achieved elite status by virtue of awards they have won -- in other words, the men whose labs may be the best launching pads for careers -- are the least likely to hire women who are grad students and postdocs.