Trying to minimize the impact of your vacation

by MooshiMooshi

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the negative impacts of vacation travel, including the the impact of air travel on climate change, the way that AirBnB can drive up rental costs for locals (and even drive locals out of touristy neighborhoods), and the overall ethics of travel to poor countries or neighborhoods that can sometimes feel like the privileged gawking at the poor. There is a great example of that in the film Gully Boy, a recent Indian film that is grittier than the usual Bollywood film.

I found this article in the New York Times which discusses the angst of vacationing. The writer talks about the issues and ultimately comes up with a set of guidelines which I mainly agree with. When I travel to Europe, I realize I have to fly, but once there I try to stick with trains, which I think are far more pleasant than those low cost flights anyway, or bicycles. I also am a big believer in staying in one place for longer amounts of time. Not only does that minimize fuel consumption, but I feel like I also connect better and get to know a place better. And that is a big point that this article makes – travel is a gift, but also expensive ecologically, so try to make it high value.

. Do you really need to take that many trips a year? There are platitudes aplenty about travel — it inspires, it educates, it reduces bigotry. But not all trips meet those standards: Consider an educational exchange program in Vietnam compared to a week at a resort in the Maldives. Most leisure travel, of course, falls somewhere in between. So I recommend setting a high bar for your travel, making sure any trip maximizes your connection with the place you’re visiting, whether that be through volunteer activity, seeking out a particularly responsible tour operator or traveling where you have friends who can help you live truly local.

The author, however, admits he has trouble giving up AirBnB. Sorry, but I will not go there. I hate what AirBnB is doing to so many cities, where entire buildings are now taken up with short term tourists, and neighborhoods are drained of real residents. I stay away from AirBnB and its ilk, and still have no trouble finding decent interesting places to stay.

In the end, while I think we should all be more mindful of the costs of our vacations, and try to create higher-return trips, I actually think mindless business travel is far more the culprit. I have to travel for a conference planning meeting every September, and I hate it. We could do every bit of the work via video conference. I use Webex for lots of meetings now and it works REALLY WELL. I honestly think a huge proportion of flight-heavy business travel could be eliminated and no one would ever notice a difference. That is where travel environmentalists should focus their efforts. A corporate tax on travel, perhaps?

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Tech based education may save money, but also may leave many students behind

by MooshiMooshi

This article, found in the Chronicle of Higher Education, details an innovative way of teaching remedial math that was enthusiastically adopted at many schools. The idea, called the emprorium model, was to have lots of students working with online math software as tutors circulate around the room, swooping in and helping as needed. This was supposed to be beneficial because it lets students work at their own pace, and spend enough time mastering each concept before moving on. It also means that students are actively learning by solving problems rather than passively listening to a lecture. Active learning in STEM has been shown in many studies to be a superior learning method.

I also suspect that many cash strapped schools, especially community colleges, were enthusiastic because the emporium model looks like it could save money because fewer instructors are needed.

Virginia Tech uses this model and it has worked out well for them. However, according to the article, two new studies have come out that found that the emporium approach many not work so well for very underprepared students, especially at community colleges.

“The Kentucky study found that students were 10 percentage points less likely to pass their courses in one semester, compared with peers in a traditional class. The Tennessee study found that while students passed the remedial math course taught in the emporium model at about the same rate as those taught conventionally, they struggled more in other ways, later on.”

A Tech-Based Model to Teach Math Has Spread Across Higher Education. But for Some Students, Could It Do More Harm Than Good?

I am not surprised that Virginia Tech has more success with this model than the community colleges in the KY and TN studies. Research on online education in general finds that marginal students do not do as well in online courses as they do in traditional face to face courses. They probably need more interaction with faculty and more direction. In fact, one of the studies found that the self paced nature of emporium classes was a problem for many students who waited until the last minute to try to complete all the work. They also noted that the mastery model was a problem – students could not move on until they had mastered each module, and often got stuck.

The observation in the TN study that students who took emporium classes did not do as well in later math courses as students who took traditional courses is particularly interesting to me. In general, I wish more education researchers would look at performance in followup courses when they study approaches. I think that is a very important measure of learning that often gets ignored. My pet theory on this result is that online math learning modules often stress rote performance at the expense of understanding. While being able to solve problems quickly and correctly is important, students need to also understand what they are doing. I think an understanding gap can become very apparent in later courses, and that may be what is going on here.

Have any of you seen courses like these? What is your general opinion on computer-based education – salvation or destroyer? Or in between?

Food delivery robots coming to your campus…

by MooshiMooshi

This article from the Chronicle profiles on campus food delivery robots. One company called Kiwi has been delivering food to students by robot for a couple of years and is trying to expand to other schools, including Rutgers and Stanford. Another company is partnering with Sodexho, the big campus dining hall company, to start a service at George Mason. In fact, these aren’t truly robots since they are remotely piloted. I guess they are dronebots.

Food-Delivery Robots Are the Next Big Thing for Campus Dining. No, They Don’t Accept Tips.

I am trying to figure out how this will work on a practical basis. Rutgers, for example, is incredibly spread out around New Brunswick. Maybe they only work within a certain radius? At urban campuses like NYU or BU, how would they navigate streets and traffic?

And this part of it I find slightly horrifying

fleets of pixel-faced robots, each about the size of an Igloo cooler, piloted remotely by low-wage workers in Colombia, rolling around idyllic greens and quads to deliver nourishment to busy students.

So is it all about replacing on campus workers with workers overseas? I can remember the people who worked in my undergraduate dining hall – a mix of students and immigrants from the Azores who mainly spoke Portuguese. At my current university, the dining workers all seem to be elderly Polish ladies, as well as students. But I guess people in Colombia are cheaper.

But judging from the photo, the robots are kind of cute, like coolers on wheels. I’d like to see these at campgrounds. And I bet liquor stores near campus would find them useful…

Scamming jobseekers in Appalachia

by MooshiMooshi

This article, from the NY Times, is a sad tale of a “coding bootcamp” that took advantage of people in West Virginia seeking to better themselves. The bootcamp, called Mined Mines, was endorsed and promoted by Joe Manchin, the National Guard, and various news organizations. And yet, it was clearly a fraud, and ended up a disaster for the people who signed up.

They Were Promised Coding Jobs in Appalachia. Now They Say It Was a Fraud.
Mined Minds came into West Virginia espousing a certain dogma, fostered in the world of start-ups and TED Talks. Students found an erratic operation.

My take on this, and you can see from the commenters that many shared this opinion, was that even beyond the obvious fraud, this was a scheme that could never work. They promised to take pretty much anyone, run them through 16 weeks of “coding” instruction, and then an apprenticeship at their own tech consulting firm, and at the end of all this, the graduates would find high paying software development jobs.

OK. First of all, to be a successful software developer, one needs to know a lot more than just “coding”, whatever that is. Software systems have become really sophisticated, and everyone wants to integrate machine intelligence algorithms, cybersecurity best practices, oh, and it better be scaleable and run on highly distributed architectures. That means that developers need to know stuff – how to build security practices into the code, how to write system that can be parallelized, how to choose data structures and algorithms that scale, and so on. No one can learn all that in 16 weeks! The second problem is that the participants likely did not have the best academic preparation, and would have struggled even in a 4 year program. So it isn’t surprising that none of the people who went through this program actually ended up in development positions, or it seems, IT positions of any kind. I doubt they could have ever gotten through a standard technical interview.

And finally, I think the idea that if you train people in IT, they are going to somehow find remote jobs while remaining in Appalachia is pretty unrealistic. There is a reason that the tech industry congregates in certain areas. Not only do the companies have a choice of the best talent RIGHT THERE, but the people themselves network with each other, and learn from each other. It is hard to be a fledgling developer, and trying to do it remotely would be much harder. Software developers spend a lot of time talking to each other and getting advice from each other. It is hard to do that from your trailer in rural West Virginia. The reality is, for people in rural areas who want to get into tech, they are going to have to move.

Paying for higher education

by MooshiMooshi

Since we all love to discuss higher education issues, I thought this might be a fun one. This article from Inside Higher Education compares two approaches to funding university education: Elizabeth Warren’s plan, and Arizona State University’s plan to partner with corporations to deliver online education to their employees.

Elizabeth Warren v. InStride: Two Different Paths for Higher Education

I have major issues with both approaches. I think Elizabeth Warren’s plan is unworkable, doesn’t do anything to hold down costs, and would have the unintended effect of decimating private colleges. The second approach seems more like a way to accomplish employee training and skills augmentation than a workable approach to financing higher education. If that model were widely adopted, I think it would exacerbate inequality. The wealthy would continue to send their children to traditional universities and everyone else would have to go work for a corporation that partners with a provider of an online learning platform.

There has got to be a better way….