Friday, April 26, 2013

Unique Curricula, Unique Skills, and Campus Alberta

Last month I blogged about my practice of teaching cognitive science, “Not Just the Facts: Teaching Cognitive Science”, a post that arose in the context of discussions about the future of postsecondary education in Alberta.  Of course, the spark for these discussions was the postsecondary funding reduction announced in last month’s provincial budget.  Recent news leads me to revisit this blog from a slightly different perspective.

Thomas Lukaszuk, deputy premier and minister of enterprise and advanced education, was in Lethbridge recently for the installation of the new president and CEO of Lethbridge College.  The Lethbridge Herald reported on his visit.  One part of its account discusses the minister’s thoughts about the Campus Alberta initiative:

"The vision is such that we will have a Campus Alberta where we will have 26 schools allowed to grow and be individuals but share their best practices with all other schools," he said. Any institution that develops unique curricula would put it into a provincial depository where all other schools could use it. As it stands now he said institutions develop the same curricula at the same time without considering other input.

 This discussion of a provincial depository of unique curricula certainly caught the attention of the people discussing #abpse on Twitter.  More than one expressed the belief that professors who design courses possess these creations as intellectual property.  Some argued that this approach would fail because courses necessarily change from term to term. I am sympathetic to these positions, but they were not my first reactions when I read the article.

Instead, I considered this vision of Campus Alberta from the perspective of my own course creations.  In my blog last month, I mentioned my “Embodied Cognitive Science” course, in which students learn about the foundations of embodied cognition.  Students hear me lecture, but also write, discuss, and build their own LEGO robots. This course is certainly an example of ‘unique curricula’.  To my knowledge, my approach in this course is unique to Alberta, not to mention Canada.  While a provincial depository is not yet available, most of my course materials are online.  The web page for the course includes lecture material, as well as links to robot building instructions, example programs, and sample videos of our LEGO robots.  A free pdf version of one of the texts for the course (From Bricks to Brains: The Embodied Cognitive Science of LEGO Robots, 2010, Athabasca University Press) is available from the publisher under a creative commons license.  Given all of this online information, one wonders why clones of this course are not popping up everywhere already!

I suspect that I know the answer to this question.  At a key moment in the motion picture Marvel’s The Avengers, the Black Widow informs Loki that she has “a very unique set of skills”.  I do too – albeit without the good looks and the fetching uniform.  Students do not take my course because of the freely available course materials and text.  Instead, they enroll to take advantage of my unique expertise.  Students ask questions, and they want them answered by someone who is ‘in the know’.  A postsecondary course provides the opportunity for dynamic conversation between students and instructors.  A course is not merely a curriculum to deliver.

Consider a recent and extreme example of a student needing to interact with me, instead of just with my available course materials.  This past fall my wife and I hosted Arturo Pérez, a senior undergraduate psychology student at Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago, Chile.  Arturo spent three months working in my lab, and sat in on two of my cognitive science courses.  Officially, the goal of his visit was to establish collaborative ties between my laboratory and the Centro de Estudios de la Argumentación y el Razonamiento (CEAR) at UDP.  Unofficially, Arturo’s goal was to obtain as much knowledge as possible about our Albertan approach to cognitive science.  He accomplished part of this goal by working in my lab as he created, programmed, and tested a LEGO robot for sorting objects (a model ant).  This work was excellent; it will appear in an undergraduate research journal, and a video of his robot in action is available here.  He accomplished the rest of his unofficial goal via many kitchen discussions with me at my home, several of which involved brainstorming and evaluating technical ideas.  (There was cultural exchange too.  Arturo experienced our home-style Canadian cooking, and saw Rush in concert.  He introduced me to the wonders of the Chilean spice merkén and the British band Porcupine Tree.)

Arturo's brick-sorting robot.

The point of this example is that Arturo was already familiar with my embodied cognitive science curriculum before he visited.  Prior to coming to Edmonton, he perused my web site, he read our (free) book, and he even created and posted a video of his version of one of our robots, the Wormeostat.  However, his exposure to my curriculum was not enough.  He needed to visit my lab and courses to learn from conversations with me.  I believe that our give-and-take interactions concerning a variety of robot design and programming decisions provided him with a much keener sense of the subtleties of embodied cognitive science than he could have achieved from reading our book alone.

Similarly, I know that my discussions with Arturo about his project sharpened my own thinking about how our robots illustrate embodied cognitive science.  Arturo did some fabulous things with the robots that I had never explored!  I mentioned earlier that I agreed with those who pointed out that courses change from term to term.  There are other important dynamics at play.  There is the dynamic of the interaction between student and instructor, which in turn affects the knowledge of all the participants.  Instructors develop, too, during a term – pushed by student questions and conversations, and by our own attempts to tailor course concepts to reach our students.
A provincial depository of unique curricula will not result in institutions sharing or copying courses, because it is impossible to share the unique skill sets of the instructors who develop these courses, skill sets that continually develop as academics discover and disseminate knowledge.  I do not believe that it is possible to clone my courses – unless someone finds a way to clone me or at least a way to duplicate the knowledge that I have acquired and which I use when I interact with my students.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Best, the Brightest, and the Alberta Budget

Last week, the University of Alberta’s Board of Governors retreated to discuss the challenges raised by the recent provincial budget.  They met Premier Alison Redford and Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk, who is also the minister for Enterprise and Advanced Education.  Upon his return, Lucaszuk tweeted “Back in #yeg from @UAlberta retreat. Planing its role in Campus Alberta, Canadian and global education. Exciting! #abgov #ableg #abpse”.

I’m sure the Minister meant to type ‘planning’ instead of ‘planing’, but given that postsecondary institutions are dealing with a surprise 7.3% cut in funding, perhaps ‘planing’ was the intended verb.  ‘Sawing’ or ‘cutting’ might also have been appropriate choices.

Other developments this past week provided some sense of where the government sees potential savings in its postsecondary file.  The government formally announced that it was using reserve funds to freeze next year’s tuition rates.  The Edmonton Journal reported that Lukaszuk was also ruling out the use of ‘market modifiers’ to implement large tuition increases for professional schools such as law or medicine.  A government news release noted, “We’ve been very clear that we will not be balancing the budget on the backs of students.”

The government exhibits less restraint about balancing its budget on the backs of postsecondary institution employees.  Lukaszuk sent a letter to the chairs of the boards of governors of all postsecondary schools requesting all future collective bargaining agreements to hold to salary freezes for 3 years, and no more than 2% increases in a fourth.  In addition, “awarding of performance bonuses would likely be considered irresponsible during this current economic climate.”  This letter, combined with comments to the press, suggests that Lukaszuk believes that savings accrued by cutting salaries and by increasing teaching loads are preferential to program cuts, which have also been making the news this past week, and over which the minister has the final say.  “If the schools ask me to close programs, I will look at what they are doing for efficiencies, what they are proposing on the salary side,” Lukaszuk said, adding that teaching loads could also be on the table.

What I find profoundly puzzling about all of these developments is their simultaneous accompaniment by government claims that the $147 million taken from postsecondary education will not harm it.  According to the Edmonton Journal, the Premier believes that “the cutbacks will make the system stronger by helping ‘change the way we think, work, and deliver services’.”  In the same letter to the chairs of the Boards in which he requested salary freezes and elimination of bonuses, Lukaszuk wrote “our government believes that it is important to attract and retain the best and brightest.”

Why does the government believe that it can make Albertan postsecondary stronger by dramatically cutting its budget, or that it can attract and retain the best and brightest in a climate of reduced funding and of salary restraint?

This belief is certainly out of step with other government policies that acknowledge attracting high-power research talent requires substantial financial investment.  Lukaszuk’s ministry, for instance, is responsible for the Campus Alberta Innovates Program (CAIP).  According to its website, the CAIP intends to recruit new research leaders to Alberta in four designated priority areas: energy and environment, food and nutrition, neuroscience/prions and water. It has budgeted funds for 16 research chairs in these areas, varying in value from approximately $300k to $650k per year for seven years. Funding all 16 chairs for 7 years at the minimum level would require $33.6 million.  This Government of Alberta program clearly recognizes that Big Science costs big money. 

If you are not willing to pay, then Big Science moves to other jurisdictions that will.  Unfortunately, the same is true for medium science and for tiny science, and this is why government cuts will decrease postsecondary quality.

Consider the goal of attracting the best and the brightest, not with high-end research chairs, but using the usual means of tenure-track academic positions.  A promising, bright candidate is going to accept offers from other regions or countries when they realize that an Albertan position comes with salary freezes, no merit pay, larger teaching loads, and the like.  The best and brightest always have other offers to consider.  Attracting such researchers is a competition, and the current Albertan climate is unattractive in comparison to others.

Retention faces the same issue.  From a professional point of view, when one’s current position appears tarnished, one looks to opportunities elsewhere.  In academia, who can take advantage of such opportunities?  Promising junior faculty members are very mobile.  Well-established senior scholars are candidates for high profile positions, such as those offered by CAIP – but by agencies outside of Alberta.  Losing either type of researcher weakens a department.  Worse, in tight economic times no money is available to replace a departed scholar.  Programs necessarily become weaker and smaller as their top assets move to greener pastures.

In my own department, there is clear evidence of such weakening related to previous government cutbacks.  I recently published a historical analysis of a century of psychology at the University of Alberta.  For a long period that began after World War II, the department grew at a steady state of about one faculty member per year until its size peaked in the late 1980s.  With Klein-era cutbacks in the early 1990s, department size shrank and never recovered.

All indicators suggest another downturn is on the horizon, affecting many different programs in all Albertan postsecondary institutions.  Not all agree with this prediction.  Lukaszuk has said, “I would be very surprised if any professors are actually seriously thinking of leaving any university in Alberta”.  However, as the postsecondary sector found out in the budget, surprises do happen.  The government may eventually have to admit that it cannot afford the quality of postsecondary education that it would like to offer, and that one consequence of its budget will be a failure to attract and retain the best and brightest.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Adventures In Tiny Science

Approximately a year ago, I learned I had lost my major source of research support. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada decided that it was not interested in funding my latest research proposal.  It had provided me uninterrupted funding for about a quarter of a century, including over $30,000 annually over the past 5 years.  I thought that I had put together a solid research proposal to extend this project, which had been very productive – 3 books and over 20 journal articles in its lifetime – and felt that the worst-case scenario, given the NSERC budget, would be a reduced grant.  I was wrong.  Without warning, my NSERC funding vanished.

After a week of being in shock, I pondered my next move.  The rational action would be to tweak my proposal and enter the next competition.  I decided not to do so.

Instead, I interpreted my sudden bad news about grant support as a liberating event.  I decided to continue to do the research that I am interested in, but do it without the pressure that accompanies seeking and administering funding.  In short, I decided never to apply for federal funding ever again. I now conduct tiny science.

This decision was completely rational.  After losing my grant, I asked myself serious questions about what support I really needed to carry out my research.  Repeatedly the answer was that a grant was really a ‘badge of honour’ and not a necessity.  My lab’s primary resource is my brain.  My research niche does not require expensive equipment, animal care costs, pricey technicians, and the like.  My version of cognitive science can be a frugal science.  It will have to be!

In all likelihood, given the current provincial and federal financial situations, more and more questions will arise about the return of investment in Big Science.  Big Science involves pouring huge amounts of money into targeted research projects.  However, there are growing questions about the success of Big Science.  For instance, a recent article in the National Post questioned whether the successes in research on cancer treatments were significant enough to justify billions of dollars of funding.

Well, I certainly was never getting enough grant money as it was to do Big Science.  NSERC’s funding decision pushed me in exactly the opposite direction.  Fortunately, I had a year to access surplus funds remaining in my grant.  I reflected on my research needs, and used remaining money to meet future lab needs.  Most of my work involves theoretical analyses and computer simulations.  I obtained lab resources that would support my future work (new computers, printers, etc.).  They will have to last a while!  As of the first of this month, I have no more grant money available.

The pursuit of tiny science is adventurous, though, because it carries with it a palpable degree of risk.  Our modern age of academia is money driven.  University and Department websites usually describe how much grant money they pull in, because this is a presumed measure of excellence.  In our academic culture, the amount of external funding that a researcher attracts reflects one’s quality as a researcher.  In pursuing tiny science, I ask to be judged by the quality of my research, and not by the quantity of its financial support.

This is not going to be a popular position.  A university has a financial motivation for its employees to attract federal grants.  The federal government runs the Indirect Costs Program; its homepage points out that the goal of this program is to help “Canadian postsecondary institutions with the hidden costs of research. By alleviating the financial burden of expenses, such as lighting and heating, the program ultimately helps researchers concentrate on cutting-edge discoveries and scholarship excellence. After all, it is easier to achieve a eureka moment when the lights are on.”  Presumably, the amount of funding an institution receives from this program is a percentage of the total amount of federal grant funding awarded to its researchers.  For 2011-12, the University of Alberta received $16,878,176 from this program; it obtained $16,945,028 the preceding year.  My pursuit of tiny science will not help my institution’s pursuit of indirect cost money.

Furthermore, my pursuit of tiny science carries the real danger that it will not help my career either.  Being a university professor, there is an annual evaluation of my performance (research, teaching, and service).  This year will be the first time ever I do not include grant support in my annual report.  Such support obviously is valued in academia; its absence lessens my worth.

Thus, the pursuit of tiny science makes strong demands.  I have to maintain (and most likely elevate) my level of research productivity to compensate for the lost grant support when I am evaluated.  Can I do so?  Will my research productivity receive the same kind of reviews when it is unfunded?  I am not sure of the answers to these questions, which is why I view tiny science as an adventure.  For the record, I am very proud of my career as a researcher, teacher, and supervisor, and I have no problem being accountable by making my CV available on my website.  I am confident that I can rise to meet the demands of tiny science.  I have no doubts, though, that it will be a challenge.

Friday, April 05, 2013

The Coffee Room And Cognitive Science

A few days ago I learned that a local coffee business, Java Jive, was closing its operations, including a roasting facility located not far from my home.  Java Jive has been a staple of the Edmonton coffee scene for 37 years.  It has also been the source of the beans for my lab’s espresso machine for nearly two decades.

The news of Java Jive’s closing inspired me to reflect a bit on coffee’s role in my research.  A strong hint lies in the first two paragraphs of my 1998 book Understanding Cognitive Science:

“The psychology department at the University of Western Ontario has a coffee room on the seventh floor of the Social Sciences and Humanities Center that offers an attractive view of the deciduous forest northwest of the campus.  When I was a graduate student in the department, the room was maintained by Jim Webster, whose voice was as gruff as his coffee.  Jim has retired now, and has been replaced by an impressive-looking vending machine.  The machine may make better coffee, but it can’t replace the chat with Jim that was part of the coffee room ritual.

Conversation is what the coffee room was all about.  At any time of the day, you could go there and find a handful of department members talking to one another.  Of course, much of the time the topics discussed were the same as those discussed in any coffee room in any organization: gossip, politics, and sports.  In addition, though, there was a generous amount of “shop talk”.  Faculty would test research ideas out on each other, would describe some of their latest results, and would discuss problems that were arising with one project or another.  As a student, you could learn a lot by buying the occasional cup of Jim Webster’s coffee.”

When I finally progressed to having large enough lab space, I ensured that it included a component to serve as my version of Jim Webster’s coffee room.  The central fixture is a small Krups espresso machine that I bought refurbished for a handful of dollars many years ago, conveniently located beside a lab sink.   At the other end of the lab counter is a Krups burr grinder.  The espresso machine has delivered fine coffee for years, but we have made so much espresso that we replaced the grinder – twice!   Four bookcases, containing the lab’s excellent cognitive science library, provide a backdrop to a couple of scrounged couches and a reclining armchair.  Some ambient lighting set the mood for coffee, conversation, and cognitive science.


The espresso machine in the Biological Computation Project.  The blackboard contains some recent work that the machine has fueled.

Setting that conversational mood is important, because we conduct the important business of the lab over coffee, at any time of day.  I despise formal lab meetings; as a result, my attempts to organize them have repeatedly failed.  Coffee talk is completely different – spontaneous, unconstrained, relaxed, and freewheeling.  It can be about anything.  Of course, over the years it has been.


Rufus relaxing in the lab's coffee room, near the espresso machine.

Many coffee chats explored the routine (progress reports on thesis and research projects, discussions of lab equipment needs, requests for actions or materials related to a research, writing, or teaching need).  Many have been strategy sessions about how to deal with reviewer comments on a manuscript, or about what studies to conduct or write up next.  There have been debates about protocols for computer simulation code, brainstorming sessions about problems with mathematical proofs or artificial neural network interpretations, and celebrations of papers or books being published.  There has been career counselling, evaluations of job offers to students, and discussions of serious life problems.  One famous session with a colleague resulted in a complete simulation study conducted over a half hour of coffee; it was under review a day later, my fastest publication ever.  My lab is right beside the room that I teach my night courses in, so many coffee chats have been before and after class, and have involved my undergraduates.  Unfortunately, I have contributed more than my fair share of venting and foul language; I should take this moment to apologize for such behavior! 

The coffee room setting is critical to the function of my lab, and is fundamental for my ability to develop and explore ideas.  My students agree.  When I visited one of my graduates in Fredericton, his lab was a clone of mine, with ambient lighting, comfortable chairs, and an espresso machine. The most recent master’s thesis to come from my lab begins with a dedication to coffee.  I store my lab beans in a coffee tin that was hand decorated by another PhD student, and given as a thank you after her defense.


My favorite coffee tin, alongside the lab's latest grinder.

Of course, the trouble now is that my prime supplier of beans for that tin is retiring.  I visited the Java Jive warehouse yesterday to pick up some fresh coffee.  In addition, I was lucky enough to purchase a poster from them that was the result of a 1980s design competition for a group of University of Alberta fine arts students.  I will be adding that poster to the lab ambience as soon as possible.  We will miss Java Jive; they have been an important (and likely unknowing) contributor to our research for a long time.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Enterprise And Advanced Education

The Alberta government’s ministry responsible for postsecondary education is ‘Enterprise and Advanced Education’.  Over the past few years, there has been a tremendous push to align the two concepts of ‘enterprise’ and ‘advanced education’, both provincially and federally, and both from outside postsecondary institutions and from within.  In principle, such alignment is possibly a very good idea.  In practice, however, it raises some serious concerns.  For a university researcher like me, it produces a conflict between one maxim for applied research (“silence is golden”) and another for public research (“publish or perish”).  Let me elaborate. 

The provincial government is signalling postsecondary institutions to align their research and teaching outcomes with the provincial economy.  For instance, in its 2012 Alberta Research & Innovation Plan, the ministry of Enterprise and Advanced Education notes “The alignment of Alberta Innovates corporations and Campus Alberta brings together learning, research and application, management and technical skills training, and new knowledge and commercialization, into a system that will create a culture of inquiry and entrepreneurialism. A culture that fosters the acquisition of commercial skills, financial abilities and business acumen will enable Alberta to move from a solid economy to a resilient, diversified knowledge-driven economy for future generations” (p. 6).  It is possible that other messages lay not far below quotes like this one.  There is concern that universities are under pressure to favor applied research over pure research, or to favor programs that emphasize particular career paths over others.  One case in point is a recent column in the National Post by Matt Gurney that argues that governments should only provide financial aid for students taking useful programs.

The push to align enterprise with advanced education has sharpened with recent budget cuts to postsecondary institutions and accompanying “Letters of Expectation” from the ministry.  For example, the draft letter of expectation for the University of Alberta asks that it allocate its resources “in ways that best achieve the following desired outcomes:
  • Albertans are engaged in lifelong learning;
  • Alberta’s workforce is skilled and productive;
  • Alberta demonstrates excellence in research, innovation, and commercialization; and,
  • Alberta’s economy is competitive and sustainable.”
A recent Globe & Mail column by University of Alberta Emerson Csorba argues eloquently that the last three of these outcomes appear to be strongly related to short-term economic goals.

Nonetheless, at a very general level all four of these outcomes do not appear to conflict with the university’s role of discovering new information, and disseminating its discoveries (and the methodologies used to make them) to the public and to its students.  In her “State of the University” address on February 28, 2013, Dr. Indira Samarasekera, President of the University of Alberta, pointed out that “our goal is, in fact, to do more than prepare students for particular jobs. Our goal is to give our students the knowledge and skills they need to think for themselves, to be creative and entrepreneurial, to seek solutions that others have missed … to undertake today’s work in a way that addresses tomorrow’s challenges. They must develop the very knowledge and skills that can help them diversify and be resilient—to bring all that they have to bear on whatever task they take up.”  I think that when I try to integrate my research with my teaching I am playing a part in achieving this goal.

Of course, this is not the only approach undertaken by the University of Alberta that harmonizes with the government’s desired outcomes.  In 2006, the University of Alberta and the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation launched a joint, not-for-profit, venture called TEC Edmonton.  Its general goal is to transition “science solutions into business opportunities”; TEC stands for “Technology, Entrepreneur & Commercialization”.  It is the exclusive technology transfer agent for the University of Alberta, and provides aid for U. of A. researchers and students to explore the possibility of commercializing their research.  According to TEC Edmonton’s annual report, in 2011-12 they advised 529 entrepreneurs and researchers, 70 of their clients combined to generate $73.4 million in revenue, and 28% of their clients were University of Alberta spinoffs.  Clearly, a significant amount of research commercialization goes on at the University of Alberta.

However, a university researcher faces a serious conflict because the goals of discovering and disseminating knowledge to our colleagues, our students, and the public does not align very well with the goal of transitioning science into business.

The cliché “publish or perish” governs knowledge discovery and dissemination.  An academic career faces constant evaluation, and a large part of this evaluation concerns research productivity.  To receive annual merit pay, to achieve tenure or promotion, to obtain grant funds to support future research, university researchers must publish their results.  A competitive CV requires both quantity and quality.  That is, to succeed in this business you have to publish many papers, and they have to appear in respected outlets.  I constantly remind graduate students that they are only as good as their next publication.  I do this because ‘publish or perish’ is the critical lesson to pass on to apprentice academics.

Long ago, though, I found that “publish or perish” is very bad when it comes to commercializing research.  A lot of my own research involves artificial neural networks, and these networks offer many possibilities for solving various applied classification problems.  Because of this, one of my more entrepreneurially minded colleagues set up a meeting between the two of us and a representative with the Industry Liaison Office, which was an ancestor of TEC Edmonton.  To my surprise, the ILO representative was more than a little concerned about me publishing my research in the public domain.  Indeed, I left with the strong impression that the ILO view of my job (or perhaps more correctly, the view of how my job should be conducted if I aimed to commercialize my discoveries) was completely opposite to my own view (expressed in the previous paragraph).

The reason for this was straightforward: patent law.  In Canada, a researcher has only a year to patent an invention or discovery after its public disclosure.  If more than a year passes, it is not patentable.  This means that if a researcher like me wants to commercialize research, “silence is golden”.  Published research is in the public domain, so if I publish my work – as is expected by my employers, not to mention my government granting agencies – this places severe time constraints on research commercialization.  The ILO’s solution seemed to require me to be silent about my research, and as a result I never pursued its commercialization.
In short, my view is that the combination of enterprise and advanced education leads to some perplexing problems for university researchers.  When I accept my salary, or when I accept government grants – public money – to conduct research, I believe that “publish or perish” is an acceptable position to be in, both in terms of lab research and course instruction.  “Silence is golden” strikes me as being contrary to the goals of a public institution.  It will be interesting to see how the combination of enterprise and advanced education proceeds in Alberta in the coming months.