Friday, July 26, 2013

Pull the plug

Recently, there's a rash of books giving advice on how to achieve the good life. The authors regularly appear on radio, talking about their books. I am still not reading them, but since I have spent a lot of this summer driving around in Scandinavia, I can't avoid hearing all about it.

They all talk about how the key to the good life is to unplug. Turn off the smart-phone, stop logging on to Facebook, keep from immersing yourself in technology, leave the lap-top at home and let the Ipad battery run low. Listening to them, the worst thing you can do is to use modern technology.

This is all very up-to-date, and in a way, it feels right. Going offline to most of us means putting away the day-to-day demands of the regular routine. Avoiding routine is a way to discover new things about ourselves, it helps us gain new experiences, and even think some new thoughts. It looks like there is a strong causal relationship between unplugging and new experiences.

I claim this is a very superficial connection, and that what connection there is relies on routine, not on technology. This kind of self-help books are much older than technology. It's all about paying attention to the moment, rather than acting from habit. There are whole religions built around this:
  • Zen is more of an attitude than a belief.
  • Zen is the peace that comes from being one with an entity other than yourself.
  • Zen means being aware of your oneness with the world and everything in it.
  • Zen means living in the present and experiencing reality fully.
  • Zen means being free of the distractions and illusory conflicts
We have always known that in order to relax and be at peace, we need to let go of the day-to-day concerns that keep nagging us, all the little things we don't master, all the demands we can't meet and desires we can't satisfy. That didn't enter into human lives with Facebook. This means that unplugging won't make us instantly happy, either. I do however believe that in order to achieve some kind of happiness, we need to cherish moments of no intrusion from routine demands, and yes, sometimes that is easier if you don't check Facebook.

Personally, I find a lot of those free moments of no other intrusion when I am very engaged with technology, and I achieve a sense of being free of distractions and illusory conflict that way. But I don't think anybody will buy a book that says: "Stop worrying about how to achieve inner balance, and start enjoying the moments when you do." First, it's a very short book. Next, it doesn't give people an easy, physical way to feel they are doing it right. Third, your Facebook status won't show that you haven't posted in a week. You will just have to blog about it if you want people to know how happily unconcerned you are.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

D or F?

Some time ago, I assessed a master's thesis at a Norwegian university (I do so regularly, at different universities). It was a half-assed piece of work, and I gave it a low mark, as I should. This didn't happen without discussion or resistance; the other assessor disagreed initially. We went through the thesis very thoroughly, and also read the descriptions of the use of the different grades in the Norwegian system. At the end we agreed that the grade was the only possible one, from the content and the descriptions. The internal assessor had hoped for a better grade for the student, but that's why we use external assessors in this system: in order to have qualified, unbiased readings.

In this process, the other assessor said something that stuck with me. "But when they apply abroad, they look at this grade, and our students don't have a chance, because in the US, the grades are used differently." The implication was that this paper would have gotten a much better grade in the US. Now, I can't grade according to a hypothetical standard in another country, so the argument didn't change anything. But it triggered a curiosity about the performance of American students vs Norwegian, because one of my impressions is that in the US, there is a much higher general failure rate. In Norway, if you start an education, you may not always excel, but you have a very high chance of finishing. My impression was that in the higher education in the US, the drop-out rate is much higher.

Today I read about the failure rate in MOOC - Massive Online Open Courses - in California, or more precisely, San José. Now, comparing regular teaching with MOOCs is unfair. Any teacher with a tad of experience knows the difference between seeing the students face to face and writing them. However, a sentence in the article caught my attention:
Gov. Jerry Brown had lauded the goals of the program to allow students to graduate faster and reduce their debt loads at a time when only 16 percent of California State students graduate in four years.

Almost all Norwegian students are state students. The education is free. How many graduate in four years? From SSB, the state-owned statistics bureau (which, by the way, has been noted as being more critical of the educational system than the private agency paid to assess it.):
Av de om lag 30 600 studentene som startet på bachelorutdanning for første gang i 2006, fullførte 45 prosent innen tre år. Etter ytterligere to år hadde 62 prosent fullført. Sammenlignet med studentene som startet i 2005, har andelen som fullførte innen fem år økt med 4 prosentpoeng. I løpet av denne femårsperioden var det 23 prosent som avbrøt studiet. 9 prosent av disse avbrøt etter første året. Bachelorutdanningen i økonomiske og administrative fag hadde høyest andel av studenter som avbrøt i løpet av fem år, hele 33 prosent.

45% have finished in three years. In five years, 62% have finished. 23% have quit, and didn't finish over five years. We don't know if they resumed/will resume their education later. Now, discussing which universities and colleges we should compare our universities with is a bit useless. Norway doesn't have the private Ivy-league schools, but we have a pretty solid state-run educational system. We can't really compare either way, but we do tend to compare our system with the Ivy-league schools, as these are the goal for many of our students who go abroad. But who are the Ivy-league students? They are the children of the educated and well-off, and what does statistics tell us about academic success and social background?

If we look at the figure in the article from SSB, it's pretty clear. Children of parents with higher education finish more higher education. Children of parents with no education finish less. (Considering that none of my parents finished high-school, I am an anomaly according to this statistic: a person from my background should not have a doctorate. Yes, I thank the Norwegian welfare state and the miracle of our educational system regularly.) We compare a system which encompasses students from all backgrounds, with a system which exclusively caters to those with the best chances. We expect our students to compete with the very top of the heap of an extremely competitive system, where failure and dropping out is more common than completing an education.

There's no real conclusion to this. I am not saying which of these two systems is the better (although, see above, I know where my loyalty lies.) What I am saying is: They can't really be compared. The Norwegian educational system needs some serious tweaking, I agree. But I don't feel bad about giving a low grade to a student who doesn't perform well. They are still miles ahead of the large numbers of US students who do not get a grade at all. If we are to compare our students with the American ones, we need to compare both ends. And when it comes to making sure the population is educated, we perform very well indeed.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Grandmother in the age of the internet

I have been a grandmother for more than 6 months. The girl in question is very much the child of a modern family: the daughter of my daughter's wife, legally my daughter's daughter, emotionally, socially and in every possible way a child of this family. She smiles like my daughter, looks like my daughter-in-law, and explores the world like her unique self.

Sadly, she's in Bergen and I am in Copenhagen. That's however nothing new. My kids were born and lived in Bergen, while their grandparents lived in Ålesund and Oslo, a similar distance and a much longer travel time. I fly to Bergen for 400,- nkk and in 90 minutes. We used to pay what felt like a lot more while we had a lot less, to spend a night either on a train or on the coastal steamer, to get from Bergen in the days when we travelled with kids.

The real difference is in the day to day communication. My daughter keeps skyping us when she wants company - and we keep insisting that she skypes us. Or use google hang-out, or what ever other technology we have available. Sometimes it's my husband from one place, my daughter with her family, and me. And occasionally the uncle, our son, looking in from a fourth location. And then we chat, wave at each other, admire recent tricks and I sing, very badly, to the admiring audience who is my daughter's daughter. Internet, be happy you don't have to be part of those hang-outs.

The closest thing in the eighties was long and expensive phone-calls. The cost was a constant drain on a student economy, and the grandparents weren't all that interested in paying their end of it, so it would happen perhaps once a month. Then there would be the occasional letter. These were mainly in order to send pictures back and forth, and those were really expensive: film, process and copied, so there would be enough pictures for both set of grandparents, and then a hand-written letter in there. Yes, so much more exclusive and so much more labour-intensive, if you want to feel that communication matters. But also so rare, and so formal.

Now, I can watch that darling baby, as she listens to out-of-tune scales sung to her, and she tries to respond. It's almost enough to make me go pick up a little flute, to see her face when I play to her. It's a little marvel, and I get to enjoy it instantly. But it doesn't end there. My daughter and daughter-in-law got themselves a pretty good digital camera, and they use it frequently for little movies and a lot of pictures, posted to their pass-word protected weblog. I check my email only slightly more often. I get to see her grow, sometimes day to day, always once or twice a week, and I can comment, and then I get comments on the comments. All my colleagues know this, because it offers another benefit: I am ruthlessing making them admire the day-to-day development of this miracle of normal extraordinarity which is a grand-child.

I am still not sure if she actually responds to the person on the screen as a human being, or just odd sounds and images, but when I visit, she isn't afraid. It may be because I sound so much like my daughter, or she may actually get it - I am something familiar and non-threatening. It certainly makes me feel very close to them, to my children, their friends and loved ones, and now this little miracle of a girl. Not to mention the cat. It isn't the internet without a cat.

Of course, a lot of other things have changed too, from our parents' time to us. We are generally healthier and more fit. We have more education, and expect to be able to keep learning new things all the time. Education never ends these days, and communication technology changes so quickly, a constant stream of something new is the stable normality. Not all of the changes are necessarily to the better. It's important to learn to protect ourselves from the anxiety born of potentially constant connection. But when I log on to the little darling's blog and see a new picture of her crawling, chasing the tail of their cat, information technology is nothing but wonderful. I am a grandmother in the age of the Internet, and I love it.