Category: Academia

Last week, The New York Times and the Washington Post had great opinion pieces about anti-intellectualism in the United States.

New York Times: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?

Washington Post: The Dumbing of America

The mass media culture of today seems to celebrate idiocy, looking down at knowledge. The education system in the United States is completely broken. Parents, care more about their children’s athletic accomplishments, rather than academic pursuits.

At the same time, everybody and their brother has a masters degree, while lacking basic high school geography, math, and history fundamentals. Remember when having a graduate degree actually meant something?

Nowhere is the dumbing of America more noticeable, than the state of television news. CNN, the network that once aspired to be the New York Times of Television, has turned in to NY Post. Don’t believe me? Watch 10 minutes of Lou Dobbs.

Critics tend to point an undeserved harsh finger at video games and the Internet. Video games are an easy target, but it reminds me a lot of the anti rock music paranoia of the 50’s and 60’s. Parents and critics are simply afraid of things they don’t understand. Blaming the Internet for anti-intellectualism in the US, is simply dead wrong. The Internet is a tool. It can be used for good, and it can be abused.

There is no single clear cause of the dumbing of America, and there are no easy solutions either. Its a lot like global warming. Its a long-term problem, with long-term solutions. Humans are naturally short-term creatures.

Most people have the perception that Colleges and Universities are bastions of information sharing and free thinking. Before I became familiar with higher education institutions as a student and a staff member, I had the same misconception.

Today, a story broke about how Marquette university suspended a student for posting a negative tidbit about one of his teachers on a blog. Its amazing how many people have misconceptions about free speech. Free speech may save you, and let me emphasize MAY, from government retribution, but it has no bearing on private organizations.

So lets say for instance, an employee of Google writes something semi-negative about their job environment, Google can fire them on the spot. When it comes to termination of employment, rank and file employees have many misconceptions about how and why they can be fired. In most states, an employee can be fired for anything. 60 minutes did a great expose a few weeks ago on employees fired for smoking outside of work hours and an employee who has fired for drinking Coors at a bar off duty because he worked for a Bud distributor.

Working on information sharing applications for academia, when I demonstrate or discuss the features of LionShare one of the first questions I get is “how can restrict who sees shared files?” Academia loves to adopt information sharing technologies and then stuff in access restrictions.

A lot of organizational units are now adopting wikis and blogs as a means to share information, but they want to restrict access based on units. Ask people why they feel the need to restrict access to small group, and they will give you the most unlikely use case possible. Its almost a law of sort that people are irrational and irrational people will make major decisions based on the most unlikely feasible use case.

Division A
Unit1 wiki(mediawiki) | Unit2 wiki(twiki) | Unit 3 wiki(dokuwiki)
Unit 1 blog | Unit2 mailing list | Unit 3 portal

To use a non-technical example ask someone who bought an SUV with 6 person+ seating why they need such a big SUV. You will get a variety of answers using a bizarre use case. The typical one involves camping once a year or some other rare use case. My favorite is when someone buys a Jeep Grand Cherokee because of snow. Why must people drive an SUV for the snow, when any car with all wheel drive will have the same snow performance? People are irrational and they will rationalize their decisions by pointing the most unlikely use case.

Getting back to technology, it makes a lot more sense to focus on the most likely use case. In the case of wikis, blogs, and file sharing applications it makes a lot more sense to grant access to as many people as possible. Technologies like wikis and blogs are meant to disseminate information to wide audience and allow people to publish and comment easily. In organizations that have strong divisions between small units, it makes absolutely no sense to restrict information at a unit level except in some extreme circumstances.

In those cases where information absolutely needs to be restricted, it makes a lot more sense to use existing technologies such as e-mail, rather than to discourage the sharing of information on a division level by having wikis for each particular organizational unit. It also make a lot more sense to standardize on one technology installed at a division level, instead of having each fiefdom use their own solution.

Now that I started going back to school this Semester, I get to experience the frustrations and headaches of student trying to navigate the bureaucracy of a large university. Administrators at Penn State wonder why the branch campuses aren’t doing so hot, while tuition has grown 50% in only a few years time. My biggest issue is the lack of night classes at all campuses, but particularly branch campuses.

The largest potential market for students in most of the branch campus regions are part time students who work full time. Now you would think that because of this potentially large and lucrative market, many classes would be offered at night to cater to the working student. Unfortunately, many of the classes I need to take are only offered during the day.

The easiest way to schedule is to use elion, a web based campus service interface . When I first came to the university in 1998, I was really impressed with elion. The UI is a little rough, but what you could do with it in 1998 was really ahead of its time. Penn State is consistently an innovator at developing and adopting pragmatic technologies to handle services for its large student population.


So I logged in to elion a few minutes ago, but now my session is expired. According to the elion site, I need to physically close my browser in order to login again. Now, I use quite a few websites that have strict security requirements, but why would I need to close my browser? I can only assume that this is a legacy requirement for an outdated browser. Clicking on the “Exit,” “elion Homepage,” “My elion homepage” links do absolutely nothing. I really did not want to close my browser because of other work I had in various tabs. I manually put in the homepage address for elion and was able to login again.

So I’m logged in now and I want to schedule a course for the spring semester. So obviously I would click the “Schedule a course” link. So I browse the 52, yes 52 links on the left hand frame, but there is no link to schedule a class. If you want to schedule a class in elion, click the “Drop/Add” button. I find myself having an Andy Rooney moment, where I need to click the DROP button to ADD a class.

not allowed to register

So I click the “Drop/Add” link, but I receive the following message:

“A University official has placed a hold on your registration. University policy requires that the office placing the hold notify you of this action. You should contact that office directly. If you need additional assistance, contact the Registrar’s office at your campus.”

Wow, isn’t that descriptive! Instead of giving me any information about why I cannot schedule, elion simply tells my to contact the registrar’s office at my campus, without giving me any additional information. Seeing how we do have an organizational directory, it wouldn’t take that much code to look up which campus I’m at and display some contact information.

So I hunt down the number for the Delaware Valley campus registrar’s office and get a hold of the office via phone. It turns out that University Health services has put a hold on my account do to a lack of an immunization history.

First off, the fact that the health services department can go placing holds on a student’s ability to register is simply insane. Secondly, I was a full time student four years ago, they should have detailed records on my immunization. Thirdly, I’m a full time employee at Penn State. I’m just as much of a health risk as an employee, so any employee can go around infecting the campus, but if they happen to enroll in a degree program they must have a full immunization record? How is that safe?

So I hunt down the number to call for immunization holds at the University health office and after 10 different attempts to speak to a human being I get the following message every time:

“Thanks for calling the immunization requirement office, our office is experiencing a high volume of calls. Business hours are Monday through Friday 9 to 5. If you received this message during business hours, we are assisting another person. Please call back at another time, sorry for the inconvenience.” Click!

Nothing makes me madder that a phone system that provides no method of holding or leaving a message. Is hanging up on people a proper way to treat a high volume of calls? On my 17th attempt to get through, I finally talk to someone at immunization. Apparently, because I moved to degree status, they need a full immunization record. Non-degree students, staff, and faculty have the green light to infect the student population.

LionShare 1.0 beta is finally out the door. If you have a PSU access account, simply download the PSU version and login. For those outside Penn State, test accounts are available for higher education faculty and staff.

We still have a lot of fine tuning to do so therefore LionShare is still in the beta stage. By 1.1 or 1.2, hopefully the application will be polished enough to justify the removal of the BETA label.

LionShare is back in the news. When the initial grant announcement went out nearly two years ago, the project received quite a bit of press. Most of the actual details were completely wrong because the press tends to get information from people who do not have a complete understanding of the project.

With the eminent release of LionShare 1.0, the AP and a few other major news providers are picking up stories about the project. Unfortunately, the same situation is occurring again. People quoted talking about the project have several misconceptions.

In the case of the AP article picked up by the Washington post, there is a blatant misconception. Fred von Lohmann of the EFF is quoted in the article. As someone who has contributed to the EFF and had the pleasure of seeing Fred speak, I have a lot respect for the organization and the person. Unfortunately, the quote in the article is way off.

But von Lohmann, who represents a file-sharing service in a copyright infringement suit, warns that LionShare’s access controls could possibly “create a neat, private sheltered place where people could shop music and movies to their heart’s content” without entertainment companies ever knowing.

When content is protected with authorization rules, it only limits who can download the protected content. By design, all files shared on the LionShare network are publicly searchable. So files with access controls or without are searchable by anybody.

When a search is executed, the searching peer receives digitally signed query hit information including a hash and detailed metadata. The actual authorization decision only occurs when a user attempts to download the file protected by access control rules.

While searching is open to anybody, users cannot share files without using institutional authentication. Files shared are digitally signed by the users using certificates obtained from a central authority. When results are listed after executing a search, the sharing user’s full name is placed in the results display.

In the hypothetical darknet scenario, anybody can find out who is sharing those files regardless of the authorization rules used. So lets say for instance a LionShare user happened to start sharing copyrighted content. To stop the user from sharing files on the network, a network administrator can simply disable the users account. Without being able to obtain certificates from our certificate authority, the offending user would not be able to share files on the LionShare network.

I realize LionShare is very complex project but it would be nice if the technology press would maybe talk to the people responsible or do a little research before posting information that is completely false.

The best teacher I had in college had the finest first day of class routine in education. He would introduce himself and his background, hold up the syllabus and say, “This is a syllabus, if you cannot comprehend it without having me spend an hour explaining it, you probably don’t belong in college.”

Tonight, I had a class where the professor spent an hour and 1/2 talking about the syllabus. If people cannot read and comprehend a syllabus without having a professor go over every little detail, they should not be in college. The professor’s excuse is that somehow, reading a syllabus is going to prevent people from complaining about their grade 2 weeks before the end of the class. In reality, those people are going to complain regardless.

Besides spending a week attending classes that go over the syllabus, my other task for the week is to pick up the corresponding book for each class. Can anyone rationally explain the cost of books in higher education? Why the hell are we still using books in 2005? The only explanation I have is that the textbook industry takes every opportunity to lock on to an obsolete business model. The textbook industry seems to have a lot in common with the record industry.

It seems that textbooks could be easily replaced with on line content for free or a small charge. 2 years ago I was amazed to see how a push from the higher echelon of administrators at Penn State could get a music system in place in a very short period of time. Penn State got a lot of press for something that has absolutely nothing to do with learning.

How amazing would it be if Penn State lead the initiative to make textbooks obsolete?