Summer Students and RIM

In my everlasting journey through Founders at Work, I came across this quote about RIM:

One of the things I realized was that to get strong co-op students, you had to start early because, by the second year, you’ve lost them already to some other company. So we started hiring first- and second-year students, knowing that they were not really going to be full-time employees for 3 to 4 years after that. It was a 3- to 4-year investment we started making with students early on because I knew their value. We treated them like full-time employees. We’re the largest co-op employer in Canada.

Building teams this way is an very long term strategy. What does the company’s recent troubles mean for these students?

Incidentally this is exactly our strategy for hiring green shoots. Few years till you graduate? Awesome. We aren’t always in the market for full time employees so we don’t want to set these kids’ expectations. More importantly, we need to hire strong when we do dip into the market.

Job interviews are incredibly ineffective; you don’t know what someone’s made of until you’ve put them through their paces. And if you caught someone early that you like they might still be available (or perhaps easily poachable) when you come calling.

Unfortunately this year we literally ran out of space in our office so had to suspend the program. It will begin again.

Kids These Days: Rap Music, Marijuana Cigarettes and High IQs

The Flynn Effect is the observation that IQ scores are increasing over time. They’re still trying to figure it out.

Flynn himself hypothesizes (plausibly) that everyday activities require more abstraction today than in earlier eras.  Demand for intelligence creates its own supply. Farmers and line workers needed to read, add and subtract, but today’s kids all figure out Facebook and Twitter.

A recent paper (pdf) provides a measurement of ability with analogies independent of IQ (with something called Ravens Matrices). And it fits.

Here is the abstract:

Secular gains in intelligence test scores have perplexed researchers since they were documented by Flynn (1984, 1987). Gains are most pronounced on abstract, so-called culture-free tests, prompting Flynn (2007) to attribute them to problem solving skills availed by scientifically advanced cultures. We propose that recent-born individuals have adopted an approach to analogy that enables them to infer higher-level relations requiring roles that are not intrinsic to the objects that constitute initial representations of items. This proposal is translated into item-specific predictions about differences between cohorts in pass rates and item-response patterns on the Raven’s Matrices, a seemingly culture-free test that registers the largest Flynn effect. Consistent with predictions, archival data reveal that individuals born around 1940 are less able to map objects at higher levels of relational abstraction than individuals born around 1990. Polytomous Rasch models verify predicted violations of measurement invariance as raw scores are found to underestimate the number of analogical rules inferred by members of the earlier cohort relative to members of the later cohort who achieve the same overall score. The work provides a plausible cognitive account of the Flynn effect, furthers understanding of the cognition of matrix reasoning, and underscores the need to consider how test-takers select item responses.

Philosophy of a MOOC

Excellent piece on MRU (endorsed by the profs, no less)

The pedagogical principles in MRU’s course look to be grounded in the learning theory ofconnectivism developed by Downes and Siemens. Connectivistm is based on the concept that knowledge is not acquired but constructed and adjusted by the learner through connections that occur when the learner interacts with nodes in a network. Nodes can be a video, online discussions, Webinars, or conversations on Twitter, Facebook or through blogs. MRU emphasizes connected and dynamic learning, and their motto embodies it –learn, teach and share which also mirrors principles of the connectivist model.

And this:

In other words, the professors of MRU are taking themselves out of the equation. They infer that the course content is the catalyst for further exploration

There’s always this tension between learning in a group and “feeling stupid” in a group. This is one reason why I like online courses. You get the interaction in a semi-anonymous environment. Your ego is safe.

From Delusion Comes Grandeur

When I was in University we played this team building game where we were given a block building puzzle of some sort to solve. We were timed.

After putting everything together the best time in the room was announced, let’s say it was 2 minutes. Wow, good time, we all thought. Then the instructor told everyone that a rival school’s best team did it in 10 seconds. Huh?!

Immediately our expectations of excellence were reset. Let’s figure this out and try again. After the next round, our times were read out: 4 seconds, 6 seconds, 8 seconds, 8 seconds, etc.

Was the story about the other school true? Meh, maybe. Didn’t matter. All we needed was a different definition of success.

Now read this story from the video game world:

The race to build the next great RTS was on, and consequently Blizzard was about to be publicly embarrassed by its choice to show so early in the development lifecycle. Just a short walk away from the Blizzard booth was that of another game which appeared to be better than StarCraft in every respect: Dominion: Storm over Gift 3, from Ion Storm.

It’s 1996 and you want to buy an RTS game. Would you pay money for this?

Dominion Storm game screenshot

Dominion Storm

Or this?

StarCraft "Orcs in space" screenshot prior to the project reboot

While we didn’t have the opportunity to play Dominion Storm because it was a hands-off affair, it didn’t seem necessary. The Ion Storm staff members who demonstrated the game had a remarkable event that showed great-looking game units, including a signature unit that moved like the AT-AT walkers first seen in “The Empire Strikes Back” during the Battle of Hoth. With other impressive units of all sizes and forms, electric fences that could be chained together to create impenetrable barriers, and isometric-perspective artwork that showed the game units from a more compelling angle than did our nearly top-down perspective, Ion Storm’s game was kicking our ass in every regard.

It was a glum crew that made the drive back to Orange County to lick our wounds and plan for the future. The fundamental problem was that StarCraft wasn’t envisioned as a triple-A game; it was intended to fill a hole in Blizzard’s development schedule so that the company would ship a game in 1996 and thereby continue to generate revenues.

…At some point I talked with Mark and Patrick about how Dominion Storm knocked us on our heels, and they let us in on Ion Storm’s dirty little secret: the entire demo was a pre-rendered movie, and the people who showed the “demo” were just pretending to play the game! It would be an understatement to say that we were gobsmacked; we had been duped into a rebooting StarCraft, which ultimately led it to be considered “the defining game of its genre. It is the standard by which all real-time strategy games are judged” (GameSpot).

Teach Children Grit and Set Their Ideas Free

Here is Econtalk:

Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about why children succeed and fail in school and beyond school. He argues that conscientiousness–a mixture of self-control and determination–can be a more important measure of academic and professional success than cognitive ability. He also discusses innovative techniques that schools, individuals, and non-profits are using to inspire young people in distressed neighborhoods. The conversation closes with the implications for public policy in fighting poverty.

And here is a new thinker in my intellectual universe: Bret Victor. I’m somewhat amazed by this guy. He’s one of those people that can make profound things not sound pompous or douchey. Here is a talk by him and here is an interesting piece on learning programming.

His core principle: “creators need an immediate connection to what they’re creating”. Watch the video for some illustrations on what this means to him and ways he’s using this idea to guide his professional life.

A deeper meta-principle, which Bret also touches on, is that you (yes, you) should have a core philosophy/principle that guides your actions. It’s a refreshing way of looking at life.

But, to circle back on the podcast on grit, a guiding principle is great but you still will never achieve anything without a driving force. Inspiration and perspiration.

Who *Gives* High Grades

Nice people.

When I give A’s, students are happier and complain less, I get to feel like a nice person, and I give my own students (whom I generally have somewhat warm feelings toward) a benefit in their future lives….

I remember looking at grading records for undergraduate classes back when I taught at Berkeley in the early 1990s. There was lots of variation in average grades by instructor, even for different sections of the same class. I didn’t do a formal study, but I remember when flipping through the sheets that average grade seemed to be correlated with niceness. The profs who were generally pleasant people tended to give lots of A’s, while the jerks were giving lower grades.

More here with an interesting discussion about grade inflation. Via MR.

Brain Drain Ain’t So Bad

Here’s a survey paper:

This paper reviews four decades of economics research on the brain drain, with a focus on recent contributions and on development issues. We first assess the magnitude, intensity and determinants of the brain drain, showing that brain drain (or high-skill) migration is becoming the dominant pattern of international migration and a major aspect of globalization. We then use a stylized growth model to analyze the various channels through which a brain drain affects the sending countries and review the evidence on these channels. The recent empirical literature shows that high-skill emigration need not deplete a country’s human capital stock and can generate positive network externalities. Three case studies are also considered: the African medical brain drain, the recent exodus of European scientists to the United States, and the role of the Indian diaspora in the development of India’s IT sector. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of the analysis for education, immigration, and international taxation policies in a global context.

I’m a brain drainer myself, moving to the US from Canada for a high-skilled job. I did it because I felt that the opportunities for professional growth were better here and I haven’t been disappointed.

On the other hand, I totally understand why people return to their homelands (bringing those skills back), someday I probably will, too. The abstract of the paper doesn’t mention this factor but I’m sure it plays a big role.

Dragon Moms Weep With Envy

A self-motivating child? Jackpot.

According to his mother, he says, he “didn’t have any interest in it at all” in the piano aged five and only resumed playing a year later after he discovered that his friends were taking lessons.

“I had no great desire to practice, but then some friends at school started playing and I was spurred on to work by the thought of them catching me up. It was a competition,” he remembers.

Grosvenor likes to relay memories of his formative years in competitive terms: He admits that he didn’t care much for the music as a child, but rather saw playing the piano as a “challenge” that needed “overcoming.”

It’s the wish of every achieving parent to have a kid that is desperate to be awesome. Doesn’t always work out.

I’m starting to believe that competitive pride is the most valuable resource in the universe. How much progress would we have if we didn’t care about besting our neighbors?

The Keys To Being Awesome

Step 2, which everyone goes on and on about (particularly when talking about Steve Jobs) is to never settle for anything less than awesome. If it isn’t great, personally insult the person that suggested it and send it back.

Step 1, though, is that you need to KNOW WHAT AWESOME IS:

Please, please, please spend time hanging out in the latest and greatest apps, regardless of their personal relevance or interest to you. If you do, your expectations of a “good experience” will be raised. Archaic team communication tools are often a good indication of what the decision makers believe qualifies as “good.” (Hint: it’s often a very low bar relative to what’s possible!)

Desire and drive are certainly precursors to success. But there’s a reason why awesome farms pop up only rarely. Awesomeness isn’t easy and unfortunately few people are exposed to greatness in a manner than teaches them to be great.

To the extent possible, expose yourself to awesome stuff. Otherwise, how do you know what awesome is?

More On The Future Of Education

Great new article on the possible pending disruption of higher education. Here are some quotes.

First what some ideas are:

That preppy-looking guy near the barbecue? He’s launching a company called Degreed, which aims to upend the traditional monopoly that colleges and universities hold over the minting of professional credentials; he wants to use publicly available data like academic rank and grade inflation to standardize the comparative value of different college degrees, then allow people to add information about what they’ve learned outside of college to their baseline degree “score.” It’s the kind of idea that could end up fizzling out before anyone’s really heard of it, or could, just maybe, have huge consequences for the market in credentials. And that woman standing by the tree? She’s the recent graduate of Columbia University who works for a company called Kno, which is aiming to upset the $8 billion textbook industry with cheaper, better, electronic textbooks delivered through tablet computers. And then there’s the guy standing to her right wearing a black fleece zip-up jacket: five days ago, he announced the creation of the Minerva Project, the “first new elite American university in over a century.”

And on what scale is possible:

To drive home the point of just how cheap it is to be Quizlet, one of its executives asks me how much money the United States spends per year to educate a single student in K-12 education. About $15,000, I say. That’s more than what it costs us per month to host the entire site, serving millions, the executive responds. Quizlet has no sales force, a very small marketing department, and more than seven million monthly unique visitors. (There are about fifty million public school students in the United States.) Quizlet, in its busiest months, during the school year, is among the top 500 most visited sites on the entire Internet. Now they’ve expanded beyond flash cards. You can create study groups, convert your content into multiplayer games, and search for cards and games that other people have created. We think we can get to 40 million users, then 100 million, says the executive. The question that drives the company, he says, is this: How can we create amazing learning tools for one billion people? This is the way most of the people in the valley talk.

And finally:

I can go online right now and get everything I need to learn—courses, textbooks, videos, other students to study with—for free. And if I need to know what someone else has learned, I can look at their Linked-In profile or their blog to find out.

At a certain point, probably before this decade is out, that parallel universe will reach a point of sophistication and credibility where the degrees—or whatever new word is invented to mean “evidence of your skills and knowledge”—it grants are taken seriously by employers. The online learning environments will be good enough, and access to broadband Internet wide enough, that you won’t need to be a math prodigy like Eren Bali to learn, get a credential, and attract the attention of global employers.

Here’s Yglesias:

The way it works is that you charge the same price for all the courses. When I tookPatrice Higonnet‘s five-person seminar on Vichy France, I didn’t need to pay a premium tuition over what I paid to take his 150-person lecture survey course on the French Revolution. Part of the way the college works is that the large courses generate profits that subsidize other activities, including the small seminars. The seminars themselves happen in part because some of the faculty wants to do them, and in part as an investment in the value of the brand. But while it would be very difficult to replicate the value of the small Vichy seminar, it’s pretty easy to imagine a French Revolution MOOC that’s both higher quality than your average French Revolution lecture-format survey course and radically cheaper