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Sunday, January 31, 2016

#SundayReads 31-Jan-2016

Charlie Writes:

During our sabbatical time, reading has become a priority. Noticing Kajsa Hallberg-Adu's weekly reading list inspired me to report in on mine as well. Not sure I'll be able to keep up the tempo, but it will keep me accountable....

Readings this week:

Children of the Earth: My Memories of EARTH University's History, Jose A. Zaglul, EARTH University, 2010. 221 pages.

This paperback, available in English translation as well as the original Spanish version, is sold at the Gift Shop on the EARTH University Campus in Guacimo, Costa Rica. Dr. Zaglul is the founding president of EARTH University, another institution benefitting from the Master Card Foundation scholarships program. Mary Kay and I had visited their Guacimo campus in Costa Rica for two days last week, and were eager to read the founder's take on the challenges of creating a university on a former banana and livestock plantation in the humid tropics of Limon province. The campus has about the same land area as Stanford University and teaches tropical agriculture.

I was very interested to read about the origins of their yearly international festival, organized by the students themselves, which has as one object the funding of travel for family members of graduates who would not be able to attend commencement otherwise. Also fascinating was the similarity of emphasis on entrepreneurship and ethics, with the additional "justice" component in their educational model. I think there should be ongoing collaboration between the schools, and hope that I can contribute to making that happen. While there, we had dinner with five students from Ghana, who explained how they had endured a "crash" course in Spanish while living with local farming families for the trimester before starting classes. We were humbled to even imagine attempting college in a foreign language, but they seemed to be thriving.

Liz Coleman speaks on Liberal Arts Education

The problem is there is no such thing as a viable democracy made up of experts, zealots, politicians and spectators.

Vulnerability in Teaching

Vulnerability as a teaching strategy. Some motivation for me to share my struggles in CS111 this past term on our blog.

Against The Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, Peter L. Bernstein, John Wiley & Sons, 1996. 0-741-12104-5

A romp through the history of probability and statistics, concentrating the later chapters on the famous economists and behavioral scientists who presaged Freakonomics. The final few chapters' discussed the "porfolio insurance" meltdown of the 1990s and what it implied about the hubris of quants. These guys developed illiquid derivatives that proported to re-allocate risk, making the market safer. At the time, the author seemed convinced that the regulation of this activity was un-necessary, as the big banks just were too big to fail. Written a dozen years before the sub-prime mortgage collapse, it was odd to contrast with the events recorded in the book and movie The Big Short.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Charlie writes:
Practical Ethics at Ashesi University: Discipline inspired by faith

Clipart from Troy State University's website: "Plagiarism: It's Not a Laughing Mattter"

Teaching at Ashesi University College is an honor, but the ethical component of the work became more intense this last term.

I was teaching Ashesi first-year students studying business administration or management information systems an introduction to computing and programming course. That course's broad syllabus includes topics like how to generate a strong password, what is the internet, scientific prefixes used in computing, building and using basic databases, navigating email and the moodle-based software used for classes at Ashesi, and constructing a personal Linked-In page. We also introduced computer programming, using javascript, the "language of the web."

After designing an interactive web page with javascript, we went on to develop an electronic "battleship" game. In class, we showed how a series of buttons on the page could be linked to functions to play this game. The second programming assignment had the students generalize the individual button functions into a single handler with a parameter in order to make the code easier to read or extend. We also wanted the students to realize that editing existing code is often part of programming work.

The students pushed back that they were having problems with this assignment, so we presented other examples of functions with arguments and extended the deadline.

While grading the submissions we realized that many of them were either identical or very similar to others. On my invitation, Ashesi's Dean of Students presented the school's position about copying work on individual assignments the following week. I set about warning the 15 students who had submitted solutions identical to one or two others.

Ashesi uses an "Informal Resolution" process, where instructors can administer various sanctions in cases where a student has not kept with the standards we expect. The instructor can select from a range of sanctions less severe than failing the class, and the student my accept that sanction or appeal to the Ashesi Judicial Council (AJC) if they feel unfairly punished. The lecturer must report the evidence and the sanction to the Dean of Students, to prevent any student from avoiding AJC after multiple "Informal Resolutions" in different classes.

I initially proposed a sanction of a zero on the assignment plus a warning, but after having administered this to the 15 students, our Dean felt the school's administration wouldn't find that sanction rigorous enough.

My missionary colleague spent some time the next week coaching me through what message I needed to send, and what sanctions I felt sent that message. I ended up with a two-tier scheme. After further examination, I found there were 20 additional students who had submitted nearly identical solutions, changed just enough to avoid detection by submitting identical files. These seemed a more serious issue, deserving of a more severe sanction.

Side-by-Side comparison of two submissions, red text identical, green text changed slightly to hide the plagiarism.

I constructed a somewhat more complicated game as a makeup assignment, which we expected each of the 35 students to complete without copying each other's work. This makeup was worth no points, but was required in order to pass the course. Both groups were given a zero on the original assignment. The group with similar submissions were also docked a half grade on their final course grade.

The logistics of meeting with the original fifteen students a second time, the 20 new students, executing the agreements, presenting evidence in one case of a student who had a prior "Informal" and whose case was promoted to the AJC directly, and the emotions raised over the whole scandal were probably the most difficult few weeks I have experienced here at Ashesi. Yet, after a few weeks of time away and reflection over how I enforced expectations, I feel the effort was consistent with Ashesi's mission to train a new generation of ethical entrepreneurs who will transform Africa.