On Learning

Some years ago I was busy with projects that required a lot of travelling but I also needed to stay up-to-date with latest product features and technologies. When a new operating system was released a colleague asked how I could do that – without having time for attending trainings. Without giving that too much thought, and having my personal test lab in mind, I replied:

I think I always try to solve some problem!

tl;dr – you can skip the rest as this has summed it all up.

About one year ago I ‘promised’ to write about education, based on my experiences as a student and as a lecturer or trainer. I haven’t done so far – as I am not sure if my simplistic theory can be generalized.

There are two very different modes of learning that I enjoy and consider effective:

  1. Trying to solve some arbitrary problem that matters to me (or a client) and starting to explore the space of knowledge from that angle.
  2. Indulging in so-called theory seemingly total unrelated to any practical problem to be solved.

Mode 2 was what I tried to convey in my post about the positive effects of reading theoretical physics textbooks in the morning. The same goes for cryptography.

I neither need advanced theoretical physics when doing calculations for heat pump systems, nor do I need the underlying math and computer science when tweaking digital certificates. When I close the theory books, I am in mode 1.

In the last weeks that mode 1 made me follow a rather steep learning curve with respect to database servers and SQL scripts. I am sure I have made any possible stupid mistake when exploring all the options. I successfully killed performance by too much nested sub-queries and it took me some time to recognize that the referral to the row before is not as straight-forward as in a spreadsheet program. One could argue that a class on database programming might have been more effective here, and I cannot prove otherwise. But most important for me was: I finally achieved what I wanted and it was pure joy all the way. I am a happy dilettante perhaps.

I might read a theoretical book on data structures and algorithms someday and let it merge with my DIY tinkering experience in my subconsciousness – as this how I think those two modes work together.

As for class-room learning and training, or generally learning with or from others, I like those ways best that cater to my two modes:

I believe that highly theoretical subjects are suited best for traditional class-room settings. You cannot google the foundations of some discipline as such foundations are not a collection of facts (each of them to be googled) but a network of interweaving concepts – you have to work with some textbook or learn from somebody who lays out that network before you in a way that allows for grasping the structure – the big picture and the details. This type of initial training also prepares you for future theoretical self-study. I still praise lectures in theoretical physics and math I attended 25 years ago to the skies.

And then there is the lecturer speaking to mode 2: The seasoned expert who talks ‘noted from the field’. The most enjoyable lecture in my degree completed last year was a geothermal energy class – given by a university professor who was also the owner of an engineering consultancy doing such projects. He introduced the theory in passing but he talked about the pitfalls that you would not expect from learning about best practices and standards.

I look back on my formal education(s) with delight as most of the lectures, labs, or projects were appealing to either mode 1 or mode 2. In contrast to most colleagues I loved the math-y theory. In projects on the other hand I had ample freedom to play with stuff – devices, software, technology – and to hone practical skills, fortunately without much supervision. In retrospect, the universities’ most important role with respect to the latter was to provide the infrastructure. By infrastructure I mean expensive equipment – such as the pulsed UV lasers I once played with, or contacts to external ‘clients’ that you would not have had a chance to get in touch otherwise. Two years ago I did the simulations part of a students’ group project, which was ‘ordered’ by the operator of a wind farm. I brought the programming skills to the table – as this was not an IT degree program –  but I was able to apply them to a new context and learn about the details of wind power.

In IT security I have always enjoyed the informal exchange of stories from the trenches with other experienced professionals – this includes participation in related forums. Besides it fosters the community spirit, and there is no need to do content-less ‘networking’ of any other sort. I have just a few days of formal education in IT.

But I believe that your mileage may vary. I applied my preferences to my teaching, that is: explaining theory in – probably too much – depth and then jumping onto any odd question asked by somebody and trying something out immediately. I was literally oscillating between the flipchart and the computer with my virtual machines – I had been compared to a particle in quantum mechanics whose exact location is unknown because of that. I am hardly able to keep to my own agenda even if I had been given any freedom whatsoever to design a lecture or training and to write every slide from scratch. And I look back in horror on delivering trainings (as an employed consultant) based on standardized slides not to be changed. I think I was not the best teacher for students and clients who expected well organized trainings – but I know that experts enjoyed our jam sessions formerly called workshops.

When I embarked on another degree program myself three years ago, I stopped doing any formal teaching myself – before I had given a lecture on Public Key Infrastructure for some years, in a master’s degree program in IT security. Having completed my degree in renewable energy last year I figured that I was done now with any formal learning. So far, I feel that I don’t miss out on anything, and I stay away from related job offerings – even if ‘prestigious’.

In summary, I believe in a combination of pure, hard theory, not to be watered down, and not necessarily to be made more playful – combined with learning most intuitively and in an unguided fashion from other masters of the field and from your own experiments. This is playful no matter how often you bang your head against the wall when trying to solve a puzzle.

Physics book from 1895

A physics book written in 1895, a farewell present by former colleagues in IT – one the greatest gifts I ever got. My subconsciousness demands this is the best way to illustrate this post. I have written a German post on this book which will most likely never be translated as the essence of this post are quotes showing the peculiar use of the German language which strikes the modern reader quite odd.

Stargate: Succumb to the Power of the Ritual

Thanks for your prayers, voodoo magic, encouraging tweets or other tweaking the fabric of our multiverse:

Yesterday I have passed my final exams and defence – I did very well, and I am a Master of Science in Sustainable Energy Systems now. As the sensationalist title indicates I tried to play it cool but finally was nervous as you simply have to be nervous. Exams like this are setup as rituals and you should take the chance and feel the illusion of passing through a wormhole.

Edit: The title of my thesis was Security Architectures of Smart Metering Solutions. I add this based on a question in a comment as I had forgotten to mention it. So the following statement has been proven correct.

I am too exhausted to write anything coherent so I will provide you with some random factoids and opinions:

  • Rumors. People had speculated on G+ if my degree is in physics or ‘some sort of rocket science’. Unfortunately not – just down-to-earth engineering peppered with law and politics. I graduated in physics a long time ago.
  • Vanity. Many Austrian technical or science programmes continue to issue the traditional title of Diplomingenieur instead of Master of Science. I assume the rationale is to distinguish technical degrees from so-called post-graduate MSc degrees which don’t require you to hold a bachelor’s degree (similar to MBA degrees). DI has ever been a shortcut for ‘this person passed something hard and quantitative’. I am biased enough – I happily agree with this practice. So in all its glory my set of titles reads now:
    Dipl.-Ing. Dipl.-Ing. Dr.
  • (Did I tell you that this is going to be a rather self-serving post?)
  • Random Reference to this Blog’s Title: Preparing for exams and defense I got as close as possible to combining anything: I really enjoyed reading old physics text books and popular science books on foundations of physics in parallel to engineering text books and legal texts.
  • (Did I mention I hate anything close to ‘teach to the test’, standard questions, minimizing learning efforts, centralized quality management of education and the like?)
  • Fluffy Ideals. I strongly believe in the vision and the necessity of combining a well-rounded education with learning down-to-earth skills while keeping your curiosity and at the same time meeting formal requirements and having to prove yourself.
  • Self-Made. Contradicting myself – blame it on residual adrenalin! – I am also an advocate of learning-on-the-job, being not at all impressed by degrees and judging others based on demonstrated skills. After all, I have worked successfully in IT without having acquired any formal qualification. I don’t count vendor-specific multiple-choice based certifications – yet I still think that people who make fun about those exams should take the tests themselves in passing if they believe it’s so easy.
  • Education. Probably ‘education’ will become a future pet topic of mine on this blog – I have been a life-long learner, very often in a formal academic setting, and I have been some sort of (part-time, moonlighting) teacher since nearly 25 years: starting as a tutor as a physics master student, teaching all kinds of physics lectures and hands-on labs as a graduate student, then working as a trainer in IT for very diverse audiences – from unemployed people with no technical background to international IT experts in a very specific field –  until I gave an IT security lecture at a university until 2011. Despite my horror of participating in anything resembling an association or a committee I even served on boards concerned with curriculum design and strategy for two times. I should have to say something about education. But for now I have decided that I am more than happy to being neither a student nor a teacher in any organized settings – no classrooms, no agendas, no exams!
  • Freedom. I am grateful for the freedom I had in picking the subject of the master thesis: I wrote about smart metering and security (thus deliberately not picking anything directly related to the heat pump stuff I was working on). I think I have now – once for all – reconciled all my ambitions in IT, physics and engineering.
  • Subversion. Officially I am not allowed to use the new title until the graduation ceremony. So probably this post contains illegal content. But after picturing myself as such as conformist collector of degrees I need to throw in something subversive.
  • More Rituals and More Subversion. The graduation ceremony and related culture might deserve a post in its own right. You (American readers) might be surprised to hear that students here had not worn academic gowns until recently. We re-imported that tradition from the US as young people enjoy graduation ceremonies in US movies – as those students are unaware of the history of the European student riots in 1968 that have eradicated academic icons and symbols. In Germany there even weren’t any ceremonies at all. Currently I think I will not wear that fancy costume as I don’t open the door on Halloween either.
Pendulum 90 degree

A pendulum swinging 90 degrees to the left and right. Sorry, this is the most unconventional image related to ‘degree’ I can come up with now. My subconsciousness might have selected it as I will return to more no-nonsense physics and science posts.

Edit: Oh wow – this was the 100th post on this blog. I haven’t noticed that before! There is something like true coincidence!

Edit 2: I did not mention what my thesis was about – thanks Dave for asking. The title was: Security architectures of smart metering solutions.

Do I Have an Opinion on Education at Large and on MOOCs in Particular?

Something education-related seems to have hit the blogosphere – many blogs I follow cover online-courses, teaching and education yesterday.

My feelings are mixed. As usual, this is reflected by the comments I leave on other people’s blogs.

Important note: Though this was intended as a balanced review. But it ended up as one of my usual posts attributed to this genre I have no name for. I could invalidate most of my own arguments – however, I don’t want this post to become even lengthier.

WP Space Ship Control Panel

Alien alert. If you are not prepared for that, don’t continue reading.

I am a dinosaur. I finished my MSc in physics at a time when the concept  of a bachelor’s degree was unheard of in my country. I admit that I did not get even over the fact that reasonable technical degree programs have been cut into 3+2 years to comply with the so-called Bologna process.

I should have an opinion on education.

I have given lectures, labs and problem solving courses at the university in a former life – mainly on superconductivity and laser physics. I have designed vocational trainings for aspiring IT engineers as well as train-the-experts no-nonsense hardcore workshops on Public Key Infrastructure.

Most recently I had given an academic lecture on PKI for five years – including an “asynchronous online learning part”, and currently I am also a part-time student again myself in a (down-to-earth) renewable energies program.

In my online course – which was not massive – I have handed out virtual machine computer puzzles to students and required them to solve those within several months – supported by scheduled online discussions. Every year people badly need the looming deadline to get working two weeks before due date.

Corporate professionals who are students at the same time demand rules and deadlines to be imposed on them – in the same way as it happens in The Corporate Borg Sphere. I can relate – too much. As usual, I am also part of the target audience of this post.

Unless non-interactive lectures are MOOCs my own MOOC student experience is limited to a programming course – company internal, but rather massive though – I took before MOOC was an acronym. So I am not qualified to write this post; I just cannot resist.

Ironically the field of expertise I had been most “renowned” so far was one I had zero formal education in. I learned from the IT hacker community to judge people only on skills they demonstrate right in front of me. Hackers detest bragging with degrees or  – worse – certificates issued by market leading technology providers, based on multiple choice tests. One of the main decoders of Stuxnet, the worm that aimed at damaging the nuclear facilities in Iran, is a psychologist by education.

I dare say that real hackers are 100% self-educated – no matter if they put some formal education on top of that later. The latter is a hidden mega-trend in my opinion: More often than not I saw experienced professionals going for a degree – in a program they knew more about than the teachers – just because they wanted that piece of paper giving proof of what they already knew.

I see strange contradicting trends in education and I don’t think that Massive Open Online Courses are a disruptive new way of education per se.

They are a symptom of changes in educational systems or society at large – of which I am not sure if I like them all.

As I said I am still baffled by the Bologna standardization process and associated splitting up of study programs. It is like neat little boxes that can be attached to each other in a compatible way – called “modularization”.
The upside: Cross-country recognition has been facilitated finally and you are more flexible to craft your own degree program.
The downside(s): The bar has been lowered in order to provide more cross-discipline / cross-programme permeability. The latter is a noble goal of course, in order to solve the complicated interdisciplinary blah blah issues that an interconnected global blah blah society faces.

I have the perfect backup material for all readers who prefer to hear opinionated rants rather by somebody with substantial experience in education – unfortunately it is in German. Austrian philosophy professor Konrad Paul Liessmann has written a book called Theorie der Unbildung – Irrtümer der Wissensgesellschaft which roughly translates to Theory of Non-Education – Misapprehensions of the Knowledge Society. Actually Unbildung is illiterateness, but it is meant in a sarcastic sense – so I believe non-education is a better term.

Liessmann calls it a polemic himself. He rants in a most entertaining way – appealing to anybody who appreciates Dilbert cartoon humor – on:

  • Sociology dropouts turned management consultants who give seasoned university professors patronizing advice on didactic concepts.
  • Management consulting mantras flooding academia, backed by their infamous management and controlling software and the involved gamification … sorry… enforcement of metrics, benchmarks and other silly rules.
  • The mantra of playful learning based on interactive media. Unfortunately you won’t be able to get rid of the need of the efforts of thinking hard. I am at a loss for translating his brilliant and subtle sarcasm in the way he oppose the naive mantra of anything being fun and play opposed to plain hard work.
  • Standardized, quality controlled exams that fosters Teach to the Test mentality. In my most recent encounters as a student and a teacher I have been stunned by new levels of optimization of the credentials collecting process – illustrated by collective group work on the pre-defined catalogue of potential examination questions, or asking The Most Important Question in the first lecture which is How many XY do I need to submit (present, solve…) in order to [paraphrasing] barely scrape by with PASSED [/paraphrasing].

This is my summary of the most conflicting trends I conclude from my anecdotal experiences:

1) Free information for a networked society:

Endless valuable information is available for eager learners – if you know how to google and how to tell pseudo-science and marketing from the real stuff: Scientific publications, lecture notes and text books. I am not sure if we need all that re-packaged and sold as “courses”.

An economist might reply: If there is a market(*) for that – why not? And don’t that material exist only because of the universities’ outreach progams – initiated by management consultants who were criticized by professors?

Do we need coaches who help us to navigate through the vast universe of knowledge? (Not a rhetorical question).

2) Gamification and edu-/info-tainment garnished with corporate-style deadlines for a society built on the mantra of the ever reducing attention span:
We as a learning society seem to need: infographics, videos, blended learning, Facebook-like discussion groups. As odd as it seems we – the free people of earth – rely on triggers, pop-up messages and arcane rules designed by others more than ever. And in contrast to cyberpunk stories – we are aware of it and we like. (“We” does not exclude “me”.)

I am intrigued by this ambiguity – as I feel free information on the net and corporate strangeness / gamification have common roots. These roots seem to be tied to technology.

Falla Tetris

Computer games go real live.

Nicholas Carr who analyzed our relationship with reading in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains: We have gained the ability to skim, scroll and evaluate content fast, but we lose the ability to read linear, long-winded text. Research has shown that students allowed to click on videos and other material related to a specific article remembered less than students who had to focus on the text only.

As I said, I am subject to those as well. I have turned from a voraciously reading teenager – capable of immersing in long-winded wooden existential philosophical prose – to a constantly distracted channel hopper.

I have been conditioned by multi-tasking to the extreme, always in firefighting mode, with several pop-up windows of the corporate equivalent of social media fighting for a small time-slots of undivided attention. I have learned to learn on-the-fly and on-the-job for years until I decided I wanted to reconnect with the old silent learning experience.

Thus I started re-reading and re-learning physics nearly 10 years ago – for the pure enjoyment of escaping multi-tasking hell. It was fun but it was hard at the same time. It took me to overcome an activation barrier to get “into” the linear, gradual absorption of knowledge again.

I am a strong advocate of learning alone – the very old-school concept of the problem-solving strategy attributed to Richard Feynman (by Murray Gell-Mann): Write down the problem – think hard – write down the solution. I would like to add: Bang your lonely head against the wall in despair until your brain grows some new synaptic connections. I could never get the concept of “learning in a group”. Probably I have now finally revealed that I am a sociophobe introvert, but anyway: This should make me a MOOC advocate, shouldn’t it?

I have watched a lot of physics lectures online, I enjoyed in particular David Tong’s QFT lectures – awesome blackboard & chalk style, no Powerpoint. But I enjoyed it because there were lecture notes as well. After watching some videos I started reading the notes in advance. I had always felt the most awesome physics video lectures were those that gave me a fresh perspective on something I had learned the old school way before – by solving lots of mind-numbing problems.

If this (non-interactive) lecture counts as a MOOC – I am a big fan. However, I am a dinosaur travelled to the future – I am not the one to judge on how well a MOOC-only learning environment would act on a digital native’s brain.

On writing this post I was struggling with my desire to let all those weird thoughts running wild – associations between cyber economy and cyber learning, probably triggered by postmoderndonkey’s recent book recommendation that made me click Shop in Kindle Store immediately. I failed to establish any balanced angle.

In summary I feel uncomfortable about turning the process of learning into something that is built on instant gratification, game-style motivation resembling the tools we are tortured with the corporate world, social-media-style interactions, packaging and standardization of microscopic units of knowledge, and gradually replacing linear text by visual aids.

But there is more substantial criticism I can also relate with:

(*) The market might be dysfunctional. For well-paid professionals the pay for teaching courses in a moonlighting fashion payment does not matter – you would do it for free because pay is low anyway compared to your usual rates (I speak from experience, and this holds for online and traditional courses). So you might lose money already by having to postpone more lucrative assignments because of teaching –  you do it due to idealism and/or ego.

Quote from this post: In other words, while a few already well-paid superprofessors get their egos stroked conducting experiments that are doomed to fail, “second- and third-tier universities and colleges, and community colleges” risk closing because Coursera and its ilk have sent higher education price expectations through the floor and systematically devalued everybody else’s work.

Philosophy Degrees are Undervalued

This is a vain and self-servicing reblog. I really like the figures in this post (as a physicist).

Edit (2017): It seems that unfortunately the original, reblogged post is not available any more. It featured a diagram that visualized the results of GRE tests: Verbal and quantitative skills of graduates – as discussed also e.g. here (also showing the diagrams, for 2010) and here (diagrams lost, but links to original PDFs with data) and reviewed critically here.  The diagrams looked very flattering for philosophy and physics majors 😉 Dan had written a thoughtful analysis which – if I recall correctly – also included arguments used in the critical review, like the self-selecting nature of degrees versus the alleged training you receive.

As physics undergraduates we used to joke (black humor) about why in hell we are studying physics when the corporate world (the world as such?) is ruled by people in the lower left quadrant of the skill matrix. OK, we used stronger language than ‘people in the lower left quadrant’.
Now and then I stumble upon anecdotal, yet powerful, evidence that this is true. Sorry Dan for using your thoughtful post for a rant of a reblog, I might add a more balanced update someday though all the business administration degree holders who will unfollow now are not going to read it.