30 August 2013

On fakes and scams

A few weeks ago, our slightly-more-elderly-than-me neighbour knocked on the door in near-panic. She had a phone call from someone claiming to be on a Windows helpdesk who had detected problems on her machine, and who was rather aggressively demanding her credit card details to sort it out... I took the call, and managed to sound as if I knew what I was talking about, and called the guy's bluster, which became obvious enough for her to recognise, and she put the phone down on him. But the incident has dented her confidence in online activity.

I checked out the scam on the brilliant snopes.com site, and it was there in all its sleazy glory.

And a couple of days ago, an unusually convincing note from my bank appeared in my gmail account. It was literate, for one thing. Rolling over the reply-to etc. addresses revealed straightforward plausible results. Except that I don't do on-line banking. I walk into town and get a little exercise instead. And Mr Google had already sent it to my spam folder: I don't trust him as much as I used to, but he's quite good at this. 

Of course, in these cases there is more or less a gold standard of what is genuine and what is fake, even if it is getting ever more difficult to find out what it is.

In the world of arts, literature and academe, it is getting more difficult. The wonderful Alan Sokal case exposed some fatuous post-modern rubbish over-reaching itself, but I have to concede that po-mo critique is occasionally interesting although the effort is disproportionate to the yield.

In the po-mo world, nothing is what it proclaims itself to be. The reader confers the meaning, and the reader must read through the lens of her cultural and "identity" context. (I know--it's no big deal. Arnold Kettle made 99% of the point in the 1950s, as I recall, when he complained as a marxist that Jane Austen could not count as literature because she did not tell stories about the working classes.)

And so to the point. At last!

Some of my most serendipitous book discoveries come for free--namely the obligation to pick up a "free" book to complete the 3 for 2 offer in a chain bookshop. I'm not risking anything, after all, except a little time to discover whether it is worth the investment of time to read it. After all, that is the true cost (and benefit) of a book*.

So it was that I picked up Robert MacFarlane's The Old Ways, intrigued by the idea of digging into the history of trails and roads. The paperback has just entered the Sunday Times bestseller lists. I was disappointed; as I commented on Amazon:
One quoted review ... includes, "Read this and it will be impossible to take an unremarkable walk again". I am a sucker for books which aspire to change one's perspective on something. Macfarlane does so aspire, and he is erudite and generally engaging and refreshing. To begin with I found the book easy and relaxing to read, ... But about half-way through, I realised why. It made no demands whatever. There is no argument to follow, there is no narrative to remember, ... It washes over one, a warm bath of smug celebration of superior sensitivity.
 (I did confess this dyspeptic review was a deliberate counterbalance to all the gushing rubbish in the others.  And maps would have helped, but I can imagine the arguments--leaving aside the financial consideration--between author and editor about how a graphic representation would undermine the meditative narrative or some such rubbish.)

But that prompted me actually to try the most notoriously enigmatic of these "travel writers"--I use quotation marks because they set out not to introduce the reader to new territory, but to expose the hidden stories/themes/issues in the supposedly familiar. It's a high-risk strategy; Bill Bryson (who has the advantage of not being British) and Joe Moran bring it off brilliantly, but not consistently. And I'll keep quiet about the disasters--save to note that they seem usually to have gained credibility with publishers through some other field/medium, and the "concept" must have seemed great at the time... Doesn't matter--the books sold on the name alone...

Sorry! Meanwhile, back at the ranch... This author was far from a celebrity spinoff--a German academic, who taught at the University of East Anglia, and wrote originally in German--W G Sebald. I sampled The Rings of Saturn (1995).

Is it a travel book (that is where I found it in Heffers**)? It reads very much like Macfarlane, apart from having inordinately long paragraphs, and interpolating occasional photos--which being inserted inline with the text are monochrome and lacking in contrast (which may well be intentional, of course). He takes a walking tour in East Anglia, stops at various locations and towns, and tells the back story of some of them, or other stories suggested by them. OK. So what? That's what travel writers do when they get beyond the guide-book.

Or is it fiction? That's the bait and switch. That is what pulls the rug from under one's feet. In a true po-mo fashion, there is no way of telling whether Susan Sontag has it right (OK, I know...):
[His books] combine memoir, fiction, travelogue, history, and biography in the crucible of his haunting prose style to create a strange new literary compound. Susan Sontag, in a 2000 essay in the Times Literary Supplement, asked whether “literary greatness [was] still possible.” She concluded that “one of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.” [Source]
...or this Amazon reviewer:
 WG Sebald's Rings of Saturn has a distinct whiff of the Emperor[']s New Clothes.[...] This curious (curiously boring) travelogue, part Cobett's Cottage Economy, part Bill Bryson's Small Island (stripped of the humour) and part appalling self-indulgence just doesn't convince.
It is at least fairly readable, in the sense that it does eschew active bullshit. But would he have won a Nobel had he lived? Was he really in the same league as Joyce?

(I write, incidentally on the death-day of Seamus Heaney, who was a Nobel Laureate in 1995, and generally acknowledged as the greatest Irish poet since Yeats.)

This post is not about Sebald. It's about judgement. It's about recognising fakes and scams and bullshit in the absence of clear criteria and efforts to subvert those criteria.

And without those clear and articulated criteria, you are exposing yourself when you make a judgement. ... Hence the judgement of the crowd on the Emperor's clothes.

* I went looking for Asa Briggs' book about Bletchley Park, and found it (new hardback) for 1p (+ 2.80 GBP postage) from a reseller while still on sale for £14 or so from the main site. I can't fathom the business model behind this, even if it had been remaindered. Sadly it was a disappointment and the post I hoped to base on it is currently abandoned.

** This poses an interesting point. Most movie or TV adaptations of classic literature attract passionate criticism; literature is largely about stimulating personal images of characters, allowing for individual interpretation. But even a theatrical representation necessitates the "collapse" of a field of possible representations into one definitive version.  Amazon--and other online retailers, of course--can "tag" books in many ways, all of which will find it in the warehouse. A physical bookshop will, on the whole, shelve it as either fiction or non-fiction/travel.

26 August 2013

Items to Share: 25 August

Education Focus
  • Towards a manifesto for higher education | Joanna Williams | spiked "The current pressures on universities are symptomatic of a society that has lost faith both in the importance of knowledge and in the next generation. We need to reclaim the importance of knowledge as a project for understanding, interpreting and changing the world; and we need to have confidence in today’s students to be up to the demands of this task. There has never been a ‘golden age’ of higher education: it is still to come."
  • Silence as a pedagogical tool | Opinion | Times Higher Education  Silence in classrooms offers the potential for more democratic forms of interaction. To use it, students must accept the need to remain silent for their own sake or for the sake of others. Over time, this can lead to a sense of teaching-based group intimacy that, ultimately, can enhance the discovery of knowledge.
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19 August 2013

Items to Share: 18 August

Education Focus
  • Who’s afraid of lesson observations? | Pragmatic Education Depressing collection of teacher reactions to being observed, by superiors as well as Ofsted. Obviously a biased sample--people don't volunteer such comments online unless something has really got to them--but nevertheless evidence of bullying incompetence on the part of observers, and how to use the activity to drive down standards as well as morale. And of course a total misunderstanding of what good teaching consists of...
  • How to discover a new species of carnivorous mammal | Webs of Substance  Reflections on the news story about the discovery of the Olinguito, and what it says about learning science (and in general) "I have no idea how systematic Mr Helgen’s discovery was; did he rigorously examine every old draw[er] in the museum or did he happen to serendipitously open one of them and get a funny feeling? We may find out in the coming days. However, this is largely irrelevant. Good organisation may or may not have helped. Extensive expert knowledge was essential." 

Other Business
  • Why academics can’t write  "Social scientists commonly justify their use of big words by saying that ordinary language is hopelessly vague and that social scientific terminology, although it might be awkward, is at least precise. However, the opposite is true: ordinary words usually convey much more information than the big words of the social scientists, especially when used to describe ordinary actions." Provocative piece by Michael Billig.

17 August 2013

On too much practice...

The state, even now, of one of the code-breaking huts;
see also here and here.

A few days ago, an old friend and I spent an engrossing few hours at Bletchley Park, the home of the WW2 codebreakers. It must be ten years since I last visited. Then it was decaying and dilapidated, struggling to open just at weekends (as I recall), limping along with the support of an increasingly ageing band of volunteers. Now it has Lottery funding (although clearly not enough), is the fastest growing visitor attraction in the country (we are told), but still has a feel of the great secret of the war. Indeed, it was its secrecy for thirty years which allowed it to descend into its former state.

Entry is £15, but that is a year's pass for unlimited visits, and given the promise that the bulk of the restoration will be accomplished by mid-2014, it's a good deal. You do need to return again and again. And that's not counting the National Museum of Computing, home of the "Colossus"--arguably (of course) the first semi-programmable computer in the world, designed and constructed by Post Office engineers, in utmost secrecy of course, so ENIAC and MULTIVAC stole its thunder across the pond...

And being able to look into Alan Turing's office is strange, just like Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island. It's too much to call such places "sacred", but there is a distinct quality to them. The easy word is "iconic", but that is seriously devalued.

However! There are now 54 guides taking tours round the site. We tagged along with an engaging and enthusiastic and experienced and knowledgeable guy--no longer of course are the guides veterans of the site, but he had a lot of background including some kind of service in intelligence.

And he had a fund of stories and anecdotes. He'd told them many times, and there were so many more competing for him to tell them, they tumbled over themselves...

He continually referred to his experience as a guide; he didn't beat us with it, but noted, "We're supposed to spend no more than twelve minutes in here, but I can stretch it to seventeen without delaying my friend behind..." "One old lady in a wheelchair, came with her children and grandchildren, she was 91. The guide  could see from the way she looked around she had been here before, so he asked her. She said 'I was in J25'... She had worked on the Japanese ciphers, and 60 years on, her family had no idea she had ever learnt Japanese..."*

Of course, being me, with my teaching observation hat never far from my head, I was critical. As we moved from the first location, I commented to G., "He's done this too many times before!" I meant that polished parts were overwhelming the whole; the overall task of orienting us to the site and what happened here lost out to a succession of anecdotes and jokes; "Three Americans here? OK, I'll not use those jokes!" After a brief show-of-hands survey of the group--good practice, of course. And a rather tedious running joke about saying "interrogate" whenever he meant "interview", and then picking himself up on it.

But I don't want simply to carp. As usual, I began to see that he was confronted with several decisions about how to proceed.

One of his first questions of the group was, "Any Europeans here? Other than British, of course?" He quickly found out that there were a few Germans, and he was respectful throughout (he probably would have been so regardless of the composition of the group). But the nationality questions became perfunctory after that.

What was going on? Clearly, despite his jovial manner, it was not all about the jokes (although it may have been about the cultural references--having found there were a couple of Poles in the group he went out of his way to be complimentary about the bravery of the Poles in the RAF during the war, and to name 303  Squadron, a nice touch). He had his twelve minutes to get the measure of a group of about twenty people from a variety of backgrounds, and to fill in enough of the back-story of the site for them to make sense of it.

And of course he couldn't do it. No-one could. Although private tours can be specially organised for visitors who have particular technical interests, there is only self-selection for the majority of visitors. So it appears that his spiel must have undergone a similar process of evolution to that of a stand-up comedian. Consciously or not, he has done it scores of times, perhaps hundreds, and he will have noted which stories go down well and which don't, and filtered them on that basis. It's basically a classic behaviourist setup--you could say that he gets reinforcement  via smiles and laughter and continuing attention for telling some of them, and less for others.

But that privileges what the audience like from moment to moment at the cost of the overall framework or arc of the task, which is primarily about orientation--a word he did use in the introduction. And the downside was that the overall presentation rather fell apart. It might have been my lack of attention, but I'm sure some stories were started but never finished, and he digressed sometimes and never returned to the main theme. (A few people did drop out while we were in transit between locations--but I was not diligent enough to conduct exit interviews.)

We did get a very brief introduction to codes and code-breaking in history, and he showed us a picture of an Enigma machine and gabbled an explanation of how it works, and he repeated the claim that Bletchley Park shortened WW2 by two years; but it didn't join up. A real pity.

I'm not criticising for the sake of it--it just reminded me of how easy it is, when you are repeating the same material so many times, to lose sight of the wood for the trees, and in particular to lose much of a sense of how your audience experiences it. He did invite questions, and two or three people did speak to him at the end, but that could not make up for what got missed out.

And yet... there are other ways to get the information, and who am I to say that he had not made the optimum selection of material? Slowing down his delivery, linking the points--all could be achieved only at the cost of some other material.

Comparisons are limited, but while he was not a patch on this lecture, he was in a different league from this other guide.

14 August 2013

On too-precise assessment

A correspondent (author of this very useful site) got in touch today to let me know about yet another link down. Maintaining links is the single biggest hidden chore when you manage a web-site, or three. (But approaches from essay-mills and cheat sites to advertise run a close second. Yet another today who did not seem to realise that it would be a conflict of interest to accept advertising for a "service" precisely about subverting everything the sites stand for...)

Fixing the link took me back to this page, about Bruner's (and Dale's) "cone of knowledge". And that reminded me of some thoughts while revising pages on the principles of assessment a week or two ago. I discussed "assessment drift" (or better, "assessment creep"!) and of course arrived at the trite conclusion that--particularly in vocational areas--assessment needs to be as close as possible to real-world practice. Big deal! But...

Nate Silver (2013) discusses the issue of "over-fitting" accounts of events. He calls it "The most important scientific problem you've never heard of" (p.163). Kahneman  touches on it, too, of course (2011, ch.20). The problem comes down to the construction of over-precise models which fit particular situations beautifully, but to the extent that they cannot be generalised. They describe all the sufficient conditions for this particular occurrence, without identifying which are necessary.  (I am reminded of Lamb's "Dissertation upon Roast Pig".)

The simple point, of course, is that it is impossible to generate an assessment scheme from such an over-specified account. It is bound to generate far too many Type II errors (people who failed when they should not have done because of irrelevant assessment requirements). And of course as far as the assessees are concerned, they may spend a disproportionate amount of time and effort on meeting merely contingent requirements.

And that is the danger lurking behind the concern to assess as closely as possible to practice. In Bruner's terms, this is about working at the experiential or enactive level. When NVQ trade and skill-based qualifications are assessed, the default method is direct observation of real-life practice. That is fine, as long as the circumstances of the practice correspond exactly to the requirements. Say that I am being assessed on my ability to weigh ingredients, for a catering task, for example. I may be trained and assessed using an electronic, digital scale which can be reset for each additional ingredient added; that does not mean that I can do the job with older and less sophisticated equipment such as a balance with weights. In practice, the assessment will be complemented by verbal questioning about what to do under different circumstances--the interesting thing about that is that it is moving up the Bruner cone to the iconic level.

And that is about vaguer and softer skills where other considerations come in, such as verbal competence and fluency (as in the case of a person who normally speaks another language).

In the case of vocational teaching such as I discussed here and here, there is ever greater pressure to push up "achievement" levels, and thus to teach to the test, thereby ironically moving further away from the realities of practice.

The issue is not confined to FE; it applies in higher education, too, as I discussed here a couple of years ago. It is actually worth quoting part of that posting:
Graham Gibbs' short but magisterial report on educational achievement in HE appeared in August (2010) and I blogged about his presentation based on it it here. Among his observations (p.24) is:
"High levels of detail in course specifications, of learning outcomes and assessment criteria, in response in part to QAA codes of practice, allow students to identify what they ought to pay attention to, but also what they can safely ignore. A recent study has found that in such courses students may narrow their focus to attention to the specified assessed components at the expense of everything else (Gibbs and Dunbar-Goddet, 2007). Students have become highly strategic in their use of time and a diary study has found students to progressively abandon studying anything that is not assessed as they work their way through three years of their degree (Innis and Shaw, 1997).
It is time to consider properly how to re-instate the broader, even vaguer, elements of assessment; otherwise we may be imposing a self-limiting cap on learning.

Gibbs G (2010) Dimensions of Quality  York: Higher Education Academy [On-line] available: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/York/documents/ourwork/evidence_informed_practice/Dimensions_of_Quality.pdf  Accessed: 19 November 2010

Gibbs G and Dunbar-Goddet H (2007) The effects of programme assessment environments on student
York: Higher Education Academy

Innis K and Shaw M (1997) "How do students spend their time?" Quality Assurance in Education 5 (2), pp. 85–89.

Kahneman D (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow London, Penguin Books

Silver N (2013) The Signal and the Noise; the art and science of prediction London; Penguin Books

12 August 2013

Items to Share: 11 August

Education Focus
  • Ideas: Faking It "The son of friends of ours is required by his teacher to spend twenty minutes a day reading and report on doing so. He is being taught that reading is a chore to be done only under compulsion. Someone who follows the rules may never discover that reading is fun, since he will be cutting the book into twenty minute chunks instead of reading right through it. Our conclusion was that the best solution was to read the book and lie to the teacher, reporting a single two hours as six daily twenty minute sessions. The teacher, or whoever made the rules he is following, starts with the observation that reading a lot correlates with desirable outcomes and concludes that the way to get those outcomes is to compel children to read—whether they like it or not. The likely result is exactly the opposite of the one intended." The power of hidden messages...
Other Business
  • BBC - Blogs - Adam Curtis - BUGGER : Isn't the history of espionage and counter-espionage most elegantly explained by the hypothesis of the total ineptitude of the services involved? Both funny and disconcerting, as one might expect of Adam Curtis. "The recent revelations by the whistleblower Edward Snowden were fascinating. But they - and all the reactions to them - had one enormous assumption at their heart. That the spies know what they are doing."

09 August 2013

On recipes for practice

Raymond Blanc has an excellent series on BBC2 at the moment. Modestly called "How to Cook Well", it is a lttle different from most cookery shows in that he concentrates on the techniques, rather than on the ingredients or the recipes. This is also the approach to the curriculum adopted by the most famous of cookery schools, Le Cordon Bleu.

I have of course observed dozens of cookery and catering lessons in a range of settings, from exclusive private colleges to further education colleges. Most of them were based on teaching a repertoire of recipes. Granted that the recipes were chosen to illustrate and develop the standard skills and techniques, but the recipes were in the foreground.

The argument for attending principally to techniques rather than recipes is that mastery of frying, or baking, is open-ended and equips one to do anything in the kitchen, beyond discretely-specified dishes.

I really was looking for something else when I picked up Berger and Luckmann (1967) and noted their reference to "recipe knowledge":
"Since everyday life is dominated by the pragmatic motive, recipe knowledge, that is, knowledge limited to pragmatic competence in routine performances, occupies a prominent place in the social stock of knowledge. [...] [A] large part of the social stock of knowledge consists of recipes for the mastery of routine problems. Typically, I have little interest in going beyond this pragmatically necessary knowledge as long as the problems can indeed be mastered thereby."  (pp.56-57)
The argument is of course that recipe knowledge is convenient and necessary, but inherently limited by its taken-for-grantedness and "typifications" (or use of stereotypes). If my knowledge of cookery consists solely of discrete packages of ingredients and instructions, I will be severely limited in my ability to be original and generate new dishes--or indeed to improve the ones I already know.

(In reality, it is worse than that; I once asked a catering lecturer what was the biggest challenge or difficulty he faced in teaching. He did not have to think twice, "Getting the students to taste what they have made," he said, "they don't even understand why they need to eat it.")

Of course, "recipe knowledge" (the term originated with Alfred Schutz, and includes skills as well as conceptual knowledge) is a metaphor and not confined to culinary skills--it is everywhere. The "communicative" approach to language learning--handling typical social scenarios in the hotel, restaurant, asking directions, etc. is very effective as far as it goes, but it is effectively capped. To engage in a free-flowing conversation you need to look under the bonnet, as it were, and understand the grammar and structure and how they work, and that is far more challenging.

It has been my impression over my 40+ year career on the edges of vocational and professional education that recipe knowledge has grown as a proportion of the curriculum. Probably that is in part because the size and the scope of knowledge demanded in the sector has expanded enormously, and in order to teach it all everything which does not seem directly useful or relevant has to be ditched, (Snyder noticed that at MIT in the late 'fifties). But it may be producing graduates (because it is certainly the case in first degrees and even on Master's programmes) who are limited--certainly at the point of graduation, although they will pick up a lot through participation in their communities of practice later.

A side issue is that the detailed specification of course objectives etc. has lead to a retreat from engagement with some of the difficult threshold concepts which are necessary for full engagement beyond the recipe level.

To a considerable extent this approach has penetrated even into the kind of teacher education programmes I have been involved with. Its instrumentality may even be responsible for the perpetuation of some of the egregious myths and fads which have characterised teaching in recent years (see Goldacre, 2008, ch.2 and here). And reading work produced for the course by some of the students who work in mainstream FE colleges is sometimes downright dispiriting, because of its lack of critical discussion--although that of others is profoundly encouraging, as they go beyond recipe knowledge.

There's a glimmer of hope, though. Proposed revision of the curriculum for ICT and Computer Science in schools has effectively recognised that ICT as presently taught is merely recipe knowledge (i.e. use of standard applications with no understanding of how they work) and needs to be complemented by learning about computer algorithms and how to code applications.

Berger P and Luckmann T (1967) The Social Construction of Reality London; Allen Lane
Goldacre B (2008) Bad Science London; Fourth Estate
Snyder B R (1971) The Hidden Curriculum New York; Alfred A Knopf.
(see also) Wolke R (2008) What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained London; W W Norton

07 August 2013

On science faction

Particularly when holding my breath and passing through London--not that it smells, it's just the oppressive energy of the place--particularly then, I am reminded of science-fiction dystopias narrowly avoided.

I really enjoyed my undergraduate experience, but at the same time it destroyed my interest in "literature" (I took an English major within European Studies at Sussex). Immediately after the last of my final exams (13 3-hour papers in 10 days, as I remember--nothing else counted to the degree; I apparently forfeited my 1st-class honours, by the stupidest error; every other paper required that one answer three questions, but this one required four, and I didn't realise until the chatter afterwards.) immediately after that I caught a train homewards from Brighton station. And bought a couple of paperbacks from W H Smiths on the platform to read on the train, realising as I did so that I was FREE to read anything I wanted. At last!

I bought a thriller (long since forgotten), and the first volume of Asimov's Foundation trilogy (later a seven-volume series; a heptology?) I was, as newly-minted graduate, rather sniffy about the style... But I was hooked on science-fiction. For 15 years I read little else (apart from thrillers I could pass on to my Dad, who couldn't bring himself to buy such rubbish, but was not above picking up my leavings), then I added fantasy for a few years. Now I devour non-fiction, and read perhaps a couple of novels a year at most. Such was the product of a first-class literary education.

BUT! The real-world is converging with at least some of the SF scenarios. I claim little prescience for the authors--they could imagine anything they wished, and the odds were that eventually they must be plausible. Of course, for the good authors, it was not the postulates but the consequences which were really interesting...

Here are two issues they anticipated, from memory:
Perhaps I wasn't wasting my time as much as I castigated myself for.

05 August 2013

Items to Share: 4 August

Education Focus
  • Why today is my last day teaching online… | The Edublogger  "I just can’t shake the feeling that my students would have been much better served in a more traditional face-to-face setting. So, sadly, I know that it is now time for me to put down my grading mouse and walk away from the keyboard."
  • Using a Blog to Enhance Student Participation | Faculty Focus "A sociology professor in an undergraduate introductory social problems course used a blog to “enhance student participation, engagement and skill building.” In the article referenced below, this professor shares her experiences of using this assignment with 263 students across four semesters.
  • Names for things | Webs of Substance  "As a teaching approach, constructivism seems to imply that students need to construct knowledge either by themselves or with other students. Teachers simply ‘telling’ the students things is distinctly looked down upon, even though this could be argued as being totally compatible with constructivist learning theory..."
  • Why Online Education Works | Cato Unbound "Oxford University was founded in 1096, Cambridge in 1209. Harvard, a relative newcomer, was founded in 1636. Other than religions, few institutions appear to have maintained their existence or their relative status for as long as major universities. And few institutions, notably again other than religions, have seen so little change. Oxford in 2012 teaches students in ways remarkably similar to Oxford in 1096, seated students listening to professors in a classroom. [...]these two facts are related; stasis in methods has led to stasis in status. And [...] both of these facts are about to change. Online education will change how universities teach; as a result, online education will change which universities teach." 
  • The Internet, That Old Scapegoat - Lingua Franca - The Chronicle of Higher Education "Citing digital content appropriately is a challenge for experienced academics as well as students, and the rules on such citation continue to evolve, so even putting aside the tremendous temptation offered by online term-paper factories, it seems reasonable to conclude that use of the Internet makes both drawing and understanding hard and fast rules in this area more difficult than it once was, not that it makes students less capable."  
Other Business