Suffice it to say, this was enough to spur our kids to grudgingly make contact with us. The 7 year old was the most enthusiastic and seems to send a letter a day. Her first one said: “Dear Mum and Dad, I miss you very much so I want to stay 4 weeks.” She was signed up for just 2 weeks. While the logic of her argument was flawed, as it turned out our lives were very different without her, so we promptly agreed to the extension.I believe that the same sense of liberation is going on for our kids. We are fairly strict parents and certainly on one key dimension — food — very strict. Camp provides a menu that is supposedly healthy but, in fact, is much more kid-friendly than our children’s usual fare. For instance, they appear to have dessert; a concept our kids dream about. At camp they get it every day. The also have something called ‘tuck’ that allows them to get special treats twice a week. But ‘tuck’ comes with a condition — no letter home, no tuck.
Sunday, July 22, 2012
Wednesday, July 4, 2012
The game only lasts for few minutes, which is good because there is so little to do that any longer would most certainly break the spell. This makes me wonder what would have to be needed to make an experience like that last for one to two hours. Adding too much would likely decrease the sense of dread, so one would have to be careful in lengthening it. Hope someone attempts to do this.
Some other stuff worth noting:
- The game hides the mechanics that govern how the monster hunts you down and what makes you eventually get killed. I think this was a good move as you are free to make up for yourself what happened. (Bound to only work on the first play-through though, but that does not have to be a bad thing).
- A lot of the creepiness is induced through sensory deprivation. You mostly only see the same vague shapes over and over and it is not long until you start to imagine things.
- It is interesting how effective the tunnel vision created by the flashlight is. There is just something about having these large chunks of your vision pitch black that make you unnerved.
Recommend you all to give it a go!
Tuesday, July 3, 2012
This post was originally published at Forbes.com on 27th June 2012.
A couple of months ago, I wrote about my 11 year old son’s experiences in taking Stanford’s online Game Theory course. It was a challenging course (at or above the level I teach my own MBAs) and while he fell just short of the
seventy percent pass grade, he learned a lot and was subsequently able to apply game theory in the field (supposedly for charitable purposes). In the end, his experience taught me quite a lot about how far online education has to go to be really significant.
First, one cannot simply take a standard University course and port it to the online format. This is what the Game Theory instructors experimented with to see how costly the transition might be. But the result was rather bland, highlighting the inadequacies of many University instructions — something that I’m sure the professors involved more than compensate for with lively classroom discussion in the corporeal version of their course.
Second, and related to this, the online format requires us to rethink the pace of lectures and also the rationale for assessment. Assessment deadlines can really help people keep up with continuous learning but if they are unforgiving, as they often are when assessment is also an incentive device for performance, then they can detract from opportunities to learn and master. The Khan Academy has famously moved towards mastery as the chief role of assessment and I think that this is something online courses should build themselves on.
The Stanford course was offered on a platform called CourseRA. But that wasn’t my son’s first preference for online learning. He wanted to do computer science. It wasn’t initially available but no sooner had he finished the exam for the Game Theory course that he immediately enrolled in Computer Science 101. Now this was an introductory computer science course and you wouldn’t think that, in this day and age, an 11 year old would need to learn about the basics of what goes on in computers and networks but that is to mistake the ability to use for the ability to understand. The basic technology behind what he thinks of as a computer is obscure and this course was all about lifting the lid on that box and looking at what goes on inside. Unlike Game Theory where it is obvious how it can enlighten, I can imagine Computer Science introductory courses that may be bland. This one was certainly not that and held is interest throughout its 4 or 5 weeks but it hasn’t yet led to him taking on more of our IT support roles at home.
Computer Science was designed more appropriately for the online space than the Game Theory course. The lecture videos were bite sized and interspersed with learning activities that themselves took advantage of the digital medium. There were some quizzes both most seemed to be well structured coding exercises. And, more significantly, the emphasis was on mastery rather than performance assessment.
In the end, he was able to complete the exercises on time and, in fact, quite easily. So now he has a Certificate of Accomplishment signed by the instructor, Nick Parlante. My only criticism is that perhaps it was too easy for him to do. He got most exercises right the first time (out of 100 possible attempts). That suggests to me that Parlante could make the course more challenging.
As to future adventures, my son did enrol in Udacity‘s “How to build a search engine” computer science course. This is something we were told would be more challenging and it employed an innovative way of presenting lectures (closer to the Khan Academy blackboard style) with interactive quizzes neatly built in. My son did comment that both of these courses have missed an opportunity to work on coding while the lecture videos were playing; a kind of continual worksheet.
Sadly, as of writing this post, I don’t know how Udacity’s course will go. Summer has intervened and my son’s attention has turned to hacking Minecraft rather than formal learning. He is then off the grid at Summer Camp. So it is on a pause for a while and, if it is still permitted, he may continue at Summer’s end. That said, computer science will have competition. Check out Udacity’s video explaining their Introduction to Statistics course. Apparently Lego trumps learning Python! Udacity are trying to get school students from all around the world enrolled in that one. We will likely have two from our household but if you know of a school that wants to enrol a team of students just click here for more information.
This post was originally published at Forbes on 23rd June 2012.
Princeton Professor, Anne-Marie Slaughter has certainly brought to life an important discussion of the expectations of women regarding their life choices. In a beautifully constructed and compelling written essay in The Atlantic, she raises a number of issues but ultimately concludes that the promise that women can have both a high-powered career with a minimally acceptable level of family time is not easily attainable. In part, this is because some jobs will never permit a balance between work and life. But more importantly, it is because expectations in the workplace do not permit people to exercise trade-offs. “Having it all” translates into “All or Nothing”; a black and white choice rather than a carefully considered balance.
Now one of the issues with the essay, of course, is that Slaughter does appear to have had it all. She rose to the top of academia while maintaining a healthy family life. It is only when she went to Washington to work at the State Department that the family life suffered beyond what she wanted. One suspects, as Dan Drezner has argued, that those types of jobs really involve a all or nothing trade-off as part of their intrinsic nature. But aside from that Slaughter’s main argument resonates. Academia is, for the most part, well suited to work-life balance choices. (I, say, for the most part because science, maths and engineering appear to have deeper problems). That is, indeed, why I chose that path for myself. But, for the vast majority of other workplaces, there is way too little attention paid as to how to design jobs to allow people to achieve a balance. The evidence, neatly summarized by Slaughter, indicates that workplaces that are designed for employees to exercise more inside-outside work choices end up being more productive. So why is it that so many workplaces make this so hard?
It is instructive to look at academia, a place where choices are relatively easy, to understand the pressures. I know from my own experience that when your ‘boss’ (in my case a Dean) does not factor in family constraints, poor outcomes result. When my first child was due back in 1998, I anticipated that I wanted to be home the following semester at nights and not to be teaching. We had a part-time MBA program that was taught at night so I requested not to have that assignment for the semester after my daughter’s birth. Now the family leave policy for fathers at the University of Melbourne was to allow for two weeks off. But I did not even get that when I was called into a couple of days after her birth to the Dean’s office because they had decided to revoke my request and needed me to get my course syllabus and materials in right away. Near as I can tell this was all done because they could rather than do some more difficult re-scheduling. But for that time and the next semester, being away a few nights a week (and not to mention teaching with little sleep) tore me up. I vowed not to let it happen again and have since that time spent considerable energy in working out how to move my workload to activities other than teaching. Nothing in this was good for my workplace.
But even when I could exercise choice it was amazing how costly it could be. When we had our first child, we decided that this would be the best time for my wife to pursue an MBA as it would allow her not to have a visible CV gap. It was actually really hard to do that. What we wanted was a part-time program that allowed day-time classes but arbitrary University rules stood in the way. Once this was explained to us that she could not take a day-time class because those students were full-time and would have expectations on her to meet for study groups that, taking time to say, nurse a baby, would interfere with! MBA programs were really missing out on opportunities here.
Faced with that, she took classes at night. For the initial period, we had to interweave nights to accommodate my teaching. But MBA studies required study. Say whatever you want about their value, they require work. That meant that I took on the majority of the housework. That was fine and exhausting but it also allowed me to bond with my children in ways so many miss out on. And clearly, it got me thinking about parental issues which is why I can write here today.
But there was actually a cost and I only realized it many years later. For over two years, I could not travel. For academics, especially ones in Australia, travel is very important. It is how you maintain visibility and sell your work. Perhaps my best academic paper was written just before my second child was born. People constantly ask me why it is so poorly cited. The reason was that I only presented it twice. Academics pick up on the work of others through presentations much more than just picking up journals. Now, in this case, that career cost fell on me (although I should say that the benefits to family vastly outweighed that cost). But consider a world where this cost mostly falls on women academics and it becomes easier to understand why, in academia, with its better work-life balance, women are still so under-represented. I should say, however, that despite taking on the vast majority of household duties during my wife’s MBA time, I was fired from most of them as soon as that degree was done. My way of doing things was apparently less valuable than I had thought.
Moving beyond my experience, again from academia, I had a friend who had, at a very young age, risen to a Dean’s position. At the same time as the upper level University job she was made for and was perfect for came up, she was pregnant. I was thrilled as I saw this as an opportunity for someone to hold a top position and to enable the organization to fit around family balance. But that turned to dismay when she decided to withdraw her candidacy because of concern that she would not be able to strike the right balance. As I read Slaughter’s article, it occurred to me that I was being unfair in my judgment. It isn’t fair to expect someone, just because of her gender, to take a risk on her family especially for purposes of setting an example. The whole issue is that we expect women to behave in certain ways and it expect it to be as a role model is part of the problem. And it would have been a risk. It is easy to imagine that one can strike a balance in a higher powered job. It is more sensible to realize that might not be possible.
What this means is that we actually need broader changes rather than individual changes to improve the balance in most jobs. Slaughter talks about many of these but I thought here I would concentrate on what governments can do; in particular, parental leave policy. Everywhere except the US, governments have state mandated parental leave policies. Some of these give mothers (and in some cases fathers) rights to leave upon the birth of a child from six weeks to a year. Employers have to hold their jobs and not put them at a disadvantage upon re-entering the workforce. In some cases, the parental leave is paid through government subsidies or mandates on employers. But while commonplace, these policies concern me. Yes, they make taking parental leave easier but they do not take into account the root of the problem. Rightly or wrongly, many employers believe that having employees who sacrifice work for family life is costly to them. These policies actually increase those costs and may lead to employers opting to employee ‘lower risk’ people. And let’s face it, today as it has been before, that ‘lower risk’ is more likely to be a man than a woman.
We have to think outside of the box when it comes to parental leave. A few years ago when this issue was being debated in Australia, I argued that parental leave should come in the form of a tax credit paid to employers rather than a subsidy. To be sure, rights to parental leave should always be there but the question was: a right isn’t much value without an income but how do we pay for that? My tax credit plan worked as follows: if an employer successfully had an employee take parental leave and then return to the workforce, the employer would receive a tax credit on that employee’s income for the first year of return to work. My reasoning is that it was on return to work that the issues of work-life balance really came to the fore. But it was precisely then that the workplaces failed to allow a balance to be struck. That is where things would start to fall apart.
With a tax credit, a returning employee would suddenly be much cheaper for employers. That would give them an incentive to make the return to work, well, work. Moreover, employers would want to pay some of that benefit forward by introducing paid parental leave schemes. After all, if you didn’t tie the employee to come back to you, you would miss out on the tax credit. Done the right way, employers could see employees with family lives not as a risk but as an opportunity. Once a workplace gets over the hump of how to organize for families we might be on our way to a better outcome for women or anyone else desiring more flexible arrangements.
Tax rebates are one way governments might be able to break the cycle that leaves us with too many jobs having too poor design for work-life balance. Yes, there is much more to the issue than economics. But my hunch is that by getting the economic policy right we can nudge workplaces in the right direction.