Daily Archives: March 5, 2010

On-line degrees

Yesterday, Joshua Foust had a bit of a rant on twitter about the (ab)use of online education within the DoD and the practice of degree inflation.  The requirement for Master’s degrees for even mid-level positions seems to be growing at an alarming rate.

Today, the NYTimes (again, courtesy of Josh) has a discussion about the value and uses (or lack of them) of online education.

As someone who is on the brink of completing an M.A. from a virtual university allow me to present my view of the issue:

The online class experience is far, far inferior to the classroom experience.  No amount of on line discussion boards or chat sessions will replace the real time, face-to-face interaction with class mates and teachers.  While have to type questions and answers may allow some time for reflection and therefore eliminate some dopey questions it no doubt also prevents important issues from being raised.

The online experience also (at least to me) encourages a strategy of ‘satisficing‘.  Maybe it’s just me but if I don’t actually have to face my peers and teacher (and will likely not encounter them again) am I likely to give 100% when 80% will do just fine?

While I have learned some in my pursuit for this degree it was less (much less) than I’d say I learned in my first year as an undergraduate.  Much less challenging and much more an experience of checking off annoying boxes.  ‘Ok, another class.  Write three papers about stuff I know enough about that I don’t need to do any additional research and zip through.’  A great part of that, I believe, is due to grade inflation, a problem which is not exclusive to online universities.  In their desire to attract more paying customers, universities are accepting (and passing) people who simple are not prepared to successfully complete university level coursework.  At times it’s been embarrassing to see the work some of my peer have put out.  And the result?  After a year or so I realized that I could continue to get the same grade while putting in significantly less work.  I just completed my final course for my degree and would be hard pressed to say I put any real work into it.  I’m not exaggerating here.  Hardly any research and very little work.  My expected final grade:  Maybe a B+ if my final paper (which I wrote in 6 hours between a significant amount of unrelated web surfing) is graded in the low ‘F’ range.

So, while it is true that online education allows a host of new people access to the post-secondary school world, I’m just not sure it does anything other than give people a piece of paper.

Well, that’s not fair either.  Since many jobs now require that piece of paper as proof that the bearer possesses specific skills or qualities.  We all know from experience how that’s just not true however.

When it comes to analysts (who, theoretically earn their break and butter through intellectual pursuits) it’s even more true.  And yet, how many analyst positions require some demonstration of analytical ability?  For that matter, how many agencies hiring analysts have taken the time to identify what knowledge, skills and abilities (in other than useless, generic ways) they actually want out of analysts?  Of that subset, how many come up with metrics to identify those KSAs?

Beats me…but I’ll soon have that degree…

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Greatest movie clip ever…

(h/t boingboing)

And then follow this link to the infographic to unlock the scientific mystery that allows a shark to take down a 747…

Clearly this means that every single idea the human mind is capable of has now been thought of.

More on intelligence training and a bleg

I’ve been thinking about training for intelligence analysts and specifically the area of critical thinking.  I still think there’s room for improvement in demonstrating how critical thinking techniques work and think that often we make the task more difficult by either talking about it in a lecture format or bury it in a law enforcement/military/counter terrorism scenario that can be ‘gamed’ if you have sufficient exposure to the background material.  In the latter cases, people don’t have to rely on critical thinking skills at all.  Instead they can rely on conventional wisdom.  Training scenarios, being what they are, are really easy to beat in that way.  They tend not to be too complex (both because that makes them difficult to run and there are usually pretty severe time constraints and compressions) and you can make all sorts of assumptions about it given characteristics of the meta-environment (‘We’re in a training called ‘counter terrorism’, I think it’s safe to assume this scenario will have a terrorist angle.’)

The problem is that, in real life you almost never get that meta context when you need to apply your critical thinking skills.  Or, if you do get it, you’re probably not paying attention to it because it clashes with your (and everyone else’s) assumptions.

So, I’ve been thinking that a good way to cut through that noise is to just change the subject matter to something that will minimize the usefulness of conventional wisdom.  We’re coming up on three years since I suggested John Carpenter’s The Thing would be perfect for this sort of exercise and I’m disappointed to say that I’ve still been unable to conduct a proof of concept test run yet.  When I pitch the idea I usually get a blank stare followed by ‘Uh..yeah…that’s a good idea but how about we do something with gangs/terrorists/etc. instead?’

Hey, I dig.  Training time is precious and it’s hard to conceive that a better way to teach analysts to handle real world issues may be by watching a 30 year old horror movie. Still, given that it’s still pretty widely recognized that we aren’t where we want to be with intelligence analysis in the community it’d be nice to see some willingness to embrace new ideas and give them a shot.  Hey, if it doesn’t work you don’t do it again.*

I’ve therefore been on the look out for other forms of media which might be used to demonstrate the principles of analysis and critical thinking.

Babel, for example, has some great training potential buried in it.

I asked Lung Hu for his thoughts on this subject and so include them here.

In order to select useful cultural material, it would be useful to know more clearly what such training is envisioned to be: is this entry-level intell analysis training or medium/advanced training? What are the constituent elements of this training: which topics and themes will be covered? In what way are these topics deemed to be related and mutually reinforcing concepts?

It is my opinion that intell analysis training should begin with training that covers the pre-intell “phase” of the knowledge-creation business: information in its pre-intelligence form. In my view, many of the failings of the “intelligence community” –particularly in law enforcement– are rooted in the fact that far too many people have far too sketchy an understanding of what information is –and isn’t. This causes a lot of fuzzy thinking, writing and speaking on the topic of intelligence: because these folks don’t know what information is, they have a hard time distinguishing it from intelligence. Mere information is all too often mistaken for intelligence, or substituted for it in wholesale quantities.

Fortunately, a brief study of information (Claude Shannon’s theory and all) -particularly of information quality– provides an extremely useful introduction to themes that are highly relevant to the practice of intelligence, analysis, “critical thinking,” etc. At the very least, trainees will know the difference between data and information: then they can work on grasping the difference between information and intelligence.

One of the 10+ dimensions of information quality is “relevance.” This dimension is very close to the core of intell analysis: what aspects of the situation are relevant to the decision-maker/customer? In order to know what is relevant to the customer about any given domain / analysis topic, the analyst have some level of meta-knowledge about (a) the operating environment in which both the object of analysis and the decision-maker are immersed, and (b) the way in which the analyst’s host organization is able to interact with that environment (the organizational context).

If the analyst doesn’t have at least a weak grasp of these two aspects of the three-stage intell analysis problem, there’s little hope that s/he will select relevant information for inclusion in an analysis product –> hence, no actual intelligence of real value to the customer.

So . . . . to make a long msg just a bit shorter. . . . if intell analysis training includes a segment about knowing/understanding the operating environment, and if the cultural artifacts can be as lengthy as a full-length feature film, I have two provisional suggestions for your consideration:

The Last Wave (Australia)
The Wicker Man (UK made-for-TV, I believe)

Both films revolve around the idea that failure to understand (cultural dimensions of) your operating environment can have adverse consequences.

So (here’s the bleg part)…digesting all of that, does anyone out there have suggestions of their own?

*As an aside, I also pitched the idea of using tactical decision games with my military unit last year.  The good news is that chances are good we’ll be doing that this year.  The delay between suggestion and implementation was, in part, because of fear of the word ‘game’ which probably cost my scheme 6 months.  I obviously did not do my marketing work beforehand.