Clear Thinking, On Schedule

Assessing Salt Fork Boating/Tubing Conditions at Camp Drake

So you're a scout leader at Camp Drake near Oakwood, IL. It's rained recently. How do you know if the river is not too high?


In 2013, my son's troop experienced dangerous conditions on the Salt Fork while tubing from Camp Drake. A tree had fallen across the river, and swift river conditions drove the tubers into the tree, resulting in several scouts becoming dangerously entangled. The incident happened Friday, June 28 2013.

The tree had not posed difficulties for tubers on the previous day, because the water level was even higher, and carried tubers over the tree.

A natural question: How do you determine if the river is too high to safely do a tubing trip? I am using data from the US Geological Survey (river gauge) to try to answer this question. I've attached a PDF with some data from the day of the incident (June 28 2013) and today's date (July 4, 2014).


  1. In a recent example this week, the DNR announced boating restrictions on the Middle Fork on July 1 and July 2 2014. The DNR opened the Middle Fork on July 3, 2014, when the Middle Fork was at 3.5 ft. The Salt Fork was at about 5 ft at that time. Probably should consider the Salt Fork restricted to boating when the Salt Fork river gauge exceeds 5 ft.

  2. 75th percentile for Salt Fork river gauge on July 4 is about 4 ft. When you reach over 4 ft, the river is pretty high. Use caution, you may not want to take beginners or young scouts on the river.

  3. During the tubing incident on June 28, 2013, river gauge on the Salt Fork was at about 4 ft.

Holding on to the Past

I've finished one coding project, and I'm starting a new one, a kind of "blast from the past". In 1995, I worked for/with Prof. Antonsen to devise courseware for his "Comparative Germanic" course. I put together a Hypercard stack (I had used Hypercard for an earlier project for his phonology/morphology course).

Hypercard is long gone. Doesn't run in Mac OS X. I went through some Very Old Files and found one copy of the courseware, and booted up a 68000 emulator, and I'm now able to run the software, 18 years later. I can only find one copy of a runtime version, can't find the source code. Makes me wish I had been a little more careful. Oh well, I was working like a maniac back then, no time to save code for posterity. :-)

Of course, today the natural place for courseware is on the web. I'm working on taking the basic information from the runtime version I have and making a simple web application out of it. A good question might be "why?"

Well, one reason is that I'm looking for a meaningful coding project. I'm trying to improve my PHP/MYSQL skills, and I wanted a project to work on.

I never loved historical linguistics, or pro to-languages, to be honest. But it seems worthwhile to preserve this little exercise in a somewhat esoteric field. Keeping knowledge alive is part of the academic mission, I suppose. :-)

MOOC Conversion Rates

Website operators that try to get the web surfer to do something (fill out a form, buy a product, click on an advertisement, etc) often discuss "conversion rate" -- how many web surfers actually make it to step 1 (or step 6, etc) of their website process? Another thing: unless the website operator is trying to trick the web surfer somehow, the website operator tries to align the process with the needs or intentions of the surfer.

In traditional higher education course offerings, institutions typically take tuition money, and provide refunds if a student drops a course, with the refund shrinking as the term progresses. It is assumed that most paying students will pass the course and receive college credit, so that's the "conversion". Institutions attend to the "drop/fail/withdraw" rate, concerned about those students that do not make the "conversion".

Considering the current model of higher education MOOCs, where most (right now) are not for credit, defining a "conversion" for a MOOC can be unclear. Trying to create a marketing mailing list? Trying to award alternative forms of "credit" like certificates? Having a student reach the end of the course, and awarding a grade? MOOCs have the trappings, the adornment of academia, like lectures, quizzes, and the awarding of grades. But until they award college credit, they are not courses. The awarding of credit and degrees is the "widget" produced by the higher education factory (at least as far as students are concerned).

The Intentionality Rule

I recently read: Levy, Y. (2007). Comparing dropouts and persistence in e-learning courses. Computers & Education, 48(2), 185-204

What caught my eye was the author's attempt to actually define the idea of "dropping" a course for retention purposes. The proposed definition is: “Thus, in the context of e-learning courses, this study will define dropout students (or non-completers) as students that voluntarily withdraw from e-learning courses while acquiring financial penalties."

Obviously, this sort of definition is geared toward the "traditional" model where courses cost something (so not free MOOC-style "courses"). Furthermore, a person should probably take into account that the financial penalty for dropping late varies quite a bit from institution to institution, depending on things like local policies or tuition rates. The likelihood that a student will stay until the end of a course and be successful is also almost certainly related to the intention of the student -- students who are enrolled for entertainment (MOOCs), or for insurance purposes, or have serious competing intentionalities (the need to work, raise a family, etc) will be more likely to drop.

So I'd like to propose the "Intentionality Rule": The greater the penalties for dropping (financial, or perhaps "sunk costs"), the more an institution is able to impose the intentionality of the course (you are here to finish the course, get a grade, receive a degree, etc). Of course, these greater costs or penalties may make the course less accessible. Thus: imposing costs is a way for an institution to maintain control over student intentionality. The lower the penalties, the more students are able to bring their own reasons for participating, on their own terms, perhaps not finishing the course or "doing all the work".

This is what makes offering free MOOC-style courses interesting -- schools may think that they are offering the same or similar "course" as they do on campus, but because the course is free, students are free to participate on their own terms. I'd argue that the same thing happens in community colleges or other environments where the tuition/financial penalty structure is so reasonable, that it doesn't really sort out the students who are not committed to the intentionality of the institution.

The Confusing Thing About MOOCs

Here are statements and questions about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that are the product of confused thinking. For example:

If our online courses had completion rates similar to MOOCs, I'd be put in jail. Could you provide the completion rate for your MOOCs by country? How can we demonstrate that people learn as well/as much in MOOCs as in our "traditional" online college courses?

Well, the confusion in all of these statements or questions is that a MOOC is a college course, and therefore one is entitled to speak of metrics like "completion rate" or assess learning in a comparative way. Right now, in May 2013, MOOCs are not college courses. Comparing college courses to MOOCs is comparing apples to oranges. Fruits, yes. But different in very important ways.

MOOCs serve a different audience, and the intentions of this audience appear to be different than the traditional college audience. As of this writing, it appears that people who take MOOCs are largely the elite of world societies -- they are very educated (most have college degrees already, over 30% have master's degrees), they have internet access of course, and have computers and the time to take courses. A relatively small percentage of students are actually college-age people who do not yet have a college degree, and are trying to pursue a degree. This may change if more for-credit offerings are made available. But clearly, there are a large number of people who are "just auditing" the course, have paid nothing, and nevertheless possibly count toward the completion rate of the course.

I suppose people forget, or would like to forget, that the reason that most students take courses is so they can get a degree. When you offer free courses online, not tied to a degree, it's hard to impose the institution's "intentionality" on a course -- hey students, take this course, learn these things, do this work, etc. Without that incentive, some people are free to come by and audit the course however they like -- drop in, watch a few videos, make a few comments in the discussions, move on. As more credentials are tied to completing MOOCs, this is likely to change. People will have a reason to complete the course, and more completers will stick around to the end.

Assessing learning in MOOCs has the same difficulties as defining completion rates. Different audience. Different intentions for being there. Colleges may present the same materials as in their traditional online courses, but comparing effectiveness between MOOC and traditional online course on campus is an apples & oranges exercise.

Eagle Scouts Have Positive, Lasting Influence On American Society, Study Suggests

A study from Baylor University, (April 10, 2012) shows that there is a correlation between attaining Eagle rank (or, sometimes, simply having been a boy scout) and several "prosocial" attributes like volunteerism, religious activity, connections to neighbors and community, etc. From the study: "the central question of this study is to determine if participation in Scouting and ultimately becoming an Eagle Scout is associated with prosocial behavior and positive youth development that carries over into young adulthood and beyond." (p.2)

Here are some sample results:

Have donated money to a religious institution within the last month: Eagle Scouts are 53 percent more likely than non-Scouts but are not significantly different from other Scouts in donating money to a religious institution.

Say respecting religious leaders outside of your religion is at least somewhat important: Eagle Scouts are 133 percent more likely than other Scouts and 109 percent more likely than non-Scouts.

Have extremely close relationships with friends: Eagle Scouts are 60 percent more likely compared to Scouts. Further, Eagle Scouts are also 37 percent more likely to be extremely close with friends, compared to those men who never participated in Boy Scouts.

Scouting as a Filter

From what I can tell, the study does not control for self-selection bias for people who sign up for scouting in the first place. Scouting is about doing community work, camping with friends in the outdoors, and has a strong religious component. I think the "respecting religious leaders" question shows this best. Apparently, men who have been scouts respond "less important" on this question than the average non-scout. Yet at Eagle rank, the tables are turned the other way, Eagles respond "more important" than both other scouts and the average man. It appears that scouts self-select into the program, but those who achieve the highest rank are perhaps different than the "usual scout". This leads me to my second point:

Eagle as a Filter

From what I can tell, the study doesn't explain the differences between "Eagle" rank and men who had less scouting, or attempt to relate the various positive attributes to, say, "years as a scouting participant". A male who has been in the program many years, and attained a high rank (Star, Life) but not Eagle will have experienced nearly as much of the program as an Eagle scout. I think it's likely that there is a difference between "high achieving" Eagles and other scouts in who they are, and what they already bring to the program. Maybe Eagles have supportive parents, a dad who also volunteered as a scout leader, or come from families that are better off economically. Again, we might be seeing evidence of selection bias -- Eagles bring attitudes and resources that set them apart from other scouts (and other people) that allow them to become Eagles in the first place.

I saw the study first in "Science Daily"

The Next 20 Years at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

We have a new chancellor at UIUC, Phyllis Wise, and I attended one of her town hall meetings a couple of weeks ago. One of the themes she's talking about in her meetings is what the campus will be like in the future, 10,20, or even 50 years from now. It's an interesting exercise, I've given it some thought from an "internet communications/instructional technology" point of view.

More Employees will Work Remotely. The Social and Intellectual Life of the University will Evolve.

The chancellor conducted the town hall meeting on Dec 6 at Krannert in one of the auditoriums. One of the stories we heard was from a professor who moved to Urbana-Champaign during the 1950s from California. He made a nice remark about Urbana-Champaign: "no mountains, no lakes, no ocean, but nice people". This remark struck me because I'm working with several instructors now who didn't have to make the choice that this professor did then -- they work and teach at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, but make their permanent residence in places like Colorado or California.

The University of Illinois of the future will not require employees to make their homes in Urbana-Champaign. A university is more than a collection of staff and students, it is an environment where we all engage in the intellectual and social life of the university. When we invite people to work or study at Illinois, but they don't live here, and they don't participate in the local life of the community, what will be the consequences?

Our students increasingly participate virtually as well. We're still in the relative infancy of developing online courses for our residential students, and while we have no intention of transforming Illinois into some sort of commuter campus, what will the world be like in 20 years? Students will want to travel the world for their studies, or do internships, or do field research and complete their studies from wherever, whenever. Demand for online courses is already high. How will our future generations of students feel about being liberated from the constraints of having to be someplace at a certain time to complete their degrees? It will be hard for the university to resist.

Network Technology Will Drive Consolidation

Right now, the discussions revolve around the role or place of the Urbana campus vis-a-vis the other two Illinois campuses (Springfield and Chicago). Urbana is the R1, B1G, national reputation campus, and the campus community is anxious about anything that looks like "consolidation". Campus community members worry about maintaining the Urbana campus "identity." Twenty years from now, the "3 campus" issue will look like one decision point in a long list of decision points that the university has been making, and will continue to make over the next few decades.

Truth is, the efforts of the Board of Trustees and the University President to better cooperate among the three campuses is simply a product of the times. We've been marching toward "consolidation" for years, brick-by-brick, but it's not (just) pressure to cooperate among campuses, and it's not (just) our leaders that are driving the process. Times are changing, and communications technology is pushing Illinois into a new world.

Example: Technology Consolidation

I arrived at UIUC in 1989. In 1992, work on some of the earliest graphical browsers for the WWW (Mosaic) was done here at NCSA. In those early days, Illinois, along with other research universities, was the web. All IT services (file storage, email, etc) was provisioned locally. Illinois developed one of the early learning management systems as well (Mallard).

Times are different now, of course. IT services are very often outsourced. Our student emails are provisioned by Google (gmail). Our LMS (learning management system) is outsourced (Blackboard). We outsource cloud storage, we outsource web conferencing facilities, etc. It makes economic sense. But clearly we lose autonomy, flexibility. The cost of getting in and out of an LMS, for example, is absolutely huge. Blackboard owns the Urbana campus in an important way. Some important functionality on the Urbana campus has been "consolidated". This doesn't feel too threatening, since the consensus seems to be that IT (including instructional technology) doesn't feel like the core of the identity of the institution.

"Development of Instructional Materials" Consolidation is Next

This "consolidation/outsourcing" trend will be more and more economically irresistible as technology improves over time. It will spread to other functionalities on campus. Even now, you can find ads in the Chronicle by Pearson touting not just textbooks, but whole courses for sale, that you can load into your learning management system. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is doing the same thing, but instead of trying to sell courses, they are offering grant money to universities to develop common course materials and formats that will be shared among institutions.

Network Technology will Enable/Compel the University into Cooperative Instructional Arrangements

Getting back to the "3 campus identity issue": will our university leadership feel compelled to offer online general education courses in common among the three campuses in the University of Illinois system? Why should we have three different versions of SOC100 online? Shouldn't students at UIC (Chicago campus) or UIS (Springfield campus) be able to take courses for credit online from Urbana, and vice versa? This is consolidation, made possible by online education. In 50 years, each campus in the Illinois system will end up specializing and complementing each other by delivering courses online, and the notion of serving a regional audience (Springfield, Chicago, Urbana) will be less important.

At the town hall meeting, Chancellor Wise briefly warned that we must focus on our strengths, and be ready to let some things go -- no institution can do everything, I suppose. Well, those hard choices might not be so hard. Illinois will want to have its cake and eat it too. Say, for example, a small number of people at Illinois need instruction in "less commonly taught languages". Or maybe Illinois has students who are looking for specific training, or methodologies that are not offered locally. In the future, when more of this stuff is online, we'll be entering into more consortia, agreements, partnerships, working with vendors, or partner institutions to deliver these courses to our own students as "Illinois" courses. As technology improves, and the pressures increase, programs like CIC courseshare will grow, and our students will get Illinois credit for taking online courses from CIC partner institutions. If we have odd gaps to fill, departments will outsource to freelancers (hey, there's this guy at Auburn who can teach X, he's pretty good, let's have him do a course for us...). From a pure course perspective, in 20 years, we'll be able to deliver any course we want, and call it "Illinois." One will have to wonder, though, "who or what is the University of Illinois?" a brand?


The next few decades of higher education will be decades of consolidation and outsourcing, decades where institutions increasingly join together in cooperative partnerships. How will Illinois avoid becoming just a "node" in the higher education network? How do we preserve our identity as one of the premier land-grant public universities in the United States?

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