Remembering Richard Crandall

This morning while frying an egg I picked up the latest copy of Reed Magazine, which had been sitting around the kitchen for a week or so, and was very sad to learn of the death in December of Richard Crandall, Reed alum and Physics prof for many years. I had a weird half relationship with Crandall in my time at Reed, which I remember with a combination of excitement and gratitude, also mixed with some regret.

Richard team taught the intro physics course I took my first year at Reed (where I learned that I was decent but not great at physics). On the strenuous recommendations of two good friends and physics majors (Peter Shirley and Neil Alexander) I later took the classroom part of second year physics from Richard. It was, as Peter had said, the best applied math course on campus, and Richard was a total genius with colored chalk, leaving the board covered with true works of art at the end of class. This was one of the most profound examples of the difficulty of capturing certain kinds of process in one’s notes, an issue I still struggle with as a teacher. Richard’s lectures were amazing to watch, but near impossible to wrestle into a notebook. I tried all sorts of things, including using colored pencils, to try to capture the glory of his board work, but it all failed. I suspect the only other person I had who’s lecturing was both as beautiful and as frustrating was Edsger Dijkstra.

More important than the classes I had with Richard, however, was his impact on me as a budding computer scientist. I’d taught myself BASIC in high school, but had never had any kind of instruction on programming or computing before my first semester at Reed, when we learned PASCAL in a series of labs in that intro physics course; labs which clearly owed their existence to Richard’s grasp of the growing importance of computation in math and science. Richard was friends with Steve Jobs, and it was through that connection and Jobs’ fond memories of his time as a quasi-student at Reed that Reed got an early Lisa, and then some of the first Macintosh computers. I remember playing with MacPaint on that clunky Lisa (I think with Peter Shirley again) and just being blown away – it was totally clear that we were seeing the future.

It was in significant part through Richard that I got to spend the summer of ’84 working at Reed designing fonts and programming for the earliest Macs. This was a very exciting opportunity, and I really felt like I was contributing to something. Probably my most notable achievement was the design of a bitmap math font (we’re just a little before PostScript here). Richard was very excited by the bitmap graphics on the Mac (taken for granted now, but still a novelty in the early 80’s), and as a scientist and mathematician he recognized the potential and value of not being tied to the ASCII character set that dominated computing at the time. So as a math nerd with computing interest and calligraphy experience (I was fortunate enough to take one of Robert Palladino’s last calligraphy courses at Reed in 1983), I was tasked with making a math font. This mostly consisted of designing a set of Greek characters, along with other common math symbols. It was hardly LaTeX (which would have been a nightmare to run on those boxes), but it was useful and widely used, and available for several years in big free font packs that you could get on a set of floppies from a fellow in (I think) Utah that had taken on the task of coordinating the distribution of free fonts. Those early bitmap fonts were, however, supplanted in short order by the much better PostScript fonts, and when I wrote my undergrad math thesis in MacWrite a year and a half later, I used the PostScript Symbol font instead of my own work. Sigh.

I also did some programming (I think I worked some on GriffinTerm, an early Mac terminal emulator), but my regret is that I didn’t make more of that opportunity. Richard was a strange guy who I at least found hard to read, but he was also clearly visionary and well connected. It’s hard to know what might have happened if I’d pushed myself more and made more of that opportunity. Sadly, I didn’t really understand the value of making things, and was mostly focused on “learning things” by taking courses and doing homework. I compare that to Thomas, who has done more extra-curricular “making” in his first year than I may have ever done at in my time at Reed, and it reminds me of why it’s so important to support our students at UMM in their “making”.

So farewell and thanks to Richard Crandall, a fellow who certainly made things, and who helped give me a great opportunity to make things.

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Study finds on-line education beats classroom, but what does that mean?

We are not quite ready to abandon classroom learning in favor of on-line education.
We're not quite ready to abandon classroom learning in favor of on-line education.

A recent study for the Department of Education (NY Times piece; full 93-page PDF report) performed a meta-analysis of 99 students over the past 12 years, and found that students in on-line courses did slightly, but statistically significantly, better than those in traditional classrooms.

It’s an interesting study, and likely to spur a whole new slew of interest in on-line courses, but it’s really not clear what it means. I’m sure there are a zillion ways I could pull together data showing an education advantage of X over Y, for a zillion Xs and Ys, but one would have to be very careful in the interpretation. I’m willing to bet that most of my colleagues here at UMM would teach better in English than Chinese, and most faculty in China would teach more effectively in Chinese than English, but that hardly means one is a better teaching language than the other. Context is everything, and it’s not clear (at least in the survey study) what the contexts are.

A few possible issues:

  • 12 years is an eternity in the history of the web and web-based teaching. Are the studies from 12 years ago even talking about the same things as those now?
  • What are we actually comparing? Face-to-face courses have all kinds of variance, and their effectiveness changes with the instructor, the students in a particular running of the course, and external events. Presumably on-line courses will as well. Are we comparing the best to the best? The median to the median? I can easily imagine that an on-line course of a few dozen people can be a vastly better experience than a huge lecture hall of 800 students, even if the latter is still called “face-to-face” instruction. Similarly, one person struggling to manage 150 on-line students is not likely to look good compared to an energetic classroom discussion section of 12 people. The meta-survey doesn’t make it easy to see clearly what the comparisons are in the individual surveys, and I suspect that they probably vary widely, ranging from the pretty reasonable to apples-vs-kumquats.
  • How much of this is simply a function of novelty, both in faculty putting a lot of effort into a cool new thing, and students being impressed by the shiny new toy?

Etc., etc., etc.

I think the question isn’t, and can’t ever be, whether on-line is better than the classroom. In the end it’s about finding a way for a particular instructor and a particular student (or group of students) to work well together, and that’s going to depend on an awful lot of things and almost certainly change over time as teachers, students, and the world changes. On-line education and classroom education augmented with on-line components are clearly going to be an important (and probably increasing) part of that, but there will probably always be circumstances where a group of people are better served by some face time than by an on-line experience.

This study also looks at courses as isolated experiences. At a residential university like ours, the courses are crucial, but hardly the whole picture. Students learn a ton from simply living together, eating, doing laundry, volunteering, going to the movies, dating, being in clubs, and generally making all sorts of vital transitions as they move from 18 to 22 (give or take). Look at the important differences between someone’s who’s 16 and someone who’s 26, and an awful lot of that has nothing do to with courses. A good university experience can play a critical role both in and beyond the classroom, and a heck of a lot of that is tied up in physical presence.

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