lunes, 26 de noviembre de 2012

A gifted boy (I)

This afternoon I received an unexpected email which made my day very happy. As I posted in this blog, I campaigned about MOOC in several places. The very first place where I started given talks was for a special gifted teen program which is run by the University of El Salvador. It was the very first time I publicly introduced this new distance learning dynamic called MOOC.

I remember that at the end of my presentation two teenagers came to talk to me. They were really impressed about the possibility to study in a prestigious American university.

About a month ago, I wanted to know if any of the teens that attended my talk had been enrolled in any MOOC course. I wrote an email to a friend of mine who works as an instructor in the program. I asked him if by any chance teens were enrolling in MOOC courses. He answered me he did not know.

Today, one of the two boys wrote me an email. And he attached a picture he is really proud about. The picture was in fact a print screen of his Circuits and Electronics profile. I asked him permission to publish his results in my blog. I know he realize himself what he has achieved which is a lot for a High School students. I hope the best for him.

domingo, 25 de noviembre de 2012

One hundred years ago (I)

Several years ago, I started a historical research project. I wanted to know the origin of Salvadoran college of engineering. I dug in libraries. I interviewed people. I wrote to foreign libraries. And I went to several national archives. Our university archive had very little information. In an Annual university report, dated 1927, I found some names that helped me to start my research. Two of the names correspond to a couple of brothers. They were Federico and Julio Mejía.

 It was not an easy task to find information about this two former engineers. Who were they?  Where did they graduate? What major did they study? I was lucky to discover one the names in a biographical dictionary. There I found a very short biography of Julio Mejía. I learned that He studied Electrical  Engineering in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).

I wrote some emails to RPI. At the same time I wrote several emails to other institutions around the world; trying to get information from engineers who graduated abroad. Nobody answered me but RPI. An efficient and very nice archivist helped me out. She was very kind. She found out that Julio Mejía's elder brother, Federico Mejía, also graduated from RPI.

Federico Mejía
The eldest Mejía started to study electrical engineering in RPI in 1912, one hundred years ago. He was the son of the salvadoran 19th century aristocracy. He and his junior brother came to America with his family, because his grandfather was a kind of ambassador in Washington.
I managed to contact his descendants. A daughter is still alive. She told me that his father, after graduation, had to leave America because he was drafted for The Great War.

Federico the womanizer?
I just would quote what they wrote on Federico's entry book: ' "Fred." Fred arrived in Troy rather inclined to solve questions by mediation than by corporal struggle. However, he soon realized the ferocity of the Sophs and soon determined to clean them up. Mejía, in his spare hours has an  inclination toward the weaker sex.'

The Devil Is in the Scheduling

I just have recently uploaded homework number 10th. Yesterday, I send my last laboratory. So I am enjoying an air of relief. Except for some points I lost in the midterm exam, I have earned every point 6.002x has allowed me to win.
6.002x lectures are posted two weeks in advance. I am not really sure if they did the same the first time. But, at least, they did it with one week in advance.

Scheduling a course
To organize an experimental online course it is not an easy task. Let us take for instance MITx course on introduction to computer sciences. 6.00x crew can say something about it. The course has had several bugs and delays. But they are doing the best they can in order to give us a learning environment.

This learning enviroment include a way people can manage their time. Activities must be advertise in advance. So, students can organized their life to leave time to study. Having finished my homeworks and laboratories, Now I can  focus my mind in the final exam.

There are two things I like about how 6.002x is organized. First, If you work hard since the beggining and you do what they tell you to do, you have the chance to need very few points at the end. If you want to excell yourself you just need to concentrate to do a good job in the final test. Second, I like the idea of not having to be thinking about delivering homeworks and laboratories and preparing for an exam at the same time. Not having to be delivering work beyond week 10th  is wonderful. Only, if you want to improve some low grade you are allowed to work until week 12th.

sábado, 24 de noviembre de 2012

Vaccum Tubes (III)

Last thursday we started to work on our radio restoration project. The first step was easy: to identify the tubes.We only had a doubt about the rectifier.  Eddystone 850 had as a full-wave rectifier a 5Z4G vacuum tube; and we got the 5Z4G. We plugged in and there you go! It matched the base perfectly.

We plugged the other ten tubes in but we didn't get anything. And here I started to learn many thing from our technician (I have would liked to learn more). He needed to heard audio sound. That was his method and it marked the way to analyze the whole system. From the last  (the output stage) the whole circuit was analyzed. This procedure took us to identify a damaged capacitor. Later we discover the need to short link an outside jumpers. By the end of that day I was very tired. I went home. But Juan, our technician, decided to stay a little bit more.

Next day, I came early to work in other stuffs. When Juan showed up in my laboratory he came with a big smile. For the first time, in more than forty years it has been with us, it started to work.
Because we have been working in a main hall students have been watching us. We have woken up the curiosity of many people. And this has given me the oportunity to talk to student in a friendly enviroment about how did I happen to be interested in vacuum tubes. It was in 6.002x where I first started to learn about mankind greatest achievement in electronic.

jueves, 22 de noviembre de 2012

Vaccum Tube (II)

As I posted a month ago we started experiments with vacuum tubes. We decided to restore an old radio that has been part of our department since its foundation, back in the late sixties.  We had this radio with us and nobody knows when or where it came from. Our most senior technician, who join the department in 1972, says that when he started to work at the university the radio was already there. The radio is a 1960's vacuum tube receptor.
Eddystone 850-2
Our project was to restore this English brand radio. Wrongly, the first thing we did was to try to power it. Rapidly, we realized vacuum tubes were mess up. Along the years people had played with the tubes and they were located in wrong positions. Also, the radio lacked several tubes.

So, we tried another approach. We surfed the web and download its manual. We spend more than two days studying the manual. Also, we did a trip to visit people we thought they could keep vacuum tubes. We had no luck. The vacuum tubes were not possible to be found here in El Salvador.

The tube center
I decided that the only way to continue with our project was to buy them. I was lucky. A quick search took me to an American company located in Orlando, Florida. They had all of them but one. However they offered me an equivalent. So I purchase all of them (eleven tubes). In less than an hour I knew how much I had to pay; US$49.00 plus shipment. Below, I show the list:
  1.   6BA6 (CV454)       @ 4.00 = 12.00
  2.  6AJ8 (CV2128)           5.00
  3.  6AL5 (CV140)            3.00
  4.  6AU6 (CV2524)          3.00
  5.  6AT6 (CV452)            3.00
  6.  6AM5 (CV136)         10.00
  7.  6BE6 (CV453)             3.00
  8.  VR150/30(CV216)      4.00
  9.  5Z4G (CV1863) NOT AVAILABLE, ONLY 5Z4 METAL  6.00
It took three weeks to arrive. Last Friday I got them. However, the final price almost doubled. US$16.00 shipment, US$11.00 local taxes, and US$5.00 for a taxi trip.

Twenty years ago (II)

Twenty years ago I took my first college course on circuit analysis. I barely can remember who my professor was. I only have a fuzzy image of him. At the moment we were ready to start the exam, he gave us some silly recommendations about how to write clearly our answers. If I think about my former circuit analysis classmates, as a group it was a very traumatized group. They were very frustrated about how they were treated by the department.

More than ninety percent of my classmates had been more than five years at the electrical engineering department. And there they were. All of them stuck, still taking and retaking the very first course on circuit analysis. Some of those students wanted me to believe some of their urban legends. They liked to tell stories about an evil, malicious, and wicked professor who always did bad to students.  I do not know how those stories affected me. If they did affect me they  just made me to study harder.

However, in retrospect I have to say that exams were far beyond of what was given in the lectures. Some of the intellectual exercises we were asked to solve were presented just to show how smart the professor was.

Urban legend
Years later I learned that I was not mistaken. Fellow senior professors were very proud about how hard they were with those exams. They also created their own urban myths. One of those myths said that an Italian delegation that came to our department, as part of an international aid program, got scared the shit out of them. It happen because at the moment they got into the building the circuit analysis exam solution was posted in the front wall. The exam was the prove how clever the lecturer was.

miércoles, 21 de noviembre de 2012

Twenty years ago (I)

Some  personal recollections.
My college years were very hard ones. I grew up in a coffee plantation at the west side of San Salvador's volcano. I was raised up by my father's older sister, a humble illiterate campesino woman who always thought I could achieve something in life.

To study at the university of El Salvador I had a very small scholarship, less than US$50.00 a month. That money helped me for transportation and a little food. During 1991 I lived with my father in Santa Tecla, a city located 12 kilometers west of San Salvador. By the end of that year he decided not to host me in his house. I had no place to live. I visited my mother and she offered me some help. During 1992, I lived as a guest of an old man who was a friend of my mother. He offered me a room in his house in a place called Ilopango, about 10 kilometers south east of San Salvador.
I remember the day my mother and I traveled together to my new house. It was a day in January or February of 1992. We had to cross by walking downtown San Salvador. That very same day, there was a mass of people coming from the east of the city to downtown. They were heading toward a central square, which is in front of the cathedral. Occupying the whole street, I guess was Avenida España, we met a  bunch of former guerrilla leaders.  They were followed by hundreds of people. We had to step a side to let the masses move toward the cathedral.

Years later I learned that day was a historical day. That day was the very first time the former guerilla enter to San Salvador peacefully. Peace accords were signed just days before.

During that day, my world was foreign to what was happening in downtown San Salvador. My main preoccupations were of another kind. Of course, I saw the horror of war. But that day, with no home, and nothing more than two books on my backpack I couldn't see nothing but my only survival.

Twenty years ago I took my first course on circuits analysis.
One of the two books I was carrying on my backpack was: Engineering Circuit Analysis by William Hayt. I guess, I paid a fifth of my monthly scholarship. I bought that book because was subsidized by a US aid program called RTAC-II.
I studied that book before the semester started. I remember by first day of class I had resolved the exercises of the first three chapters. I barely can remember the professor who gave that class. But I remember having as classmates students who started their engineering studies in middle 1980's.

Traffic Lights

I think, It was Douglas Barclay, a former American ambassador to El Salvador, who once said: "In El Salvador not even traffic law is enforced". By that he meant that as a general rule the rule of law is not applied.

One important thing MOOC is putting on evidence is the importance to schedule a course, to organize its content and to manage load distribution. Let us take as an example 6.002x. Before starting the course, everybody knew how many laboratories, homeworks and exams were required to take. Everybody knew 6.002x was a twelve weeks course with two exams. Those were the basic rules everybody had to respect. Also I like the idea of not having to deliver homework and laboratories two weeks before the final exam.

Besides 6.002x, I am enrolled in 6.00x, Introduction to Computer Science and Programming. Scheduling has been a nightmare for 6.00x. There have been too many problems in that course. But I am witness the tremendous effort the staff has done to keep up with the initial planning.

Here at the University of El Salvador, at the beginning of every semester professors are supposed to organize their lectures. Each professor has to present a "programa de asignatura" where he schedules every activity he himself compromises to fulfil. In practice, like the problem we have with traffic lights, there is anybody to enforce those basic compromises.

This is our last lecture week for this semester. Next week, students are supposed to take final exams. But, as the case with traffic lights, course scheduling does not work. It shocked me to see on walls an announcement calling to start the very first laboratory on power systems (See picture below). It says something like this: "Wednesday, November 21th, begins Power System Laboratory. Week A and B. " That means some students (Week B) have to start laboratory the very week they are supposed to start taking final exams.
As a rule regular courses like power systems require six to eight laboratories. That means students are going to be cheated by this professor. There will be no laboratory learning. Cynically, at the end of each semester,  students pretend they have learned and professors pretend they have taught.

The lack of organization is very similar to a chaotic traffic jam. It is impossible to create a learning environment with all that lack of organization.

viernes, 16 de noviembre de 2012

The Fiscal (semester) cliff

  It has been reported that Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, coined the term fiscal cliff. He meant to mark a dangerous date where American economy could get into troubles. 
 In a nutshell The New York Times defined it: "The term refers to more than $500 billion in tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to take effect after Jan. 1 — for fiscal year 2013 alone — unless Mr. Obama and Republicans reach an alternative deficit-reduction deal." 
  Several voices have demanded an agreement between democrats and republicans.  A possible agreement has been nicknamed the grand bargain.

  Here at the University of El Salvador a semester last 18 weeks. 16 lecture weeks, 1 week for finals  and 1 week for extra exams. Lectures end next week. We are very close to our semester cliff. By that I mean what it is very typical every semester: disaster and chaos. The disaster has its origin in a completely lack of organization, no scheduling policy, and the mañana mentality.

  In practice we have a general schedule given by the University; but we also have traffic lights and hardly anybody respect them. The way a course is managed is up to the professor. Nobody supervises how many activities are going to be carry out. Neither if activities declared to be fulfilled were actually completed. Every semester we have cases where week 16 ends and exams have not been passed; homeworks have not been graded; laboratories have not been given. Chaos erupts because what has not been done during the semester has to be done during the last three weeks. Or, at least, to fiction things are done.

  The very first time I heard about the term isomorphic mimicry applied to social sciences was on a video recorded by a program called cambridge nights. The scientist Lant Pritchett was interviewed and he introduced the issue. Isomorphic mimicry is a term that comes from the natural evolution world; where things camouflage themselves. They do that to protect themselves.

  Lant Pritchett commented about a MIT study carried out in India. During the study they discover nurse attendance in a hospital was just 30%. He used the example to show up the difference between what is the legal norm and reality. In the record books nurses attendance was 100% but in reality It was not true.  Nurses and probably the whole health care personal can claim to be working (because the books show that) but in practice what you had was a charade.

  In the book The Ghost of the Executed Engineer: Technology and the Fall of the Soviet Union, I read a phrase that blew up my mind. The book's author quoted somebody else's phrase to describe workers behaviour to their state-run companies. The proletarians, the supposed beneficiaries of communism,  expressed their feelings in the cynical observation "we pretend  to work as they pretend to pay us ". 

  Sometimes, cynically, I use it to describe student-professor realtionship. But this will be the subject of a new post.

domingo, 11 de noviembre de 2012

The next four years

Cover of Bloomberg Businessweek portrayed what President Obama may look like after 4 more years in the White House. The image is very shocking. As a middle-aged man It made me feel fear about aging. 
But not everybody ages the same way. If you want to see the way you are going to look like as an old man you can find plenty of software in the Internet. I googled how to age faces. One link took me to a university in the united kingdom.  I dared to experiment with  professor Anant Agarwal's photo. After processing a photo one could think it has done its job. But not. After watching the results very carefully, It may appear results are based on just photo distortion.

In the future, 2012 will be remembered as The Year of the MOOC. This year, in a way, Edx's development could be portrayed as a fibonacci serie. First, 6.002x was born. By september, Edx started with 6.002x. By October new courses were incorporated. We can say that its evolution is almost comparable to a fibonacci series. But it is true this pattern can not continue for ever.

I am fearing MOOC will have a very little impact in developing countries. First, Internet is available at the house of a tiny fraction of the population. Second, university professor prove to have very little interest on studying MOOC courses. Third, Policy university makers are very disconected with what it is happening in the academic world. Last, if MOOC enterprises start charging money and testing in places like Pearson I think enrollment numbers will drop heavily. In the electrical engineering department we have managed to motivate some students to study MOOC courses. One of the reason why We have had some success is  because they see some of us (professors) becoming students.

I have not seen students enrolling in MOOC courses in the other places where I have had the opportunity to talk about MOOC. Here in the Electrical Engineering Department at the University of El Salvador, by the end of the year 2012, more than two dozens of students and professor will hold one or more EdX diploma.

jueves, 8 de noviembre de 2012

Causes of failure (V). No Class Today. Mañana mentality

English is a very open language. I always surprise myself finding Spanish words in written and spoken English. Easily, English incorporates words from any language.

An American co-worker used to talk about the "mañana mentality". He meant to describe the way of life of doing nothing; using the excuse that things will be done tomorrow. I always thought that term was his personal invention. However, a few months ago It surprised me to find a New York Times headline where they used the word mañana. I googled mañana in two English online dictionaries. Webster did not include the word on its database. However, Oxford dictionary had it.

Also, I searched for the word through the New York Times. I found a critique about Jorge Castañeda's book: Mañana Forever? Alexandra Starr, the article author said: 'In “Mañana Forever?” Castañeda contends that the behavior of the cardenistas in Tepoztlán is reflected in broader Mexican culture. Mexicans don’t believe in the efficacy of collective action. They shy away from confrontation and are too accepting of a corrupt status quo.'  The article recall how Jorge Castañeda was urging the local cardenistas to put up a fight against 70 years old incumbent party, the almighty PRI. Feeling defeated by his fellow citizens' attitude, Jorge Castañeda decamped to Mexico City the very next day.

In this blog I have commented many of the reasons why our electrical engineering students failed to succeed.

I have not introduced very basic things like punctuality and responsibility. Two basic concept which are not taken in consideration in the search to improving student performance, professor's teaching or institution quality. 

Let us take, for instance, professors responsibility and accountability. At our department It is so easy for a professor not to give his lecture. He only has to hung up a misspelled add to a wall saying: No Class Today, and that's it. Chairman, fellow professors, and everybody else take the same attitude Jorge Castañeda saw on his trip inland Mexico. In Mexico Cardenadistas were afraid: "The local PRI guys would have made their lives hell." By the contrary, here there is no fear; we all are PRI.

MOOC is teaching us more than academic knowledge. It has lectured us on key issues like: Honor Code. We are witnessing the way a class is organized. We are learning how to distribute knowledge and the importance of scheduling things.