January 29, 2013

MOOC and Grandes Ecoles: surfing the tsunami

In North-America, the development of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) is seen as a panacea, a way to fix some of the multiple flaws of the higher education system. From a buzz standpoint, this belief culminated when Stanford president claimed "there is a tsunami coming." The debate is less lively in France. Yet, the tsunami would have good chances to affect the French higher education as well.
An originality of the French higher education system is the prominent position of Grandes Ecoles. I am working in one of them, Telecom Bretagne, which is part of the Institut Mines-Telecom.


My first claim is that Grandes Ecoles are in danger. Reasons include:
  • Grandes Ecoles have to face new competitors. The emergence of start-ups like Udacity and Coursera has transformed Grandes Ecoles into an oligopoly of dinosaurs. Grandes Ecoles are used to the competition among themselves. In short Grandes Ecoles share the "market" of producing highly-qualified professional students, which is a market that universities do not address accurately. The reality is that all Grandes Ecoles have approximately the same offer: roughly same size, same structure, same diploma, same normalized courses. The aforementioned new competitors are start-ups with limitless ambition and nothing to lose. They have almost no administrative cost, they do not waste money in research, they can fail and revise their strategies on a month basis, they can address students worldwide. These start-ups actually shuffle the cards.
  • Grandes Ecoles' main asset is diploma in a certification world. Companies like Cisco and Microsoft have developed professional certification systems for years. Students become super-expert in a given specialty and receive a certificate, which demonstrate their employability. Though, these efforts have never disrupted the high-education system. By offering individual courses, MOOCs challenge again the notion of degree, which is commonly seen as a set of certifications (including many useless ones). The companies that are not convinced by the degree system will find in MOOC a great opportunity to revisit their Human Resources processes and to bypass Grandes Ecoles.
  • Grandes Ecoles are not attractive for the targeted students. Grandes Ecoles are very attractive to bright French students, but MOOC's target population is all over the world. Unfortunately, Grandes Ecoles are visible neither in international rankings, nor on the web. Grandes Ecoles have also not demonstrated strong relationships with companies that really matter to students (especially Apple and Google). Finally, the perspective to live in France during three years for courses that are not all considered as worthwhile is a key weakness.


My second claim is that Grandes Ecoles are in an excellent position. Here is a selection of advantages.
  • Grandes Ecoles are adaptive. These are small institutions, which are directed by managers having a long experience in industry. Grandes Ecoles are far more flexible and reactive than any other institutions. They can re-organize, they can develop strategical plans, they can reinvent themselves and they can embrace new ways to fulfill their missions without delay. MOOC is an opportunity for Grandes Ecoles to develop new businesses and to improve their offers.
  • Grandes Ecoles excel on what complement MOOCs. It is a common understanding that MOOC is about knowledge. A set of MOOCs is not enough to turn students into smart workers. Many other competencies should be developed, including team-working, communication skills, and social networking among classmates. Grandes Ecoles focus on these aspects through project-based pedagogy, personalized and tutored curriculum, campuses designed as learning centers, and good placement in attractive companies. In Europe, Grandes Ecoles excel in all these aspects and find here a way to differentiate in a positive way from other institutions. Grandes Ecoles can leverage MOOC rather than suffering from MOOC.
  • Grandes Ecoles have already a strong relationship with companies. Curricula are typically discussed with companies on a regular basis such that learning matches the requirements of targeted employers. Grandes Ecoles also have developed programs for "continuing education" in relationships with Human Resources. Thus Grandes Ecoles are used to the act of selling learning programs elaborated by their faculties in a business perspective. The diploma is a virtual good that has made sense since the XIXth century, often challenged but never surpassed because companies like employees who are more than just a super-expert in a couple of areas.
The next couple of years will be key for Grandes Ecoles. It will be very interesting to observe what the executives of Grandes Ecoles will do. Undoubtedly, executives will have to be brave if they want to transform their institutions. They have to make Grandes Ecoles able to compete at the planet scale, to leverage their assets, to catch up emerging trends, and to focus on what is really making Grandes Ecoles unique learning places. Strong decisions will have to be taken. For example: giving up with academic research to re-focus on education, cutting faculty jobs in departments that have no activities in core scientific domains, developing business related to buying/selling MOOCs...

This increasingly frustrating peer review process

Academic people barely share their bad personal experiences related to peer reviewing. But everybody has papers rejected in conferences… and these decisions sometimes generate legitimate frustration since they seem to be due to some "random bad outcome from this plain old flawed reviewing process". On my side, I have the feeling that reviewing process is getting worse and worse. I am not alone. Following this example, I describe below some recent reject notifications that illustrate some of these flaws. And I propose some ways to fix them.

The un-rebutted rebuttal
In 2012, both ICME and Sigcomm conferences introduced a rebuttal in the reviewing process. I know a lot of scientists who call for such rebuttal process. Unfortunately, my experience of rebuttal was absolutely disastrous on both cases. It is interesting to note that these conferences are definitely not in the same league.

For ICME, I suspect one of the reviewer to be a weak graduate student: he gave us a strong reject based on his claim that one of the four proofs of the paper was wrong on a specific equation. Unfortunately his mathematical statement was false. This bad review was the perfect case where a rebuttal can help to fix a clear misunderstanding and a wrong analysis. We spent a significant part of our rebuttal trying to politely fix the mathematical error of this reviewer. Hélas, we received our negative notification. The reviewers did not change any word of their review. And the meta-reviewer gave us this unforgivable remark: "The authors thinks that the reviewer 2 misunderstand the work in this paper. From the comment, the reviewer should be an expert in this field". This meta-reviewer does not understand rebuttal, does he?

For Sigcomm, one of the reviewers claimed that our 14-pages long proposal can be done by tweaking another existing system. More precisely, the reviewer "believes that with simple changes to your problem, one can use the [other] system to tackle it, probably by just changing the utility function." We knew well this said other system… and we double-checked again. No, there is no way, both papers share some words, but they are like apples and oranges. However, this was the main strong drawback raised by this reviewer, so we were full of hope that we could make our case by carefully explaining the differences with this previous work. Hélas, triple hélas, one month later, the reviews arrived, unchanged.

In both cases, rebuttals came back without any changes, even when we highlighted some major wrong analysis.

Proposal: I don't believe much in rebuttal, but at least this proposal deserves a better implementation. In particular, reviewers must address the remarks that authors made about their reviews.

The anonymous reviewer
We submitted a reasonable paper to a special issue of IEEE Transactions on Multimedia. One reviewer was vaguely positive, one reviewer was vaguely negative, and then came the third reviewer… This guy did not find any positive comment to do. It looks like none of these 14 pages was worth anything. Moreover, all his negative comments were excessively aggressive and mostly based on wrong self-proclaimed facts. The review was just a piece of harsh and assertive remarks. This paper was not a Nobel Prize, for sure, but it was a honest, valid paper, with a motivation based on a series of observations from well-established measurement systems, some theoretical developments, and a non-trivial simulation. Maybe not worth a publication in this journal, but why so much hate?

One well-known issue of peer reviewing in computer science is the excessive harshness of reviewers, often young scientists, comfortably protected by the anonymity. In the excellent "Guide for Peer Reviewing", it is said that, as far as possible, the first paragraph of a review should summarize the goals, approaches and conclusions of the paper (including positive assessments) while the second paragraph should provide a conceptual overview of the contribution.

Proposal: Some reviewers would be less assertive, and less aggressive if there were any probability that their identity would be revealed. Why not having a "out of the k reviews you do for a conference, one of them will be randomly chosen to be de-anonymized." Or a "one out of ten reviews are de-anonymized".

The no-room-for-cold-topics program chair
We sent a P2P paper to Globecom, although it is well-known that P2P is now a very cold topic. We received two clearly positive reviews, and one review slightly more negative in the grades, but with comments like "The addressed problem is relevant, the paper is well-written and technically solid". Globecom has a 37% acceptance ratio, but despite these grades, our paper has been rejected. My first reject at Globecom.

I asked some additional explanations to the TPC chair, and he kindly answered that "in the confidential comments, there was a voiced concern about novelty". In other words, it seems that anonymity is not enough for reviewers, they still require an even more anonymous place to assess the judgements they are the less proud of. According to the guide of peer reviewing, the "confidential comments" are just a bad habit, which affects the overall transparency of the reviewing process. On my side, I never use it, and I don't find any convincing point for using it.

Proposal: ban the confidential comments.