How to Do (Non-emergency) Online Education in a Few Videos

Source: Ken Schultz Tweet

This post is designed to be a non-comprehensive collection of useful information and tools to produce quality online education. As one of the most international Universities in the world, CEU is looking to duplicate a large proportion of their courses online for incoming students who may or may not be able to come to our brand new Vienna campus and take part in our traditional courses. CEU is quite different from most universities. We only do social sciences and humanities and we only have grad students. (Starting this Fall we will also have undergrads, but the vast majority of our training remains grad training.) Needless to say, most of us were also not prepared for the disruption in how we do things earlier this year. I personally would not have known anything about this either but while many of my colleagues were reverting their courses to emergency measures, worrying about what they need to do tomorrow so that their classes do not fall apart, I was not teaching. Still, my circumstances required me to figure out the online education thing fast. (At least I had the time to do it.) 

I am putting together the most useful videos I found to help people visualize, conceptualize and deal with the task at hand. I am also sharing experiences in the text. Hope it will be helpful.

A Bit of Background

(Feel free to skip to the next section if you just wish to quickly get to the resources.) 

Along with two colleagues, Derek Beach from Aarhus University and Benoît Rihoux from the Catholic University Louvain, we have been responsible for the academic content of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) Summer and Winter Schools of Methods and Techniques, two events that run over 100 courses and service close to 1000 people every year for graduate level social science methods education. By March it has become blatantly clear that ECPR will not be able to run the Summer School, hosted by CEU since 2016, in its traditional in-person format. The three of us, with the help of one of our instructors, Cai Wilkinson from Deakin University in Melbourne – famous for its online Cloud Campus, spent what feels like a full time job rebuilding our Summer School offer, recruiting instructors who were either experienced with or excited about investing in high quality online graduate social science methods education. We have been playing with the idea of developing an online offer to complement our in-person event maybe for 2022/2023. (We even had a meeting planned for late spring in Florence, Italy to brainstorm it out. Needless to say, no in-person meeting took place in Italy but the timeline accelerated fast.) We quickly had to become experts in the pedagogical model and get creative in sorting through what would and what would not work for graduate social scientists. We personally ran two pilot workshops (one on Process Tracing and one on Multilevel Regression Modeling) to test out ideas, infrastructure and to gain hands on experience with the pedagogical model. Our instructors are looking to us for guidance and we are preparing the materials to support them. Our new event, on opening day registered people for ¾ of the slots available and landed 40+ people on the waitlist for their preferred course. Now we are working on expanding our offer to accommodate everyone else looking to participate. At the same time CEU made the decision to duplicate its offer between online and on-site for the Fall. For these two communities, I am hoping the following materials will be a useful curation of the hours and hours of videos I watched trying to sort out what is useful and what is not.

First, while the emergency teaching happened synchronously as all of our students were at either our Budapest or Vienna campuses, this model will not be the most appropriate for the Fall when most of our students will be scattered around the globe. We need a model that overcomes tech and connectivity issues people may have. The best way to do this is to rely heavily on asynchronous components of teaching, augmented by synchronous interactive components. It is important to ensure that students feel connected to both the instructors and to each other, to feel like they still are part of a learning community and receive a high quality educational product. Tools that best achieve this are tools we could and should have used in our regular classrooms for a while already, we just did not know about them. Many of these tools will be useful to enhance also our regular teaching. 

(There is a lot of research around pedagogy. Here I will predominantly focus on the basics, the technology, the hands on how-to and the tips and tricks to improve production value of the course. CEU people, please check out the Center for Teaching and Learning materials to get a more comprehensive picture on pedagogy. They have a course on Moodle with great resources.) 

Moodle

Most of us are familiar with the tool (or some other kind of Learning Management System like Canvas, Blackboard and etc.). It is important to have a centralized landing platform for students to access the courses and these LMS systems serve this purpose well. For us at CEU, this has been Moodle (or as some of you would know it, e-learning and later ceulearning, both built on the Moodle platform). This will continue to be the foundations of online classes. The functionality of Moodle is quite endless and I know for a fact that the CEU Moodle team is hard at work integrating the below mentioned tools (and more) for smooth interoperability, along with also upgrading the platform visuals for a more modern look. 

Asynchronous Teaching (The Lecture)

The idea is to separate the teaching of the material into lectures that are unidirectional knowledge transfers which can easily be done asynchronously and other sections (such as social learning, group work, in class discussions, Q&A and etc. – more on this later). Even in regular teaching times, the, so called, flipped classroom model is a useful tool. There, the pre-recorded content is short and lays the foundation of the in-class discussion or activities. With a fully online course, a pre-recorded lecture will be longer, though not as long as an in class lecture in a small group where discussions interrupt the material the instructor plans to deliver.

A few tips on lectures. Again, (1) If the material can be divided into smaller parts, divide it. It is best to have 10-15 minute bits. If the material cannot be divided naturally, that is fine as well, but use division when you can. (2) If your class is in the 15-60 people range, you probably still have some interaction during the lecture. Your recorded lectures will (and should) be shorter when covering the same material. (Estimate roughly half.) In fact, on a video you may want to go a bit faster than in a regular in-person lecture not to bore people. (Remember, people can pause the video. (3) Try to speak in an interesting way. Try not to be monotonic. And, if it is possible, provide closed captioning. There are a few tools out there to do this. (Not sure if Panopto will do it. YouTube does it automatically. And you can find some additional tools if you look.) 

Panopto

Here are some materials that will help you visualize what a good online lecture could look like without professional production facilities. Many (paid) online courses or monetized YouTube tutorials rely heavily on a high production value, they are recorded in a studio, produced professionally, but this is not something most of us will not have the ability to do. It is also not necessary to offer quality. Remember, quality comes from the content. 

CEU has a Panopto license which will be at the core of strategy to help people move their lectures online and it is truly a great tool for this. Here’s an example of a Panopto lecture (recorded probably without much special equipment like a laptop camera and laptop mic – you can of course up your game with a better camera, microphone and lights). This example uses PowerPoint Slides but a board is also available which could be recorded on a Smart Board in the building or an Stylus supporting tablet (sorry, I don’t have such a video):

https://demo.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=1e9a9689-9882-4625-9471-444b4c9bb54e

Panopto can even be used more creatively. Not so much applicable for the social sciences, but look at this biology class utilizing a microscope with a built in camera.

https://demo.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=c1cfa29b-2bc7-4739-8e08-46143d9d1e55

Panopto can augment videos with quizzes pointing to the most important materials guiding the students what should be at the center of a potential live discussion, for example on Zoom. Here’s how:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TAPrM8jHTtM

Panopto can also be used to record in-class lectures. Less than ideal for the asynchronous format, but in a pinch, it could work. Separation between (the recorded) lecture elements of the courses and the interactive component of such recorded classes is key (like one would do in a large auditorium). Classes where the flow is constantly interrupted or that are seemingly unstructured discussions are not ideal for recording and yield a poor experience for the students watching the recording. So some adjustment may be needed when one decides to record an in class lecture. But it is the same adjustment one would do to talk to a large crowd in a large auditorium. Maybe we are not used to this at CEU where class sizes are kept relatively small, but we certainly can easily make this adjustment.

If Not Panopto

If someone wants to move out of Panopto and use some basic video editing tools, it is entirely possible to set up videos of different styles. This one is a particular favorite of mine (a video ironically reviewing Massive Open Online Courses). 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fp60iHV7Rk

I teach quite a bit of statistics. For this type of material, I am a fan of the Khan Academy format. Here’s a course with material that could have easily been in one of my classes (if it wasn’t for the fact that my handwriting is so horrible).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaBq0naj0YY

And you can always just record yourself giving a talk and place it into the corner of a PowerPoint. To best make this work, use a 16:9 aspect ratio for the slides (because this is the size of videos) and leave an area for your image to be inserted. Pro tip: if you make a background with a small dark box the size of the recording you use, you will always know what area you need to leave blank on the slide.The tip also works for handwriting on smart-boards and tablets. Just tape off a corner and then you will never write over that area..

These types of videos require more video editing. For this I would recommend some free tools: iMovie (on a Mac) and I have been recommended Movavi for Windows (but will have to report back on how it worked once I tried it – yes, I intend to test it soon). Sometimes you just need audio editing options. For this, I recommend the free, platform independent, and incredibly flexible Audacity.

At the end of this post, I will also include additional tips for improving the production value of pre-recorded materials, how to think about potential equipment use and even some DIY tips on how to make equipment on the cheap. But first I would like to get to additional components central to the learning experience.

Other Tools To Augment The Asynchronous Experience (H5P and Perusall)

Panopto offers you embedded quizzes, but these other types of videos can also be augmented by an even larger array of activities. Look into H5P for this, which CEU’s Moodle fully supports. Here’s a good introductory video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2HtxLeXGU48

I can easily say that the coolest tool I came across in my search was Perusall. With it, you can turn the reading experience into a social experience. When access to the instructor is limited by distance, it is advisable to annotate assigned readings. It enhances the experience of the students feeling like the instructor is specifically talking to them commenting on the readings. While this can be done easily in a PDF, Perusall takes this to a whole new level where students can also, socially, comment and discuss the reading materials. Here’s an introduction of the platform. (Sidenote: one of the developers of this platform is Gary King, a political scientist and methodologist at Harvard.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxEfWdfxj28

While clearly developed for undergrads, I have had luck using Perusall with grad students. Their business model is to sell textbooks to students, but they also allow the uploading of PDFs. If you assign journal articles or book chapters, this also works great (though stay away from poor quality scans and we will need to sort the copyright issues, but I understand the CEU library team is already on this). I did a webinar with Harvard Physics Professor Eric Mazur who is one of the brains behind the platform. He gave a few recommendations. (1) Don’t comment on what students say. You do not want to create an environment where students ask questions and the instructor offers the answers. (Or worse, an expectation that you will be present 24 hours a day to respond.) Let the students discuss. (I suppose it is OK to upvote or star when someone gives a thoughtful response. And in my workshop I offered responses but only after the lecture where we covered the material at hand.) (2) Turn on the Machine Learning algorithm for grading. The platform can actually grade students automatically (if the group is large enough, if I recall, 15 is the lower limit). I suspect this may not work so well in graduate school. I don’t suppose the platform can distinguish between high level of engagement and highly articulate nonsense and highly articulate thoughtful comments, but for the rest of the spectrum (inadequate engagement) it should be good. It is probably good up to the 80th percentile of the grading scale and the rest needs to be bumped manually for especially thoughtful comments (which makes the work easier for sure). 

Synchronous Components

And there are components of the course where synchronous communication will need to take place. The biggest challenge here is time zones. Departments will have a hell of a time scheduling synchronous components for multiple time zones. But it will have to be done and some synchronous class components will have to be done twice.

Zoom (please, let’s stop using Teams)

I realize Zoom has been controversial. This is mainly because of the publicity the company received for Zoom bombing (people crashing meetings immediately broadcasting pron or racist content). The reality of this situation is that it could have happened on any other platform where open links were broadly distributed. Zoom was just the most used once the pandemic hit because it was the best, it ate the lowest amount of bandwidth, and it had the least amount of lag issues. Zoom is very flexible allowing for an array of interactions between instructor and students during a traditional lecture (though this format should be avoided) including yes, no, go faster, go slower, thumbs up, clap, raise hand. Features such as break out groups offer powerful tools in teaching. (Yes, we tested it in our pilots with excellent results. It is even useful for social activities where with 20 people everyone is quiet but in groups of 6 the conversation is vibrant.) If one knows how to use Zoom’s settings, the security issues go away. Other issues that point beyond Zoom bombing have been addressed in Zoom 5.0, so make sure you have an up to date version installed.

Zoom is useful for live Q&As, class discussions, synchronous group activities and all forms of interactions you may want to do live with the students. It can be used for lectures as well though if one is going to lecture, it is best to just pre-record it.

Here are the video resources I recommend for getting up to speed with Zoom.

Managing Participants: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ozJS9bvdVp8

Break Out Rooms: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbPpdyn16sY

Sharing Your Screen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YA6SGQlVmcA

How everyone can share their screens (useful for coding classes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pt-tcvaQ9I4&feature=youtu.be

Using a tablet as a white board in Zoom: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SCr010CMRsg

And there are additional tips and tricks we should keep in mind. First set the tone for your workshop. You will have to walk a fine line between not being intrusive to people’s lives but insisting on them being present. Courses work best when everyone has good bandwidth, everyone is engaged and everyone has their camera on. Unlike in Teams, you can put a lot of faces on one monitor in Zoom. If there is some reason they need to turn their video off either temporarily or for a whole session, it is fine but try to avoid students falling into the habit of participating with their screens off (if bandwidth allows). How you set the tone about this early on will matter. Etiquette also calls for you looking at the camera when they are talking. (This is extremely hard when your screen shows, say slides or shared screen, and their faces are on another screen next to you.) Everyone should mute their mics when not speaking. (And Zoom allows the host to mute them as well if needed. Sometimes people forget their mic on and start to have a conversation with someone who walked into the room.) Obviously people should only use the chat for useful stuff. As instructors, it is extremely hard to monitor the chat while teaching. But it is still useful for the students for interaction. Don’t host alone. Hopefully you will have a teaching assistant. But if not, plan roles for the students. Ask them to help each other with technology issues. (This was especially important when teaching the software component of a class.)

Slack

Slack is an excellent software to build a learning community where people can interact in various contexts. It would give a platform for people to discuss the class. Instructors can chip in. (I would schedule set times for the instructors to answer questions. But you can also easily follow the fluid class discussion and put a like or heart next to good answers people give to each other, offering some insight if the discussion is heading the right or wrong direction.

Here’s an example video of how one person uses Slack for a class. But I could imagine a whole department setting up a common account with all the courses, with rooms for tracks, specific courses, specific instructors where questions can be posed to them.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8K_N0YCBktU

Tech Tools for Teaching Coding

For more technical courses which require statistical analysis or coding (which may be relevant for Econ, Network Science, Cognitive Science, Public Policy or even some Political Science Classes) there are multiple tools available. Building your own server based infrastructure can certainly be very helpful. I have done this before with R-Studio Server when I needed to teach in a lab where I did not know what will be installed or even if users will have permissions to install, say R packages. The issue is certainly similar on whatever computers people use at home. Amazon AWS infrastructure can be very useful in these instances (if you don’t have your own server). I am in the middle of exploring more such options. On my radar are rstudio.cloud, codeshare.io and I have personally used Google Colaboratory.

Google Colaboratory (or Colab) was designed for the teaching of machine learning applications in Python. Here’s how it works. You upload (or create a new) Jupyter notebook in Google Drive which you can open with Colab. Inside you can use a very simple markup language for communicating information with students in an organized way, you can embed code which you can run on the spot on their free server. It is not very fast but it offers RAM, CPU and GPU. And there are other similar platforms out there as well (but I did not go down this rabbit hole… yet). See here:

https://www.r-craft.org/r-news/six-easy-ways-to-run-your-jupyter-notebook-in-the-cloud/ 

and here:

https://analyticsindiamag.com/5-alternatives-to-google-colab-for-data-scientists/

And now, Colab also works with R. It is a bit annoying how packages you may want to use (and are not installed by default) you have to compile from source (just like in R on any Linux machine). But beyond that it was pretty easy to use. Here’s a screenshot which may help you imagine how it looks and feels a little better. Once the notebook is created it can be shared both online and offline. And the students working in their notebook in Google Drive can easily share their work with the instructor/TA “just like how one can share a Google Docs document and even work in it simultaneously.)

One big downside of this platform is that it requires a Google account. But I have no problem asking someone to set one up just for the class, even if they are opposed to having a Google account (or do not wish to use their personal account for work/school purposes). It may cause some friction.

There is one big caveat to these technical components. We need to be very serious about moving to accessible platforms for everyone. This means a painful (for many) move away from Stata. Students will not have licenses. We cannot rely on computer labs. (Those things are a thing of the past.) I know Stata (for me Mplus) are sometimes the best tools for many jobs, but in our teaching, it is crucial to move to platforms that are open and accessible to everyone.

Production Value of Videos

Finally, I have also compiled a few videos with advice on how to improve the production value of video recordings.

How to build a video studio at home (with great discussions on shooting, background, placement, lighting – no need to take all the advice but it is a good list of what to think about): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TAw-xGSd83I

Cheap gadgets that can help (not necessarily these specific ones, but ones like these): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruDJgtcZB-E

If you want an alternative set up for a white board (that is not just your tablet) this is a good one (especially the second set up presented which only uses a mobile phone camera). The video is intended for people who want to record drawings, but I could easily see it as a whit board alternative. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzv8bxqvXy8

How to build a cheap studio light: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFON04_L3zk

How to make a cheap green screen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wySe_NqfEU

If you want to know more about cinematic lighting, and how people use it for youtube (or teaching) videos, this is a good introduction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6W5wbPqzPw 

I use a DIY studio key light built from a metal cookie tin box and a ring light from the cheap gadgets video as a fill (in a basement room with practically no natural light). Nothing else for now, but working on it.

Thoughts on CEU: CEU should close the Budapest campus

I am going to preface this by saying, I am putting my personal opinions in writing here. No more, no less. I don’t speak for anyone else. My words carry no more weight than anyone else’s who is part of the CEU community. I know this post will piss a lot of good friends and colleagues off. I hope you can forgive me if you are one of these people.

I started writing this series with two interrelated goals. I want to make sure the long term financial health and stability is at the forefront of more people’s mind. I also want to find a way to achieve this financial health without hurting our character and academic prestige in our new situation (which, I am sorry to say, is in Vienna). The first post in my series focused on a possible avenue to achieve this. It discusses a recent innovation in education that has the potential to generate more revenue than a tuition scheme and do so without sacrificing who we are. (If you haven’t read that, please stop reading this and read that first.) The second was a more personal (and, despite having read by more people than the first, probably less of a general interest) post on the consequences of what a good friend called the “academic vandalism of Fidesz and Viktor Orban” also highlighting some of my fears of how the move to Vienna could go terribly wrong for CEU.

There is an ongoing conversation about CEU’s presence in Hungary after the Vienna move. There is one proposal on the table arguing for maximal presence in Hungary. There is a working group put together right now to develop the plan for activities for the Budapest campus. As far as I can tell, there is not a voice on the other side, so for the duration of this blog post, please allow me to be that voice.

There is very little conversation on what the costs of maintaining operations in Budapest are. The proposal on the table does engage in some wishful thinking on where we could maybe get resources for this, but it is as realistic as the magical thinking about the revenue generating abilities we imagined for the alreadz defunct CEU Business School, or for the once overgrown and now deflated School of Public Policy, or, dare I say, our imaginary new tuition generating Viennese programs with which we can grow out of our financial deficits. (The rector, before the crisis, took office with a plan to shrink. That sounded prudent. Whatever happened to that plan?) We don’t have a good track record here so I fear for our future. But even if we accept the arguments made for revenue generation of a Budapest presence, it is not like most of those resources could not be generated in Vienna or put to better use on other projects. Nobody is considering the opportunity costs.

First, every day we remain in Hungary, we validate Viktor Orban’s arguments. He has been going around saying: “What do you mean we kicked CEU out of the country? They are there. Right there. Go down to Nador Street. The sign is on the building. People are going in and coming out. CEU never left Hungary. What CEU said is just a trick to smear the Hungarian government. They are not going anywhere.” And every day we stay in Budapest, Viktor Orban is right, we validate his rhetoric. Our complete existence is made impossible in Hungary, but we remain stubborn, stay and help Viktor Orban make his point. The University is now desperately searching for things to do on the Budapest campus without considering the possibility that maybe we shouldn’t do anything. Maybe we should leave. Seemingly, we are committed to taking a stand saying we are not going anywhere, but are we really taking a stand here? Maybe leaving would be the actual stand.

I understand that people have strong connections to Hungary. I do too. (If you doubt it, then read my previous post on what the Vienna move means to me.) But anyone who believes that a move to Vienna is evitable, if they can avoid commuting, they are really fooling themselves. A better question even, would they be so committed to Hungary if they had to commute back to the Budapest campus from Vienna?

I love our new building. It feels like a second home to me. I do not even go to my office (or, for people who really know me and know I never worked in my office, I also don’t go to the nearby cafes) anymore. I just work in the N13 public spaces because they feel like such a great work environment. I love our classrooms. I even loved teaching 60+ people stats in our 76 seat auditorium, because the room made it feel like a 25 person class. (That was some serious efficiency gain for teaching credits. I’ll never do it again without excessive TA support.) But, I believe, we need to go and make an equally great place, great environment for CEU in Vienna.

The second argument for leaving is financial. We simply cannot afford to maintain a presence on a second full size campus (that we are desperately struggling to fill up with life with things that will also cost money most probably). As far as the finances of the University are concerned, the people who are putting plans together for a tri-campus life with an equal Budapest and Vienna presence often cite the recent generous donation by the founder. If anyone thinks that generous donation is good for anything but putting us back on life support, really needs to check their numeric literacy. (I welcome them in my intro to stats class next year. We start with a basic algebra refresher.) Let’s just say, they need to have serious conversations with the Provost who is responsible for CEU finances. In a phone call we had recently, he was able to put our financial situation in quite real terms. I mean, we will survive it, the situation is not that dire, but… well… see the first post in this series about our long-term financial health. (And maybe also the second on my associated fears.)

There are two costs associated with the maintenance of operations in Budapest. Everyone talks about one of these, the cost of the actual operations. But there is another big ticket item that economists dub the opportunity cost (or the cost of not spending these resources somewhere else). To put it bluntly, I strongly believe that CEU would be better served putting the value of the real-estate portfolio back into the endowment (and to do this while real-estate prices are so high in Budapest). If the money is in the endowment, that increases our annual yield, it gives us more money every year to operate. Maybe the pressure to charge tuition would not be so large then. Maybe we could remain that place that is open to everyone if you are smart, hard working and ambitious (even if you do not have access to loans or do not come from money).

I understand CEU wants to maintain some of their non-academic staff in Budapest as a cost cutting measure. (Staff in Vienna will be expensive.) I am all for it. Let’s rent office space somewhere for them. We don’t need to have these offices in some of the most expensive real-estate in Budapest.

What makes this proposition quite painful is that such a wholesale departure, commitment to give up the downtown campus, means that our departure is final. But what were we expecting? That we can pack up Vienna and move back? Or that we miraculously could afford to operate two equal campuses in the future? (Check how that worked last time.) I understand that our new (social science PhD) mayor is now suddenly very welcoming but how does that help us when Fidesz, as they seemingly take a step, or two, back from their usual institutional annihilation march, don’t you all find it curious that the already negotiated treaty, the only thing needed to ensure CEU’s existence as an American university in Hungary is, at least to date, is still not signed by Viktor Orban?

I love our new buildings as much as anyone. But in my decade and a half at CEU, we already toyed with the idea, once, that we get out of the real-estate and move to another location. If we can ever afford to come back to Budapest (and the situation is such that we are welcomed back with no risk of a single election swiftly changing that), we can find a new home for CEU in Budapest. It is not like this possibility was not on the table before (although, I remember people didn’t like it too much then either, but that is beside the point).

Finally, and maybe most importantly, CEU should pursue all legal means against the Hungarian Government to get compensation for our damages. Recouping some of the expenses of this move will definitely help in putting the University back on a more solid financial footing. (This was costly. While our less than stellar financial performance pre-date the crisis, it is not unrelated to the costs endured with the move either.) I am not a lawyer. I don’t know how this works. But some avenue must be available to, at least, financially remedy the wrongs done to CEU. Sure, Fidesz will tell the Hungarian people that we are stealing their money, but that is not true. They stole the Hungarian people’s money when they, defying all rule of law, kicked CEU out of the country. Taking legal action against the Hungarian government will certainly make our relationship to Hungary more contentious. If that happens, we would need to worry about the safety of our real-estate, the safety of our staff and the safety of our students (something that has not been an issue so far). I don’t believe we could take legal action while we operate a campus in Budapest.

Of course, there are arguments for maintaining a strong presence in Hungary as well. The academic arguments are strong. At times very strong. Take for example the Baby Lab tied to the Cognitive Science department who run developmental panel studies of many many children, all in Hungary. Such academic operations need not be shut down, but they also do not require a whole campus. (Considering the Baby Lab used to operate out of a completely different building on the other side of the Danube for years, I do not think this argument is controversial.) Multiple departments have a closer tie to Hungary and CEE in general. I understand that they worry about moving out of this region. But it is not like we have much of a choice here. With faculty replacements down the road, these units will diversify. In the mean time, I am sure there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that if one wants to study what they focus on, CEU is the place to be in Budapest or Vienna. I would argue that we should not leave our academic roots in Hungary, we should, in fact, up our Hungarian societal outreach. We should build on the many Hungarians on CEU’s faculty to do this. Research on Hungary should persist. We should remain parts of the academic networks. I certainly hope to keep my position on the board of the Hungarian Political Science Association. I hope Zsolt Enyedi (the person who, if he got this far, is probably quite unhappy with me right now) and I will continue to collect public opinion data after each parliamentary election to ensure we stay part of the international network of election studies that make great electoral comparative research possible. But we do not need to keep our old campus to do this. Such activities, in most cases, can be coordinated out of a modest office and in most cases directly out of the Vienna campus.

What pains me the most in writing this is realizing how much our friends and colleagues, the social scientists at Hungarian universities and research institutes will lose if we move the library away. Whatever office is left of CEU should include a reading room, access to all of our electronic resources and a way to request book transfers. This is the least we can do.

Our Hungarian accreditation is up in 2022. The University is already trying to figure out how we could keep enough Hungarian employees to maintain Hungarian accreditation, but also have these people teach in Vienna. Any outcome of this is hardly an ideal scheme. Our romantic ties to Budapest will fade with time. New faculty will have no connection to Budapest. What will remain is  CEU that we all want to see successful both academically, financially and as the beacon of freedom where the future leaders, societal investors and social scientists are trained. Let’s make sure that we make the right decisions now to ensure we can continue doing what we do, in Vienna, under the best of conditions.

 

Thoughts on CEU: What I lose with the Vienna move.

In my previous blog post on how to generate more revenue for CEU than a tuition scheme ever could (and do so without selling out our principle), I promised that this is only the beginning of a series. I also mentioned that I will, soon, write more about how “the CEU2025 plan […] (with generous help from the Hungarian government) will destroy everything that made CEU a great place to work for me.” This is going to be a very personal post and, really, nobody should care about this (in fact, if you have not done so yet, read the previous post even instead of this one). But I do want to lay out, in print, what gloomy future I see in the current transformations and our CEU2025 plan. This post is about how all these things affect me and only me. Others’ opinions may vary.

Let’s take stock at what CEU offered me. It allowed me to (1) be at home, in Budapest (in one of the nicest parts of the city), while (2) working in a mostly American academic environment, at a (3) prestigious institution where (4) we only have to work with the most ambitious students who decided to get a graduate degree. (5) We have a manageable teaching load in line with the research focus of the institution. We have time to do research. CEU (6) offered us a salary that is kind of sort of competitive with the Western world (where all of us coming to CEU – at least in the past decade) would have been looking for jobs) that, factoring in cost of living, allowed for an upper-middle class life. So let’s take this point by point in no particular order.

Budapest (1): CEU is leaving Budapest for the most part. A commute is impractical, to say the least. My wife and I decided not to do it. CEU will be going through incredible changes. I do want to be present to shape this change. But this comes at a cost. I am losing the closeness of my family and my home. I worked hard to move back from the US after 10 years of college there. Now I leave not by my own choosing. (I am not the only one who left the country because of a lack of appropriate jobs around that pay anything, so my personal tragedy is hardly unique. But this still feels a little different than economic migration.) Personally, my living arrangements are (were) ideal in Budapest as I live in a separate and individual apartment in a larger housing unit that my parents built for our entire family. Not counting a short pause between the death of my great grandmother (at a 101 years of age) in 2009 and the birth of my daughter in 2016, we have been a four generation household for most of my adult life. With the Vienna move I will have to leave this (or commute which, while considered perfectly normal for academic families in Germany, is brutal for someone who has different conceptions of normal like myself). While my rent currently is practically 0 I did recently sink the price of a small downtown apartment into fixing up the place, finishing an entire unfinished floor. (Something I will never get back.) Now my rent goes from this to… whatever it is going to. (Probably around 1500 EUR.) I have no equity in the existing real-estate. I only had the renovation expenses I did to make a life for my family there. I guess I will always have a nice place to come back to if I ever want to spend a weekend or a few weeks in Budapest. I also lose free, instant and on demand child care. While others may prefer not having their family so close, losing that for me is incredibly difficult.

Graduate Only (4): To become a university in Austria, we had to accredit two undergraduate programs (and I understand, as I am part of the team putting it together, plans for more are on the way). One of these two programs is PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) where my department, the department of political science contributes greatly. So we will now have to teach undergraduate students. During my graduate work at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, between 2002 and 2006, I taught undergraduates in the US. On average, this was a course a semester (or, while I was still an MA student, equivalent number of discussion sections for large lectures of freshman level Intro to American Politics or Intro to International Relations offered by a professor). My own courses included Public Issues in American Politics; Elections, Parties and Interest Groups; and Polls, Politics and Public Opinion. During my temporary appointments at CEU (2007-2008) I taught a course a semester at ELTE. Courses included Intro to Political Science and an adoption of the Public Issues class I taught in the US. I enjoyed teaching undergrads at the time, but to do this well is a lot of work. I don’t feel I have the experience to do this anymore. Working with graduate students, the expectations of an instructor change. I am sure I could get back into it, but it will be a transition and, let’s face it, from the perspective of prestige, it will be a downgrade. In sum, this is not ideal but teaching undergraduates is certainly not the end of the world.

The teaching load (5): This I worry about. As we move to an institution that is all graduate school and research to one that also focuses on undergraduate education, the teaching load may also increase. This is especially true in light of the financial position of the university (which I wrote about last time). Most of the plans circulating wish to add the undergraduate education without increasing the number of professors or pushing the undergraduate teaching on PhD students (which would not be a bad idea in my opinion). Some suggestions included the restructuring of PhD education in a way to eliminate teaching mostly or entirely. Either way, I fear, the teaching load will have to increase or the American Character (2) of the program that is strongly focused on teaching our PhD students will suffer. I don’t want to make this post about the relative merits of having or not having PhD courses, but let’s just say I believe a shift here would affect the political science program negatively and I personally don’t like it. In other respects we will continue to work as an American university. Most of this we certainly will not lose. In fact, if the parts of the University that were the most “Hungarian” (and I don’t just mean the canteen) could become a little less “Hungarian” and that would be an upgrade.

Salary (6): CEU proposed to raise salaries of assistant professors 25%, Associates 20% and Full 15%. (I fall in the latter category due to my very recent promotion. I even wondered if asking for promotion now was a mistake. But I think CEU would have managed to even it all out with the raise I got (or would have gotten next year) with the promotion. So I am going to believe it is a wash.) Austrian taxes are quite a bit higher than Hungarian taxes (so are the services, I guess – this certainly is a plus). But the cost of living adjustment is 50%. Housing price differential is 80% (which, as you see above will hit me particularly hard). Given my personal situation, I do not think I can maintain my current quality of life short of a 100% raise. And that I will certainly not get.

The University leadership is framing this issue the following way. We are told that Austrian academic salaries are actually comparable to (as in, not much higher than) our current salaries, hence the modest raise. Of course, anyone who knows anyone at the University of Vienna knows that these numbers are only half-truths. They are salary floors, possibly the ones in the union contracts. The reality is, in the words of one University of Vienna colleague, these sums are only made by people who have never been in a competitive situation in their lives. They got their PhD here and moved up the ranks. They never negotiated. Nobody at CEU got their professorships this way. The person also added that “I make a heck of a lot more than those numbers”. The fact is that actual salaries, especially of competitive people we believe we are, and especially in Vienna, are quite a bit higher. I am going to give leadership the benefit of the doubt that they simply do not know this. But they are also in a difficult position. (See the previous post on CEU finances.) But the framing still bothers me. Speaking of frames, I also heard the following pitch from the CEU Vienna office. If I had the opportunity to go teach at Columbia, could I still expect the school to provide my CEU quality of life where I can easily live in the best area of Budapest (so best area of Manhattan)? Of course not. (When I heard this pitch in the Vienna transition office, I was not there to complain about salaries and I have done nothing of this sort. I was asking if they know about the specific registration times for schools because I do not want to get there and not have access to the public education system. I don’t know if it is muscle memory, but I still got this pitch. I am going to let everyone figure out what is wrong with this analogy. The list could have its own post. And, sure, fair enough. Let’s accept that Columbia frame.)

I am not here to complain about my future salary, but there is a lot to complain about. I care about CEU’s financial health so I am holding myself back here. But I would be lying if I said this is not an important item on that list of things made worse by the transition to Vienna. And this will come at other costs. While I may be committed to CEU, not everyone will be. Some of the best people will certainly leave. With these salaries, with the higher Austrian cost of living, with the undergrads our ability to recruit the best faculty to replace them will certainly diminish. The quality of research output will go down. We will have a harder time competing for grant money also because we are not anymore in that difficult region of post-communist CEE where you want collaborators from on your team but often have a difficult time finding people who can maximally contribute. CEU was always an obvious choice. All of this means rankings will go down, that means we will have a more difficult time recruiting the best scholars for our grad programs, best researchers for our PhD (and post-docs) and that means we will have an even more difficult time recruiting the best faculty and the cycle perpetuates with the potential to seriously hurt the prestige (3) of CEU. In essence, we need to put a break on this downward spiral that the university is certainly in danger of getting into. Without financial health, we have little to no abilities to do this. (This is why I wrote the first post in this series and this is why that was the first. But watch out for more posts on the subject.) I can say this much, I am giving CEU many years to show that this pessimistic outlook of the future is not our path. And I will work every moment of every day to put breaks on this downward spiral before I am going to let my commitment to CEU wane. And I know that there are many people who think the same way. This is why CEU will continue to be a great place to work, a great place for students and a great place to be, in general.

Thoughts on CEU: Would Income Share Agreements Work for Us?

CEU is going through an incredible transformation. We are moving countries and we are facing new challenges. CEU leadership laid out a plan that is referred to as CEU2025. I plan to write about what I am about to say in an itemized list but my broad conclusion after looking at the CEU2025 plan is that it (with generous help from the Hungarian government) will destroy everything that made CEU a great place to work for me. (Others’ opinions may vary, but as far as I am concerned, this is how I see it.)

I have made a promise to myself that, despite more regular solicitations, I will stay at CEU and see all this through. I will try to contribute to the best of my ability. But in the process, my main goal will be to ensure this negative foreshadow of the CEU2025 future does not come to fruition. Next fall I will give up the on-demand baby sitting just one floor below where my parents live and move to Vienna because I believe that will be the best place where I can contribute to making an Austrian CEU an even greater place to be both for us, the faculty, and, most importantly, for our students.

These blog posts under the “Thoughts on CEU” series will be in this spirit. Hopefully they can contribute to a conversation on how CEU could thrive despite its new challenges.

To begin the series, we have to talk about something none of us want to talk about. CEU, despite recent recapitalization of the endowment and additional money for the Vienna transition (and maybe also cash for a permanent campus in Vienna), is not in good financial shape. It is fair to say most people on campus are not honest about this fact. Even the ones who may have been concerned before are now fooling themselves with this recapitalization. We, the faculty, do not have on demand access to accurate and up to date information about our yields, endowments, budget, but I can cite a conversation with the Rector here (from before our “little local troubles” started) we are not in good shape and the current influx of capital only puts us on life support, giving us a chance to get back on our feet and not be doomed in the long run.

To combat the problem, CEU2025 proposes to collect 3000 EUR tuition even from people who previously received a full ride. (Note that CEU2025 was only a few slides and the proposals are, of course, fluid. That is exactly why I am putting these thoughts out in the open.) Above, I mentioned that I have a long list that makes CEU a great place to be (and in my next post I will itemize). Here’s the first one: we have excellent and ambitious students many of whom had no opportunities elsewhere because they cannot afford it.

This tuition move puts CEU outside of the reach of some of our best students. Cost of living increases in Budapest (mostly due to steeply increasing real-estate prices) of the past 6-8 years have already put a strain on low income families’ ability to send their kids (and sometimes spouses, mothers and fathers) to CEU. Add Vienna cost of living ,which is around 50% more than in Budapest (with housing prices 80% higher) along with this hint of 3000 EUR tuition certainly puts us out of the reach of our traditional demographic of students who cannot afford a Western education. CEU, traditionally, was the jumping board to a Western education for much of the post-communist region. By the time I joined CEU in 2006, the West was directly accessible to many, but not to everyone. If we lose this demographic, I wonder who will come to CEU? This, of course, calls for a longer conversation but I do not believe that the appropriate market research has been done to answer it. If it has been done, I haven’t seen it. So, for now, lets just say that if we trade ambitious people who had no other opportunities for well off people who had no other opportunities, CEU’s reputation will certainly suffer (not to mention its academic staff).

But maybe there is an appropriate way to handle this without charging tuition. A few months ago a 50+ year old idea dating back to Milton Friedman’s book Capitalism and Freedom received quite a bit of attention in the news: Income Share Agreements. Agreements that a student can attend a University for free and in exchange they will share a certain percentage of their income for a certain amount of years. NPR’s Planet Money described it as a University buying stock in a student they train. They literally financially invest in the student’s future success.

Now, that sounds like CEU to me. We pride ourselves in our students, in training the future leaders of the entire region. We have students who are mayors of capitals, ministers, EU administrators. We believe in our students. So instead of charging them tuition, why not invest in them?

There are many nuances of how these income share agreements work to go through in such a blog post. But let me highlight some of the most important ones. CEU is not trying to generate that much revenue per student. So we could keep the income share quite low. Purdue University’s program asked 15% for 8 years from someone who worked in food science. (Purdue University also varied the percent depending on the person’s major, but this is a non-issue at CEU.) We can probably do much better keeping the percent at a non-scary number. Say, 5% would sound OK to me. Our tuition are nowhere near Purdue’s (though maybe neither is the projected income of our students, not sure). I guess we can keep the time longer if need be. The 8 years was 8 years while a person was in employment or was seeking employment. If someone wanted to get out of the labor force and make money traveling around the world busking, that did not count. (They could do it and pause their 8 years.) On the other hand if someone was laid off and was searching for their next job, that counted towards the 8 years. There were protections in place for the students. If they became mega-millionaires. They still only had to pay back 2.5x the cost of their tuition (a tuition that, with such a program in place, CEU could totally raise without a bad conscience). The amount the school expected back was capped.

Such an arrangement would allow our historical demographic access to CEU, especially if CEU provided some need based housing and scholarships to offset Vienna’s relatively high cost of living. It would put CEU in the world of cutting edge outside the box thinking, innovative solutions true to who we are and who we inspire to be. And there are other benefits. First, CEU received strong criticism for its “neo-liberal” behavior from an internal activist group. While I share the group’s concerns, I worry about their numeric literacy. If their goal was to just blow the endowment over the next decade or two, then I do not share these goals. If they thought figuring the numbers out is not their job, I do not find their propositions constructive. Maybe they were just, like so many at CEU, ignorant about our financial situation. This strategy is one that even such a radical group and the people whose job is to look after the financial health of the University could (maybe even should) agree on. Also, let’s say such a program is launched and the 10 or so years (whatever it will be) is up for the first students. The University, at this time, will have a strong personal but also contractual relationship with this student. We would have a great ability to communicate with them, find them if we lose track of them (because we would have the ability to collect more information from them even in the age of GDPR and use this information for staying in contact). So why not ask them to keep contributing? Not everyone will, but in the spirit of CEU’s mission, they may just chose to target CEU (or its future students) with their philanthropy. They are used to paying 5% of their income to CEU. Why not just keep doing that (and get a tax write off)? Maybe these people will be the ones who put CEU in their will and 75 years down the road, the benefits will multiply.

There is just one major complication this is all pointing to. In the past I have often asked why CEU doesn’t offer student loans for tuition or housing ourselves. The response was always, we simply cannot. We don’t have the ability to track students from a 130 countries to get our money back. That is true. But you know who else doesn’t have that ability? NOBODY! None of the financial institutions operate in all countries effectively. Some may decide to take on such a task but it will cost us, or it will cost the student dearly with heavy interest. The reality is that CEU is in the best position to administer such a program. We are used to offering education, even for free to students. Let’s keep doing that with deferred income. We do not have the ability to go after anyone in every corner of the world, but we have the ability to put a list on our website of the former students who defaulted on their obligations. (Not something we should take lightly, but this ability is a stronger enforcement mechanism than what anyone will have. One’s reputation is important.) Will some people default? Sure. Will it be such a large percent to declare the project a failure? Maybe I have too much faith in people but I sincerely do not believe so. I know this is an experiment, but what we lose if we, in the spirit of CEU2025, start charging tuition of everyone (or just about) is quite clear. The potential for gain with this alternative structure may be greater than anyone could predict today outperforming any tuition scheme we may put in place. So why not try it? If it fails completely, we can go back to a more traditional structure.

NOTE: Many of the ideas presented here come from the above linked NPR Planet Money Podcast and the Freakonomics interview with Purdue President (and almost Republican US Presidential contender) Mitch Daniels.