Learning Unbounded: EdX Introduction to R

It’s an open secret: to be a university professor is to be a perpetual student.  Learning doesn’t stop with the PhD; there’s always something new to read, always something new to discover, always something new to write, always something new to analyze, always a new technique to understand. This is why academics love the summer: finally, after teaching what we’ve already learned, we can learn some more!

One of my projects this summer is to bone up on the basics of a computer program for data analysis and visualization called R.  When I was a graduate student in the 1990s, statistical software was produced exclusively by companies at a fairly steep price.  Even now SAS 9.4, a software package used for data analysis in the academic and business communities, costs many thousands of dollars for an individual license (it’s so expensive that SAS won’t publish its price publicly).  If you were lucky, you had access to a university lab with software already installed.  If you didn’t have access and you wanted to run an analysis beyond the simplest level, you were simply out of luck.

All that changed with the introduction of R, a free and open-source program that runs on Windows computers, Mac computers, Unix computers and even web servers.  Methodologists from all kinds of disciplines are increasingly devoted to the development and extension of R, meaning that the latest analytical techniques are regularly added to R through easily added plug-ins called “packages.” R is easy to download, quick to install, and …

… well, I’d like to say it’s easy to run, but the truth is that for a generation that has grown up using pointing and clicking, it may be a bit intimidating to see a program with a command prompt that requires you to work almost entirely by entering text commands at prompts or developing programs of saved commands:

Screenshot of R running in the Windows environment

Still, with a bit of practice, it’s not much harder to type in text commands than it is to choose options in a drop-down menu.  The difference is that with drop-down menus, all options are presented to you in an organized fashion.  When you use R, you have to start out knowing what the commands are, and if you don’t know, you have to go find out.  It’s not R’s responsibility to show you what to do; it’s your responsibility to learn what R can do.  This is learning unbounded.

I became familiar with R by necessity earlier this year, when I needed to generate robust variance estimates in order to account for clustering in a sample.  That option isn’t available in most free menu-driven statistical programs, and I had a budget of $0 for my research project, so I installed R and the package rms by Frank E. Harrell, Jr.  R got the job done.

Since then, I’ve become aware that R can do much more than run a statistical analysis.  It can be used to gather data automatically.  It can be used to write automated webpages.  It can be used to create simulations.  It can visualize patterns in data with amazing graphics and videos (browse through the Google+ community for Statistics and R to get a taste of the possibilities).  But this level of high-end performance requires a more fundamental understanding of R than I’ve got right now.  To get back to basics and build myself a good foundation of understanding, I’ve started EdX’s Introduction to R Programming course.  This is another example of learning unbounded.  It’s an entirely online educational experience, I haven’t paid a cent to enroll, and I’m finding myself interacting with people from all over the globe in the course’s discussion sections.  Students in this course are asked to introduce themselves and say a little bit about where they’re from.  On a whim this morning, I tallied up the countries represented among students in the R course.  They are:

The United States isn’t even the top spot for R students; that position is taken by India, and there are 48 nations sending at least one student to the course. Just as the way we produce knowledge is changing, so is the way we learn how to produce knowledge.

P.S. Faced with a generation of academic and business analysts flocking to R, SAS has lost significant market share. Earlier this year, SAS responded by making a partial version of its software available for free. This software is called SAS University Edition and can be downloaded here. I’ve found installation to be more complicated and time-consuming than for R (the whopping download of a 1.8 GB installation file and the need to first install Oracle VM VirtualBox management software accounts for most of this difficulty), but I’m hopeful that I’ll have this second package of analytical software up and running soon so that I can compare the ease and power of the two programs.

Stages of Teaching and Learning Social Media Analytics (Presentation Notes)

This afternoon, I’ll be making a short presentation of thoughts on teaching social media analytics at the 2015 conference of the International Communication Association as part of its BlueSky Workshop on Tools for Teaching and Learning of Social Media Analytics. While the workshop is focused on the experience of teaching using a series of particular tools, I am interested in rejecting the question, “Which tools are best for teaching?,” and supplanting it with the idea of building capability in students in a progressive strategy. At different stages in students’ development as social media researchers, different analytic platforms may be more or less appropriate as teaching tools.

Below is a copy of notes for my presentation; notes can also be downloaded as a PDF here.


Objective: To introduce unexperienced undergraduate students to the process of analyzing social media with sufficient breadth that they may continue to learn independently.

Teaching Challenges Provoking Implementation:

  • As the mandate for higher education continues to widen, undergraduate students tend more and more to be non-traditional, to lack preparation, to lack confidence, and to be fascinated by but intimidated by math, research and technology.
  • Social media platforms are in a state of constant change.
  • Social media analytics packages and methods are rapidly evolving now and are likely to experience significant change in the next decade.

Learning Outcomes: Students who complete a course in social media analytics will be able to:

  1. Find and navigate social media platforms
  2. Recognize the common elements of social media:
    1. Individuals
    2. Actions
    3. Memberships
    4. Relationships
  3. Extract observations of these elements into datasets:
    1. Individual-level
    2. 1-mode network
    3. 2-mode network
  4. To analyze data and report data visualizations, qualitative categorizations and quantitative statistics

Strategy: A gentle, stepwise series of stages taking students from where they are to where they need to be, introducing students to a variety of analytic platforms, and focusing on the social research skills that will remain constant despite changes in social media and social media analytic platforms.

Stages of learning social media analytics, from Consumer to Manager to Secondhand Gatherer to Primary Gatherer to Analyst

Teaching Challenges in Implementation:

  • Universal access for students who no longer share a common campus, common hardware and common software
  • Reasonable yet challenging entry for students who come to class with a variety of previous experience and capabilities
  • A variety of reasonable endpoints for students who vary in their level of progression and accomplishment

Newspaper Blogging with the KJ and Morning Sentinel

Within my academic discipline, public sociology is an approach that reaches out beyond classrooms and academic journals in attempt to engage with the broader world. I’m excited to be taking a small step down this path with a regular spot in the newspaper blog lineup for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel of central Maine. My first post there, already published, considers why Augusta’s status as a city might lead to an elevated report of its crime rate. Look for another post next month that discusses gender in the Maine State Legislature.

Presentation April 22 ’15: Open Maine Politics

Maine friends and colleagues: I’ll be delivering a public lecture this upcoming Wednesday at the University of Maine at Augusta Katz Library. The subject is the Open Maine project, an effort to bring Maine state legislative information into the open information age. I’d love your feedback — and as usual for the UMA Research and Pedagogy series there will be nibbles.


Maine State House, Winter 2015Open Maine: Making Politics Social
A Presentation in the Research and Pedagogy Colloquium Series

James Cook, Assistant Professor of Social Science
Wednesday, April 22, 12 noon
University of Maine at Augusta Katz Library

“Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories.” — Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia

For most of Maine’s history, the records of its state politics have been officially accessible but practically unavailable.  Before the internet age, information about the legislature was kept in side rooms and libraries at the State House in Augusta, making our collective decisions available only to those who had the time and money to stalk about the stacks.

In recent decades, the website of the Maine State Legislature has taken great strides toward making information about the Pine Tree State’s legislature, our legislation and our legislators available to all.  Some roadblocks remain, however:

  • Maine legislative information isn’t easily shared through e-mail, Facebook, Twitter or other forms of social media;
  • Maine legislative information isn’t easily mixed and downloaded for analysis by academics, journalists, citizen bloggers or the curious;
  • It isn’t easy for us to engage in conversation about legislation and legislators in the same environment where raw information is made available;
  • It isn’t easy for us to create, post and share our assessments of our legislators based on transparent and verifiable standards.

This RaP colloquium at the University of Maine at Augusta will present the result of a Presidential Research Grant kick-starting Open Maine, an online civic engagement and education project to make Maine legislative politics shareable, mixable, downloadable, conversable, assessable and transparent. Presentation of the new platform and research outcomes will be followed by discussion and a brainstorm on future development. Students, staff, faculty and members of the public are welcome.

Fire a Nebraska Catholic School Teacher, Hear About it in Maine… the Twitterverse Reverberates

#LetMatthewTeach is a hashtag protesting the firing of a Nebraska Catholic school teacher for being gay.  Last week, #LetMatthewTeach was one of the top three Twitter hashtags used by state legislators in Maine, two thousand miles away from the scene of the kerfuffle.  Clearly, social media can bridge distance in some interesting ways.  I describe some other trends in social media use by Maine state legislators last week in a post to the Open Maine Politics Blog.

Opening Maine Campaign Contribution Data Gets Tricky

Over the past year, I’ve been developing an Open Maine Politics website to mix, share and make social a variety of kinds of information about the Maine State Legislature.  Campaign finance profiles for legislators are part of the developing picture, but this weekend I’m hitting a speed bump as inconsistencies in the Maine Ethics Commission’s official dataset force me to look more closely at each case and fix errors one by one.  Cleaning the data feels like spring cleaning.  At least the season’s right.

Conformity as a Sociological Variable (Video)

In my experience, most undergraduate textbooks treat conformity as a constant psychological feature.  These textbooks typically note how uncanny it is that researchers Solomon Asch and Stanley Milgram were able to manipulate their subjects into agreeing with a majority in making a statement that was obviously untrue, or into apparently shocking people to death. My, my, aren’t people such conformists, the standard treatment concludes.

The standard textbook treatment of conformity is neat, tidy and dire, but I believe it is misguided in two aspects. First, conformity is not a constant in Asch’s and Milgram’s studies. Some people do conform to expectations, but very importantly others do not. Conformity is a variable. Second, if conformity is a dependent variable, the independent variables in the Asch and Milgram studies are NOT psychological, and so the label of “psychological experiment” is inappropriate. At best, the experiments are social psychological, and the action here is all in the social. The individual-level psychological distress expressed by subjects in Asch’s and Milgram’s experiments was to no avail. What predicted conformity or non-conformity was the structure of the social situation engineered by the experiments.

In short, the conformity experiments involve sociological explanations for what appears to be a psychological phenomenon. If conformity is a sociological outcome involving independent variables of social structure, then understanding the elements of social structure that impact conformity is vitally important for the individual who wishes to avoid conformist pressures or for the social engineer who wishes to manufacture consent. The video below, produced for an Introduction to Sociology class at the University of Maine at Augusta, presents those independent variables and considers their relevance to micro- and macro-level questions of social living.

Interested in the Milgram and Asch experiments to which I refer here?  Check out these references to learn more:

Asch, Solomon. 1951. Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgment. In H. Guetzkow (ed.) Groups, Leadership and Men. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press.

Asch, Solomon. 1955. “Opinions and Social Pressure.”  Scientific American 193(5): 31-35.

Milgram, Stanley. 1965. “Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority.”  Human Relations 18:57-76.

Milgram, Stanley. 1974. Obedience to Authority.  New York: Harper Collins.

Call for Applications: Maine Policy Scholar Program

Are you a University of Maine at Augusta student taking classes in the 2015-2016 academic year? Are you interested in politics and/or policy?  Are you looking for a way to take your work to the next level?

The University of Maine at Augusta, continuing its association with the Maine Community Foundation, has the opportunity to nominate a Maine Policy Scholar for the 2015-2016 academic year.  The successful applicant to the Maine Policy Scholar program receives a $1,500 scholarship with a budget of $1,000 for research expenses, and is expected to delve into applied research into a real Maine policy issue.

As the UMA advisor for the program, I’ll be working throughout next year with next year’s Maine Policy Scholar to help her or him in developing and carrying out an applied research program.  The selected student will also participate in three-four statewide meetings with faculty and scholars from across the University of Maine system for rigorous review of progress.  The year culminates in the presentation of a research memo to a board of state political leaders convened by the Maine Community Foundation. This memo has historically been also directed to a Maine political leader relevant to the subject of the student’s research, such as the Governor or the head of a state executive agency.  This is a good chance to gain valuable experience while you make a difference in Maine policy.

Applicants must be matriculated UMA students with a GPA of at least 3.00, and must have completed 60 or more credits of coursework by September 2015.  Previous work in applied research or previous study of research methods is ideal.

Are you interested?  Applications must be received by March 7.   Applications should consist of a current resume describing academic and professional experience and a letter of intent including a description of a proposed research topic. Send applications as an e-mail attachment to james.m.cook@maine.edu or by mail to James Cook, Assistant Professor of Social Science, University of Maine at Augusta, 46 University Drive, Augusta, ME 04330.

For more information on the application process or the Maine Policy Scholars program, please feel free to contact me at 621-3190 or james.m.cook@maine.edu.  Additional information is also available at http://www.mainecf.org/policyscholars.aspx on the web.

Recent Maine Policy Scholars, with links to their final policy memos, are:
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