Teaching FAIR to College Students

Students at OG 3.jpgThe mission of the FAIR Academic Workgroup

Over the last year I’ve been wondering about how to get the FAIR Academic Workgroup collaborating and mutually helping each other.  It appears that we all want teaching materials, sample assignments, example student reports or analyses to use in class, and software / analysis tools, that once developed we could all share and reuse.  These public goods suffer an economic incentive.  Who’s going to do the work to develop these materials for everyone else to use?  Economists call this the free-rider problem in public goods production.  There just isn’t an incentive to produce work products just to give them away to everyone else.

Yet, the FAIR Institute Academic Workgroup was created to do just that – to create and distribute amongst ourselves academic materials we all can use.  I hope this blog post nudges you just enough to contribute what you have in lecture materials, assignments, techniques, and modeling tools to help all of us teach FAIR better.  The opportunity to make a difference in how risk management is thought about is now, but we’re going to have to work better together to ease the burden on each of us developing all material by ourselves.

Educators are in the business of developing people to contribute in extraordinary ways.  To see a student’s self image change from “this work is for someone else” to “I can and should do this” is exhilarating to the teacher and transformative to the student.  Once a student crosses over this threshold, he can never go back to thinking “this work is for someone else.”  If that student is a first-generation college student, that transformation can affect his entire family. 

Developing in-demand FAIR Talent

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At the FAIR Conference in Charlotte last October, employers were aggressively looking for job seekers who knew FAIR and were passionate about applying FAIR to quantitatively analyze information risks.  Not only were jobs not being filled, but the employers appeared to want “new blood with fresh perspective,” free from the biases that experienced risk practitioners bring to risk analysis and management positions.  As an educator and former product development manager, here was a golden opportunity to design a human student product that customers and employers, wanted.  I could see the requirements: 

  • Critical thinking 
  • Quantitative analysis
  • Clear expression
  • An open mind 

Everything that the Department of Economics at San Jose State embodies.  I also saw that fields other than computer science were in demand, even preferred.  Employers told us in Charlotte they would rather have FAIR-aware statisticians and economists over technocrats.  Here was an opportunity to develop SJSU students for what the market wanted.

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I teach FAIR in my economics classes to undergraduate juniors and seniors.  FAIR, as an economic subject mini-discipline, gives students in my writing class a framework to think economically about questions of public safety and security, not just about information risk.  Students must use FAIR to critically think about and decompose a safety or security question into parts through the FAIR ontology, analyze the present state of risk, propose a change in policy that reduces risk, estimate the reduction in risk from that policy, estimate the cost of the policy change, and make a recommendation.  Students then must write accurately and precisely using the FAIR terminology as a basis for expressing their reasoning. 

In my cost-benefit analysis class I use FAIR as the way to look at economic questions that involve uncertainty.  FAIR lets us look at cost-benefit analysis of questions whose data are incomplete or have other areas of uncertainty.  Last semester’s project was to estimate the public safety benefits of California’s recently passed in-the-car hand-held cell phone ban and compare those benefits to the costs of that ban.  Like the writing class, I use FAIR as an economic analysis tool that lets students critically think about a problem and analyze remediation proposals whose costs and benefits are uncertain.  Students learn that they must think within a discipline, that they must use words precisely and accurately, and that incomplete information is no obstacle to making reasoned judgments about a proposal’s value.  All these skills are portable to students’ future career success, regardless of their professional career choice.  All management cares about risk, and FAIR helps these students think about and reasonably discuss something their management cares about.

After my class, I invite students who I think are “ready” to take a FAIR certification seminar I offer in the winter, in between the fall and spring semester.  Students take a five evening three hour per evening class to learn and discuss the parts of FAIR that I can’t cover during the writing or cost-benefit analysis class.  This year I had eight students and two faculty members take the seminar.  So far, three students completed their certification, and I’m waiting for word from the others. 

Working on concrete projects

I invited the students who had previously completed the FAIR certification to work on concrete projects with Open Group members, practitioners in the industry. On January 31, at the Open Group conference in San Francisco, two students and I presented the first fruits of a new academic relationship between The Open Group and San Jose State University (SJSU).  Over the last six months, we have been working to draft a FAIR Process Guide and an economic cost-benefit analysis of an information security and privacy policy the Regional Health Authority has in Norway, and we presented our results at the conference. You can see a blog post here of some of the highlights. The presentation of the FAIR analysis is available here.  In a couple of weeks, the Open Group should post a YouTube video of the presentation.

The main point is that students can contribute to industry projects with some faculty mentoring and support, and they get invaluable experience, build their networking skills, and most importantly, see themselves as contributors to a profession. As a faculty member, you should expect to be part project manager and document architect, but students can do the heavy writing with that structure and some planning. Don’t be afraid to stretch students, but also be prepared to help out in areas of difficulty.

Moving forward, the Economics Department at SJSU is adding practical professional learning to its academic program to help our students be more competitive in the high tech job market, and a focus on FAIR and risk analysis as an application of economics is at the center of that program. The student experiences of learning FAIR, getting certified, and working on practical projects are preparing students for initial career success. This semester, I am launching a project at SJSU to put FAIR on a spreadsheet, which I can share once it’s finished, and two students want to learn computer security fundamentals as an independent study program I’m mentoring.

Consider developing a FAIR program in your university  

If I can put together a program, you Econ and Cybersecurity scholars can, too.  We can do more if we work together to develop materials once and reuse them many times. Be part of the contributing class!  Help get the word out that students are being developed for employers who want FAIR trained and certified students.  Be part of the transformation in students’ lives.

If you want more information on what the Economics Department at San Jose State University is doing, please contact me directly. Please note that the recap of our last workgroup call is available via the Member Resources Center.


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