In re the race between tech and edu
Cross-posted to the new home for this blog, which you can access here. 

Pursuant to my notes on the Gilpin and Katz bookThe Race Between Technology and Education, today's NY Times carries David Leonhardt's business-section article describing the failure of US universities to graduate students -- despite relatively high enrollments. 

Only 33 percent of the freshmen who enter the University of Massachusetts, Boston, graduate within six years. Less than 41 percent graduate from the University of Montana, and 44 percent from the University of New Mexico. The economist Mark Schneider refers to colleges with such dropout rates as “failure factories,” and they are the norm.

Gilpin and Katz describe in exhausting (!) detail the impact of college completion on both an individual's wages over the course of a lifetime and on macro-scale increases in productivity (as GDP, basically). 

Leonhardt goes a step further and suggests that: 1) Costs (tuition, etc) are key determinants of where kids go to school, with many students outside of the upper-income bracket ending up "under-matched," attending schools that aren't the best for which they are qualified; 2) state colleges and universities, which serve those students in families with non-elite wealth, are the worst offenders in terms of completion percentage. 

(A first-hand example from the excellent Education Trust website: the California State University at Monterey Bay, an affordable school relatively near me,  a graduation rate of 36% over the last 6 years. WTF?)

What's this mean? 

It means that disparities in university education in the US contribute greatly to the growth of inequality. Or, to put it another way: the non-rich--by virtue of the inadequacy of institutions that are designed to serve them--are getting even less rich, which is to say, eventually they will be poor.

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Let's play guess the business model
The NY Times has a compelling article about Conficker malware, which was unleashed on Windows-based PCs in fall 2008, and that has since infected an estimated 5 million computers worldwide. (Although for reasons "unknown," original versions of the virus were programmed to avoid infecting computers that were physically based in Ukraine. Hmmm.)

One issue, among many, that has the Conficker Working Group stumped is that the virus has lain dormant for the most part throughout this period. However a slip-up of some sort on the part of the Working Group "allowed the programs authors to convert a huge number of the infected machines to an advanced peer-to-peer communications system that the industry group has not been able to defeat."

If the misbegotten computer were reactivated, it would not have the problem-solving ability of supercomputers used to design nuclear weapons or simulate climate change. But because it has commandeered so many machines, it could draw on an amount of computing power greater than that from any single computing facility run by governments or Google. It is a dark reflection of the “cloud computing” sweeping the commercial Internet, in which data is stored on the Internet rather than on a personal computer.

The question is, what's the programmers' game?

"Some researchers think Conficker is an empty shell, or that the authors of the program were scared away in the spring. Others argue that they are simply biding their time."

But of course the answer is not recondite. What's the safest way to realize value from such ingenious coding? Sell it. The Conficker programmers are perhaps now contacting judicious governmental and commercial buyers. OR perhaps they are themselves being contacted.

[One hesitates to make light of the situation, given that school and clinic computers in OECD and developing countries are likely to be massively affected if the virus is used destructively.)

Whipsawed by... Arne Duncan!--US Dept of Edu uses incentives to separate states from teachers unions
The US Dept of Education is supporting a somewhat conflicted array of funding programs for US schools. Two the highest-impact items are:
  • Limiting award of "Race to the Top" funding to states that strongly support charter schools 
  • Increasing teacher "accountability" by tying performance reviews (and pay increases) to students test scores 
The confluence of these initiatives, of course, is that they squeeze the teachers unions to be much more accommodating to the ideas and proposals of Dept of Edu Sect'y Arne Duncan.

Charter schools can operate with more freedom from regulation than public schools can. As a result, many have non-traditional aspects--they might offer special support to learning through technology, or through arts, public service, one-on-one instruction or any of a panoply of innovations.

(Some, like the network of Aspire Public Schools, focus on preparing disadvantaged and urban kids for national tests through the address of social, psychological and academic barriers.) 

Charter schools in many instances ask teachers to work longer hours and/or receive lower pay or benefits than public schools do. 

Race to the Top will make $4 billion available to states, but the 10 states that don't allow charter schools have been told that it's likely they'll get... nothing. In some instances, such as Washington state, charter-school initiatives have been beaten back repeatedly by teachers unions. In others, such as California (which allows Charters under some conditions) policymakers are already conferring on ways to ensure qualifying for funding. The Race to the Top funding restrictions will put teachers unions under a lot of pressure to back easing of regulations on charter schools. 

And at virtually the same moment, they're being "asked" to put aside long-standing positions regarding merit pay and specifically merit pay tied to student test performances. 

No one's asked me, and I don't have a particular ax to grind re charters, but...

First, teachers in the US are already underpaid, under-respected and under-professionalized (conditions that they share with colleagues in many other countries!). I would rather see funding to _increase_ their pay and professionalism over time (i.e., without skewing existing payscales), attract higher-quality candidates, retain them, and develop their skills over the span of their careers than I would funding to support "creative" schooling models that rely on squeezing more out of teachers while paying them less. 

Second, tying teachers' pay to student test scores risks--no, it WILL--warp teaching and learning completely. Test scores are already known to be poor gauges of competency and extremely poor predictors of later success; increasing their direct importance to teachers will further abstract learning in schools from effective, knowledge-building real-world behaviors. 

"Free" IT courseware for schools and libraries?

Courtesy of the Development Gateway people ( comes information about ALISON Educating Together, a prob offers free IT training e-learning courseware suitable for use by libraries and schools. The courseware is intended to help adults (?) build basic computer-and-Internet skills. Also provided is a learner-management system, which one assumes interoperates with ALISON's own LMS to keep track of course completion and whatever else (learner contacts, for example?).  Best of all, it's free! 


Or "free." ALISON charges each participating institutions €100 to participate (no information as to whether that's per year or per course) and charges €20 for each official ALISON parchment certificate that it issues to learners when they complete the course. Host institutions (e.g., libraries, schools) get half of that fee. Unless learners opt for the free paper certificate. 


I'm unconvinced that many strapped-for-cash organizations are going to be in communities where €30 (for the course and the certificate, although schools and libraries can price the courses as they wish) for an unaccredited e-learning course on basic IT skills is going to be seen as a good investment. 


What other local organizations are offering training? (Face to face, anyone?) 


I'm also--as always--very skeptical about the ability of mass e-learning to address adult learners' needs to have context and utility bundled along with instruction. Learning in the abstract is both difficult and unrewarding. 


Ah well. 

Computer Science, unplugged?

The National Ctr for Women & Technology (NCWIT) has produced "Computer Science in a Box," a curriculum guide for teachers with students aged 9 to 14. CS in a Box  enables teachers to introduce concepts in computer science -- binary numbers, sorting networks, etc -- through activities that get students moving, interacting and thinking. And that don't involve using computers. 

One hoped-for outcome of this and other NCWIT measures is to increase the number of girl and women students who study science- and technology-related fields. 

The problem? The activities aren't effectively linked to their real-world contexts. And because there's no way for kids (or teachers) to connect the activities to anything, most kids (and teachers) are going to recall the activities, if they recall them at all, as pleasantly kinesthetic interludes between bouts of real learnin'. The science underpinning computers will be as mysterious as ever.

An example: The Binary Numbers teaching plan involves working with a standard set of five cards that demonstrate binary numbers (restricted to 1 and 0).  If a card is face-up, it's a 1, if it's face down, it's a zero. On the "1" side, each card has dots that demonstrate scaling by powers of 2 (1, 2, 4, 8, 16).

In the whole-class activities, teachers and students explore making various numbers by arranging the cards to expose different values and interpreting these as binary representations. (Like for example, 15 is 0 1 1 1 1 in our five-card or five bit system).

In the independent activities presented in a worksheet, appealingly, you're invited to use your five fingers as the integers in the scale to count--just using one hand--all the way to 31! Try it, it's way fun, even if your digital dexterity is a bit lame and you need to use your other hand to bend some of your fingers up or down in certain combinations. Go ahead, try it, it only takes a minute. 

But, so? What's logarithmic scale to me or me to logarithmic scale that I should give a damn? THAT potentially fun bit of information, certainly the information needed to make all my finger-bending make sense, doesn't make an appearance in the NCWIT materials. Imagine I'm a 9-year-old, I've put up with my teacher making me try to puzzle out the meaning of those cards, I've sat at my table or my desk bending my fingers and trying to count and occasionally getting corrected in public, and I understand that, yes, this bizarre system might actually be good for something. But what?

And with that, the experience fades. Someone at home asks, What did you do at school today, Little Luigi?, and I reply, as usual, Nothing. When pressed, I admit that we did some counting, I might say we did some counting on our fingers, and if I'm assiduous in my efforts to forestall more questioning, I might even demonstrate. 

But understand? Forget it. 

What's missing, or among the several things that are missing, is the connection between binary addressing (1001 0101, for example) and the way that I'm "naturally" or logically thrown into counting by powers of 2! (1, 10, 100, 1000, 10000 becomes 1, 2, 4, 8, 16 and so on). And how do I get so thrown? As near as I can make out (and I'm obviously not a CS guy, or girl), once I limit myself to a given number of bits, say 8, my ability to represent numbers in binary is pretty limited: 

counting in binary to 9

But if I tie each of my integers to a "power of 2" number, and if I use all of the bits just as I did in my five-finger counting system, I'm suddenly representationally empowered: 

counting to 9 in a 5-bit binary system scaling by powers of 2

And see, I've got way more integers and combinations that I can use. 11111, for example, equals 31! 

NCWIT, however, just doesn't give me (teacher OR student) the tools I need to understand why any of this means anything to anybody: 

One bit on its own can’t represent much, so they are usually grouped together in groups of eight, which can represent 

numbers from 0 to 255. A group of eight bits is called a byte.... Ultimately bits and bytes are all that a computer uses to store and transmit numbers, text, and all other information. 

Not enough. Not enough, by far, to get a teacher to invest class time, energy and "teacher capital" in an activity that doesn't quite close its own circle.

A chip off the old moon
[Stunning 360° stiched panoramas of the surface of the moon!]

OK, it's the 20th anniversary of a giant step for (hu)mankind, a step taken by Americans and motivated, to some extent, by Kennedy's fears that the Soviet Union would dominate "space." Bravo, NASA! As Tom Wolfe points, out, however, Neil Armstrong's moonwalk was for NASA a "giant leap to nowhere," signaling the shrinkage of our space aspirations that would result from an immediate 40 percent cut to the NASA budget. 

That denouement notwithstanding, the US did manage to accomplish a very specific, very ambitious goal, on schedule, through an intensely collaborative process of science and engineering. Bravo, USA! 

A few years ago, on a break from work I was doing with Jhai Foundation, I visited the Royal Palace Museum in the mountain town of Luang Prabang in the Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR). The French-colonial-style museum was built in 1904 as a summer retreat for the Lao royal family. The summer palace was converted to a museum when the current Pathet Lao government defeated the royalists. 

Among the museum displays are perhaps 100 gifts given to the last king, Savang Vatthana, before he was deposed. Almost all of these objects are works of inspired craft performed in precious materials. Among the most memorable was an intricately carved ivory sphere with 18 or so smaller, equally intricate, freely rotating spheres that had been carved inside it. We spent a long time imagining the sculpting process, the precision required, the patience, the absence of fear. 

Many of the other gifts testified to similar skill and care. (And mind you, these gifts were given to a government, a king, that had presided over factionalism and civil war since its independence from the French in 1954, a teetering government that was about to fall.) 

The US government had sent a gift as well. The US offering comprised a plastic model of the lunar landing module, about 8 inches across, and a round black rock. The size of a hazelnut. It took a few seconds to figure out what we were looking at.

Of course it was a piece of the moon. A moon rock brought back Neil Armstrong, Alan Shepard or another of the 10 or 12 people who have ever walked on the moon. 

My first reaction was "American arrogance!" (I'm of that generation, I'm afraid.) The gifts from other countries, in any event, showed much better than the US offering--a plastic model and a rock.

But today, on the 40th anniversary of the event, and as globalization ushers in the diminishment of America's technical and research strength, as I ponder the US race to the moon I acknowledge vanishing drive, patience, and lack of fear not altogether different in quality from the skills need to carve free-rotating spheres out of a block of ivory.

Interest in computer science is DECLINING among US girls
According to an extensive study by the Nat'l Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT):

Among female college-bound-high-school seniors taking the SAT in 2006, only one percent--fewer than 5,000 students--indicated computer and information sciences as an intended major This is a nearly 50 percent decline from 1996, when women comprised one-quarter of all students intending to major in computer and information sciences.

The study, "Evaluating Promising Practices in Informal Information Technology," goes on to state that the number of B.S. in C.S. degrees awarded to women in the US was the same in 2004 as it was in 1985.

Although I don't know the overall distribution of bachelor's degrees among women and men, this situation doesn't seem like good news for a country and economy that are becoming increasingly reliant on innovation. 

MDGs won't be met, is anyone surprised?
The UN hasn't given up the fight for progress toward the Millennium Development Goals, but 90 million MORE people are living on <US $1.25 / day than in 2007! Other indicators also show regression: 

Major advances in the fight against extreme poverty from 1990 to

2005, for example, are likely to have stalled. During that period,

the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day decreased

from 1.8 billion to 1.4 billion. In 2009, an estimated 55 million to

90 million more people will be living in extreme poverty than

anticipated before the crisis.

Likewise, the encouraging trend in the eradication of hunger since

the early 1990s was reversed in 2008, largely due to higher food

prices. The prevalence of hunger in the developing regions is now

on the rise, from 16 per cent in 2006 to 17 per cent in 2008. A

decrease in international food prices in the second half of 2008

has failed to translate into more affordable food for most people

around the world.

The news is all-over terrible: about at 20 percent increase in the numbers of working poor in development countries; no reduction in the number of under-nourished people; unsurprisingly, world unemployment (6.1%) and the unemployment rate of women (6.5%) [and how do they measure _that_?] has lurched upward, and so on.

Where is the good news? Well, Universal Primary Education is increasing! (Whoo Hoo.) And more people have mobile phones.  

The question, at least for me, is who is outraged about this failure? The development agencies are the purported implementers of solutions, the business-end of the development "mechanism," they perceive themselves as too culpable in relation to these failures on many fronts to call much attention to it. Except insofar as they can keep using the MDGs (and Bono, and Angelina) to inflate public interest and understanding. The 180+ governments who signed the MDG charter or whatever it is are equally uninterested in complaining about the crummy job done by the development agencies, because they understand that they themselves routinely fail to meet their commitments for funding. And there are no votes involved, after all. 

Who does that leave. You, me, and William Easterly, who as usual offers a more powerful and informed critique. (A bit more self-interested, perhaps.) 

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Schooling innovation
Focus on innovation--the development of new ideas that improve products and production--is the current best candidate to drive global change in education. A few reasons....
  • Globalization has increased competition among manufacturers and other companies in different companies. 
  • Governments are recognizing that innovation is: 
    • Definable and measurable
    • The product of specific enabling conditions
    • A key factor in corporate competitiveness and so a factor in economic growth
What's more, governments are also coming around to the position that they have the capacity--through incentives, regulation, allocation of resources and other activities--to influence innovation across their economies. 

In his 2005 book, "Democratizing Innovation," Eric Von Hippel, a pioneer in the field, suggests that businesses in certain sectors (outdoor sports and sporting goods  being one of them) should look at their customers. Malcolm Gladwell, in "Outliers," demonstrates that world-class innovators in business and other fields tend to arise out of a confluence of conditions--economic, cultural, intellectual--that are if not common throughout society at least common to specific cohorts within it. 

Education, its quality, its ubiquity and its characteristics, is routinely cited as a factor in the emergence of an effective culture of innovation, but the link between education and innovation has not been analyzed in much detail, especially once you drop down below higher ed. However...


Can Governments Till the Fields of Innovation?
... governments are increasingly wading into the innovation game, declaring innovation agendas and appointing senior innovation officials. The impetus comes from two fronts: daunting challenges in fields like energy, the environment and health care that require collaboration between the public and private sectors; and shortcomings of traditional economic development and industrial policies. The rising worldwide interest in innovation policy represents the search to answer an important question: What is the appropriate government role in creating industries and jobs in today’s high-technology, global economy?


That central issue animated much of the discussion at an unusual gathering earlier this month at a lodge north of San Francisco. This invitation-only affair was organized and moderated by John Kao, a former professor at Harvard Business School and founder of the Large Scale InnovationA few speakers covered big-think issues like climate-altering geoengineering and water-management technologies. But the main participants were innovation-policy practitioners from nine countries: Australia, Brazil, Britain, Chile, Colombia, Finland, India, Norway and Singapore....

In Britain, a national innovation agenda is beginning to take shape with policy documents and the creation of a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Finland has long taken a comprehensive approach to innovation policy, investing in areas as varied as an outstanding national education system and high-speed Internet connections for its residents. It has also produced a power in the cellphone industry, Nokia.


Other governments are also focusing on targets of potential advantage. In Australia, the government is looking to nurture industries that arise from its harsh climate and a scattered population. So research centers are working to improve strains of drought-resistant wheat and cotton for export as adaptive technologies to cope with climate change, said Terry Cutler, who recently headed a government-appointed expert panel on innovation in Australia. And Boeing last year selected Australia as the location for a Phantom Works lab for developing unmanned aircraft, he said.

“Test flights don’t bump into things,” he said. “Sparsity can be a global competitive advantage.”

In India, the government and industry have financed research into products and services that reverse the traditional pattern of innovation flowing gradually from wealthy nations to the rest of the world, said R. A. Mashelkar, chairman of the country’s National Innovation Foundation. Early evidence of the trend, he said, includes the $2,000 Nano automobile, and low-cost drugs for tuberculosis and psoriasis.




What's interesting in this? First, of course, Finland, the UK and Australia are all pushing changes in education that emphasize the development of comprehensive cognitive skills. But as important, look at the examples that are being cited here: Australians capitalizing on sparseness, Indians on their vast population of poor people (altho it's arguable whether the Nano represents an innovation or simply the expansion of an unsustainable activity 10x), and Finland is re-framing the demand for support and services within its graying population as an opportunity that coincides with an anticipated societal need. 
Is it me, or do all these examples all seem like real-world / large-scale versions of project-based-learning activities? Middle-school students challenged to find Australia's underused resources and dream up uses for them... High-school students in Finland terrorized by their teachers painting pictures of a wealth-sucking population of the elderly... (Primary students in India imagining that their parents could buy cars. "I've got an idea! Let's build cheap ones!")
On the one hand, there are probably a raft of short-term actions that governments can take to increase the likelihood of innovation in industry, which will have payoffs much more swiftly than changes made in schools. However the bulk of potential government support for innovation happens through the construction of incentives and disincentives, or through other indirect actions. Schools and education systems, on the other hand, are--you might recall--themselves government programs. While politicians like short-term results, in cases where measurement of those results is difficult or the potential outcomes are of dubious real value, those politicians will accept short-term outputs, such as the introduction of innovation-specific programs for students. 


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