The Race Between Technology and Education

This is a sort of book report, part 1. Claudia Gilpin & Lawrence Katz have written The Race Between Technology & Education (Cambridge, Mass., and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University; 2008), which is chock full of interesting data and which might, if fully understood, tell us a lot about the impact of infusions of capital and new technologies on labor forces and on the demand for skilled workers, about the education levels and characteristics of those workers, and about economic growth and economic inequality.

And you gotta admit it, those seem like particularly worthwhile topics at this juncture. So what follows is a review of my first claw-through of about 100 pages. The book is thick with stats, and at times it's way clumsy--but worthwhile. I’ll go back in subsequent posts to fill in detail, and I’ll go forward to catch up to my reading. (Thanks to Claudia Lamoreaux, who is sharing this book with me.)

It turns out that, to put it in lay terms, increases in levels of education are linked to increases in inequality. Who knew? But if you consider the situation for a while, you might guess that the connection runs through a “demand channel”: As the demand for more-educated workers increases, so does the price premium paid to them. One year of high school in the first half of the 20th century is worth something (about 11 percent per year, as near as I can make out). These returns diminish over the course of the 20th century to about 8.7 percent. Meanwhile, returns to a year of college clock in at 14.8 percent in 1914 and 14.8 percent in 2005.

(Many, many questions aren’t answered by Katz and Gilpin. Like, these are annual returns, yes? And the returns to a year of college are relative to those of a high school graduate? Or…? And so on. Even at its best, which is sometimes very good, this book swerves into the most aggravating prose imaginable.)

As mentioned, this is a demand-driven phenomenon. However education as a commodity is variably supplied, was variably supplied in the US to some degree even in the early 20th century. Which means that the premium paid to education—a year of high school, a year of college—wasn’t available to every young woman or man.

(Interestingly, the US provided equal education more or less to girls very early on in the history of the republic. In the early 20th c, more girls than boys graduated from high school. However because the labor market was less egalitarian than the education system, girl graduates had very limited impact on the demand for skilled workers in manufacturing.)

So demand is going up as a result—according to Gilpin and Katz—of technological changes in manufacturing that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Earlier in the Industrial Revolution, say from the late 18th century through almost all of the 19th, changes in manufacturing process decreased the need for specific skills: goods ranging from hats to carriages that were produced by artisans and craftspeople were increasingly replaced by similar goods that were produced in factories, taking advantage of inventory controls and other processes. In the early 20th, however, manufacturing processes began to involve batch operations for the manufacturing of chemicals, dairy products, liquor and what-not, and continuous-process operations for products that need little assembly, such as oats or canned foods. Both of these processes apparently (I mean, it’s not my field) depended on better-skilled workers.

So, here’s the titular race as it’s presented in The Race Between Technology and Education: As technology increases in complexity, demand for skilled workers increases, as does inequality; as the education system in—ponderous, poorly executed—response increases opportunities for students to acquire high-demand skills, productivity increases as a result of more-full usage of technology, and inequality decreases. Except that it’s obviously not a race, it’s a journey or a kind of “impossible journey” quest, in which technology, education and capital are all involved collaboratively, in some ways, and in which other forces, such as property ownership, ethnic or gender primacy and so on, operate competitively.

That’s it for the first 100 pages or so. More in a while. Except to note that while Race between technology and education focuses on the US, in the main and in comparison with other countries, there are potential corollaries to the economic and educational dynamics of large and diverse developing economies, such as Indonesia’s or India’s, and for small economies in transition, such as Rwanda’s.


Ltd uptick in school enrolments in Africa through 2025?
I've been checking out, which hosts a collaborative visualization tools. The site lets visitors post data sets, create charts/conceptmaps and other "visualizations" of the data, rate data sets, add comments on specific views. it's cool.

It also includes a representation of projected school enrolments in Sub-Saharan Africa through 2025. Not all that optimistic, when you look at the percentage views. Nigeria underperforms, bringing its percentage of unschooled kids down from 5 to 3 over the course of the next 15 years.

You can view, play with, and comment on the chart at:
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Juan Cole on Iranian elections
For a quick summary of the extreme implausibility of the Iranian election results, see (of course) Prof Juan Cole.  And wear green on Monday.

Joseph Stiglitz describes the impact of the economic crisis on policy
In the current Vanity Fair, Joseph Stiglitz provides a broad but telling picture of ways that the current global economic crisis will combine with colonial and post-colonial economic history to generate retrograde policies in many countries: 

Many countries may conclude not simply that unfettered capitalism, American-style, has failed but that the very concept of a market economy has failed, and is indeed unworkable under any circumstances. Old-style Communism won’t be back, but a variety of forms of excessive market intervention will return. And these will fail. The poor suffered under market fundamentalism—we had trickle-up economics, not trickle-down economics. But the poor will suffer again under these new regimes, which will not deliver growth. Without growth there cannot be sustainable poverty reduction. There has been no successful economy that has not relied heavily on markets. Poverty feeds disaffection. The inevitable downturns, hard to manage in any case, but especially so by governments brought to power on the basis of rage against American-style capitalism, will lead to more poverty. 

Among the faults that he descries are the reciprocal, but exclusive, trade packages that are under consideration in the US and Europe: 

Joseph E. Stiglitz

Joseph E. Stiglitz on the economic crisis.

Capitalist Fools, January 2009

Reversal of Fortune, November 2008

The $3 Trillion War, April 2008 (with Linda J. Bilmes)

The Economic Consequences of Mr. Bush, December 2007

There used to be a sense of shared values between America and the American-educated elites around the world. The economic crisis has now undermined the credibility of those elites. We have given critics who opposed America’s licentious form of capitalism ample ammunition to preach a broader anti-market philosophy. And we keep giving them more and more ammunition. While we committed ourselves at a recent G-20 meeting not to engage in protectionism, we put a “buy American” provision into our own stimulus package. And then, to soften the opposition from our European allies, we modified that provision, in effect discriminating against only poor countries.

Of course poor countries are going to bridled at OECD protectionist policies. But with the exception of the BRIC and OPEC countries, there's not much they can do about it--which of course only throws fuel on the fires of resentment. As a result, and as a result of OECD investments in key players in telecommunications, media and other information-related players in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the fall-out will ultimately show up as decreased competitiveness in those sectors. Africa is going to get high-speed backbone across the continent within the next 5 to 7 years (and potentially sooner), but it might just be happening at a time when sectoral competitiveness and deregulation are in retrograde. 



The end of "dragons ascending from the sewers"
Ultra-high-stakes testing and private tutoring have created a pressure-cooker for students and parents in South Korea. The costs of face-to-face exam preparation make such courses available only to the rich. However online cram-course Web sites offer only partial relief

Last year, South Korea spent 55 trillion won, 6 percent of its gross domestic product, on public education. But private education expenditures amounted to an additional 20 trillion won, a burden that has been cited as a factor in South Korea’s low birth rate. Eight of every 10 students from elementary school through high school take after-school classes from private tutors or at cram schools, online or offline. Offline cram school courses cost up to five times as much as their online counterparts.

One major problem--and it's a problem anywhere that test preparation and high-stakes testing are the principle means of securing a child's future--is that high rates of spending on education take place in a "gray market" that distorts expenditures and organization in public education. Take that additional ~2 percent of GDP that's spent on private education (exam prep) and channel it back into the public-education system and you have the wherewithal to create schools with worldclass teachers and learners that are truly egalitarian.

This _doesn't_ mean that you forego Web-based content delivery, or even that you foreswear rock-star test-prep teachers. Use every means available, but make those resources available to all. 

Scan Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. Gladwell makes a pretty convincing argument _against_ exceptionalism. From WA Mozart to Bill Gates, the titans of achievement who have emerged among us have benefited from a confluence of advantage, timing and context (as well as from vision, hard work, and in some instances extraordinary gifts). 

Accelerating our economic and cultural progress (and don't we need to do that!) is far more dependent on our shared development than it is on the development of a select few. 

To revise the Korean education adage in the title of this post: If we improve conditions in the sewers, more dragons will ascend. 

One Laptop Per _Teacher_ in South Africa!
Whenever I visit a successful project to put computers in schools, the teachers have lobbied me --hard, if ineffectively-- for a program that would let them get laptops for use at home. Now, in South Africa, it's happening: 


Minister Pandor announces Teacher Laptop Initiative

07 May 2009

The Minister of Education, Naledi Pandor MP, today announced a bold and substantive “ Teacher Laptop Initiative”. This is part of a critical strategy to take forward the objective of improving Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in teaching and learning.   The initiative aims to ensure every teacher owns and uses a laptop, by providing them with a monthly allowance which will cover the purchase costs as well as the costs of connectivity.

The ICT package will consist of appropriate hardware and software, as well as, internet connectivity, all with prescribed minimum specifications. Teachers participating in the initiative will be required to utilize the facility in their teaching, as well as for administration.

The initiative will be phased in from 1 July 2009, starting with the most senior teachers. Provincial Education Departments will implement the project and inform teachers about the venture.

A monthly allowance will be paid to qualifying teachers for a period of 5 years, renewable every 5 years, upon proof of acquiring the computer.

Teachers never have enough time in school to brush up their skills, find resources, communicate (with other teachers, with students, with whomever). Having a laptop at home gives them the opportunity to do all of these things. The South Africa program is "opt in," it doesn't force lap-toppery on teachers. The program includes monthly check-ins to prove that the laptops are in place (not sold) and being used. And it provides a boat-load of targeted tools and resources (mostly developed by the MOE and Microsoft PiL). 

Most important, though, it's a huge sign of respect and professionalism. 

(Imagine you're a teacher, you're making maybe US $150 per month, your school suddenly gets 25 computers in a lab and your students get instructions in how to use them. You have to stay late to be trained, or maybe travel to another school, both of which cost you in terms of cash and opportunity. Your students already know more [and their parents make more than you do], they get more instruction, and they get more practice time. The ability to buy your own laptop is key. And, just as it is for students, the laptop itself and the program behind it--emphasizing your slender professionalism--is a major motivational factor.)


Ad sales down, can I get a country license for YouTube?
 Sales of Web advertising have fallen so far that Internet start-ups are looking for new business models. Absent my crystal ball, it's hard to know where this will lead. But in light of challenges the big content-sharing services are already facing in their race to global ubiquity, I can easily imagine them offering "country licenses" to a few key players. Here's the news:

Since 2004, venture investors have put $5.1 billion into 828 Web start-up companies, and most of them are supported by ads, according to the National Venture Capital Association.

Now advertisers have cut back their online spending. So Web start-ups are searching for new ways to make money, like selling real, or virtual, goods or asking customers to buy subscriptions.

And venture capitalists who envision a sale of the company in the public markets are encouraging these efforts. Roger Lee, a partner at Battery Ventures who invests in digital media start-ups, said he considers only companies with one or two revenue streams in addition to advertising.

“Current troubles in the advertising economy are forcing people, out of necessity, to ask really hard questions about how do I build a profitable business,” he said.

As I've already mentioned, that ad-based model doesn't work so well in developing countries, including countries with large and growing tech-savvy middle classes. Advertisers--or advertisers' collective reticence--is impeding access to YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and other "free" services in India, Indonesia and many poor countries with high demand for Web-based content.

Well? What of it? 

For most of the past 8 years, the private-sector Web ecosystem has tended toward free content funded by targeted advertising. (And thank you, Google, for that!) The big media-content players like MySpace and YouTube are using ad revenues and user-developed-content models to compete for global market share and--eventually--the cutting off of investment capital to their competitors. (Who, for example, would advertise on Vimeo in Indonesia, when YouTube has the global brand for video sharing?)

It's impossible to guess where a global Web-ad slow-down is going to lead (or even if it will be sustained). But I can easily imagine forward-thinking governments such as Rwanda's looking at the big content-sharing services as components in the development of their nascent, tech-supported knowledge economies and electing to buy "country licenses" for the most critical social-networking and content-sharing tools. (Sorry, Vimeo. Again.) 

$40 computer looking for users
Now, this is interesting:  

Marvell Technology Group is counting on an army of computer engineers and hackers to answer that question. It has created a “plug computer.” It’s a tiny plastic box that you plug into an electric outlet. There’s no display. But there is an Ethernet jack to connect to a home network and a U.S.B. socket for attaching a hard drive, camera or other device. Inside is a 1.2 gigahertz Marvell chip, called an application processor, running a version of the Linux operating system.

All this can be yours for $99 today and probably for under $40 in two years.

One obvious--to me--application is to bundle this mighty trinket with a handful of USB drives replete with targeted learning resources, ranging from Web pages to simulations to the inescapable test-prep packages. Instant content server!

For countries such as Barbados or Trinidad and Tobago, which are trying hard to wring value out of high-priced but not-that-functional investments in computers in schools, this simple add-on could deliver a big increase in utility. Curriculum packages might address middle-school science, high-school biology, chemistry and physics. In Barbados, where laptops on carts get moved into and out of classrooms as needed, a portable plug-in server would integrate nicely.


Innovation and ICT in schools
As I've mentioned elsewhere, focus on innovation at the macro-economic level, even in countries with underperforming economies, is almost exclusively on the confluence of university-focused knowledge networks and private-sector companies. However, as Arnoldo Ventura, senior science & technology advisor to the PM of Jamaica puts it: 

We need to adjust science, technology and engineering courses, making them more interdisciplinary, hands-on and inclusive of collective learning.  

Mr Ventura is of course describing changes that fit many Caribbean countries' goals as expressed in education policy--for primary and secondary schools--perfectly. But these goals are rarely if ever addressed by education programs, per se, and then with limited success. Instead, schools are test-driven, learning is rote-based. The best and the brightest, at least as identified by Caribbean education systems, have never been rewarded for creativity or for collaboration. 

There is a strong need, especially in economies in the Caribbean and other regions where countries are poised to catch up with the OECD, to integrate the building blocks of innovation into education. 

Tim Kelly at infoDev argues that technology has a critical role to play in the introduction of innovation practices in schools: 
"In order to instil these talents in students, the teachers must first capture their attention and their imagination. It is much easier to do that with technology than with textbooks or with chalk and talk."

In general, I'm in agreement, for the following reasons: The motivational impact of ICT in schools turns out to be, a) among the first impacts ever demonstrated; b) _still_ cropping up in studies today, despite the increased presence of computers outside of school; c) one of the few impacts that is as strong, or stronger, in developing-country schools.  It IS easier to engage the imagination with computers, precisely because IMHO students _imagine_ the use of computers to do impossible things--write to a kid across the world, find out about China or the USA, make a web page that tells about your own life. No one in the real world does those things with chalk and slate.

For students in those poor countries, ICT is both an icon of and an engine of innovation. It motivates and it enables.


Netbooks confront a nano-niche market
There's a lot of milling around right now about the big slow-down in netbook sales. It's not looking good, especially if ALL you make is netbooks. But there is I think a more widely applicable and much more interesting phenomenon to be observed...

Lessee, where to begin? First, what's a netbook (from PC Magazine, where a number of other old friends first got their start in publishing)?:

A subnotebook computer in the $200 to $400 U.S. dollar range. The term was coined by Intel in 2008 for use with its Atom microprocessor; however, it is widely used to refer to small portables, no matter which hardware is used. Netbooks took off in Europe, but have also been popular elsewhere.
"Elsewhere" is of course what the netbook makers are banking on, as the EU isn't the biggest or most dynamic market. Critically, the One Laptop Per Child Children's Machine XO (AKA the laptop formerly known as the "$100 computer") is frequently classed as a netbook, and it's marketed only (well, almost only) in developing countries, theoretically to kids in schools, which constitute a big, big potential market. Other netbook manufacturers are similarly looking for sales in countries that are outside the OECD, as well as in OECD member states.

What's the main buzz, industry-wide? Basically, netbook sales have slumped badly, and opinionators are now trying to frame the causes of this slump.

But there are many facets to this diamond-hard problem that remain to be cracked. In the geek-focused segment of Public Radio International, the resident PRI opinionators hypothesized that netbooks, well, just aren't that good. (I summarize their points, because a transcript is unavailable):

  • They're too small, so the keyboards are nasty
  • They're don't have enough storage, so you can't play with your photos and tunes
  • They're too small, so the screens are nasty
  • They're slow, especially if they run Windows
  • They're bigger and more powerful than your phone, but not by much
  • They're smaller and more portable than your laptop, but not by much
The guys at FutureTense (and they do seem a bit tense) point to the real, emergent, and interesting problem, which is that the hardware spectrum is getting as crowded as the wireless spectrum: Given the proliferation of useful, Web-enabled, high-performance computing devices, NO product is going to face an undiscovered topography of potential users panting with excitement for its unique features. 

(Just ask Apple. As early as January 2008 analysts [another word for opinionators] were asking if the iPod Touch was cannibalizing [their word, not mine] iPhone sales. And Apple, with the Touch, the iPhone, and a strong-selling line of notebook computers, has repeatedly said it's not about to launch a netbook.) 

The FutureTense guys go on to suggest other long-term problems in the netbook market: 

  • At $300, a netbook price is too close to the lowest-priced laptops (e.g., Toshiba Satellite L305D for US $399)
  • The same guys that buy netbooks also probably by iPhones and laptops, and use both of those items more
  • Netbook manufacturers are absorbing 30 percent returns on sales
The last bit is the most important: users buy, they try, and then they box the netbook up and send it back.

And the pile-up of evidence suggesting that netbooks are, uh, a 'transitional" platform keeps getting higher:  In this case, from, which posits in a headline that "Stronger Economy May Weaken Netbook Sales":

"People are not buying netbooks because they are truly desirable platforms, but rather because as low-cost PCs, they offer a good mix of features at an acceptable price point," said Matthew Wilkins, principal analyst for compute platforms at iSuppli.

That really does it. If you're a netbook manufacturer, you can watch your sales tank in Q1 of 2009 with a degree of equanimity, it's the worst economic crisis of your lifetime. But here you've got analysts saying, Look out, Netbook Guy, when the economy picks up NO ONE is going to be forced to buy your tiny-screened, monkey-keyboarded, slow pig of a memory-challenged laptop. No one.

But wait, there's more!  (Oh no, you cry, feebly. More?)

Atanu Dey, brilliant, ICT-focused economic analyst of the Indian market, throws out the idea that the inexpensive, learning-dedicated OLPC device is completely inappropriate for the 100 million or so schoolchildren in India because, well, there are so many of those kids. Getting an OLPC machine in the hands of every child would cost--even if it's really cheap--way too much for a system that still can't figure out how to pay teachers appropriately and get an effective day's work out of them once they're paid. (See, if you're interested in backstory about inefficiencies in Indian schools, the work of James Tooley.) 

What does that mean? It means that even when poised to enter one of the biggest micro-niche markets in the world (Indian schoolkids), a learning-dedicated netbook is still the wrong choice. 




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