Archive for August, 2010

FailFaire in the NYT

August 23, 2010

The Jester is delighted to see the New York Times write about FailFaire, a series of events hosted by MobileActive, to allow ICT4D-ers to air project failures in the hopes of learning lessons. Katrin Verclas, the person behind MobileActive has always been a passionate, yet level-headed force in mobile phones for development. Hats off, with Jester bells jangling, to Katrin! Also to be congratulated is Mike Trucano at the World Bank, who apparently won the OLPC prize at a recent FailFaire; Mike is similarly level-headed in his work, advising governments on the potential pitfalls of national PCs for education programs. The Jester hopes to attend a FailFaire some day, but is currently stuck on the left coast.

The one comment the Jester has with respect to FailFaire would be for participants to consider the deeper reasons why certain kinds of ICT4D projects often fail — it’s not always that project implementation could have gone better if people had paid attention to X, Y, or Z. Sometimes, it’s that the project goal is fundamentally pointless or impossible — to fix what is at heart a human problem with technology.

Stuck on Technology

August 23, 2010

“Technology is the only way to bring [the costs of] education under control and to expand it.” This was a statement made by Bill Gates, at least as reported by MG Siegler of TechCrunch. The blog entry was titled, “Bill Gates: In five years, the best education will come from the web.” What he meant was that technology has to replace some part of real teachers and real schools, for education to remain cost-effective. And, in particular, the Internet will be the best source for real education. Before the Jester proceeds to pick on his alter ego’s former employer, he notes that he was not at the Techonomy conference where Gates apparently made these remarks, so everything he knows about it comes by way of TechCrunch. All errors are theirs, not the Jester’s!

To his credit, Gates is careful to circumscribe his techno-optimism. He apparently meant these comments largely for tertiary education, and emphasized the need for real schools for K-12 education. He also seems to have hedged his prediction for “self-motivated learners” only. The Jester also agrees with Gates that the best lectures in the world will mostly be online in a few years, if that hasn’t already happened. Many more people see TED talks online than can afford their hefty attendance fee. Gates is a sharp guy.

So, all the more reason to annoint him today’s FftT (“fool for the day”)! It takes a fool to be as smart as Bill Gates, and then to continue to overlook the importance — the central importance — of human factors in a good education. (It also takes a real fool to call Gates a fool, but we already know that about the Jester.)

As the frequent reader might have guessed, the Jester does not believe that technology is the key to educational cost-reduction or expansion, though it certainly might help for tertiary education of motivated students (a recent study released by the US Dept. of Education suggests that online learning in tertiary education has just begun to show signs of value).

There are three reasons for this. First, a good education requires human attention and effort, and quality teachers’ attention and effort makes a huge difference; for the foreseeable future, this cannot be replaced by technology. Second, too much of what is really valuable about college is not academic knowledge, but other things such as social skills, organizational skills, extracurricular activities, peer pressure, emotional maturity, and social connections. These traits are very hard to acquire through technology. And third, the root of the problem Gates is trying to address is that the people who have power over universities are not sufficiently serious about either cost control or low-cost expansion. That, too, is not a technological problem.

First, the value of human attention and effort. The most relevant attention and effort is that of the student. You can lead a kid to an online learning module, but you can’t make him do problem sets. Everyone may have an inborn desire to learn, but most kids don’t have a natural curiosity about 90% of what they need to learn to be a well-functioning citizen. How many children have a natural curiosity about basic algebra? How many children care about the global economic situation? Sure, such kids exist, but they are rare, and in any case, they’re not the ones who need an additional boost — they’ll find a way, regardless. (Just as Bill Gates did. One blind spot, incidentally, of smart self-starters like Gates is that they don’t realize everyone else isn’t like them. Most people didn’t sneak into their school’s computer lab, so that they could hack all night; most people sat at home and watched Knight Rider. Most people don’t watch educational videos while on the treadmill, as Gates reportedly does; most people zone out or listen to Eminem. At a conference where the Jester made some controversial negative comments about the value of PCs in education, one MIT Media Lab professor stood up to defend laptops for children: He said, “I hated school, but once I got my hands on a computer, I taught myself everything I know about them. That seems a perfectly good way to learn.” Maybe if he directed some of that brainpower to understanding other people, he’d realize not everyone was like him! Finally, the Jester points out that a good portion of MIT courses are online already — lectures, problem sets, solution sets, quizzes, the works. If all it took was for good material to be online, everyone with access to the Internet who wants to be an MIT engineer could already be one. Yet, few are. Why? The technology is there. The problem is human – insufficient application of attention and effort.)

So, given that the average student is, well, average, there’s a need for attention and effort expended by other people to motivate the average learner. “Other people” might involve parents, teachers, mentors, siblings, and peers, but in formal education, the responsibility is mostly with teachers. Prodding, encouraging, cajoling, rewarding, punishing, and all sorts of other -ings are what good teachers do to motivate their students. And, as good teachers will tell you, it is a neverending quest requiring ongoing creativity to stay one step ahead of student boredom and indifference, which are always just around the corner. This kind of motivation is also difficult to deliver at a distance or at scale or over the Internet, because it really requires individualized human attention. The Jester will snooze in a lecture delivered to 1000 people online; but he’ll perk up if the lecturer is in the room, looking right at him. It’s not clear why Gates thinks the value of a good teacher ends at 12th grade. Even adults need help to stay motivated, which is exactly why people spend money on personal trainers at the gym — it’s not because you couldn’t learn how to do a sit up on YouTube.

Second, much of a university education is not about the academic content; it’s about the life outside of classes and assignments. Harvard’s traditional insignia features three books of which two are face up and one is face down, signifying that a part of the education is not about academic learning. The Jester would have turned another book face down, if he had designed it. Managing projects, working in teams, hosting events, starting new ventures, meeting and interacting with different people… all of these experiences happen in college (at least for many students), and they contribute to lessons that will be valuable in high-paying professions. Among business-school students, it’s common lore that the main reason you attend is to build a peer network that will come in handy later; whether you learn a single thing about marketing strategy is secondary. (Note that if Harvard did anything for Bill Gates, it was to provide the conditions where he could meet Steve Ballmer.) Corporate VPs are rarely the best number crunchers, but they are almost always the ones who understand working with people. Where can you get that practice? At college or on the job. A broader point is actually true of all education — most of education isn’t about the specific knowledge learned (which most of us forget after the exam, anyway), it’s about the meta-skills and qualities one learns in the social process of going to school. Online is no place to learn those skills.

Third, if the goal is to reduce educational costs, the Jester would imagine that the right thing is to see why university education costs so much in the United States. University deans and observers appear to agree that most of the cost goes to faculty and staff compensation. And, of that, what is apparently growing faster than inflation is health insurance. No doubt, this is tied to the country’s larger issues of healthcare costs. College education costs will go down when university leaders and the United States as a whole is ready to fix their respective healthcare systems. And that, again, is not a technology problem.

So, that, in a little more than a nutshell, is why the Jester believes Gates is misguided in seeking a technology solution to America’s education challenges. And, these points apply even more strongly in the developing world, where, for the cost of a high-priced technology with questionable impact, low-cost interventions with known outcomes could have much more impact. The question, of course, is why Gates, like so many technologists, remains so stuck on technology as potential solutions to the deep social problems of the world. That’s a topic that the Jester will address in later posts, so for now, let’s just chalk it up to the fact that he doesn’t read the Jester!