Stuck on Technology

“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!

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4 Responses to “Stuck on Technology”

  1. Gurshara Says:

    Its intriguing that the problematic understanding of solutions to problems in education is not limited to the places of worship of ICTDers. The west is at least as holy. The politicos in India devised a $35 a pop solution, and what a connection – Mr. Gates could merrily help them attain Nirvana with just one scribble of a pen.

    The two worlds confront exactly the same broad problems –

    (1). Given the best material (books, lectures, videos, etc) to convey knowledge, how do we scale-up? Technology could help in solving this problem, assuming significant meaningful reach.

    (2). Only a small population is usually interested in learning – for reasons that by all means of confession are manifestations of (un)modern pedagogy – biased teachers encouraging students to become like someone (for e.g. Gates), student personalities, cut-throat kindergarten competition in asian countries, and some psychological factors. Nobody is interested in finding out how to make it interesting for *a* kid (the “group” nature of lectures/classes, and the student/teacher ratio too).

    Teach for X like efforts are trying to address (1) by replacing a distributed system of machines by a mixture of technology and humans heavier in composition in humans who are passionate about not letting (2) happen. But there is only so much a small number can do. Manufacturing more teachers by teaching them how to teach is again prone to 1 & 2 at a smaller scale. Such efforts are also usually seen as secondary help by school authorities that are already paying their staff salaires to “teach”.

    There definitely could be more ways to approach the issue, after an agreement on what the issue really is at a wider level happens and there is no fear of undoing things. Jackhammers, ones that come under $35, to start with.

  2. Vandana Says:

    The Jester is so very true.

    India is a nation of poor – and education is degrading. And in such a nation, technology isn’t multiplicative – it is at best a distraction. This ‘mass education’ initiative is great, but it is out of focus, as the Jester has so vehemently advocated.

    Let’s analyse the role of ICT in education.

    Will it work? – Who are being empowered? Not the poor for sure – what we teach them in science classes is not self-discovery but rote learning. We don’t have ICT labs in urban schools, what to talk of rural schools! Rural schools barely manage with a teacher. So we make do with a few classes per month. After all, no poor kid is going to be a rocket scientist! The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan is but a joke playing for way too long.

    Next comes the ‘need’. Why would a rural kid learn to mug up the lessons on CDs, projectors and online modules at home when he knows that in that ‘spare’ time he can work on his farm/part-time work – chipping in his contribution to the family income. After all, he is not going to be a rocket scientist! (duplicated)

    So the basic problem is not ‘technology’ but the human intent, as the Jester correctly maintains.

    When children in rural areas do not even have timely access to books and classes, then trying to put CDs and projectors into the scene is too immature an effort. The uphill task of bringing them to schools is what demands attention, rather than reaching out through ICT. As preached everywhere but practiced rarely, ‘technology is only a means’.

    We need to increase this school attendance – an example being the ‘Mid-day meal scheme’ in India. This single scheme has enhanced the numbers by such folds as even an ICT revolution cannot achieve. We have to understand the real needs of the kids. They need food, a better source of income and home environment so that they can ‘study’ instead of ‘work’. Only when such needs are taken care of that we can proceed with polishing them at par with international standards and global progress.

    We need to encourage kids to learn by bringing them closer to books (and in time, to ICT), instead of taking technology to them and telling them to learn. Learning happens slowly and on a strong foundation. The need of the hour is not to teach kids elementary mathematics on an online module but how to apply it when working as an accountant. And I guess, ICT cannot help in this case!

    “Volunteer teaching” is also a new effort in the direction but with few takers — mostly corporate people working up to embellish their CVs with social work and CSR. And it will take many more ‘Teach for India’ to put the horse before the cart. This ‘education for all’ is but nonsense when we cannot ‘pay according to merit’. In India, teaching is the lowest-paid, mediocre job. Where most work is needed, why do we do away with salaries? Why do we encourage volunteerism? Those teachers have families just as we do. Then, why this ‘charity’? Just try paying the teachers well (full-time or volunteers), and see the difference. When development is your goal, start with the top of the pyramid — pyramid of real workers — and the trickle-down effect is inevitable. Every pro-development worker in the educational sphere will love to be a committed teacher! And then we WILL have better students – ICT or no ICT.

  3. Herb Shelman Says:

    In this article, we make a futile and stupid make an effort to educate everybody, no matter if they want an degree or not. In other nations, they worth school expenses much more, because once you usually do not pursue it, they stop educating you therefore you have got to require a menial employment and endure. Dad and mom you should not want that for their little children plus they push them. In this article, when a person does not want an training, we force them to stay in compulsory education with compulsory learning and we give them the “No Infant Left Behind” treatment. We maintain their sorry butt in education and enable them drag down the whole academic procedure. The parents need not really need to require the responsibility to produce their kid rise to challenges. To be a direct result, our school devices and teachers are swamped with wanting to yield even mediocre final results from your population which has no good reason to care or to experiment with. Choose a produced region during the society, and its academic process can be healthier than ours, given that right here our lawyers have determined that we really need to have a go with to save individuals from on their own.

  4. ICT4D King Says:

    Contrast Sugata Mitra’s “child-driven education” ( with New York Time’s Second Thoughts on Online Education..

    “But what we are saying is that there’s no free lunch” in the drive to online education, he said.

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