Archive for January, 2011

Schadenfreude for Google

January 31, 2011

The New York Times published an article titled “Google Finds It Hard to Reinvent Philanthropy” (the Jester thanks Bill Thies for forwarding). The Schadenfreude in the title permeates the entire article, and the Jester will join in the Freude. Not so much because an entity with deep pockets failed to do something good for the world (that would only merit Traurigkeit), but because that entity started it all with so much hubris… perhaps the greatest sin of international development. Larry Page wanted Google.org to “eclipse Google itself in terms of overall world impact,” and to somehow do it with only 1% of its profits.  

The Jester Googles just like anyone else, and has few doubts about the company’s smarts as a technology company. The Jester’s previous employer viewed Google as a competitor, and so he had reason to keep an eye on Google’s attempts to engage the poorer parts of the developing world.

The Jesterial conclusion is that Google’s strength as a Silicon Valley juggernaut is exactly its weakness in the developing world, and this is a lesson not just for Google, but for other technology companies. Google has a tendency to see everything as a technology problem. Lawrence Simon, a Brandeis professor who is quoted in the NYT article, puts it perfectly: “They were looking for something like a new algorithm — but there isn’t any algorithm that’s going to eradicate guinea worm.” Google, however, persists in the illusion: The title on www.google.org reads, “Technology-Driven Philanthropy.”

Anyone (that may include the reader) who thinks the differences between the developed and developing world can be solved through engineering is overlooking a very obvious flaw with that thesis: The world already has all of the technology it needs for the developed part of it to be developed. The problem isn’t that poor people need culturally appropriate climate control systems. The problem is that the ability to acquire, produce, support, and capitalize on technology is unequally distributed in the world. It’s not a technological challenge, any more than the uneven distribution of gold in the world is an alchemy challenge. (And, the Jester hasn’t even mentioned physical and infrastructural problems, which are decidedly not challenges of bits.)

The corollary of Google’s techno-fetishism is that the company abhors paying for non-creative-class human labor. Google has succeeded in the developed world largely by hyper-automation, by removing or avoiding human labor as much as possible. It all started with Page Rank, which brilliantly recognized that people’s ideas of webpage importance were already embedded in the hyperlink structure of the web, and that that knowledge could be automatically crawled and analyzed. This inclination also explains Google’s beta-itis, where products are left in trial state for centuries. What better way to keep customer service costs low? Even when it does have to pay humans, like the ones who monitor illegitimate content on YouTube, it does so with shame and secrecy.

In the developing world, though, this tendency is the exact opposite of what is required. Google’s attempts to win more eyeballs in poor rural areas, for example, consistently try to bypass intermediary human beings in the communication chain, whether it is delivering health information by SMS in Uganda or setting up rural announcement boards in India. But, as readers of the Jester know, information isn’t the bottleneck! (As proof of that thesis, note that Google’s one attempt to work with live human intermediaries was a telecenter project. If the world’s supposedly smartest company can’t be bothered to learn from the vast critical literature on telecenters, then what chance does an undereducated wage worker have with information dribbling in over SMS?)

Even where information is immediately helpful, it still requires human mediators in the “last mile” who can establish trust relationships, work the human-computer interface, manage cash if necessary, and possibly even provide a little education. That would mean hiring human labor, though, and Google doesn’t want that line item. (Meanwhile, a clever service called “Just Dial” in India uses a variation of Google’s revenue-sharing business model, but over voice calls and with a human-operated call center. Just Dial has turned it into a useful, lucrative business.)

As a result of its developed-world attitude to solving developing-world problems, Google has taken to offering what the Jester calls “thin technology” in the vain hope that just putting good software in the cloud will transform the developing world. Thin technology is technology that isn’t thickly integrated into a working institution. It’s mobile search without trained healthcare workers who can interpret medical information for undereducated patients. It’s Google apps for schools without any attempt to support teachers, administrators, or students. It’s crisis response tools without crisis response teams. To the extent that thin technology is for a world that uses Google and Gmail, some of it might be useful. But, that’s not the vast majority of the developing world.

So, what should Google, or any technology company, do? Strategically, here are the Jester’s recommendations:

  • Ringfence resources, so that the company’s primary business considerations don’t influence what is done. Specify the budget up front, then don’t touch.
  • Allow for a separate goal and strategy. In another technology company the Jester is intimately familiar with, one DotOrg-like group couldn’t decide whether they were philanthropy or business or PR or incubator. Pulled among different objectives, they had difficulty achieving any of them, and the group folded.
  • Disregard mumbo-jumbo about fortunes at the bottom of the pyramid or eradicating poverty through profits. If revenue is the goal, don’t bother with the poor world. Even if revenue flowed in, it will be by profiting from poor people. Is that the real intent? (For more, see the Jester’s post on the BOP.)
  • Emphasize impact over scale. Scaling something with impact makes sense, but shooting for scale before impact is confirmed is pointless, and possibly evil in development, where resources are scarce.
  • If any of the above don’t appeal, stay out of the game. Match employee donations, sure, but don’t pretend to do good while “increasing shareholder value.”

Next, more tactically…

  • Recognize that a technology company’s biggest asset isn’t its technology. It’s its people. What the world needs is more people nurturing, and less technology to solve their problems. Send out engineers to train engineers, managers to mentor managers. Etc.

The Jester doesn’t believe that providing technology solutions is effective in long-term development. In the end, it’s just another kind of charity — instead of giving money, it’s giving technology. However, the Jester is fully aware that technologists desperately want to prove their ingenuity. (Why they aren’t excited about mentoring others to be brilliant is beyond the Jester.) If this is the case…

  • Find organizations that are already effective. (Note here that “well-known” doesn’t necessarily mean “effective.” Any fool can have good PR.) Partner with them in the full, messy sense of the word. Thoroughly understand what they do and see whether anything can be done to contribute to their goals. Technology amplifies existing intent and capacity.
  • Set up (pro-bono?) consulting services for any tools built. Free software is useless to most non-profit organizations unless it comes with training, engineering, and support.

Not a lot to excite a profit-maximizing CEO, alas, but any CEO with real intent in philanthropy should consider pulling a Bill Gates: drop the technology job and move to philanthropy full-time.

Tweets don’t foment rebellion; rebellions get tweeted.

January 29, 2011

[A shorter version of this post appears at TheAtlantic.com.]

With the backdrop of political unrest in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, Roger Cohen mocks Evgeny Morozov’s book, The Net Delusion, as an ill-timed book in the same category as Dow 36,000, which was published just before the dot-com crash. (The Jester thanks Anno Saxenian for forwarding the article.) Cohen epitomizes technology utopians when he writes, “The freedom to connect is a tool of liberation.”

Predictably, the Jester sides with Morozov, however, whose point is subtler. (The Jester confesses he hasn’t yet read Morozov’s book, but he has thoroughly studied the back and inside covers.) Morozov’s goal is to highlight the negative uses of the Internet, often by powerful governments to achieve their own nefarious ends. Morozov’s real intent is to deny the simplistic, one-sided view that dissemination of communication technologies necessarily supports democracy.

Morozov doesn’t provide an overarching theory for when technology supports democracy and when it doesn’t, but by now, the Jester’s readers can shout in chorus: “Technology amplifies human intent and capacity.” This, of course, extends to human-run institutions like democracy.

Consider this: If the Internet by itself were the key to causing democracy, then you’d expect a country like China, with its 420 million Internet users to be a fecund breeding ground for democracy-minded activists, eager to cast off their totalitarian government. But, although there are dissident voices in China, and they do often make use of the Internet, the Chinese populace on the whole doesn’t appear prone to overthrowing its government any time soon. Nor do the citizens of Singapore, where Internet penetration is nearly 100%.

It’s also worthwhile to remember that plenty of revolutions have taken place without electronic ICTs, and that not all tweeted attempts at revolution succeed. Remember the American revolution? People wrote paper pamphlets and succeeded. And, how about Iran? People Facebooked and YouTubed, but bits are no match for atoms.

These counterexamples show that the claims of communication technologies as the primary cause, or even the catalyst, of large-scale positive social change are misleading. The Jester believes they lead to poor policy in foreign affairs and international development. They commit the classic error of confusing correlation with cause. It’s not so much that tweeting foments rebellion, but that in our age, all rebellions are tweeted.

What, then, is the cause? If the Jester may engage in a bit of armchair political science, three points emerging from Egypt and Tunisia offer clues. First, the protesters express years, if not decades, of frustrations with their government. People need to be deeply unhappy before they march. The Internet only spreads news. It doesn’t spread unemployment.

Second, the protests are led mostly by educated, middle-class people. It takes an educated population that isn’t living hand-to-mouth, to risk an upending of the status quo. In contrast, there are many oppressed but starving populations that don’t put up a fight. You can’t eat freedom; better a dictator who feeds you than a democracy who doesn’t. (Kevin Bales, an expert on modern slavery, tells a story of a couple who buy themselves out of slavery, and then promptly sign back up with their old master, because without him, they have neither food nor secuirty.)

Third, the governments’ physical might, or their will to use it, appears to be weak. In Egypt’s case, the Jester wagers that how it all turns out will depend on the willingness of the army to be ruthless. So far, it seems the army itself is reluctant to hurt citizens. Must have been because of Facebook!

(Broken record warning.) Technology magnifies the underlying intent and capacity of people and institutions. But, it doesn’t in and of itself change human intent, which evolves through non-technological social forces. Successful revolutions are tipping points, which mark the point when the power of capable citizens frustrated with their governments exceeds the will and physical might of a government intent on power. An avalanche’s underlying cause is a flake-by-flake accumulation of snow; similarly, the tipping point of revolution is the culmination of a person-by-person accumulation of frustration and middle-class security.

The Jester accepts that it’s hard to predict how technological magnification comes out. Different capacities are magnified, and so government and citizen intent will be amplified differently. But, on the whole, the tipping point is determined not so much by technology, but by other forces often buried deep in human psyches. Witness how little FoxNews and MSNBC converts opposing opinions in the United States. If “connecting people” or “making people aware of the plight of others” through technology were the primary cause of peace and equality, then America ought to converge to consensus with all the communication happening over TV, radio, Internet, and mobile phone. But, if anything, the technology is creating greater polarization. Democrats are Democrats, not primarily because they are exposed to left-leaning ideas online. Republicans are Republicans, not primarily because they hear right-leaning ideas on FoxNews. This is again, confusing correlation with cause.

Technology can communicate frustration, but it also amplifies government propaganda and misinformation. Technology can accelerate a revolution once it begins, but it can’t feed or educate an enfeebled population to the point of rebellion (PCs for schools notwithstanding). Whatever extent technology helps revolutionaries communicate, it is a minor contribution compared to the circumstances that made them revolutionaries.

What does this mean for policy? Technology policy should be more selectively applied. It helps most when the social balance is already in favor of a desired outcome. Otherwise, there are other conditions we might push for first – good nutrition, viable healthcare, and universal education – most of which are less controversial, even for dictators. And, in any case, technology-for-all policies require extreme care, as Hilary Clinton found with WikiLeaks and “Internet freedom”: Technology’s blade is always double-edged.

The Beginning of the End?

January 18, 2011

The Jester thanks his alter ego’s high school computer science teacher, Mr. Ron Dirkse, for forwarding him the following story from the New York Times: In Florida, Virtual Classrooms with No Teachers. The story relates the experience of some secondary school students in the Miami-Dade Public School system (generally considered very good — the Jester has firsthand experience!), who found to their surprise that they were enrolled in classes equipped with PCs for online, self-paced, distance education, and no teachers. Apparently, there are 7000 students enrolled in these “e-learning labs.”

If there’s consolation for the Jester, it’s that the story is careful to note that the labs are not completely supervision-free, and it also emphasizes the potential downsides of the program (including its use as a cost-reduction strategy!):

“A ‘facilitator’ is in the room to make sure students progress. That person also deals with any technical problems.”

“None of them want to be there,” [one student] said, “and for virtual education you have to be really self-motivated. This was not something they chose to do, and it’s a really bad situation to be put in because it is not your choice.” (Emphasis added by the Jester)

“The way our state is dealing with class size is nearly criminal,” said Chris Kirchner, an English teacher at Coral Reef Senior High School in Miami. “They’re standardizing in the worst possible way, which is evident in virtual classes.” … “I think there should be learning on the computer,” Ms. Kirchner said. “That part is from 2:30 p.m. on. The first part of the day should be for learning with people.”

“There is no doubt that blended learning can be as effective and often more effective than a classroom,” said Mr. Moore, who is also editor of The American Journal of Distance Education. He said, however, that research and his experiences had shown that proper design and teacher instruction within the classroom were necessary. A facilitator who only monitors student progress and technical issues within virtual labs would not be categorized as part of a blended-learning model, he said. Other variables include “the maturity and sophistication of the student,” he said.

“Despite some complaints about the virtual teaching method, administrators said e-learning labs were here to stay.”

Oof!

ICT is to Education as a Treadmill is to Fitness

January 18, 2011

It’s heartwarming to see the passionate debate over at Educational Technology Debate, ensuing from Toyama’s post, “There are no technology shortcuts to good education.” The Jester also would like to acknowledge Stephen Downes, who wrote an articulate point by point rebuttal to Toyama’s article. (The Jester notes, though, that Downes seems to be coming from the perspective of rich-world tertiary education, which is exactly what Toyama wasn’t writing about. Incidentally, if anyone would like to be a Guest Jester and rebut Downes, the Jester would be delighted to cede the stage).

Although the Jester is slowly coming to the conclusion that there is little point in trying to convince people who are pro-technology otherwise, he will give it another shot here, and respond to the main classes of responses that were received.

Throughout, the Jester will use an analogy for ICT in education (which he hit upon while out for a jog in the chilly north end of the Bay Area): ICT is to education as exercise technology is to fitness. The parallels are as follows…

  • Fitness only happens when the person does the work (at least with current technology – electrical ab stimulators notwithstanding!).
  • Education only happens when the learner does the work (at least with current technology – we don’t yet have the kung-fu teaching machine from the Matrix).
  • Thus, the key challenge of exercise is the motivation of the person.
  • Thus, the key challenge of education is the motivation of the learner.
  • Children are naturally dynamic and want to exercise, but most still need good guidance and coaching if they are going to become good athletes.
  • Children are naturally curious and want to learn, but most still need good guidance and coaching if they are going to become good thinkers.
  • Treadmills may provide some initial motivation, but their novelty quickly wears off.
  • Computers may provide some initial motivation, but their novelty quickly wears off.
  • The Jester concedes that occasionally a treadmill is the inspiration for someone to stick to a tight exercise regimen for the long term. But, these people will continue to exercise even without the treadmill.
  • The Jester concedes that occasionally a computer is the inspiration for a child to seek out further learning for the long term. But, these children will continue to exercise even without the treadmill.
  • Treadmills may be convenient; they can do some things that help with exercise; and they could certainly be part of a good exercise program. But, there are plenty of low-cost alternatives for exercise that hold up well against treadmills (and other exercise machines).
  • Computers may be convenient; they can do some things that help with education; and they could certainly be part of a good teaching program. But, there are plenty of low-cost alternatives for education that hold up well against computer (and other ICT).
  • If someone is terribly out of shape and as their doctor, you could pay for either a treadmill or a personal trainer, you would pay for the personal trainer. A good personal trainer can coach someone into shape with little technology, while there is no guarantee that the person would actually use the treadmill.
  • If someone is behind in their education and as their administrator, you could pay for either a computer or a good tutor, you would pay for the tutor. A good tutor can coach someone into learning with little technology, while there is no guarantee that a student would make productive use of the computer.
  • Where large numbers of people are out of shape, what you need is to enroll them in an exercise program with good personal trainers.
  • Where large numbers of children are not learning, what you need is to put them in a school with good teachers.  

Using this analogy, the Jester now clarifies some points on Toyama’s behalf:

First, as Toyama tried to emphasize, the admonition against overenthusiastic use of ICT in schools is directed mainly at primary and secondary schools, where students’ motivation and direction are (for the most part) not dependable for good education. On the other hand, by tertiary levels, many students have the motivation and direction to study on their own, and the power of certain ICTs can certainly help, just as college students with an exercise habit can benefit from a well-stocked gym.

Second, much of the challenge in education, particularly in publicly funded developing-world education, is remedial in nature… and not just for the students, but for the entire school system. Effectively, what you have are couch potatoes languishing under the poor guidance of uncaring coaches. It might require a Herculean effort to turn all stakeholders – athlete-to-bes, coaches, managers, fans – around, but without doing so, no amount of fancy exercise equipment will make a contribution. Having said that, school systems where good education is happening could certainly benefit from ICT, just as a healthy athletic program would benefit from treadmills and weight machines.

Many respondents repeated variations of the need for “21st century skills” by which they meant capacity to use high technology. Yes, the world is full of technology, but there is a huge difference between being able to use a technology and being able to do meaningful things with the technology. The former requires technology to learn, but the latter requires mature thinking skills. The former is easy to learn; the latter is difficult, and therefore requires attention in school. Athletes today use state-of-the-art technology when they compete – “technology is everywhere!” – but while the technology gives them a boost, their real advantage is years of training, often in low-tech circumstances. Many Kenyan marathon runners, for example, grow up training barefoot. Does every child have to run with Nike Air technology to become a world-class runner? It might even be argued that learning how to run without the technology makes one a superior competitor when the technology is available.

Some people noted that ICT can extend education beyond the classroom. This is true for motivated, self-directed children, but those are few and far between at the primary and secondary levels, especially when they have never experienced a good educational environment. It’s like saying that couch potatoes without a habit of exercise will suddenly exercise more if you put a treadmill in their living room. The Jester guesses that most such treadmills are dramatically underused.

Finally, a class of respondents talked about the opportunity cost of NOT providing ICT in education for the future of the country. As Mike Trucano noted at the World Bank blog, this is a line of argument that inspires fear in the hearts of education ministers. Unfortunately, it’s misplaced without showing that ICT can really make a big impact. In economics, “opportunity cost” means the best alternative to the purchase in question. So, the opportunity cost of ICT in education is what you could do with the ICT budget if you spent it on something else in education. The Jester asserts (as did Toyama), that there is a lot, and a lot that is proven in rigorous studies to be impactful.

Educational Technology Debate

January 6, 2011

The Jester wishes he had been the one to write this superb article in Educational Technology Debate (ETD) by Kentaro Toyama! It’s really unfair that a person should have such insight and be a candidate for Brad Pitt’s long-lost more handsome half-brother. The full article, titled “There are no technology shortcuts in education,” is worth reading (incidentally, the Jester applauds the folks at ETD, who have provided a great platform for discussion about technology in education), but here are some juicy excerpts…

“Quality primary and secondary education is a multi-year commitment whose single bottleneck is the sustained motivation of the student to climb an intellectual Everest.”

“While computers appear to engage students (which is exactly their appeal), the engagement swings between uselessly fleeting at best and addictively distractive at worst.”

“With respect to sustaining directed motivation, even the much-maligned rote-focused drill-sergeant disciplinarian is superior to any electronic multimedia carnival.”

“…efforts to fix broken schools with technology or to substitute for missing teachers with technology invariably fail.”

“We need to distinguish between the need to learn the tools of modern life (easy to pick up, and getting easier by the day, thanks to better technology!) and learning the critical thinking skills that make a person productive in an information economy (hard to learn, and not really any easier with information technology).”

“If education only required an interactive, adaptive, constructivist, student-centered, EFotM medium, then the combination of an Erector Set and an encyclopedia ought to be sufficient for education.”

“In India, a typical text book costs 7.5-25 rupees, or 15-50 cents.”

“Certainly, a humanoid robot indistinguishable from a good teacher could work wonders!”

Toyama has previously written articles that question the value of technology in development (for example, see this Boston Review forum), but he has rarely expressed so much anti-technology sentiment. The Jester thinks that this might be because technology in education is particularly hard to get right and more likely to distract from core efforts towards better teaching and administration. Education also has a longer history of technology failures, whereas, for example, agriculture and healthcare often benefit in tangible ways from technology.

What makes education different? The Jester believes it has to do with the fact that education is so much a social process, where the critical magic happens in the ongoing relationship between learner and the teacher (or parent or guide or mentor or whomever). The magic isn’t about information or knowledge or skill. It’s about inspiration, motivation, encouragement, scolding, etc., all of which involve a social, emotional element, that human beings (even when misguided) can generate far better than any technology on the horizon. Education is very unlike a vaccine, which works automatically after injection.

There are occasional self-taught geniuses, and they seem like counterexamples to the social nature of good education, but they are rare and still likely to have been raised in environments with motivational influences, however fleeting. One nod from a coolly distant father might be all it takes to make a kid work alone for months on a project, but in a poor educational environment, even that timely nod is missing (or lost in other noise)… and critically can’t be replaced by technology.

The question the Jester has for Toyama, though, is whether this kind of rational cornering of dissenters ultimately works to sway them. Among readers, only a very small minority are likely to be persuaded by an opposing view.

Some recent research by Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer, for example, suggests that dire messages about climate change (this will be relevant… stay with the Jester here) can cause some people to shove their heads underground in denial, because the implicit threat to one’s foundational beliefs is so unnerving. A similar phenomenon might happen with people who are already so vested in technology for education, that their own livelihoods or reputations depend on its perceived success. As Upton Sinclair noted, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.” What is the best way to change their minds? The Jester, for once, is stumped. Any ideas?