Archive for the ‘Not Quite ICT4D’ Category

2009 PISA Results: Basics, Basics, Basics

December 10, 2010

The most interesting session at WISE (apart from the panel the Jester was on, of course) was a lunch-time session announcing the recent PISA results. The Jester is a big fan of the Programme for International Student Assessment, which is likely to endure as the the primary yardstick for education for some time to come. (The New York Times has an article that provides more background and discusses the results. The complete results and the analysis are here:

Several notable facts from the 2009 results…

  • Shanghai came in first in overall performance, followed by South Korea and Finland. (Officially, China is only a partial participant with a couple of its cities involved, so technically South Korea was the top country.)
  • In addition to having high scores on PISA, the top three countries tend to have little disparity in performance among students and less correlation of performance with household economic status.
  • Increasingly, school performance is decorrelated with either national per-capita GDP or with educational spending per student.
  • Shanghai has an interesting program where they give principals of good schools a raise and a transfer to less performing schools, with the mandate to improve them. They’re allowed to take along with them few teachers from their old school.
  • Accountability and autonomy of schools has an interesting, if unsurprising, interaction: Schools with autonomy do better if the larger school system has a lot of accountability. Schools with autonomy do poorer, if the larger school system has little accountability.
  • African countries are mostly not participating in PISA yet.

Relevant to ICT4D, with the exception of South Korea, the top-performing schools limit their use of technology. Neither Shanghai nor Finland have one-to-one PC programs, though in both, schools tend to have computer classrooms. Also, the analysis from PISA of what makes a good school system are common sense and very basic — a culture that values education and the profession of teaching, policies that consistently empower and reward good educators, high standards of achievement for all students, regardless of background, etc. Notably, technology does not emerge as a key element of a strong educational system. One of the summary documents notes, “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers and principals, since student learning is ultimately the product of what goes on in classrooms.”

When will we learn?


November 28, 2010

It’s not at all clear what the eventual fallout will be from the US State Department documents leaked to WikiLeaks. At this point, there are only minor things the Jester can really say:

  1. Boy, someone’s intent got magnified!
  2. WikiLeaks was both shrewd and cowardly to release the material first to the world’s major news outlets. This way, they don’t have to bear the brunt of any criticism, yet they can take credit for the scoop.
  3. The US Government might finally learn a lesson that most of us have mostly learned about e-mail: Be tactful, even in private, because you never you what will be forwarded.

As for the rest, it’s always hard to know how everyone will feel when they wake up in the morning, after a big secret is unintentionally let out. Will it clear the air and reset global diplomacy? Or, will it kill American diplomacy with a thousand cuts as everyone witholds the most sensitive information? And, this was perhaps 251,000 secrets.

Low-Tech, High-Value Schools

October 25, 2010

Thanks to Nitin Chaubey for forwarding the following article to the Jester: “Brilliance in a box: What do the best classrooms in the world look like?” which appeared in Slate. (By the way, the Jester encourages court messengers to send him relevant articles via e-mail, whether they support the Jester’s sublime wisdom about technology or are techno-stupidian techno-utopian. Both provide good fodder for jestering!) 

The article is summarized by one of its interviewees: “‘In most of the highest-performing systems, technology is remarkably absent from classrooms,’ says Andreas Schleicher, a veteran education analyst for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development who spends much of his time visiting schools around the world to find out what they are doing right (or wrong).” It turns out that South Korea and Finland, both of which have high-performing schools, don’t have a lot of technology in their classrooms. And, the Finns manage this by spending even less time in school and doing less homework than Americans (how that is possible, the Jester doesn’t know).  Schleicher continues, “I have no explanation why that is the case, but it does seem that those systems place their efforts primarily on pedagogical practice rather than digital gadgets.”

This is a great entry point for the Jester to engage in his favorite activity: redundant pontification.

Wait, wait, wait, you say. Since you’ve heard many times, you can imagine what will come next: The Jester will say this is obvious because technology amplifies human intent and capacity, and that the problem with underperforming schools is deficient human intent and capacity. Then, he will say that the critical thing for underperforming schools is building or bringing in better human intent and capacity. Of course, he will continue, if you had the human intent and capacity, you would already have good teachers delivering good education, so that would obviate the need to improve education and fewer technologists would be knocking on the door selling their wares. The Jester will conclude with one of his favorite analogies… that if you had a failing company, you wouldn’t imagine that things would turnaround by buying employees new PCs; so, why does anyone think this solution will work for schools?

You took the words right out of the Jester’s mouth. Since you’ve left little for the Jester to say, he will add that the article hints that technology is distracting us from focusing on what’s important in education. And, why are we being distracted? Because technology is particularly good at amplifying the freak factor of gadget freaks. It’s interesting that Schleicher claims to have no idea why the best school systems aren’t drowning in electonic gadgets, because in the same sentence he answers his own question. The schools focus on “pedagogical practice rather than digital gadgets.”  Wow, what an idea!

So, too, in Microfinance

October 22, 2010

The Jester is attending the “Microfinance Impact & Innovations Conference” in New York City this week. It was organized by economists and practitioners for economists and practitioners, with star representation from each set.

A recent round of research with randomized controlled trials, led by Dean Karlan, Abhijit Banerjee, and Esther Duflo, had cast doubt on the overall impact of microcredit’s ability to increase entrepreneurial capacity of borrowers as the rhetoric claims. On average, microcredit clients don’t appear to get richer over time. Those results were a springboard for the rest of the conference.

A lot was covered, but what stood out most was what seemed to be a sudden recognition among the academics (mostly economists) in the room — that human capacity of the clients is critical to making any microfinance program work. This is something that many practitioners have learned over the years through trial and error, but which the public microfinance rhetoric rarely mentions. For example, to this day, Muhammad Yunus continues to claim that borrowers don’t need training; they just need credit.

The papers presented mostly contradicted Yunus (the Jester hasn’t nominated a FftD recently, so Yunus is it!)…

Dean Karlan opened with several lines of work, where among the findings, one that stood out was the considerable heterogeneity in what microcredit clients did with their borrowings in the Philippines. There seemed to be an effect of male entrepreneurs increasing profits while women didn’t, but the results were hard to interpret, at least for the Jester. Karlan also noted that loans are used to manage risks, rather than necessarily to grow businesses.

Esther Duflo noted three different groups 15-18 months down the line of microfinance in Hyderabad, India. Those with existing businesses tend to expand their businesses. Those who want to start a business appear to take steps to do so. Those with low propensity to become entrepreneurs don’t start new businesses.

David McKenzie talked about $100 cash awards given to microentrepreneurs in Ghana. Male microentrepreneurs and more successful female microentrpreneurs used their grants to grow their businesses, while less successful female microentrepreneurs spent the cash with little visible impact.

Greg Fischer presented research on pushing microentrepreneurs to implement “rule of thumb” accounting practices. He found that more driven, more educated entrepreneurs were more likely to sign up for the program; that the program had large impact on revenues for everyone; and that among those who received a more complex accounting training, only those with high-school educations showed benefits.

Asim Ijaz Khwaja reported on efforts to see how psychological traits correlated with better entrepreneurial activity and found that some traits, such as drive and business acumen make a difference.

Taken together, these results all highlight the critical value of human capacity, both that which is already present with a microfinance client, and that which could be gained through training. If the overall value of microfinance comes out roughly even, there is nevertheless heterogeneity in the impacts, with some clients winning and some clients losing. (It’s not that different from the developed world, where some people misuse credit cards and others get real value out of them.) The real question is not “does microfinance work?” but how to get the losers to become winners.

This might seem obvious, but economists and policy makers are notoriously focused on what happens to the mean. They figure that to effect large-scale change, only movement of the large body at the center of a presumed normal distribution is meaningful, and they’re forever trying to construct incentives to manipulate the mean to do something good for themselves. I believe this attitude frequently blinds them to questions of why positive outliers are outliers, and leaves out solutions in which the goal is not just to change behavior, but to change underlying preferences.

What does this have to do with ICT4D? Well, in the Jester’s more grandiose moments, he likes to pretend that his kingdom is larger than ICT. In that larger domain, “technology” encompasses not only physical technology, but also systems, institutions, and policies. For any of them to work, the Jester claims, the magic sauce is always human intent and capacity. (As an aside, it’s also the ultimate thing that matters… Positive human intent and capacity is desirable in itself; technology by itself is just a hunk of junk.)

ICT amplifies human intent and capacity. Microfinance amplifies human intent and capacity. You can spread ICT, but not much happens without human intent and capacity. And, you can spread microfinance, but not much happens without human intent and capacity.

The Jester was heartened by this apparent turn in the microfinance conversation among economists to a focus on training, hand-holding, and other interventions that change intent and build capacity.

On the other hand, the Jester still finds that technocrats are technocrats. For the most part, the speakers spoke of these things as secondary issues. The term “microfinance plus” was frequently used, where “plus” was meant to include training, etc., in the same way that ICT4D-ers think of good design, cultural sensitivity, and political alignment as the “plus” part of “technology plus.”

But, neither technology or microfinance are the main event. It’s the “plus” — increasing human intent and capacity — that matters!

The Jester wonders when this recognition will come to agriculture, education (i.e., teachers and administration), governance…?

All Atwitter about Twitter

September 30, 2010

In an article in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell bites into “the outsized enthusiasm for social media.” This is a worthwhile cause, to be sure. The article drips with contempt for anyone and everyone who seems overly eager to declare the miracles of technology. The claims of Twitter’s role in Moldova and Iran are put in their place. He quotes journalist Golnaz Esfandiari, “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” Go, Malcolm, go!  

But, this is actually old news. What’s new is Gladwell’s take. He denies two business-book authors’ claim that “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation.” It’s not motivation, but merely participation that is increased via social networks, according to Gladwell. Citing Facebook causes that have millions of friends but very low average donations, he writes, “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.”

This is true, and right in line with the Jester’s motto: Technology magnifies human intent and capacity. Yes, you can get more friends on Facebook making donations, than if you had to stuff envelopes and lick stamps, but what use is it, if their underlying desire and ability to donate is limited (as it inevitably is)?

The story he ends on is the story made famous by Clay Shirky, about a New York woman, Ivanna, who loses her fancy mobile phone in a taxi and has it stolen by a teenager, Sasha, who refuses to return it. Thanks to some Internet activism by Ivanna’s friend Evan, millions of people followed the story, some agitated, and the police were forced publicly to acknowledge that the phone was stolen and not just lost. They then nabbed Sasha and Ivanna got her phone back. Gladwell says whoop-dee-doo, and ends with sarcastic flourish the Jester wished he had: “A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución.” 

If Gladwell pushed just a little further, though, he’d have had even more ammunition to critique his targets. The real issue with these stories is not that they are minor accomplishments — Shirky’s other examples, which Malcolm leaves out, are actually quite powerful. The real problem is that as everyone else starts using these tools for the same purposes, we will again settle into an equilibrium where everyone competes for everyone else’s attention, and the winners of the new game will, with minor shuffling, be the same winners of the old game. How soon do you think it will be, before people tire of agitating on the behalf of rich people’s lost gadgets? And, how quickly we’ll all get exhausted when pinged for the next thousand causes we could be giving to.

Technology amplifies human intent and capacity, but the competition for some things — donor dollars, attention, political power — is more of a zero-sum game than a game pie that can be grown indefinitely, by technology or otherwise. For maybe a few more months, or maybe a few more years, we’ll keep hearing about how Twitter and Facebook is a wondrous, global lost-and-found. But, when the dust settles, we’ll quickly start treating common Facebook requests like so much spam.

The amplification that social media is accomplishing is the speed at which we get excited about, and then grow weary of, fads.

(Incidentally, for further commentary on Gladwell’s article, see the New York Times’ “Room for Debate” column. The Jester agrees most with fellow technology realist Evgeny Morozov’s note.)

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!

The Inventor’s Dilemma and Our Fix-It Faith

June 1, 2010

It seems that plenty of jesters in other domains are also raising the volume in questioning techno-utopian ideology.

A New Yorker article (May 17, 2010, p. 42) talks about MacArthur Fellowship winner Saul Griffith’s realization that “The real problem with eyeglasses in the developing world isn’t making lenses, it’s testing eyes and writing accurate prescriptions.”  Sound familiar?

Another New York Times article (May 28, 2010) discusses our society’s hubris in believing that technology can fix all problems, with regard to the oil spill. It quotes David Eyton, BP’s head of research and technology: “[Technology] becomes both an enabler, while at the same time being itself a source of risk.” Andrew Khout, president of the Pew Resaerch Center for the People and the Press, says “American have a lot of faith that over the long run technology will solve everything.” The article ends with a note about air passengers frustrated by the inability for volcanic ash delays. Khout says, “The reaction was: ‘Fix this. Fix this. This is outrageous.'” Indeed! How could it be possible that our technology can’t solve a problem caused by volcano?!

(The Jester, incidentally, was also caught in the Netherlands when the volcano struck and decided to take advantage of train and bus to reach Barcelona, and from there to fly home. The Jester is thus thankful for land-based transport technologies. He fears an all-too-soon need to return to animal-based transport technologies.)