Posts tagged ‘economics’

The Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education': Personalized Instruction and Teaching Machines aren’t new

When I was a PhD student taking Education classes, my favorite two-semester sequence was on the history of education.  I realized that there wasn’t much new under the sun when it comes to thinking about education.  Ideas that are key to progressive education movements date back to Plato’s Republic: “No forced study abides in a soul…Therefore, you best of men, don’t use force in training the children in the studies, but rather play. In that way you can also better discern what each is naturally directed toward.”  Here we have learning through games (but not video games in 300BC) and personalized instruction — promoted over 2400 years ago.  I named my dissertation software system Emile after Rousseau’s book with the same name whose influence reached Montessori, Piaget, and Papert decades later.

Audrey Watters takes current education reformers to task in the article linked below.  Today’s reformers don’t realize the history of the education system, that many of the idea that they are promoting have been tried before. Our current education system was designed in part because those ideas have already failed.  In particular, the idea of building “teaching machines” as a response to “handicraft” education was suggested over 80 years ago.  Education problems are far harder to solve than today’s education entrepreneurs realize.

Many education reformers today denounce the “factory model of education” with an appeal to new machinery and new practices that will supposedly modernize the system. That argument is now and has been for a century the rationale for education technology. As Sidney Pressey, one of the inventors of the earliest “teaching machines” wrote in 1932 predicting “The Coming Industrial Revolution in Education,”

Education is the one major activity in this country which is still in a crude handicraft stage. But the economic depression may here work beneficially, in that it may force the consideration of efficiency and the need for laborsaving devices in education. Education is a large-scale industry; it should use quantity production methods. This does not mean, in any unfortunate sense, the mechanization of education. It does mean freeing the teacher from the drudgeries of her work so that she may do more real teaching, giving the pupil more adequate guidance in his learning. There may well be an “industrial revolution” in education. The ultimate results should be highly beneficial. Perhaps only by such means can universal education be made effective.

via The Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education’.

The reality is that technology never has and never will dramatically change education (as described in this great piece in The Chronicle).  It will always be a high-touch endeavor because of how humans learn.

Education is fundamentally a human activity and is defined by human attention, motivation, effort, and relationships.  We need teachers because we are motivated to make our greatest efforts for human beings with whom we have relationships and who hold our attention.

In the words of Richard Thaler, there are no Econs (see recommended piece in NYTimes).

May 25, 2015 at 7:30 am 5 comments

Computing education that everyone needs but isn’t about learning programming

My colleague, Amy Bruckman, wrote a blog post about the challenges that nonprofits face when trying to develop and maintain software.  She concludes with an interesting argument for computing education that has nothing to do with learning programming that everyone needs.  I think it relates to my question: What is the productivity cost of not understanding computing? (See post here.)

This is not a new phenomenon. Cliff Lampe found the same thing in a study of three nonprofits. At the root of the problem is two shortcomings in education. So that more small businesses and nonprofits don’t keep making this mistake, we need education about the software development process as part of the standard high-school curriculum. There is no part of the working world that is not touched by software, and people need to know how it is created and maintained. Even if they have no intention of becoming a developer, they need to know how to be an informed software customer. Second, for the people at web design firms who keep taking advantage of customers, there seems to be a lack of adequate professional ethics education. I teach students in my Computers, Society, and Professionalism class that software engineers have a special ethical responsibility because the client may not understand the problem domain and is relying on the knowledge and honesty of the developer. More people need to get that message.

via Dear Nonprofits: Software Needs Upkeep (Why we need better education about software development and professional ethics) | The Next Bison: Social Computing and Culture.

May 6, 2015 at 7:53 am 3 comments

“Disruptive Innovation” in Universities is not as important as Value

The below-linked article by Jill Lepore is remarkable for its careful dissection of Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation.” (Thanks to Shriram Krishnamurthi for the link.)  As Lepore points out, Christensen’s theories were referenced often by those promoting MOOCs.  I know I was told many times (vehemently, ferociously) that my emphasis on learning, retention, diversity was old-fashioned, and that disrupting the university was important for its own sake, for the sake of innovation.  As Lepore says in the quote below, there may be good arguments for MOOCs, but Christensen’s argument from a historical perspective just doesn’t work.  (Ian Bogost shared this other critical analysis of Christensen’s theory.)

I just finished reading Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, and I see similarities between how Lepore describes reactions to Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation” and how Lewis describes the market around synthetic subprime mortgage bond-backed financial instruments.  There’s a lot of groupthink going on (and the Wikipedia description is worth reading), with the party line saying, “This is all so great!  This is a great way to get rich!  We can’t imagine being wrong!”  What Lewis points out (most often through the words of Dr. Michael Burry) is that markets work when there is a logic to them and real value underneath.  Building financial instruments on top of loans that would never be repaid is ludicrous — it’s literally value-less.  Lepore is saying something similar — innovation for its own sake is not necessarily valuable or a path to success, and companies that don’t disruptively innovate can still be valuable and successful.

I don’t know enough to critique either Lewis or Lepore, but I do see how the lesson of value over groupthink applies to higher-education.  Moving education onto MOOCs just to be disruptive isn’t valuable.  We can choose what value proposition for education we want to promote.  If we’re choosing that we want to value reaching students who don’t normally get access higher education, that’s a reasonable goal — but if we’re not reaching that goal via MOOCs (as all the evidence suggests), then MOOCs offer no value.  If we’re choosing that we want students to learn more, or to improve retention, or to get networking opportunities with fellow students (future leaders), or to provide remedial help to students without good preparation, those are all good value propositions, but MOOCs help with none of them.

Both Lewis and Lepore are telling us that Universities will only succeed if they are providing value. MOOCs can only disrupt them if they can provide that value better.  No matter what the groupthink says, we should promote those models for higher-education that we can argue (logically and with evidence) support our value proposition.

In “The Innovative University,” written with Henry J. Eyring, who used to work at the Monitor Group, a consulting firm co-founded by Michael Porter, Christensen subjected Harvard, a college founded by seventeenth-century theocrats, to his case-study analysis. “Studying the university’s history,” Christensen and Eyring wrote, “will allow us to move beyond the forlorn language of crisis to hopeful and practical strategies for success.” … That doesn’t mean good arguments can’t be made for online education. But there’s nothing factually persuasive in this account of its historical urgency and even inevitability, which relies on a method well outside anything resembling plausible historical analysis.

via Jill Lepore: What the Theory of “Disruptive Innovation” Gets Wrong : The New Yorker.

June 26, 2014 at 7:44 am 6 comments

Let’s do the math: Does it make sense to fill a pipeline of CS workers from 3rd grade?

According to the article linked below, there is a large effort to fill STEM worker jobs in Northern Virginia by getting kids interested in STEM (including computing) from 3rd grade on.  The evidence for this need is that there will be 50K new jobs in the region between 2013 and 2018.

The third graders are 8 years old.  If they can be effective STEM workers right out of high school, there’s another 10 years to wait before they can enter the workforce — 2024.  If they need undergrad, 2028.  If they need advanced degrees, early 2030’s.  Is it even possible to predict workforce needs out over a decade?

Now, let’s consider the cost of keeping that pipeline going, just in terms of CS.  Even in Northern Virginia, only about 12% of high schools offer CS today.  So, we need a fourfold increase in CS teachers — but that’s just high school.  The article says that we want these kids supported in CS from 3rd grade on.  Most middle schools have no CS teachers.  Few elementary schools do.  We’re going to have to hire and train a LOT of teachers to fulfill that promise.

Making a jobs argument for teaching 3rd graders CS doesn’t make sense.

The demand is only projected to grow greater. The Washington area is poised to add 50,000 net new STEM jobs between 2013 and 2018, according to projections by Stephen S. Fuller, the director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. And Fuller said that STEM jobs are crucial in that they typically pay about twice as much as the average job in the Washington area and they generate significantly more economic value.

It is against this backdrop that SySTEMic Solutions is working to build a pipeline of STEM workers for the state of Virginia, starting with elementary school children and working to keep them consistently interested in the subject matter until they finish school and enter the workforce.

via To create a pipeline of STEM workers in Virginia, program starts with littlest learners – The Washington Post.

June 19, 2014 at 8:29 am 12 comments

Eisenhower’s Cross of Iron Speech: Trade-offs for the Defense Budget

I recently watched the documentary Why we fightand was struck by the prescience of President Eisenhower’s warning.  So many of our educational decisions are made because of the harsh economic realities of today.  How many of these are guns-for-butter choices might we have made differently if education was considered?  Here in Georgia, computer science curricular decisions are being made with a recognition that there will be little or no funding available for teacher professional development — certainly not enough for every high school CS teacher in the state.  What percentage of the DoD budget would it cost to provide professional learning opportunities to every CS teacher in the country?  It’s certainly in the single digits.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms in not spending money alone.

It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.

It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.

We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat.

We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.

This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

via Cross of Iron Speech.

April 3, 2014 at 1:14 am 4 comments

Who Needs to Know How to Code? More than just the rich white boys

Wall Street Journal just ran an article (linked below) about people “flocking to coding classes.”  The lead for the story (quoted below) is a common story, but concerning.  If coding is all extra-curricular, with the (presumably expensive) once-a-week tutor, then how do the average kids get access?  How do the middle and lower kids get access?  Hadi Partovi and Jane Margolis talked about this on PRI’s Science Friday — CS education can’t be an afterschool activity, or we’ll keep making CS a privileged activity for white boys.

Like many 10-year-olds, Nick Wald takes private lessons. His once-a-week tutor isn’t helping him with piano scales or Spanish conjugations, but teaching him how to code.

Nick, a fifth-grader in New York, went in with no experience and has since learned enough HTML, JavaScript and CSS to build a simple website. He is now working in Apple’s XCode environment to finish an app named “Clockie” that can be used to set alarms and reminders. He plans to offer it in the iOS App Store for free.

“I always liked to get apps from the app store, and I always wanted to figure out how they worked and how I could develop it like that,” Nick says.

As the ability to code, or use programming languages to build sites and apps, becomes more in demand, technical skills are no longer just for IT professionals. Children as young as 7 can take online classes in Scratch programming, while 20-somethings are filling up coding boot camps that promise to make them marketable in the tech sector. Businesses such as American Express Co. AXP -0.57% send senior executives to programs about data and computational design not so they can build websites, but so they can better manage the employees who do.

via Who Needs to Know How to Code –

March 20, 2014 at 1:06 am 4 comments

SIGCSE Preview: Measuring Demographics and Performance in Computer Science Education at a Nationwide Scale Using AP CS Data

Barbara and I are speaking Thursday 3:45-5 (with Neil Brown on his Blackbox work) in Hanover DE on our AP CS analysis paper (also previewed at a GVU Brown Bag). The full paper is available here:  This is a different story than the AP CS 2013 analysis that Barbara has been getting such press for.  This is a bit deeper analysis on the 2006-2012 results.

Here are a couple of the figures that I think are interesting.  What’s fitting into these histograms are states, and it’s the same number of bins in each histogram, so that one can compare across.

Fitting this story into the six page SIGCSE format was really tough.  I wanted to make the figures bigger, and I wanted to tell more stories about the regressions we explored.  I focused on the path from state wealth to exam-takers because I hadn’t seen that story in CS Ed previously (though everyone would predict that it was there), but there’s a lot more to tell about these data.

Figure 1: Histograms describing (a) the number of schools passing the audit over the population (measured in 10K), (b) number of exam-takers over the population, and (c) percentage of exam-takers who passed. 


Figure 2: Histograms describing (d) the percent of female exam-takers, (e) the number of Black exam-takers, and (f) the number of Hispanic exam-takers. 


Measuring Demographics and Performance in Computer Science Education at a Nationwide Scale Using AP CS Data

Abstract: Before we can reform or improve computing education, we need to know the current state. Data on computing education are difficult to come by, since it’s not tracked in US public education systems. Most of our data are survey-based or interview-based, or are limited to a region. By using a large and nationwide quantitative data source, we can gain new insights into who is participating in computing education, where the greatest need is, and what factors explain variance between states. We used data from the Advanced Placement Computer Science A (AP CS A) exam to get a detailed view of demographics of who is taking the exam across the United States and in each state, and how they are performing on the exam. We use economic and census data to develop a more detailed view of one slice (at the end of secondary school and before university) of computer science education nationwide. We find that minority group involvement is low in AP CS A, but the variance between states in terms of exam-takers is driven by minority group involvement. We find that wealth in a state has a significant impact on exam-taking.


March 4, 2014 at 1:23 am 3 comments

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