Archive for July, 2014

Education Digest

July 29, 2014
An Education Collage

An Education Collage

I have been writing here and there about the nature of education and how it should be transformed if we are to meet learners needs in the future. There a few themes that run through my work: equity and quality, technology and design and an orientation towards the future.

However, my larger concern is not with education per se; it is with the nature and production of knowledge. I believe we are undergoing a shift in epistemology that I now beginning to explore. 

I hope this collection sparks some thoughts. Comments are welcome. 

  1. The Entrepreneurial Mind
  2. Technology in Higher Education
  3. Academic Inequality
  4. MOOCs and Inequality
  5. Designing Knowledge 1: Circles
  6. Designing Knowledge 2: Books
  7. The Real Disruption in Knowledge 


Designing Knowledge II: Books

July 28, 2014

The Culture of the Book

I have a couple of thousand books in my personal library. Only lack of space and money prevents me from getting more. I have been a bibliophile from the time I was three or four, when my parents bought me my first Amar Chitra Kathas. Books were prized possessions; good books for children were hard to come by in the India of the nineteen-seventies. Fortunately, my parents indulged my hunger for books as much as their wallets permitted.

My father traveled a lot when I was young, which I didn’t like, but he made up for his absence by buying books for me during his travels. Some of my fondest memories are of waking up early in the morning with anticipation – he would often arrive from the airport late at night after I was sleep – for my father to open his travel suitcase and hand me a book or two. The next day or two were bliss as I immersed myself in a new story or a new set of scientific facts and theories. That’s how I read K.M Munshi’s Krishavatara series, Tell Me Why’s and several astronomy and nature books. Even the memory makes me tingle.

The moral of the story: in case it wasn’t obvious, I grew up believing that books are the keystone of all civilization. Much of what we consider important in high culture – religion, literature and science can be viewed through the lens of one human activity, namely, the writing of books. The first books such as the Bible combined the moral, the metaphysical, the factual and the poetic into one package. As societies became more complex, we invented new forms of writing that split the components into their separate parts. Mathematical symbolic writing was invented as a language for science. Galileo claimed the book of the universe being written in the language of mathematics. Meanwhile human experience is explored deeply in the novel, which still remains the fullest representation of the human world.

The End of Books

Having said all this, I believe that we are approaching the end of the book era. I find myself reading books less and less; when I was a child, books were everything from entertainment to time pass to serious reading to enlightenment. I don’t use books for passing time anymore and am increasingly finding entertainment through other media. Of course, I am not the first person to do so; as Steve Jobs said, people don’t read anymore. TV and the movies are the primary entertainment media for most people.

I am not talking about mass entertainment though; I am talking about high culture. Books still rule that roost because movies and TV programs don’t have the same capacity for illuminating our inner lives that novels do. That’s why I find the hypermedia so interesting; the web is different from movies because it combines the qualities of text with the qualities of images and moving pictures. A new art form is waiting to be invented.

Scholarship is behind entertainment. No one gets tenure for composing new academic media. That lack of respectability isn’t the conservatism of department chairs and tenure committees alone. There’s a genuine epistemological puzzle that remains to be understood: what exactly is the new knowledge that’s being produced by these new media forms? The demand for originality is being satisfied most clearly by those who’re building large data repositories and in the use of crowd intelligence to solve problems, neither of which can be done in the old style of scholarship. Still, they haven’t broken through to a new form of knowledge, as Galileo and others did with modern science. Until that happens, books will rule the world of scholarship. I have some ideas – mostly speculation – about the shape of these new forms of knowledge, but that’s for another occasion.

Designing Knowledge I: Circles

July 28, 2014

I will work extensively with the idea of a design pattern: a reusable, modifiable design element. Knowledge has an element of design, like every other human practice. Unfortunately, the design patterns of knowledge are so old and so universal that we don’t even realize that they are designed elements. It’s not as if the textbook–lecture–course–degree pattern is a god given element of learning. As technology transforms higher education, we should see new design patterns emerge.

Higher education is currently built around the inverse-tree design pattern.This is a linear pattern. A better pattern for knowledge networks, especially local knowledge networks is the circle. A circle is a group of people who’re interested in the same “core.” For local knowledge there are four types of cores that are of interest:

  • People: i.e., a circle around a teacher or a person of interest. An example of the former might be a local car mechanics who teaches a course on automotive repair. An example of the latter is a group of people who read and discuss Plato.
  • Passion: a circle around a common passion, say, a group of people who are all interested in the same topic. Passions can be of several kinds – say, the world series game that took place yesterday, a course that you are all taking on Coursera or a continued engagement with data science.
  • Place: a circle of people who live or work close to each other. If you live close to each other in Bangalore, you can imagine starting a circle on community gardens in Bangalore. If you work in the same law firm in Boston, you can imagine starting a group around a senior partner (that will combine people and place) or a group around a new law that affects you all (combining passion and place).
  • Practice: A circle of people who do one thing together. It could be jogging, it could be a meditation practice whatever, but the group comes together for that reason.

The advantage of the circle is it’s adaptivity; a circle can expand or contract as my interests and passions change. It can also vanish. In other words, the circle design allows us to create communities of varying sizes and duration around a single core. Most importantly, I can aggregate and disaggregate circles around myself as I learn. It’s a modular architecture for continuous life-long learning.

Uber Economics

July 27, 2014

The crowd livery company Uber’s riding hot. It’s latest market valuation is $17 billion. Not bad for a company that connects freelance drivers to customers via mobile apps.

Uber’s success showcases the latest avatar of valley entrepreneurship. Uber doesn’t own anything tangible. The car belongs to the driver, the roads belong to the city. Uber merely connects the driver to the consumer, both of whom are free-agents. It’s more like Ebay than Easycab. What Uber (and Ebay and Google and Facebook and…) owns is data, which allows it to answer questions such as:

  • Who uses Uber and when?
  • Where do they live?
  • Where do they work?
  • Most importantly: Who are they?

Just as Google isn’t a search company but a machine learning company, Uber isn’t a taxi company but a machine learning company. Uber’s data is more valuable to its financiers than the taxi service itself. The young and well-to-do customers that use Uber are a goldmine for every advertiser: Target wants to sell them T-shirts and real estate companies might want to sell them houses. It’s important that Uber make money from it’s rides, but that’s not at the heart of Uber’s valuation. Late stage capitalism is about information, not manufacturing.

Driving into the Sunset

The Uber Myth

The Uber Myth

One of the great modern myths is the good guys – the FBI, the national guard, the marines – riding into the city and defeating those holding the city to ransom. That’s Elliot Ness defeating Al Capone in the Untouchables. Or George W. Bush defeating Saddam in Gulf War II, and now Uber defeating the medallions in Taxi Driver II. Now that the movie is over, we can all ride into the sunset. Except:

  • What about all those “communists” and civil rights activists hounded by the FBI?
  • What about all those undiscovered WMDs?
  • What about all those uninsured drivers?

A friend of mine who drives for Uber told me that Uber just slashed prices by 30%. Now it’s about half as expensive as the local taxi. That’s great for the customer, and even better for Uber, if it can attract more people to it’s service. Unfortunately, it’s a 30% wage cut for the driver. Uber might make more money by slashing prices, but it’s drivers make less.

Consumer Capitalism

Uber isn’t unique in this respect. It replicates the logic of the information economy in general. I am not sure if that logic is appreciated widely, so let me spell it out:

  1. Forge a direct link between the company and the consumer. Cut labor out of the equation.
  2. Focus on the customer. Argue that you’re improving their lives immeasurably.
  3. Outsource “real work” to contractors and freelancers rather than employees.
  4. Focus relentlessly on efficiency and cost cutting.

Labor costs are some of the biggest costs for a business. As long as laborers are employees they have some legal protections, but contractors have none. They are hired and fired at will and there’s downward pressure on wages all the time. Forget about health care and other benefits. Driving for Uber is a dangerous way to make a living.

Still, drivers are people and there will be public pressure to treat them with a modicum of decency. Why not get rid of them altogether? The natural denouement of Uber Economics is the end of labor. Consumer capitalism isn’t predicated on labor; it prefers robots for manufacturing and data for matching consumers to their needs. Uber is a perfect test case for this utopian future. Uber’s customers need a ride that’s safe and convenient. Why not replace drivers with driverless cars? A double whammy for Uber: no more pesky human beings protesting unfair treatment and a flood of data streaming from a fleet of driverless taxis. What more could they want?

The Subject Formerly Known as Mathematics

July 27, 2014

It was my second year of graduate school. I had been in the US for a year. I had cracked my qualifiers. I knew the difference between pop tarts and Belgian waffles. I felt confident enough to start talking to non-mathematicians. After a few failed attempts, I met an economist (I will call her N) who liked me. You know in that way. Things that are important when you’re 23.

Things were going well until that fateful day when we were riding our bikes home from school. At that time I was a true believer. The book of the universe was written in the language of mathematics. We were discussing N’s first year microeconomics class and all those “theorems” about choice and preferences. It was the perfect moment for me to put my foot into my mouth. I asserted that economics was second-rate mathematics, that no pure mathematician would ever consider economics to be the real thing.

N took the rubbishing of her dismal science in stride. She didn’t care much about standard economics anyway; her interests lay in chaos and complex systems. Both were hot topics those days. Complexity was the latest theory to attempt unifying everything from ecology to the economy.

I wasn’t taking any of that; I said to her that economics was about people, not software agents. Complexity is bunk, I said to her. That’s when N turned on me. She stopped her bike, looked daggers at me and hissed: “At least economics is undergoing a paradigm shift. Maths is such a conservative field; it’s been around for two thousand years and not a single paradigm shift ever. So boring!”

I was too much of a greenhorn then to know what “paradigm” meant, let alone paradigms that shifted. There was truth and there were fads; nothing in the middle. Even in intuitionistic logic. I told her as much. Things went south between us soon after.

Why hasn’t mathematics had a paradigm shift?

N was right. Mathematics is a conservative field that doesn’t tolerate paradigm shifts. In mathematics, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. We begin our mathematical training with knowledge discovered (or invented, depending on what you think) a couple of thousand years ago. We continue onward from numbers to geometry to calculus to higher algebra and analysis and so on. There’s nothing a high schooler learns today that she couldn’t have learned two hundred years ago. In this age of disruption, where paradigms change by the week, the conservatism of mathematics is refreshing in it’s retro appeal. That stability of mathematics is also it’s strength.

That said, it grates when someone asks you if there’s anything in mathematics beyond the calculus. As every mathematician will tell you, new theorems are being proven everyday. I agree, but there’s something to N’s critique: while new theorems are discovered everyday, mathematicians are still proving theorems. They aren’t producing objects of some other kind.

Consider the alternative: quantum objects are rather different from classical objects. That’s why we call the shift from classical to quantum a paradigm shift. Setting aside metaphysical doubts about the existence of mathematical objects, mathematicians haven’t produced a new state of mathematical matter in a couple of hundred years. Can we think beyond the theorem?

You see this conservatism in the relative unimportance of foundations in the practice of mathematics. The foundations of mathematics had a few decades of fame in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century but those controversies are considered to be settled by the practicing mathematician who are back to proving theorems about algebraic groups and three dimensional manifolds. It’s almost as if mathematicians are blind to the paradigm shifting possibilities of Cantor, Godel and Turing.

What a wasted opportunity for the intellectual revolutionary, right? Not quite. The foundational turmoil of the last century lead to the birth of computer science and informatics. Instead of a paradigm shift in an old domain, a new domain of knowledge was born, also formal but having a different form than that of mathematics.

The Subject Formerly Known as Mathematics

What we have today are two related but distinct sciences of form. The computer program is a genuine alternative to the theorem as a formal object. In some ways it’s better, for it interfaces with three-dimensional objects while mathematics is restricted to 2D interfaces such as paper and blackboards. Software can eat the world while theorems can’t, but software has a higher fad to substance ratio than mathematics. Can we combine the best aspects of the two fields?

Not right now. There isn’t an account of formal entities that takes the diversity of theorems and programs seriously while unifying that diversity into a coherent theory. What we need is a “subject formerly known as mathematics” that also happens to be the “subject formerly known as programming.” That unification will force a paradigm shift upon us, a new science of form that’s neither mathematics nor programming.

A disparate group of thinkers are already questioning the current mathematical and computational dispensation. Brian Cantwell Smith is talking about significance being more important to computation than algorithmic thinking. Brett Victor is talking about new interfaces for learning mathematics. Meanwhile, homotopy type theory is offering itself as an alternative foundation for mathematics from the highest end of mathematical prestige. These streams of inquiry should coalesce into a larger assault on our understanding of form.

It’s possible that insights will come from the lowest rung of the mathematics ladder – from mathematics education. Sometimes, the lack of prestige can allow novel forms of experimentation. Keith Devlin has been talking about teaching mathematics with games instead of multiplication tables and place values. We know from Macluhan that the medium is the message. Once the medium of formal manipulation is a screen rather than paper, the message will also change. The new science of form might arise from the bottom-up, with phylogeny reflecting ontogeny. Elementary school math’s teachers aren’t any going to win Fields medals, but there’s a greater revolution waiting to happen.

The Mystery of Education

July 25, 2014

When it comes to learning, I am like Mallory when asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest: “because it’s there.” Learning for it’s own sake is the only reason to learn as far as I am concerned. Research suggests that people have two different kinds of values: sacred values and utilitarian values. Sacred entities don’t have a price; for utilitarian commodities, you are price conscious. While knowledge is sacred to me, I know the business of higher education is based on it’s utilitarian value for parents, students, grant giving agencies and governments. If so, how do we calculate the utility of education?

Branding Education

I read an interesting piece on the role of information in the choice between branded and generic products. For example, the CVS brand of aspirin costs about a third of the Bayer version. It’s almost the same product. The active ingredient has the same effect. If anything, the CVS tablet causes a smaller headache since it hurts your wallet less than the Bayer version. Professionals with relevant knowledge such as doctors, nurses, pharmacists buy the generic version. The vast majority of the population prefers the expensive stuff. We are literally paying for our lack of knowledge.

Now that we have established that pricing is all about psychology, how should a smart (or should I say evil?) business price it’s offerings?

  1. Identify a genuine human need
  2. Make your solution to that need as mysterious as possible
  3. Make sure your people (employees, marketers etc) appear knowledgeable, alluring and distant.

Apple is good at all three, but it’s nothing compared to churches, nations and universities. No one’s gone to war on behalf of Apple yet. There are people for whom the relationship to their church, nation or university is a sacred value ; deeply religious people, patriots and true scholars. For the rest, the business model of nations, churches and universities is simple: sell a utilitarian commodity as a sacred value. I call such goods “mystery goods.” That judgment might offend some people’s nationalistic and religious sensibilities. Since I not ready to go to war, so let me set aside churches and nations and look at the mystery goods sold by universities.

Luxury Tax?

We want a systematic way of uncovering the utility of education. Before doing so, let’s see if there are any counterexamples to the sacred vs utilitarian argument. Luxury goods aren’t sacred (do you want to die for that Hermes bag?) but their price inelasticity suggests that they aren’t utilitarian either. Luxury goods seem to be lie outside the sacred/utilitarian axis.

Perhaps you’re thinking that sending your child to Harvard is like buying a Ferrari instead of buying a Toyota. A Toyota will do as well as a Ferrari on your daily commute. Nevertheless, some people do pay ten times the price of a perfectly good car for the occasional spin on a highway. It’s not about the functional utility of the car.

Is Harvard like a Ferrari? I don’t think so. For one, most middle class people don’t buy Ferrari’s, but all of us save up for years to send our children to college. While sending your child to Harvard give you bragging rights, we aren’t spending all that money to bask in the adulation. In my subjective assessment, the Harvard degree is closer to the aspirin than to the Ferrari.

The Perceived Utility of Education

If education spending is based on perceived utility, we are left with the puzzle of it’s pricing structure. That’s where the branding study I cited earlier comes in – most of us are uninformed customers of the utility of higher education. Do I really know what I am getting for my money? How is a Harvard course taught by adjunct faculty and graduate students better than a Michigan course taught by adjunct faculty and graduate students? Or a Cal State course taught by adjunct faculty? The honest answer for most of us is “I don’t know.” Education is the ultimate mystery good.

In this age of big data, you might think that the key to demystification is more measurement. The popularity of the U.S News ranking of colleges suggests that we are hungering for data. Unfortunately, the measurable variables such as faculty-student ratio’s aren’t that useful. From a utilitarian perspective, education is a ticket to white collar jobs but the payoff from education is long-term. . College rankings could predict whether you will get a job after graduation but they are pretty useless ten years down the road. You get your education today but the benefits are spread over decades. When you are forty, what’s the relative contribution of your alma mater and your own personal attributes such as character and ambition? We need longitudinal data to answer such questions but even longitudinal data misses the point of a mystery good.

Mystery goods are usually about the experience of consuming the good. Apple knows this better than anyone else. University presidents aren’t that far behind, which explains the investment in food courts and gyms over professors. If the student is a consumer of a mystery good, she should leave the college with a measure of awe and delight at the experience. Gourmet food and olympic class gyms don’t lead to better learning outcomes but they do translate into an awesome experience. Colleges understand their product better than you do – that’s part of the information asymmetry.

What about disruption?

The obvious response to the mysterians is to offer an educational product that’s purely utilitarian, such as “take this course, get a job.” Easier said than done, for jobs are part of the mysterian’s empire. No one ever got a high status job by taking a course. It’s the degree and it’s pedigree that gets you a white collar job. The places where the utilitarian pitch is working is in domains that seem white collar but are actually blue collar; skills like web design and programming that are twenty-first century versions of the machining skills of the twentieth century. These are the most commoditized skills in the knowledge sector with the smallest element of mystery. That’s where utilitarian disruption will work best. Of course, one might also hope for disruption at the other end, i.e, a modern education platform that emphasizes the sacred qualities of learning. That too will happen in due course.

The Necessity of Economic Freedom

July 24, 2014
The Malecon

The Malecon

Amit Basole made a point about economic freedom at the end of Mrinalini Tankha’s presentation on Cuba. What follows is my reflection on the phenomenology of economic freedom.

I am not an economist. Neither am I am anthropologist. I am commenting on a presentation on economic life in Cuba by an anthropologist.

Cuban Life

Fidel at NAM

Fidel at NAM

I have an utterly inadequate mental image of Cuba. My earliest memory of Cuba is that of Fidel giving a marathon speech at the NAM summit in Delhi in 1983. I remember escorting a distant cousin from Chennai to the Maulana Azad Medical College in Delhi, where he was interviewing for an MD in Oncology in Moscow. The cousin’s dream was to become a doctor in Cuba. I was too young then to probe him about his desires; in any case, everyone capable wanted to leave India at that time.

As I grew older, the Cuban revolution took on a greater role in my consciousness. Fidel, Che and other’s became my heroes as they did for so many others. I became aware that the Cuban missile crisis almost caused a world war. There’s this image of NATO and Soviet tanks facing off at the Berlin wall that still sticks in my memory. Even later, I learned how Africans were transported to Cuba to work on sugar plantations; how sugar became one of the world’s first commodities on the back of slave labor. As you can see, none of these memories are memories ofCuba, they are memories aboutCuba – a Cuba seen through the lens of politics and struggle rather than a memory of Cuba itself.

Yesterday’s WDG meeting was a welcome correction, a presentation about life in Cuba rather than it’s symbolic importance. Mrinalini Tankha, who spent several years in Havana for her PhD dissertation shared her insights into life in post-Soviet Cuba. The picture that emerges from her presentation is very different from the imagined Cuba in my head. Daily life in Cuba seems unequal and petty, of a dollar (and convertible peso) economy with glittering chandeliers, of black doorman and white receptionists, of tourists who never enter Central Havana and never realize that there’s another currency being used by the natives.

Then there’s another Cuba of scarcity and everyday thievery. A Cuba where simple transactions are impossible, of ubiquitous surveillance (or atleast the possibility of surveillance) where you can’t trust your neighbor with the news that you might be sailing away to Miami. A Cuba where people take pride in Robin Hood moments of commandeering state resources for private use.

There’s also a third Cuba, a Cuba seen through Indian eyes, where no one looks emaciated, the streets are clean and relatively empty, of people taking pride in their achievements in health and education. Of being a special country.

I want to thank Mrinalini for sharing her experience with us. Toward the end of the discussion, just as I was about to leave, Amit Basole noted that Mrinalini’s presentation should gladden the hearts of those who stress the importance of economic freedom, the free minds and free markets sloganeers. While Cuba had a protector in the Soviet Union, it could afford to regulate economic activity with a heavy state hand, but it’s been downhill once the sugar daddy disappeared. Does this mean that economic freedom is a universal human need? Can we do without economic freedom?

Necessary Freedoms.

I don’t have the expertise to talk about the ethics and economics of market freedoms. Instead, I am going to talk about the experience of economic freedom, what it feels like for me to choose the trade I wish. Phenomenology is just a fancy term for the analytic description of that experience.

What does it mean for me to experience economic freedom? Let’s first start with the freedom bit: what does it mean for me to experience freedom? We can talk about the experience of freedom for centuries without arriving at a conclusion, so let me cut short the hairsplitting by defining the experience of freedom (which will be shortened to freedom from now on) as follows:

To be free is to feel that I have the capability to reliably achieve my valued goals. A necessary freedom is a freedom that we deem essential to our publicly defensible needs.

The first half of the definition has four crucial elements: goals, value, reliable and capable.

  • A goal is something one would like to achieve.
  • A valued goal is a goal that matters to us, one whose thwarting causes anguish
  • Reliability indicates that the achievement of the goal isn’t a matter of chance, that it’s within the capacity of the resources that we can marshall to our cause.
  • Freedom isn’t about the goals themselves as it is about the capability to achieve one’s goals.

Of course, getting to Mars might be a freedom for some people, but it’s not a need. Unless you are Elon Musk. Even Musk can’t get the public to pay for it. Broadly, I want necessary freedoms to be those that I expect society to provide for me, i.e., my rights. Conversely, society can ask for me to help guarantee necessary freedoms for others, which is to say, they are also my responsibilities.

Now we can pose the question that started this reverie:

  • Are economic freedoms necessary freedoms?

The Necessity of Economic Freedom

Without an economy, there’s no need for economic freedoms and the idea of an economy and of economic man is itself a modern idea. Access to food is a necessary freedom for every living creature. Livelihood isn’t, for the idea of a livelihood presupposes a society that marks certain activities as productive activities. A hunter-gatherer who forages for fruits and rodents doesn’t need a livelihood; she needs a lush and conserved ecology. A carpenter on the other hand needs a livelihood.

Even a livelihood is a couple of abstractions away from a full blown economy. Let me define the term economy first – it’s my definition, not an economists.

  • Economy: a mode of social relations in which production is always in terms of goods and services whose value is measurable in terms of a shared denominator, most commonly money.

A subsistence farmer has a livelihood but doesn’t need an economy. Even a carpenter is only a carpenter, not an economic man. He may exchange chairs and tables for food but the exchange isn’t monetized. We could project our monetary economy back on to the barter system, but that’s a conceptual error.

It’s only when societies become truly complex and specialized, when my perceived needs include iphones and fine jewellery that economic freedoms become salient freedoms. Once money or any other common measure of value take root – in a socialist country like Cuba, cash might not be the common denominator as much as access to state granted privileges – we almost certainly feel the need for economic freedoms.

In any case, in modern economies, including post-liberalization India, we are well past the turning point for economic freedom. We are all economic beings now. We automatically experience and evaluate all production in terms of it’s cash (or equivalent) value. Money is the source of all meaning, it’s the symbol that makes all other symbols intelligible to us.

The semiotics of modern life is economic

Economic life is our condition. We can’t deny it and even when we are aware of it, it constitutes us. Which is why one might argue that economic freedom is even more important than political freedom – our daily lives are constituted by economics much more than by politics. That’s why China and Cuba reasonably expect to keep their citizens happy by loosening economic restrictions while keeping a tight leash on political activity.

Revolutionaries agitate, job seekers migrate.

The primary form of protest for the lack of economic freedom is migration. That’s as true of labor as it is of capital – both want to leave less than free circumstances for greener pastures. The joke might be on the fuddy-duddies of the CPC(hina/uba): instead of an insurrection, the party might be defeated by irrelevance. By unleashing the economic beast, you are setting the conditions for a new state whether you like it or not.

That said, market activity isn’t the only form that economic man can take. While the Soviet Union was alive, Cuba had functioning (necessary) economic freedoms that were guaranteed by the state. It’s true that the freedom was guaranteed by an externality, namely, the USSR, but so are modern market freedoms – by the earth and our natural environment. As that collapses, we might all start living like Cubans. Except that we don’t have anywhere else to migrate.

A Better Humanities

July 24, 2014

I am trained as a cognitive scientist, but I was hired in a school of humanities. The future of humanistic thinking is of great interest to me, which is why I find it disturbing when humanities departments are under threat everywhere. However, I also think there’s a reason why the humanities have lost favor.

Yesterday, I was browsing the remainders in the Harvard Book Store (not the official book store of the university, but a wonderful store across the street) and saw a book with the grand title “Princeton Readings in Political Thought: Essential Texts since Plato.” Here’s what it says about itself:

“The book includes the writings of many of the most distinguished observers of the Western experience from classical times (Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero), the Middle Ages (St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Christine de Pizan), modern times (Machiavelli, Luther, Calvin, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Adam Smith, The Federalist Papers, “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” Burke, Marie-Olympes de Gouges, Mary Wollstonecraft, Bentham, Mill, de Tocqueville, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche), or the ideas of twentieth-century political philosophers and ideologists (Weber, Mosca, Michels, Lenin, Freud, Emma Goldman, Mussolini, Arendt, Orwell, de Beauvoir, Fanon, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Leo Strauss, Walzer, Rawls, Nozick, Habermas, and Foucault).”

Note how quickly it went from “readings in political thought” to “western experience.” That’s the problem with the humanities, when a seemingly universal view is really nothing more than a front for Western parochialism. Can one really imagine “readings in political thought” without Sun Tzu, Kautilya, Gandhi or Mao? Not really.

We won’t lose descriptive accuracy if we replaced the term humanities with Euro-American studies. As it so turns out, most of humanity isn’t Euro-American, and the American in that hyphen is rapidly becoming non Euro-American. Until humanities departments reflect that shift, they simply don’t deserve sympathy. In fact, until the UN General Assembly moves to Beijing, the World Bank to New Delhi, the WTO to Brazilia and the IMF to Johannesburg, we don’t have anything like humanity. This is 2014, not 1914.

The Real Disruption in Knowledge

July 23, 2014
Disrupting Education

Disrupting Education

Is Knowledge Meant to be Shared?

You would think that owning knowledge is an oxymoron, like owning air. Isn’t knowledge by it’s very nature shared? Can someone own knowledge? The answer to these puzzles is that there’s a major tension between ownership and sharing in the production of knowledge:

  1. The design of knowledge systems has both sharing and ownership built into it. We write our papers and books as individuals, with attribution, copyright protection and intellectual property written into the design of the system.

  2. At the same time, we release our ideas into the world and let anyone build upon those. We see further because we stand on the shoulders of giants.

The dominant elements of the current creative system including academia, art houses and research organizations emphasize ownership over sharing. The problem starts at the top – the world of idea professionals is not one of sharing. You don’t get tenure by contributing to a common pool. You get tenure by claiming rights to an idea, a paper, a book. Grants are given based on that track record. Awards are based on that track record. Since permanent positions in academia are getting cut, there’s intense competition for scarce resources. Since sharing doesn’t get you the baubles that get you tenure, there’s simply no incentive to share. Academia is a low-trust winner take all system; not exactly the best conditions for genuine cooperation to thrive.

The only current alternatives are large public projects where sharing is mandated, but those are top-down, hierarchical systems that severely curtail the autonomy of the investigator. So we are caught in a system with two dysfunctional poles: either you fight hard to get tenure by grabbing as much of the pie for yourself as possible or you relinquish any autonomy over your own knowledge by working on a project where you have a narrowly defined role.

Genuine sharing and cooperation doesn’t involve either pole.

We need a more organic model for sharing, one where knowledge isn’t a product, where people can lead autonomous sustainable lives as knowledge workers, where there’s minimal conflict between creating on your own and creating with others.

A Minimum Viable Product

Like any industry that’s disrupted, academia is now facing threats at the margins, especially in the use of technology to transform centuries old practices. Teaching and research are at the core of academia. We are now beginning to see the commoditization of teaching. Strangely, the best known examples of commoditization are coming from within academia itself, with the founding of EDx, Coursera and other MOOC distributors.

Not surprising actually, when you think about the fierceness of the competition for scarce resources – the most prestigious players are making a concerted attempt to undercut their own less endowed and less prestigious peers. There isn’t enough money for everyone, so the bigger players are beginning to eat up the smaller ones. It’s clear that academia as a reliable, widely available source of livelihood (by which I mean professorial positions) is unsustainable. We have seen that with the increasing power of administrators, the emphasis on productivity over knowledge and the increasing reliance on adjuncts over full time staff. MOOCs are an attempt to carry the corporate takeover to its logical conclusion. They are disruptive all right, but a reactionary disruption, not the progressive one that they claim to be.

However, the MOOC model of education disruption is unviable, for principled as well as pragmatic reasons. Why’s that?

How to design a flawed disruptive system

Let’s start with the basic emotional pull of the MOOC:

You can learn anything you want, taught by the worlds best lecturers from the worlds best institutions. All for free.

I have two problems with that claim. One is skepticism about the claim itself and the second is serious misgivings about the outcome even if the claim is proven true. Let us start with the first: can you expect to have all the worlds learning for free?

There’s reason to believe the answer to the above question is no. After all, it costs an enormous amount of money to create a good learning resource. How will institutions recoup their costs? One possibility is a freemium model, where the basic material will be available to everyone for free but additional material, especially certification, costs money. Another possibility: institutions will use these materials for their own students, and reduce costs in their own system. Finally, and what’s most likely – these companies are really data companies, i.e., they don’t sell products to you. Instead you are the product – your performance, your learning style, your grades are all sold to others: potential employers, bundled with other data stores can be incredibly useful in pushing other kinds of products towards you.

Imagine how your performance on courses, current job specs and your aspirations (as revealed by the courses you sign up for) are all given over to headhunters, real estate agents, housing loan providers etc.

These and other models are possible, but all of them fall short of the liberating promise in one way or the other – either the real value is locked up behind a pay wall or worse, you become the target of marketing.

Now, let’s assume that for some reason or the other all of us have free and unrestricted access to all the lectures in the world taught by the best faculty from MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, Oxford and so on. Let’s say that’s made possible because Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and Sergei Brin donate their entire fortune to a public trust that will produce free, open educational content. Is that enough? Let’s use the language of the minimal viable product – is an infinite buffet of MOOCs a minimal viable product? I don’t think so. There are several reasons:

  1. As is now well known, MOOC’s don’t give us the context in which learning happens. Peer and mentor interaction is minimal (that’s what costs money!) and the use of MOOCs as individual knowledge vehicles, akin to infotainment, will only increase the trend towards greater isolation. Just as TV stopped us from public modes of entertainment, MOOCs will actually stop us from public modes of learning.

  2. Unfortunately, learning is meant to be a public exercise! The creation of a knowledge commons is central to learning. This is true for metaphysical reasons – that knowledge is fundamentally free – and for pragmatic reasons – you are training people to work in society, not in isolated chambers.

  3. Learning cannot be separated from the experience of learning and the process of creating knowledge. You see, the major universities realize that their real assets are:

    • Their research output, which generates a lot more money in grants than tuition ever can.
    • Their campus experience, which immerses students in an enriched learning environment.
    • The social network, which gives their students the connections and the social capital for future success.

For that reason, the fact that MOOCs increase the trend towards abstraction and isolation rather than embedded knowledge is a design flaw. The only reason it can be justified even at the pragmatic level is if people are widgets, whose performance can be measured and tracked and if they can be replaced with other widgets when needed. In other words, a mass atomized society of well functioning people widgets is the logical outcome of the MOOC movement. In other words, if you want a society in which you can beam everything, i.e., entertainment, knowledge, politics and trade via a screen that mediates your interaction with others then you can keep complete and total control over that society. You can tell people what they need to think, what’s valuable and what’s replaceable.

Even if all the classes in the world are available to you for free, in fact, especially if they are free, the value of the three differentiators of the prestigious university only increases, i.e., the experience of learning on campus, the creation of knowledge through research and the social network are luxury goods that people will go to any lengths to acquire.

In my opinion, a minimal viable product that’s a genuine alternative will have to open all these luxury goods to a much larger group of people. That’s the right thing, assumming we believe in an egalitarian society and the smart thing, for building a knowledge society will need more than 1% of the population capable of genuine knowledge work.

We are entering an era in which knowledge is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. Just as literacy is seen as a fundamental right and a basic skill, so is knowledge and the ability to learn how to learn. Humanity’s greatest challenges will only be met by mass consensus on our collective goals based on knowledge rather than opinion. That in turn requires widespread access to high-trust, high cooperation knowledge networks. Which will only happen if:

People are the focal point of knowledge, not products whether they be books or degrees.

How can we create a people-centric knowledge system that:

  • Is fair, just and creative; produces the knowledge that we need to address the challenges of the 21st century while creating sustainable livelihoods for people in the system (the teachers and researchers) and the people the system releases into society (students).
  • Is not a caricature of a certain kind of left-wing propaganda, i.e., statist, slow and hierarchical. Instead, it should be dynamic, energetic and capable of generating surplus.

I believe we can address this challenge. A new model of knowledge production is emerging in pockets across the world, but injecting an element of design will speed this process, so that an economy of knowledge sharing can be created.

The T-Word

July 22, 2014

Grades, standardized tests, interviews etc etc. So much of education is really testucation. I was fortunate in having a knack for taking tests well when I wanted to, but I really hate them. I can’t imagine that tests evaluate anything important to employers, let alone to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. Surely, learning is more important than testing?