Posts Tagged ‘Education’

Common Sense 1

October 29, 2015

Common Sense

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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 

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.

Education as if economics mattered. To the economist.

July 18, 2014

Here’s a short list of terms you might want to avoid if you are running an educational institution or want to run one:

1. Customer. 
2. Client. 
3. Provider. 
4. Transparency. 
5. Accountability.

Or, you could try to run a neo-liberal agenda in the name of transparent, accountable service to the customer. 

Higher Education III: MOOCs and Inequality

July 16, 2014

There was a period, now lost in the mythical sands of time, when massive online courses were considered the savior of the unwashed. Here’s a quote from Daphne Koller

high-quality education provided by MOOCs can be a significant factor in opening doors to opportunity—even among the college-educated.

— Daphne Koller

Here’s another from her East Coast competitor, Anant Agarwal

So we are applying these blended learning pilots in a number of universities and high schools around the world, from Tsinghua in China to the National University of Mongolia in Mongolia to Berkeley in California — all over the world. And these kinds of technologies really help, the blended model can really help revolutionize education.

— Anant Agarwal

Now we know better. Students who do well in MOOCs are richer, better educated and more likely to be men than students as a whole. In other words, a technology that was supposed to help the poor and the oppressed is a great boon for her exact opposite.

There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s great if smart people everywhere have access to high quality knowledge. However, we should be careful about creating new inequalities in the name of reducing inequality. In education as in everything else, information economies are of the winner-take-all kind. Where there were hundreds or thousands of providers, we might be left with one or two or ten. That would be a real tragedy. 

 

Higher Education II: Academic Inequality

July 14, 2014
Once upon a time....

Once upon a time….

Inequality has become the defining issue of our times. It’s clear that we are entering a new gilded age where a few own almost everything and most of us own almost nothing. My academic colleagues are usually sensitive to the issues surrounding inequality and most of them support policies aimed at reducing inequality.

Unfortunately, they are much less likely to address inequality in their own backyard. Unsurprisingly, academia is replicating unequal structures found elsewhere in society. Whether it’s the use of adjuncts for teaching or graduate students and postdocs for research, academic capital is an exploitative employer of labor. 

Consider this: most scientists are well into their thirties before they finish their postdoctoral career and are eligible for a faculty position. In other words, by the time they’re eligible for a faculty position, they have worked for ten or more years for almost no pay while the fruits of their labor accrue to their supervisors. All for the promise of tenure and respectability. It’s becoming clear that for most people, there’s no rainbow at the end of the horizon. Or should I say there’s only a rainbow at the end of the horizon: a pretty mirage that vanishes as you start looking for it.

Unsurprisingly, graduate students and postdocs are beginning to look at other avenues. The critics of higher education are focusing their ire on undergraduate education; they rightfully complain about rising costs and diminishing value. They believe that higher education is about to undergo a revolution. I agree, but we should also look at the structural damage spreading through post-graduate training, for that’s where scholars replicate themselves. The academic species has accumulated too many harmful mutations at a time when it’s ecological niche is also undergoing rapid change. We are being undermined both within and without. 

I have been reading the burgeoning literature – mostly informal, in blogs and other online posts – on the experience of academic failure. Here are some recent articles that talk about the crisis: 

  1. Academia and the people without jobs.
  2. The PhD Bust

The status of higher education: part 1

June 11, 2014
College Dreams

College Dreams

I have been thinking about the dismal state of higher education for a while and here’s a first of several posts on the topic.

We now live in knowledge societies, where education is key to a good life. There’s much turmoil in higher education right now with a lot of hand wringing about affordability and access.

In India we have a particularly hard problem to solve: people are graduating from high school in ever larger numbers and we simply don’t have the infrastructure to offer a reasonable education to the millions of new students. A back of the envelope calculation suggests that India needs thousands of new colleges every year. Where are we going to get the people to teach those students?

One answer being given right now is: Technology. That India needs technology driven higher education in a big way. Do the people who say this recognize the state of web infrastructure in India? Also, given the terrible results from MOOCs and other online courses, why do we still believe that online education will lead to learning?

So in India and elsewhere, we are stuck with a major dilemma:

1. Public funding for education is going down.
2. Universities are reluctant to change their exceptionally exploitative hiring model: a few tenured or tenure-track professors lording it over a vast army of adjuncts, post-docs and graduate students.
3. Good teachers and researchers are hard to find.
4. Snake-oil peddlers of all kinds are touting their magic: from silicon valley startups to the best known universities in the world.

Learners are stuck between a range of unpalatable options. I don’t know about other countries, but in India, the so called demographic dividend will turn into a disaster if we don’t address these basic needs. And I haven’t even addressed the problem with the *content* of education, just access.

UMART: The Commoditization of Knowledge. Part 1.

November 1, 2013

Once upon a time

When the internet first exploded into our consciousness, it was this incredible cacophony of voices speaking in so many tongues. Yes, a lot of it was garbage, but so what? Most TV is garbage too. Why should elite garbage get airtime while we complain about plebeian garbage?

When you look at the internet now, it’s clearly a monopolistic force that’s been captured by a few very large interests. Most of the traffic in the web is done within a few properties: google, facebook and other walled gardens that want us to spend all our time, attention (and since time and attention are the scarcest commodities) and money within spaces controlled by them. Add the ubiquity of intrusion and monitoring online and you have a dystopia waiting to happen.

In other words, a bottom-up network has mostly been replaced by a few top-down networks. Now that large interests have learned how to take over the internet, they are training their guns on new targets. Education (and health as well, though I don’t know much about the details there) is the most prominent example of a sector that’s about to be “disrupted.” Not surprisingly, there’s a concerted effort to take over higher education by some of the most prominent and well funded players in that space such as MIT, Harvard and Stanford, with assistance from nation states (the state department no less!) and venture capital. Of course, these large interests are competing fiercely with each other since they want to capture the entire space for themselves. What’s interesting is that the interests and values of the nerd elite are being unabashedly promoted in the name of the public good:

  1. Free education of the highest quality!
  2. Poor people in India and Africa get access to the smartest people on the planet!

I am not saying that the nerd elite is the same as the oil, energy or finance elite. The nerd elite is socially liberal and arguably genuine in it’s belief that it’s actions are in the interests of all. That said, they are as (structurally) blind to their own self-interest as any other elite, which allows them to honestly claim that they are acting in everyone’s interest.

A new intellectual monoculture is being formed as we speak, with the inevitable narrowing of options and interests that comes with monocultures wherever they arise. The monoculture rhetoric was particularly high a year ago. Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun, who was the first off the block in this race to disrupt education, said that in fifty years there will only be ten institutions of higher education — and Udacity will be one of them of course. Imagine a world in which there are only ten universities. How narrow do you think they will be in every sense of that term: intellectual, moral and spiritual? How much pressure do you think faculty, whether tenured, tenure track or adjunct will face to conform?

If you think tenure track faculty and adjuncts face pressure to be compliant now, just wait!

UMart: Walmart for knowledge

The fundamental reason is simple: knowledge has become a commodity. The commoditization of knowledge is a two step procedure:

  1. First knowledge becomes a product, i.e., something primarily to be bought and sold. Once knowledge becomes a product, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes a commodity, for that’s the logic of mass production these days.

  2. As more and more knowledge is produced at a cheaper and cheaper price, knowledge becomes a commidity. That knowledge doesn’t have any individuality, it’s essentially mechanical. Knowledge that you can use and throw. That logic will extend to the providers of knowledge, i.e., teachers and professors.

The new logic of learning and knowledge is just the educational avatar of a well understood neoliberal logic that has taken over consumer economies in general and retail in particular.

An economy in which knowledge is produced elsewhere and delivered online is a consumer retail economy

Walmart is the poster boy for that retail economy, though Amazon is probably giving Walmart a run for it’s money. If there are ten universities left in the world, they will all behave like Walmart, which to say:

  1. Destruction of local knowledge communities. Most communities will have far fewer knowledge workers. There might be a political agenda as well: teachers and educators are among the biggest constituents of progressive middle classes throughout the world. They are also often the people who (ideally, if not in practice) encourage free thinking. That class will be denuded.

  2. Enormous downward pressure on wages. If knowledge is primarily created elsewhere and delivered on a screen, and the classroom is “flipped” the professor is effectively a TA. She will be paid as such. It doesn’t matter if those ten universities employ a million or ten million people each, for we will sacrifice genuine flourishing for the dubious luxury of being treated as widgets.

  3. Intellectual monocultures. There’s already pressure to stick to the beaten path, to research topics that bring money and that pays obeisance to senior scholars, donors and funding agencies. Any tenure track professor will testify
    to that trend. Just imagine if that trend intensifies by two orders of magnitude.

U-Mart will be worse for knowledge than Walmart was for retail

Are we all doomed?

If the current trend continues, yes. The first to go will be the vast majority of school teachers, college educators and other pedagogues who will be replaced by a combination of machines and TA’s.

Note that I am not saying their jobs will vanish; instead, reasonably well paid and well-respected positions will be replaced with poorly paid, adjunct and socially lower positions.

Of course, these cuts will be justified by invoking the usual bogeyman, the exploding cost of education. That scare tactic never acknowledges the underlying reason for rising costs, namely, disappearing political support for public education. In other words:

  • First make education expensive for learners and their families by removing subsidies and then
  • Put pressure on knowledge workers by outsourcing their jobs to machines, adjuncts and assistants.

It’s a classic neoliberal move. The archetypal neoliberal organizations from the World-bank to Bain Capital have successfully restructured other industries using this logic. They are salivating at the thought of doing the same for education, which, after all is one of the largest industries in the world. Again, not surprising that the Worldbank has invested in Coursera.

Let’s go back to Walmart once again. The repeated claim by the political and intellectual backers of Walmart is that mass consumption of cheap goods is a good thing for almost everyone. Here’s a quick summary of that argument:

  1. Consumption is good.
  2. Consumption depends on plenty of products at a cheap price.
  3. Walmart sells goods at the cheapest price you can imagine. Therefore, it makes it easy for you to consume those goods even if you are poor.

In my next essay on this topic, I will dissect the obvious flaws in the Walmart argument and see what that means for knowledge networks.

Food for Thought

October 7, 2013

Starvation Diet

Imagine if someone said to you: “Oh I gorged myself for four years back in the eighties. I ate so much then that I don’t have to eat ever again.” What would you say to them?

Some people are thin, others are fat. Some eat healthy, some not so much, but all of us need to eat every day (give or take a day or two) in order to survive. No one can live, let alone thrive, if they ate for the first twenty years of their lives and then had to starve themselves.

Why is education any different? Why do we believe that education stops (for most people) at age 17 or 21 and then we have to survive on what we learned then for the rest of our lives?


Personalized Learning

Actually, very few of us believe that education stops at 21. All of us understand that we learn continuously, throughout our lives. In some professions – academia, music, high technology – continuous learning is encouraged by the profession itself. Still, even in these professions, we don’t necessarily learn how to learn. For the most part people stick to a narrow, disciplinary idea of learning. Rare is the scientist who learns an entirely new area after they are tenured. Disciplinary learning is important, but it’s not enough to address the complex challenges of the future.

Let’s go outside the learned professions and see what curious people, especially children, do when they want to learn something. What they do is closer to play than to work. Making new things is fun, even when the new thing is an abstract commodity like knowledge.

The idea that learning is making knowledge isn’t new; Socrates knew about it when he called himself the midwife of wisdom. These basic human qualities – curiosity, questioning, dialog are still at the foundation of learning, except that we now have technology to amplify, aggregate and distribute learning across vast numbers of people. How do we make use of technology, while building on our natural, human capacities for learning. That’s the challenge.

People + Technology –> Continuous Personalized Learning

Let us now look at some major shifts that a continuous personalized learning model entails. How can we build a lifelong learning society?


Lifelong learning societies

First, it’s clear that continuous learning cannot be learning removed from society. We cannot sustain a world in which everyone’s a full time college student from the time they are born until they die. We have to be producers as much as consumers of knowledge.

Lesson 1: Lifelong learning societies will mix work and learning throughout their citizens’ lives.

Second, it’s not clear that being a full-time student is the right thing – as we are discovering in the cognitive sciences, our mind is both embodied and embedded; we have minds precisely because we are embedded in a world where those minds are put to use. Natural learning, i.e., learning that happens as a matter of course because we are hardwired to do so (examples: learning to walk, learning to see, learning to speak) is based on tight feedback loops from mind to body and world and back. That sensorimotor loop is crucial; we can’t separate out the learning from the feedback loop. Why should artificial learning, i.e., learning that has to be taught explicitly in school and college, be any different? We should embed explicit learning into the same feedback loop of knowledge, practice and mentor feedback. Musicians and monks already behave that way. The rest of us should ape their behavior.

Lesson 2: Just as real reporting requires embedded journalists, real knowledge requires embedded students.

Third, once we step away from theoretical knowledge, for which we go to university, and look at the distribution of expertise and wisdom in all its forms, it’s clear that knowledge is spread throughout society. Our collective ability to aggregate distributed wisdom has been rather poor – most of these knowledge networks didn’t write books, and the libraries of the world were built to satisfy the demands of professors, not the universal learner.

The internet gives us the ability to aggregate human wisdom at a new scale, and to do it in a manner that enables different modes of expertise to coexist. Why should I choose between learning statistics and self-transformation? Why can’t I engage with a full spectrum of human wisdom from diverse sources, driven by distributed networks of mentors, peers and learning media? I believe that a new era of learning is well within our reach.

Lesson 3: Use technology to aggregate wisdom from all corners of the world, high and low.

However, in order to do so, we need to look beyond the MOOC, which is the last gasp of a one-way, top-down model of learning where the elite instruct the masses


Making People

October 4, 2013

Let me start with a series of claims:

  1. Disciplines don’t scale
  2. Techniques don’t scale
  3. People do scale

Depending on your viewpoint, these claims might strike you as tautological or as patently false, but let me illustrate these claims with a question and a plausible answer to that question and then a commentary that illustrates the three claims above. Question first:

What is the most general science of all?

An obvious answer to this question: physics. Another obvious answer: mathematics. Certainly, it seems that physics and mathematics are the languages in which the universe is written, the subjects with the most general scope of all.


I beg to differ. If we replace an abstract concern for the universe as a whole with problems that human beings actually want to solve (usually ones that matter to us in our own lives) then mathematics and physics are handmaidens at best and often outright harmful. Try passing a bill through parliament using mathematics and you will know what I mean. Human problems are complex, dynamic, not bound by disciplinary boundaries and in need of everything from emotion intelligence to technical skills.

Fortunately, we evolved to solve human problems. Unfortunately, our theories did not. The fact is: our subtlest theories, even the ones that have an unreasonable effectiveness in the world, depend on the tacit backdrop of human capacities that we take for granted.


You would think that a rational education system would help us build upon our natural capacities as efficiently as possible and scale these capacities across large groups of people – a genuine collective mind. That assumes that education was designed, if one want’s to call it that, by a Plato’s republic of cognitive scientists. We all know the distance between Plato’s academy and the academy down the street.

Instead modern education was built for an industrial era driven by print media. That model of education tries to scale subjects and techniques, which is fine; that was the need of the times. However, the industrial era was a stage in human history where we treated humans beings as widgets and nature as a resource to be plundered. We are now entering an era where we can’t do so anymore.

For one, we can’t take nature for granted because by doing so we have almost destroyed the planet. Second, the frontiers of knowledge have reached those very problems such as the study of the brain where science is inquiring into the very thing that we took for granted. Third, most business and social activity requires complex, adaptive behavior of the kind that isn’t inculcated by learning physics or mathematics. In fact, let me make a bold claim:

For much human endeavor, we only need a good enough (satisficing, to use a technical term) understanding of what we now call science, but not more. In fact, knowing more might be harmful, for it gives us false confidence in knowledge gathering traditions that are deeply flawed.

Yes, I know that depth is greatly prized and so is expertise, but sometimes too much learning is a bad thing too. Nevertheless, I am not arguing that shallow knowledge replace deep knowledge. Instead, I want deep problem based knowledge to replace deep discipline based knowledge.

For example, suppose you want to build a better traffic system in Bangalore. This is not a physics problem but it needs sophisticated traffic modeling. It’s not a political problem alone, though politics is at it’s core. It’s not an engineering problem, but re-engineering traffic is essential. And so on. People who come together to address the problem of Bangalore traffic will have to have individual and collective expertise in all its aspects. This is what I call the Sherlock Holmes theory of knowledge[^1] – a clear sense for what is general culture – mostly to be ignored – and at the same time, keen eye for what’s important.

Where do we go for training for such problems? More importantly, what kind of person is likely to solve such problems? I will be exploring these questions in future posts.


Let me end by reiterating my main point: we can’t scale disciplines or techniques quickly. In fact, we may not want to, for that’s an enormous investment of effort in a world where problems change overnight and new fields of knowledge arise every day. Instead of training people in tools and techniques that are applied to a narrow range of problems, let’s invert the gaze: invent tools and techniques that enhance people instead and let them adapt to the problems that face them. That’s the angle I am pushing.

[^1]: If you want to know why I call it the Sherlock Holmes’ theory of knowledge, you might want to read this list.