Sunday, May 08, 2005


Sometimes it is helpful to look at other sectors of the economy to get a sense of the issues with learning technology. The Public Editor Column in the Times Week and Review had an interesting analysis of the malaise with print journalism. That same malaise was similarly reflected in Frank Rich's Op-Ed piece. The public holds all the news media in low esteem but print journalism is between a rock and a hard place with its use of "unnamed sources." Readers don't like hearing about news from people who will not go on the record - this is how we concluded that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But if print doesn't use "on background" sources, they are slower than TV and radio in getting the word out and with seemingly no offsetting advantage. The Times is in the process of changing its business practice regarding unnamed sources (to what is not yet clear). It is not that long ago that they had the scandal of "made up" news, producing resignations of many of the higher ups at the paper. I can imagine an analogous article about us with headline "Provost Resigns When It Became Clear Students Were Learning Nothing In General Education Classes." We're not likely to see that particular headline. But is something like that possible?

Education has been the primary way that parents have given bequests to their children. A college education has been the path to the good life. But in today's knowledge economy with global competition from China and India and outsourcing seemingly an endless threat, does that conventional wisdom still hold? And what is one to make of how few American students are going into Science and Engineering? A variety of Engineering fields do quite well in terms of starting salary out of college, but if you look at the majors that are popular the picture is quite different. According to Princeton Review (I know, not the most reliable source) Computer Science is ranked 9th in terms of popularity and no other engineering field makes the list.

One of the stated reasons for having the National Science Olympiad, which we are hosting here on campus in a couple of weeks, is to encourage bright kids to go into the sciences. The goal is noble but the approach seems to me to be elitist. My kid benefited from that elitism. When another kid dropped out, he got the tutoring of two teachers over a few weekends on a one-on-one basis to complete his project. But the thing is so out of the ordinary I'm not sure his participation (admittedly at the middle school level) will have any staying power.

What does seem to have staying power is video games and computer games. My kids spend much more time on the computer playing Age of Empires II than they do using the computer for schoolwork (word processing, occasionally a Google search for some research project). The school doesn't do homework (as distinct from projects) on the computer, I believe in part because of the equal access issue. I don't see that changing anytime soon. Why don't scientists try to co-opt the computer game market? Can science compete with entertainment?

My colleague Burks Oakley sent me a link to Tom Friedman's piece from last Friday. Friedman admonishes that an increasing number of Americans are watching Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" not just for entertainment but as their source for news. And the way Friedman argues, this may be a healthy tonic to the info-tainment that is delivered up in the supposed TV news programming. I recall way back when "That Was The Week That Was," which made David Frost a household name, was quite engaging, and put a dagger into many a politician. But right before the escalation in Viet Nam, we still had other alternatives for our news. Times change. Maybe hard science will venture into computer games as entertainment. But don't expect that to happen en passant from within the games industry. Science is hard.

My laments about budgets for educational technology seem to be mirrored by concerns about the economy overall. Apparently The Perfect Storm has become a more powerful metaphor than The Great Depression as indicated by this piece, also in The Week in Review. Misery loves company, especially if you profess to the dismal science. It is impossible to identify the likelihood of doom as prognosticated in this piece. But, when you read other pieces, such as a front page article on our burn rate on post 9/11 security investments that costs a lot and deliver little it's hard to think other than that the American century ended 5 years ago.

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