Tag Archives: Education

Rare good political news: Boosting apprenticeships

Trump Orders U.S. Regulatory Review to Boost Apprentice Programs” is not a good headline, but the article is worth reading because apprenticeships are important, underrated, and should be more prominent and prevalent. We’ve written about the desirability of apprenticeships before, in posts like “The Department of Labor’s ‘American Apprenticeship Initiative’ (AAI) Shows Some Forward Thinking by the Feds.” Moving towards an apprenticeship-based model is also a bipartisan good idea that should get both left and right excited.

Right now, most federal education policy is oriented towards getting everyone into a four-year college or university and graduating with a four-year degree—but, as the cost of college rises faster than other sector of the economy, it’s not clear that college is always such a good idea. In addition, the value of a degree varies widely by major. Just “going to college” is often not enough. The number of people who have expensive college degrees yet find themselves in jobs not requiring them also appears to be rising; I went to an expensive liberal arts school in the northeast, and one of my roommates from college is working as a bartender. I don’t want to disparage bartenders, having availed myself of their services many times, but four years and five figures—if not more—in costs is a terrible misallocation of resources.

For The Story’s Story, I wrote about Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton’s Paying for the Party. The book is too complex and interesting to summarize briefly, but one of its main points concerns the way colleges have evolved party tracks that require little studying—but undergrads with successful outcomes on that track tend to be wealthy and socially connected. Many undergrads wander onto that track without their peers’ financial and social resources, only to fail to graduate or to graduate with weak degrees that don’t produce much income.

Given this situation, policy change is warranted. If college was once a panacea, growing college costs have eliminated that situation. Shifting towards apprenticeships is one way to shift in a smarter direction. Right now, the Department of Labor and some states have “Registered Apprenticeships” programs of various kinds, but most of those are in the construction trades. We’d be better served to broaden that base.

The original article cited above also points out that Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta appears to be behind the shift. He appears to be of higher competence than many current executive branch political appointees, which is good. As a side note, in contemporary politics, there tends to be a drive to oppose anything at all proposed by the “other” party. This tendency is bad. We should work as hard as we can to judge any policy or person on its (or their) merits. Don’t oppose or favor a particular policy merely because your “team” opposes or favors it.

Over time we may also see the definition of “apprenticeship” and “school” change. For example, many coding bootcamps aren’t traditional schools and aren’t exactly apprenticeships either. A couple friends have done the Flatiron School in New York City. Lambda School is a new, promising effort. Pretty much everyone knows that high-paying, in-demand fields include programming and almost all levels of healthcare, while there isn’t a huge amount of demand for generic grads in most non-technical four-year college programs and for people who don’t have many skills. Things like coding boot camps may fill the gap between school and work for some people, while traditional trades seem to be robust, as those of us who have had to pay a plumber or roofer knows.

Apprenticeships are also an obviously good idea from the perspective of academia; anyone who teaches college students at schools below the most elite level knows that a large number of students really shouldn’t be in college. This was most obvious to me at the University of Arizona, but it happens across the academic landscape. Many of us in the basement of the Ivory Tower are attuned to the many students who don’t like school, drop out of it, but still have to pay a lot for it via student loans that can’t be discharged in bankruptcy. I’ve been teaching undergrads for ten years, and it’s clear that many undergrads don’t know why they’re in college, don’t care about school, and are floundering in an academic milieu; they don’t like abstract symbol manipulation, sitting still for long periods of time, or reading.

Many college students go because their high school teachers and parents tell them to, yet many dropout after taking on student loans, or they graduate with weak degrees, little learning, and few connections. See, for example, “Exclusive Test Data: Many Colleges Fail to Improve Critical-Thinking Skills.” In modern colleges, there is a lot of “They pretend to learn and we pretend to teach.” Professors are mostly rewarded for research and grad students are socialized to ignore teaching in favor of research. To be sure, some professors do focus on teaching, and community colleges in particular are teaching-oriented—yet the overall culture is clear, and many of the least-prepared, most-marginal students pay the price. Professors have often realized that there is little incentive to grade honestly and lots of incentive to not rock the boat, pass students along if at all possible, and collect those (meager) paychecks.

To professors, the unreadiness of many students is so vast that it’s hard to motivate them or pull them into the academic or intellectual culture. Many students flail in large classes and ultimately dropout. Again, this isn’t universal, but it is common and, again, obvious to anyone who’s spent time at the front of a college classroom.

The “college for everyone” meme is likely played out. Be ready for the apprenticeship shift and a wave of federal and state RFPs for innovative apprenticeship programs.

Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology — Kentaro Toyama — Book Review

Everyone working in any facet of education and educational nonprofits needs to read Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology; put down whatever other books you’re reading—you are reading, right?—and get a copy of this one.

geek_HeresyIn it, Kentaro Toyama describes how computers and related technologies are not a panacea for education or any other social service fields. He writes that, “like a lever, technology amplifies people’s capacities in the direction of their intentions.” Sound familiar? It should: we’ve written about “Computers and Education: An Example of Conventional Wisdom Being Wrong” and “How Computers Have Made Grant Writing Worse.” We’ve been writing grant proposals for programs that increase access to digital technologies since at least the late ’90s; for example, we’ve written numerous funded 21st Century Community Learning Centers proposals. Despite all that effort and all those billions of dollars spent, however, it would be polite to say that educational outcomes have not leapt forward.

As it turns out, the computers-in-education trope is part of a general pattern. After years in the field, Toyama eventually realized that technologically driven educational projects tend to follow stages: “the initial optimism that surrounds technology, the doubt as reality hits, the complexity of outcomes, and the unavoidable role of social forces.” That’s after Toyama describes his work in India, where he discovers that “In the course of five years, I oversaw at least ten different technology-for-education projects [. . .] Each time, we thought we were addressing a real problem. But while the designs varied, in the end it didn’t matter – technology never made up for a lack of good teachers or good principals.” Studies of the One Laptop Per Child project show similarly disappointing results.

Chucking technology at people problems does not automatically improve the people or solve the problem: “Even in a world of abundant technology, there is no social change without change in people.” Change in people is really hard, slow, and expensive. It can be hastened by wide and deep reading, but most Americans don’t read much: TV, Facebook, and the other usual suspects feel easier in the short term. Everyone who thinks about it knows that computers are incredibly useful for creating, expressing, and disseminating knowledge. But they’re also incredibly useful for wasting time. Because of the way computers can waste time and drain precious attention, I actually ban laptops and phones from my classrooms. Computers and phones don’t help with reading comprehension and writing skill development. That primarily happens between the ears, not on the screen.

Problems with laptops in classrooms became apparent to me during my one year of law school (I fortunately dropped out of the program). All students were required to use laptops. During class, some used computers for the ends imagined by administrators. Most used them to gossip, check sports scores, send and receive nude photos of classmates, etc. And those were law students, who’d already been selected for having decent discipline and foresight. What hope do the rest of us have? Laptops were not the limiting factor in my classes and they aren’t the limiting factor for most people in most places:

Anyone can learn to Tweet. But forming and articulating a cogent argument in any medium requires thinking, writing, and communication skills. While those skills are increasingly expressed through text messaging, PowerPoint, and email, they are not taught by them. Similarly, it’s easy to learn to ‘use’ a computer, but the underlying math skills necessary for accounting or engineering require solid preparation that only comes from doing problem sets—readily accomplished with or without a computer.

Problem sets are often boring, but they’re also important. I tell my college students that they need to memorize major comma rules. They generally don’t want to, but they have to memorize some rules in order to know how to deploy those rules—and how to break them effectively, as opposed to inadvertently. Computers don’t help with that. They don’t help with more than you think:

Economist Leigh Linden at the University of Texas at Austin conducted experimental trials in India and Colombia. He found that, on average, students exposed to computer-based instruction learned no more than control groups without computers. His conclusion? While PCs can supplement good instruction, they don’t substitute for time with real teachers.

The obvious counterpoint to this is “yet.” Still, those of us who have computers and Internet connections are probably sensitive to how much time we spend doing stuff that might qualify as “work” versus time spent on YouTube or games or innumerable other distractions (pornography sites are allegedly among the largest sites, measured by megabytes delivered, on the Internet).

Moreover, the poorer the school districts or communities, the harder it was to setup and maintain the equipment (another challenge many of us are familiar with: Don’t ask me about the fiasco that upgrading from OS X 10.6 to 10.10 entailed).

In addition, Toyama points out that there is a long history of believing that technology in and of itself will ameliorate human problems:

We were hardly the first to think our inventions would transform education. Larry Cuban, a veteran inner-city teacher and an emeritus professor at Stanford, has chronicled the technology fads of the past century. As his examples show, the idea that technology can cure the ills of society is nothing new. As early as 1913, Thomas Edison believed that ‘the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system.’ Edison estimated that we only learned 2 percent of the material we read in books, but that we could absorb 100 percent of what we saw on film. He was certain that textbooks were becoming obsolete.

Oops. Radio, TV, filmstrips, overhead projectors and other technologies were heralded with similar promise. The problem is that technology is much easier than motivation, concentration, conscientiousness, and perspicacity.

Some quotes should remind you of points we’ve made. For example, Toyama says, “Measurement undoubtedly helps us verify progress. There’s a danger, though, of worshipping the measurable at the expensive of other key qualities.” That’s true of many grant proposals and is consilient with our post on why evaluations are hard to do. Measuring what’s easy to measure is usually much easier than measuring what matters, and funding authorities rarely care in a deep way about the latter.

In his chapter on “Nurturing Change,” Toyama notes that individuals have to aspire to do more and to do better in order for a group or culture to see mass change. This is close to Robert Pirsig’s point in Lila’s Child: An Inquiry Into Quality, which extols the pleasure and importance of of craftsmanship. Defined broadly, “craftsmanship” might mean doing the best work you can regardless of who’s watching or what the expected consequences of that work might be.

Geek Heresy is not perfect. Toyama repeats the dubious calumny that the poverty rate “decreased steadily [in the United States] until 1970. Around 1970, though, the decline stopped. Since then, the poverty rate has held steady at a stubborn 12 to 13 percent [. . . .]” But the official rate is likely bogus: “If you look at income after taxes and transfers you see that the shape of American public policy has become much friendlier to the poor during this period.” Or consider this reading of the data, which finds the “Adjusted percent poor in 2013 [is] 4.8%.” This also probably jibes with what many of our older readers have actually experience: Most manufactured goods are far, far cheaper than they used to be, and official definitions of poverty rarely account for those. On a non-financial level, far more and better medical treatments are available. In 1970 there was no chickenpox or HPV vaccine, regardless of how wealthy you were.

The flaws in Geek Heresy are minor. The important point is that technology will not automatically solve all of our problems and that you should be wary of those who think it will. Until we understand this—and understand the history of attempting to use technology to solve all of our problems—we won’t be able to make real progress in educational achievement.

Parsing the Department of Education’s “Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions” (HSI) Program RFP–Which Colleges are Eligible?

As we’ve written before, parsing an RFP sometimes seems like deciphering the Talmud. The just-issued ED Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) RFP is a case in point.

HSI is a venerable program that provides grants to Institutions of Higher Education (ED-speak for “two- and four-year colleges and universities”) deemed to be “Hispanic-Serving Institutions.” But what is an HSI? To paraphrase President Clinton, it depends on what the meaning of “HSI” is? The RFP states:

In addition to basic eligibility requirements, an institution must have at least 25 percent enrollment of undergraduate full-time equivalent (FTE) Hispanic students at the end of the award year immediately preceding the date of application.

(Emphasis added.)

Now we have to determine what “award year” means. On page 19 of the 87-page RFP, we finally learn that award year “refers to the end of the fiscal year prior to the application due date.” Which raises the question, why doesn’t the RFP just consistently replace “award year,” which no one understands, with “end of the last federal year,” which anyone involved in federal grants knows is September 30?

This conundrum came up on Friday when I was talking about HSI with the internal grant writer for a community college we often work for. This guy is very knowledgeable about federal grants but thought the eligibility for HSI was that his college had to have at least 25% Hispanic students for one year before applying for a HSI grant. His college achieved that milestone at the start of the fall 2014 semester, or around September 1, so he didn’t think they were HSI eligible. A close reading of the RFP sections above shows that he was wrong: as long as the college met the 25% threshold by September 30, 2014, which in this case they did, the college is actually HSI-eligible.

It also turns out that ED does not certify or even maintain a list of HSIs. Instead, applicants self-certify eligibility by signing an assurance. How does a college know whether is has 25% FTE Hispanic students? The students themselves self-certify their “race and ethnicity” at the time of application and these data are aggregated by colleges.

This data gets really murky. Most Americans probably think “Hispanic” is a “race.” Not true, at least by some metrics. Those of us who work with Census data know that the Census definition considers “Hispanic” an ethnicity, not a race. From the Census website: “Hispanic origin can be viewed as the heritage, nationality, lineage, or country of birth of the person or the person’s parents or ancestors before arriving in the United States. People who identify as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be any race.”

In other words, American college students self-certifying as “Hispanic” could have a partial family heritage anywhere from Spain to South America to the Philippines and many places in between. From a Census “race” standpoint, they could be otherwise black, white, Asian, Native American, or multiracial. Combined with immigration and intermarriage, this is why the population of some states, like California and Texas, either are or will be majority-Hispanic. As a practical matter, most IHEs in the southwest and south are likely HSI-eligible already; in a few more years, most IHEs across the country probably will be. This is great news for IHEs, Hispanic students and grant writers!

The above cautionary tale shows why it’s critical to closely read RFPs regarding applicant eligibility and other key factors. When I went through Air Force basic training over 45 years ago, the first class we took was “Rumors and Propaganda.” It taught us not to believe barracks scuttlebutt. The same is true in grant writing.

Links: Bread Bags and Poverty, the App World, College, and Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

* When Bread Bags Weren’t Funny, or, we are now spectacularly rich in ways that rarely make the news.

* “Is Snapchat Really Confusing, or Am I Just Old? A 32-year-old’s hopeless quest to understand America’s fastest-growing social app.” This describes me, and I too remember old people telling me when I was younger about life before computers and so on, “What’s the point?”

* Dubious, polemical, yet: “Today’s Apps Are Turning Us Into Sociopaths.” See also Facebook and cellphones might be really bad for relationships.”

* “Why college isn’t always worth it: A new study suggests the economic return on a college degree may be a lot more modest than you think.” This better matches anecdotal yet seemingly universal observation, and it better matches work like that in Paying for the Party. The more I learn about college and about pre-school education the more skeptical I am of either as panaceas.

* What life is like for non-sports fans; a shockingly good metaphor.

* “American Schools Are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist.”

* College students use social media to be anti-social.

* Cops murder a guy on camera.

* “Orchestra in Los Angeles gives disadvantaged youth a lifeline through music.” Never before has such a project been tried!

* “Meet the [Washington State] Sex Workers Who Lawmakers Don’t Believe Exist,” from The Stranger and probably SFW.

* Employers want better technical writers but aren’t getting them.

* “Why GM Hired 8,000 Programmers.”

* “Lesbian” takes testosterone, sees personality and ideology change. This is not the piece’s actual title.

* Robots aren’t yet taking all our jobs because there aren’t enough smart human engineers to operate them. Which is too bad: the future in which we have all our material needs met and can spend all our time making art.

* “Scientists know there are more giant craters in Siberia, but are nervous to even study them,” which may be the most important article you’re going to skip.

November Links: Vaccines Are Important, Education Reform, the Future of the World, Broadband, Cities, and More!

* Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) of Tennessee’s preschool program show that preschool doesn’t appear to improve the later school performance of those enrolled, or much of anything else.

* CDC: Many U.S. Girls Not Getting HPV Vaccine Despite Its Effectiveness.

* “A bachelor’s degree could cost $10,000 — total. Here’s how.” The short version is, “Unbundling.” I think we’re going to see some version of this tried in various places, and in the next decade we’re going to see a lot of universities change.

* Average Is Over—if We Want It to Be.

* Oklahoma senator calls out Congress for blowing money on ‘fruity’ grants.

* Which Job Skills Will Be Most Important In The Coming Years?

* “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” As an additional explanation, see Philip Greenspun, “Women in Science.”

* Travel is much more boring and aggravating than people give it credit for.

* What we eat affects everything.

* If You Aren’t Technical, Get Technical. One could also replace “technical” with “literate,” although “technical” certainly has more immediate financial returns.

* The unbelievably brilliant ad campaign by Eat24, a food delivery service: “How to Advertise on a Porn Website.” Note that this is safe for work, provided you don’t work in a religious organization or elementary school.

* The most important piece and yet likely to be the least read: “We’ve Reached ‘The End of Antibiotics, Period.’

* A sad day for the OS X users among us: “Pages 5: An unmitigated disaster.”

* L.A. to unleash city-wide gigabit broadband. Awesome. Also on the good news front: “Fed up with slow and pricey Internet, cities start demanding gigabit fiber.”

* Woman from MTV demands free stuff.

* Reducing the federal prison population, which should be a major goal.

* A reinvented skillet. Isaac is skeptical because he says you can buy a perfectly good Lodge cast iron pan made in Tennessee for about $20, but I want to believe.

* Complementing the second link: “The Cancer Vaccine: Only one in three American girls is vaccinated against HPV. That will mean thousands of gratuitous cancer deaths. Why?

* “What are some of the biggest problems with a guaranteed annual income?” Isaac is very fond of the guaranteed annual income model, which was last a prominent idea in the early 70s, when he was in college, but has become a more interesting proposition as of late.

* “Simple answers to the questions that get asked about every new technology,” in comic form.

* The American Police State: A sociologist interrogates the criminal-justice system, and tries to stay out of the spotlight.

* “Overall, we Americans have a stronger attachment to U.S. dominance than to fair play or anyone’s rights.”

* “Why Aren’t Cities Taller?” The answer has important and under-appreciated implications for poverty and real wealth, and the link is connected to the link above: “Average Is Over—if We Want It to Be.”

Youth CareerConnect Program: The Department of Labor Provides An Early Holiday Present

The holidays come early year with this tasty new* program from the elves at the Department of Labor (DOL) Employment and Training Administration (ETA): the Youth CareerConnect Program.** There’s $100,000,000 up for grabs, with 25 to 40 grants to be awarded—in other words, serious money. Sequestration hasn’t been a horror story for nonprofit and public agencies—the federal trough is full and there’s always for one more nonprofit snout.

Read the RFP. You’ll realize you’ve seen this movie before—but just because the plot is stale doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see yet another version of boy meets girl. Youth CareerConnect funds small learning communities, career-focused curricula, employee partnerships, high school diplomas or equivalents, industry-recognized credentials, work readiness, low-income participants (including females and minorities), and (wait for it), wraparound supportive services. It’s like YouthBuild but without the construction training, or like prisoner reentry without prisoners, or community colleges without the community college.

The services may elicit a yawn but the money won’t. If your agency runs YouthBuild or almost any other training or supportive services for at-risk youth or young adults, this is a wonderful grant opportunity that could be run by almost any youth services nonprofit. Remember, though, that you should get going before your Thanksgivukkah turkey and latkes put you to sleep, because the deadline is January 27. All I can say to my pals at DOL ETA, is Gobbletov!

EDIT: As I noted in “Are You Experienced? Face Forward—Serving Juvenile Offenders SGA: A New Department of Labor Program That Mirrors YouthBuild,” it’s almost always a good idea to apply for the first funding round of a new program. The reasons are too many and varied to repeat here, but the original post is worth reading carefully for anyone debating about whether their agency should apply.

In addition, it’s worth noting that page 16 of the Youth CareerConnect SGA forbids community colleges from applying. That’s curious, because community colleges are probably the most plausible candidates for running YCC programs. They’re probably excluded because community colleges are the only eligible applicants for the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) Grant Program, which is essentially the same thing as YCC, except that it has even more money available. DOL just wants to spread the wealth to other organizations.


* It’s “new” in the sense that the title is new and the hundred million has been freshly allocated, but anyone who has ever provided job training services should recognize the melody, beat, and lyrics.

** I particularly like the way DOL has run Career and Connect together to form an allusion of speed and urgency with CareerConnect.

California Issues An RFA for the 21st CCLC Program, Illustrating Why You Should Remember Old Grant Programs

As we’ve written before, grant availability moves in waves, with funding rising to meet new challenges. For example, the advent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan caused a host of nonprofits to spring up and provide support to wounded veterans. Funders, particularly foundations, rushed to offer significant grants. With the wars winding down, it is getting harder for such nonprofits to claim urgency and foundations are likely moving on to address emerging problems.

In the government funding world, however, things are different. Congress is always ready to create new programs, such as the huge Health Navigators program and dozens of other healthcare-related discretionary grant programs created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA or “Obamacare”), but it behooves nonprofits not to forget about long-standing programs. They may seem to be buried in the background as zombie grant programs, but they often retain significant funding. With the de facto replacement of federal budgets by continuing resolutions in recent years, most discretionary programs are refunded year after year, with cost of living increases.*

For an example of an old program that has lots of money and remains relevant to provide needed services, check out 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLCs). It’s been around since the days of Columbine but remains one of the best ways of funding after school enrichment activities. Since there has been no reduction in school shootings, bullying, and disappointing educational outcomes in general, after school programming should be of interest to nonprofits and schools. We wrote extensively about the 21st CCLC program as an illustration of federal pass-through funding two years ago and since then nothing has changed.

California just issued Requests for Applications (RFA) for its 21st CCLC Program for Elementary and Middle Schools, along with the 21st Century High School ASSETs program. There’s $36,000,000 up for grabs, Pay attention even in you’re not in California, since 21st CCLC is a federal pass-through program and funding exists in every state. If your agency is at all interested in after school programming, it’s a good idea to check with your state department of education to figure out when you can apply. A nice aspect of 21st CCLC grants is that they’re for five-year projects, so if you get a grant, you’ll be operating the project for a fair amount of time.


* There is the minor annoyance of budget sequestration, which may have some impact on discretionary grant programs but so far hasn’t been discernible to us. Besides which, it looks like the Republicans in Congress will probably trade sequestration cuts for entitlement reform in the upcoming budget negotiations. No one knows the future, but this is one plausible future.

Links: The Charity-Industrial Complex, Anthony Weiner Exposed (so to speak), Conventional Wisdom Debunked, Vaccines, Work, the Workforce, and More!

* The charitable industrial complex; I find it revealing that so many people who view how charities work from the inside start to see why so much is amiss with them.

* “‘It’s a circle of hell there’s just no way out of,’ Schochet said. ‘I paid it as long as I could.’

* Why It’s Never Mattered That America’s Schools ‘Lag’ Behind Other Countries.

* We should be suing and charging parents who don’t vaccinate their kids.

* “Open All Night: America’s Car Factories,” with the most interesting quote from a grant writer’s perspective being this, about a plant in Toledo: “Of those who applied for the work, 70% were rejected, mostly because they couldn’t pass initial assessment tests, Mr. Pino said.” “Initial assessment tests” means basic reading and writing skills. Any nonprofit in Toledo that wants to run adult education or after school programs should use this quote.

* “Affordable Excellence. . . This book is a clear first choice on the Singapore health system and everyone interested in health care economics, or Singapore, should read it. It is short, clear, and to the point.” I am struck by how many people have strong opinions about healthcare without really understanding the system. Sloganeering is rampant and understanding scant. This is useful in conjunction with “The two most important numbers in American health care,” which points out that five percent of patients accounts for fifty percent of costs.

* “The U.S. patent system inhibits cancer vaccine development.”

* “Spy Kids,” and the fate of spy apparatuses that depend on cultural concepts long dead in most of American and Western life.

* “The Gender Wage Gap Lie: You know that “women make 77 cents to every man’s dollar” line you’ve heard a hundred times? It’s not true.” More conventional wisdom debunked. Is anyone surprised?

* “If it were cheaper to build apartments the rent would be lower.” This is obvious but bears repeating.

* “Guesses and Hype Give Way to Data in Study of Education.”

* The Turpentine Effect, a brilliant post with an unfortunate title that makes it less likely you’ll read.

* “An Aspiring Scientist’s Frustration with Modern-Day Academia: A Resignation.”

* “The Patriarchy Is Dead Feminists, accept it.”

* “How Anthony Weiner Exposed the Insecurities of the 1960s Generation: A half-century after the sexual revolution, the make-your-own-rules folks are no longer quite so sold on free love.” This has Camille Paglia-esque overtones.

* We are in denial about catastrophic risks.

* NASA’s Plutonium Problem Could End Deep-Space Exploration.

* A geek’s tour of Sigma’s Aizu lens factory: Precision production from the inside out.

Computers and education: An example of conventional wisdom being wrong

We’ve written innumerable proposals for programs to give students computers or access to computers. Some, like “Goals 2000,” have already been forgotten by anyone not named Seliger. Others, like the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, continue to exist, although the original federal version got broken into state pass-through funds. All of them work on the presumption that giving students computers will improve education.

The problem is that, as we’ve written before, most research demonstrates that this isn’t true, even if it seems like it should be true. Another study, “Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers,” just came out against computers improving educational outcomes. Some news report have covered it too, including “Using Laptops In Classrooms Lowers Grades: Study” and one from the Times of India. But the important takeaway is simple: computer access in and of itself doesn’t appear to improve educational attainment.

That doesn’t really matter for the proposal world, in which the conventional wisdom is always right and where these studies can be used to make minor changes in program design to overcome the problem of distraction. But they’re interesting on a real world level, especially because they confirm what many of us know intuitively: that computers are great for wasting time.

I’d define “wasting time” as any time spent nominally doing a task that doesn’t result in some tangible product or change at the end of that task. Reading Slate instead of writing a novel, to use an example from close to home, is time wasted; reading Slate to relax isn’t. The danger with the Internet (and, for others, computer games) is that it can feel work-like without actually accomplishing any work in the process.

Personally, when I need to do serious writing that doesn’t require data research, I use the program Mac Freedom to turn off Internet access. I paid $10 to not be able to access the Internet. I know the Internet, like the Force, has a light side and a dark side. The light side is research, connection, learning, and human possibility. The dark side is an endless carnival of noise, blinking lights, and effervescent distraction. As Paul Graham wrote in “Disconnecting Distraction:”

Some days I’d wake up, get a cup of tea and check the news, then check email, then check the news again, then answer a few emails, then suddenly notice it was almost lunchtime and I hadn’t gotten any real work done. And this started to happen more and more often.

Now, if people like Paul Graham (or me!) have trouble doing real work when the Internet black hole is available, what hope does the average 15-year-old have—especially given that Graham and I grew up in a world without iPhones and incessant text messages? This isn’t “Get these darn kids off my lawn” rant, but it is an important anecdotal point about the importance and danger of computers. Computers are essential to, say, computer programming, but they aren’t essential to reading, writing, or basic math.

I went to a law school for a year by accident (don’t ask), and everyone had a laptop. They were sometimes used for taking notes. More often they were used for messaging in class. Occasionally they were actually used for porn. These were 22 – 30-year-old proto lawyers. On one memorable occasion, a guy’s computer erupted with a sports ad that blanketed the room with the drums, trumpets, and deep-voiced announcer promising gladiatorial combat. Evidently he’d forgotten to turn sound off. The brightest students were highly disciplined in their computer usage, but many of us, like addicts, didn’t have that discipline. We were better off not sitting in the room with the coke.

To be sure, computers can be useful in class. My fiancée wrote her med school application essay in class, since she was forced, due to academic bureaucratic idiocy, to take basic cell bio after she’d taken advanced cell bio. The laptop helped her recover time that otherwise would’ve been wasted, but I suspect that she’s in the minority.

I get the impression that the average student has no problem learning to immerse themselves in buzzy online worlds, and the exceptional, Zuckerberg-like student has no problem using digital tools to build those online worlds. What we should really probably be doing is teaching students how to cultivate solitude and concentrate. That’s what we need to learn how to do, even if that isn’t a particular subject matter domain.

Finally, like a lot of ideas, computers in schools might be a bad idea right up to the point they’re not. Adaptive learning software may eventually make a tremendous difference in student learning. That just hasn’t happened yet, and the last 20 years demonstrate that it’s not going to happen by chucking computers at students and assuming that computers are magically going to provide education. They’re not. Computers are mirrors that reflect the desires already inside a person. For students, 1% will build the next Facebook, another 3% will write angsty blog posts and perhaps become writers more generally, and 100% will use it for porn and games.

EDIT 2015: I just wrote about Kentaro Toyama’s book Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology, which describes… wait for it… why technology is not a panacea for education and may make it worse.

A few astute readers have also asked an important question: What could make or help technology improve education? I don’t have a good answer (if I did, I’d be starting the company that will deploy the answer). But I think we will see experimentation and slow, incremental steps. Many massive online courses (MOOCs), for example, started off as filmed lectures. Then they morphed towards having multiple camera angles and some quizzes. More recently, those classes shifted towards small, interactive chunks with quizzes that test comprehension interspersed among them. Each step improved comprehension, completion, and student engagement.

But MOOCs don’t seem to improve the ability to sustain concentration, be conscientious, or read in-depth. Without that last skill in particular, I’m not sure how much education of any kind can happen. Technology can give us the text, but it can’t make us read or comprehend the text or deal with it imaginatively.

Links: LED Bulbs, Condoms, Education, News is Bad For You, Marriage, Detroit, Foundations, Congress and ObamaCare, and More!

* Great news: we’re (slowly) moving toward a world where education looks at competency, not hours with ass-in-seat. This is flying under the radar of the national press but is hugely important, especially for nonprofits involved with education.

* Get LED lightbulbs. I use Switch LED bulbs, which are ludicrously expensive upfront but pay for themselves within a couple months.

* Possibly related to the above, Human extinction is an underrated threat.

* “News is bad for you [. . .] The real news consists of dull but informative reports circulated by consultancies giving in-depth insight into what’s going on. The sort of stuff you find digested in the inside pages of The Economist. All else is comics.”

* Last year we posted “Have you seen a Federal agency request a low-quality program?“, and this week we saw another example in HUD’s “Transformation Initiative: Sustainable Communities Research Grant Program,” which says that the NOFA offers “researchers the opportunity to submit grant applications to fund quality research under the broad subject area of sustainability.” This would be far more notable if the program offered money for low-quality research.

* “The Shadowy Residents of One Hyde Park—And How the Super-Wealthy Are Hiding Their Money.” I don’t think I’d want to live in a $5M+ apartment even if I had the money for it.

* How marriage changes relationships and gender dynamics (maybe); actual title includes the phrase “the boob test.”

* Seattle Needs to Welcome Growth and Get Over Itself.

* Detroit locals unhappy about the manager who is supposed to clean up the mess made by politicians elected by Detroit locals.

* What are foundations for? A theoretical discussion of problems many of you experience on a daily basis.

* “A Childless Bystander’s Baffled Hymn;” sample: “Why all the choices — ‘What would you like to wear?’— and all the negotiating and the painstakingly calibrated diplomacy? They’re toddlers, not Pakistan.”

* Austin gets Google Fiber, becomes a more attractive place to live.

* American Indians move to cities and face new challenges.

* Women and the crab basket effect.

* “New Publisher Authors Trust: Themselves.” File this under “Calling Captain Obvious.”

* The future of U.S. space policy, a topic that is under-discussed yet very important. This might be related to “News is bad for you,” above.

* Is China covering up another flu pandemic?

* “Will Congress exempt itself from ACA exchanges?” If so, this tells you more about the exchanges aspect of ObamaCare than any statement on the part of Congresspeople could.

* “One look at why income inequality is growing,” hat tip and headline tip Tyler Cowen.

* “Why still so few use condoms;” spoiler: because it doesn’t feel as good.

* “Topless Jihad: Why Femen Is Right.”

* “Nobody Walks in L.A.: The Rise of Cars and the Monorails That Never Were” but should have been.

* “Who Killed The Deep Space Climate Observatory?” This story, along with pathetic “Superconducting Super Collider” debacle, is the sort of thing that, if the U.S. really does take an intellectual and cultural backseat to the rest of the world, will be cited by future historians as examples of how the U.S. turned away from the very traits and behaviors that made it successful in the first place. “Who Killed the Deep Space Climate Observatory?” is also an example of how the real news is very seldom the news you read in the headlines.

* “Documentary ‘Aroused’ explores what makes women turn to porn careers.”

* David Brooks: “Engaged or detached?” “Writers who are at the classic engaged position believe that social change is usually initiated by political parties [. . .] the detached writer wants to be a few steps away from the partisans. [. . . ] She fears the team mentality will blinker her views.” Read the whole thing because the context is important, but as a writer I lean heavily towards the “detached” point of view.

* “[A]rtists and writers love to cast gigantic stores as misbegotten cathedrals.” I’m guilty as charged.