Sunday, July 29, 2012

Revolution in Education

Adelman and the ivied walls of Princeton

When my daughter attended Princeton, I was filled with immense pride and a dollop of envy.  The pedagogical experience was awesome - the small classes and individual attention from world class faculty showed the wisdom of her decision to eschew Harvard in favour of Princeton.  

Now I've just registered to take A History of the World Since 1300 from Princeton professor Jeremy Adelman, starting this September.  How, you might ask, is this woman in Toronto taking a course at Princeton?  Coursera is the answer.  Coursera offers online courses from 17 of the world's top universities, free. I certainly won't get the individualized learning experience of an undergrad at Princeton, but I will learn from one of their top faculty.

And that's not all:  I also registered for Healthcare Innovation and Entrepreneurship taught by Bob Barnes and Marilyn Lombardi of Duke, and Critical Thinking in Global Challenges by Celine Caquineau and Mayank Dutia of University of Edinburgh.  The breadth of choice, even at this early stage, is amazing.  To peruse the courses on offer at Coursera is to be a kid in a candy store.

There is one downside - in Adelman's email to me confirming registration, he already handed out pre-reading.  
Thank you for your interest in global history.  This is a course I have taught for many years, and I never cease to find it a source of excitement.  We will be in touch with more details when the class starts.  But in the meantime, you should feel free to start reading the recommended textbook, Worlds Together, World Apart (3rd edition), Volume 2.
Hmm, some things are the same about online education.

This course will run for 24 lectures of 50 minutes each, with regular assignments of map tests and short essays.  The lectures are expected to take two hours, including the embedded assignments, plus two hours for writing and three hours for reading each week.  

In 1997, Clayton Christensen introduced the concept of disruptive innovation in his book The Innovator's Dilemma (named one of the six best business books of all time by The Economist) and Coursera is disruptive innovation at its finest - a product that is "not as good as" that offered at traditional institutions.  At least not by traditional standards.  You can forget the ivy-clad walls, the chance to talk to the prof in person after class, parties, football games, and most importantly, that certificate on the wall saying you're a Princeton grad.  However, it's vastly more convenient and accessible for people who would not otherwise be able to attend university, let alone storied Princeton.  Many advocates argue that, for many topics, online learning is actually better, because of the frequent progress testing, and the ability to proceed at an individualized pace.   And did I mention it's free?  That's what disruptive innovation is all about, less good on traditional attributes, but 'disrupting' an industry through the introduction of some new attribute that overturns our whole view of the industry, in this case the opportunity to take a Princeton course while staying at home in Toronto, doing it on my own time, and doing it for free. 

A typical reaction of people vested in an industry threatened by disruption is to treat the disruptor with disdain.   It's no different in education.   I've met people who sneer at a degree from University of Phoenix, a pioneer in online education and the largest university in the US, and liken it to a mail-order degree.  And an MBA from Athabaska?  Pshaw.  It doesn't hold a candle to an MBA from one of Canada's prestigious programs.  

However, disruptive innovations undergo continuous improvement over time, and ultimately challenge the leading incumbents.  Just look at the universities involved in Coursera, and it's hard to justify disdain: University of California (Berkley and San Francisco), California Institute of Technology, Duke, Ecole Polytechnique National de Lausanne, University of Edinburgh, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Illinois, John Hopkins, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Rice, Stanford, University of Michigan, University of Toronto, University of Michigan, University of Washington.  Then, there's edX, started by Harvard and MIT and recently joined by University of California at Berkeley, offering mostly courses in Computer Science.  Clearly, the big names are jockeying for position in this new arena.  

The limitations of online education are sure to be diminished over time.  New generations find online social media as satisfying as real-life interactions and they may not miss university social life quite as much as the older generation expects them to.  For this history course, Princeton is not offering an official credit, but will provide, with my approval, data documenting my progress and performance.  This is definitely inferior to a course credit or degree from Princeton, for students or potential employers. 

However, it doesn't take much imagination to envision testing centres, similar to those for SAT tests, to enable those taking courses online to get official credits for the courses they take.  How will an employer respond to an applicant who has a full load of course credits, spread over 8 world-class universities, but no degree from a single one of them?  It unbundles the idea of a 'degree' as we've known it.   

Will students get very picky about where they take course and from whom?  Think of a student given the choice between taking a course from a local university, potentially from an unseasoned or just plain weak professor, or taking the same material from a renowned professor who's earned a global reputation for this course?  As a adjunct professor in a couple of MBA programs myself, I can certainly understand the threat of this competitive breeze down my neck.  Teaching faculty could be disrupted as much as the institutions themselves. 

Coursera's founders are from Stanford and they are funded by two Silicon Valley venture capitalists.  It's not been stated what the eventual business model will be - is the initial free offering to be superseded by fee-based courses once the concept is established?  Stanford Department of Engineering was a pioneer in online courses online: a graduate course in Artificial Intelligence last year attracted a remarkable 160,000 students from 190 countries.  

Of course, it's not an either/or decision.  Online courses are already popular with 'regular' college students.   As reported in the Sloan Consortium 2011 report, almost one third of students at college in the US are taking an online course.  Online education can also be a supplement to traditional education.  Perhaps the greatest success story of online education is the Kahn Academy.  Started 'accidentally' by Salman Kahn who was tutoring some cousins at a distance through online lectures - no fancy technology, just a YouTube video of Kahn with his engaging manner and the equivalent of a black board for notes.  Those first efforts have led to a site with over 3,000 videos and millions of views (see Kahn's TED talk for more information about some of the revolutionary techniques being used in K-12 curricula).  

As education costs continue to spiral upward, the cost effectiveness of online education will become even more important - consider that one Stanford prof teaching 160,000 students!  It could also lead to the unbundling of university degrees, the enhancement of the brands and success of the top universities and the erosion of second-rate institutions, the need for much fewer teaching faculty - in short a revolution in education.  It's happened in many other industries.  There's no reason education would be exempt.

Education is in for a revolution.  I'm excited to be a small part of this revolution as a student of my first online course.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Berlin Crossing

Have you ever been employed in a company that was taken over by another?  If so, chances are you were treated with disdain by the acquirer; after all they were the strong ones, and you were weak enough to succumb to the takeover.

Politically, this is the situation for East Germans after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Capitalism has triumphed over communism, and the Wessies are swarming over East Germany, usurping all the important posts, and crowding out the East Germans, especially those who have been loyal Party members like Michael Ritter, the protagonist of The Berlin Crossing.  To make matters worse, Ritter teaches English: only unswerving party members could be trusted to specialize in the language of the enemy, and dedication to the ideals of communism is now the kiss of death.  In a gesture of defiance, Ritter drives an ugly old Trabi, a relic from the Communist era, even though better cars are now available.   In other words, Ritter wears his continued dedication to the ideals of Communism on his sleeve.   And so he loses his job.

Shortly afterwards, Ritter loses his mother.  An only child of a single parent, he returned home to nurse her through her last days.  On her deathbed, Ritter's mother implores him to go to Bad Saarow to talk to Pastor Bruck to find out about his father.

So begins Ritter's quest to track down the truth about his father, which leads back to the dark days of the repressive East German regime and ultimately to a small town in Ireland.  The plot was not particularly credible, but the evocation of the atmosphere of those days made The Berlin Crossing an enjoyable book to read.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Another Take on Birth Rates

Recently, I wrote a post about Hans Rosling's latest TED talk, discussing the relationship between birth rates* and religion.  He shows data that debunks the idea that religion is a factor in birth rates.  Rather, the factors that affect birth rates are economic well being, health (in particular infant mortality), and the education of women.  Rosling focuses on these factors with respect to the poorer countries in the world.  He analyzes the data to show that birth rates decline with bettering social and economic conditions, and better social and economic conditions drive the birth rate even lower, creating a virtuous circle.

But what happens when the birth rate drops below 2.11, replacement level that keeps population from declining?  Then you have a different problem: there are too few young working people contributing to the economy relative to the number of older people who create significant burdens on pension plans and health care services.  The problem is extreme in Japan, where the birth rate is 1.39 and immigration is almost nil: the population will decline from its peak of 128M in 2008 to 87M in 2060, with more than 40% of the population over 65.  Concern about this onrushing demographic disaster is said to be spurring Japan's interest in anthropomorphic robots, which they envision looking after the elderly when there aren't enough young people around to do it.  (Apparently the xenophobic Japanese would rather have a robot look after them than an immigrant!)

In general, Europe had experienced recovering birth rates for the decade up to 2008.  But since 2008 birth rates have plunged.  A recent Economist article examined this drop.

You can see a number of countries where the birth rate has fallen below 2.11.   You'll also remark that the drop started just after the economic crisis of 2008.  The Economist's conjecture is that this is not a coincidence: because of the economic situation, young adults are postponing marriage and having kids, while immigrants, who in general had higher birth rates, have left now that the employment market has dried up.  They show a graph of the inverse correlation between youth unemployment and partnership formation.  (They look at partnership formation as a common precursor to having children, and thus one that foreshadows a drop in the birth rate, which of course has a built-in 9-month lag).  

Rosling certainly piqued my interest in birth rates as such an important factor in global development. It was equally interesting to see The Economist's take on the subject, through the lens of the developing countries.

*By birth rate here, we mean the number of children born per woman.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Gold: A Novel

One coach, two determined women track cyclists, one man, one child, and the Olympics.  This isn't the typical triangle of fiction - it's a pentagon.  Although the story focuses on the two women cyclists, the other points of the pentagon are critical to the plot.  Gold is about dedication, love, loyalty, betrayal, and the big questions about what's important in life, in the run-up to the London Olympics.

Zoe and Kate have been competing against each other since they were nineteen.  Kate trains hard to be the fastest rider, but Zoe's need to win is greater and motivates her to psycho Kate out at every opportunity.  And Kate falls for it every time.

Despite these nasty tricks, Kate remains Zoe's loyal friend, supporting and consoling her even when Zoe has betrayed her.  Zoe's manoeuvring leads to Kate making the ultimate athlete's sacrifice at the Beijing Olympics.  

The competition extends off the track where Kate and Zoe vie for the same handsome cyclist, Jack.  Kate and Jack get married but not before some shenanigans by Zoe.   Both Kate and Jack train intensively for the London Olympics while struggling with the demanding care of their daughter Sophie who has leukemia.   

The two women share the same coach, Tom, an almost-crippled, lonely, disappointed former cyclist.  Tom has dedicated himself to coaching the girls since that first day they met at nineteen. Ostensibly unbiassed, he can't help having his own personal favourite. 

And then there's the fifth point of the pentagon - the Olympics.  A rule change means that Britain can only send one track cyclist to the London Olympics.  Who will it be?  The generous and sympathetic Kate with a full life and family to focus on, or the driven Zoe whose whole life is about sport?  

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Redeemer

I've previously reviewed two books in Jo Nesbo's mystery series about Harry Hole here.  I missed one book in the series after those two but just read The Redeemer, book four.  The series just keeps getting better.

The Redeemer has a complex plot which keeps you turning the page as fast as you can read.  Surprises keep coming; what's more, they're all pretty credible, since the characters' motivations have been quite well laid out beforehand.  And when you think the surprises are finishes, along comes the one final truly mind-blowing surprise, which you are completely unprepared for.

The book explores yet again the situations of immigrants to Norway, this time immigrants from the former Yugoslav republic, and continues the ongoing exploration of corruption in the police force.

The Harry Hole character is very interesting.  He's an alcoholic, he's a loner who has many relationships with women, he's disdainful of authority, he's sympathetic with the underdog, he's loyal but undemonstrative.  He's determined to see justice done, even if not the formal Justice of the system.

Most interestingly, Hole is that rare human who can formulate a solution and yet remain open-minded enough to abandon the hypothesis when new evidence comes to light.  Most people tend to stick to their first credible solution and then interpret the evidence to support that hypothesis from then on. You can observe this phenomenon in medicine where practitioners fall in love with their first diagnosis and subsequent data that assails that diagnosis is ignored.  You can see it in business where people leap on the first viable solution rather than searching for the optimum one (read Roger Martin's work on this kind of pitfall).  This kind of confirmation bias affects us all.  But Hole is a detective who keeps processing clues after the 'solution' appears to be all locked up.  Anomalies nag him, until they point in yet a different direction for the solution.  It's an interesting character.