Monthly Archives: February 2012

Business and Education

Today, a few links to articles about the intersection between business, economics, and education:

Link #1: Executives Worry that Challenges of Cost, Quality, Accountability Are Holding Higher Ed, America Back
Backup source:

Excerpt: “In the report, corporate executives speak candidly about the consequences of rising tuition, which they say is putting the squeeze on the middle class. They also express concern that higher education is unable or unwilling to adapt to economic demands and lacks accountability. The result, they say, is a lack of qualified workers for the jobs they have available.”

Link #2: With no federal aid, for-profits charge less

Excerpt: “The tuition difference “seems to match, pretty well, the size of a Pell Grant,” Cellini told Inside Higher Ed.”

Link #3: A matter of money? Policy analysis of rural boarding schools in China

Excerpt: “However, the new boarding schools fail to provide a safe, healthy environment or protect and enable students’ human rights. This article explores questions of how and why a boarding school policy supposedly intended to narrow the urban–rural educational gap has, in fact, achieved the opposite result, extending social injustice.”

It seems to me that the more we inject business into schooling, and expect to make money from education, the worse our schools get. Maybe fifty years ago it was just that no one complained about these things. Perhaps I just never run across articles that acknowledge older complaints. Maybe I’m only hearing the bad parts. Hell, maybe we’re just not doing it enough – we’re in a “valley of crud” between two worthwhile extremes. It does seem, though, that every article I see about demanding more accountability, cutting costs, and “running a school like a business” ends in a sad mess.


What, Again?

I’ve mentioned that sometimes I intentionally post things after they would normally be considered “dead issues,” to bring them back into our awareness, because I think we shouldn’t forget.

I’m writing this on January 18th, the day of the Great Internet Blackout to fight the SOPA and PIPA bills. This puts me in the dangerous business of predicting the future, because I’m going to suggest that there will probably be legislation in the works right now on February 27th that does basically the same thing those bills tried to do. Hell, those bills themselves might still be around in some sort of cut-down format as people try to weasel them past.

Legislation is, sadly, not like a video game monster. We did not hit it with status effects and wear down its HP until it went “poom” and disappeared. (Besides, everyone knows status effects never work on boss monsters.) Someone will sneak it as an amendment onto the defense budget, or onto something else too big to vote down. It’s been done before. This time, unlike the indefinite detention of US citizens, we probably don’t have the option to take it to the courts. SOPA is probably not unconstitutional, just awful. If it ever passes, in any form, it is unlikely to get reversed.

Legislation is someone’s idea of the right thing to do – for the world as a whole, or for their company, or for them in particular. No matter how misguided or full of crap we might think that idea is, someone out there thinks that it is right. If it gets massive public backlash in its current form, it will show up in another form.

It’s like dealing with little kids – we told them they couldn’t have a cookie, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a brownie, right? Maybe they can have a cookie while we’re not in the room? What about half a cookie? Can they have cookies for dinner? They need a cookie, to protect the Earth!

I’m putting this on an education blog because a) it’s so important that it’s worth talking about in any online format, b) the freeness of the internet directly impacts the quality of modern education both online and offline, and c) the idea that every teenager will perfectly understand and respect intellectual property laws is ridiculous. Do you really want a school’s website or a massive wiki site to get shut down just because a student posted something to which they don’t have the rights? That’s what SOPA and PIPA would have allowed – and perhaps still will.

We can’t count on a blackout like January 18th’s every time something like this comes up. Politicians know that. We need to make it clear in other ways as well.

Contact your elected officials.

Serious Games

I saw this today. Coming on the heels of my education-and-games post, I figured I should put it up right away.

Slowing Down

This is a blog maintenance note. Chances are good that I’ll be posting less than three times a week for a while. I’ve said a lot of the stuff that I wanted to say right away, and some of the things that I’m hoping to write in the future will require a bit more research. I’m still going to try to keep to the M/W/F schedule, but I will probably post some smaller items (such as news links) then that would previously have been added right away.

One must watch one’s pace, after all. As they say, “This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Games and Schools

Oh man, the confluence of two of my favorite things and biggest influences…

Turning things into games is a big deal these days. Looking up “gamification” on Google gets over three million hits. Games are no doubt a bigger deal than they’ve ever been in the past, mostly due to ubiquitous game consoles, cell phone games, and oddities like elderly folks using Game Boys to stay mentally sharp. Some folks are looking to make such oddities become more and more regular.

The Quest to Learn school, and probably a few others, seeks to educate its students primarily through games. A pair of links are at the bottom of this article.

I think it’s a fascinating idea. On the one hand, I’m worried that people trained and educated in a game-heavy manner will have trouble when the game ends. On the other hand, it’s already true that people who are trained and educated in the current system have trouble when they can’t five-paragraph-essay and problem-set their way through life or work. Kind of a toss-up there.

I know that personally, my mind has a massive capacity for useless game-related facts. I can run original D&D without notes. I still remember which weapon and armor types are best from games I haven’t played through in fifteen years. I remember the names of bad guys from Crystal Quest… from the Apple IIGS. If you don’t remember that computer, it’s probably older than you. I also remember currencies because of Carmen Sandiego, and I learned about AND, OR, and NOT gates from Rocky’s Boots.

On the down side, education is not about random facts. Some things you can absorb well from games and generalize to other arenas. If you want to learn strategy, Chess, Go, poker, and various RPGs are known to help. (Anecdotally, at least.) I’ve seen someone who knows economics destroy people in Monopoly. There are the memory games I mentioned before and their positive effects on the elderly. There are absolutely good things about games. I’m just saying that it’s not a magic pill – you can do it well, or you can do it poorly. Rocky’s Boots was slow as hell, but it taught me the basics of how logic gates work and how computers work at age 10. Carmen Sandiego was interesting and fun, but all I got out of it was random facts. I already knew how to use an almanac.

Game-oriented learning, regardless of its level of potential (high or low), is going to be very difficult to do well. As I’ve gotten older (and I’m only 33), my tolerance for new tabletop RPG rules and such has decreased. I’ve seen this in my gamer friends as well, many of whom just aren’t interested in learning any new systems at age 30. Even good ones. People can sniff out a crappy game from a single look at the box or the title screen. If you want to educate, you don’t necessarily have to entertain at every second, but you do have to engage people and capture their interest. It’s not trivial to do that.

Wait, I just had a brainstorm. (No, seriously, like, as I’m writing.)

We have a hard problem. If we can get together a bunch of good coders, educators, and game designers, with this level of difficulty, we can get them into a flow state. So if we can make a game that’s about making education games…




No, not a spitball, I mean spitballing.

(Man, I can’t believe I just linked to Urban Dictionary. There goes my librarian cred.)

When I was working at Hyde last summer, I was given a small job (you know, one that could sit next to my big jobs and get them drinks when they needed it). I was asked to lead a brainstorm to figure out how to do study hall better. I had six people to work with, all other teachers. I knew that if we started with what we usually did and worked from there, we’d be more likely to end up with something that looked like what we had, so I decided to work from the opposite direction. So here’s what I passed on to the team:

“Pair up and grab a sheet of paper. Your job in the next 10 minutes is to come up with as many creative ideas as you can of how we could do study hall. You are only allowed to write down sensible ideas after you run out of ridiculous ones.”

And let me tell you, some of these ideas kept me chuckling for days. The idea of doing study hall on the football field, with the whole school lined up by weight, still cracks me up.

Once we got down to the more sensible ideas, however, they were really interesting. Study hall in the morning rather than the evening. Putting everyone in the dining hall and doing homework during an extended dinner period. Study hall right after (or before) each class period, with the teacher present. These folks came up with some really creative ideas, including the obvious “no study hall.”

That phase of spitballing – being willing to talk seriously about crazy ideas, or even admit that we have them – is too rarely seen. Many institutions are quick to throw out anything truly new. Even more rare is being willing to accept and try out such ideas; sadly, I think study hall ended up more or less as it had in previous years. I’m still glad that we spent time coming up with some bizarre ways to do homework, because it gives me hope that some day someone might actually try them.


Three items today.

First, the President’s budget proposal is out, including the education budget. Here’s an overview from Education Week:


Second, this bill is goddamn hilarious, considering that the Supreme Court is considering a case that would legalize a substantial amount of indecency:


Third, a somewhat unusual bill from senator Bill Wyden:

There’s some commentary on this over at The Quick or The Ed, if you prefer a source less closely connected to the bill. The basic idea is fairly simple, just some consolidation of information-gathering, but the motivation behind it – to let parents and students see how effective schools have been in the past – has the potential to be a big deal for admissions and college PR.

Three from Cringely

For those who haven’t heard the name, Robert Cringely is a technology writer and has been for quite a long time. He had a series of three connected articles on technology and education recently, and I thought I’d pass them along. There’s a lot of good stuff in here about (in addition to the technology stuff) the massive role of student motivation in education.

Open-Internet Tests

You know what I want to do today?

I want to design a course that has an open-internet final exam. You know, like an open-book exam or an open-notes exam. Preferably a course that’s traditionally heavy on memorization and/or procedures. Mathematics, chemistry, or history. I want to not only suspect that my students might be sneaking notes into their math exam, but openly encourage them to open up Wolfram Alpha in the middle of it.

And I don’t want to do this in college. I want to do it at the high school level. (Well, that’s not true. I totally do want to do it in college too, but it’s more audacious and thus more worthwhile at the high school level.) I want to usurp knowledge transmission in the classroom and throw a bloody coup with creation, evaluation, and analysis on the winning side. We’ll throw memorization into the basement in a cage and just use it, when we want, how we want. I want to take courses that are normally all about “how do I do trig” and “let’s memorize the unit circle” (and believe me, I love the unit circle) and turn them into “what can I do with this trig thing?”

I think that also having an oral component to the exam would be invaluable. You know, having some part that the students can’t bullshit. Either you know the math or you don’t; it’s fairly clear when someone’s trying to pretend that they know what the quadratic formula is good for and they really don’t. Authentic assessment at its best.

Naturally, the whole course would need to be redesigned from the ground up, starting all the way down at the objectives. The real challenge is not merely creating such a course, it’s having it prepare students for the traditional next course. I mean, doing a “Problems and Applications in Mathematics” course for students who’ve already taken Precalc and/or Calc would be great, but doing this as your Algebra II course, now that is some straight-up awesome. It would probably take restructuring the whole department to get it to really work right, but if you could just get it to work once, at a critical stage, you could get it to work for the whole sequence and crack an entire department open.

It’s days like these when I miss being a private school teacher, because I could actually have tried this. Right now all I can do is dream about it. It’s these sorts of things that really got my blood pumping as a teacher.

More from Noyes Academy

Following up on the story from Noyes Academy, and the video lecture in particular, I ran into the story of Henry Garnet and Julia Williams.

It’s fairly easy to find information about Garnet; he was a significant and fairly unique figure in the abolitionist movement, and became US Minister to Liberia just before he died. Julia’s story, however, seems just as striking and much harder to uncover. There’s a lot of her story recorded in things that happen around her, but I can’t find anything that talks about her directly beyond where she attended and who she married.

It’s this sort of thing that makes me wish I were more of a historian. There’s a fascinating story to be uncovered here, the sort of thing that would make an amazing book. This is a woman who traveled, at the very least, all across New England and upstate New York, in her 20’s, to find an education. In the 1830s. Almost certainly by herself. The first two schools she went to were destroyed while she was at them and she still went on to find a third. That’s some serious gumption.

I find these stories of older schools, and especially of students so determined to be educated, incredibly inspiring. In this age of mandatory education, the message many not resonate with as many people, but it definitely hits me, and I think that if it were presented right it could hit a lot of high school students too.