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Presearch

Photographer: Federico Pompei | Source: Unsplash

 

One of my favorite phrases these days is “adjacent possible,” coined by Stuart Kauffman while exploring the origins of biological complexity. It’s like moving one seat over in a movie theater so that another couple can also sit next to each other. Or Amazon muscling into the movie market after mastering the art of selling books. Or bacteria that used to gobble soap also discovering a taste for bees and causing the end of civilization. In other words, what isn’t real yet but can become so by making a plausible shift.

As they say in Kannada “solpa adjust maadi.”

Photographer: Adam Sherez | Source: Unsplash

 

Design makes the adjacent possible in the worlds of engineering and commerce and that, over time, leads to substantially new patterns of behavior. Consider how web pages were first designed to replicate the physical page but once scrolling became an accepted and intuitive gesture, designers started creating websites with infinite scrolling. Which can never happen in the physical world.

I find it revealing that the business world supports several professional classes – various types of designers, architects etc – that look for the adjacent possible as a matter of course. In contrast, academia has a very unprofessional approach to the adjacent. Not only is there no academic cadre of professional “knowledge designers,” the people tasked with doing research are rarely taught how to arrive at new research questions and ideas – neither too outlandish to be unacceptable nor too similar to be boring. There’s no knowledge studio in which more experienced researchers critique the creative ideas of students. Consider how research seminars critique the rigor of experimental design and test whether alternative hypotheses might explain a phenomenon. But there’s never a research seminar that subjects the ideas themselves to an evaluation of novelty.

What kind of innovation is it where the innovations aren’t systematically judged for their innovativeness?

Perhaps you think my emphasis on novelty is itself a sign of capitalist indoctrination. Who cares about novelty besides tenure seeking professors? School teachers aren’t expected to be novel, and aren’t they the most common face of knowledge? Yes and No. School teachers are the visible face of the industrial approach to knowledge, but as an institution, the profession of teaching isn’t really geared for the knowledge economy.

Meanwhile, the “higher knowledge” industries still pretend as if they are artisanal traditions. Which is why it’s possible for professors to rail against the evils of capitalism while belonging to organizations that are 75% adjunct, i.e., the profession with the largest percentage of precarious labor. We live in a knowledge society but we don’t have a universal class of knowledge professionals and we certainly lack the further distinction between knowledge designers and knowledge engineers.

Photographer: Sven Mieke | Source: Unsplash

 

What I am looking for is a new creative profession, comparable to architecture and design.

Every profession deemed universal is represented throughout society. Doctors ply their wares in rural clinics, small town hospitals and the Harvard Medical School. Lawyers occupy the White House every four years. Engineers and architects work for the department of transport, the local real estate contractor and Google. There’s a teacher in every village.

The only knowledge professionals we have are found in universities, where they’re typically called professors. Even there, professors aren’t certified as knowledge professionals but as bearers of some specialized body of knowledge. There’s nothing that makes a professor into a professor; there are only professors of history and chemistry. That’s strange, for lawyers can’t be lawyers without passing the bar, engineers need to be certified and teachers need a degree in education. We mark our respect for a profession by declaring a badge that certifies entry into that profession.

That certificate also universalizes the profession, so that it can take root in every nook and corner of modern society. You might say that a PhD is the certificate for professors. It’s partly true, but most PhD’s aren’t professors and will never be one. Most PhD’s leave the profession of professing, or worse, languish as adjunct faculty. If the certification is a signal of respectable livelihood, then a PhD is a very poor guarantee. Imagine the heartburn that would ensue if 70% of those with a law or medical degree had a position that paid close to minimum wage and no hope of getting a better job.Every startup has a CEO, a CTO and a COO. They don’t have CKOs. The ivory tower has prestige, but intellectually, it’s as much a ghetto as it’s a beacon.

In any case, a PhD is a certification of specialized knowledge, not of knowledge as such. A knowledge bearer should be closer to a philosopher, a practical philosopher, than a possessor of arcane information. Socrates thought his role was to be the midwife of wisdom. I believe that role is far more important today than it was in Athens in 399 BCE. We are deluged by information on the one hand and plagued by uncertainty about the future on the other. The information deluge and uncertainty aren’t unrelated; the world is changing quickly, which leads to more information — both signal and noise — and more uncertainty.

In times of knowledge scarcity, knowledge professions are gate keepers to access — which is why we have priesthoods and ivory towers. We have moved far from those times. Knowledge is no longer about access but about value: what trends are important and what are fads? What’s worth learning and why? In the future, every individual, every company and every society will rise or fall on the basis of its understanding of value. We need a new category of professionals who will act as weather vanes for the new winds that are blowing; people who understand data making and meaning making.

Photographer: Hal Gatewood | Source: Unsplash

 

Back to the adjacent possible. I have been thinking that what research needs is an adjacent possible I am going to call presearch, a design wing next to the engineering floor. I am inspired by initiatives such as the near future laboratory and the push towards “design fiction,” i.e., the creation of speculative documents and artifacts that don’t exist today but could exist in the near future. In other words, the adjacent possible of design.

I really enjoyed reading “Speculative Everything,” one of the founding documents of the design fiction movement. Its byline: “how to use design as a tool to create not only things but ideas, to speculate about possible futures.” As designers, the authors of Speculative Everything embody their ideas in artifacts, but there’s nothing stopping us from expanding that repertoire to imagine speculative theories and experiments and knowledge traditions, i.e., the full panoply of knowledge production. So let me end with a definition:

Presearch is the use of design as a tool to create ideas, theories and more generally, to prototype instruments of knowledge.

Which brings me to a final question:

What do we need to presearch? What are our most pressing knowledge needs?

Here’s an obvious one for me:

The primary task of presearch in the anthropocene is to figure out how to run the earth. Just as economics (more generally, political economy) arose as the discipline that inquired into the wealth and poverty of nations, we need a new discipline that inquires into the flourishing of the planet as a whole.

Like every good beginning, the governance of the earth starts with naming the task ahead. I have one: Geocracy.

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Navigating Higher Education

Note: this is the first post in a series that looks at how higher education needs to change in response to the wicked problems we face in the 21st century.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

I think a lot about my daughter’s prospects. Her generation will inherit some of the greatest challenges that humanity has ever faced. Climate change. Economic turmoil. Flesh eating robots. OK, maybe not the third. Are we preparing her for these challenges? Is our system even capable of doing so? Where do we even look for an answer?

If you are like me, you think education is an important pathway to solving the world’s wicked problems. Education isn’t a panacea, but it sure creates opportunities for the enterprising and the diligent amongst us. As a student, I led a student group that funded primary schools in the most underprivileged areas of India. As a faculty, I have helped start several educational initiatives. When MOOCs and digital learning arrived on the scene, I jumped on their possibilities on day one.

Now I think my assumptions were flawed. Not because education can’t change the world, but because we don’t understand what education is and what it needs to be. Especially not for the problems that will dominate the news in the decades to come.

Audience

This post is the first in a series devoted to a systemic engagement with the future of learning. My main audience is the experienced professional — someone who’s been out of school for a decade or more; Who has seen first hand where their formal education helped them succeed and where it hindered their progress.

I believe this group is the most under-served market for higher education, both in its traditional and its digital avatars. If you are younger, you’re in school or considering going back for graduate school. If you’re older and retired, you can reawaken dormant interests, but what if you’re at the height of your capabilities and:

  • Want to keep abreast of emerging ideas and techniques but can’t go back to school?
  • See the potential for a new technology in your domain but don’t have the expertise?
  • Want to shift into a career that aligns your head and your heart? A career that makes the world a better place?

If so, there isn’t much for you out there. University career offices don’t care for alums ten years into their post-college lives. Online education platforms, like their physical ancestors, cater to the beginning student. I have met several professionals who want something different, but don’t know where to go. These notes are a response to that need.

Where are we today?

Higher education has come under severe criticism in the United States and elsewhere. The criticisms mostly fall under one of three camps:

  1. It’s too expensive, burdening students and their families with unsustainable debt.
  2. It’s not useful, i.e., not leading toward gainful employment.
  3. It’s not enough, an education that ends at 21 isn’t useful at 51.

There’s truth to all three. Surely college fees have outstripped inflation for most of the last three decades, but so has the lack of federal and state support for higher education. As for gainful employment, it’s not clear if increasing the number of STEM graduates will improve employment statistics. If anything, it might depress wages for those who have a STEM background. The fifty-one year old isn’t looking for the same education as the twenty-one year old. The system isn’t designed to educate older people.

What is to be done?

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

Higher education keeps getting costlier and more and more people feel it’s not useful. Despite those problems, most people assume that the Harvards and MITs provide the right education; if only their teachings were available to everyone and any time.

Wasn’t that the premise behind the MOOC revolution?

The MOOC party claimed that streaming knowledge from the great institutions of higher learning will unleash the genius of underprivileged and/or remote students everywhere in the world. Several years into the revolution it’s clear that it has ended with a whimper. There have been many criticisms of the MOOC platforms, such as:

  1. Completion rates are low.
  2. They are only for the already rich and well-connected.
  3. Too focused on narrow skills.

Again, these are valid criticisms, but they miss a fundamental philosophical question:

What is the purpose of education?

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There’s no general answer, but let me answer that question with a hypothetical 30–50 something person in mind. Someone trained in a discipline and with experience under their belt. For that person, the value of further education is to serve as a navigator, i.e.,

To reveal where the world is going, to give access to the tools and techniques that will help you get there and to (re)embed you in a community where that knowledge has value.

Does a MOOC help you navigate?

Answer: Only indirectly, if you skim through a hundred MOOCs you might get a sense for where the field is going.

For example, consider a hot new field such as data science. While a twenty something might consider training as a data scientist, a forty something is unlikely to do so. Yet, they need to understand how data driven techniques will change their work and where (or whom) they need to look to add that capability into their own workflows.

While MOOCs are available to the forty something, they don’t address her needs — they’re abstract presentations of general purpose material rather than the knowledge tied to contexts and circumstances that interest the older learner.

Situated Learning

The current state of digital education mimics the state of Artificial Intelligence in 1965. At that time, people thought when a computer gets smart, it will play chess better than grandmasters. Chess turned out to the easy problem; teaching computers how to see is by far the harder challenge.

Chess is an abstraction; it doesn’t depend on the shape of the pieces or the size of the board. Sight is the exact opposite — it depends entirely on the shape and size of objects.

Learning data science in graduate school is like the computer playing chess — it’s very useful, especially if it leads to high paying jobs — but it’s not the same as knowing how to apply those concepts in a newsroom or classroom. Instead of chess, the experienced learner needs the counterpart of the computer vision system, the techniques that will help them see their own world with new eyes.

Both the chess playing machine and the mechanical learner are throwbacks to an industrial era that continues to this day. That era will culminate with humans being replaced by machines (or worse, with humans becoming machines). We don’t want humans to become machines; we want machines to help augment our capacities. That can only happen when situated learning and digital technology come together.

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Food for Thought

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Photo by Swaminathan Jayaraman on Unsplash

Cognitive Humanities

For the longest time I have been thinking of a non-existent set of disciplines that I call the cognitive humanities. If cognitive science is the scientific study of the human mind and behavior, the cognitive humanities is the humanistic study of the human mind and behavior. Cognitive science concerns itself with laboratory data. The Cognitive humanities engages with humanistic objects — literary, legal and religious texts; political discourse, cultural practices such as food habits and in this day and age, the scientific and technological artifacts that help us connect with others and go well beyond our individual selves.

There’s a further resemblance. Cognitive science embraces computing both in theory and in practice:

  1. Theory: the computational theory of mind is the founding doctrine of the cognitive sciences.
  2. Practice: Computer models and simulations inform much of the discipline

Similarly, the cognitive humanities embraces computing; if you want a simple model, think of it as “digital humanities meets cognitive science.” In other words, data and data analysis — perhaps even that overused buzzword “big data”- is central to the cognitive humanities.

So where do we start? I have been thinking about food lately, so that’s where I am going to start.

The Metaphysics of Food

We live in a mechanical civilization, so our metaphysics is informed by the machines we make. For example: is reality itself a computer? Do we live in a simulation? Who would have thought of asking those questions — in that precise form — before the mid-twentieth century? Then there’s the social stratification that emerges from differential access to machines. There’s a reason why we brandish our latest iPhones.

Now imagine an agricultural civilization where the growing and harvesting of food is the dominant occupation. Wouldn’t we expect that the food cycle is embedded in the metaphysics of that civilization? Wouldn’t we expect that social stratification is deeply intertwined with the production and consumption of food?

Of course, every animal’s got to eat, so it’s not bare food that determines the metaphysics of agricultural civilization, just as every human culture uses tools so it’s not just tool-making that determines mechanical metaphysics. Rather, it’s when a culture gets organized around the production of food at scale, it also maps that culture of food production to other human spheres: to artistic production, to social stratification, to ontology more generally.

That’s the claim and it sure looks like Indian subcultures have a lot of evidence to offer in support of that claim. Or rather, let me correct myself: I would like to examine the evidence on offer in support of that claim.

Yeah, but how?

By collecting as much data as possible on food consumption practices and seeing how ontologies covary with food habits. Plus, I get to hang out with my friends and eat my research.

Parting Comments

What does this have to do with the cognitive humanities?

The underlying hypothesis is that our map of the universe is tied to how we are embedded in the world, how we work upon that world (and how it works upon us) and the flows of information and energy that support our current embedding.

In short, our karma. As you can see, I have an ulterior motive here: to recover the idea of karma as an explanatory device.

If we work upon the world with machines and computers, our karma is going to produce mechanical ontologies. If we work upon the world with sickles and seeds, our karma is going to produce culinary ontologies. That’s the hypothesis, anyway. If you have been reading carefully, you will notice that I am using energy & information as my ontology generator. That shouldn’t surprise you — it’s our karmic condition, seeing as we are 21st century humans.

Isn’t this the Foucauldian episteme in a new garb?

I am not going to deny the similarities, but this karmic account is substantially different. For one, I discount the relative importance of history vis-a-vis energy and information. For another, it’s not about language and the discourses of knowledge and it’s not about subjectivity alone. It’s not about power either, but of fields that make power possible. Most importantly, it’s as much about physics as it’s about metaphysics. Think karma first and then other terms like subjectivity, language, power etc. The world lies beyond subject and object.

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Knowledge Media

The Message is in the Medium

Scholars create and communicate knowledge in several ways. The most public media we create are papers and books that are published after review and editing. We also write in other venues: newspaper articles, blogs and other venues that don’t have the same formality or prestige as papers and books but that are part of the community of dialog. We also circulate drafts and preprints amongst colleagues, some of whom might be read at seminars and conferences.


Apart from our written work, we also give lectures when visiting other institutions and in conferences, participate in institutional (scholarly bodies, government, industry, civil society) committees that are tasked with summarizing a body of knowledge for the public good.Finally, we teach and mentor, and in that process we deliver lectures, write syllabi, grade and evaluate students and judge their work.

Every single one of these activities is an act of media production.

Yet, we don’t see ourselves as media professionals. For the most part, we leave the mechanics of media to others — editors and publishers. That’s an unfortunate situation in two ways: one, it encourages snobbery, so that the scholars who produce knowledge are superior to the editors and publishers who merely typeset the end result. At the same time, the balance of power has shifted; as scholarly jobs become scarce and publications are the gateway to success, the world of scholarly publishing is becoming a militarized zone. The relationship between labor and capital has asserted itself in the world of scholarship, except that it is immensely exploitative: scholars contribute unpaid labor as creators and editors in the hope of getting their work into prestigious publications and in return their host institutions have to buy those very same publications for immense amounts of money.

Far from being a respected class of society, scholarship is an exceptionally commoditized, hierarchical culture, much like the entertainment industry: a few scholars are prominent, either by becoming stars or by becoming management but most others are surviving on the sidelines.


There used to be a respectable middle class of scholars who shared their competence with their students and were neither flashy nor impecunious. That class is being demolished; most faculty are adjunct. Universities can pick and choose whom they hire and demand outrageous amounts of labor in the quest for tenure. In this time, it is important to use the new tools we have created with the advent of the internet to restore power in the hands of the scholar. In other words, they must have access to the means of knowledge production and a fair share of the fruit of their labor. That’s what I want to enable.

What is to be done?

We need create a hub for knowledge production that’s attached to the creator, so that all their activities — drafts, syllabi, talks, papers, books, collaboration, mentoring — are available to them in one space. In other words, a scholar should be able to teach a class, write a paper or book, exchange ideas with collaborators and mentor students all under one electronic roof.

When that happens, power will — at least temporarily — flow back to the creative knowledge worker and her/his students. For one, they will reap most of the financial benefits of their expertise, with very little in the way of administrative overhead. Second, they can create and join knowledge communities that match their interests, despite geographical dispersal. Third, an integrated media platform means that their own scholarly development will be greatly accelerated for the cycle of invention, feedback and critique is all located in one space.

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Neoliberal Academia


Academia plays several roles in modern society. Professors educate the not-so young, advance the frontiers of knowledge and act as critical mirrors of the larger culture. Neoliberal academia has reduced all of these functions to the furtherance of economic activity. That new goal is enforced with metrics that track those narrow concerns. In this new avatar, education is education for livelihoods’ sake and research is research that has impact. The critical function has been excised altogether.

I understand the compulsions that lead to this sorry state. Taxpayers are upset about the rising costs of public education. With white collar jobs being automated and outsourced there’s genuine concern that today’s college debts will not lead to tomorrow’s prosperity.

Let’s set aside the real reasons behind the current state of affairs, namely, a deliberate attempt by those in power to defund public education and to end the sixties and seventies’ era of student and faculty radicalism. Let’s turn a blind eye to the new goal of academia, which is to buttress the interests of the system and to create a population that’s narrowly skilled, economically insecure and politically docile. Instead, let’s ask whether the job and grant obsessed, impact factor optimizing academic is any good at serving his new masters.

I believe the neo-professor is terrible at her new job, both in ‘skilling’ young people and at creating ‘impactful’ new knowledge. If knowledge consists of measurable and learnable skills, universities are exceptionally inefficient and expensive at imparting them. If the post-industrial economy needs knowledge labourers, then it’s much better off adopting an apprentice system; that way, we will be sure the apprentice learns a bankable skill and the costs will be borne partly by the employer.

Measurement indices such as impact factors lead to a problem that’s well known in primary and secondary education where measurement and accountability have ruled for decades. Once you have a metric, teachers start teaching to the test. Those who succeed at it are certifiably good at optimizing the chosen metric but there’s a dubious relation between “impact” and impact. Optimizing for impact lead to the research version of grade inflation.

Academic communities are small. All of us know who is influential and what they like to hear. It’s easy to write papers reflecting the prejudices of those who control the purse strings. In this milieu we can’t expect epistemic advances that upset the apple cart.

It’s likely that new knowledge cannot be produced by human beings at an industrial scale. Industrial knowledge cannot be produced by pre-industrial craftsmen; it needs machines. The AI robots of the future might be better at it, but that’s not our problem. Meanwhile consider this possibility: without the promise of genuinely new insights, there’s no reason for supporting academia at all. The alternatives are cheaper and better.

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The Theory Formerly Known as Mathematics


It was my second year of graduate school. I had been in the US for a year. I had cracked my qualifiers. I knew the difference between pop tarts and Belgian waffles. I felt confident enough to start talking to non-mathematicians. After a few failed attempts, I met an economist (I will call her N) who liked me. You know in that way. Things that are important when you’re 23.

Things were going well until that fateful day when we were riding our bikes home from school. At that time I was a true believer; that the book of the universe was written in the language of mathematics. We were discussing N’s first year microeconomics class and all those “theorems” about choice and preferences. It was the perfect moment for me to put my foot into my mouth. I asserted that economics was second-rate mathematics, that no pure mathematician would ever consider economics to be the real thing.

N took my initial rubbishing of her dismal science in stride. She didn’t care much about standard economics anyway; her interests lay in chaos and complex systems. Both were hot topics those days. Complexity was the latest theory to attempt unifying everything from ecology to the economy.

I wasn’t taking any of that; I said to her that economics was about people, not software agents. Complexity is bunk, I said to her. That’s when N turned on me. She stopped her bike, looked daggers at me and hissed: “At least economics is undergoing a paradigm shift. Maths is such a conservative field; it’s been around for two thousand years and not a single paradigm shift ever. So boring!”

I was too much of a greenhorn to know what a paradigm was at that time, let alone paradigms that shifted. There was truth and then there were fads. I told her as much. Things went south between us soon after.

Why hasn’t mathematics had a paradigm shift?

N was right. Mathematics is a conservative field that doesn’t tolerate paradigm shifts. In mathematics, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. We begin our mathematical training with knowledge discovered (or invented, depending on what you think) a couple of thousand years ago. We continue onward from numbers to geometry to calculus to higher algebra and analysis and so on. There’s nothing a high schooler learns today that she couldn’t have learned two hundred years ago. In this age of disruption and paradigms of the week, the solidity of mathematics is refreshing in it’s retro appeal. The stability of mathematics is also it’s strength.

Still, it grates when someone asks you if there’s anything in mathematics beyond calculus. As every mathematician will tell you, new theorems are being proven everyday. I agree, but there’s something to N’s critique: while new theorems are discovered everyday, mathematicians are still proving theorems. They aren’t producing objects of some other kind. Consider this: quantum objects are rather different from classical objects. That’s why we call the shift from classical to quantum a paradigm shift. Setting aside metaphysical doubts about the existence of mathematical objects, mathematicians haven’t produced a new state of mathematical matter in a couple of hundred years. Can we think beyond the theorem?

You see this conservatism in the relative unimportance of foundations in the practice of mathematics. The foundations of mathematics had a brief period of importance in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century but now the dust has settled and mathematicians are back to proving theorems about algebraic groups and three dimensional manifolds. It’s almost as if practicing mathematicians are blind to the paradigm shifting possibilities of Cantor, Godel and Turing.

What a wasted opportunity for the intellectual revolutionary, right? Not quite. The foundational turmoil of the last century lead to the birth of computer science and informatics. Instead of a paradigm shift in an old domain, a new domain of knowledge was born.

The Theory Formerly Known as Mathematics

What we have today are two related but distinct sciences of form. The computer program is a genuine alternative to the theorem as a formal object. In some ways it’s better, for it interfaces with three-dimensional objects while mathematics is restricted to 2D interfaces such as paper and blackboards. Software can eat the world while theorems can’t, but software has a higher fad to substance ratio than mathematics. Can we combine the best aspects of the two fields?

Not right now. There isn’t an account of formal entities that takes the diversity of theorems and programs seriously while unifying that diversity into a coherent theory. What we need is a “theory formerly known as mathematics” that also happens to be the “theory formerly known as programming.” That unification will force a paradigm shift upon us, a new science of form that’s neither mathematics nor programming.

A disparate group of thinkers are already questioning the current mathematical and computational dispensation. Brian Cantwell Smith is talking about significance being more important to computation than algorithmic thinking. Brett Victor is talking about new interfaces for learning mathematics. Meanwhile, homotopy type theory is offering itself as an alternative foundation for mathematics from the highest end of mathematical prestige, . These streams of inquiry should coalesce into a larger assault on our understanding of form.

It’s possible that insights will come from the lowest rung of the mathematics ladder — from mathematics education. Sometimes, the lack of prestige can allow novel forms of experimentation. Keith Devlin has been talking about teaching mathematics with games instead of multiplication tables and place values. We know from Macluhan that the medium is the message. Once the medium of formal manipulation is a screen rather than paper, the message will also change. The new science of form might arise from the bottom-up, phylogeny reflecting ontogeny. Elementary school math’s teachers aren’t any going to win Fields medals, but perhaps there’s a greater revolution waiting to happen.

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Common Sense 1

Common Sense

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Organic Learning


While I have my doubts about disrupting any public service, including education, I can’t deny that the internet has made it possible for alternative learning communities, especially those that don’t have an established hierarchy such as professor-postdoc-grad student-undergraduate student. I call communities of self-organized individuals organic learning communities.

The organic learner’s biggest advantage is also her biggest disadvantage. She can choose to learn whatever she wants and at the pace she desires. College students don’t have that luxury. They have to learn on someone else’s schedule. In order to major in history, a college student has to take certain classes in history and not others. Even if they’re interested in physics, they can’t take all the physics courses they want. The organic learner doesn’t have those disadvantages. On the other hand, they also don’t have the benefit of learning from a tradition of inquiry: if the organic learner wants to learn the same history as the college student, she will soon find herself devoid of companions and mentors.

The worst case scenario for the organic learner is when she has to learn a difficult subject that has a long tradition behind it; physics, mathematics, philosophy, economics are all too difficult to learn on your own, especially if you are competing with other learners in a formal system where the student, her peers and their mentors are all agreed upon the content to be mastered and the means of assessing that mastery.

In contrast, there are two best-case scenario’s for the organic learner:

  1. New topics that haven’t made their way into the conservative world of academia. Data science is an example of a new field which is still best done outside academia.
  2. Topics that academia finds unacceptable, either because they are not part of the modern worldview or because they are considered too low brow. Astrology is an example of the former while gardening is an example of the latter.

It’s easy to see how organic learning is a good way to nurture a hobby or cultivate a gifted amateur. However, we are not talking about amateurs, however gifted; we want mastery. Is it all possible for an organic learner to become a master? I believe it’s possible, perhaps even desirable, but in order to do so, we have to delve deep into the nature of knowledge itself.

Ubiquitous Learning

The term university suggests a repository of all knowledge in the universe. In practice, universities are shockingly narrow in their epistemic and cognitive diversity. For the most part, universities are temples to the intellect — when they are functional — but other forms of human knowing are barely tolerated. The arts are allowed, but religion, contemplation and the ways of being of non-dominant cultures are all outside the realm of the university. In other words, the university is really a small corner of the knowledge universe, which gives the organic learner her biggest opportunity. While the professor thinks that knowledge is a rather special affair, something that happens only in very special circumstances, and the production of knowledge requires enormously controlled spaces, the organic learner might well benefit from a very different intuition:

Knowledge is everywhere. It’s constitutive of human activity; it pervades all human situations, from home to the playground, from the dream world of the Australian aborigines to the dream world of string theory.

This is not a relativist position, which says that all belief systems are equal. Evolution isn’t just a theory. Instead, it’s a statement about human dignity; it’s saying that non-pathological human communities are all unique repositories of knowledge, and as a corollary, it’s possible for organic communities to create and communicate knowledge without the intervention of the dominant traditions of knowledge.

The ubiquity of knowledge is even more important for the organic learner for another reason:

If she adopts the attitude that learning is possible in every situation, she’s likely to be a much more resilient and adaptive learner than her university counterpart, whose learning is specialized and brittle.

In other words, if the organic learner is to fight the battle of knowledge on her terrain, she should systematically tilt the scales so that:

  1. Her idea of knowledge is fluid and open; not defined within narrow constraints. She should paint the academic knower as a specialized niche, only good at producing certain kinds of knowledge (though very good at that special knowledge when it works).
  2. Embrace much greater epistemic diversity, acknowledging the enormous universe of knowledge that exists outside academia.

In other words, the organic learner should start by redefining knowledge so that academic knowledge is a small part of knowledge and perhaps even more importantly, redefining the knower so that the organic learner is the normative individual, not the lifetime academic.

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Education Digest

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

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The Value of Education


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 am not ready to go to war, 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.