The Long, Slow, But Inevitable Death of the Classroom

If you read enough about Robert Solow, this quote coming up is but a matter of time:

You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics

http://www.standupeconomist.com/pdf/misc/solow-computer-productivity.pdf

Much the same could be said about internet based learning technologies if you tried to measure it in colleges and universities before March 2020. We had lip service being paid to MOOC’s and all that, but if we’re being honest, that’s all it was: lip service.

Things have changed around a bit since then, I think.

We’ll get to that later on this post, but let’s go back to the seeing computers everywhere but in the productivity statistics bit for the moment. Paul David, an American economist, wrote a wonderful essay called “The Dynamo and the Computer: An Historical Perspective on the Modern Productivity Paradox“, back in 1990.

I think of this essay as an attempt to respond to the question Robert Solow had posed – why isn’t the data reflecting the ubiquitousness of the computer in the modern workplace? Read the essay: it’s a very short, very easy read.

Paul David draws an analogy between the move away from steam as a source of power, back at the end of the 19th century.

In 1900, contemporary observers well might have remarked that the electric dynamos were to be seen “everywhere but in the productivity statistics!”

David, P. A. (1990). The dynamo and the computer: an historical perspective on the modern productivity paradox. The American Economic Review80(2), 355-361.

Adjusting to a new technology, it turns out, takes time.

Steam-powered manufacturing had linked an entire production line to a single huge steam engine. As a result, factories were stacked on many floors around the central engine, with drive belts all running at the same speed. The flow of work around the factory was governed by the need to put certain machines close to the steam engine, rather than the logic of moving the product from one machine to the next. When electric dynamos were first introduced, the steam engine would be ripped out and the dynamo would replace it. Productivity barely improved.
Eventually, businesses figured out that factories could be completely redesigned on a single floor. Production lines were arranged to enable the smooth flow of materials around the factory. Most importantly, each worker could have his or her own little electric motor, starting it or stopping it at will. The improvements weren’t just architectural but social: Once the technology allowed workers to make more decisions, they needed more training and different contracts to encourage them to take responsibility.

https://slate.com/culture/2007/06/what-the-history-of-the-electric-dynamo-teaches-about-the-future-of-the-computer.html

Again, please read the whole thing, and also read this other article by Tim Harford from the BBC, “Why didn’t electricity immediately change manufacturing?” The article, by the way, is an offshoot of a wonderful podcast called “50 Things That Made The Modern Economy“. Please listen to it!

But here’s the part that stood out for me from that piece I excerpted from above:

“Eventually, businesses figured out that factories could be completely redesigned on a single floor. Production lines were arranged to enable the smooth flow of materials around the factory. Most importantly, each worker could have his or her own little electric motor, starting it or stopping it at will.”

https://slate.com/culture/2007/06/what-the-history-of-the-electric-dynamo-teaches-about-the-future-of-the-computer.html

Colleges and universities are today designed around the basic organizational unit of a classroom, with each classroom being “powered” by a professor.

Of the many, many things that the pandemic has done to the world, what it has done to learning is this:

each worker learner could have his or her own little electric motor personal classroom, starting it or stopping it at will.

In fact, I had a student tell me recently that she prefers to listen to classroom recordings later, at 2x, because she prefers listening at a faster pace. So it’s not just starting or stopping at will, it is also slowing down or speeding up at will.

Today, because of the pandemic, we are at an extreme end of the spectrum which describes how learning is delivered. Everybody sits at home, and listens to a lecture being delivered (at least in Indian universities, mostly synchronously).

When the pandemic ends, whenever that may be, do we swing back to the other end of the spectrum? Does everybody sit in a classroom once again, and listens to a lecture being delivered in person (and therefore synchronously)?

Or does society begin to ask if we could retain some parts of virtual classrooms? Should the semester than be, say, 60% asynchronous, with the remainder being doubt solving sessions in classroom? Or some other ratio that may work itself out over time? Should the basic organizational unit of the educational institute still be a classroom? Does an educational institute still require the same number of in person professors, still delivering the same number of lectures?

In other words, in the post-pandemic world…

How long before online learning starts to show up in the learning statistics?

Additional, related reading, for those interested:

  1. Timothy Taylor on why “some of the shift to telecommuting will stick
  2. An essay from the late, great Herbert Simon that I hadn’t read before called “The Steam Engine and the Computer
  3. The role of computer technology in restructuring schools” by Alan Collins, written in 1990(!)

Tech: Links for 8th August, 2019

Learning without technology in the twenty-first century is, in my opinion, an immense waste of available resources. That being said, here’s a list of five specific things, all created by Google, that may help you learn better.

As always please let me know how I can add to the list.

  1. Google Classroom: whether a student or an educator, this is a technology that is immensely helpful for setting up links related to a classroom. Whether you have an institutional ID, or a plain vanilla Gmail account, you can use Google Classroom to set up an online learning environment.
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  2. Google Docs: Is useful and well known anyways, but I remain convinced that students could do a lot better with Google Docs as a collaborative note taking tool.
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  3. Google Keep: Is a great place to, well, keep stuff when doing online research. Integrates well with Google Docs as well.
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  4. The Learn Digital With Google program (it’s free!)
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  5. Google AI Education. I have come across this literally only today, so can’t vouch for it entirely – but sure seems interesting. This one in particular caught my eye.

Links for 24th April, 2019

  1. “Really? When is the last time you ran a search with DuckDuckGo? Too often, he seems to be stretching the evidence. He argues that, given the social aspects of the workplace, “companies are actually responsible for some of our most important relationships.” But that’s a function of work — not of corporate life. People at nonprofits make friends, too. Cowen asserts in defense of Amazon, “My options as a book consumer never have been better.” He includes as evidence of a competitive book market the option (which he doesn’t condone) of “illegal downloads of free PDFs.” Jeff Bezos must rue such defenders. (Bezos founded Amazon and owns The Washington Post.)”
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    Roger Lowenstein reviews Tyler Cowen’s latest book. I myself have not read it yet, but the review was interesting to me, in particular this excerpt about illegal PDF’s and how they encourage competition.
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  2. “Alwyn’s related analysis of published studies is even more striking. He shows that, in a sample of 1359 IV regressions in 31 papers published in the journals of the American Economic Association,
    “… statistically significant IV results generally depend upon only one or two observations or clusters, excluded instruments often appear to be irrelevant, there is little statistical evidence that OLS is actually substantively biased, and IV confidence intervals almost always include OLS point estimates.” ”
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    Econometric nerds/students only (consider yourself warned) – but IV isn’t as great as it is made out to be. Occam’s razor is massively ignored in econometrics.
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  3. “The Fiscal Affairs Department and the Institute for Capacity Development of the IMF are pleased to announce that the online course on Public Financial Management (PFM) will relaunch on May 1, 2019 and remain open year-round. In its two previous offerings, this free online course has been taken by more than 2,200 participants in 194 countries, with very high satisfaction rates. Taught by more than 15 experts of the Fiscal Affairs Department, the course is open for government officials, staff of bilateral and multilateral development agencies, civil society organizations, parliamentarians, academics and the general public. The course has been updated in 2019 to reflect the revisions brought to IMF’s PFM standards and tools and adopted in the last twelve months – namely the Public Investment Management Assessment (PIMA) framework and the Natural Resource Management pillar of the Fiscal Transparency Code (FTC).”
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    You might, as a student of economics or policy making, want to consider taking this course.
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  4. “So why, then, does the government tax, under the MMT view? Two big reasons: One, taxation gets people in the country to use the government-issued currency. Because they have to pay income taxes in dollars, Americans have a reason to earn dollars, spend dollars, and otherwise use dollars as opposed to, say, bitcoins or euros. Second, taxes are one tool governments can use to control inflation. They take money out of the economy, which keeps people from bidding up prices.And why does the government issue bonds? According to MMT, government-issued bonds aren’t strictly necessary. The US government could, instead of issuing $1 in Treasury bonds for every $1 in deficit spending, just create the money directly without issuing bonds.”
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    Yet another explainer of MMT – it’s counterintuitive (at least to me), and I’m still not sure it makes sense and will work – but I understand it better than I did before upon reading this article.
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  5. “This is an issue for economics too: the construction of the deflators used to turn nominal pound or dollar GDP into ‘real’ GDP, on which so much policy hangs, relies on a theory of constant, known preferences which determine the utility of consumption, and yet modern economic growth is all about creating wants for new goods and services for which preferences have to be created. So at a time of rapid innovation it is not at all clear what the deflators and ‘real’ GDP measures are measuring.”
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    Diane Coyle reviews a book that helps us understand Amartya Sen’s work better. I found this excerpt above quite interesting.