Archive for the ‘technology’ Category
I’m really bad at keeping up with the media cycle.
So last Wednesday, Vox put up this cute piece with the catchy title, “How Amazon Could Destroy College as We Know It.” Written in the form of a letter from Jeff Bezos to shareholders in the year 2030, it tells the story of how Amazon came to supplant traditional higher education by developing, and selling at cost, badges that people could earn to demonstrate particular skill sets. As the value of badges became evident, companies became more and more interested in using them in hiring—to the detriment, presumably, of traditional indicators like college degrees.
It’s a clever article, and well-written. It also doesn’t quite make the claim the headline implies—that the rise of Amazon badges would destroy higher education. Nevertheless, although I think that the piece gets at something real that is going on, and that is eventually going to be an important source of change, this is not how I see it going down.
Anyway, Wednesday night I started writing a blog post using a similar Bezos-to-shareholders conceit, but from a 2030 that looked quite different. It just wasn’t quite working, I think because it’s hard to see Amazon pioneering the kind of change I can imagine. Pearson, maybe. But even I can’t name the CEO of Pearson. (Apparently it’s John Fallon.)
So the format wasn’t quite working, but the underlying point still nagged. While badges may become a thing, and perhaps Amazon may even pioneer them, they are not going to be “the” new form of educational currency. The world in which “as many as half of major US employers now consider Amazon badges to be one of their top five criteria when determining whom to hire” will remain a fantasy.
Planet Money had a fun podcast a couple of days ago about Eric Meyer, the young founder of Haystack, a Baltimore-based app that allowed people to auction off their (public) parking spot to the highest bidder. MonkeyParking, a similar app, got attention last year in San Francisco.
The founders, in both cases, focused on the time-saving, traffic, and environmental benefits of such an app. Clearly there are real costs to people spending long periods of time circling the block in search of parking. UCLA economist Donald Shoup has argued that 30% of traffic in central business districts results from people looking for parking.
But these apps quickly generated enormous hostility. People used words like “disgusting,” “evil” and called it “JerkTech”—all to the apparent surprise of Meyer, at least. Within months, Boston and San Francisco had passed ordinances forbidding the selling of public parking spots. Haystack and MonkeyParking were basically shut down by the end of the year. (MonkeyParking has since retooled as a way to sell the parking in your driveway.)
This is a familiar story to economic sociologists. Some area of life that was previously outside of the market is suddenly brought into it. Violent feeling erupts, as such transactions are seen to challenge the moral order. (See Zelizer, Healy, Quinn, Chan, etc.) Generally, the market wins, and morality adapts.
There aren’t too many things—humans, organs (though even that’s eroding)—where a bright line still forbids buying and selling. Why, then, do Haystack and similar apps generate such hostility?
I think there are a couple of independent things prompting the hostile reaction.
1. Something that was, at least superficially, free, suddenly comes to cost money. People really don’t like being charged for things that used to be free, even if they were always paying for it somehow. (See: airline fees.)
2. Someone is making money by selling public property. This one is probably more important to city officials than city residents. From this perspective, the problem isn’t selling the spot, but who’s receiving the gains. Indeed, some of the same cities that reacted so negatively to these apps (I’m looking at you, San Francisco) have introduced dynamic pricing of parking, which allows prices to fluctuate with demand. (Think: Uber surge pricing.)
3. Now only the well-off can afford to park. This objection is to my mind the most legitimate. And while I fully recognize that it is really wasteful to have people circling around looking for parking, I don’t think it can easily be dismissed.
Now, I don’t want to stake any big claims around the inalienable right of Americans to park their cars. After all, you have to have a certain amount of money to have a car in the first place. And in general I think policies that discourage driving are good.
And it’s the very basis of capitalism to accept that there are things that some people can afford and others can’t, and to make one’s peace with that. But the thing about price caps (whether the cap is zero, as for street parking, or some flat rate, as with taxicabs) is that while they are inefficient, they are also democratizing. Yes, you may have to circle the block for 20 minutes. But dammit, so do the tech entrepreneurs who are pricing you out of your apartment. There are some things you can’t buy your way out of.
We live in a society in which inequality continues grow. At the same time, technology is improving our ability to make people who are willing (and able) to pay a lot do just that. That may be efficient. But it further reduces the sense that we’re all in this game together. And that’s the issue we don’t have a good solution for.
Arizona State has been in higher ed news a lot this week. The Atlantic just published a fairly fawning article on ASU’s partnership with Starbucks, featuring trenchant critiques of traditional colleges like, “The customer service is atrocious.”
Today, the news is ASU’s announcement that it will offer its entire freshman year online, through MOOCs. (Just when you thought they were dead!) Here’s the deal: ASU is partnering with EdX, the nonprofit Harvard-MIT collaboration, to produce the MOOCs. Students don’t have to apply, and they don’t have to pay in advance. But after they complete the class, if they decide they want college credit, they can pay ASU $300-600 (the final price is not set) and it will show up on a transcript indistinguishable from any other class.
Of course, people love to hate on ASU president Michael Crow. Dean Dad pointed out that Maricopa Community College, in ASU’s backyard, only charges $250 a credit and provides library access, among other amenities. John Warner focuses on the importance of the first year to student persistence, implying that disadvantaged students will be hurt. Jonathan Rees amps up the rhetoric, calling ASU the first “predator university.”
The Chronicle’s analysis focuses on what it sees as the catch: ASU’s MOOC students won’t be eligible for financial aid. Because students won’t officially enroll until after they’ve completed the MOOC, what they’ve learned is considered “prior knowledge,” making them ineligible for federal aid. ASU admits this is an obstacle, but suggested that “the university hoped to find some way to make aid possible in the future.”
What the Chronicle doesn’t point to, though, is where this road ultimately leads. There’s no way ASU is committing to this if it doesn’t see a pathway to federal aid down the road. Who among the underemployed folks ASU is targeting can cough up $600 to pay for a single course? That’s more than two weeks’ work at minimum wage.
And indeed, noises about how to solve this problem are already being made. Conversations are underway in the Senate about finding ways to give accreditation — and thus access to aid — to “nontraditional providers” like (drumroll…) EdX.
Truthfully, I’m not that worried about ASU and EdX. I think it’s going to prove hard to get the disadvantaged students they’re aiming for to finish MOOCs, even with financial aid, and even with ASU’s well-publicized innovations in data analytics. And I think that the nonprofit EdX, with its close ties to Harvard and MIT, is unlikely to launch a race to the bottom in extracting revenues from students.
But you know who would be happy to suck at the teat of the federal financial aid system? The edutech disruptors, who talk a good game about transforming higher education but will quickly enough start tranforming student loans into company profits once it’s time to raise the next round of venture capital.* When we have the opportunity to channel our financial aid dollars not only to the University of Phoenix but to the Disruptive EduBadge Academy, then we will have fully corrupted the system. The reason, if it needs to be spelled out, is that there is no reason to think that their courses will require learning, that pesky obstacle between them and those tantalizing financial aid dollars.
I’m not anti-technology, or anti-innovation. And I think traditional colleges are deeply flawed. But I am very, very much against expanding the money-laundering side of our financial aid system. And that is the coal mine into which the ASU-EdX canary is being lowered.
* I just Googled “silicon valley edutech” and got the San Francisco EduTech Meetup Group for — you can’t make this stuff up — “connecting folks who are passionate about the education space.”
In my course in introductory sociology, I have a module on health. One lecture describes the leading causes death, across age groups and across time periods. In modern times, one of the leading causes of death is “unintentional injury.” What does that mean? Roughly speaking, the three major categories of unintentional injury death are, in order, falling, auto accidents, and accidental poisoning.
The interesting thing is that these are all types of death that relate to economic development: cars, chemical, tall buildings, stairs and so forth. The other side is that economic development can also help us out. For example, in about one generation, driverless cars will be widespread. The implication is that drunk driving will be eliminated over night and accidents relating to drifting driver attention will disappear overnight. Truck accidents should also disappear. My hypothesis is that computer driven cars will probably be better than most people when they drive in the rain or snow. They might even automatically shut down if conditions are bad enough.
Bottom line: Economic development has unintended consequences. Sometimes they are bad, such as auto related deaths. But development can introduce solutions. The driverless car will be one such example.
Measuring such things is tough, but newly published research reports telling indicators can be found in bursts of 140 characters or less. Examining data on a county-by-county basis, it finds a strong connection between two seemingly disparate factors: deaths caused by the narrowing and hardening of coronary arteries and the language residents use on their Twitter accounts
“Given that the typical Twitter user is younger (median age 31) than the typical person at risk for atherosclerotic heart disease, it is not obvious why Twitter language should track heart disease mortality,” writes a research team led by Johannes Eichstaedt and Hansen Andrew Schwartz of the University of Pennsylvania. “The people tweeting are not the people dying. However, the tweets of younger adults may disclose characteristics of their community, reflecting a shared economic, physical, and psychological environment.”
Not a puzzle to me. I have argued that social media content is often an indicator – a smoke signal – of other trends. Thus, if people are stressed due to environmental conditions (the economy, unemployment), they will have heart attacks and write angry text. The only question is when the correlation holds. For more discussion of the more tweets/more votes/more anything phenomena, click here.
Within informatics, there is a healthy body of research showing how social media data can be used for forecasting future consumption. The latest is from a study by Nielsen, which shows some preliminary evidence that Twitter activity forecasts television program popularity. In their model, adding Twitter data increases the explained variance in how well a TV show will in addition to data on promotions and network type. Here’s the summary from Adweek.