Black Monday Thoughts

Shelly Blake-Plock has an interesting post from last week, titled Black Friday Thoughts, which I didn’t get to read until today.

Go read it.  I’ll wait.

I answered with a comment, which you can find there if you want to… or you can wait, and come back here, and read it after:

One of the things I’m conscious of is something that Charlie Stross wrote about in the book, Halting State. While the characters are on the run, one of them notes that externally, all the buildings around them are hundreds of years old, while being wired all the same with plumbing and electricity and modern conveniences. Inside the buildings, there are computers and telephones, and various office devices. On the surface, everything visible is mid-to-late 20th century technology… but inside, the technology that underlies and supports the surface appearances is in fact radically different.

I think it was S.M. Sterling who also noted this phenomena, in a slightly different context (though I don’t remember which one, exactly). He noted that a new technology starts out as terrible. Gradually, it gets better and better, and grows more and more useful, and then reaches a pinnacle of development. The institution that provides and services that technology shifts from research and development to maintenance, because the tech has reached the point where marginal improvements are not cost-effective.

Then, along comes another competing technology. It’s new, so it’s terrible. Nobody really adopts it… except for a few enthusiasts whose support and interest develops the technology further. The new tech gradually improves to the point where it does what the old tech does, well enough. Suddenly people start adopting it in large numbers. The old tech doesn’t know how to handle its leapfrog. It tries to compete with the old tech, but it can’t — there’s some core feature that is different, and un-replicatable with the old technology.

This is the concept that you appear to be trying to get across — that on the surface, we’re all living in the old tech, as the new tech is gradually replacing the old tech, and driving out the maintenance model of the old tech in favor of the innovation model.

But what if the old tech, is schools themselves?

As some of you know who’ve been reading for a while, I used to make educational videos about history and writing. I haven’t made one in a while, because the feedback I got back from my own school’s parents and students suggested that they weren’t really being used, and weren’t as useful as my own community thought they should be.

Guess what, though? They’ve racked up about 35,000 views from around the world: half of my viewers come from the United States; around 10% each come from Canada, the UK, and India; slightly more than 5% of viewers come from Australia; and the remainder from a scattering of countries around the world…

None of those videos have to be great (they’re not…. turns out the Asian-Indian ones are based on a textbook with scholarship that’s 50-70 years out of date… sigh).  But they’re out there.  They’re part of the digital record. They’re part of a community of answerers, and available to a community of questioners. There’s a growing body of comments that suggest ways the videos might be wrong.

We’re starting to see evidence that the cost of higher education in this country is the new economic bubble — the cost of a college Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree is totally out of whack with its economic benefit to the nation or the world, and it’s no guarantee of future performance.  Meanwhile, the cost of getting answers to questions – good ones, bad ones, dry ones, sweet ones – is falling out of the sky.  There’s a democratization of knowledge going on, and with that, a corresponding decrease in cost of education.  It’s time to start asking, are schools just maintaining their infrastructure and patterns, or are they innovating to become the new technology?

I suspect, and fear, that it is more the former, than the latter. And that means that all schools, public and private, are likely to be passed by as the new technology ramps up.

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