Tag Archives: future

Online education and creative writing workshops

More about on-line education.  One hesitation people have, of course, is that it’s easier to dephysicalize some forms of education than others; and that if higher education gets redefined as something that happens online, the parts of higher education that don’t survive that transition get redefined as “not part of higher education.”

But what about creative writing workshops?  Right now, these sit somewhat uncomfortably inside English departments in universities.  What are you paying for when you pay tuition to attend a fiction workshop?  (I was lucky enough to go to a program with funding, but I think most MFAs don’t work this way.)  I think you’re paying to  have a known novelist read and think carefully about what you’re writing, and you’re paying to create some official sense that This Is The Year I Write My Novel.  (This last part might be the most important.  Of course, you could write your novel any time!  But having paid a great deal of money with the intent of doing a thing focuses the mind on the task extremely well.  Freud always said this was why he charged so much; he didn’t need the money, but the patients needed to spend it.)

What happens if a novelist decides to offer a writing workshop via Google Hangout, to 12 people, charging them much less than university tuition but enough to meet his expenses?  Like, say, $3K a person?  Does that work?  Or, since most novelists probably don’t care to run their own small business, what happens if a startup company collectes well-known but poorly paid novelists and runs the marketing/payment processing side of things, in exchange for a cut?

It’s not clear this is interestingly different from existing distance MFAs like Warren Wilson.  Certainly I don’t think you can scale up the offering of “serious and admired writer X read my work closely” to hundreds of thousands of people, which I suppose is a reason it might continue being possible to charge serious money for the service.

An online workshop wouldn’t reproduce what I got out of my MFA program at Johns Hopkins, but I was a special case.  I was on break between college and graduate school, I was pretty sure I was going to be a mathematician my whole life, and I really needed to be something else for a year.  The people I saw every day that year were writers, the professors whose opinions I valued were writers, the people I drank beer with and argued with and dated were writers.  And by the end of the year I was able to call myself a writer without feeling like I was half-kidding; not because I’d written a draft of my novel but because I’d lived in Writerworld for a year.

 

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Several attacks on the previous post

As promised, a few attacks.  I’m sure by tomorrow I’ll have thought of several more.  Oh, and also, I meant to link to this Crooked Timber thread about Coursera, with a richly combative comment thread.

  • I, along with lots of other people who succeed in traditional schools, love text and process it really fast.  Other people like other media.  Streaming video isn’t the same thing as talking to another person, but it’s plainly closer than text, and talking to another person is the way we’re built to take in information.  If streaming video weren’t a useful means of educational transmission for a substantial fraction of people, Khan Academy wouldn’t be popular.
  • Some people would say that we could get by with many fewer scientists that we have now, without compromising the amount of meaningful science that gets done.  That seems too simple to me, but I just want to record that it’s a belief held by many, and on that account maybe a small NSF-funded garden of science is sufficient to our needs.
  • Online credentials, whether from Udacity or future-ETS, could in principle lead to a massive gain in global equality.  Nothing is stopping 300 people from China and Brazil from being among the 500 people Google hires.  I was going to say the same thing about inequality within the US but here I have to stop myself; my sense is that massive availability of online resources has not e.g. made it just as good to be a 14-year-old math star in Nebraska as it is to be a 14-year-old math star in suburban Boston.  Reader comments on this point welcome, since I know there are lots of former 14-year-old math stars out there.
  • More on within-US equality; it’s easy to see gains flowing to kids whose parents are rich enough to buy them a prep course or just buy them the time to spend a year at home studying.  On the other hand, this seems no less rich-kid-friendly than the current system, in which kids whose parents can afford college graduate debt-free, and the rest, who still have little choice but to attend if they want professional jobs, spend decades of their working life chipping away at a massive debt.
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What, if anything, is the future of the university?

My colleague and Wisconsin Institute for Discovery director David Krakauer says it might look a lot like WID:

Inspired by such successful endeavors as the Santa Fe Institute, MITs Media Lab, the Harvard-MIT Broad Institute, new cross-disciplinary centers and initiatives such as the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery are designed to overcome many of the obvious limitations of the aging departmental models, which at worst can act as an impediment to creative thinking and synthetic endeavors, and whose reward and promotion mechanisms often exclude some of our most creative minds. Many of these centers — like our most successful technology companies — recognize the power of social life, building cafes, restaurants and lounges directly into the research environment.

But lots of other people think the physical university, at least apart from a few elite schools, is 100% a dead letter, thanks to our new ability to offer courses online at scale.  Maybe the future looks like Khan Academy, or Coursera, or Udacity, whose founder, Sebastian Thrum, foresees only 10 institutions offering something called “higher education” 50 years from now.

But what will this thing be?

Keep this in mind.  The ability to distribute information at scale is not new, though the Internet makes that information vastly more widespread and, in the long run, cheaper.  You don’t need to take a course online to get that information, and it might not even be the best way.  For instance, why watch streaming video?  There’s a competing channel which is massively faster, more flexible, random-access, which moves at the students’ own pace, which is accessible to speakers of every language, and which is trivially searchable: namely, text.  Streaming video has its uses, but streaming video is television; text is the Internet.  And text on every imaginable subject is already available on the Internet, to everyone, for free.  Getting that information into the hands of every person in the planet with a mobile device is a solved problem.

But:

Information is not what Udacity is selling.  And it’s not what existing universities are selling!  What we sell, of course, is a credential; a certification, backed by our expertise, that the credentialee has mastered some body of knowledge.  At Stanford, they sell that credential to students to help them get jobs.  At Udacity, they’re planning to sell the credentials to businesses, to help them select employees.  And in a global sense, Stanford and the University of Wisconsin and everybody else are in that business too, because we operate as part of a grand compact between ourselves and the business community.  They have agreed that a substantial chunk of the American population will spend four years in college instead of devoting their labor to increasing the GNP, and I assume this is because they believe in the credentials we offer; that students who complete college are better at their jobs, and students who do better in college are better than students who do worse.

We sell credentials; and with the receipts obtained from those sales we educate students and we do research.  Udacity hopes to be able to credential just as well (more precisely:  maybe just as well and maybe not, but in any event at such larger scale that they provide more information to employers) and to use the resulting revenues to educate students.

But why does education need to be involved?  For a few fast-moving topics, Udacity may be able to claim that their lock on the most au courant experts means they’re offering something no one else can.  But most topics aren’t fast-moving in that way.

What I wonder is whether the future of education won’t look less like Udacity and more like ETS.  Education is expensive.  Assessment is cheap.  I don’t think future-ETS can provide assessment as accurate as Udacity can.  But the nature of disruptive technology, if I understand it correctly, isn’t that it provides something better; it’s that it provides something cheaper and faster which is good enough.  The toniest companies of the future might want to see a certificate from Udacity; for everybody else, future-SAT will do.

Not that this is necessarily bad news for Udacity, or for education!  Something like Udacity may not need much capital to persist; it can carry on as a boutique operation, serving Google or Google’s successors, and still have enough resources to deliver on-line education to millions of people all over the world.

It’s mostly bad news for research, I think.  Because the link between credentialing and research is even more contingent and breakable than the link between credentialing and education.  Udacity, as far as I know, is not going to pay people to do research in mathematics, or biology, or physics, or history, or linguistics.  Those tasks are, at the moment, part of the universities’ missions, but not part of their business model.  There doesn’t have to be a massive research apparatus in the United States; for most of our history, there wasn’t one.

So there’s one future to contemplate.  No scientific research except for the small, product-directed gardens within companies and a slightly bigger garden funded by the federal government, the latter no doubt a constant target for budget cuts, like PBS.  Kids start work at the end of high school, and those who can find the time study for the future-ETS placement test so they can get a better job.  How does that sound?

Important note:  I am ambivalent about the correctness of much of what I’ve written here; I am posting this as an experiment, to see what happens if I work out thoughts in public.  Next post will consist of attacks on this post, the correctness of which attacks I’m also ambivalent about.  Special attention to be paid to the superiority of video to text, and the advantages the version of the future described above might have over the status quo, especially as concerns global equality.

Important note 2:  Before commenting, please listen to “God Save The Queen,” as I did before beginning this post.  It’s sort of a mental prerequisite for talking about the future.

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Turn ahead the clock

Despite the dispiriting sweep we just endured at the hands of the Red Sox, the Orioles are for the first time in recent memory a team whose future seems kind of interesting — so it’s an opportune time for Tom’s reminiscence, via Joe Posnanski, of the Orioles’ last Turn Ahead The Clock Day.  At the time, the future of the franchise was supposed to include a lot of Albert Belle:

I saw Albert Belle try to turn down a HBP once. It was Turn Ahead the Clock day, and the Orioles were wearing billowing trash-bag “futuristic” uniforms. Belle was 4-for-4 with a walk and 3 home runs already, including a two-out game-tying shot in the bottom of the ninth. And he had driven in 6 of the O’s 7 runs. So when the ball ran in on his floppy outfit in the bottom of the 11th, with a man aboard, he waved off the ump and tried to stay in the box.

My friend and I at the game had absolutely no doubt that had he gotten away with it, he would have hit his fourth homer. Belle felt the same, evidently. But eventually they ordered him along to first base, and Cal Ripken singled in the winning run three batters later.

I, the “friend” above, recounted the same game in my list of Underappreciated Orioles, on which Belle appears at #5.  Only I forgot the two most interesting details, the future jerseys and Belle’s attemped snub of the free base!  Which is why Tom is a professional sportswriter and I’m just a guy who complains about the Orioles on the Internet.

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The future belongs to colds

Mrs. Q, CJ, and I are all battling a vicious cold, the champion of all the rhinoviri locked in Darwinian struggle at CJ’s daycare. We’ve all been sick for a week with no recovery in sight.

This made me think of a good conceit for a science-fiction movie. It’s easy to imagine evolutionary pressure producing a species of endemic, non-lethal, antibiotic-resistant bacteria that colonize the upper respiratory tract. In other words, in the future, everyone has a cold for their entire life.

It’s actually interesting to think about what the effects on society would be. Some would be trivial (boxes of tissue everywhere; increased popularity of very strong-smelling and spicy food, the only kind people can really taste; renaissance of instrumentals in pop music since singing has become essentially impossible) and some serious (increased infant mortality, easier spreading of more dangerous bugs with the whole population coughing all the time.)

Any more?

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These aren’t the tats you’re looking for

Sitting in Panera reading through my first Ph.D. student’s thesis draft. A very tattooed young man just walked in. You know what you never see in science fiction movies? Old people with lots of tattoos. But in 2050, there are going to be a lot of such people, right?

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