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Tag: education

Minecraft for Education

I’ve always been blown away by the richness of the Minecraft “game engine”. While ostensibly a game about breaking and placing blocks (while potentially surviving against monsters and other players depending on the server and the game mode), its “creative mode” as well as widespread user modifications to the game have unleashed an amazing amount of creativity resulting in people building amazing worlds including (but not limited to, HT: Mashable for a lot of these)

What blew my mind recently, though, was discovering that people have even used the Minecraft game engine to serve as simulations for things as sophisticated as a computer processor:

and a 1 kilobyte hard drive!


Knowing how much kids enjoy Minecraft made me wonder if it would be possible to use the game and these sorts of rich models as an education tool to complement the traditional “blackboard lecture” model of teaching which does a very poor job of imparting intuition and understanding. The beauty of something like Minecraft is that it can be used to produce a visual, modifiable simulation in a format that students are probably already consuming (or can probably learn how in a short amount of time), and as a result, it lends itself to exploration and to students making or modifying things to demonstrate and improve their understanding.

Building a microprocessor or digital storage system may be too difficult for a class assignment (although at a reduced level of complexity, they could become very useful teaching aids), but a digital tour of ancient Rome or an assignment to build an Egyptian pyramid or a basic AND or OR circuit? I think that type of learning could benefit a great deal from some Minecraft-ification :-).

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American Politics’ Obsession with College

A few months ago, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum attacked Barack Obama’s stated desire to have more Americans pursue higher education. Santorum’s reasons for doing this were fundamentally political: he wanted to portray Obama as a snobby liberal against the image he was hoping to convey of himself as a down-to-earth practical guy who doesn’t want to see money wasted on liberal indoctrination (or whatever it is Santorum thinks happens in colleges…)

While I’m no fan of Santorum’s hypocritical intentions there (anyone else notice how he neglected to mention his own college degree – let alone his MBA and JD?), I do think its worth considering the skeptical view towards American politics’ fixation (dare I say obsession?) with driving up college attendance.

shutterstock_50212558300x450This skeptical view is basically encapsulated in a single question: if the goal is to  get more Americans to go to college, why don’t we just make high school last eight years rather than four?

If we were to somehow able to achieve 100% (or even something like 60-70%) college admissions, an extended high school education (where the last four years might be more advanced and based on applications to different institutions) is basically what you would be creating.

If we think of getting the majority of kids into college in that sense, it begs the question: What would a world like that look like? I’d hazard the following two guesses:

  • First, the costs would be enormous. Even today, with many colleges being independent of the government and with many students bearing the brunt of the cost of college directly, there is huge government involvement with financing. An “eight year high school system”, even if we assumed miraculous levels of efficiency and public-private partnership never before seen in the education system and government, would likely require a huge amount of dollars spent by the taxpayer and by students – if only to provide the financial support lower-income families would need to attend higher education.
  • Second, I believe you would see the number of people going into advanced degrees (Masters, PhD’s, MBA’s, JD’s, MD’s, MPH’s, etc) would skyrocket. The reason for that is simple: if everyone goes to college – then its the same as if nobody went to college: the mark of attending college ceases to have any value in setting yourself apart from other people in the eyes of an employer. The funny thing is – one of the reasons I chose the “eight year high school” analogy is precisely because of the analogy that results: that college grads would became the equivalent of today’s high school grads: in the same trouble in terms of competing in the workforce and finding themselves needing to go to “college” (in this case getting an advanced degree).

One might even argue that a much more educated workforce is worth the cost but what this little thought experiment shows is that just extending high school by four years (the logical equivalent of getting much higher rates of college admissions) is not the obvious universal good that most politicians seem to suggest it is. The fact that students need to go to college at all to participate effectively in the workforce, in my opinion, says more about the lack of effectiveness of our K-12 system than about the value of college.

I think a more meaningful (and hopefully time-and-cost-effective) solution to our education system’s woes would actually be to address the real problems: (1) how students seem to not get enough out of K-12 to contribute to the workforce and (2) how students are forced to pursue expensive degrees just to compete.

  1. Bring K-12 quality up to what is needed for people to succeed in today’s workforce. I think this means investing in early education – study after study shows that some of the most effective education investments are those made in pre-kindergarten Head Start programs – embracing new technology-enabled approaches like Sal Khan’s brilliant Khan Academy, changing how we train and compensate teachers, and doubling down on training employable skills (like some of the ones I mentioned here). None of these are that controversial (although the devil is in the details) – what matters is being committed to the notion of increasing the value of K-12 rather than the just the years kids spend in school.
  2. Build an actually meaningful system of educational accreditation. Today, one of the most important ways to signal to employers that you can be a decent worker is a piece of paper that costs some $100,000+ called a college diploma. That piece of paper is not only extremely expensive, it also does a terrible job of elaborating what a person is good at (forcing many people to pursue further degrees). This system of accreditation really only serves colleges and the companies/people who make money off of them (i.e., admissions counselors/prep services, etc). An accreditation system which actually meaningfully communicated what people’s talents were (i.e. this person is extremely good at math, even though he did not major in math at a top 50 college; or this person is really good at machinework, even though she spent most of her last job planning events, etc) would be beneficial for both employers — who now have a better sense of who they are hiring — and workers — who can now be more discriminating about the value of their education and not needlessly participate in the rat race of tallying up schools/programs which only serve as a rubber stamp on your ability to pay expensive tuition.
These are not quick-and-easy fixes: they are after all major changes to how people/politicians view the world and require not only resources but some very slow-moving institutions to change how they think and operate, but it makes a lot more sense to me than continuing a dogma about how education should work, rather than taking a hard look at some of underlying issues.

(Image credit – SFGate/The Mommy Files)


Some Career Advice for Students

Many students trying to pick classes/majors in college will end up consulting with their counselors/academic advisors who, in turn, will almost always reply with very generic advice along the lines of: “study what you love”.

But as my girlfriend once pointed out, the problem with asking academic advisors that question is that academic advisors tend to be academics – and in academia, you can make a career out of studying anything. Outside of academia, that is not so true. Look no further than the paradox of how we have record high unemployment for recent college graduates despite almost every startup I’ve spoken with expressing concerns about finding and retaining qualified employees?

Obviously, our education system is failing to meet the needs of our students and employers. But, other than hope that the system miraculously fixes itself, my advice to students is this: take classes that teach broadly employable skills. You don’t need to take a lot of them, and nobody’s asking you to major in a something that you don’t want to – college is, after all, about broadening your horizons and studying what interests you. But, in a competitive job market and a turbulent economy, the worker that is in the best position is the worker who can move between industries/jobs easily (getting out of bad jobs/industries and moving into better paid/more interesting ones) and who can quickly demonstrate value to their boss (so as to make them indispensable faster).

So what sort of skills am I referring to? Off the top of my head (I’m sure there are others), three come to mind:

  • Accounting – All organizations that deal with money need people with accounting chops. From my experience, the executives/employees who are the most versatile across industries are the CFOs — they can plug into almost any business or organization and can quickly help their employers out. You may not want to be an accountant, but in a pinch, having those skills can help you get hired or find work as you figure out your next move.
  • Programming – Programming as a skill is relatively generalizable. While I wouldn’t necessarily get an iPhone developer to write an operating system (or vice versa), folks with programming chops can quickly get up to speed on new projects at new companies, and, as a result, can quickly crank out functioning code to help with their employers.
  • Statistics – You don’t need to be a math genius to be hireable. But, as computers become faster and more important, more organizations are turning to number crunching as a way to stay competitive. Not only will “data scientists” and statisticians become more in demand, individuals who have familiarity with those tools will be in a better position at their companies and be able to quickly help out a new employer.

The skeptic will point out that a lot of this can be outsourced. And, that’s certainly true – but in my experience, there is not only a limit on what companies are willing to outsource, there is also just huge value for any employee to tack those skills onto what they are already doing. A salesperson who is also good at crunching statistics on who to sell to next is far more valuable than a “regular” salesperson. A marketing guy with programming chops probably has a better understanding of a product or a technology than a “regular” marketing guy. And, a operations guy who also understands the nitty gritty financial details is going to be able to do a better job than an operations guy who doesn’t. Not to mention: the skills are broadly applicable; so if one company doesn’t have a good spot, there’s always another organization somewhere that will.


Education bubble?


One of my favorite RSS feeds is Business Insider’s Chart of the Day. This chart came up a few weeks ago and made me think. It’s quite staggering to imagine that college tuition has outpaced inflation as rapidly as it has (~10x vs. ~4x over 30 years). The graph made me think: Has the value of a college education increased 2.5x? If it has, then there isn’t necessarily a bubble. There are three ways to think about the value of a college education to evaluate this question.

  1. The most obvious is the average income comparison between an average high school graduate (only) and an average college graduate (only). Using US government statistics, we find that in 1978, a college-educated graduate made ~55% more than an individual with only a high school education. In 2008 (the last year I have data for), a college educated graduate made ~87% more – which amounts to a 60% increase in the gap (and even holds true if I adjust for the change in disposable income using the individual, under-65 poverty line as the base level of expenditure), but doesn’t quite match the 2.5x increase in tuition costs over inflation.
  2. Related to the above are the other effects of college education on lifetime income. It’s been demonstrated that college educated individuals live longer than those who don’t, and its commonly understood that college is a prerequisite for other income-boosting opportunities like graduate school. One’s lifetime income is also much more likely to trend upwards in life with a college education than with only a high school diploma. But there’s an interesting wrinkle here: does college education make you live longer and get promoted, or is it just an indirect way of finding individuals who tend to be wealthier and more intelligent? I unfortunately don’t have the data (or the time) to calculate the impact, but I would hazard a guess that it’s probably unlikely that you are extending your working life by the 56% needed to close the gap between the higher income and the higher tuition.
  3. The last “source of value” for a college education is the subjective value of meeting lifelong friends, having new experiences, and expanding your intellectual horizons. Just because its extremely intangible, doesn’t mean there’s not enormous value here. But, the question to ask here is not whether or not college has large intangible value (of course it does), but whether or not you believe that intangible value to have increased significantly (by over 2.5x as we’ve concluded the increase in lifetime income likely isn’t enough to explain the 2.5x increase in tuition cost relative to inflation) since 1978. I personally think that’s being overly aggressive.

I can’t pretend to be the expert on this, but at this point, I’d conclude that whereas the value of a college education has increased dramatically (maybe even by as much as 75-100%), it hasn’t gone up enough to justify a 2.5x increase relative to inflation. If you accept my conclusion then the obvious question is what is causing tuition to increase so much? Two possible explanations jumped out at me:

  • Tuitions haven’t caught up with the value of a college education: While my conclusion above was that the value of a college education hasn’t increased 2.5x from 1978 until today, one possible explanation of tuition price is that the value of a college education is still higher than what students pay for it, and, if that were true, we would expect tuitions to continue to increase.
  • Tuitions are higher than the value of a college education and are being propped up by a combination of two things:
    1. Tuitions are being boosted by a subsidy cycle: Free money from the government is one of the easiest ways to get price increases. While we often think of the US government’s subsidized loans and tax writeoffs for college tuition as a means to help more people attend college, an equivalent way of thinking about it is that it gives colleges free rein to increase prices without worrying about reducing the number of people who enter. In a “normal” market, this would be the end of it (slightly higher prices, but more people entering college), but because college education has become such a political affair (every family always thinks its “too expensive”, and every politician promises to make it cheaper), we always get more subsidies from more politicians which feeds back into the original problem.
    2. Families have bad expectations around the value of a college education: One explanation, which is making the rounds of the policy wonk blogosphere, is that this is all a big bubble. In the same way that people felt tech stocks in the late 90s and real estate in the 2000s were a good buy, its entirely possible that families have uninformed expectations about the value of a college education and thus believe the higher tuitions are worth it. If this is true, then we could be on a collision course with a generation of families (like in the 80s) suddenly realizing “the emperor (of college tuition) has no clothes!” (which might be precipitated by a long stagnation/decline in the wages of college educated individuals) followed by a potential crash in tuitions.

What should be done? Truthfully, it depends on which of these conclusions is correct. If its just that tuitions haven’t caught up with the value of a college education, then it makes sense that tuitions are increasing, and it may even make sense to increase tuition grants/subsidized loans (as it likely means not enough people are getting a college education because they couldn’t get access to the capital to pay for it).

However, if tuitions are over-valued, then it would be advisable to end the college tuition subsidy cycle and implement policies which potentially “soften the blow” of the coming college education value and tuition crash.

But to make the right policy decisions and tradeoffs, its important to first understand which of the two explanations is correct. And that’s a whole ‘nother set of data and analyses…

(Image credit – Chart of the Day)