Bill Gates sez: screw university, study online

Paul Raven @ 09-08-2010

In case any of Mister Gates’ lawyers are reading this, the above headline is a deliberately overstated paraphrasing (it’s how we write on the intertubes, y’know). But the nugget of truth is there: Ol’ Bill spoke at the Technonomy conference last week, and suggested that in another five years or so, more people will be studying online than in universities and colleges [via SlashDot].

I presume he means colleges and universities in the US, though I’d suggest that “first world” nations like the US and the UK will actually have the slowest rate of take-up for online study, as university attendance has the weight and kudos of long tradition to prop it up. But as distrust of the higher and further education systems grows, and more and more new graduates come to realise they’ve put themselves deep into the debt hole for a piece of paper that makes little or no difference to their employment prospects, a shift to what we might call “entrepreneurial learning” is pretty inevitable. Take me as an example: I build websites for a living, but have never had so much as a minute of formal tuition or education in the field; I just googled my way into it, found out what I needed to know as I needed to know it.

But the more important factor here is motivation: as the cost of formal education soars, people will think more carefully about why they’re studying. A degree is much less a means to an end than it used to be, and much as I’ve repeatedly considered doing a degree by distance learning, it’s for the satisfaction of the accomplishment rather than any illusion that my employability would be significantly enhanced. Hence “entrepreneurial learning”: skills and conceptual frameworks acquired with purpose in response to direct needs, rather than abstract knowledge sets accumulated toward a set of targets that may well have no equivalent in the employment marketplace.

The bad side to this, of course, is the lack of clear metrics for employers as to what a potential employee knows. But from anecdotal evidence that’s as least as old as I am, that’s been a problem with the existing system for some time. Perhaps we’ll see a return to competency testing in job interviews? The rise of a sort of zaibatsu-apprenticeship system? A greater percentage of freelance workers in a greater range of industries?


Paul Raven @ 02-07-2010

This week’s Zeitgeist was brought to you by… growing mistrust of the American higher education system, and of higher education in general! First of all, the business world wakes up from the hangover of the economic collapse and starts wondering whether the ubiquitous business degree was a root cause of the indulgences of the night before [via Bruce Sterling].

The truth is that the relevance of the technical training allegedly offered by the MBA was always overblown. The idea that there is some body of knowledge pertaining to business management that can be packaged up and distributed to the business universe in two-year course-lets—well, it sounded good about a century ago, when it was first conceived. Maybe it still had merit when the schools were turning out only a few thousand graduates per year. But it certainly stopped making sense well before the schools achieved their current level of production of a whopping 140,000 or so graduates per year. The empirical evidence on the contribution of the MBA to individual career performance seems to bear this out—mainly because it doesn’t exist. In fact, if the relevance of an M.D. to the performance of doctors were even half as unsubstantiated, we’d probably be fantasizing about tossing a few physicians in jail, too.

The other truth helpfully revealed in the throes of the crisis is that ethics and integrity and social responsibility aren’t just optional extras for good business management—unless by “management,” you mean “looting.” Managers don’t need to be trained; they need to be educated—in the sense of “civilized.” Unfortunately, a business degree isn’t just irrelevant to that purpose; it’s positively detrimental.

Next, The Economist wonders why vocational education is still so frowned upon, even though it would be demonstrably more useful than college degrees [via TechnOccult]:

America has a unique disdain for vocational education. It has supported such training since 1917; money now comes from the Perkins Act, which is reauthorised every six years. However, many Americans hate the idea of schoolchildren setting out on career paths—such predetermination, they think, threatens the ethos of opportunity. As wages have risen for those with college degrees, scepticism of CTE has grown too. By 2005 only one-fifth of high-school students specialised in an industry, compared with one-third in 1982. The share of 17-year-olds aspiring to four-year college, meanwhile, reached 69% in 2003, double the level of 1981. But the fact remains that not every student will graduate from university. This may make politicians uncomfortable, but it is not catastrophic. The Council of Economic Advisers projects faster-growing demand for those with a two-year technical-college degree, or specific training, than for those with a full university degree.

Meanwhile, down in Chennai (formerly known as Madras), the (degree-carrying) head honcho of Zoho (a software-as-service outfit) explains why he makes a point of not hiring programmers with degrees [via SlashDot]:

We started to ask “What if the college degree itself is not really that useful? What if we took kids after high school, train them ourselves?” I talked to a lot of people internally, and one of our product managers introduced me to his uncle, a college professor, who he thought might be interested in hearing me out. As I shared our observations on recruiting, he shared his own experience in over twenty years teaching Mathematics and later Computer Science. It turned out we shared a common passion. He joined us within a month to start our “AdventNet University” as we very imaginatively called it. This was in 2005. He went to schools around Chennai to recruit students. So as not to distract anyone from their existing plans, we waited till the school year ended, went to several schools to ask for bright students who were definitely not going to college for whatever reason (usually economic). We then called on those students and their parents, and explained our plan. We started with an initial batch of six students in 2005, who were in the age range 17 or 18.

That proved to be an outstanding success. Within 2 years, those students would become full time employees, their work performance indistinguishable from their college-educated peers. We have since expanded the program, with the latest batch of students consisting of about 20, recruited not just from Chennai but smaller towns and villages in the region.

And finally, the quasi-legal funding schemes of derugulated Russian universities could be taken to represent an expression of “spontaneous capitalist neoconservatism” – one that other European institutions are keen to copy, even though the evidence shows that an increase in private funding actually leads to a decline in educational quality:

Public universities of the continental Europe (France, Germany) have 8-10 per cent of their budgets coming from non-public sources.[1] Certain UK universities, which are often used as a didactic model by advocates of reform, receive up to 28 per cent of their budget from endowments, tuition fees and other publicly independent sources. Russian universities do not provide the public with statistics of this kind, with excuses such as calculation difficulties or appealing to the principle “it depends on what is taken into account”. Nevertheless, in private discussions administrators of several large public universities and departments indicate a proportion of “around 50 per cent” from private sources, which corresponds quite well with expert estimations of 45-55 per cent given in the early 2000s. Even if university managers always love to get more from the public budget, last year’s State programs and State institutional grants, unknown in the Nineties and even in the first half of the current decade, may result in some indigestion syndrome among university structures.

I’m not sure that mistrusting the value of a diploma is a new thing – my father used to joke about how one should “hire a fresh graduate, while they still think they know everything” – but these questions sure fit in neatly with the current trend for wondering where we went wrong, and whether we might be able to avoid doing it again. Whether we’ll actually make the changes we need to (or even recognise them) remains to be seen, natch.

Behavioural bribery: the sublime and the scary

Paul Raven @ 12-04-2010

Compare and contrast:

TIME reports on the research of a Harvard economist that strongly suggests financial reward structures are a highly effective way of motivating academic performance and/or good behaviour in school-aged children. (We mentioned this last year, as it happens.)

Meanwhile, did you know there’s a “charitable” organisation in the US that offers drug addicts a cash incentive to apply for sterilisation – not of their needles, but of themselves? [via Lauren Beukes] And they’re coming to the UK, too, which is a relief – I was thinking only the other day that we just don’t have enough heavy-handed moralising in this country.

Orbital Legislation 101

Paul Raven @ 16-03-2010

Via BoingBoing, The Guardian highlights a new module available to law students at Sunderland University on “law and the legal system beyond Earth’s atmosphere”:

Topics already arising in the field include gaps in health and safety for potential space tourists, and damage to satellites from other objects orbiting the Earth. Looking further ahead, some lawyers have raised questions about land titles on the moon or other planets.

Chris Newman, one of the lecturers who will be teaching the module, said: “It is a growing area which has relevance across commercial, company, property, environmental, intellectual property and IT practice sectors. We think that our qualification will offer valuable knowledge in a fascinating area.”


The syllabus is likely to draw on earlier attempts to extend legislation into uncharted areas, such as the arguments between nations over huge sections of Antarctica. There are no plans as yet to test students on how they would make a case for Earth law against that of other civilisations, should any be discovered.

It’s easy to scoff and file this among the mass of pointless degree topics available to UK undergraduates, but with commercial space operations coming up close behind the nation-state space programs, it’s not going to be all “territory held in mutual trust for the good of all mankind” up there for long. Mix this module with a few more covring squatter’s rights, the successful defense of minerals claim-jumping and some basic tort law, and your new-frontier legal practice is ready for business…

Permaculture as an MMO?

Paul Raven @ 15-12-2009

permaculture produceTaking a brief break from grim predictions of hyperlocal terrorism and the decline of the nation-state, John Robb hypothesises about a way to solve the looming problem of localised food production: why not make permaculture into a sort of MMO game?

Riffing on the popularity of Farmville (which I suspect bears about as much relation to real farming as a round of Arkanoid bears to real atmospheric re-entry in a spaceship), Robb suggests that boosting the fun and competitive aspects of farming projects in meatspace could be a great way to build more resilient communities:

… the current state of software that aids the design of permaculture plots is pretty dismal. The best people can do is cobble together mapping software, 3D landscape modeling software, and some auto CAD. Of course, it is possible if the resources were available (my team of developers could do it), to build software that enables people to design, optimize, and share permaculture plots, that misses a great opportunity.

The real opportunity is to build a learning system via software, one that naturally trains the people that use it, gets better and more sophisticated over time, and is fun. The only way I know how to do that is build a game.

One of the first things to do, is build a simple Farmville type social game that helps people learn permaculture design principles…

I’ll admit to being cynical on this one; I think the fun elements of a social game based on farming would be swiftly forgotten when it came to the first day of digging irrigation channels under a blazing sun. But maybe not… and Robb’s idea might work well in developing nations where the bulk of people are already farmers, enabling them to learn and shift to new and more sustainable techniques over time. [image by JoePhoto]

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