Archive for August, 2012

Relentless Robots Replace Human Animals

August 21, 2012 Comments off

“Skilled Work Without the Worker” an article in Sunday’s NYTimes, included this arresting quote from the CEO of Foxconn, the firm that manufactures I-pads on the first page: “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache”.

So instead of asking its Chinese employees to do arduous and dangerous work for low wages so that Americans can afford low cost computer gadgets, FoxConn will lay off those workers and replace them with robots who work 24/7 without a coffee break… and without human rights activists squawking. Is this a case of “be careful what you wish for” or a case of technology run rampant.

Since I am not a Luddite, I see it as neither: the disruption caused by these robots seems to be a natural consequence of the speed with which change takes place in our wired world… and our reaction at this point seems to be one of complete denial. The article cites the transition that took place in farming as a precedent for this change, where jobs in the farming sector fell from 40% of the economy to 2%… over the course of a century.  Over the course of a CENTURY adjustments occur gradually… but this article suggests similar massive shifts occurring in the course of a DECADE. That means that this year’s seniors couldn’t have seen tis coming and, given the glacial speed of change in large systems like education, this year’s second graders are unlikely to be prepared for the workplace they will face in 2022 when they graduate from high school— unless they start taking hammers to the robots being installed in factories and warehouses across the country.

So where ARE the jobs going to be, especially for unskilled workers?

Some jobs are still beyond the reach of automation: construction jobs that require workers to move in unpredictable settings and perform different tasks that are not repetitive; assembly work that requires tactile feedback like placing fiberglass panels inside airplanes, boats or cars; and assembly jobs where only a limited quantity of products are made or where there are many versions of each product, requiring expensive reprogramming of robots.

But that list is growing shorter.

The list is growing shorter for both skilled and unskilled jobs… and the unemployment lines today are getting longer… and the number of unskilled laborers, those without college degrees, is getting longer too. There are only so many beds to be made in motels, so many fast food franchises to operate, so many bed pans to empty— assuming there is any money at all for health care. Something will emerge from all of this so that we can muddle through… but the chance of the robust middle class returning seems slimmer and slimmer.


Media Companies See a Cash Cow: Education!

August 20, 2012 Comments off

Today’s NYTimes reports that the Discovery Channel is moving into the digital textbook market because “it sees a growth opportunity too good to pass up.” Looking at a market where it can deliver a digital textbook for $38 to $55 per student as compared to cost of roughly $70 per student for a textbook.

But Discover is not the only company jumping into this market place. Disney, News Corporation (which owns Fox News), NBC, and a host of traditional textbook companies are entering into the fray. One quote jumped out at me as I work on a Race To The Top grant (see next post) that emphasizes personalized learning plans:

“Over the last 10 years alone, we’ve invested $9.3 billion in digital innovations that are transforming education,” said Will Ethridge, chief executive of Pearson North America, part of Pearson P.L.C., the world’s largest education and learning company. “One way to describe it would be an act of ‘creative destruction.’ By this I mean we’re intentionally tearing down an outdated, industrial model of learning and replacing it with more personalized and connected experiences for each student.” (emphasis added)

A cynical blogger might see the USDOE’s recent Race to the Top grant’s emphasis on personalization as kowtowing to the technology industry, but as a wild-eyed optimist about the possibility for change I see it as evidence that the factory school is on its last legs and a new form of schooling is about to emerge. A wild-eyed optimist can envision public schools embracing this new technology and using it to meet the unique needs of each child…. but I also know from experience that democratically operated institutions move VERY slowly and instituting the kind of disruptive change Pearson is advocating might require a complete overhaul of schooling. In my conversations with administrators and teachers in the North Country of New Hampshire and Vermont, it is clear that changing minds quickly will be the biggest challenge in the next five years.

Racing to the Top

August 20, 2012 1 comment

Late last week the USDOE posted its final RFP for Race to the Top funds… and it is heartening to see that the emphasis on personalized learning remains at the forefront. Even if the motives for emphasizing personalization are based on nudges from the technology companies, the movement away from the factory model toward a more individualized approach is long overdue.  In the coming weeks I may well be working with a group of rural school districts in Northern New Hampshire to develop a Race To The Top proposal… which will be a daunting task given the 107 page application form. Fortunately, much of the writing and thinking on this web page/blog advocates personalization and describes a means of achieving personalization (see the white paper on Reformatting NE Schools). Since both NH and VT are implementing the Common Core State Standards and introducing new assessments, districts in both states can benefit from the staff development that would be available through a federal grant. As the writing for the grant progresses I will provide periodic updates.

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