Category Archive • Technology
January 25, 2005
A provocative posting on Samizdata

On Jan 21st – last Friday in other words – David Carr did a posting about the electronic tagging of schoolchildren. He produced this quote …

A school in Swansea is considering tagging its pupils because of a shortage of assistants who can supervise lunch breaks.

The idea is for children at Lonlas Primary to wear the tags all day, with a buzzer sounding if they leave.

… which he found here.

The point I want to make here is simply that there are now a lot (as of now: 84) of comments on this posting, dealing with the rights and wrongs of state education, home education, etc., of just the sort that regulars here will find of interest.

My only comment, off the top of my head, is that no one seems to have thought of asking the children if they mind being tagged. Although, I haven't read all the comments with total care, and maybe someone did say that and I missed it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:35 PM
Category: Technology
October 28, 2004
Computer games and body language

Computer games are, for me, a closed book, if you'll pardon the expression. And like all those who are becoming ever more ignorant of the way the future is unfolding, I worry about it, and in particular I worry that Kids These Days Aren't Getting Enough Exercise.

Well, I've just been reading a fascinating New York Times report.

Two key quotes.

Quote Number One:

Four-year-old Alexander Nyiri, visiting New York with his parents last week, could not resist. He wandered over to the V.Smile TV Learning System set up in the cavernous Toys "R" Us store in Midtown Manhattan and began to play.

And play. And play some more.

"He was heading elsewhere, and this game caught his eye," said his father, Lou Nyiri, a Presbyterian minister from Gettysburg, Pa. "He pretty much caught on to it within 5 to 15 minutes. He got the most giggles running Simba into the water."

The object of Alexander's attention – a $60 item from VTech – mimics the basic design of popular video game consoles like Sony's PlayStation 2, Microsoft's Xbox and Nintendo's GameCube. And that is hardly a coincidence.

"We have been looking at data that shows that kids at an earlier and earlier age are starting to play video games," said Julia Fitzgerald, vice president for marketing at VTech Electronics North America. "We wanted to know how we could make this phenomenon work for Mom" – and make it educational.

It is unclear whether video games teach preschool children more about phonics and problem solving than about simply how to tool around in a virtual playground. But everyone seems to agree that the ranks of young video gamers are substantial.

A report last fall by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a health policy research organization, found that half of all 4- to 6-year-old children have played video games – on hand-held devices, computers or consoles – and one in four played several times a week. Of children 3 or younger, 14 percent have played video games.

"Companies have found that there was an untapped market with the really young kid," said Vicky Rideout, a vice president of the foundation.

Which establishes that this indeed a big "problem", in the sense that lots of kids are definitely involved. So, does this mean that a generation of kids is being immobilised in front of computer screens and toy boxes?

Quote Number Two:

Sony is introducing EyeToy: AntiGrav, its most advanced EyeToy game, letting players speed through futuristic environments on a hoverboard. Control is managed by the way players stand and shift their weight in front of the included EyeToy camera while wearing special armbands. While the $50 game is primarily for older children and teenagers, Mr. Marks and Mr. Brisbois said, tests have shown that children 5 and younger have little trouble picking up its broad objectives.

Mr. Dille of THQ said his company was also developing games that would use the EyeToy to control them. One level of a game lets children control SpongeBob's bowling by moving their own arms as if they were bowling.

"A 2-year-old could play that game, as long as the kid is capable of paying attention," Mr. Dille said.

Similarly, Nintendo, long the most child-oriented of the three major game console makers – and the maker of the GameBoy, often a child's first game machine - has created games that use nontraditional control systems. Its Donkey Konga game for the GameCube uses a set of plastic bongos to control the game through beating and clapping – a sort of hand-driven version of PlayStation 2's popular Dance Dance Revolution, which uses a touch-sensitive mat.

Parrin Kaplan, vice president for marketing and corporate affairs at Nintendo of America, noted that while young children may be able to play Donkey Konga games, the bongos were not specifically designed for them.

So there we have it. Yes, there is a "problem" here, if it is a problem that very young kids love computer gaming. But if the problem is that they will as a result become little tubs of mentally alert but physically disastrous lard as a result (like that huge Star Wars baddy who nearly ate Princess Leia), well, capitalism in all its greedy glory seems to be working on that problem.

What a future this will bring for education! Basically what we are talking about here is the nineteenth century British Public School rubric – mens sana in corpore sano ("a healthy mind in a healthy body") – reinvented with twenty first technology. Imagine computer games played on "touch sensitive mats" the size of tennis courts or soccer pitches, surrounded by cameras, which can track all the moves of the different players and stage counter-moves in reply … ah, the future.

Just the principle of computers being able to understand body language and not just typed-in or spoken language is fraught with all manner of possibilities.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:14 PM
Category: Technology
September 20, 2004
India successfully launches Edusat

I recall noting this plan when it was just a plan. My heading, I see, was India launches an edusat, but actually, the plan was to launch it in June. So. Mid-September. Not bad.

BANGALORE (Reuters) - India's space agency said it successfully launched the nation's first satellite for educational services on Monday, which is expected to boost distance learning in a country with a huge rural population.

The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) said in a brief statement on its Web site ( that the satellite was placed in its intended orbit 17 minutes after take-off at 4 p.m. from its spaceport at Sriharikota, 50 miles north of the southern city of Madras.

That's and here is the press release.


EDUSAT carries five Ku-band transponders providing spot beams, one Ku-band transponder providing a national beam and six External C-band transponders with national coverage beams. It will join the INSAT system that has already got more than 130 transponders in C-band, Extended C-band and Ku-band providing a variety of telecommunication and television broadcasting services.

Educated India is starting flex its technological muscles.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:25 PM
Category: IndiaTechnology
September 18, 2004
New book trashes humanoid robots

I say optimistic things about robots here from time to time, so here is some criticism of that approach to using computers.

Amazon quotes Publishers Weekly, re this book:

Hawkins designed the technical innovations that make handheld computers like the Palm Pilot ubiquitous. But he also has a lifelong passion for the mysteries of the brain, and he's convinced that artificial intelligence theorists are misguided in focusing on the limits of computational power rather than on the nature of human thought. He "pops the hood" of the neocortex and carefully articulates a theory of consciousness and intelligence that offers radical options for future researchers. "[T]he ability to make predictions about the future ... is the crux of intelligence," he argues. The predictions are based on accumulated memories, and Hawkins suggests that humanoid robotics, the attempt to build robots with humanlike bodies, will create machines that are more expensive and impractical than machines reproducing genuinely human-level processes such as complex-pattern analysis, which can be applied to speech recognition, weather analysis and smart cars. Hawkins presents his ideas, with help from New York Times science writer Blakeslee, in chatty, easy-to-grasp language that still respects the brain's technical complexity. He fully anticipates – even welcomes – the controversy he may provoke within the scientific community and admits that he might be wrong, even as he offers a checklist of potential discoveries that could prove him right. His engaging speculations are sure to win fans of authors like Steven Johnson and Daniel Dennett.

However, in my defence, I don't get excited about robots to educate because they will be super-intelligent. It's more that I surmise that they will make nice (and very cheap and parent-friendly) pets, and that tots may enjoy conversing with them, even if they are fairly dumb. Maybe even because they are fairly dumb.

I got to this via Instapundit, whom I am consulting a lot just now because I enjoy the Dan Rather thing so much.

Gratuitous picture …


… of a Fujitsu Robot demonstrating its goal-keeping skills. I found this picture here.

(Actually, a goal-keeping robot sounds like a fantastic soccer training idea. Ideal for the obsessionally aspiring striker to hone his skills on, while also learning some technology management skills. Maybe this boy should be given one. (Idea for Ubersportingpundit posting. (I owe them something.)))

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:03 PM
Category: Technology
June 01, 2004
Java(SM) Education and Learning Community (JELC) – Qu'est-ce que c'est?

I have no *!*!*!*!* idea what this is about, but it sounds as if it might be interesting:

SANTA CLARA, Calif. and SHANGHAI, China, June 1 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ -- On the heels of its first-ever Lifelong Learning Forum held in Madrid, Spain in March, Sun Microsystems, Inc. (Nasdaq: SUNWNews) today announced the Java(SM) Education and Learning Community (JELC). Spearheaded by Sun, the JELC's mission is to gather a global community of key educators, administrators and technologists to share best practices and strategies for creating, managing and implementing next-generation education infrastructures. Sun announced the availability of the JELC portal at the eLearning Center of Excellence Forum hosted in Shanghai, PRC in conjunction with Sun's first Asia Pacific SunNetwork Conference.

Founded on the principle of open collaboration, the JELC plans to address a variety of issues of great importance to the education community, including teaching and learning new technologies, vocational retraining, bridging the digital divide, and achieving full global access to top education materials and courses. To make this happen, Sun is convening education stakeholders and decision-makers, including ministers of education, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) ministers, K-12 and higher education institutions, as well as partners such as independent software vendors, standards boards and humanitarian organizations.

Is this just a fancy way of selling boxes of kit and complicated phone conversations, or is something more honourable and interesting than that involved here? I'd love any comments from the informed, i.e. from those whose knowledge of such matters is more than my *!*!*!*!*.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:10 PM
Category: Technology
April 25, 2004
Broadband has to be helping home education

I've just got around to reading this from the BBC, about the rise in Britain of working at home. The key change has been the arrival of broadband connections for millions rather than for a few thousand.

One of the big breaks on the rise of home education in Britain has surely been the rise, at about the same time, of the two-wage/two-salary family, with both parents needing to be away from home during the day, and needing old fashioned schools simply to keep an eye on their kids – even if actual education there is something of a bonus.

The rise of working at home is surely, therefore, going to help home education. Anything which makes it easier for at least one parent (maybe by the two of them taking it in turns) to stay at home, as in this case, is bound to encourage it. And before commenters tell me that there are all kinds of problems with trying to combine working with child minding, I can fully appreciate that. I didn't say it necessarily makes child minding easy; I merely say that for some parents, it makes it easier. And it surely does.

l'm thinking in particular of children who are old enough to work undisturbed for quite long periods of time (something at which home educated children often excel), but who are nevertheless too young to be left at home entirely on their own. That way, Mum or Dad can also get some serious work done.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:51 PM
Category: Home educationTechnology
April 09, 2004
Especially valuable in teaching women

I have tried typing "education" into google and picking the images option, and I have tried typing "school" into google and picking the images option, but the best source of pictures for here looks like when I type in "teaching" and pick the images option. Best image so far:


Ah yes, those silly, silly women. And in 1917, no men were doing anything silly, anywhere, were they?

Nevertheless, interesting stuff about the cars you need to teach driving. There's a case where the discovery method can't be allowed to just let rip.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:24 AM
Category: Technology
March 30, 2004
How India thinks and what India learns

There is a fascinating article by Cherryl Barron in the latest Prospect (April 2004 – paper only so far as I can work out) about the reasons for the Indian computer software miracle.

The emergence of India as a software superpower is still generally attributed to the cheapness of its programmers and software engineers. But the underlying reasons are more complex and interesting, lying in the subcontinent's intellectual and pedagogical traditions.

Software is ubiquitous. It is at the core of processes in every strategic industry, from banking to defence. And the depth of India's advantage in software suggests that it poses a bigger challenge to the western economies than even China. China, strong in manufacturing and computer hardware, has been almost as unimpressive in software as Japan. Indeed, no developing country has ever taken on the developed world in a craft as sophisticated and important as software.

Indian software aptitude rests on both the emphasis on learning by rote in Indian schools, and a facility and reverence for abstract thought. These biases of Indian education are usually considered mutually exclusive in the west, where a capacity for abstraction is associated with creativity. In India, learning by rote is seen by most conventional teachers as essential grounding for speculation.

An educational tradition that spans learning by heart and exalting excellence in higher mathematics is just right for software. It fits the mentality of computers. These are, after all, machines so fastidious as to refuse to send email with a missing hyphen or full stop in an address. Yet no product on earth is as abstract, boundlessly complex and flexible as software. It cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted or touched and is, to borrow Nabokov's description of chess – a game invented in India – a "spectral art."

India's software accomplishments reflect those extremes. Indian firms dominate a world elite of over 120 companies recognised for producing outstandingly accurate software, those which have earned a CMM Level-6 tag, software's equivalent of the Michelin 3-star rating. These establishments – of which America has less than half the Indian total—are certified to be following an exacting, detail-ridden methodology developed at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh for producing reliable code.

At the other pole of cyber-sophistication, most of the reigning US technology giants – Microsoft, General Electric, Texas Instruments, Intel, Oracle and Sun Microsystems – have established software design and development facilities and even R&D laboratories in India to take advantage of the world-class brains produced by the Indian institutes of technology, willing to work for an eighth of the starting salary of their US counterparts.

This next bit also alludes, perhaps without intending to, to what used to be wrong with people educated in India.

Western programmers' view of their craft tends to stress its more rarefied dimensions, such as this description by the US computer scientist Frederick Brooks: "The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible ... so readily capable of realising grand conceptual structures."

Yet "pure thought-stuff" is also an encapsulation of ancient India's contributions to the world's scientific heritage. In about 600 BC, before the Greeks, some schools of physics in India developed atomic theories, based not on experiment but purely on intuition and logic. Some western physicists marvel at how much closer the imaginative speculations of Brahmin atomic theory have come to current ideas in theoretical physics than those of any other pre-modern civilisation.

"The Indians advanced astronomy by mathematics rather than by deductions elicited from nature," the science writer Dick Teresi has noted in Lost Discoveries. Indian mathematics was also distinctively airy-fairy. Whereas Greek mathematics was largely extrapolated from mensuration and geometry, the ancient Indians most distinguished themselves in abstract number theory. Zero, infinity, negative and irrational numbers – all concepts that the Greeks dismissed as ludicrous – were Indian concepts.

Airy-fairy. "Pure-thought-stuff." Yes, that sums up the cliché stereotype Indian university graduate of my (older) generation. Very big on abstraction, can talk the hind leg off a donkey, but no bloody use for anything except becoming a bureaucrat and driving the Indian economy – what little there used to be of it – ever deeper into the dust.

Spatial extension and quantities of objects were far less interesting to pioneering Indian mathematical minds. In fact, the Indian leaning towards abstraction – so deep-seated that theoretical physicists and mathematicians still outrank every other sort of egghead in status – explains India's relatively poor showing, historically, in more practical sciences. The sinologist Joseph Needham observed that more practical study would have entailed defying Indian caste rules about contact between Brahmins and artisans. Similarly, the progress of ancient Indian knowledge of physiology, biology and anatomy was held back by the taboo on contact with dead bodies.

All of this brings to mind a remark by Peter Drucker from long ago to the effect that computers have provided something never before seen in the world, namely: paying jobs for mathematicians.

Could it be that the way that computers have enticed all these airy-fairies and pure-thought-stuffers away from being government bureaucrats will turn out to be their most important beneficial contribution to the Indian economy? Yes, these people are doing splendid things with their computers, but think of all the abysmal things they used to do and might still be doing instead, were it not for computers.

I can confirm the excellence of Indians at maths with one extremely anecdotal anecdote. By far the cleverest attender (way ahead of me) of those Kumon maths sessions I occasionally mention here was an Indian boy of about eleven or twelve. (One of the "slumbering giant" glories of Kumon is that it enables Kumon instructors to accept and help to educate pupils who are cleverer than they are. I think this is the single most impressive thing about Kumon. Think about that. But I digress.)

Barron ends as she began, by contrasting India with China:

It was the supreme pragmatists, the Chinese – whose intellectual traditions favoured practicality and action over airy speculation – who were the technological geniuses of antiquity. They invented paper, seismographs, the magnetic compass, the wheelbarrow, irrigation, ink and porcelain. But reasoning for its own sake was of so little interest to them that, unlike the Greeks and Indians, they never developed any system of formal logic. It hardly seems accidental that it is through the manufacture of physical objects that China is making its mark today, while India floats on the ethereal plane of software.

As regulars here will know, I have been trying recently to liven up this blog with pictures. And I think it says something about the priorities of Indian civilisation just now that when I typed "India" and "Mathematics" into Google, the pictures were all either terrible or irrelevant. How do you illustrate an ethereal plane? Just an Indian guy in front of a blackboard covered in mathematical symbols would have done nicely, but I could find nothing like that.

Lots of stuff about Ramanujan, though.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:40 PM
Category: ChinaIndiaMathsTechnology
February 13, 2004
Leaning - one little thing at a time – and with a little help from friends

Confession time. I depend on my computer, but I'm very bad at learning new stuff I can do with it. This is because my basic method of learning is to be told things, and I don't spend enough time working on my computer in the company of others.

This definitely has its advantages. You try listening to Bruckner symphonies in an office with half a dozen other people in it. Try turning up to work in your pyjamas. But from the learning point of view, working home alone has severe disadvantages.

I am reminded of these disadvantages when circumstances temporarily give me a taste of life without them, but only in the form of a small taste rather than a steady diet.

At my last last-Friday-of-the-month meeting at the end of January, one of my guests witnessed me mucking about in Photoshop with some photos I'd taken. I wasn't changing them, just showing them. And my guest noticed that I wasn't using the "thumbnails" option to find the pictures I was looking for. And I wasn't. I'd never noticed its existence. Like everything involving computers, it was easy once I knew how, but hard to find out about until then.

It doesn't matter whether you understand the details of this thumbnails thing, or of how idiotically obvious it is. All that matters is that you get the general principle, which is that with computers there are, at any one time, about four dozen obvious things which you might be doing more cleverly, or doing at all, if only you realised that you could. I sort of knew that there must be a way to browse more quickly, the way I've seen people doing it in Windows. The way I do it in Windows, for goodness sakes. But I had never got round to learning about it.

And then, following an absurdly ill-informed posting on Samizdata, I further learned that you can search google for images. Yes! That's right! I've only been using the internet for about half a decade, so how was I expected to realise this any sooner? It isn't as if I've been staring this procedure in the face for more than about ten per cent of my life. No wonder I didn't realise it any sooner.

arnold.jpgI now celebrate my new found knowledge by sticking up a picture of the famous Headmaster of Rugby, Matthew Arnold which I found in seconds, armed with my new superpowers. And of course with the browsing thing, it'll be easier for me to find this picture again if I need it again.

In order to learn things, it helps to have sympathetic souls hovering in the background making helpful suggestions. A common word for such people is: "teachers". These teachers watch what you are doing, and they say things like: "Do you mind if I suggest something? Tell me to stop if I'm interrupting, but maybe this would help? Please permit me to demonstrate. There. Like that. Please forgive the interruption. Ignore that if it is of no use to you."

You can't find the answer if you don't ask the question, and even then you may not be able to answer it.

And the trouble with computers is that you have so many questions and if you live the life I do, you spend it saying "I wish I'd remembered to ask X that thing about Y when I last met him." So do I now ring him up? It's just a tiny bit too much bother, the way it wouldn't be if he was right here all the time. That way, I could ask him as and when the question reasserted itself in my mind. (And that assumes I was aware of the question.)

This is a posting for my education blog, because it is about education, and why education alone isn't all that it is sometimes cracked up to be, not least by techno-enthusiasts like me, when I'm in a different and happier mood. But, because it is about the value of being in company, and therefore of the value of companies, run by people in direct face-to-face contact with each other for quite a lot of the time, it is also a posting which I will now go and refer to on Transport Blog. For this is one of the basic reasons why people travel to work, instead of just doing it at home. If you do it at home, you don't learn so much.

Don't get me wrong. I've learned a lot doing blogging, a lot more than I was learning before I started blogging. (The difference has been me writing things down rather than just reading them and writing the occasional set piece piece.) But I haven't learned as much about basic computing stuff as I would have if others had been hovering and offering suggestions and answering casual questions.

Busy day today and a busy weekend, so it's probably now a case of see you Monday.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:48 AM
Category: Technology
February 02, 2004
Old school in full colour

Michael Jennings did a posting about the surprisingly long history of colour photography, and I put a bit of it on Samizdata and asked about the very early Russian colour photos Michael mentioned. A commenter immediately referred us to the photographs of a certain Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii.

I found one photograph with an educational theme. It's called Group of Jewish Children with a Teacher:


This photograph was taken in Samarkand in 1911.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:55 AM
Category: HistoryTechnology
January 29, 2004
Indian launches an edusat

It seems that wherever you look, you find good news about India, and about India's economic development. That India is now busily taking computer jobs away from Americans has been one of the big world economic stories of the last six months.

Here's more news of India pushing ahead, this time in the form of an educational satellite:

BANGALORE: Teaching over 20,000 students at a single go is no mean task. But making it possible and making classrooms barrierless will be India's Edusat – the world's first dedicated education satellite to be launched by India.

A pilot project of Edusat, that will provide satellite-based distance education, was launched in Karnataka on Wednesday.

While Edusat (Gsat-3) is to be launched in June this year, a pilot project has already been launched to test its efficacy. It will presently run on the Insat -3B, already in orbit. Chief Minister S.M.Krishna launched the pilot project in Bangalore on Wednesday with a live conference across Mysore and Bellary.

In the first phase around 70 engineering colleges of the Visveswaraiah Technological University (VTU) will be linked to multicast interactive multimedia.

I know, I know, a "Chief Minister" launched the damn thing. But that doesn't necessarily mean that he will be in charge of it. After all, the Indian public sector doesn't yet have the silly money to waste that is the basis of all the West's educational failures nowadays. With luck, there'll be plenty of greed and selfishness involved in the management of this new wonder gadget.

How soon before the Indian education business goes global, by which I mean so global that it becomes the next big economic story about how India is gobbling up the universe?

What a blessed change this all makes from the days when the only news that ever came out of India was about misery and starvation.

UPDATE: India has just bought itself a new aircraft carrier. From Russia, which tells you who's on the up and who isn't. Well, second hand. Pre-owned, as my video store calls it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:04 AM
Category: Technology
January 02, 2004
The educational value of television and of the internet in combination

I'm not in Edublogging mode right now. Normal service, as already stated, will only resume next Monday. But today, while concocting this posting on my Culture Blog, I was struck once again by the educational value not of television as such, nor of the internet as such, but by the two together.

The telly told me about a new skyscraper I'd not heard of, and google got me to all the info about it. Without the telly I wouldn't have known what I was looking for. Without the internet I wouldn't have gone looking, and found it.

It is a common pattern in the history of new communications that when a new method arrives, it gives new value to older ones, despite widespread theorising to the effect that the new method is nothing but a threat to the old one. The printing press thrashed out new stuff to talk about. TV sells books. Now, the internet makes of a snatch of telly reportage.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:37 PM
Category: TechnologyThe internet
The educational value of television and of the internet in combination

I'm not in Edublogging mode right now. Normal service, as already stated, will only resume next Monday. But today, while concocting this posting on my Culture Blog, I was struck once again by the educational value not of television as such, nor of the internet as such, but by the two together.

The telly told me about a new skyscraper I'd not heard of, and google got me to all the info about it. Without the telly I wouldn't have known what I was looking for. Without the internet I wouldn't have gone looking, and found it.

It is a common pattern in the history of new communications that when a new method arrives, it gives new value to older ones, despite widespread theorising to the effect that the new method is nothing but a threat to the old one. The printing press thrashed out new stuff to talk about. TV sells books. Now, the internet makes of a snatch of telly reportage.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:37 PM
Category: TechnologyTechnologyThe internet
The educational value of television and of the internet in combination

I'm not in Edublogging mode right now. Normal service, as already stated, will only resume next Monday. But today, while concocting this posting on my Culture Blog, I was struck once again by the educational value not of television as such, nor of the internet as such, but by the two together.

The telly told me about a new skyscraper I'd not heard of, and google got me to all the info about it. Without the telly I wouldn't have known what I was looking for. Without the internet I wouldn't have gone looking, and found it.

It is a common pattern in the history of new communications that when a new method arrives, it gives new value to older ones, despite widespread theorising to the effect that the new method is nothing but a threat to the old one. The printing press thrashed out new stuff to talk about. TV sells books. Now, the internet makes of a snatch of telly reportage.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:37 PM
Category: TechnologyTechnologyThe internet
December 30, 2003
AIBO version 3 – robot teachers get nearer

From time to time I put up a posting here about the long-term educational significance of robots. This significance is huge. Sometimes, commenters – here or in conversation – tell me I'm wrong. It'll never catch on, they say. But it will. I'm right. They're wrong.

The deservedly world famous AIBO for example, if the Sony Corporation sticks with it (which the Sony Corporation shows every sign of doing), is absolutely bound to bond with small children sooner or later, and then think what that might lead to. That it might not all be good, I concede at once. That important things along these lines are somewhere in the human future seems to me only a matter of time and effort, both of which are inevitable short of a seriously big nuclear war or other catastrophe.

Here's a slice of a Telegraph report from before Christmas. I apologise for the better-late-than-never nature of this link, but … better late than never.

The introduction of the Sony AIBO robotic pet that acts as your best friend and which can be set to sleep at certain times and knows when it needs to be charged marks a significant step forward in robotic technology. The first Sony AIBO was introduced in the UK in 1999 and represented a vision to combine technology with Artificial Intelligence to create an entertaining companion.

The third generation ERS-7 AIBO boasts enhanced communication skills and new levels of functionality and is evolving from a source of fascination and entertainment into a more functional, endearing companion aiming to facilitate interaction between humans and robots. It opens up a world of possibilities for enthusiasts and it is a notable step forward in the development of artificial intelligence as well as domestic robots.

A world of possibilities indeed, and not just for "enthusiasts".

See also ASIMO, which I also commented on here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:40 PM
Category: Technology
October 17, 2003
Computers in schools and why they usually don't work

This is an interesting book, by the look of things, that link being to a review of it. Opening paragraphs of the review:

What impact has computer technology had on public education in the US? That's the question journalist Todd Oppenheimer sets out to answer in "The Flickering Mind."

Mr. Oppenheimer's conclusion: Putting computers in classrooms has been almost entirely wasteful, and the rush to keep schools up-to-date with the latest technology has been largely pointless.

"At this early stage of the personal computer's history, the technology is far too complex and error prone to be smoothly integrated into most classrooms," Oppenheimer writes. "While the technology business is creatively frantic, financially strapped public schools cannot afford to keep up with the innovations."

I presume that much the same applies in Britain. Still, at least British schools aren't using "BBC" computers any more. Remember them? That was when British schools – or rather the gink who decided these things for them at the moment when he did – thought it made sense for British schools to have their own special and different computer standard from the regular standard, thereby destroying any chance that much of use would be learned, like: how to use the standard computers.

Although this books seems to be written as an attack on current computers and all the parasites who specialise in flogging them to the public sector, I read it (via this review of it) more as an attack on "public" schools and the way these schools are run. After all, computers are doing all sorts of wonderful things, for kids and for everyone else, outside of schools, and I remain utterly convinced that computers do now make a massive contribution to education, and that they will do so even more massively in the future – just not in "schools". They do it at home, in the workplace, etc.. So what's wrong with schools, that their best response to computers is to ignore them and use nothing but chalk and pencils, etc.? Because I am forced to agree that for the average school to ignore computers completely may well be its best response.

I suspect that one big reason why schools fail with their computers is that no one really owns these computers. They arrive, and are then engulfed in the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons is pretty tragic for desks, blackboards, curtains, etc. For computers it is very tragic indeed.

And I further suspect that many schools, instead of getting some computers when they really, definitely need them, to solve some particular, definite problem that they do definitely have, just get them with the vague idea that, you know, the kids will somehow learn how to use them, for … things. (The functional equivalent of that would be if The Government tells all its schools to Get Computers, regardless of the immediate consequences.)

That never works. You should never, ever buy anything computer related (for more than the pettiest of petty cash) which is not the exact answer to an already existing problem that you definitely do have, and which will rapidly solve that problem, and do this so rapidly that you will not regret the price drop that will hit you in three months' time, and which will make an ass of you if you haven't had three solid months of brilliant problem solving out of your new kit.

So, if your school is thinking of "getting some computers", ask in a loud voice (a) what the problem is, exactly, that these computers are definitely going to solve, and (b) why these particular computers are the answer, rather than some other far cheaper ones, or no computers at all. And while you are about it (and going back to that point about ownership), if the school is going to "get some computers", ask (c) exactly who – which pre-named individual who is hungry to perform this task – is going to make sure that all this problem solving actually happens, and that the damned stuff doesn't just rot in cupboards or sit about until someone with a better idea about what to do with it steals it, or until someone just plain wrecks it. In the absence of solid answers to all of this, forget it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:35 PM
Category: Technology
August 03, 2003
An advertisement

I've just caught these people advertising themselves on the television. Are they any good?

That's "Computeach", IT teachers since 1964. I'm never convinced when people claim to have been doing something "since" whenever. All it tells me is that they want you to think they're experienced, but not that they necessarily are. After all, was it the exact same people? And if it were, would that be good?

Here are two ways of seeing this.

One: the British economy is on the up and up, and more and more people want to get with the new economy.

Two: the British economy is on the down and down, and more and more people are now unable to get real jobs doing this stuff and so are desperate to teach it instead, and will take very poor money to do it, so it's all got a lot cheaper to learn, so come and get it. Please. Oh all right then.

Still, TV adverts cost, and this advert at least suggests that someone thinks this will make money rather than just chuck it away. You don't very often see education adverts on British telly. And if the economy is on the down and down, teaching and learning this stuff is no bad way to react.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:04 PM
Category: Technology
July 28, 2003
Safe education - but not such good education

There's nothing like a link to something else there to get you looking at a good piece near the one linked to, that you would otherwise have missed.

Instapundit links to this posting, which is fun and also education-related too, but just under it I also found this, which is Photon Courier's take on the decline of what they call in America "shop".

Some of you may recall me ruminating on this here, in connection with my friend the "shop" teacher John Washington.

This afterthought strikes me as particularly acute:

UPDATE: I'm sure that another factor playing a role here is the fear of lawsuits. If kids are allowed to smart off in a shop class, it can be very dangerous. It's a lot easier to hurt yourself (or someone else) with a welding torch than with a computer or a piece of paper. And few school administrators seem to have the courage to insist on the right to remove troublemakers from activities that could be hazardous are simply avoided.

I suspect that many of the factors discussed here are also relevant to the decline of laboratory science in the schools.

Makes sense. And see also the second half of this recent posting here, which also bears on child safety.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:02 PM
Category: Technology
July 21, 2003
"Better theories of learning"

Yet another educational expert is praising computer games:

Violent video games are more educational than school, stimulating children to be more critical, constructive and reflective than conventional classroom teaching, says one of the world's leading educational experts.

Children trying to escape a maze, find a hidden treasure or blast away an enemy with a high-powered rifle in a fantasy world make greater cognitive leaps than they do in the classroom, Professor James Paul Gee believes.

'Better theories of learning are embedded in video games than many children in primary and secondary schools ever experience in the classroom,' said Gee, author of What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning And Literacy, to be published next week.

'Violence is just a way of grabbing the child's attention. What's important is that the more violent the game, the more strategic modes of thinking the child has to develop to win - modes of thinking that fit better with today's hi-tech, global world than the learning they are taught in school.'

Never having played computer games, or had any sustained dealings with children who do so a lot, I don't know about this.

But the argument certainly throws a different light on the debate about whether educatinal standards are climbing, or falling. Can there be any doubt that today's children tend to be better at computer games than were their grandparents at the same age?

I still remember remember fondly this poster at TCS blog who saw a day coming when children won't be allowed to do sums or read books and write reports on them until they've done their daily stint of computer gaming. I wouldn't put it past them.
Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:50 PM
Category: Technology
July 01, 2003
Curriculum Bites on BBC3 TV – I'm impressed

I'm watching one of my new digital channels. In the top left corner there is the BBC logo, and wobbling about on top of it a blue and wobbling "C" in a green globule, if that helps at all. The channel is BBC3. I'm watching some things called "Curriculum Bites". This is not it, but it does look like stuff that is supposed to complement what I'm watching.

Two attractive but, it must be said, rather nerdy young people – an older brother and an older sister, you might say – are talking away about the periodic chart of the elements, and they're talking about atoms, outer electrons, sharing of electrons, covalence bonding, and similar things. It's presented as a Socratic dialogue, with a pupil asking instantly intelligent and pertinent questions, and with a teacher (the same age) answering these questions, sometimes preceding his answers with phrases like: "Good question." As the lesson is expounded, the pupil repeats the lesson in slightly different words, to drive the point home. "So, when an electron … blah blah blah." "Yes. That's right. You've got it."

"Hang on . You're going to have to go through that again."

I'm interested that everything is right. These are totally artificial conversations, just begging to be lampooned by the comedians. No mistakes are made, and corrected. I guess that would be confusing, and the viewers might memorise the mistakes. Makes sense.

Behind the young people, the periodic chart itself swirls about, and whenever they have things to say, about, say, all the metals (to the left – I had no idea there were so many) and all the non-metals, the periodic chart emphasises the line dividing the two clumps, and colours change according to what generalisations are being made about which elements. Occasionally, the graphics are replaced by imagery of actual chemical reactions in action. Also, in front of the young people, animated particles swirl about, like magical weightless billiard balls bobbing about in the air, and doing the things that electrons do.

Well, as you can tell, they lost me ten minutes ago. I don't really get all of what they are saying. That I get any of it at all is probably because I was taught some of this stuff forty years ago, by the old fashioned methods not involving TV sets.

Several things impress me about all this.

First, as already said, good use is being made of computer graphics.

Second, thank goodness for the now universal ability of everyone to record material like this, and play it back again and again, with lots of pausing.

Third, making use of the second point, they don't waste time with gobs of dead time. What I have in mind here is the infuriating tendency of more mainstream documentaries to say something, but then to stop for a few seconds and have a stupid picture of our compere driving his car to some important place where someone he wants to talk to lives or works, as if looking at the scenery near where this person lives will somehow help us to understand what he thinks. It won't. This is just slowing things down for the sake of it, in case we get lost.

But in these Curriculum Bites, they don't faff about. They talk, and talk continuously. If you couldn't play it back again, or make these frighteningly well informed and fluent young people pause in their explications, you'd be lost in no time. But of course you can repeat, and you can pause.

The amount of stuff they're getting through per ten minutes is phenomenal. One DVD – and there have to be DVDs – of these Curriculum Bites would contain a vast amount of material. As I've been typing this out there must have been about seven or eight of these little lessons, each of which seems to last about five minutes (and each of which, as I say, communicates as much as the average 45 minute documentary). So if you want to learn chemistry, or science of any kind, it has recently been getting a whole lot easier.

If say, a oldish teenager were to be thoroughly on top of all this stuff, he'd be at least as good at science as I was at that age. If you had all this, and a rather crummy science teacher, that would be the equivalent of having just a good teacher, of the sort I presumably had, but maybe did not. (How do I know?)

It is routine in my part of the blogosphere to denounce the BBC and all its works. But the BBC is a big sprawl of activities and entertainments, many of which are outstanding. Like, it seems to me, these televised Curriculum Bites.

(Instapundit, another favorite of mine for political reasons, made a similar point - but sorry, can't find when - about another Big Media organ much criticised by my favourite pundits, the New York Times. The NYT, said the Big I, has outstanding science and technology coverage.)

Most of the Children's Educational TV I've ever watched until now has been waffly, patronising, uninformative (and probably deeply misleading) nonsense. It's been shot through with the notion that the one thing that teachers should never ever do is teach. But these people are teaching, teaching, teaching, at a rate I've never witnessed before.

I'm very impressed.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:46 PM
Category: Technology
June 22, 2003
Playing at learning Japanese

I have no idea how good this is. But this introductory paragraph certainly strikes a chord with me:

The goal of Project LRNJ is to make Japanese accessible to people who enjoy anime or video games, and wouldn't otherwise learn it. To meet this goal, it is necessary that the training program be freely available, efficient, and both attractive and fun for the target audience. There are years of part-time R&D on the project, but the idea of making it into a game only came up in March 2003.

If you're in the market for something like this, let him (and the rest of us here) know what you think. If you know of anyone else who might be interested, pass it on.

My thanks to Darrell Johnson for emailing me the link. I wonder what he things of this.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:42 AM
Category: Technology
June 14, 2003
Come on – time for Wolfenstein!

I like this, from the TCS blog, by Daniel:

Following the lastest studies showing the benefits of computer gaming e.g. here I wonder how many households are moving from:

Child: But MUUUUUUM - I'm on level 5!
Mum: Not until you've finished your homework


Child: But mum - I've got homework to do!
Mum: Not until you've got past level 6 of wolfensteim returns to zeldaland!

Funny. And profound.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:48 AM
Category: Parents and childrenTechnology
June 12, 2003
On dolphins and robots

Further to this, there's lots more arguing about just how clever dolphins aren't here.

I especially liked the commenter who said that her dog definitely learned, and then the commenter who said that his computer game definitely learned.

Can you teach a computer programme? I don't think that "yes" is a totally silly answer.

In a hundred years, will robots be going to college? I recall a Sci-Fi story about a robot who confounded his inventors by becoming an aesthete and wearing a flower in his lapel. Sounds like it could have been Philip K. Dick. Anyone?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:03 PM
Category: Humans and animalsTechnology
May 05, 2003
John Washington – a life in teaching

Last Friday I had supper with my friend John Washington. He is nearing retirement now, and has spent his working life teaching, under various acronymic headings, handicrafts, woodwork, that kind of thing. Craft. CDT. Which stands for ... he did tell me, but I've forgotten. Craft and design technology? I should pay more attention. Anyway, he teaches children to make things, and to do things, rather than merely to know things.

You expect such teachers to be big, muscular, sergeant-majorish types with a passion for craftsmanship, yes, but also with a corresponding disdain for more intellectual pursuits. John is a dapper little man, with a degree in African history, who spent time teaching English as a foreign language when teaching handicrafts in the ever less handicraft-friendly British school system became too dispiriting for him. But he's now back doing what he seems to do best, at Ibstock Place School, in Roehampton, in the south western suburbs of London.

I have know John for some years now, because he quite often attends my last-Friday-of-the-month evenings – a gentle and modest presence. I started this blog partly as an excuse to meet with people like John and get to know them better, by picking their brains about their work, and if the evening I spent with John is anything to go by my plan is starting to work really well.

People don't always like to talk about their work. They want a change. They don't want to have to give a free slice of what they get paid to do during the day. They don't want to be criticised for the sins of their professional brethren. They are anxious not to to appear boring and obsessive. But my questions don't seem to cause such grief as this. What do you do? How do you do it? What do you see as its purpose? How has it changed over the years? I like to think that being asked things like this by someone who is truly interested (or why would I be doing this?) is not so bad. Besides which, a lifetime of good work, such as I believe John's life to have been, is something that ought to be celebrated.

John didn't seem to mind our conversation. But it was nevertheless tinged with a certain melancholy. Craftsmanship of John's sort is dying out in the England of now, and John himself is something of a dying breed. At one point in our evening John drew my attention to the table we were sitting at, in the cheap restaurant where we were eating. He pointed out that whereas not so very long ago this table would have been made in England by a carpenter, it was now probably made in China in a factory, and only assembled here. As a consequence, although the government talks much about the "need to encourage creativity" of just the sort that John himself really does encourage, its heart isn't really now in it, and the same now goes for more and more schools. Machines and workshop equipment are being steadily sold off.

Sad though this may be, it does make sense to me. In the world as it is now, the balance of relevance has shifted away from being able to make a bookshelf and towards being able to decypher the instructions for assembling some bookshelves, and maybe to make a living translating such instructions into serviceable English. Carpentry is just another technology that used to be important, but isn't so important now. Important, maybe, but not so important. It's melancholy, but there it is.

But if John's sort of teaching does completely die out, something valuable will die out with it. When aswering the what's it for question, he spoke not only of teaching people how to make themselves tables and bookshelves and thus save having to buy expensive rubbish at B&Q, but also of the happiness that comes of having accomplished something, or having created something. So, John, part of what you are doing is making children happy? Yes, he said.

Like almost all teachers nowadays, John worries about discipline, and about the shocking behaviour of the worst behaved of the children he remembers. He told me how he once asked a man who worked in an office: "When was the last time someone held their face inches from yours and told you very loudly to fuck off?" For teachers, that's a regular occurrence nowadays.

I know what my child liberationist friends will say. Put children in unruly prison and don't be surprised if they behave like unruly prisoners. But as prison officers go, John Washington strikes me as the sort who combines the firmness and discipline of the scary Scottish one in Porridge with the kindness of the kind one. My further guess is that there are many men, more perhaps that he realises, who remember him with fondness and gratitude. I haven't watched him teach, and maybe when he does he's transformed into Genghis Khan with a power drill, but my guess would be not.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:22 PM
Category: Technology
April 16, 2003

I'm struggling with the appearance of my two blogs just now (here's the other), to say nothing of my website (which is so embarrassing I refuse even to link to it), and a friend has just told me about, which is dedicated to turning people like me into people like most of you.

Until now my only method for making headway as an internet operator has been to morally blackmail any www-fluent friends I can inveigle into my www-web. This only gets you so far. Sooner or later you need to know something of what you are doing. Now one of the moral blackmailees (who runs this blog himself) may have given me the vital piece of information, which is where to get a whole lot more of it, for myself.

The site gives me confidence, which is important in a teacher, is it not? I just have the sense that what I am being told is true, and important, and complete, and worth learning, and arranged in a way that is going to work and is accordingly going to be worth persevering with. The thing has authority, more than many human teachers I've known.

By the nature of what is being taught, I able to do and am being made to do that which I want to learn to do. I am not merely being informed about the skills I seek, I am practising them, an important distinction I think you will agree. I get to see, at once, the consequences of what I am doing. I have the main page open, where the instruction is to be found, another window where I am typing commands, and a third where the visual consequences of my commands are almost instantaneously displayed.

And unlike with the usual sort of human teacher, who insists on attendance in his classroom, there is no upper limit to the number of pupils that can handle, every one of us at our own pace.

As I say it's very early days, but so far so good. I'm impressed.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:06 AM
Category: Technology
April 13, 2003

Inspired by the amazing Honda "one take" advert, I googled "Honda" and came across ASIMO, the Honda humanoid robot.

As I have already said here, to near universal derision, there is an educational revolution embodied in mechanical beasties like these. Kids like them, and will – after a few decades of tweaking have gone by – be willing to learn from them. I mean, this was how the Tellytubbies operated. They were human, and they had TV sets in their stomachs to reinforce the various ideas they wanted to communicated.

Last time I tried to say stuff like this, commenters sneered. Horrible. Won't work. Too difficult. The parents won't allow it. Or maybe that was just people I talked to, I can't really remember.

Well, I don't care. I say it's the future. Not all of it, just a rather interesting aspect of it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:21 PM
Category: Technology
March 25, 2003
The Polish software miracle

At the Libertarian Conference in Krakov which I have recently returned from, I had the chance to talk with some of Poland's brightest and best young people. In yesterday's posting immediately after I got back home, I sketched out the story of the upper reaches of Polish education, and told of a generation of seriously wasted not-quite rocket scientists.

It so happens that I have a tiny moment of experience of these people, because I visited Warsaw in 1986, where I was supposed to collect information about the computer hardware needs of the Polish political underground. I was as completely out of my depth as I have ever been in my life. Talk about level of incompetence. These guys knew more then about computers than I will ever know.

I don't believe it mattered, because the message I took back to London was very simple. Just send us anything you can, they said. Whatever you send, we'll get it working, they said.

So I learned then of the nascent Polish computer software miracle, and I also learned the reason for it. At that time, computer hardware in places like London was rocketing forward, leaping ahead in power, plunging in price, much as it has been doing ever since. Not so in Poland. Hardware there was called "hardware" because it was so hard to come by, and once you got your hands on a computer, you made it do things scarcely dreamed of outside Silicon Valley. If you were Polish in 1986, for example, you made a laser printer print out the Polish alphabet. Only God and the Poles knew how you made that happen, then, if the thing wouldn't do it already. Thus the Eastern European software miracle. These guys were and still are largely self-taught.

Then, following the collapse of communism, along comes the internet.

Now as in 1986 I got hopelessly lost when confronted with technical detail, but one of these software wizzes sat next to me at the final supper we all had after our Conference had ended, and he told me of how the "open source" software movement, or world, or tendency or whatever it is, provides the first rung on the ladder from smart Polish kid to highly paid computer wizz. So is the Internet a case of "you ain't seen nothing yet"? Then as now, they knew the story far better than I did. You bet, they said. Cue a long exposition of, approximately speaking, the convergence of portable phone and computer technology.

And these guys told me something else that I found a little easier to understand. I've already written here about how the Japanese have a tough time learning all the Japanese that the Japanese have to learn in order to become fully functioning Japanese persons. Well, something similar apparently applies to the Polish language. This too is, compared to English, a very elaborate and unwieldy language, with none of the colloquial short cuts and variations that we have to enable us to say what we want. Translating from Polish to English can apparently shorten things by as much as thirty per cent, because in English you can say more with less.

I had given a talk at the end of the Conference in my usual under-prepared, but I trust reasonably thoughtful, witty and provocative way, which made up in rapport and entertainment value what it lacked in ready-scripted coherence. I wanted to provoke thought, not merely to elicit respectful admiration. I hope they enjoyed it. They said they did. But they said something else. They said: "You couldn't do that in Polish." Polish can't be juggled with the way English can. You can't, they said, think about it while you're doing it. Your brain couldn't cope with the complications of Polish, and thinking, at the same time.

So does that mean, I asked, that once you've learned Polish, other languages are a relative doddle? Correct, they said.

And computer software likewise. Once you've mastered the unforgiving complexities that must be got right in Polish if your Polish is to be right, you are ready to do software, where logic and consistency and elaboration are also the rules, rather than slap-dash say-it-how-you-feel-it expressiveness.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:56 PM
Category: Technology
March 03, 2003
A gr8 story on Samizdata about text messaging versus regular English

There a fascinating posting by Gabriel Syme over at, about the culture clash between text messaging and regular reading and writing as demanded by schools, in this case Scottish schools. Gabriel got up earlier this morning than I did, and even then I might have missed it, because few national education stories are as gr8 as this one, "gr8" being the only word I know in this new language so far. There are links to stories (e.g. to this) today, and to pieces I have written on Samizdata way back, and to here, and the least I can do is do is connect the half dozen folk in the unverse to this delightful ruckus who read this but not Samizdata.

Because: need I add how delighted I am about this story? And it's not just that I'm a Vodafone shareholder, god help me. The essence of good writing is knowing who you are sending your message to, and what you are trying to get across with it. By this standard the average text message is excellent, and the average school essay is a pointless shambles of undirected waffle.

I certainly don't think that regular English spelling is a CWOT ("complete waste of time"), but I cannot believe that the education of children is necessarily harmed by this new craze. I suppose anything which might drive a moderately good teacher insane will probably do some harm. But once teachers have got used to this stuff, and once a few text messagers have attained managerial status in the economy, isn't fluency in text messaging something extra to put on one's CV?

Meanwhile, the English language will, as so often, hoover up a mass of new words from this latest patois, and become even more English than it is already ("cwot" perhaps?), that is to say, even more complicated and mysterious and weirdly spelt, even more completely the language of the entire world, and way more cool even than it is already. In short, western civilisation will race ahead, accompanied, as always, by proclamations from oldies to the effect that it is doing the exact opposite.

What's tXt for "discuss"? Although, please note that if you do want to discuss this, the logical place to put comments is on Samizdata rather than here, because that is where most of them will be anyway. My guess is they'll be a lot of fun. I wonder if any regular old-school school teachers will try to stem the tide of gleeful postings in the new lingo with serious explanations of why it all ought to be stamped out, along with all other forms of modern communication, like TV, computers, pop music, chains of bonfires, etc.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:02 PM
Category: Technology
February 28, 2003
A mechanical evening

I've just finished listening to one of my last-Friday-of-the-month talks, given by Philip Chaston (who writes for Airstrip One), about the Mechanics Institutes that flourished in the early to mid nineteenth century in Britain. Informally organised, deeply distrusted by the Tory Establishment, they attracted huge numbers of students eager for self improvement and useful mechanical knowledge.

What did these places achieve? Were they, for example, the cause of the British industrial revolution, or were they the consequence of it? Hard to say. Bit of both, probably. The main consequence of listening to the talk, for me, was to stimulate in me a desire to learn more about these things. Philip gave us a blow by blow account of how they developed, what they did, who they taught, what they taught, and so on, and it was very interesting, but I like grand simple, perhaps over-simplified theories of how things work. I like a moral to my stories. Philip did not supply much along these lines. He spoke a bit about the parallel between the Mechanics Institutes and home schooling, but this was rather bolted on afterwards, or so it seemed to me. I grabbed Philip afterwards and asked him about this, and he said, well, yes, I guess it comes from being a historian. "I don't really do morals" he said.

The story did, however, have a bearing on this idea that "official" education systems give birth to unofficial systems which fill in all the official gaps. And here there may be a moral. For the rise of the Mechanics Institutes was not the end of the story. While they filled such a gap (basically technology instead of theology) they flourished. But then the official system finally got around to observing the same gap, got its technological act together and drove the Mechanics Institutes out of business.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:18 PM
Category: Technology
February 23, 2003
Moving academic publishing from expensive paper journals to the internet

On the day that I posted a piece here about how university teaching materials ought to be on the internet, published a piece about how academics are trying to move academia away from their dependence on the cumbersome and above all ludicrously expensive apparatus of academic paper (in both senses) publishing, and onto the internet. Until recently, academic publishing, if you could only break into it, has been a licence to print not only academic articles but also money. And the price of subscribing to these journals has kept untold thousands of potential students in ignorance of their contents. But all this may now be changing.

Now, however, there are the first whiffs of angry rebellion across the labs, common rooms and book-lined studies of academe. Many academics are quietly supporting moves to publish research on the internet, where it can be accessed free of charge and yet still be subject to the all-important peer-review process.

Led in Britain by Professor Stevan Harnad of Southampton University, many lecturers and researchers are supporting the Budapest Open Access Initiative, an international effort to bypass the "greedy" publishers and provide a low-cost or free alternative on the internet, backed by, of all people, George Soros.

Another conference of academics from countries as diverse as Belarus and the Netherlands met in the Hungarian capital again last month to discuss how best to "accelerate progress in the international effort to make research articles in all academic fields freely available on the internet".

Here, the Research Support Libraries Group – a committee set up by universities and other research facilities such as the British Library – has also been investigating the best means of disseminating academic research on the net.

About time too. I was speaking this afternoon with Alice Bachini about what the historical impact of the internet is going to consist of. This kind of thing is definitely part of that story.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:14 AM
Category: Technology
February 18, 2003
The Internet as University Library

Okay this is another quota posting. Remember the rule here? Something (anything) at least once every Monday to Friday. So far I've kept to this rule, and I'm proud of that. Sometimes I feel like some grouchy old pedagogue shambling into class, coughing and wheezing, and glowering at the terrified pupils all trembling behind their ancient, inkstained desks. But I'm here, so pay attention. You, put that chewing gum away. Simpson, before you leave today, write out a hundred times: "UNDERWARE IS NOT WORN OUTSIDE" (That was last Monday, I think. I love those lines Bart does. Recent favourite: "I AM NOT A DENTIST".)

So, the inexorable decline of the University Library. Tragedy or what? Where would I be at times like these (i.e. midnight rapidly approaching) without

The university where I currently teach has, I think, made a constructive move towards solving the problems of the decaying university library. Caltech (the California Institute of Technology) has a small student body of less than 1,000 undergraduates, some 800 graduate students and 250 or so professors. They are (just behind Harvard) the highest paid faculty in the country. The institute – although it lost half a billion of its endowment in the recent stock market slump – is very rich.

Traditionally, Caltech has spent lavishly on its library. Even the small cohort of humanists has prospered. Ask for a book, and it would be bought, accessioned and kept on open shelf. Recently, however, a major change of emphasis has occurred. Rather than store or keep printed materials, the library has moved to a system which prioritises delivery over storage and curatorship.

It is cheaper, the institute estimates, at around $10 a time, to get any book on interlibrary loan than to acquire, shelve, and circulate that book.

So too with articles in learned journals, which materials scientists are particularly hungry for. It makes more sense to order them in, like pizzas, rather than stoke up your own wood oven. Even if you let undergraduates in on the privilege the institute still comes out ahead. You order and it's in your mailbox next day (rush) in three days (normal). It's like rubbing a magic lamp and wishing the material into existence.

It says everything about university life that this character is actually proud that a piece of TEXT can be "delivered" – golly gee!! – NEXT DAY. (Or failing that, er, three days.) Pizzas? PIZZAS?!?!?! What century is this man living in? Perchance, the recently concluded one? And he's at the California Institute of Technology, for Jesus H. Christ's sake. I thought that in California they knew what computers can now do nowadays. Apparently not.

I'm not saying that printing off what is needed, anywhere anytime – like, you know, you could print THIS, within about three minutes of me finishing the writing of it – is going to be a total breeze to get organised. A scientific journal article probably has a few more potential glitches built into it than a blog posting, and especially a blog posting here (where I'm terrified of anything except words). And books, I do agree, do still have their uses. But couldn't Mr Caltech at least have made some allusion to the notion that treating texts like pizzas instead of like jars of fruit in your own larder is an interim measure until the obvious real answer is organised. (The nearest he gets to this is when he says that his university has "made a constructive move towards" solving the library problem, rather than actually claiming that the problem is already solved.)

The whole logic of the internet is that we all use the same giant filing cabinet, called: The Internet. Bloggers like me dream of the day when every reader pays a tenth of a cent to come here, but that will probably never happen. But surely if there's $10 available to get a book from some other University library, there are more than nickels and dimes to pay for members of the University to download academic books and articles.

I repeat. It's not that I'm saying that doing this is going to be easy to organise. I sense that the problem will be the "business model" and the negotiating with the old-line academic publishers. Once it's agreed how to do it, actually doing it will be relatively easy. What I'm saying is: it's obvious that this is what has to be organised. This is the question. And pizza delivery is not the answer.

Or to put it the other way, and approaching the problem from the other end, the future of academic text circulation is the system described in my piece about my friend Sean Gabb, only far, far more developed. Sean found free-to-download stuff that served his teaching purpose, and listed the links. The future of University teaching would make the entire contents of every University Library on earth available to everybody, everywhere.

And might that be the reason that Herr Doctor Professor Caltech might be uncomfortable with facing the obvious. Because, the logic of The Internet is that life at "universities" undergoes a whole lot more changes that just in the library.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:46 PM
Category: Technology
January 24, 2003
Brian needing some education

I will now exploit the ambiguity of my blog's title by emphasising the Brian's Education aspect of it.

I need to understand better than I do what is meant by the words "permalink" and "trackback". I do links to other blogs by just mousing around until I find something that seems like a link, and then later I check that this does indeed take my readers to the posting I'm referring to. But is there a system that automatically tells the linkee that this has happened? I get e-mails about how people have linked to me, sometimes. How does all that work? On this blog I have the time of the posting, which seems to be a link of some kind, and then a trackback, but no permalink. Is the time bit the permalink but called something different here. And what is a trackback?

You can tell that other people did all the setting up of this, can't you? I once asked Perry de Havilland of Samizdata about this stuff but couldn't understand his answer, so I thought I'd try you lot.

Someone, please educate me. Thanks in advance for any comments.

But please don't anyone say that it's up to me to discover it all for myself, and that your job is merely to enable me to do this.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:44 PM
Category: Brian's educationTechnology
January 20, 2003
How the internet solves the text book problem

A preoccupation of this blog is the influence on education of technology in general, and computers, the internet etc., in particular. People with preoccupations like this (such as me), are constantly to be heard saying that the effect of computers, the internet etc., is to make it possible for education to be individualised rather than massified, free range instead of factory. And computers, the internet etc., do indeed make that easier to contrive.

However, I had a conversation with my friend Sean Gabb this evening (Sean is among other things, a teacher of politics and economics at college level) which put a slightly different slant on this familiar story.

When I was a student, one of the most annoying facts of student life was that at the very moment when I wanted a particular book from the university library, I couldn't get it because there were also a couple of dozen other students all queueing up to read the same book. Eventually I got my turn, or else bought a copy of the book if it was important and not too expensive. But it was all most inconvenient.

Contrast this muddle with the situation of Sean's students. Sean no longer recommends books to his students; he recommends instead material that is available on the internet. Setting aside the question of whether this change presages the Collapse of Western Civilisation As We Know It, this procedure does have one huge advantage. All the students in the class, provided only that they have access to the internet (which they all do one way or another), are able to access this material without treading on each other's toes or in any way inconveniencing one another. There is no queue to read the relevant stuff. They just read it, exactly when they want to.

One inefficiency of Normal Education is that the classes are so very, very big, with the inefficiency of all the students in them being expected to proceed at the same pace. This they might not want to do. Electronic technology creates a personal library for each student that each can learn from at his own pace.

But another inefficiency of Normal Education is that sometimes the classes are so very, very small compared to how big they might be, if it were only possible for many hundreds – even (by using a bit more technology) thousands or millions – of students all to be consulting the same texts at the same time, in response to their teacher's recommendations. There are surely some teachers who are so excellent at teaching that thousands would want to learn from them, and would be quite willing to proceed at whatever pace such a teacher chose to set.

Maybe a future generation will decide that "the age of mass production" is the phrase we now use to describe that part of the real age of mass production when production costs were still actually quite high. Now the cost of mass producing texts, at any rate, is plunging towards zero. Good teachers can now, with the aid of the latest technology, achieve economies of scale undreamed of in the past.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:46 PM
Category: Technology
January 17, 2003
How I would teach music

The latest issue of the BBC Music Magazine (February 2003 - strictly paper so no point in a link) has the usual kind of brand X BBC article about "music education". If your child is keen on the cello, here's how to encourage them. Don't push them too hard if it's you and not them that's ambitious. Watch out for when they hit the Yehudi Menuhin school and get discouraged by the other better infant prodigies. These are the good choir schools and here's how they work. Here's how much they cost. That kind of thing.

You get no sense from reading this article that the classical way of making music is in any sort of crisis, although the evidence of this crisis is abundant throughout every issue of this magazine, and throughout the rest of this issue. If this were a piece for my Culture Blog, I might perhaps go into elaborate detail. Suffice it to say here that in the classical music business, an ever increasing flood of expert young musicians are chasing an ever diminishing pool of jobs. Major orchestras thrash about in a state of permanent financial crisis. Star soloists and conductors lose their permanent recording contracts. And government arts bureaucrats ask with increasing urgency what the point of it all is now supposed to be? But never mind, my little Susan is going to be the next Jacqueline du Pre.

In order to be a capable educator, it seems to me, you do have to have some idea of where the world outside and beyond your little academy is probably moving, and "classical music" needs a torrent of average classical instrumentalists like it needs a hole in the head. If the children you are teaching are just in it for the fun of it, and to stir up their brain cells (which classical music making is famously good at doing, by the way) before they all go off and become systems engineers, fine. But if the idea is that this music teaching might lead to some kind of musical career, then a major change of attitude is in order.

If the universe decided to play an evil joke on the rest of itself and to make me into a music teacher, the instruments I'd focus on most obsessively would be not the violin or the cello or the oboe, but the tape recorder and the personal computer. I would encourage my charges to make recordings as soon as they could manage them, and the questions I'd then ask would not be: Do I Like It? – or: Would Mozart have liked it? No. I'd ask: Do You Like It? Is this the kind of stuff that you and your friends might enjoy listening to?

The world of professional music making has all the recordings of the Elgar Cello Concerto it can now use. New ones are sometimes interesting, but they won't pay the rent. But what music, all music, still has is a voracious appetite for new stuff, expressing new impulses and feelings, for new audiences. There is the territory where livings can be made.

The Next Big Thing for classical music making is for all that instrumental skill to be applied to the making of new kinds of music.

When classical musicians talk like this, the phrase "cross over" is often used, and the results are usually dire in the extreme. But there is a reason for this. You can't imbibe one style of music making throughout your childhood, and then switch at the age of thirty seven to making stuff that will storm the album charts and actually earn you a living. This is the equivalent of trying to write a popular novel in a foreign language.

The language parallel is actually very apt. I recall reading in one of Steven Pinker's books about the difference between children brought up in a multilingual culture, and adults trying to make sense of such a world. The adults can only ever "translate" in a very self-conscious and laborious way. For them, the new multi-lingual world will always be that: multi-lingual. But mix up several languages in a group of children and leave them to get on with it, and you'll get a genuine new language, a "creole" language as I believe these things are called. If classical music is ever going to get beyond Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc., it is going to have to teach the next generations very differently to the way Yehudi Menuhin and Jacqueline du Pre were taught.

Don't get me wrong. I love classical music with maniacal adoration. My classical CD collection is the talk of libertarian London. But the job of making this wonderful music available to the musical public has now, give or take a few more rarities and oddities, been done. The teaching of music should now reflect that fact.

My guess is that in lots of places it already does.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:48 PM
Category: Technology
January 09, 2003
Educational computer games?

You may recall me writing here about educational software. I persist in expecting good things along these lines eventually, if only because this kind of thing has only to be cracked once. This - and my thanks to Joanne Jacobs for the link to it - is the kind of thinking I had in mind:

Education is a proven means for investing in our future. But while American schools are notoriously under-serving their students, kids are rushing home to learn how to succeed in alternative universes. Video games compel kids to spend dozens of hours a week exploring virtual worlds and learning their rules. Barring a massive overhaul of our school system, Nintendo and PlayStation will continue to be the most successful at captivating young minds.

Over 60% of Korean homes have broadband Internet access. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games are immensely popular there; increasing numbers of people spend hours each night fighting monsters together online. The largest Korean textbook distributor Daekyo and an independent software design firm JMCJ (Interesting & Creative Co., Ltd.) have joined forces to make a massively multiplayer online role-playing game in which children can study math, science and history: Demiurges. These people intend to make it possible for people to play in a virtual world saturated with real-world knowledge.

I suspect that children learn somewhat more from those 'commercial' games than Justin Hall goes on to imply, but that aside, I like his attitude.

This was from a piece he did in response to a question about what President George Bush should be thinking about science policy. My answer to that would be as little as possible, and if the answer to Justin Hall's answer is that President Bush decides to throw government money at educational computer games, my answer to that would be that this will, as always with government money, impede that which is being 'helped' and not help it at all.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:51 AM
Category: Technology
January 02, 2003
Lawschool laptops

It's been a regular theme here that the new information technology is making life hard for a lot of the people who run old-technology institutions, such as most schools and universities still are. (The new technology is icing in these places, not the cake of how they are actually run.) First it was Elvis Presley and his many successors, making the world outside the classroom so much more enticing than it used to be. Now, cheap computers are finally making their presence felt in the classroom, because now they are cheap enough for students to own them. (As we all know, a computer you don't own is hardly a computer at all.)

This is from today's New York Times:

In a classroom at American University in Washington on a recent afternoon, the benefits and drawbacks of the new wireless world were on display. From the back row of an amphitheater classroom, more than a dozen laptop screens were visible. As Prof. Jay Mallek lectured graduate students on the finer points of creating and reading an office budget, many students went online to, a Web site that stores course materials, and grabbed the day's handouts from the ether.

But just as many students were off surfing. A young man looked at sports photos while a woman checked out baby photos that just arrived in her e-mailbox.

The screens provide a silent commentary on the teacher's attention-grabbing skills. The moment he loses the thread, or fumbles with his own laptop to use its calculator, screens flip from classroom business to leisure. Students dash off e-mail notes and send instant messages. A young man who is chewing gum shows an amusing e-mail message to the woman next to him, and then switches over to read the online edition of The Wall Street Journal.

Now me, I'm all for chalk and talk. But my background is political propaganda rather than regular teaching (even though these activities have much in common), and I take a rather contemptuous view of "teachers" who can only command attention by commanding it. Haven't these people ever heard of the ancient art of rhetoric, of getting and keeping the attention of an audience, of explaining to them why they should listen, why the subject matters, or even (whisper) why it is actually rather wonderful?

There are two basic propositions being banged on about here, day after day, in among ruminations about other educational things. One is that treating pupils like condemned criminals is not nice. But the other is: because of the nature of the modern world, treating pupils like condemned criminals doesn't work any more. This story illlustrates the second of these two propositions with great vividness.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:57 PM
Category: Technology
December 09, 2002
How Eugene Volokh paid for his education

Here's an interesting man who had an interesting education:

Like most immigrants, the Volokhs had to begin again in the U.S. Vladimir eventually worked his way back up from computer operator to programming and often took his sons to work during school vacations.

By the time Eugene was 12, he was put on the payroll at the company his father worked for. That same year, he adapted an accounting utility program Vladimir had written for more generalized use. Some of the sizeable profits from this new product funded Anne Volokh's Movieline magazine.

"I have heard, 'Oh, the Volokhs got so successful so fast, it must have been drug money,'" laughs Anne. "But actually it was the software."

Eugene continued earning money as a programmer all through college, and in fact is still a partner in the small software company he and his father started.

He entered UCLA as a freshman when he was 12, usually getting dropped off by his father in the morning, then taking the bus to his programming job in the afternoon. Volokh says that entering college and the work world while still a child wasn't really a huge adjustment, though his boss did at one point have to ask him to please stop all that running through the halls -- people on the floor below were complaining about noise.

This reminds me of something I remember reading in a Peter Drucker book once, which is that computers have provided something never provided before by our civilisation: paying jobs for mathematicians besides being maths teachers.

Eugene Volokh, however, does now teach, but law rather than maths. This is his blog.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:11 PM
Category: Technology
December 08, 2002
Student blogging?

I'm becoming intrigued by the educational value of blogging, to me. As for you, if you learn things then I'm happy for you, very happy. Learn away. But I'm struck by how much I'm learning. It's a lot more, I'm certain, than if I had merely read lots of stuff, including lots of stuff on other blogs.

When I was a student I could never get on top of that note-taking summary-writing business that students are supposed to do, and which good students presumably do do. I was too disorganised and too lazy. I only began writing things down systematically when someone else, or I myself, was going to publish them. That way I did the work, and I could also go back and read past efforts, confident that I would at least be able to find them, if not of their high quality.

For many years it was very sporadic, and horribly unwieldy. It was still far too much like hard work, bashing the stuff into length and style formats which now seem absurdly rigid. I couldn't just scribble things out, and publish them with a few keystrokes.

Writing notes about what one is supposed to be learning is, of course, a fundamental educational procedure. Writing something down obliges one to engage with what one is supposedly learning, and it makes self-deception about what one really has learned a lot harder. Writing transfers what one has temporarily absorbed in one brain location and inscribes it rather more permanently into another brain location, and if the writing can easily be read again later, the lesson can really sink in.

Thus it is that blogging is an immensely potent educational tool, for the blogger. If you are by nature not very good at keeping track of notes on paper, or even on your hard disk, and you nevertheless want to make a decent fist of studenthood, try blogging. If you are all that, and you are also something of a show-off, who wilts when there's no-one else to impress besides one crusty old teacher who has heard it all before a hundred times, try blogging. You never know how many admiring readers (the other kind will surely soon find other things to read) you might acquire, perhaps dozens. Perhaps only other students doing the exact same course as you, perhaps students doing a similar course all over the world, perhaps thousands who love your unconscious humour. Who knows?

Are there any student bloggers? I don't mean students who are fighting battles about political correctness and such like with their educational masters, or in general complaining about their educational misfortunes, interesting and valuable though that can surely be. I mean people using blogging to learn whatever they are trying to learn, by keeping an intellectual diary of lectures, seminars and so forth, emphasising ideas which they found especially striking, perhaps linking to their own fully written out essays. Is anyone doing that? If so, who is the youngest person doing it?

Who, in general, on any subject, is the youngest blogger?

As I find myself saying here quite a lot: Anyone?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:20 PM
Category: Technology
December 04, 2002
Alice in Cyberland

From Alice Bachini, who is getting very, very good:

The Blowhards regular TV Alerts blog (of which the latest example here) is a brilliant voice in the pro-TV universe. If all those TV-is-evilcationalists could just see this, they would stop arguing that TV is bad for people and contains no useful knowledge. Oh no, they wouldn't, those people are totally irrational anyway. I forgot.

Anyway, it's not just TV that's educational. So is the internet. Including blogs, like this other Blowhard epic monster-blog which is basically a complete lesson in art and art history. Except, it's a lesson by a free-thinking individual, rather than the product of some socialist college somewhere, so it makes sense and provides actual interest (and more, in fact).

I can hardly believe it. I have spent my entire life bemoaning the extreme difficulty of finding reliable sources of useful information, and here they are now at the end of a mouse. It's amazing. What chance before of finding an informed intelligent art-historian one can actually take seriously and whose ideas one can actually trust to contain some sense, in the meanderings of everyday life? Pretty minimal, I'd say.

And you don't have to spend three years at college to access it, either. This is how universities will die, if they aren't careful. People are not so dumb that they will value pieces of paper over real knowledge forever.

I do love a good sting in the tail.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:37 PM
Category: Technology
November 22, 2002
Primitive educational robots

There was a TV advert this evening for "educational toys" made by something called VTech. They have a website, inevitably. Lars, you want evidence of how lame computers for kids are? Look no further. I'm sure you'll be deeply unimpressed.

This adventure-based learning system can be extended with the range of Plug ’n’ Play Cartridges which can be purchased separately to adapt the Voyager Adventure System to a variety of skill levels as the child develops. Journey through interactive Boggle Chase, Photo Adventure (included), Alphaberts Time Travel Adventure, Ocean Adventure and Mystery Mansion Adventure, each guiding children aged 4-5 and 6-7 through a variety of educational activities for age appropriate learning.

The Voyager Adventure System is available Summer 2002 priced around £49.99 with additional cartridges retailing separately for around £19.99 each.

I included that last paragraph because what hit me was the amount of money that parents are willing to spend on this kind of stuff. I'm not a parent of any sort, and so comments from parents who have actually purchased this stuff would be especially welcome, pro or anti. Personally, just looking at it all, and thinking of all the bedrooms and playrooms of friends and relatives I've seen full of this kind of stuff just piled up in cupboards or lying around on the floor, I'm not a believer. But if parents will keep a business like this in business, think how much more they would be willing to part with if these kind of toys actually did seduce their kids into being cleverer. (If these did, we would surely have heard.) £54.99, £24.99, £49.99, "additional cartridges" for £19.99. If this is what parents will pay for what are, frankly, little more than educational lottery tickets, … Although, as I say, expert knowledge of these gizmos from parents who have watched them in action (or inaction) would obviously be very helpful.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:21 AM
Category: Technology
November 21, 2002
Old Education versus the New Media

This from John Ray:

I did a post on October 24th in which I noted the great rise in average IQ that has happened in the last 100 years. I attributed it in part to the greater stimulation young brains now receive from modern entertainment media -- television and computer games in particular. Both have of course long been treated as evils by many of our professionally wise people -- who would keep kids away from both if they could.

I am pleased to see therefore that a new research report has just come out confirming what I said. Far from holding kids back, TV and computer games greatly improve their intelligence. The killjoys still mutter and grumble of course but I am happy to say that my very bright and creative son was always allowed to play as many computer games as he liked.

I've been putting somewhat schizophrenic-seeming stuff here about how children should (a) not be coerced into attending school by governments, or for that matter by their parents, but (b) not be watching TV all the time, on account it stunts their education.

Allow me to (thesise antithesise) synthesise. I do think that TV, and now computers, have seriously deranged "education", if by education you mean the old command-and-control Prussian system. TV does this to the old system of education precisely because it supplies an alternative and in many ways better – certainly more amusing and less boring – education. (Lars, commenting on this, took me to task for not getting this, but I do, I do.)

The long term answer is: freedom for children, just as the long term answer has already been freedom for non-aristocrats, freedom for non-whites, freedom for non-men. Like Lars says, children should be allowed to pursue their own interests, and that way they'll contrive a first-rate education for themselves, integrating the old technology with the new.

My problem is this. If the only choice facing a child is (a) a well-administered "Prussian" education, kind but firm, which provides a not-too-bad education, or (b) a deranged and chaotic and/or hysterically fascist version of the same, then (a) sounds better to me than (b). And for most children now, those are the choices. Freedom for children, for most children, given the parents they now have, is not a plausible next step; it's parallel universe stuff.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:06 AM
Category: Technology
November 18, 2002
The coming age of the nice teacher robots

Over at the blog that got me started, Samizdata, there's a short posting (with a picture) by Perry de Havilland, about a high tech robot dragon, which performs "security" services. One of the commenters asked if this scary beast would eat her AIBO puppy.

I mention the AIBO because, unlike the scary dragon, the AIBO is designed to make friends with its human owners, and especially with children.

Ever since I first heard about the AIBO I was convinced that I was witnessing history fluttering its wings, and in particular the history of education.

I have a prejudice, which researching education issues for this blog is so far only confirming, that computers are changing education not by "changing education" but by changing just about everything in the world except education.

Children are allowed to muck about with computers in their class-rooms, but little now seems to be taught that couldn't have been taught, and probably better, with old-fashioned chalk-and-talk methods, such as they still use in high-powered university departments to explain the complexities of such things as nuclear physics. When children get home, they play games on computers. Lucky children, especially home-schooled children, often get to surf the Internet, and as that gets cheaper, many more will surely do this. But "education" – in the sense of the stuff now done by and in schools - shows little sign of being replaced by computers of anything resembling the sort we are now familiar with.

But I think that when historical hindsight eventually gets applied to now, historians may decide that the moment when these robots showed up – i.e. now - was the moment when all that started to change.

Children love these robots. Okay, not the dragon, but definitely the AIBO dog. And something you love is something you just might be willing to learn from. I can imagine a robot teaching a foreign language to a kid in a way that no current computer could begin to do, simply because the kid likes it, and trusts it, and wants to talk with it, and might be willing to experiment with other languages just for the fun of it. And rich parents will see that this kind of thing works, and will pay the bills for it. Soon, super-professor robots will be available for fifty quid at Dixons.

I know what a lot of people will say once this prospect becomes plainly visible. Spooky! Dangerous! Maybe even: pass some laws against these beasts now!!

Personally I find this prospect extraordinarily interesting, and not at all unapealing. Scary, yes, because there'll surely be big mistakes and misjudgements. But imagine if this kind of thing could be got approximately right. I believe that it will happen. For remember, however difficult it may be for the technies to devise such things, it only needs one bunch of them to crack it for the thing to happen. (Think of all the other "impossible" things that computers have done, and can now do for petty cash.)

The implications for human history are beyond calculation. One obvious one is that for the first time in many generations, we can anticipate, sooner or later, a world in which children will be unambiguously cleverer and better educated than their parents, so palpably that everyone - the children, the parents, everyone - will know it.

TV, when it first hit, created the first dumbed-down generation. All right, not dumbed down, exactly. This generation was – how can I put it politely? – differently knowledgeable. The baby boomers are the people I'm talking about, and they (we) know rock and roll, but not the Roman Empire. And the children of the baby boomers have became even more, er, differently knowledgeable. But the technological successors of the same TVs that taught us to forget about our education will, when the super-intelligent robot teacher pets finally arrive, create a similar cultural discontinuity, but in something resembling the opposite direction.

Blah blah blah. If this was an "essay", I'd waffle on for five more pages. Thank heavens for blogs. All hail the shortened attention span. I don't see that changing back again.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:34 AM
Category: Technology
November 07, 2002
A little distance learning

This being a blog rather than just a magazine, it is not surprising that the subject of how computers do or do not contribute to education has loomed large in the first discussions here.

I'm starting to suspect that although the impact of computers on education is already huge and will get huger, the one huge thing that computers have so far not done is replace very many teachers. To put it another way, computers have not changed teaching very much. What they have changed is the world, and the way that everyone - not just "pupils" or "students" - learns about that world.

I want to write now about a computer program which, again, isn't going to replace any teachers, but which illustrates how at least some teaching might be done very differently to the way it is done now, and in a way that is much more productive and which might yield huge economies of scale.

Last night I had an odd experience. I watched someone else take control of my computer. But he didn't do this by pushing me out of my chair and sitting down at my keyboard, because he wasn't even at my home. He was at his own home, which is miles away. He did this by using a computer program called PCAnywhere, which he had already put on my computer in the old-fashioned way.

He performed this miracle-at-a-distance because we wanted him to install some more software onto my computer, but this time (and every similar time in the future) for him not to waste his time and my money travelling to my home. And since we both have fixed cost, high speed ("asdl") internet connections – connections which allow us to carry on talking on the phone down the very same wires – the whole operation went very smoothly. He rang me, and told me what to do to "surrender" my computer to him, so to speak, and from then on I just watched as my mouse arrow wandered around on my screen, at his command, his screen having switched itself from looking like its normal self to looking instead exactly like my screen.

The "distance teaching" applications of an arrangement like this are obvious, and I expect many a tutorial from him in the future. For remember, there is no reason why my computer master need have confined his attentions to just one computer. He could have taken control of as many other computers as we all collectively chose to agree to.

Now I'm pretty sure that this kind of thing has been going on for many years now, on corporate "intranets" and so forth. But I further suspect that this has recently become a much more widespread experience and is due to become even more widespread, much as the Internet itself started out as a habit only practised by already connected little networks of collaborators in very capital intensive and money-no-object activities like making superbombs or superplanes for the US government. But then the Internet suddenly exploded into a globally interconnected mass experience, as soon as the average personal computer was able to cope. Well, the kind of telecommunicational wiring that is now becoming standard in the average household is becoming able to handle this sort of intimate long range communication between those same computers.

I could elaborate, but the kind of people now reading BEdBlog surely don't need me to. Instead may I simply end with a plug for the expert services of the computer expert I've been talking about. His name is Mark Roussell and he can be emailed here. For remember, what this posting has been all about is that Mark's expert services can now be used by customers anywhere on the planet.

If you trust him. I do, obviously, as do others whom I can refer you to. But that's a whole different discussion.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:38 PM
Category: Technology
November 06, 2002
A comment on educational software

BEdBlog has had its most substantial comment yet. In my grand manifesto of Nov 2nd, I mentioned the role of computers in education, and my old London friend from way back who's now based in New York, Howard Gray, had this to say:

An aside on the subject of computer teaching. Most of the software is of the "page turner or fill in the blank" variety providing little excitement. Power teaching software is rare.

Some time back, I came across a clever software item called MathXpert by Dr Michael Beeson at (No I don't sell this stuff nor do I get a commission for mentioning it). This clever software creates a way of solving math problems by providing hints and drills to solve algebra and calculus. The software functions as a tutorial ghost, or hand-holder in the background, to nudge you along the way. It does qualify as power teaching software of which there are few really good examples.

Brian is spot on, computers have often failed to make an effective impact in education. For good reasons. "Page turner" junk isn't good use of the technology. Books, pencils, and paper are much better and, more to the point, they are portable without the need for batteries!

Maybe there'll come a time when comments as useful and encouraging as this are an hourly occurrence on BEdBlog, but that time is not yet, and I am very grateful to Howard for this one.

My own prejudice about the use of the Internet to distribute educational material is based on my blogger's prejudice about the use of the Internet to distribute writing, which is that things only come properly alive when a decent number of people give up trying to make money and just start giving their stuff away. A brief look at this "mathpert" man suggests that he is indeed prepared to give out serious stuff, to anyone with an internet connection, even if on the back of that he's trying to boost his career. Fair enough, I'm in favour of people boosting their careers. (Which by the way means that if, unlike Howard, you do stand to gain from peddling educational materials or services or badly paid teaching opportunities here, peddle away.)

Contrast this with the "sample my stuff here but if you're serious I want your money up front" approach adopted by the mathematical van man spotted by Patrick Crozier the other day. He's just using the internet to sell text books. "Brochureware" is the expression I seem to recall reading somewhere. That's fine, that's his perfect right, and his brochures are well worth reading. But dotted around this huge planet of ours there are surely people who are giving out seriously good teaching stuff for free, and I want to hear about it.

Thanks Howard.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:43 AM
Category: Technology
Bad news – but some good stuff

So I just typed "Education" into Google, and I got 72,200,000 hits, which took Google 0.13 seconds. There isn't going to any shortage of guff for me, and any others I can inveigle into writing for this, to investigate.

Let's take the hits I got from the top.

HIT ONE: A story from New Zealand, which had disappeared from view by the time I got around to testing the link. The government has "privatized" a lot of education down there, and some of the money being sloshed about is being pocketed by scamsters. Many providers, but still the same old paymaster. So "tighter control" is needed.

HIT TWO: A story about the fact that lots of Ethiopians have been going to live in Israel, which tells me something I'd been neglecting to notice about how Jews have been getting along in Ethiopia.

For the first time since the massive immigration from Ethiopia over the last 18 years, the Ministry of Education has prepared a curriculum for teacher [sic] the Amharik language for Bagrut matriculation exams.

Sounds like someone could use a bit of English teaching as well.

According to Israel Radio, a committee for teaching Amharik has been set up in the Education Ministry. It is headed by an expert on African language at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

HIT THREE: Aids Education Fails to Change Behaviour.

... HIV/AIDS education in schools in Sub-Saharan Africa has failed to effect behaviour change despite high levels of knowledge among primary and secondary school pupils.

Researchers at the University of Sussex ...

HIT FOUR: A visit to the website of the US Department of Education. "When it comes to the education of our children … failure is not an option." - signed, President George W. Bush.

"No Child Left Behind." That has got to be as insane a political promise as any politician has ever given, anywhere, ever. What, not one?

I dig deeper, and visit the No Child Left Behind Website. Now, let me see if I can copy this pompous piece of verbiage from the U.S. Secretary of Education. Yes and no. Got a juicy piece of graphics into my word document, but then I'd have to upload it to my whosadaisy. That's a manoevre that will have to wait. The U.S. Secretary of Education said something about how the No Child Left Behind program was making history.

HIT FIVE: EducationWorld® The Educator's Best Friend. Warrrrrgh!! A website that looks like a graphic design studio has been sick all over the screen. What did Google say on the hit list?

... What was special about yesterday? EEK – Environmental Education for Kids: Explore the great outdoors! ... Education Humor Newsletter: Sign up now. ... Description: A comprehensive resource which includes a search engine for thousands of educational resources.

Back to the sicky mess website. It starts to make sense.

Today's Lesson: Put turkey on a table (or a graph)! Show turkey population, production, and consumption statistics.

How Toxic is Your School?: Causes, effects vary for sick schools.

Yes, you don't want to kill all your students.

But hello, what's this?

What about the Act's requirement that new middle school teachers have completed an academic major in the subject area they will be teaching? This occasional series answers questions about the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

That again. Another logo, saying "No Educator Left Behind". Question. What if a good teacher stops being a teacher at all, because of not having completed and not wanting to complete an "academic major"?


Okay, conclusions. All of these hits except the last one are about what governments are doing, or should be doing, or are not doing. Only HIT FIVE contains much actual stuff to help you do education, and even this is interfered with by its Federal Government.

News means bad news. And if you want bad news, put the government in charge of everything. HIT ONE is politically inflicted disaster. A political promise playing itself out, and we're quite deep into the story.

HIT TWO is the government reacting, rather late in the day, to something that has already happened in the world out there, in this case all these Ethiopian folks. But don't tell me there are no Ethiopian lessons already going on Israel. Memo to Israel Government. Relax. Let nature take its course. You don't need to do anything. Don't you have other things to be concerned about?

HIT THREE is another disaster. The best you can say for the politicians is that they didn't create it. But they sure as hell aren't solving it either, although I bet they contributed to it.

HIT FOUR is a disaster in the making, but we are witnessing the very beginning of it, the bright shining dawn. No child left behind! Six years from now, expect the news to be about all the children being left behind, and all the further behind because of what the government is now doing.

Only HIT FIVE concerns actual education, being done by some actual people with stuff to help you do it, but it's not news, it's just a website. Go there and you can explore, e.g., E-LEARNING RESOURCES FOR EDUCATORS. Some of that looks like it might be quite good. Hey. If your family has an internet connection and a printer, you don't need a school anymore!

The politicians give out booming press releases about how great everything is going to be, but then as soon as it goes wrong the press releases are about how we are all letting them down, and failing, and cheating, and not changing our behaviour. Meanwhile we the people – the lucky ones amongst us at any rate - are, rather more quietly and less newsworthily, getting on with our lives.

And show me a government that is ready to tell me about any one of 72,200,000 things that relate to what I've just asked about, after only 0.13 seconds. Nah, nothing special about that. That's not news.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:12 AM
Category: Technology
November 05, 2002
The Indian Miracle

Alice Bachini had some fun late last night ("People Educated Privately Should Subsidise the University Fees of People Educated by the State" - you have to scroll down, as usual with b***ger) about the British government's plans to make higher education fairer, and suggests a scheme to tax educational achievement more severely. She's joking, but I didn't really laugh, because what passes now for official, national educational debate in Britain is all about defeatist, defeated, tinkering with a failing system which is going to go on failing.

I fled from all that, to this, an article by James Tooley first published just over a year ago. What a relief.

… The Indian software engineering revolution is a remarkable phenomenon. Of all IPOs in Silicon Valley, 40% have an Indian founder. Nearly a fifth of all R&D staff in American knowledge companies are Indian. These numbers are set to grow, as more and more American and European companies seek to poach Indian expertise. Within India itself, the software industry has grown at an extraordinary rate - from around $150 million in 1992 to $3.9 billion last year, a compounded annual growth rate of 61%. India is second only to the USA in the number of Microsoft Certified Professionals. Although the industry began by contracting low-end business, it is now at the high end of the industry, with US customers buying 61% of the software that Indian companies export. All of the major global telecom companies have opened R&D centres in India.

Okay, but what does this have to do with education? Well, this. The people who are responsible for this Indian economic miracle were almost entirely educated not by the Indian state education system, for this is a crumbling embarrassment. No, they were educated by the Indian education industry, which is booming.

… two companies stand out in the way they have redefined education as an industry – NIIT and Aptech - who together share just over 70% of this market, estimated at roughly Rs. 1.1 billion (about $20 million). Take NIIT. It has 40 wholly owned centres in the metropolitan areas, but has franchised its highly innovative model to 1,000 centres across the whole of India. And, a nice twist on global capitalist imperialism, it has expanded its operations into the USA and UK, as well as having numerous franchises in Asia and Africa.

That's right. The Indian educational private sector stands poised to rescue us Brits from our public sector.

There are advantages to being poor. A country can't afford to waste money on nationalised industries that are big enough to do serious harm. We Brits are rich. We can afford this. In India they can't.

James Tooley is one of the most important education intellectuals in the world. If you don't believe me, you need only take a look at this, a list of his last five years' worth of research into private education work around the world.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:34 AM
Category: Technology
October 28, 2002
Another Test

All I want is something, anything to display. Maybe I have to make it a bit longer. Maybe, that way it gets to display. I certainly hope so. We'll see soon enough.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:18 PM
Category: Technology
I'm in charge

Nothing to see here.

Posted by Patrick Crozier at 01:57 PM
Category: Technology