“Why technology will never fix education”

Why technology will never fix education” is a 2015 article that’s also absurdly relevant in the COVID era of distance education, and this paragraph in particular resonates with my teaching experience:

The real obstacle in education remains student motivation. Especially in an age of informational abundance, getting access to knowledge isn’t the bottleneck, mustering the will to master it is. And there, for good or ill, the main carrot of a college education is the certified degree and transcript, and the main stick is social pressure. Most students are seeking credentials that graduate schools and employers will take seriously and an environment in which they’re prodded to do the work. But neither of these things is cheaply available online.

For the last few years, I’ve often asked students to look at their phones’s “Screen Time” (iOS) or “Digital Wellbeing” (Android) apps. These apps measure how much time a person spends using their phone each day, and most students report 3 – 7 hours per day on their phones. The top apps are usually Instagram, SnapChat, and Facebook. Student often laugh bashfully at the sheer number of hours they spend on their phones, and some later confess they’re abashed. I ask the same thing when students tell me how “busy” they are during office hours (no one ever says they’re not busy). So far, both the data and anecdotes I’ve seen or heard support the “ban connected devices in class” position I’ve held for a while. The greatest discipline needed today seems to be the discipline not to stare relentlessly at the phone.

But what happens when class comes from a connected, distraction-laden device?

In my experience so far, the online education experience hasn’t been great, although it went better than I feared, and I think that, as norms shift, we’ll see online education become more effective. But the big hurdle remains motivation, not information. And I too find teaching via Zoom (or similar, presumably) unsatisfying, because it seems that concentration and motivation are harder on it. Perhaps online education is just increasing the distance between highly structured and self-motivated people versus everyone else.


A simple solution to peer review problems

Famous computer scientist and Roomba co-founder Rodney Brooks writes about the problems of peer review in academia. He notes that peer review has some important virtues even as the way it’s currently practiced generates many problems and pathologies too. Brooks says, “I don’t have a solution, but I hope my observations here might be interesting to some.” I have a partial solution: researchers “publish” papers to arXiv or similar, then “submit” them to the journal, which conducts peer review. The “journal” is a list of links to papers that it has accepted or verified.

That way, the paper is available to those who find it useful. If a researcher really thinks the peer reviewers are wrong, the researcher can state why, and why they’re leaving it up, despite the critiques. Peer-review reports can be kept anonymous but can also be appended to the paper, so that readers can decide for themselves whether the peer reviewers’ comments are useful or accurate—in my limited, but real, experience in English lit, they’ve been neither, and that experience seems to have been echoed by many others. If a writer wishes to be anonymous, the writer can leave the work as “anonymous” until after it’s been submitted for peer review, which would allow for double-blind peer review, and that double-blindness would help remove some of the insider-ism biases around people knowing each other.

Server costs for things like simple websites are almost indistinguishable from zero today, and those costs can easily be borne by the universities themselves, which will find them far lower than subscription costs.

What stands in the way? Current practice and setup. Plus, Elsevier and one or two other multi-billion-dollar publishing conglomerates that control the top journals in most fields. These giants want to maintain library fees that amount to thousands of dollars per journal, even if the journal editors are paid minimally, as are peer reviewers and so on. Only the companies make money. Academics live and die based on prestige, so few will deviate from the existing model. Publishing in top journals is essential for hiring, tenure, and promotion (the tenure model also generates a bunch of pathologies in academia, but we’ll ignore those for now).

There are pushes to change the model—the entire University of California system, for example, announced in 2019 that it would “terminate subscriptions with world’s largest scientific publisher in push for open access to publicly funded research.” In my view, all public funding bodies should stipulate that no research funded with public money can be published in closed-access journals, and foundations should do the same. There is no reason for modern research to be hidden behind paywalls.

It would also help if individual schools and departments quit making hiring, tenure and promotion decisions almost entirely based on “peer-reviewed” work. Those on hiring, tenure, and promotion committees should be able to read the work and judge the merit for themselves, regardless of the venue in which it appears.

Coronavirus and the need for urgent research has also pushed biomed and medicine towards the “publish first” model. Peer review seems to be happening after the paper is published in medRxiv or bioRxiv. One hopes these are permanent changes. The problems with the journal model are well known but too little is being done. Or, rather, too little was being done: the urgency of the situation may lead to reform in most fields.

Open journals would be a boon for access and for intellectual diversity. When I was in grad school for English (don’t do that, I want to reiterate), the peer reviewer reports I got on most of my papers were so bad that they made me realize I was wasting my life trying to break into the field; there is a difference between “negative but fair” and “these people are not worth trying to impress,” and in English lit the latter predominated. In addition, journals took a year, and sometimes years, to publish the papers they accepted, raising the obvious question: if something is so unimportant that it’s acceptable to take years to publish it, why bother? “The Research Bust” explores the relevant implications. No one else in the field seemed to care about its torporous pace or what that implies. Many academics in the humanities have been wringing their hands about the state of the field for years, without engaging in real efforts to fix it, even as professor jobs disappear and undergrads choose other majors. In my view, intellectual honesty and diversity are both important, and yet the current academic system doesn’t properly incentivize or reward either, though it could.

In the humanities, at least being wrong and “peer reviewed” doesn’t carry some of the costs that being wrong and “peer reviewed” can in the sciences.

For another take on peer review’s problems, see Andrew Gelman.

Links: Falling birth rates, book reviews as book reviews, space dust, and more!

* “The Secret Lives of Fungi.”

* “A Radical Proposal: Book reviews should review books: Give us more judgement, more opinions and more criticism.” Sure, why not?

* What happens to all that space dust hitting the atmosphere? “An international team found that rooftops and other cityscapes readily collect the extraterrestrial dust in ways that can ease its identification, contrary to science authorities who long pooh-poohed the idea as little more than an urban myth kept alive by amateur astronomers.” We really are all made of stars.

* “Exclusive: Tesla’s secret batteries aim to rework the maths for electric cars and the grid.” Maybe. It does seem that nickel and low-cobalt batteries are coming. The second-life systems are also hugely impressive: one rarely appreciated reason to pick electric vehicles is that their batteries can be repurposed for grid storage when the car itself reaches end-of-life. Over time, “Millions of used electric car batteries will help store energy for the grid,” which sounds good to me.

* Why are American kids treated as a different species from adults? See also Bringing Up Bébé by Druckerman.

* The novel isn’t central the cultural conversation anymore. Why? That said, I think the novel will appeal to people who find a lot of video boring—although that might be a declining segment of the population.

* HN commenter on Huawei’s practice of stealing source code and technology.

* Colleges are deluding themselves. I wonder how Lambda School is doing? Separately, in 2018 one person wrote: “Modern universities are exercises in insanity?” Maybe, although this one is missing a lot, too.

* “If I could bring one thing back to the internet it would be blogs.” Many good lines in this one. Here you all are, too! Making blogs happen.

* “Door dash and pizza arbitrage.” Unexpectedly hilarious.

* Beware of underpriced drugs for covid-19 treatments. Or, put another way, “We must be willing to reward value because today’s prices send signals to future market participants.” Capping profits today means fewer efforts tomorrow: this is a repeated game, not a one-off game.

* Benefits of cutting out sugar.

* U.S. birth rates fall to record low. These articles never mention the way U.S. housing prices have outpaced inflation for years, due to parochial land interests wielding local zoning to increase the value of their property, and the failure of states or the federal government stepping in to stop this practice. At the same time, healthcare costs are bizarre and unpredictable: a few years ago, it cost me a random $4,500 to fix a minor problem on my toe, and none of the podiatrists I talked to were willing to give me a cash fee quote. All of them were deeply interested in my deductible and making sure I hit it. I’d like to see mandatory price transparency in healthcare, but almost no one is pursuing that policy, to the detriment of all of us.

Links: Chestnut trees, oil’s collapse, Adam Tooze, writing, and more!

* “A Satellite Lets Scientists See Antarctica’s Melting Like Never Before.” It’s also possible that Rising CO2 Levels May Trigger Cognitive Impairment. If you haven’t, get an Autopilot home CO2 monitor. My bedroom, when the door is closed, will routinely exceed 3000 ppm CO2—and sometimes 4000 ppm. For reference, humans evolved in an environment of around 220 – 240 ppm. Cognitive decline may set in as soon as 1000 ppm. Have you ever been in a meeting and felt your head start to swim by the end? It might not just be boredom: it might be all the CO2 in the room. Bring your CO2 monitor and be the hero your organization needs.

* Can genetic engineering bring back the chestnut tree? If so, that would be great news: chestnuts produce lots of cheap food and good wood.

* “Oil’s Collapse Is a Geopolitical Reset In Disguise.” Good. If we hasten the move to electric vehicles, low prices could be sustained indefinitely.

* The Early Days of China’s Coronavirus Coverup. If not for Chinese censorship, the rest of the world might have been much better prepared.

* Adam Tooze interviewed on many subjects, including:

the historically unusual decision to have a high-cost lockdown during a pandemic, why he believes in a swoosh-shaped recovery, portents of financial crises in China and the West, which emerging economies are currently most at risk, what Keynes got wrong about the Treaty of Versailles, why the Weimar Republic failed, whether Hitler was a Keynesian, the political and economic prospects of various EU members, his trick to writing a lot, how Twitter encourages him to read more, what he taught executives at BP, and his advice for visiting Germany.

You’ve seen him appear here before.

* The politics of information: Much deeper and more profound than it may at first appear.

* “It’s time to take UFOs seriously. Seriously.” My default bet is still that the recent Navy videos were released deliberately, as part of an underlying (dis)information campaign. But the probability of UFOs being aliens has gone up—from what to what, I can’t quite say, but “up.”

* “World’s Largest Producer of Rubbing Alcohol Can’t Manufacturer Hand Sanitizer.” I don’t want to do a lot of the outrage pieces, but this is indeed outrageous.

* “Our bookless future.” You’ve probably seen similar, but here’s another sample. “Twilight of the Books,” from 2007, is also a fine version of this basic idea.

* “The coming disruption to college.” A bit too rant-y and overstated, but he’s got a point, no? Tyler Cowen also think the crisis on campus is here to stay. The extent to which international students subsidize U.S. higher ed is also well-known in the business and poorly known everywhere else.

* “When Did Humans Become a Burrowing Species? Digging into our drive to tunnel, bore, and head underground.”

* “The Confessions of Marcus Hutchins, the Hacker Who Saved the Internet: At 22, he single-handedly put a stop to the worst cyberattack the world had ever seen. Then he was arrested by the FBI. This is his untold story.” The story is bonkers and amazing, and it’s also waiting to made into a movie.

* Megan Abbott on writing and Dare Me: “I’m not fast. People think I am because I have a lot of books, but I just don’t do anything else.” I watched the TV version of Dare Me and found it pallid compared to the book: the book is narrated from Addy’s perspective, and Beth looms large in Addy’s view. In the TV show, they both seem like angsty, conceited, ridiculous teenagers—not scary or powerful but ridiculous.

Links: Geopolitical shakes, energy still matters, Robert Stone, and more!

* “Xi fears Japan-led manufacturing exodus from China: The year of the metal rat returns every 60 years — and brings calamity with it.”

* The Limits of Clean Energy.

* Higher education economic problems. Some of the framing and political jabs can and should be ignored, but the material points remain.

* Lockdown socialism will collapse. A good post and something too few of us are acknowledging. I think we’re also not admitting that we’re going to see a real standards-of-living reduction.

* The anti-Trump Republicans. We call these “the honest ones.”

* On Robert Stone.

* Gem Fatale, on the movie Uncut Gems. I started Uncut Gems but one of the protagonist’s early decisions seemed so foolish (giving that important item to Garnett, for example) that I quit. Too much shouting, too. Some good scenes. The author of the linked essay is Clancy Martin, who wrote How to Sell. Given Hollywood’s desire to make everything into a movie or TV show, I’m surprised no one has taken up How To Sell.

* We’ve Built Cities We Can’t Afford.

* “Build Cities for Bikes, Buses, and Feet–Not Cars.” Seems obvious. Few people who understand induced demand or the dangers of small particle air pollution believe otherwise.

* It’s time to build for good. Congruent with the above two links.

* 68 bits of advice from Kevin Kelly, who is unusually interesting.

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