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Archive for December, 2010

A week ago I was one of the lucky recipients of a Google CR 48 notebook. The detail of the CR 48’s hardware failures have been well documented, as any Google search for CR 48 will reveal (lack of Home, End, Delete, Caps Lock keys; faulty touchpad; etc) so I won’t both reviewing these aspects. Instead I shall focus on a topic more near and dear to this blog: the application of the CR 48 in an education setting.

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I received my CR 48 in a fit of excitement, but immediately upon turning it on, I had my first encounter with it’s fatal flaw: network incompatibility. As the OS entirely relies upon wireless internet access for the setup, it is subject to all of the typical annoyances associated with WiFi. As I love and work on the UC, Irvine campus, I am subject to their security protocols for my internet access, a situation familiar to many academics and students. Upon turning on my computer, I was unable to authenticate my Google account until floundering into Guest mode and being redirected to our university’s network authentication page. After 1 blissful, naive hour online I turned off my computer…little did I know how dear that hour was.

Upon next turning on my computer, I found that I was no longer able to access the internet, nor could I find or access the network authentication page. My new notebook was effectively bricked. Thankfully Google has amazing tech support in the form of Chrome Ninjas (who sadly it seems only work Monday through Friday). After 3 days of tech support involving entering the elusive command prompt  (open using ctrl + alt + t), resetting the computer (using the hidden developers switch), and very pleasant conversations with a knowledgeable ninja, we resolved the problem. My own network, UCI Resnet, had assigned me an IP address that had previously been blocked.

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Moral of the story:

Chrome OS relies upon the most fragile, ill-supported segment of our technology structure: the WiFi network. This is often where valuable websites are blocked, legacy settings & code wreck havok, and hardware fails. My husband, a teacher, refuses to test the CR 48 on his school’s network since they already block Google products such as Gmail, Google Calendar, and Gtalk. He complains often that though they use Google Apps, they block the generic versions of Google for his students and himself. Even on an open network, a small error bricked the entire notebook.

Beyond this, the CR 48 shows promise for schools. Since the OS is entirely cloud supported, users can switch between computers with ease. At parties, I don’t mind passing my computer around to others because even strangers can sign into their own accounts without my worrying for my files and settings. The OS starts up in seconds, not minutes. The memory is solid state so more durable. Applications, extensions, and themes belong to the user, not the computer, and  install quickly upon the initial sign in. The number of applications is growing, though Chrome still does not support Silverlight, Java, or most media players.

Overall, I feel that Chrome OS shows promise and could be considered for schools that have “Gone Google” in another couple of years.

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Down Syndrome circa 1960

How far we have come!

From the 1960 World Book Encyclopedia:*

Mongolism is a form of mental deficiency characterized by certain bodily abnormalities. A flattened face and bolded upper eyelids give the patient an Oriental appearance. Other abnormal body features include a small, round head; short arms and legs; a large abdomen; and thick, stubby hands, with the little fingers often short and turned inward.

Few Mongoloids have a mental age greater than that of a 4-year-old child. But they are quiet, good-natured, and affectionate. They die at an average age of 14 years. The cause of Mongolism is not known. But doctors believe it results from abnormal functioning of glands that regulate growth and maturation. The defect is thought to be related to a hormone deficiency in the mother during pregnancy.

George A. Ulett

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Several things are clear about both education and health care costs in the United States:

1. They continually rise faster than inflation

2. Increases in cost are not matched by increases in results

3. Our costs are higher than those in other developed countries

The conventional wisdom is that these costs are spiraling out of control due to waste and inefficiency.

However, though there is certainly waste and inefficiency involved, even if all the waste and inefficiency were removed, it is virtually guaranteed that costs in education and health care would rise (a) faster than the rate of inflation and (b) faster than corresponding improvements in quality.  What’s more, while costs in the U.S. are indeed higher than in other countries (in all cases in health care and in many cases in education), the rate of change of costs is pretty consistent across countries, with other nations experiencing increases above and beyond the rate of inflation on about the same curve as the U.S. is.

The real reason why education and health care costs rise has been known by economists ever since at least the 1960s, when Baumol and Bowen published a seminal book on the economics of the performing arts. Their analysis was as follows.  The productivity of manufacturing rises dramatically over time: it might take only a few minutes of person power to make a shirt compared to many hours a couple of centuries ago.  However, the productivity of a string quartet giving a live performance increases hardly at all, since that work cannot be made more productive without harming its quality (having 3 people instead of 4, having them play faster).  For that reason, the cost of attending a live cultural performance vis-a-vis the cost of buying manufactured goods rises steadily over time–and, if a society wants to see as many string quartet performances as it did before, it will need to devote a higher percentage of its personal and national income for that.

The same principle holds true for education, healthcare, and other services that demand in-person labor.  Yes, they can be made more productive in some ways, but never at the same rate of productivity increase as manufacturing or agriculture or mining.  For that reason, the relative costs of education and healthcare will go up over time.

The music industry has survived over the last 200 years by moving away from live performances to recorded music.  It costs a lot to produce a CD (or MP3), but it can be heard by millions of people.  There are some who argue that we need to make the same change in education, to move to massive online education using software so that, just like you can get a world-class music collection for a few hundred dollars, you could get a world-class education for the same low-cost.  And they often cite Baumol’s work as a reason why such a shift is necessary.

I happen to believe that you cannot get a world-class education without teachers, or with very few of them. Listening to music is by nature a pretty one-way experience, whether done at a live performance or at home on an iPod.  But learning is a very social, interactive, multi-directional process, and the kind of learning that takes place with mentors and peers is vastly superior in many contexts than that which takes place from software. This is especially so for young learners, learners with low motivation, learners with many language and literacy challenges, learners with special needs–exactly the types of learners who are so numerous in K-12 schools.

The question, though, is if we don’t radically increase educational “productivity”–by replacing teachers with software, or by dramatically increasing student-teacher ratio in new online diploma mills–how do we get around the Baumol affect?  Are such dramatic cost measures necessary?

And here, those who like to cite Baumol’s 1966 book fail to point to his important paper three decades later where he answers that question.  In that paper, Baumol explicitly discusses education and health care, pointing out that, whatever new efficiencies are put in place, education and health care costs will still inevitably rise in cost faster than inflation and thus require a growing percentage of our national income.  He also points out though, that precisely because of advancing productivity in other sectors, we can afford to pay more for education and health care and still have an ability to afford more good and services.

He compares the cost of education and health care to the cost of an imaginary steering wheel on a car.  Let’s say the cost of a car fell from over a decade, but, over that time, the relative or absolute cost of a steering wheel increased.  Well, the cost of a steering wheel as a percentage of the whole care would rise continually.  That, however, would not keep you from buying the car, because the cost of other components are falling.  You can still get the more expensive  steering wheel because the cost of the car is falling.  In fact, even if the steering wheel rises to 20%, 40%, or 60% of the cost of a car, as long as the total cost of the car falls, you can still buy the steering wheel.

In other words, increased productivity means that the costs of education and health care will continue to keep rising as a portion of the economy, but it also means that we can afford them.  As Baumol says in his article, “productivity growth in the entire economy means we can afford more of everything.”

The issue not so much whether we can afford higher costs of education.  The issue is whether we have the will to do so. So yes, let’s try to make education as effective and efficient as possible, but let’s also help people understand why it is that costs will rise anyway, and why we can afford to pay them.

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