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Can teachers and schools thrive in the 21st century economy like the modern dairy farm?

April 9, 2012

One of my favorite podcasts is NPR’s Planet Money—it is the most entertaining and educational podcast about economics, among a constellation of excellent economics podcasts, including the outstanding Econ Talk and the highly variable Freakanomics, among many others. In fact, these podcasts and a few blogs like Marginal Revolution have helped to cultivate a deep interest in this subject for me.

A classic example of this is the excellent reporting by NPR Planet Money’s Adam Davidson on 21st century manufacturing. Davidson has been writing a lot recently about how the new “chaotic 21st century economy” is affecting the American workforce. His recent profile of a number of workers in a South Carolina Auto parts plant in the Atlantic is riviting.

Davidson followed this article up with a podcast, the High-Tech Cow, Davidson visits a modern dairy farm, Fulper Farms, and uses it to explain his four principles for individuals and companies to have a shot at thriving in the 21st century economy. They are:

  1. Stay on top of technological change
  2. Fulper farms uses cattle that have been bred to produce far more milk than previous generations of cattle—their current cows produce double the amount of milk compared to cows from 30 years ago. They also have invested in specialized cow feeding technology that recognizes each cow thanks to an electronic collar and gives each cow specialized feed.

  3. Focus
  4. The Fulpers now outsource many of the tasks that they used to do as family farmers—they hire experts on breeding and nutrition for their cows.

  5. Find someway to protect yourself against unexpected changes that are coming
  6. The Fupers now use various financial instruments, like hedging grain and milk futures to insure against wild swings in prices.

  7. Find a product or service that your customers are willing to pay a premium for that no one else can give them.
  8. The Fulpers have created a line of artisinal cheese to buyers in nearby New York City, and have created a two week children’s summer camp for kids interested in experiencing farm life—agritainment.

Lessons for schools and teachers from the modern dairy farm

Wiser bloggers than I have written about how schools and colleges are going to be transformed by economic forces in the near future, but I do think these lessons apply equally well to schools and teachers.

One thing I can’t stop thinking about is how technological change is beginning to offer hints of disruption of the traditional education model. Here are just a few examples:

  • Udacity, a startup created by former Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, now promises to teach computer science to the world, for free, via online courses. I’ve now completed the CS101 course (I’m hoping to blog a review soon), and while it leaves many things to be desired for the beginning computer science student, I do think it compares rather favorably with the more tradition-bound computer science offerings out there, and it has Google’s Sergey Brin even giving occasional pep talks in the course. If you’re a professor or teacher who is totally whetted to the traditional approach of computer science teaching—coding Fibonacci sequences, teaching recursions via writing the factorial function, and all the other problems in the CS101 canon, I think Udacity at least offers a very competitive alternative. And Udacity trumps many intro CS courses in its ambitions by having students code a working search engine, and then hear guest “lectures” from employees of Google and Duck Duck Go on how to improve your program to internet-scale.
  • Prep U, reported by Audrey Waters this week, is the adaptive testing initiative of Pearson, specifically aimed at helping students prepare for AP exams with an “adaptive quizzing platform” armed with a 3500 question databank, that promises to give students pinpoint feedback to help them prepare for AP exams—they’re starting with AP US History, Chemistry and Psychology. And Prep-U isn’t the only game in town for AP Prep—there’s also Shmoop and Thinkwell Homeschool among many others.
  • Wolfram Alpha: billed as a computational knowledge engine, Wolfram Alpha is making continual gains in its ability to parse natural language input, and the level of help it offers in solving problems. Now, integration by parts is explained step by step for integrals like \int x^2 e^x, which I think should spell the end of assigning 20 of these integrals from Larson for homework. It’s even becoming possibly to simply “Wolfram” the question of many AP problems in Chemistry and Physics and be returned with the solution to the problem, often with many additional supporting details. If in a few years, I could literally google my way through an AP test, doesn’t this at least hint that this may not be the best measure of high school science understanding?
  • Khan Academy Of course, the world can’t seem to stop gushing over Sal Khan, “teacher to the world.” Millions of students praise him for saving their grades, and his new algorithmic system for learning math has been wholesale adopted by a handful of school districts around the country.
  • Roboreaders: I just saw this yesterday. A company is trying to develop software automatically score student essays.
  • Kaplan: I met a colleague earlier this week, and she told me how Kaplan is moving to make almost all of its standard test-prep courses online using video lectures and eliminating the need for many test-prep instructors.
  • Law school preparation: Here’s an old story about the company BarMax, which created a $999 iPhone app to help law school students prepare for the state bar exam. You might think $999 is a lot to pay for an iPhone app, but compared to the $4000 for the in-person BarBri prep classes that dominate the market, it’s a steal, and it has made BarBri fear for its business model.

Though I dislike framing education in purely economic terms, I can’t help but see similarities between these events and how low skill jobs in this country being outsourced to other countries with cheaper labor costs or turned over to robotic manufacturing. Could AP scores, and passing multiple choice tests be the low-skill outcomes of the future? If so, does it make sense for teachers to hold these up as the ultimate aims of their work? What happens when Prep-U can better prepare more students, faster, for a fraction of the cost of a veteran AP teacher?

Still, when you look the sum of these stories, I think there’s great room to be hopeful. Unless we define our value as educators or schools solely on the basis of standardized test scores, I think there’s little danger of technology being able to replace the value that teachers create from the relationships they form with students. These relationships—the moments when teachers take an active interest in the life and learning of a student, and introduce them to an new way of thinking about about their subject, counsel them through a difficult personal problem, light that spark of creativity, inspire them to pursue a career in particular field, or help them to make connections for a summer research internship—all of these are things of tremendous value that won’t easily be replaced by technology.

What other ideas do you think teachers and schools can take from the modern dairy farm to thrive in the 21st century economy?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 9, 2012 1:04 pm

    I think your fear is somewhat unfounded. Although it is certainly possible to google your way through an AP exam, as long as internet and computer access is prohibited during the exam, students will have to understand the material and not just find a program that understands it.

    I don’t believe that the on-line prep classes will be as good as a good teacher for at least a decade, and probably much longer. Of course, not all teachers are good, and it may be the case that on-line classes will beat the poorer teachers much sooner.

    • April 9, 2012 10:16 pm

      My point about google and wolfram alpha isn’t that we can secure AP tests in such a way so that students have to understand the material, but instead, why not create tests that test students at a deeper level? If wolfram alpha can show the steps of how to integrate by parts, let’s do less integration tricks and more explaining the meaning of what the integrals mean, for one example.

      Kaplan seems to think pretty strongly that the future of test prep is online, and though I agree, that face-to-face tutoring is likely to be superior for a while, I think teachers will need to emphasize their value beyond scores alone to make this case better.

  2. April 9, 2012 2:16 pm

    John,

    I agree that technology can and should not replace that unique teacher-student link. What I think schools, and in particular private schools, need to worry about is that technology may be quite ready to replace 30-50% of what we have traditionally offered with the Kahn Academy-type approach. How does that impact our value proposition and basic structure? And about 20 other questions that leap to mind! Bo and I talk a lot about this stuff, as I am sure you can imagine. These are the questions I have started blogging about at http://learningpond.wordpress.com.

    • April 9, 2012 10:16 pm

      Grant,
      Thanks, I’ve been following your blog since the beginning thanks to Bo, and your book is on the very top of my summer reading list.

      • April 9, 2012 10:45 pm

        Thanks, john. Look forward to your comments on my book and including you in discussions in the future!

  3. April 10, 2012 7:43 am

    The essence of teaching is STILL founded in the human relationship and personal contact, so I think ‘good’ teachers will always be in demand, and even ‘bad’ teachers will be able to find employment in high demand subjects. In that regard teachers will always have the upper hand in the personal versus online scenario.

    I draw an analogy with the highly reported collapse of the British pub in the UK. Much ‘sky is falling’ rhetoric has been written about pub closures in the UK, and indeed there have been some quite profond changes, but in truth it’s really only the ‘bad’ pubs that have closed. The underlying culture still values ‘good’ pubs, and whilst there has been (and will continue to need to be) some evolution and change that pubs must do, we are a long way from pubs and drinking not being a fundamental part of everyday life in the UK. The same goes for teacher-student relationships.

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