Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How big is your IPAD

Colin Grant Clark took a break from his lecture circuit at Oxford University in the summer of 1938 to take a family vacation to Australia with his young wife Margery. It was while visiting Brisbane that he was charmed into becoming the Chief Financial Advisor to the Premier of Queensland, Forgan Smith. Despite being lured away occasionally as a visiting scholar he continued to return to his home in Queensland. Today the Economics Building at the University of Brisbane rightly bears his name and his 9 children and 40 grandchildren can further testify to his prodigious nature.
Clark was an innovative Economist and perhaps most famous for a publication in 1950 which described the "Clark Sector Model", a simple graph that shows the growth of an economy and the proportion of the population that works in various industries. Clark showed that in most nascent economies most of the population works in Primary Industries (fishing, farming, mining, etc.); then as industrialization grows the proportion of people working in Primary Industries declines. However, the number of employees in the Secondary or Manufacturing sectors does not fully explain the decline in the proportion working in Primary Industries. In fact at some point manufacturing becomes increasingly efficient and it is the Tertiary Sector, a broad category sometimes referred to as the Service Industries that contain the majority of the workforce. Tertiary industries provide services to businesses and families and contain such sectors as Education, Law, Consultancy, Financial Services, IT, etc. Taken to its conclusion, Clark predicted a future state where in a modern economy upwards of 90% of the population worked in Tertiary Industries. In 1950 some said he was crazy, yet it is precisely where we are today.

As Sir Ken Robinson suggests, Education has always had two functions. One is cultural and that purpose of education has been prevalent since the beginning of time. After all, one needs a manual for "how we do things around here". But the second reason to educate people / children is economic. A mechanism must be put into place to ensure that we are preparing children for the new industrialized economy. Hence in the past 150 years we have witnessed systemic educational institutions all over the world designed to serve this economic purpose. I imagine for a while this all worked very well, school passed on the cultural traditions and conveniently sorted out those who were management material from the labourers, by how well the children pretended to enjoy classical literature and deductive reasoning.

Of course we all know intuitively, without ever having to consult the Clark Sector Model, the notion of the industrialized economy is a historical relic. Today's prosperity is punctuated with volatility. We can no longer predict with great certainty the economy of next week, never mind 20 years out. Modern Economists will take their place beside weathermen as the fall guys for the great unknown.

The good news is that in every nation in the world education is being reformed, precisely for the reasons that I have outlined. Unfortunately, the machine of systemic education continues to throw a boot in the production line of progress.

Case in point. I toured a school the other day that installed 25 electronic whiteboards at their school (at $15K per) in an effort to become more current.  That same day I went to a seminar where a school lauded itself for its program of giving each of its year 9 scholars IPADs with apps. How cutting edge! Good grief, do we not realize that we have reformed nothing! Is all this about content delivery? In Grade 9 I also received an IPAD - it was called a text book. The truly revolutionary effect of IT and Globalization is the very fact that I can learn anything I want, anywhere I want, anytime I want. In a millisecond I can access the ten greatest lessons on how to solve a quadratic equation instantly delivered by teachers far better that I ever was, and for free! The fact that schools still believe their purpose is content delivery is ridiculous. The fact that students own a tablet, rent a tablet or bring their own isn't the question. The question is, why do they come to school at all? That is the question that must lead educational reform but in every school and every classroom around the world we are afraid to ask the question. I confess I don't know the answer but for me the question is obvious.

I think that the answer might be that since we cannot predict the economy of tomorrow, and that the question of content delivery has been solved, schools of the future will need to deal with the old cultural questions that they used to ponder a long time ago... How will we do things around here when we live in Canberra and work in Hong Kong? ...How will we solve a problem through divergent thinking rather always relying on deductive reasoning? ...And since, as history has taught us, most great ideas are collaborations how will we work together to create the future when technology increasingly allows us to work alone?

And if the answers to those questions are; please buy all your students IPADs and stay for the free drinks and snacks provided....I will cry.


  1. You're thinking like a teacher, not an educator. You see, the iPad is simply mechanism of dis-intermediation. Between the student and the education lies the school.

    The school is increasingly irrelevant in terms of educational media distribution (lessons) and perhaps evaluation (tests).

    I think you have to look for a better historical analogue to understand what is happening with this particular market segment. Look into the dis-intermediation that occurred with the printed bible. With that particular device, one need not be beholden to the church for the appreciation of gospel.

    Your problem isn't with the iPad, it's with the teacher. Teachers are increasingly irrelevant but neither they, nor their masters appreciate that. The manner in which teachers are produced and the role that they will play needs to substantively refactored. They need to be schooled to facilitate the educational process rather than impart it. They need to move from being the media portal to being the program coordinator.

    This is a great opportunity to free teachers or perhaps eliminate all the teachers. Schools can become centres for discourse and elaboration rather than distributors of dogma. The cyclical, time based imprisonment of children can be eliminated such that a child's education can be apportioned by their intellectual curiosity (limited by their poverty naturally let's be realistic).

  2. Compliment taken! I am proud of my position as a practitioner rather than a pundit or a politician. I believe the question I ask in my post is the same one in your reply. De-schooling society opens up a whole new range of possibilities, the cynic in me suspects that the direction we choose will be the exact opposite of what is most required, but I remain optimistic. Thanks again for aligning me with teachers rather edubabblers...life's better when lived in the trenches.