Hybrid Education: The Evidence Grows

By Peadar Coyle

It is said that education is something people have strong opinions about. A growing literature has emerged around randomized evaluations of interventions, most notably Esther Duflo’s work on randomized evaluations of anti-poverty programs in developing countries. This is the most convincing way to determine whether the outcomes of educational interventions have statistical backing. It is high time for some evidence-based thinking and policy-making in this regard as well. Research program around education evolves through experimentation, and here are some of the emerging practices that are increasingly subject to intense scrutiny and evaluation.

1.    Factory tours. These are a reminder of human achievements and lead to an appreciation of the various elements of human ingenuity. There is also something wonderful about seeing various processes and the materials that goes into making things. In the UK, factory visits are generally offered to the students of Technology and Design, and are encouraged by the GCSE syllabus. In Toulose, a local company Taxiway, operates a minibus tour of the Airbus facilities including the different manufacturing halls, in-flight testing areas, Airbus' delivery centre, and modular assembly line for the Airbus A330, A340, and A340-500/600. In Ireland, students can visit the famous House of Waterford Crystal in Waterford City. Here the students can see the process of an exquisite piece of crystal being crafted, molded, blown, hand marked, sculpted, and engraved. The benefits for students are numerous, including the appreciation of quality control and of the craftsmanship that goes into the making of material objects.

2. Workplace based skills. In a world of high unemployment, a trend that is emerging is that of 'skills gap', and therefore, unemployment as a problem cannot be separated from education. Unemployment is, of course, not uniformly distributed across all sectors; for instance, it is the highest in the construction industry in the US. According to the United States Department of Labor , the official unemployment rate for professionals in “management, business and financial operations” is nowhere near the 8.2 percent reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as the official unemployment rate in June 2012  ; it is actually 3.8 percent .Clearly there is a gap between the skills of the working population, and the skills demanded by the market. In this technological age, one set of solutions can be provided by online education, and online video. Examples such as Academic Earth, Khan Academy and even Youtube videos are well documented, however problems remain.  For example a lot of online education consists of videos as a preaching tool, or lecturing tool. Yet whereas for academics, online lectures are probably ideal, for those with different needs such as those who want to develop accredited job friendly vocational or technical skills such as ICT skills, or project management skills. Organisations such as Khan Academy and Academic Earth are clearly aimed towards either high school students or university students, a collection of people who have feedback offered by their institutions. This offers no solution for those in need of developing vocational or technical skills, the vocational education system in many countries is inadequate, and rarely serves those discriminated on the basis of sex or age. However, UNESCO takes this very seriously, and treats technical and vocational education as a top priority capable of alleviating global unemployment. It is a problem that a company based in Ireland called ALISON — Advanced Learning Interactive Systems Online — is helping to address with a creative model.

ALISON provides free online interactive education to help people acquire basic workplace skills which are vocational and technical as opposed to academic. These basic workplace skills include project management, accounting, customer service, human resources, Microsoft Excel, health studies, basic study skills, operations management, and psychology. The company’s target audiences are under-served communities and women, and it provides well structured diplomas that promise and offer employment friendly skills. ALISON has a million registered learners, the bulk of whom live in the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Nigeria, and the Middle East. It offers diplomas and structured courses, and of course accreditation of workplace based skills. Education can be one of the best methods to solve complex social problems such as global poverty, and this social entrepreneurship company based in Galway, Ireland is tremendously inspiring. In the hybrid age, with the cost of formal education skyrocketing and the job market changing dramatically due to factors such as outsourcing and improvements in automation–the responsibility of learning and skill development will be on the individual. Many will turn to online education, and perhaps the  strength of online education academies such as Khan Academy, Udacity, and ALISON is that they help learners to overcome barriers of sexism and discrimination that they face in the real world.

Teach computational thinking. This has been endlessly written about, but clearly there is some need for this. One of the most valuable skillsets in this technological age is, software engineering and computationally minded scientists in areas such as biotechnology and genetics. Recently in the UK there were two high profile policy documents; the NextGen report by a coalition of members of the video game industry and the Royal Society's 'Shut down or Restart' report.. Both reports agreed that the ICT skills taught in the UK are woefully inadequate. In response to these policy documents, a new GCSE course in Computer Science is to be offered from next year. The course, which has taken over 18 months to develop, covers programming fundamentals such as how to interpret and create simple algorithms, develop prototypes, and code solutions to a given problem. The practical element of the syllabus gives the students a chance to create  appropriate software solution for gaming, web, or mobile applications .Students will put the learning into practice and design by making and testing their own applications. This course will first be examined in 2014, and is developed in co-ordination with Microsoft.

 3.    Mathematical Logic. Logic, of course, underpins modern-day computer programming. In the State of Maryland, students drew Euler diagrams which look like a circle inside a square. The "if" statement is drawn within the circle, the "then" drawn outside the circle but within the square. Using games such as the one proposed by Terry Tao is probably an excellent way to teach thislogic. Logic, of course, can be elucidated by other subjects, and even future lawyers or political scientists would find it inspiring and pragmatic.

4. Learning from data. Why should we have students do Chi-squared tests by hand when most modern statistical analysis involves computing? This could be blended with an appreciation of say, evidence-based medicine in biology. We live in an age of big data, and to not allow our kids to understand that is a great disservice to them.One of the buzzwords in contemporary businesses is ‘data scientist’; data mining, machine learning, and statistics are interconnected aspects of this field. What should be noted is that the various skills which are required in ‘data science’-as Cosma Shalizi, a Statistician from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) notes-are a subset of skills of a good computationally competent statistician.  t Professor Shalizi observed that at universities such as CMU, students take courses in modern regression, advanced data analysis and statistical visualization. These skills are the skills prized by the field of 'data mining' or 'data science', which is currently an expanding area. Perhaps Chief Economist of Google, Hal Varian is right when he stated that, ‘I keep saying that the sexy job in the next ten 10 years will be statisticians.'

5. Economics. It does dominate our views of contemporary policy, and part of being an educated member of the electorate involves some appreciation of economics. However, I am reluctant to recommend ‘mandatory’ economics education, since I believe we should encourage students to study rather than force them. As an example of where this exists as a policy: California requires one semester of economics to be taught in the senior year. Economics and Business are difficult to separate, and a fantastic example of an internship program in the US is Youthaboutbusiness.org. The goal of Youth About Business is to cultivate business knowledge and financial literacy amongst young people by, for example, building their own business. The importance of experiential learning or problem based learning cannot be overstated.

Philosophy or the theory of knowledge (epistemology). An exposure to having ones ideas questioned and challenged can be an excellent experience. Interestingly a concrete example of this can be found in Brazil: Philosophy is compulsory in Brazilian schools due to a law passed in 2008. The official view is that this creates more engaged citizens. The law—the world’s largest-scale attempt to bring philosophy into the public sphere—thus represents an experiment in democracy. An important follow up question is; can it teach students to question and challenge the foundations of society itself? The answer as someone once said about the French Revolution is ‘that it is too early to tell’. The Studio school in NYC teaches in addition to a varied curriculum, the notions of philology and rhetoric. Some of these subjects are taught to give a deeper appreciation of syntax, etymology, and the power of persuasion-and these are taught through the Socratic method.In order to prepare children for the technological world of tomorrow, we shouldn’t underestimate the wisdom of the classical world. 

 6. Measuring outputs. Recently, Bill Gates was interviewed by tThe Chronicle of Hhigher eEducation. Amongst other excellent points such as a move towards a ‘flipped classroom’ and movements away from lectures, Mr. Gates made a point that measuring outputs is more important, than measuring inputs . Perhaps, multiple choice tests for self testing have a role here especially if this can be joined together with gamification.

Quest to Learn is a school funded by the Gates Foundation which is using games to help educate the children. It is approved by the New York City Education Board which will take over its funding post 2015.

“In one sample curriculum, students create a graphic novel based on the epic Babylonian poem "Gilgamesh," record their understanding of ancient Mesopotamian culture though geographer and anthropologist journals, and play the strategic board game "Settlers of Catan." Google Earth comes into play as a tool to explore the regions of ancient Mesopotamia.”

       Learning happens everywhere and at every age – as the earlier discussion of ALISON illustrates. The complicated world we live in where jobs for life are a thing of the past needs more than traditional measures of achievement. Solving the accreditation problem (and the related credential problem) is a tricky one, but one set of answers was provided by the ‘Badges for Lifelong Learning Competition’ organized by a collaboration between the MacArthur Foundation and the Mozilla foundation. There were various winners, and a range of grants were awarded, including,:

  • The Disney-Pixar Wilderness Explorers Badge System which engages youth in nature offering them a way to learn about and become advocates for the wildlife and wild
  • The Manufacturing Institute’s National Manufacturing Badge System will recognize skills, competencies, and achievements that students and workers need to be in advanced manufacturing workplace. 
  • NASA’s Robotics and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) System exploring new STEM topics and will create a unique collection of digital badges
  • The Young Adult Library Services Association’s Badge Program will help librarians’ knowledge-they need in order to meet the needs of 21st century teens.
  • A caveat is worth including, what is important is that we are careful about top-down approaches; misaligned incentives stop the various professionals from working at what they do best.We should trust in our teachers, and trust in our professionals. History has taught us that high-modernist policies are circumspect at best. The challenge for policy designers is how to incorporate educational research and cognitive science research without crushing the individual’s underfoot.For our students - and we are all students - to thrive in the ‘Hybrid Age’ we need to bear all these factors in mind. Examples such as the workplace based education model offered by ALISON is a sign that for-profit social enterprises can offer some of the solution to the problem of mass unemployment, and help close the skills-gap, and this is commendable.

    Peader Coyle is a Researcher at the Hybrid Reality Institute.

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    The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

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    The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

    As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

    The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

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    An ethical gray matter

    Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

    The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

    Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

    Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

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    One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

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    "There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

    It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

    Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

    The dilemma is unprecedented.

    Setting new boundaries

    Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

    She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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