And I thought I was the hammer

I’m all for high education standards (I have been nicknamed “the hammer” by two separate colleagues over the years), but either the University of Liberia needs to rethink their entrance exam or Liberian high schools need to step up to the challenge.

The BBC reports that the university has lessened its overcrowding problem by not admitting a single student for next year’s class.  According to school authorities, all 25,000 students who took the admission exam failed.  The education minister had this to say about the situation:

“I know there are a lot of weaknesses in the schools but for a whole group of people to take exams and every single one of them to fail, I have my doubts about that,” Ms David-Tarpeh said. “It’s like mass murder.”

I agree that something seems fishy. For example, the university said that the applicants “lacked enthusiasm” and good English skills.  How do you test for enthusiasm and why is that part of the exam?  The fact that they paid $25 to take the test seems to indicate that they have enthusiasm for learning and for investing in their future.

On the other hand, I would question the Education Minister’s equating the situation to a “mass murder.”  That seems like a curious (and terrible) analogy anywhere, but especially the political hell that Liberia has undergone in the last couple of decades.


Mexican teachers, improving education one strike at a time

The teachers’ unions in Mexico are at it again.  The country faces massive problems in public schooling and a lot of it has to do with how the union runs things (and the relationship between the union and the PRI for much of the 20th century).  Now that the government wants to change things up and actually initiate real reform, the teachers are furious.  Laura Poy Solano writes in La Jornada that the union has put out a “massive call to the teachers of the country to promote an indefinite work stoppage beginning next week.” The unions claim to be coordinating with parents but I’m doubtful about that.

Just in case there was any idea what side they were on, they specifically called on teachers around the country “to join this fight against education reform.” 

Hmm, an indefinite strike, that should really help education levels in the country.


Working out the online (educational) kinks

I wrote yesterday about exciting educational reform in India and the UK (Grannies in the Cloud).  Recent news from San Jose State University make it clear that online education is still a work in progress.

Earlier this year, SJSU teamed up with Udacity to offer remedial math and stats courses to anyone could paid $150.  They have since suspended the experiment after the fail rates were off the charts.  About 85% of the students that signed up actually completed the class, which is a high number, but the pass rates only ranged from 20-44%.  Apparently about 75% usually pass the same courses in a non-online setting.

Forbes has a good article detailing some of the reasons that the program might not have worked so well. Ironically, the title of the piece is “Failing Fast,” which I assumed to be (cruelly) referring to the students who failed the course but actually refers to Udacity.

I’m glad that the university is going to work with Udacity to rethink the program and try again in 2014.  A lot of the trouble with the courses seemed to stem from the fact that they were put together in a rush without adequate thought and preparation.

Education in the Clouds

It’s fascinating to see how technology is changing education.  It’s not clear which forms will pan out, but it’s fun to see what people are coming up with to expand education.

Recently I read about Sugata Mitra’s new idea for education in the clouds.  Mitra is a Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University and he is most well known for his “Hole in the Wall” experiment in 1999. In the experiment, he installed a “child-height computer in the wall of a Delhi slum. Children worked out its functions for themselves, leading to Professor Mitra’s idea of a self-organised learning environment, or Sole.”

Now he is building on that idea by forming cloud schools with an army of “grannies”.  Using the $1 million dollars he won from TED 2013, he is working on the creation of 7 schools, 5 of which will be in India and 2 in the UK. The idea is mostly geared to remote schools in poorer countries, where students may not have teachers, much less access to computers.  Mitra also wanted to experiment with a couple of good schools as well, however, to see if cloud schooling could make a difference there.

So what is the role of the grannies?  Mostly they are retired schoolteachers who will “suggest research topics to children and encourage and praise their learning, without actually teaching them. Professor Mitra hopes that the grannies will be able to supervise everything in the cloud schools remotely, including physical features such as lights and windows.”

There will be seven schools to begin with. Here is the rundown:

Area 0: the flagship, most expensive, cloud school. A hexagonal glass pod to be built in Gocharan, a village in West Bengal, India.

Area 1: the most remote cloud school, to be built from mud and grass in Korakati, a tiny village in the Sundarbans mangrove swamps in the Ganges Delta, West Bengal.

Area 2: in an existing room in the village of Chandra Koma, around 200km from Calcutta.

Area 3: in a yet to be identified urban slum in Delhi, India.

Area 4: in a yet to be identified urban slum in Pune, India.

Area 5: in a converted classroom at George Stephenson High, Killingworth, England.

Area 6: in an arts centre at Greenfield Community College, Newton Aycliffe, England.

The one thing that I found a bit freaky is that each area will have a large screen where a “life-size image of a supervising “granny” will be projected.”  I’d find that a bit weird if I were a student and a bit awkward if I were the granny.

 All in all though, this is an interesting idea and I will be following it to see what kind of results Mitra finds.
h/t @drpaulinedixon

Innovation in Education, Brazilian style

The article Celeb Twitter Mistakes Teach Brazilian Kids tells of one of the more innovative ways to get students interested in learning (and practicing) a foreign language.  At an English language school called Red Balloon, kids correct the grammar mistakes of their favorite celebrities on Twitter.  For instance, Rihanna recently tweeted:

She’s my rock so I hold on to she tight!!!

Yikes.  Fortunately, young Carolina was there to help.  She tweeted back:

Hi @rihanna! I love your songs. My name is Carolina. I’m 11 years old. It’s not to she, it’s to her. bye bye .

I don’t know how much this helps students learn English, but I love the attempt to make learning a foreign language both relevant (from the students’ perspective), fun, and technology-based.  It’s also a lot more fun to correct other people than get corrected yourself.  I remember how excited I was the first time I noticed grammatical mistakes on student papers when I taught in Mexico.

Latin America’s first MOOC

São Paulo University (USP) has teamed up with a start-up company named Veduca to launch two MOOCs, one in physics and the other in statistics.

This article notes that Brazilian students are some of the most “engaged” participants in US based MOOCs, but are hindered by the fact that the classes are taught in English (by the way, I don’t know what the author means by engaged or how this is measured).  These new classes will be taught in Portuguese by USP professors and will give students the opportunity to participate in live chats, watch videos, and take quizzes throughout to gauge their understanding.

One potential drawback I see is that students can only receive a certificate from Veduca confirming they passed the course if they travel to São Paulo to take the final exam.  I’m sure that will cut down on cheating and enhance the credibility of the certificate (they hope that private universities will accept it for credit in the future), but it seemingly will cut down on the number of international students who will want to enroll. Perhaps that already will be low though given the language of instruction.


How to change a culture

This article from the Boston Globe called “How to Change a Culture” really rang true to me from what I’ve seen in the classroom.  The author asks how policymakers might influence culture in a positive way, say by reducing corruption or getting people to vote?  Somewhat surprisingly, it’s not by trying to convince them what they are doing is wrong.  Instead, the best way is to convince them that other people don’t share their beliefs (i.e. apply peer pressure).

”The inner conformist is stronger than the inner activist,’ said Michael Morris, a psychologist at Columbia University who studies the role of culture in decision-making.”

So if you want people to vote, don’t scold them about how disappointing it is that people aren’t voting.  That will probably have the opposite effect. If no one else is voting, why should I bother?  A 2009 Journal of Politics article fond that it’s way better to “tell people that turnout had been higher in the previous election than at any in history. In other words, more people were voting — so if they wanted to be normal, they should vote.”

The author uses the example of Prohibition to demonstrate how quickly culture can change under the right circumstances:

“According to a paper coauthored by Michael Morris, most Americans supported [Prohibition] ‘because it was socially undesirable to publicly defend alcohol, and few people did.’ But when polls revealed that a majority of Americans actually wanted to be allowed to drink — and in fact large numbers of them were drinking, out of public view — more people were emboldened to speak their minds on the subject, and the tide quickly turned against the 18th Amendment.”

The reason this reminds me of my classroom experience is that sometimes you can try so hard to get students to engage in class but they refuse.  You can offer extra credit (carrot) for participation, you can dock them points if they don’t (stick), but they stubbornly stay silent.  Thankfully, I haven’t had this experience in years, but it is tough to deal with.  In my opinion, if students think that no one else cares about the class, no one else speaks up, and no one else does the reading, then they don’t need to either.  And of course the more you chide the students on not engaging, the more it reinforces that this is a “loser class” (that’s what I call it, I’m not sure exactly how to explain it, just an attitude of “this class sucks”).  And to top things off, teaching such a class is no fun, which makes professors start to dread coming and hitting their head against a wall.  All of this is immediately picked up on by the students, further reinforcing the loser class status.  If the professor doesn’t even care and doesn’t like us, why should I try harder?

I have since worked hard to find fun ways to get them to engage so they feel peer pressure to participate and rise to the challenge rather than the opposite.  It isn’t always easy but if you can change the perception of what students think their classmates believe about the class, then you have a chance.

Mexico news & views

1. Why Mexico’s Management of Protected Witnesses is a Disaster by the excellent InSight Crime.

“Mexico, must deal with all of the downsides [of protected witnesses] (cases falling apart because of lying witnesses) but none of the benefits (witnesses regularly contributing to successful convictions against dangerous criminals).”

2. Mexico Extortion Hits 1/3 of Foreign Businesses (also by InSight Crime)

“A survey by the American Chamber of Commerce of Mexico (Amcham) found that 36 percent of the businesses questioned reported being threatened with extortion last year, double the number reported in 2011.”  uh-oh

3. Reflections on Mexico’s Energy Reform

“Based on the fallacy of Pemex’s resource shortages (financial, technical and human), it will be claimed that it is essential to complement them with contributions from private individuals – both national and foreign.” not sure I agree with this article, but still interesting.

4. Economy as Grand Guignol: The Postreform era in Mexico  by William Glade

What is labeled by the portmanteau term “drug trafficking” is actually instantiated in a complex of thriving ancillary enterprises that support output of the main product, narcotics. Viewed as an oligopolistic set of multiproduct firms, popularly called “regional drug cartels,” the narcotics industry per se has been backed up by an astonishingly efficient production regime for such side products as assassination, intimidation, human trafficking (moving illegal migrants of Mexican and other origin) across the northern frontier, extortion, lucrative kidnapping-for-profit schemes, money laundering, and increasingly grisly massacres over wider stretches of the Republic.”  I had to google “guignol” but a very interesting book chapter available online.  Also check Tyler Cowen’s video on the economics of drug trafficking and violence in Mexico here.

5. Student loans come to Mexico

“Meanwhile, some analysts question the real value of a college education in Mexico, where graduates often suffer higher rates of unemployment than those with less education.”

Change is slow in Chiapas


The Center for Economic and Political Research for Community Action (Ciepac) argues that indigenous women in Chiapas are “subordinated and oppressed” from almost every perspective: politically, culturally, socially.

They argue that “this oppression is present at many levels and takes many forms, such as the right to study. However, women are beginning to question the ways and customs which keep them subordinate and reinforce patriarchal control, which has been constructed and accepted historically and socially.”

A recent case sadly does nothing to refute Ciepac’s argument.  A group of 67 women, mostly housewives and mothers, bravely decided to buck tradition and finish their middle school education.  When they asked their community for a place to host the graduation party, the authorities refused.

Mr. Domingo Gómez Díaz, Chairman of the Drinking Water Board, called a meeting to denounce the women, stating

“that it was shameful for pregnant women to be studying, that they are only good for the kitchen and that under no circumstances would said graduation ceremony take place.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Gómez Díaz was not alone in his denunciation.  He was joined by the former mayor and the current administrative agent (no idea what this title might imply).

The women have lodged a formal complaint with the Chiapas Governor, claiming that men are proving to be obstacles to their constitutional right to education (Article 3 of the Constitution).  I am encouraged by the fact that they finished their middle school education and they made an official complaint and have publicized the kind of misogynistic attitudes that keep women from getting an education.  Maybe change in gender roles is coming after all to Chiapas, albeit very slowly.

h/t Mexico Voices blog


Language and Learning

One of the first articles that I published was called “Colonial Legacies and Economic Growth.”  It was a paper that came directly from my dissertation, and in it I explore whether the level of education at the time of independence can help explain the development gap between former British and French colonies in Sub-Saharan Africa.  I found that the British had a totally different philosophy of education than the French.  The British tended to have women from the local community (often without a lot of education themselves) teach children in their native language.  The French, on the other hand, had a more elitist vision of education, where a select few were sent to boarding school to eventually form part of the colonial government.  All instruction was in French.

Apparently, Haiti has tried several times in the past 50 years to move more towards creole in schools rather than French.  All of those reforms failed, but a recent article called “How Science, Math and Creole Education Can Lead to Prosperity in Haiti” discusses an interesting new collaboration between MIT Linguistics Professor Michael DeGraff and the Haitian government.  DeGraff received an NSF grant to try to “promote the use of Creole via technology in Haiti’s school system.”  Here is a link to DeGraff’s work on the topic.  I haven’t read his work yet but it looks fascinating.  Here’s hoping that this reform works better than the previous ones!

h/t Tate Watkins (@tatewatkins), a great person to follow on Twitter if you are interested in Haiti.