Rise of the Cohort, Educational and Otherwise

“Cohort” is a term used in sociology and education that refers to a group of people that experience a certain set of events simultaneously as they move through time.  Cohort isn’t a perfect term, but I wonder if we are coming to a point where we need a term that gets rid of the meddlesome baggage associated with a class, but preserves the idea that there’s a particular type of peer instruction that benefits from everybody being on the same lesson at the same time.

Or failing a consensus on that point — at least a term that allows us to discuss the issue, which lately I see popping up all over the place, from Philipp’s quoting John Seely Brown to talk about founding principles for P2PU type efforts:

Together, members construct and negotiate a shared meaning, bringing the group along collectively rather than individually. In the process, they became what the literary critic Stanley Fish calls a “community of interpretation” working toward a shared understanding of the matter under discussion.

To Tony Hirst looking for ways to get OCW content delivered serially:

In contrast to syndication feeds from continually or regularly updated sources, a serialised feed is an RSS feed derived from an unchanging (or “static”) body of content, such as a book, or OpenLearn course unit, for example.

The original work is partitioned (serialised) into a set of separate component parts or chunks – in the case of a book, this might correspond to separate chapters, for example. Each chunk is then published as a separate RSS item. By scheduling the release of each feed item, a book or course can be released as a part-work over a period of time, with each part delivered as a separate feed item.

To Shirky’s recent observation that struck me as so absolutely true in a known and completely mundane way : “…what you see with these user groups, whether it’s for reality TV or science fiction, is that people love the conversation around the shows.” Not that that was his main point here. But it’s true, right? We negotiate experience differently when we feel like we are all going through it for the first time. There’s less of a caste system of amateurs and old-timers. We’re bolder about our pronouncements, more democratic. The possibility for reinterpretation is more dramatic with 99 people going through a course at once than for 99 people being absorbed into a profession or discipline one at a time.

It may be good, it may be bad, but it’s there.

I’ve been thinking about how this is such a pervasive problem in all aspects of culture. TV should be dead, by rights. Ages ago. But the one thing it provides is a serialization mechanism for art, where there’s at least a chance that you could talk to somebody that has seen Episode 8 of Lost, but not Episode 9.

Netflix could solve this of course, and reinvigorate a lot of series in the process. What you would need, ala Hirst, is a serialization mechanism (and here, again, talking in terms of the original meaning of serialization, not it’s specialized computer science meaning). You and your friends sign up to watch the mid-90s series Earth 2, and it delivers you an episode a week. Or every three days. Or each night. Whatever — as long as it allows for shared reflection in between the events.

In other words, you become a cohort, moving through these series in sync so that everyone shares a similar interpretative environment. If Netflix added that, and just that, to its Watch Instantly offerings, it would would change the digital delivery of old TV shows into something entirely different. The same way P2PU would transform the face of OCW use, and the same way Tony’s experiments are pushing the delivery bar.

The “class” is dead, as is the “audience”. Long live the cohort.

Educational Policy, Economic Literacy, and Inside HigherEd

We’re facing the most dire economic situation in our nation’s history, but that doesn’t prevent Inside HigherEd from printing the most uninformed analyses of the current situation. Here’s a sample. Commenting on a recent letter from 51 “presidents, chancellors, regents, and heads of university associations” asking that portions of the stimulus be spent on shovel-ready  highered infrastrcuture projects, educational policy analyst Jane Shaw comments:

Why did these educators choose capital funding — that is, constructing “essential classroom and research buildings and equipping them with the latest technologies”? Wouldn’t tuition discounts, tax credits, more scholarships, or even faculty salaries be more directly related to the problems that they decry?

This is a question she could have easily answered by cracking an Econ 101 book, but I’ll let economist Paul Krugman, who knows a thing or two about depression economics, explain it here:

Let’s lay out the basics here. Other things equal, public investment is a much better way to provide economic stimulus than tax cuts, for two reasons. First, if the government spends money, that money is spent, helping support demand, whereas tax cuts may be largely saved. So public investment offers more bang for the buck. Second, public investment leaves something of value behind when the stimulus is over.

That said, there’s a problem with a public-investment-only stimulus plan, namely timing. We need stimulus fast, and there’s a limited supply of “shovel-ready” projects that can be started soon enough to deliver an economic boost any time soon. You can bulk up stimulus through other forms of spending, mainly aid to Americans in distress — unemployment benefits, food stamps, etc.. And you can also provide aid to state and local governments so that they don’t have to cut spending — avoiding anti-stimulus is a fast way to achieve net stimulus. But everything I’ve heard says that even with all these things it’s hard to come up with enough spending to provide all the aid the economy needs in 2009.

In other words, it’s pretty simple — the signatories proposed shovel-ready infrastructure projects because that’s what’s needed to save the economy. Shaw’s suggestions may be good ideas, but they are poor stimulus. Higher faculty salaries don’t translate necessarily into jobs, tax credits don’t tap into unutilized productivity, and as much as tuition discounts may be needed, it’s not clear that they put a single person to work or increase demand in the slightest. Does a person with a tuition discount buy more education?

But the errors in the Inside HigherEd article don’t end there. Shaw also says later:

By asking the taxpayers to rev up those projects, the administrators are essentially saying that if state taxpayers can’t afford a project, some mythical “federal taxpayer” can.

But state and federal taxpayers are, by and large, the same people. If Arizona is seeing its tax revenues dip, chances are that the federal government will see its taxes go down, too. If the people of Arizona are hurting, probably taxpayers countrywide are hurting, too.

This is just a ridiculous level of analysis. The difference between states and the federal goverment is that the federal government can print money and states can’t.  You can argue about the dangers of essentially borrowing against the future, but the point of stimulus is to avoid the larger government cost of economic collapse by injecting enough capital into the economy to prevent it.  States have some capacity to borrow, but in a skittish, frozen economy that capacity totals a couple drops in several buckets. To equate the economics of state budgets with the economics of the federal budget is dangerously uninformed.

Let me be clear — certainly there are economists that have different opinions about the relative worth of stimulus in preventing (or softening) depressions.  In the face of overwhelming evidence that monetary policy alone can’t save us, they’re getting fewer, but there are still people that have legitimate disagreements with the Keynesian principles behind government stimulus.

But that’s not what the article in Inside HigherEd is disputing. It is, in fact, taking the stimulus as a given. It is arguing the relative worth of the contents of a stimulus package. And yet the author does not seem to understand what a stimulus package is supposed to do, or how it is expected to do it.

We’re on the brink of the biggest economic disaster in our nation’s history, and right now the biggest risk to our economy is that 28 years of public sphere claptrap about how national economic policy is essentially no different than a family budget is preventing us from implementing the dramatic remedies that are really our only hope of avoiding complete collapse. Publications like Inside HigherEd should be doing their best to raise the level of dialogue on these issues, not dragging it back down into ignorance.

52/12: My New Year’s Resolution and the Death of the Endless Lunch

I’d thought I was abandoning blogs and projects in a linear pattern, but history here has taken a Viconian turn: I’ve revived my Endless Lunch blog, with the purpose of using it to connect with other writers in pursuing my personal new year’s resolution — to write 52 songs and 12 short stories this year. 

Yeah, I know I could use this blog, with tags and the like. Not sure why I’m doing over there. Just feels right. 

It will be interesting, though. to get back to using a blog as a novice in an area where I want to do something new. We talk a lot about the benefits to experts of blogging, but the benefits there still don’t compare to what a novice can get out of the blogosphere, that zero to sixty experience that is such a rush.

In any case, if you are interested in my analyses of 60s pop hits. the prose of Douglas Adams, and various recording projects and short stories of mine, head over to 52/12. And if you are interested on my thoughts on the Theory of the Golden Ticket and the Endless Lunch, head over to this post in particular.

Hope to see you all there!