Thursday, February 27, 2014


Data based Decision Making for NC Schools

Our first computer, the ENIAC,  cost $6 million in 2014 dollars (photo on the right). It is a measure of our progress that the equivalent power of this "giant brain" of 1946 can now be found embedded in throw-away $5 animated sound-producing greeting cards. That’s over a million-fold improvement in the cost of decision making, management capacity and economy building in 7 decades. The immensity of such change can stagger the mind, but the future of our children requires us to show some grit. Let's work through it. We've got to get beyond "Wow!". What are the implications of such mind-numbing results?

This many fold improvement also added far more value than just cost reduction. Of equal interest but not number-crunched here is the shrinkage in computer size from a giant room to the thumbnail size bump in a greeting card.  At the same time,  the electrical power consumption of such a device plummeted to that which can be met and run for hours on a tiny watch battery. It might almost run forever with the energy harvesting of an equally small solar cell. It would be interesting to know if the size and power factors have also undergone million-fold improvements, but it is clear that tiny size and minimal power needs have also opened the door to endless new possibilities still being invented today. Oh, and about that $5 greeting card, that price has plenty of room to drop. Freescale Semiconductor announced a tear-drop sized microprocessor in 2014 that is vastly more powerful than the ENIAC and its greeting card prodigy. It is smaller than the dimple on a golfball and in commercial quantities (100,000), costs $0.75 cents (see image on right). Decades of impressive investment and research lead to such incredible scientific and manufacturing outcomes.

Such digital capacity hidden in greeting cards has a much wider range of application. It lies at the heart of the ground-swell for the rapidly emerging sensor driven Internet of Things, tiny sensor reporting intelligent devices embedded in nearly every physical thing we own and new ones being invented.  The Chief Technology Officer of Cisco Canada says this technology will be “a key component in $14.4 trillion of economic activity within the next decade” (Seifert, 2014).

That payoff today from past investment has been considerable. To develop tomorrow's payoff, pause for a moment and brainstorm what is being done today with $6 million dollars worth of computer capacity then imagine the same shrinkage of size and power consumption of the last 70 years being applied to some point in the future. That $6 million just might buy you one of the D-Wave Two's first in the world quantum computers (12, image of quantum chip on left, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons). This design and future quantum designs are as easily as experimental, challenging and as promising as the ENIAC in 1946 and potentially far more disruptive to current cultural patterns. Imagine that capacity on your watch band or tattooed on part of your body, for 75 cents.

Given the current pace of technical/scientific change one suspects that today’s $6 million dollars worth of computer capacity will be worth just $5 or 75 cents in much less than the next 70 year interval.  Given the evolution of the ENIAC and the 18 month doubling pace of Moore’s law of computer capacity, that capacity at that $5 or 75 cent price would happen in about 37 years. I have grandchildren that will be 37 years old in 37 years. How do we develop curriculum, schools and resources to prepare our youngsters for the opportunities and challenges that such a world will bring?

The fact is that we aren't. Because 'the engine that could' is not generating the power we hope for, we punish it by starving it of gas. Yes, only 33% of 8th graders (8th, Salahu-Din, Persky, & Miller, 2008) and 24% of the nation's high school seniors (12th, Salahu-Din, Persky, & Miller, 2008) test at proficient for the ability to write (Kent, Wanzek,Petscher, Al Otaiba,  & Kim2013), the foundational ability to make meaning, discover questions and compose solutions out of the substance of the world around them.  "See, schools are not working." And the solution is starve the engine for gas? Brilliant. If we had the gas, under such circumstance we'd press down on the gas pedal. If a military unit in Afghanistan was losing a firefight, would we take their ammunition away? Welcome to North Carolina that invested in the future by not adding dollars to its educational gas tank. A mind is not just a terrible thing to waste; a wasted mind is not just another personal tragedy. In a time of unlimited wealth of information, the waste of a mind robs it from contributing to everyone's potential and wealth. We should not be coasting on fumes into the 21st century. Let's charge into it.

The potential challenges of today's technology make North Carolina's preparedness for the future look underwhelming. Readers can work out for themselves whether the budgets cuts lead to financial starvation for state schools and sufficient investment in the future or not (REP / DEM); it might be best to check with local school superintendents for the "on-the-ground" facts. Do they feel their schools are prepared and funded for even NC SL2013-11 and SL2013-12? Are their communities aware of the implications for teachers of just those two on-target and yet unfunded state laws?

Ultimately though, it is not about the hardware. It is what we can invent with it that counts, and that increasingly involves a giant dose of STEM and STEAM knowledge. What is clear is that human capacity building is critical in order to capitalize on the acceleration of science and technology that is provided today, let alone a decade or three away. Alvin Toffler spotted part of the problem over 40 years ago;  his 1970 book was titled Future Shock. Without truly exceptional capacity building starting now, exponential growth in the future will not grow our children, it will overwhelm them. Ask our former textile workers how prepared they felt for the change of the last 20 years. As we stunt the growth of tomorrow's workforce, our children of today, we stunt the growth of everyone's tomorrow, of tomorrow’s economy and culture.

The ongoing knowledge explosion (2013) may be completely silent and it may be totally invisible, but it is one more factor that we can actually measure. The explosion of knowledge is so fast and so immense that even if every man, woman and child on the planet was a highly creative and able entrepreneur or a doctoral level researcher, we could not begin to wring all the potential out of today’s knowledge, let alone years into the future, and the future is steeped in accelerating change.  “In 50 years, 90 percent of what we know will have been discovered in the last 50 years” (Seifert).

We must manage the future through a full 180 degree shift in perspective from the past centuries and face the future by facing forward. It has not been that long since millions of low-skilled manufacturing jobs evaporated from the United States while still remaining first in the world through advanced manufacturing. The pace of change suggests there will be many more. It is time to examine in depth what and how the disruptive denizens of cyberspace and makerspace are composing and inventing. It is time to aim our curriculum a few years ahead so that our students, our children, have a chance of finding a place somewhere within the target in their adulthood.

Perhaps the single most important power that we exercise in developing our future is our right to vote. Who can we find to vote for that will develop and direct the capacity building and investment in education that our culture needs?

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