Monday, March 25, 2013

"Robots Aren't the Problem" in our economy, but what about our schools?

In an essay on the topic of technology entitled "Robots Aren't the Problem" in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard Florida writes:"we should look at how [technology] affects our social and economic arrangements—and how we have failed to adapt [it] to our circumstances."

This raises deep concerns about higher ed in general and the STEM disciplines in particular. Surely I am not alone with my concerns about the widening disconnect between the economy surrounding the highly integrated consumer technology... and the faltering economy of learning. 

Full disclosure: I am a nano / device physics guy; I and students built lovely nanotube-based transistors and whatnot together over the years before I left academia, so I'm about as close to the most hyped tech directions as you can find on a typical college campus. Even as a very tech-friendly academic, I have real questions about what exactly I am teaching for. I know that I can't simply break open an iPhone and fish out some parts and teach classes about those. Many of these devices that surround us are so integrated that their operating principles are obscure even to experts.

Okay... I could teach courses on this material... but those classes would be nothing at all like what most of our students take now, and very few students would be sufficiently prepared to delve into the black boxes that fill our lives. Within our current curriculum, frankly, we're doing well to bring students up to speed on technology a full decade (or two) prior. The tech fields have gone into so many different directions of late, it's very hard to keep students abreast without diluting the core curriculum. Do our institutions of learning really have any idea just how big the gap has become, between what we teach and what a student would need to thrive in the tech sector?

After completing the lectures and proceeding into the research labs, our students typically do very basic research sponsored by the likes of NSF, i.e. with very little tie-in to companies like Apple ($AAPL) and Google ($GOOG) and other tech leaders. And those tech leaders aren't really investing in next-generation talent; in fact, they aren't really investing in much of anything- they have huge amounts of cash on hand. Where do we go from here... Apple University? Google University? And do those companies have a faculty job for me... ;)

In summary: what economic growth we do have in this nation right now is very much about consumer tech designed by a few specialists and manufactured abroad, and ed is almost totally disconnected from that. This is a very worrisome trend, in my view. 

N.b. I am certainly not criticizing the underlying technology and I am no Luddite.... but I do question how consumer technology comports with ideas about a liberal higher education as a means of career advancement beyond academia.

P.S. Just for Mr. Coburn: my work to teach nanotechnology to undergraduates was partially supported by NSF Nanoscience Undergraduate Education (NUE) Grant 0532515, entitled "'We're Not in Kansas Anymore' - A Hands-On Introduction to the New World of Nanoscience and Technology."

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