Thursday, April 26, 2012

Moore's Law Explains Poor Education


Few people would debate that our educational system is flawed. Look in any newspaper, magazine, or blog that has an education section and you will find way too many articles which try to point out the problems and suggest how to fix them. According to these articles the problems range from anything and everything from poor teaching, to poor parenting, to not enough time in the classroom, to too much time in the classroom, to too much homework, to not enough homework, to poor curricula, etc. etc. etc. We are not here to debate any of this; only to give another perspective. It has become apparent to us that the best way to explain why our educational system is failing and is gradually getting worse is by looking at Moore's Law.
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Let us begin by explaining exactly what Moore's Law is for those people who are unfamiliar. Almost 50 years ago (back in 1965) an Intel executive by the name of David House came up with Moore's Law. The law, named after Intel cofounder Gordon Moore, states that the number of transistors that can fit on a computer chip will double approximately every 18 months. What this means is that about every 2 years the processing power of computer chips double while at the same time becoming less expensive and smaller.

For the last 50 years people have been shocked by how accurate this theory has been. While this rule was originally said only about transistors and computer chips, it has proven to be just as accurate when describing just about anything having to do with technology; storage space for memory, pixels for digital cameras, network capacity, etc. In fact, technology has become so small and inexpensive that, in the words of Kevin Kelly in his book What Technology Wants, it has placed "itself in the middle of everything we do, see, hear, and make. Technology has permeated eating, romance, sex, child rearing, education, death." Few people would debate this point.

So how exactly does this explain the problem with education? Unfortunately, we still aren't at that point quite yet. We still need to explain a few more things about Moore's Law; specifically how it has progressed since 1965. For example, "Decades ago Gordon Moore himself predicted his law would end when it reached 250-nanometer manufacturing." (Kelly) Well, we passed Gordon Moore's prediction back in 1997. While Moore was wrong about 250-nanometer manufacturing being the point at which his law would end, he is not wrong that at some point it will end. This makes sense. Look at any area or industry where there has been this type of growth. It always seems to follow an S-shaped curve. As Kelly says,
Any specific exponential growth will inevitably smooth out into a typical S-shaped curve. This is the archetypal pattern of growth: After a slow ramp-up, gains take off straight up like a rocket, and then after a long run level out slowly.
So Moore's Law has to end then. After all, eventually we have to reach a point where we will be unable to fit any more transistors on a computer chip. It can't go on forever? Can it?

Kevin Kelly
Well, according to Kevin Kelly, Moore's Law "will never end. The slow demise of the more-transistors-per-chip trend is inevitable. But on average, digital technologies will roughly double in performance every two years for the foreseeable future. That means our most culturally important devices and systems will get faster, cheaper, better by 50 percent every year." But how can this be? Kelly even states that eventually the growth will level off and die out. Besides, there isn't an infinite amount of space on a computer chip.

The reason Kelly feels that Moore's Law will never end is that as one S-shaped curve is leveling off, another one is just beginning. Yes we will reach a point where we will no longer be able to fit any more transistors on a computer chip; but we will find something else to take the place of the transistors (or the computer chip) so we will still see the same growth. Our devices will keep getting faster, cheaper, and better. So when Kelly states that Moore's Law will end, he is not referring to the law that specifically mentions the number of transistors on a computer chip. He is referring to the updated Moore's Law which simply states that technology will keep getting "faster, cheaper, better by 50 percent every year."

click to enlarge
via: Carpe Nano
In fact, if there is an end in site to Moore's Law, it is not in the "faster, cheaper, better" part; it is in the "by 50 percent every year" part. Anyone who follows the trends in technology and specifically how quickly new updated technology comes out) can clearly see that Moore's Law has ended somewhat. It no longer is happening every 18 months. Instead it is happening increasingly faster. Kelly said in the quote that it is happening every year. However, that was back when his book was first published in 2010. Now in 2012 it seems we are approaching the point where it is happening closer to every 6 months. This shows that, as Ray Kurzweil states in his book, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology," the pace of change of our human-created technology is accelerating and its powers are expanding at an exponential pace."

This is the latest version of Moore's Law. Not everyone believes that Moore's Law stays consistently growing  (or shrinking, as the case may be) at a steady rate of 50% per year. Many now believe that Moore's Law is exponential. So while technology used to become cheaper, faster, better at a rate of 50% every 18 months, this rate of change and growth will gradually get increasingly faster. In fact, if you were to look at a graph which charts the rate of change over time it begins so slowly that the line appears to be horizontal. Of course it isn't; it's just changing and speeding up so slowly that it appears to be barely moving. However, it gradually picks up speed eventually getting to a point where the rate of change is so fast that the line on the graph looks almost completely vertical. When Gordon Moore originally talked about his law we were at the point when the line looks horizontal. As Ray Kurzweil explains,
The acceleration of paradigm shift (the rate at which we change fundamental technical approaches) as well as the exponential growth of the capacity of information technology are both beginning to reach the 'knee of the curve,' which is the stage at which an exponential trend becomes noticeable. Shortly after this stage, the trend quickly becomes explosive. Before the middle of this century, the growth rates of our technology - which will be indistinguishable from ourselves - will be so steep as to appear essentially vertical. From strictly mathematical perspective, the growth rates will still be finite but so extreme that the changes they bring about will appear to rupture the fabric of human history.
There are still many people however, that disagree with this. Kurzweil explains this dissension in his viewpoint.; first by stating,
People intuitively assume that the current rate of progress will continue for future periods. Even for those who have been around long enough to experience how the pace of change increases over time, unexamined intuition leaves one with the impression that change occurs at the same rate that we have experienced most recently
That explanation only applies to people who really don't follow trends in technology. What about for the people who do? Kurzweil goes on to say,
Scientists are trained to be skeptical, to speak cautiously of current research goals, and to rarely speculate beyond the current generation of scientific pursuit. This may have been a satisfactory approach when a generation of science and technology lasted longer than a human generation, but it does not serve society's interests now that a generation of scientific and technological progress comprises only a few years.
Kurzweil argues that
Most long-range forecasts of what is technically feasible in future time periods dramatically underestimate the power of future developments because they are based on what I call the 'intuitive linear' view of history rather than the 'historical exponential view. My models show that we are doubling the paradigm-shift rate every decade. . . Thus the twentieth century was gradually speeding up to today's rate of progress; its achievements, therefore, were equivalent to about twenty years of progress at the rate in 2000. We'll make another twenty years of progress in just fourteen years (by 2014), and then do the same again in only seven years. To express this another way, we won't experience one hundred years of technological advance in the twenty-first century; we will witness on the order of twenty thousand years of progress (again, when measured by today's rate of progress), or about one thousand times greater than what was achieved in the twentieth century.
Students are taught how to use an iPad, how to use an iPod touch, or how to use a specific application. That's great for now. But what happens when these same students graduate college and iPods and iPads give way to some new devices?
And here in lies the problem with education. Walk into most any classroom and you will find students doing very traditional work: reading, writing, math, etc. Sure sometimes you will find kids using laptops, iPads, or smartphones. But then again what are they using theses devices for? Very traditional work: reading, writing, math, etc. Most language arts teachers require their students to type a paper or do research. Yet how many of these same teachers actually teach their students how to type or how to research using the Internet? Few. Usually because most teachers assume that since this generation of students grew up with these devices, they automatically know how to use them. Big mistake!

We are not arguing that schools should stop teaching traditional work; only that they need to begin teaching more technology. As of right now, the only technology that is really taught in classrooms are the devices the students are using to do the work. Students are taught how to use an iPad, how to use an iPod touch, or how to use a specific application. That's great for now. But what happens when these same students graduate college and iPods and iPads give way to some new devices? Teaching students how to use devices really isn't teaching them technology. Technology today is the Internet. And in the future this will only become even more true. Devices today are portals used to access the Internet. The further we go into the future, the more this will become true.

Teaching students how to use specific devices is not the same thing as teaching them technology. Just like teaching someone how to use a pen is not the same as teaching them how to write. Schools need to start teaching students real technology. For example, how about teaching students how to do a real Google search. How many students know that if you put quotation marks around a phrase Google will only bring up websites with that exact phrase? How many students know how Google decides to order the websites it lists when you do a search? How many students know how to evaluate how reliable a particular website is?

Walk into computer classes in most middle schools or high schools and what are the students being taught? How to use Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Yet there are still a scary number of students who do not know how to email. Don't believe us? Go around and ask most students what "c.c" or "b.c.c" stands for and what it does? Ask them how to attach a file? You will be very surprised to see how few actually know. And that's just the basics. What about how to protect devices from viruses or even more importantly how to protect yourself so that your personal information is not stolen?

On top of this, the most prominent reason school districts limit the amount of technology being used is the fear of what students will do with it. Districts are so terrified that students will use technology to access pornography, meet sexual predators, or bully their peers. So what is their solution? Limit the students' access to technology. There is one major problem with this approach. Just because the school doesn't allow the students to use technology doesn't mean they do not have access. Any student can do any of the things at home, at a friends house, or even by going to public libraries. Wouldn't a better approach be to teach students about the dangers of technology so they can properly protect themselves? After all, this is why schools began teaching sex education.

Precautionary Principle (click to enlarge)
This approach that schools are using is referred to as The Precautionary Principle. The Precautionary Principle states that if there is any chance of some science or technology causing harm to the public, that technology should not be used until it can be proven that no harm will come to the public. This is absolutely insane! As Kelly reminds us, "Max More. Cass R. Sunstein, who devoted a book to debunking the principle, says, 'We must challenge the Precautionary Principle not because it leads in a bad direction, but because read for all it is worth, it leads in no direction at all." And as Kelly, himself points out, "Innovation is not prudent. Yet because precaution privileges only safety, it not only diminishes other values but also actually reduces safety." What he recommends instead is "More science, done openly by skeptics and enthusiasts" which "will enable us to sooner say: 'This is okay to use' or 'This is not okay to use.'"  Kelly also points out that "a technology can never be declared 'proven safe.' It must be continuously tested with constant vigilance since it is constantly being reengineered by users and the coevolutionary technium it inhabits."

So how does all of this relate to Moore's Law? Well, if a student graduates college today and tries to get a job, without knowing any technology (or very little technology), it is very difficult. With the recession being what it is, getting a job is already difficult. But what most people recruiting for jobs is really looking for are people who know technology. As we stated in a previous blog, Does Technology Get in the Way in the Classroom," over the last 3 years 100% of the students who graduated Monmouth University with an IT minor got a job. That is absolutely amazing considering our present economy. And if Kurzweil is correct then he says, "we'll see the equivalent of a century of progress - at today's rate - in only twenty-five calendar years" (and we believe he is), then it is only going to get worse.

Think about all the information we gave you concerning Moore's Law. As we already stated, according to Kurzweil, "We'll make another twenty years of progress in just fourteen years (by 2014), and then do the same again in only seven years." So basically what Kurzweil is attesting is that a student who enters first grade this upcoming school year, September 2012, and finishes college in the typical 16 years, graduating in 2028, will see the world progress the equivalent of roughly 80 years.

Whether you agree with Kurzweil's theories or not, people today would be hard pressed to deny that "change is accelerating even within our own lifetimes. Novelty arrives in a flash (compared to earlier), and there seems to be a shorter and shorter interval between novel changes." (Kelly) So even if Kurzweil is off, we know that the rate of change is increasing exponentially. Moore's Law tells us things are only going to keep getting increasingly worse. So if schools do not pick up the pace at which they adapt, our students are in a load of trouble. Yet our school system seems to be mired in the past.

Classrooms have a blackboard, chalk, pens, pencils, and paper. These are the same items that were used hundreds of years ago. Yet, try to come up with a scenario where a student graduates high school and will be forced to use any of these things. There really aren't any. However, they will be forced to use computers and the Internet when they graduate high school. And yet, these are still rarities in classrooms. Do you have any idea how difficult it is for a teacher to get 100% of his/her students to be able to use the Internet at the same time? It is extremely difficult to get this for even one day let alone a week or a month. Forget about for an entire marking period or year. Obviously money has a lot to do with this. But money aside, school districts still fight this. If they really wanted this to work, all they would have to do is allow students to use their own devices in school and then get a few devices for those students who do not have anything.

Let us try to explain our point one more way. If you took a college graduate from 1932, transported him/her to today, and told this person to find a job that would allow him/her to support a family, how successful do you think s/he would be? When our school systems do not change and adapt; when they insist on teaching the same skill sets and using the same tools (blackboards, pen, paper, overhead projectors; all of which are still prominent in school districts); when they refuse to teach students the skills necessary to be successful upon graduation we are doing the equivalent of taking someone from 1932 and transporting them to 2012. And then everyone sits around and wonders why our school system isn't doing as well as it used to.




6 comments:

Rechard Banva said...

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Epcot Explorer's Encyclopedia said...

I'm not that old, old enough, but not that old. I was taught BASIC programming in 2nd grade as part of my curriculum. In the remainder of grade school we got those colorful Macs and had to do projects on little digital animated shorts and digital art. 

As I got older, we had presentations on research skills and learned about Encarta and later internet searches and citation and proper usage and even how to order things from other libraries using the system and extensive information on what digital resources were available at the time. 

In middle school and high school it became presentations with audio and visual elements. Using multimedia and other elements to support research (and how to use Powerpoint), but other classes as well. One of my electives was digital animation. Other students took programming, robotics, some took classes on hardware and other such topics, and some took things like Home Ec or Sports. It was up to people's interests but they were offered. 

At my college, incoming freshmen were expected to take entire classes mandatory classes about technology and the educational environment. In my curriculum I took courses on AUTOCad, Photoshop, digital design, digital art, interactive media, etc... but I also learned oil painting and sculpture. I spent a whole summer studying the masters in Paris to boot. 

So the education exists. The core is though still is the three 3's though, and without them you can't do the others. It's not like I did poorly in my basic English or math classes. It's offered, it's just not the primary focus. Our world is not all encompassing digital existence. It never will be. 

Laurence_sanders said...

First, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to not only read the blog, but to write such a thoughtful comment. 

Second, I would like to say that I am extremely jealous of all the opportunities the schools you have attended have offered you. I hope you realize how lucky you are. I wish I could say that your experiences are the standard. However, based on my research, it seems more to be the opposite. Your schools seem to be in the minority. Most schools are no so advanced in their curriculum or their thinking. Hopefully, that will change.

Lastly, as for your comment "Our world is not all encompassing digital existence. It never will be." I must disagree. It already is. Take technology out of this world and we would no longer be able to function. Even things that most people do not consider technology (clothing, houses, pens, pencils, paper, math) are still technology. And it will only become even more so. Thanks again for your comments and time.

wiredcosmos said...

Interesting post. I agree that STEM in general should be our focus moving forward...this of course encompasses the technology education you're promoting. While I don't agree that Moore's Law (which isn't really a law unless I'm misinformed) has anything to do with the decline of our educational system, I see your point overall and agree with you as mentioned before. Look forward to reading more of your posts in the future!

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