Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Notes Towards a Global Association for Technical Education Data Centers and Journals

I want to promote technical education, but I want to argue that technical education should not be considered in isolation. Let me start from where I am, with personal involvement, then consider the past and future context of technical education as a source of good and ill, and finally consider the requirements of what I'd like to propose.

Personal Involvement: I try to help the Brackett Foundation as it tries to promote educational projects in and around Thailand, and Colgate University's Project Afghanistan as it tries to help the University of Kabul with its science program. There's a lot of this going around -- projects trying to use education in far-away places to combat poverty, terrorism, and General Bad Stuff. I care most about technical education, "how-to" education, because I do believe in technology as the Lever of Riches, and I also care about economic and business-management and even legal education because the lever needs a fulcrum. I've given quite a bit of money to educational projects in Iraq sponsored by the Spirit of America people, and some to educational efforts by ANERA in Gaza and the West Bank. I'm writing this in support of the creation of "Data Centers" with information resources for such projects; I think there should be many such centers. There should be an Association of such centers. My ideal Data Center for Technical Education naturally promotes technical education in such a way as to lead to future wealth, consensual politics, and General Good Stuff. I'll expound, but first I want to consider the context.

Past Context: We have working models of technology as a source of wealth, and we have models of technology failing to produce wealth. Most of the successes seem (to me) to involve more-or-less consensual governments; all of them depend (even in China) on creation and competition of companies within open markets, with (as De Soto describes) transparency -- low corruption, low costs for transactions and business formation -- and property rights. In opaque governments, officials look for ways to create new obstructions in order to maximize their own income or power. It's not simple, though. The Chinese government is for the most part neither transparent nor consensual, yet the bottom-up market reform policy of Deng Xiaoping may have been one of the greatest wealth-producing victories for personal freedom in human history, enabling technology to do its wealth-producing job. In contrast, post-Communist Russia has not been short on technological education, but has been short on market reform -- technology can't produce wealth unless businesses can form to apply it. Corruption kills.

Future Context: My basic assumptions for the next few decades are that

  1. technical progress will continue to accelerate, with various relevant doubling-times on the order of one to ten years, and
  2. human nature will continue not to change.
The Hitlers, Stalins, Maos, &c of this century will not be limited to a few tens of millions each; nuclear weapons, bioweapons, and self-guided ('robotic') weapons will become cheaper and more accessible, even for countries and smaller groups with limited wealth, and I do not believe that we have any long-run prospect of keeping them away from a Dear Leader Kim, a Supreme Leader Khamenei, a resurgent Bin Laden or their successors. Technical education in isolation may therefore be an even bigger part of the problem than it is a part of the solution. Technical education must therefore not be dealt with in isolation.

We can do three basic things about Armageddon; indeed, we have to do all three:

  1. We can slow down the acquisition of bad stuff by bad guys (armaments control);
  2. We can encourage the replacement of bad guys by good guys (regime change);
  3. We can increase the acquisition of good stuff by good guys (trade and education).
Over the past twenty-five years, armaments control and regime change have done many good things; the map looks much, much better than it did in 1980. Consensual government has been spreading (as I'm writing this, Iraq's constitutional referendum seems to be a peaceful success). Trade liberalization and technology have greatly increased the world's wealth, with wealth going disproportionately to transparently consensual governments.

What Can't Technical Education Do? Technical education cannot create much wealth for people under predatory governments -- moderately predatory in Russia, extremely so in North Korea, Burma, Zimbabwe. (In extreme cases we can educate refugees, in the hopes that they will return home after regime change.) It also can't substitute for the lack of a Small Business Administration and the thousands of other state and local groups that help business formation in the United States. When we train database administrators, programmers, electrical engineers and rocket scientists, we are contributing to the effectiveness of businesses, governments, religious organizations -- whoever uses the technology. We can contribute better if we track the actual situations that our trainees end up in, and learn from our mistakes.

The Proposal All kinds of schools, all over the world, are doing technical education. A great deal of what they do is similar. If we think about schools in Afghanistan, schools in Iraq, in Thailand, Indonesia, Uganda...many of them have similarities beyond what they share with schools in the United States or in Belgium. Western organizations try to support these non-western schools in different ways, each comonly trying to help multiple schools. Much of the data is shared. I would like to propose the formation of an "association" for handling some of the shared data issues, and for encouraging business technology, i.e. the basic skills of market democracy. An ideal database administration curriculum for Afghanistan would include some knowledge about the Afghan economy. It might well include a ``general education for technologists'' curriculum, something including the books I cited above. The association would try to keep issues like that from being forgotten. It doesn't have to be a real association with people meeting one another off-line; for a virtual association, it's sufficient to have a website with a database -- and an agreed-upon data format.

Let us imagine that Colgate University wants to use the association as a tool in its support of the University of Kabul. The procedure would be for Colgate to register a member-center, which we might call the "Technical Education Data Center and Journal for Afghanistan at Colgate", and for the University of Kabul to register as a member-school. The University of Kabul ought to be trying to connect with possible future employers, whether business or government or NGO; each of these can be offered a member-employer registration. Each member would have a description in a standard XML format (tentatively starting with Atom, with probable use of XHTML microformatting extensions and possibly of RDF). The formation of a member-center or of a member-school or member-employer would not be a difficult procedure: it shouldn't actually take more than a few minutes to set up initial data about contact information, range of courses or seminars or skill-sets of interest, sources of support, and so on. Each member would have several automatically generated blogs, and could have one or more blogs of conventionally written articles. Each would also have a "journal" blog which would be peer-reviewed, and which (depending of course on the quality of community review) would not only serve as a way of identifying important articles, but could develop into a form of recognition for the authors. Few would subscribe to the TEDC Journal for Afghanistan at Colgate, but some would subscribe to the merged TEDC Journal for Afghanistan, and others would subscribe to (say) the merged TEDC Journal for Middle Eastern Database Administration or the merged TEDC Journal for the users of a particular course or even the users of courses whose descriptions reference a particular document, say the teaching approaches described in How technology influenced me to stop lecturing and start teaching, or the data-mining approaches used by Wal-Mart in Bentonville. When somebody learns that "X works" or "Y didn't work" then we try to check it out through peer review, and then we make the conclusion as readily available as possible.

The association, in other words, would be doing very little. Each member would for the most part be doing what it was going to do anyway. All we're talking about is reducing transaction costs, making it a little easier for people to find each other and to find each other's shared data.

And do I have a detailed proposal to fit these requirements? Not yet. It's possible that such tools (formats, code, and even such an association) already exist, although I don't think so. It's also possible that the Director of Project Afghanistan could do something about it.


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