Normative Narratives


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Economic Outlook: Koding For Kidz

A recent NYT article highlight’s a public private partnership (PPP) aimed at exposing children in computer programming at a young age:

Since December, 20,000 teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade have introduced coding lessons, according to Code.org, a group backed by the tech industry that offers free curriculums. In addition, some 30 school districts, including New York City and Chicago, have agreed to add coding classes in the fall, mainly in high schools but in lower grades, too. And policy makers in nine states have begun awarding the same credits for computer science classes that they do for basic math and science courses, rather than treating them as electives.

It is a stark change for computer science, which for decades was treated like a stepchild, equated with trade classes like wood shop. But smartphones and apps are ubiquitous now, and engineering careers are hot. To many parents — particularly ones here in the heart of the technology corridor — coding looks less like an extracurricular activity and more like a basic life skill, one that might someday lead to a great job or even instant riches.

The spread of coding instruction, while still nascent, is “unprecedented — there’s never been a move this fast in education,” said Elliot Soloway, a professor of education and computer science at the University of Michigan. He sees it as very positive, potentially inspiring students to develop a new passion, perhaps the way that teaching frog dissection may inspire future surgeons and biologists.

But the momentum for early coding comes with caveats, too. It is not clear that teaching basic computer science in grade school will beget future jobs or foster broader creativity and logical thinking, as some champions of the movement are projecting. And particularly for younger children, Dr. Soloway said, the activity is more like a video game — better than simulated gunplay, but not likely to impart actual programming skills.

Some educators worry about the industry’s heavy role: Major tech companies and their founders, including Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, have put up about $10 million for Code.org. The organization pays to train high school teachers to offer more advanced curriculums, and, for younger students, it has developed a coding curriculum that marries basic instruction with video games involving Angry Birds and hungry zombies.

The lessons do not involve traditional computer language. Rather, they use simple word commands — like “move forward” or “turn right” — that children can click on and move around to, say, direct an Angry Bird to capture a pig…The use of these word-command blocks to simplify coding logic stems largely from the work of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, which introduced a visual programming language called Scratch in 2007. It claims a following of millions of users, but mostly outside the schools.

Then, in 2013, came Code.org, which borrowed basic Scratch ideas and aimed to spread the concept among schools and policy makers. Computer programming should be taught in every school, said Hadi Partovi, the founder of Code.org and a former executive at Microsoft. He called it as essential as “learning about gravity or molecules, electricity or photosynthesis.”

Among the 20,000 teachers who Code.org says have signed on is Alana Aaron, a fifth-grade math and science teacher in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. She heard about the idea late last year at a professional development meeting and, with her principal’s permission, swapped a two-month earth sciences lesson she was going to teach on land masses for the Code.org curriculum.

Computer science is big right now — in our country, the world,” she said. “If my kids aren’t exposed to things like that, they could miss out on potential opportunities and careers.

Introducing kids to computer programming at a younger age is a great idea. The U.S. controls about 40% of the $960 billion global computer software / services market. Furthermore, some of the fastest growing sectors in the U.S require computer programming skills (especially when you consider [non]tradeable goods). As the world becomes more connected via internet penetration–the number of global internet users is set to surpass 3 billion people by years end–computer programming will only become a more important professional skill.

Learning computer programming may well be more effective at a young age. I have had many people try to teach me computer programming, and one common theme between teachers has been comparing  learning coding to learning a foreign language. Many people believe children can more effectively learn foreign languages than adults, perhaps the same is true of coding?

The purpose of early exposure is not, as some dissenters misinterpret, to have children producing complex codes and programs. By making programming more fun and accessible while nailing down the basics, kids will be more confident in their ability to develop advanced programming skills later in life if they so choose.  

Teaching our kids computer programming skills is important for staying competitive in a field that is currently dominated by the U.S. Other countries are teaching computer programming skills; the U.S. cannot afford to sit still or we will be passed by competitors.

In a global economy where many low skill jobs have fled to lower wage countries, the U.S. needs to maintain it’s competitive edge in this growing industry. Leveraging private sector money and expertise should make this important educational reform even more affordable and effective.

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Transparency Report: Can Social Media Postings Be Considered “Warning Signs”?

According to his army psychiatrist, Fort Hood shooter Ivan Lopez showed “no sign of likely violence, either to himself or to others.” While it may be possible for someone to “snap” and go on a shooting spree without warning, I have trouble believing this was the case in this incident.

Lopez had a history of depression and anxiety, yet he was still able to purchase a firearm legally (at the same store the 2009 Fort Hood shooter bought his weapon), underscoring the need for stronger background check laws for gun purchases.

“We have very strong evidence that he [Lopez] had a medical history that indicated an unstable psychiatric or psychological condition,” Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, head of the Army’s III Corps at Fort Hood, said of Lopez. “There was no indication that he was targeting specific people.”

3 people are dead 16 more are wounded. The questions we as a nation now face are:

1) Could this tragedy have been prevented? (were there warning signs?)

2) How can we prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future?

These two questions are obviously related. If there were warning signs, then recognizing these signs can help prevent similar tragedies from happening.

The warning signs, beyond Lopez’s mental health record, came in the form of Facebook posts:

1) On March 1, the same day he purchased the .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol he used in the attack, Specialist Lopez wrote an especially angry and vaguely threatening post. “My spiritual peace has all gone away, I am full of hate, I believe now the devil is taking me. I was robbed last night and I’m sure it was two flacos. Green light and thumbs down. It’s just that easy …”

2) In a Facebook post, Specialist Lopez said of the Newtown massacre: “For me, the direct responsibility for this situation is with the psychiatrist, who didn’t uncover Adam’s level of dangerousness so that he could be restricted.”

Read posthumously, these posts depict someone who was unable to grasp the concept of personal accountability. On the other hand, hindsight is always 20-20; these posts were separated by over a year, during which time Lopez probably made many posts which are irrelevant to his mental state.

Taken separately, each of these pieces of “evidence”; a questionable mental health history, delusional Facebook posts, and a gun purchase; could not be considered a red flag–it would be impossible to police all social media platforms. But taken together, they form the profile of an individual who is very likely a risk to himself and others.

What someone posts on social media can get them fired or (if a public figure) publicly ridiculed–American’s clearly take social media postings seriously. What can we do when someone writes about hurting themselves or others on social media? At what point does protecting a persons right to privacy prohibit the ability to protect another persons right to life? As a social scientist, I am constantly looking for “information”; is it possible that we are overlooking a valuable source of information in social media posts?

I already alluded to the need for stronger background checks for gun purchases, another preventative measure is greater access to mental healthcare, which I believe should be a human right (it is currently viewed as a luxury for the wealthy). Specialist Lopez was covered as an Army employee; what about people out there without mental health coverage? Obamacare has gone a long way in rewriting insurance guidelines to cover mental healthcare, and subsidizes plans for those who cannot afford insurance on their own, but what about people who are still not covered? Given the various ramifications of untreated mental illness (crime, poverty, etc.), is it time to consider investing more tax dollars into walk-in mental health clinics? 

These issues, privacy and security, lend themselves to heated debates. I leave my readers with these loaded questions to ponder.


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Transparency Report: Notification, You Have 5 Billion New FB Friends; The Human Right To Internet Access

At the beginning of my internship at the UNDP, I was lucky enough to get the chance to volunteer at and then attend the ECOSOC Partnerships forum. I was assigned to write a few blogs for the event, among a number of other blogs I have written about events at  the UN which for some reason I have never shared on NN. Perhaps someday I will release the rest of the “lost UNDP blogs”, but that day is not today. Here are notes from the event Policy Dialogue: “The Changing Face of Technology and Innovation” (full blog):

The second policy dialogue at the ECOSOC youth forum focused on how technological innovations in recent years have helped bridge the “digital-divide” between developed and developing countries. While the gap has not been fully closed, partnerships between the private sector, governments, non-governmental organizations and civil society groups have helped identify challenges and opportunities in the developing world. By creating differentiated products at lower costs, private companies can gain access to new markets while simultaneously empowering the people in those markets.

Internet access is considered one of the great technological advances of our time. Internet access empowers people; the possibilities are constantly evolving and literally endless. It is an essential component of “E-Governance”, which includes the dissemination of information and a more inclusive and democratic government agenda-setting process. With a greater push for accountability and inclusiveness mechanisms in the Post-2015 Development Agenda, internet access, bolstered by innovations in mobile technology, has become an increasingly important tool for achieving sustainable human development.

But not enough has been done to make internet access affordable for a large portion of the world’s population. According to Mr. Tuli, 3 billion people have mobile phones but no internet access. This is not because of a lack of electricity or communication networks (as evidenced by the fact that they do have cell phones), but because they are priced out of the market. Mr. Tuli went on to call basic internet access a “human right”, to resounding applause from the hundreds of participants in the ECOSOC chamber.

While mobile technology was originally thought of as an educational tool, it has since evolved beyond that (although mobile education is still a proposed root for overcoming education deficits in Least Developed Countries (LDCs)). E-Governance can help disseminate information and promote inclusive governance, creating an enabling environment for sustainable human development. Healthcare providers can connect to information and expert advice in ways that can save lives. E-Finance can help provide capital in a much cheaper and convenient way to previously isolated groups, unlocking the entrepreneurial spirit in the developing world (and making such endeavors potentially much more profitable). Even people who are off traditional power grids (the least developed places in the world without basic infrastructure), mobile renewable energy generators and wireless internet capabilities can help bring ICTs virtually anywhere in the world.

Mobile technology penetration can be very rapid. Competition between private sector actors can drive prices down to affordable levels, and in some cases subsidies can help. Mr. Ogutu told the story of mobile phone penetration in Kenya; 5 years ago there were 20,000 users, today there are over 30 million users. This was made possible by M-Kopa, a company that utilized E-finance to provide pay-as-you-go mobile solar powered electricity to poor people who are not on a conventional power grid. Financing—secured through PPPs—allowed the founders of M-Kopa turn their vision into reality.

The narrative on bringing internet access to the least developed areas of the world continues a few months later. Not surprisingly, behind the initiative is a large-scale public-private partnership, with publicity magnet Facebook at its core (original article):

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, announced the launch of Internet.org Wednesday, a project aimed at bringing Internet access to the 5 billion people around the world who can’t afford it. The project is the latest initiative led by global-communications giants to combat market saturation in the developed world by introducing the Internet to remote and underprivileged communities.

“The goal of Internet.org is to make Internet access available to the two-thirds of the world who are not yet connected and to bring the same opportunities to everyone that the connected third of the world has today,” Zuckerberg said.

“There are huge barriers in developing countries to connecting and joining the knowledge economy,” he added. “Internet.org brings together a global partnership that will work to overcome these challenges.”

The project will develop lower-cost, higher-quality smartphones and deploy Internet access in underserved communities, while reducing the amount of data required to surf the Web. Other founding partners include Samsung, Qualcomm, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia and Opera.

Facebook and other tech giants, of course, have a significant financial stake in expanding in the developing world. With tech companies reaching market saturation in the United States, countries in Latin America and Africa, for example, offer a big opportunity to attract a steady stream of new users, whose data can be mined by advertisers.

Connecting more people globally has important implications for how people organize their lives, said Patrick Meier, co-founder of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning. Social media has become a lifeline to people affected by earthquakes, floods and conflicts in the developing world, he added.

In places where the state is limited, Meier added, the Internet becomes a way to make up for services the government fails to provide. “When the state is not there, when you talk about limited statehood, you get a void,” he said.

In addition to acting as a substitute for the state in the context of “bad governance” / conflict / crisis environments, mobile technology should be a tool utilized by the state to promote inclusive and indiscriminate human rights based governance for sustainable human development. ICT connects people, enabling social accountability (people claiming their rights) by overcoming collective action problems. There are also myriad standard of living benefits associated with bringing ICT in the developing world–micro-financing, healthcare, education, media, etc. (OK maybe I am a little biased, I want those 5 billion readers too 😛 ).

Furthermore, by utilizing open-source technology and the collective will and creativity of 5 billion people facing similar problems, innovations in one part of the developing world can be adapted to the local needs of other developing regions. This would further expedite the global development process–open-source technology should be a core feature of the global internet connectivity push.

The possibilities are literally endless, as the utility and functions of the internet continue to evolve at ever faster rates. It should also be noted that new technological capabilities in LDCs will necessitate new policies, laws and oversight mechanisms to ensure gains are shared fairly. However, since these technologies are only new to certain regions, digital accountability mechanisms already exist for these regions to build on.   

I cannot stress enough how important bringing mobile ICTs to least developed countries is for sustainable human development, nor can I know how the technology will evolve in the future. Providing access to mobile information and communications technology empowers people, creating an enabling environment for a multitude of interrelated development objectives. These positive forces will naturally synergize, empowering people to challenge power-imbalances and hold powerful groups accountable for their human rights obligations.

ICTs are a natural fit for a large scale public-private-partnership (PPP). Companies can provide most of the start-up capital and technical know-how. Governments can create an education campaign about the benefits of ICTs and how to use them, while also guaranteeing companies market access and security of any capital / infrastructure installations (extremist groups will not like this idea as closing government service gaps will restrict their ability to buy goodwill and recruit new members). As ICTs help sustain the development process, new markets will emerge for communications companies to sell their products and services. This means more profits for companies, more tax revenue for governments, and a higher standard of living for people in LDCs. Not to suggest vested interests will not try to play spoiler (my regular readers by now know this is not the case), but overall a this is a win-win-win partnership.

Due to the indisputable importance of ICTs for sustainable human development, internet access should become an internationally recognized human right. Human rights obligations are primarily the responsibility of the state; in this case however, it seems that states have a willing and capable partner in the private sector. I will continue to keep the NN community up-to-date on this potentially-world-changing initiative.


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So Much To Do, And No Time To Do It

Dear Normative Narratives Community,

Unfortunately I will not be able to post my regular weekly updates this week. Between my internship at the UNDP, and my IPED comprehensive exam, there are simply not enough hours this week. After  5 months of regular updates, I probably deserve a break; but blogging has become so enjoyable for me that the only way I would take one is if I absolutely needed to (as I do now).

Hopefully over the past few months you have learned a few things, so that my absence will not to too costly (/sarcasm, I know you will all get on just fine). As for news sources, you should by now realize that 95% of the things I post come from two sources, The New York Times and Reuters. There certainly are other sources out there, but I find these to be the two most consistent sources.

So here is a little homework assignment while I am gone. Check up on news sources and try to apply Normative Narratives thinking to what you are reading. Challenge what the writer is saying. think analytically and critically; progress and change are not made by blindly following but by actively participating in public discourse. Do not be afraid to speak your mind and put you opinion out there, especially on subjects you are passionate about (I know I’m not!) .

I guess what I am saying is that I believe there is an inner blogger/ social commentator / news analyst in all of us. This would be a great time for me to renew my call for guest bloggers–I have not had any so far and really would like to see that change.

Also, there are only 29 days left to contribute towards my advertising campaign. I have already started an ad on Google and it has been working quite well; I would like to continue to advertise as long as possible but unfortunately this costs money. The more I raise, the more I can spread the Normative Narratives message.

Last but not least, be sure to check out my Facebook page, which I will continue to regularly update with stories I believe are important. I will be back to my regular blogging schedule in just one week, April 18th (mark the date on your calendars!!).

I’m sure there will  be lots to talk about between now and then, I look forward to getting back on a regular blogging schedule as soon as possible.

Best,

Ben Zupnick

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