mad anthony

Rants, politics, and thoughts on politics, technology, life,
and stuff from a generally politically conservative Baltimoron.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Are we making learning a little too fun?

So as part of madanthony's day job in technology for higher ed, he occasionally goes to conferences - they are a great way to meet other people who are dealing with similar challenges in deploying technology, finding out the latest and greatest products, and scooping up a bunch of free pens from vendors. A few weeks ago, I went to one for a group that included schools ranging from grade school to higher ed, so the keynote presentation touched on elementary and high school and looked at how the Microsoft Kinect - the motion detector for the XBox 360 - could be integrated into education. Many of the ideas were actually pretty cool - using it for supplementary lessons at recess time, using it to interact with autistic kids who otherwise had trouble interacting with people, using it in gym class. But at one point they showed it being used in place of multiplication tables in a classroom, while the peppy video narrator intoned that it was the job of the teacher to engage students and make learning fun.

And that got me thinking - is it really? Now, I'll confess I'm probably completely unqualified to speak about educational technology. It's been a long time since I've been a student, I don't have kids, and I dropped out of an educational technologies master's degree program after 2 classes, mostly because I got tired of hearing the word "pedagogy".

But the grumpy old man in me wonders if we should be making learning fun, or if we're just setting kids up for disappointment in the future. After all, learning isn't always fun. At some point in their lives, they won't be able to figure out quadratic equations or try to understand Heigel with the help of an XBox 360 - they'll actually need to sit down and read a book or work out a problem on a piece of paper. And if they've never done that with the easy stuff - because their teachers have been more focused on "engaging" them than on getting them to do real work, they aren't going to be able to do the hard stuff.

Part of school is learning the stuff that you are taught. But part of learning is also about learning how to learn, and about developing a work ethic - about learning that if you want the rewards of having learned stuff, you have to do the not-always-fun work part of studying or doing homework - not just playing video games. Some economists have argued that college degrees exist more as a "signaling mechanism" than anything else - they show that a young person can buckle down, and prioritize enough on their own, to do what is necessary to get a degree. That's why there is value in degrees that don't necessarily translate to real-life skills or jobs, like Philosophy or English.

But I think the habits that get you through college come much earlier - like when you are in grade school - and that part of it is learning that life isn't always fun, that sometimes you need to do things that aren't fun - like multiplication tables. I think it's more the student's responsibility to become engaged, or at least to put up with doing the work, than it is the teacher to act like some sort of Master of Ceremonies keeping students "engaged". I think a continued emphasis on the classroom as variety show is going to lead to more kids who can't focus, who can't sit down and complete a long and unpleasant but necessary task, and who thus can't survive in the real world.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

the pursuit of crappyness...

So about two months ago, I found myself hurtling downhill on a curvy mountain road in the middle of rural Pennsylvania at about 1 am. I realized I was going way too fast, and slammed on the brakes as I steered. This caused an avalanche of toner cartridges - which were previously stacked on the passenger seat of my 6 year old Ford Ranger pickup - to fall over on me. As I struggled to remain in control of the "Danger Ranger" while holding a stack of HP 4500 color cartridges, I found myself wondering "why the hell am I doing this?"

What "this" was was driving home from a semi-annual auction that I go to 3 hours from my house. The auction consists entirely of tech stuff, starts at 5pm, and typically runs past midnight. I go primarily looking for eBay-able items, like the aforementioned toner, as well as the occasional item I can sell at hamfest (a swap meet for ham radio and computer types, typically held at various area fairgrounds).

In the last couple years, I've been ramping up my resale hobby, to the point where it consumes a sizable amount of my free time, and much of the living area of my house. It makes me a modest profit, but I suspect if I really took the time to figure out my expenses, and account for my time, I'd be surprised just how modest it is. The biggest challenge - besides the time and effort it takes to describe, list, pack, and ship stuff, or to drag a truckload of stuff to a hamfest in west nowhere in time for a 6am setup - is finding stuff to sell. That has meant driving further, as well as going to more auctions and the like. Most of them are a bust, or net me a few things, but every now and then I hit one that turns out amazing - and the only way for that to happen is to hit a lot of turds, where I scratch my head wondering why someone just paid $150 for an item that goes for $20 on eBay.

Why do I do it? I suspect there are a few reasons - I feel like I should take advantage of any opportunity to make a few bucks - make hay while the sun shines so you have some for a rainy day, to torture a series of metaphors. To me, passing up a chance to make money is a character flaw. It gives me an awesome feeling when I buy something that turns out to be very profitable - especially if I know that there were 10 or 100 other people who looked at the same item and passed on it. It gives me something to do - as a single guy I have lots of free time on my hands, and I might as well do something with it, something that makes money.

But it does lead to some other questions, like if I could be doing something better with that time - working out more, reading more, developing friendships, not being single. I suspect that my hobby doesn't make for the best first-date conversation, and having a house that looks more like a storage locker than a townhouse is probably not great for entertaining. And there's also the question of why do I need more money - I'm no longer saving for a specific, definite goal - at this point it's more just a way of keeping score.

On the other hand, there are some indefinite goals to save for - I'll eventually want or need to replace the Danger Ranger, even if I don't drive it off a cliff in a puff of toner. I do hope, at some point, to meet someone and have a family, and that takes money - but it also takes doing things other than going to auctions or writing eBay descriptions. And I've been thinking of going back to grad school - to a program that I'd have to pay for, and that costs more than I have in the bank right now. So in the short term, it may be desirable to keep banking bank, because if I do decide to do the program it will both cost money and eat up the free time I currently spend making money.

So right now, I'll probably keep pursing crap I can resell. But I'll try to take the downhills a little slower.