Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Don't Go Back to School by Kio Stark

I’m working on a book called Don’t Go Back to School. As a grad school dropout and an adjunct professor at a grad program at NYU, so many people have asked me over the years if I thought they should go back to grad school. In the course of these conversations, I discovered that the majority of people who had a longing for continued school didn’t need school at all. Their real longing was for learning. To explore new ideas, to devote their attention to a new subject, to learn new skills. These are all things that can happen easily—and sometimes better—outside of school. Don’t Go Back to School is a handbook for independent learning to help people figure out if independent learning is a good approach for them, and to show them how to do it. I’m interviewing self-taught people to find out how they do what they do, and sharing the results in the book.

Two major insights stand out for me so far in the research process. First, most people learn better within some form of learning community. Going to school provides automatic access to learning communities in the form of classes and peers. But the people I’ve talked to are finding and making learning communities on their own. For technical skills related to building, making, and technology, the advent of the “hackerspace” as a common community institution represents a radical change in people’s ability to find tools, resources, shared expertise, and communities in which to learn new skills and work on projects. I’ve also talked to people who started study groups with friends and people they discovered online who were interested in studying the same thing. These range in subject area as widely as you can imagine. There’s a serious physics study group in my neighborhood, and I just corresponded with a woman who has a “Faux MBA” reading group of women business owners. The second insight is similarly social. Getting to hear from experts is a wonderful way to learn, and being a student at a formal institution gives you access to, in theory, all the experts associated with that school. In my research, I’ve found that successful independent learners do a lot of reaching out to experts to ask questions on their own, and have great success with this. For the most part, when approached politely and with well-formed questions, people with expertise are happy to share it. They are excited that someone wants to hear what they know, and they’re often excited to be sharing knowledge with a different type of learner than is their norm (if, for example, they’re a professor).

I’m funding the writing of this book and the first print run using a community funding platform called Kickstarter. Backers make pledges and get rewards, in this case, digital or physical copies of the book. Right now this is the only way to get a copy of the book when it’s done, as a backer of the project. I’m investigating ways of doing wider distribution, but this is an experiment for me, so it’s all a work in progress. I’m a published novelist, but I decided to do this outside the traditional publishing system in order to get it into the world faster—institutional publishing timelines are absurdly long. One thing that’s been really wonderful about funding the project this way is that it’s given me a much wider net for finding people to interview, and so much enthusiastic support that’s making the hard work of writing feel like a treat.

Check out the project!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cyber Schools vs. Traditional Schools

By Sean Scarpiello

As the country continues to be immersed in a digital age, there is a push to bring low cost education to students through computers. Some elementary schools have made it possible for students to go to class by simply logging in from their homes. Other elementary schools allow students to come into school and login to their classes there. Either way, students now have the ability to learn and study completely on a computer. As students pull away from the traditional school system, there are many different arguments both for and against cyber schools.

The first argument supporting cyber schools is that they are cheap. Since students do not need to go into a school, a lot of costs are avoided. For example, schools do not need to worry about transporting, feeding, and cleaning up after students. This saves a lot of money. Even some schools where students come into classrooms and are advised by teachers through their online studies can cost less. Some online programs allow students to perform science experiments on their computers, as well as reading texts. By having their books and reading material on the computers, schools save a lot of money. They do not need to buy expensive lab equipment or even textbooks which fall apart every few years. Even the costs of simple yet necessary class supplies, such as paper and ink, are reduced.

Some of the arguments against cyber schools are that cyber school students will have difficulty in the workplace when it comes to dealing with people. Also, some argue that they fail to provide the same quality of education that a traditional education provides. In fact, statistics show that cyber school student tend to score lower than tradition school students. Advocates for cyber schools claim that the lower scores occur because the students in cyber schools were already struggling in the traditional schooling system. Schooling is a process and it really would be best if there was a medium between complete cyber school and traditional school. The types of schools where students go through the process of coming to school and working on a computer while being instructed by a teacher would work well.

Students do need a certain level of interaction with each other, as well as teachers. It gives students the ability to socialize with each other and make friends. Thus students will be able to deal with people when they enter the real world. Also, students can still be instructed by teachers which are vital. Cyber schools that restrict students from formal instruction will most likely face difficulties. The computer cannot be relied on to do all of the teaching and it doesn’t do the students any good to be taught only by a computer.

Finally, one of the aspects about school is to allow students and parents to let go. Students entering the dynamic workforce these days need to be able to react to changes. These same changes are naturally occurring in schools. Most students in any traditional schools would probably agree that pupils learn more outside of the classroom than inside a classroom. By creating a medium between cyber schools and traditional schools, it is possible to create an education system which successfully teaches a large number of students at low costs.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

An Increase in Learning from a Decrease in Energy Costs

By Sean Scarpiello

All across the United States, school districts’ budgets continue to be cut. With less and less money, district administrators are left with the task of finding ways to spend less money. To get more bang for their buck, some school districts have begun cutting back on their utilities. In fact, some districts have saved a lot of money by conserving energy. By doing something as simple as turning off lights, schools could save money which can be spent on other things.

The first and easiest way to save money through cutting energy costs is by turning off lights. In my town, all of the schools have all of their classroom lights on until around 8 o’clock at night. Obviously there aren’t any classes in session that late so it is unnecessary for the lights to be on. In New York, Desoto County Schools saved a little less than $1 million by simply conserving energy. Jim Avery, head of the energy conservation campaign, determined that schools typically spend about $1.20 per square foot on energy. He helped to lower the cost of Desoto schools energy to $1.01 per square foot. This may not sound like a significant amount of savings, but all of the small savings really add up over time.

The superintendent of the Desoto County Schools described how if teachers turned their lights off when they went to lunch, the school would save more than $100,000 in one year. All school administrators would love to have an extra $100,000 for spending on other areas in the district. Many people working in schools have a mindset like “well I’m not paying the electricity bill.” This mindset only causes more unnecessary spending.

Also, some schools keep computers on overnight and over the weekend. This is also wasteful of energy. If teachers double checked that all of the computers are off before they go home, electric bills would be reduced. Even over the summer vacation and other breaks, lights and computers which are not being utilized continue to be left on. Again, this is a source of needless and wasteful spending which can be avoided very easily.

One other way some schools are looking into saving money by cutting energy costs is through transportation. Some schools have begun to have students walk to school if they live within a one mile radius of the school. This may seem drastic but it would save a lot of money. The cost of transporting buses is expensive and if schools can take more buses off the road, the cost of transporting students would decrease significantly. Also, some school districts have spread out the starting and ending times of elementary, middle, and high schools. By having high school students go to school early, then middle school, and last elementary schools, districts reduce costs by hiring fewer bus drivers who drive more routes. By reducing the number of bus drivers, there are less salaries to pay and thus reduced costs. One school district in Columbia, Missouri has cut their transportation costs in half by implementing a similar system. Ultimately they end up saving a whopping $300,000.