Friday, March 7, 2008

Correcting the Gaps – An Unusual POV

During the write-up for my review of Thomas Friedman’s “The World Is Flat”, I had the beginnings of an idea about how the developed world could address the Ambition/Education gaps between our youth and those of the developing world in order to stay competitive in the 21st century. This approach would not involve teaching so much as encouraging participation in the act of flattening by a larger segment of the population.

See full post for summary of the problem, a current social phenomena where people are teaching themselves all sorts of things and why it’s a very good thing.

Amercia’s education system is dated. We have a 20th century system that turns out 20th century caliber employees. Unfortunately, it isn’t the 20th century anymore. And a great many qualities of our education system are preventing us from graduating productive 21st century citizens. This is a huge problem that will take massive effort to correct because America’s education system is also heavily decentralized. For the most part, I would consider the decentralized aspect one of our education systems good points. It allows for experimentation and variety in education much like our federal system allows for the same in government. In addition, part of the problem is generational and cultural. We have a lot of older teachers who think in old ways. And until they change or retire, we’re stuck with a 20th century approach. Colleges have been slightly better at making this transition, mainly because they are more directly beholden to outside forces like employers and alumni. K-12 education, and especially 6-12, is however mired in out-of-date teaching methods, decaying infrastructure and lack of accountability. How we can change these things is unclear and will be a difficult, complicated endeavor. But in the meantime, American students are graduating without competitive skills for a global market. This is the Education Gap.

The Ambition Gap, as described in Friedman’s book, is the fact that American students aren’t as willing as Chinese and Indian to really apply themselves to learning and working hard. While this is partially a byproduct of a poor education system, this problem isn’t limited to students either. Long-time employees stagnate with dated skills and a false sense of entitlement that reduce their value and employability. But in the developing world, there is a real drive for constant self-improvement. This process of learning, unlearning and relearning results in a highly adaptable and versatile workforce. In the flat world Friedman describes, it is this workforce that will succeed. If our education system cannot provide such a workforce for the reasons described above, are there any other parts of our society that can provide this incentive to learn, reinvent and innovate?

I would propose that there is a significant mitigating force within our society (by “our” I include the entire developed world) which can buy us some time before there is a major crisis with our gaps in education and ambition. This will not however make up the generational numbers gap in technical professionals. Again, I don’t propose this is a cure-all but it could help some people until our institutions change.

First, let me begin with some examples:
a) Fic-a-thons & Peer Reviews
Every day, fans of various TV shows, movies and books issue challenges to each other in the form of prompts and fic/icon/vid-a-thons. There is a constant outflow of product from these activities from stories to graphics to videos to hand-crafted goods. Fic-a-thons in particular are interesting because they usually include a time limit as well as other constraints (like word count for a story) which challenge the fan-creators. In addition to these activities, everything is shared and peer-reviewed through comments on websites, linking and proof-reading (known as “beta-ing”) activities. Countless people are willingly exposing themselves to challenges and criticism by participating in these activities. In order to complete these challenges, fans must learn new facts and skills and apply them in an interesting or innovative manner. Success defined as producing something others enjoy and value. Think of it as “open-source” entertainment with some vigorous peer-review.

b) Sweet Charity & Others
A particular form of fic-a-thon or fan activity is the charity drive. This is an interesting twist on the fan-challenge. Here fan-creators put up for bid a product of their work, sometimes a specific format or topic and sometimes to be chosen by the winner. Other fans bid on the work in an auction and the winner “gets” the story/vid/whatever. In this manner, fans have raised tens of thousands of dollars for charities around the country (perhaps more – I’m just referring to the numbers I’m aware of through my own web-browsing). These charitable drives can sometimes bring attention to small, local charities that do not usually attract wide-spread support. For example, “Supernatural” fans have repeatedly raised money for a homeless shelter in Lawrence, Kansas, a town that features prominently in that TV series. Fans who organize these activities are gaining valuable experience coordinating activities across national borders, in various legal environments and with using web applications for publicity, money collection and distribution.

c) The Fans4Writers website & forum
Perhaps one of the most developed and “mature” form of fan activity is activism. Usually this is limited to keeping a show on the air (google “Jericho” and “peanuts”). However, in November of 2007, fans branched out into political activism with their enthusiastic and multi-pronged support of the WGA strike. One the first day of picketing, fans delivered food after gathering funds from international sources. On the second day, they created a food fund. Within a week, they had a website, list of projects, fan-forums (with writers for some shows dropping by). In particular, the fansite “Wheadonesque” should be noted for generating the idea and coordinating with its namesake Joss Whedon to ensure fan activities help the WGA to the most degree possible. In November of 2007, the latent talents of many fandoms in organizing, publicizing and generating content quickly were brought to the forefront and given purpose beyond entertainment. I expect as the flattening of the world progresses we can expect more "cross-over" activity of this nature.

As demonstrated by the above examples, you have a massive global collection of people all learning new skills, supporting one another and constantly engaged in generating productive content, activities and/or self-improvement. While engaging in discussing their fandoms, these people are forced to confront a multitude of opposing viewpoints, study/analyze them and form/defend their own opinions. What amazes me most about fandoms is that so few outsiders realize how much crossover fandom-acquired skills could have in the economic world. The skills developed by the above activities would be useful in any modern career. I would contend that in a flat world, an 18-yr old whose experienced in organizing charitable events, self-tutored in copyright law and capable of teaching themselves various software applications is a better prospective employee than a similar 18-yr old who works at your local McDonald’s.

I think too often when outsiders look at fandoms they see the sex, weirdness and bad grammar but they fail to see all the skills being utilized. Yes, there’s bad grammar but you also have teenagers writing, being exposed to peer review and criticism in a way some of our public schools no longer provide. Yes, there’s sex and weirdness BUT in order to document, share and develop these types of narratives, everyone involved has to learn web applications, publishing programs and graphics software. Not to mention that members of fandoms tend to inform themselves on topics like copyright law, financial law for charity creation/online banking and media-technologies because these are topics directly relevant to their activities.

In addition to helping people self-educate about various issues, participating in fandoms drags the “average” citizen of a country into the flattening world. Just like a multi-national corporation outsources to various countries for its components and services, so do fandoms outsource, in-source and perform all the flattening activities we usually associate with economic entities. A Canadian fanfiction writer with a weblog might have beta-readers in South Korea, Australia and the UK. They might use on their website graphics designed by persons in the US, Japan and Germany. They might be the beta-viewer for fanvidders in India, South Africa and Mexico. This means that a person who participates in online fandoms, whatever their other eccentricities, is directly a part of the flattening phenomena and intimately familiar with it. Again, if it could be translated to the professional world, this familiarity would be a huge asset.

Fandom represents one aspect of American culture that I believe Freidman doesn’t address in his book. One of the reasons for the high numbers of Chinese and Indian graduates is massive institutional support for their governments. And that’s a very good thing for them. BUT, American culture is slightly different in that very often our institutions are not the cutting edge of change. Since we’re such a historically open culture, very often change and self-development occur outside of institutional bounds and guidelines. I believe fandom is a classic aspect of this. It’s an unofficial, barely tolerated activity hundreds of thousands of people participate in but which is transformative, educating and highly optimized for success in a flat world. Some developing countries like China are just now learning about these kinds of activities and they are getting good at them. But, the US (and to some extent Western civilization as a whole) both have socio-political systems already optimized for grass-roots, distributed activities of this type.

As much as our education system needs updating, I don’t think the massive government-sponsored education overhaul outlined by Friedman is the best way to go for the US. It’s too much like trying to play at someone else’s game; a game that frankly China and India are in a better position culturally and politically to win. What America should do instead is learn how to play our type of game better. We should do everything we can to encourage distributed, self-educating, collaborative behaviors in our society. And there are a number of corrective actions which are not directly education-related. Institutional (socio-political) changes could include copyright and patent reform, improving broadband access, and immigration reform for legal technical professionals. Cultural reforms would not be so easy; by their nature, they are more subtle and less centrally determined. But this is where fandom-culture could really pay off. It already has a work ethic, self-improvement ethic, peer-review ethic and friendly competition ethic. And it is constantly innovating, providing those that participate with perhaps an improved ability to absorb, accept and adapt to change.

I do not advocate fandom participation as whole and complete solution. It is one approach in what will need to be a varied tool-box of solutions for adapting to a more global economy. The lack of math/science understanding of the architecture of a flattening world is what I believe the biggest barrier to fandom participation acting as a true mitigating force on the Education gap. Fandoms tend to focus more on skills than outright education. In my experiences, if there is an education focus, it is usually in softer topics like anthropology or languages. Thankfully, there are other forms of open-source education for instruction in math and science. Particular examples include The OpenScience Project and Instructables. Not to mention that more and more universities are following MIT's lead in placing lecture notes and course information online. These sites act as social networks for those who wish to teach themselves more about the technological underpinnings of the modern world. Using the very same skills of fandom (tagging, peer review, requests/prompts, organized activities), people can keep their skills fresh, expand their skills or learn something completely new. What fandom does isn’t provide math/science education. It instead provides its participants with a mindset of learning and innovation which can be easily transferred to more technical but equally distributed social networks.

Fandom culture has its flaws: the specific jargons, the clannish behavior, the inevitable explosions that occur when fans argue. These idiosyncrasies are fully translatable into professional culture. Of course, that translation would have to be carefully navigated. While transition from fan to professional is not uncommon in the entertainment industry, it is unheard of in other fields. I would be quite curious if there are former or current fans that have ever been offered employment based on skills they acquired from fandom participation. I would be especially curious for people outside of the entertainment industry. This would probably be the easiest way to verify my thoughts.

In the absence of an institutional shift to address for gaps in the quality and education of US employees, fandom participation has the potential to make up some of the differences in performance between developed countries and developing countries. In the process, it can imbue large segments of the developed world with a passion and ability to perform the life-long learning necessary for success in an ever-flattening and increasingly competitive world.

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