Of skills and shortages

In one of her recent end of year posts, [Audrey Watters discusses skills] (http://2014trends.hackeducation.com/skills.html). She mentions the regularly mentioned notion of a skills shortage, where employers, particularly those seeking workers with technical skills, can’t find qualified workers. The more I think about this, the more dubious it sounds.

We think of the labor market just like we think about markets for smartphones and commodities. These markets are supposed to be responsive to the law of supply and demand. If there is a shortage of plumbers or machinists,or insert occupation here , the price of that worker (in wages, benefits, and perks) will rise until more workers are attracted to the occupation at the new price point. So, is a shortage really a shortage? After all, the unemployment rate is still almost 6 percent and , once you add in discouraged workers and those employed part-time out of necessity, there would seem to be many potential workers who could fill these hard to fill positions eventually.

Eventually is an important word. Since these positions are skilled, it takes time for would be machinists, clowns, etc. to retrain, creating a lag. As Audrey points out, employers used to deal with this lag by hiring someone, then training them. Now, employers expect to hire individuals who are work ready, as [Cait Murphy points out] (http://www.inc.com/magazine/201404/cait-murphy/skills-gap-in-the-labor-force.html). Workers are now expected to acquire the skills they need at their own expense, rather than being paid while they receive on the job training. This moves the supply curve. If you’ve been out of the workforce while retraining, and especially if you’ve acquired debt to fund that training, you’re less likely to be demanding about salary, benefits, and working conditions.

Moses Cross

I don’t normally post on my genealogical research here. That has its own webtrees powered site at http://genealogy.jasongreen.net/. However, I’ve run into a confusing branch in my father’s family.

Mark Miner has a page on Noah Cross which lists Noah’s son Moses as being married to a Mary Kelley (b. 1760). In Francis Byron Greene, History of Boothbay, Southport and Boothbay Harbor, Maine, 1623-1905 is listed a published intention of marriage between Moses, of Freetown, and Mary, of Boothbay, dated 22 October 1768. Google Books Marriage intentions were apparently, like Banns, published close to the wedding date. This would have made Mary only 8 years old. Betrothal of an 8 year old might be plausible, but even in the Middle Ages, the wedding itself would have been later. I’m perplexed.

Off on the wrong foot

I started the Digital Analytics and Learning MOOC – DALMOOC, this week. George Siemens and his co-conspirators describe it as a dual-layer MOOC, although it seems to me that dual-track would be a better term. The idea is that one can complete the MOOC either by following the traditional path of content followed by assignments or by following a social path where one is given a problem to solve and then finds some kindred spirits, goes forth and solves. This sounds great in theory. My reality of it hasn’t been great so far.

First, I’m not clear where to go to find the problems and connect with other learners on the “social” track. I’m looking for some sort of hub for this layer of the MOOC and haven’t found it yet. Second, The first assignment seems to be to gather information on learning analytics tools. One does this by downloading an MS Word document and filling it out. I am hard pressed to think of a less social way to approach this task.

Finally, I worry that the course may do a wonderful job of teaching about tools, while leaving out important stuff like how to figure out which data is important and useful. That’s the most important thing to learn about learning analytics.

Rare childhood diseases (a personal and political aside)

Why I support the National Pediatric Research Network Act of 2013

When our son was 4, he developed a rare neurological condition caused by a complication from an ear infection. It was almost Christmas. He was in the hospital. His intracranial pressure was three times what it should have been. He was having severe headaches and was in danger of going blind if doctors didn’t do something soon.
The first neurosurgeon we met with said he had seen five cases like it in his career, and he was not a young surgeon. He told us he would try to answer our questions (and get Max home for Santa), but he just didn’t know all the answers because this was not a typical case or situation.
As we started bringing him to treatments and scheduled surgery to have a shunt placed, we often wished we had more information. That was seven years ago, and we’ve seen many specialists in that time for follow-up care. He is doing well, but we still find there’s not a lot of information. We still encounter occasional disagreement among his doctors even over what to label the condition. There are doctors — including one at Arkansas Children’s Hospital who have done research around this issue. but this is a rare condition, affecting 4 in a million boys in my son’s age group. It doesn’t make economic sense for the health care industry to invest in research for a condition that affects less than 1000 children a year. That’s why government needs to play a role.

The Future of the Internet? (and how it works as a learning tool)

Over the last couple of days, several items have surfaced in my social feeds about how the Internet doesn’t work and what to do about that. First came Ethan Zuckerman’s description of advertising as “the Internet’s original sin.” which was inspired to some degree by Maciek Ceglowski’s The Internet with a Human Face. Today Mike Caulfield wrote about link rot and data impermanence.

Common to Caulfield’s and Ceglowski’s critiques is the notion of decentralization as a way forward. Taking Mike’s concepts of federated note taking as a point of departure, I’m thinking a lot about what that sort of decentralization might look like in education. What sort of tool set does the digital learner need? I think of two things:

  1. A notebook/research space – somewhere to collect thoughts, ideas, sources, and evidence and connect them together. One should be able to keep things private, make them public, or in between.
  2. A portfolio – A place to present finished artifacts for evaluation by teachers, admission committees, potential employers, etc.

Smallest Federated Wiki + page level access controls + paragraph level attribution would do a bang-up job at #1. WordPress or perhaps something like Mahara is well-suited to #2. Is it desirable/necessary that they interoperate? (so that items in your portfolio would come with attribution chains already attached) What else does is a must have for the modern digital learner?

Personal Wikis – A How-To Including Better Icons

Inspired by Mike Caulfield’s tireless evangelism for personal wikis, I decided to set up an instance of Smallest Federated Wiki and not rely on someone else’s farms. Mike has been kind to set up sandboxes for us to play in, but much of the point is to have your own instance that you control.

The first and biggest hurdle is that Smallest Federated Wiki (SFW) won’t run in shared hosting, and some sort of dedicated server is required. A VPS isn’t that hard to find, but I’m thrifty, and have a computer that’s on most of the time in my house. I proceeded to download NodeJS and install a local wiki, which seemed to work fine, but it was only partly federated. I could fork pages in, but it wasn’t on the public web so nobody else could fork from it.

I had, in my explorations of the IndieWeb movement, discovered pagekite, which uses a python script to reverse tunnel from your computer to a subdomain.pagekite.me address. The service is pay what you want, but less expensive than most VPS’s. In order to do this more safely, I decided to run the SFW instance inside a debian Virtualbox VM.

Once the VM is up and running, install nodejs and npm

apt-get install npm

Then use npm to install wiki and pm2

npm install wiki -g -f
 npm install pm2 -g

. For some reason I can’t get wiki to start from the shell so I had to use pm2 to launch it. Find the wiki index.js. On my VM it was /usr/local/lib/node_modules/wiki/index.js . I then typed

pm2 start ./index.js

and a simple web connection to localhost:3000 gave me a live SFW node.

After downloading the pagekite script and establishing your account
pagekite.py --signup
 you launch with
pagekite.py 3000 http://yoursubdomain.pagekite.me
The 3000 is there because that is SFW’s default port.

I could now see my VM instance through the pagekite URL and fork from it, but there was still one problem. SFW uses Mozilla Persona to handle editing privileges. I could claim the wiki and login when I was on localhost, but trying to connect via the pagekite URL generated a login error. So my wiki was viewable from anywhere but editable only from the console. I submitted an issue to the SFW Github repository, and the helpful folk there explained that Persona expects certain ports and urls. To make my wiki editable from everywhere required:

pm2 stop [id of wiki process]
pm2 delete [id of wiki process]
pm2 start ./index.js -- -p 3000 --url http://mysubdomain.pagekite.me

You apparently have to tell SFW what URL and port you are running on for Persona to work.
Also note the — between the script path and the arguments that will be passed to the script.

One of the frustrating things about SFW is that individual instances are distinguished by a color gradient favicon,  It’s often hard to remember which gradient belongs to whom.  Once you have a local instance, you can fix this.  SFW stores your files in /home/username/.wiki . The favicon.png is stored in a status subdirectory of .wiki. Just replace that .png with a square PNG file of your choice with the same name (favicon.png). I’m not sure what the maximum size is, but 64 X 64 worked.

The problem of agency

Yesterday, John Warner responded to an Anya Kamenetz story on Purdue’s Course Signals initiative. Course Signals reported successes have been questioned, but I want to focus on something else. Warner writes:

For example, what if one of our goals for students is the development of agency, the ability to negotiate and exert control over their own lives? What if we believe this is an important goal because it is significantly correlated not only with success, but happiness and well-being?…What if we believe that failure is a productive part of learning?  What if we worry that their adult lives will not come with Course Signal warnings?

It’s at least implied here that the sort of things Course Signals does prevents students from developing their own sense of agency.  That may well be so.  I also agree that failure can be a valuable part of learning.  However, for failure to be a catalyst for learning, failing has to be low risk.  For most students, it is anything but.

Students may learn from failure that they are on financial aid probation or suspension, and thus can no longer receive funding.  Even if that isn’t the case, lifetime Pell limits and the 150% rule place strict boundaries on the amount of failure one is permitted to learn from.

Warner suggests that intrusive support doesn’t foster learner agency, but he doesn’t recommend an alternative.  Most of the time, we encourage agency by giving freedom to students and hoping they make good choices.  Unfortunately, that approach doesn’t actually do much to help a student who doesn’t know how to manage his or her life and learning figure out how to do it.  For these students, agency has to come in small doses.  You can allow them to pick their own topic for the major project, but they need a detailed road map explaining all the steps and how to do them.  You probably need to make those intermediate steps graded assignments in their own right, so you can see if a student is falling behind.  Wait a minute, that sounds a little bit like Course Signals. I suppose you could encourage agency by making students create their own plan and identify their own milestones.