Saturday, March 15, 2008

"Shift Happens" Comment

I originally posted this as a comment at another site. They wanted to kow what people thought about the "Shift happens" slideshow by Karl Fisch. I thought I'd repost it here...

I’ve seen the slideshow a couple of times. I guess I’m a skeptic at heart, because when the statistics start coming at me as fast as Fisch throws them, my gut instinct is to hit pause and go check things. You can do that sitting at a computer; you can’t do it when the slides are on a big screen and you’re sitting with a bunch of other teachers in an auditorium…

There are two versions of Shift Happens now. The original and Shift Happens 2.0

In the original there are some stats I question, and some use of stats I thought were problematic.

Slides #4-10 in the original 67 slide version: “The 25% of the population in China with the highest IQ’s is greater than the total population of North America… In India it’s 28%.” That series seems to me to have some math problems. It starts off by implying that there are 1.3 billion people in China and 1.1 billion in India. Twenty-five percent of 1.3 billion is 325 million. Twenty-eight percent of 1.1 billion is only 305 million. For the two to be equal you’d need about 29.5% of the India figure. The population of North America is about 518 million - closer to 485 million if you exclude the Caribbean nations. To get the figure of around 325 million, you have to confine yourself to Canada and the US. This section is gone from the updated 2.0 version.

Then there’s slide 12: “China will soon become the number one English speaking country in the world.” The most obvious possible meaning for the statement is that soon there will be more people in China that “speak English” than there are in the United States (or any other country). I suppose that’s a matter of definition: what do you mean by “speak English?”

It reminded me of a blog post I wrote last year for a site focused on China. I had a link to a picture of a sign in Shanghai. The sign said “No Entrance to Greenland.” It was supposed to say “Keep off the Grass.” I don’t believe there will be more people in China than in the US in the near future with native speaker proficiency in English, capable of using and understanding the language’s idioms and figures of speech. One day, maybe; but not in the next few years. So define “soon…”

Then comes the two slides about shipping all US jobs to China, and how after we did that China would still have a labor surplus. That might have been true for a few minutes in 2006 if manpower alone were the only consideration. But the labor surplus that exists in China is spread across huge areas of rural land; could we take the US’s urban jobs and spread the out over the villages of Yunnan, Guizhou, and Guanxi? The answer doesn’t matter because China’s hot economy is actually projected to be on its way to a labor shortage within a year or two.

The practice of China bashing in the US made me wonder whether the last two examples were meant to convey information or emotion.

Further into the video there’s the bit about “broadband internet penetration” – percentage of homes in a country with broadband Internet access. America was 20th when the original presentation was made. But that’s a percentage ranking. We had then and we have now more broadband users than any other country on Earth. The source for those figures now places us 25th.

The problem is that it ranks Hong Kong third and Macau ninth, even though I’m pretty sure that neither of those are countries. Of the eight actual countries in the top 10, only two have populations of more and 10 million – the Netherlands (16 million, in 6th pace) and South Korea (about 50 million, in 1st place). America may rank behind Guernsey (about 65,000, 15th) in the English Channel; but is that a meaningful comparison? Surely not. And the slides on this got dropped from the 2.0 version, too…

The 106 million MySpace users was another interesting stat. How many of those 106 users are abandoned ID’s? Or people with three ID’s because they forgot the password to their first two? One source I looked at concluded that over half of MySpace’s ID’s were not in use. See this site...

That would make MySpace the 29th largest country on Earth – bigger than Sudan but smaller than South Africa.

The presentation seems to have two major points. One is that the information age is upon us, and the nature of work is changing as a result. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve worked for my current employer for less than five years. In the last decade I’ve worked for two school systems, two colleges, one local government agency, and four publishers of various stripes - and at times I’ve had as many as three jobs at once. The advent of the information age is changing our lives.

The other major point seems to be that globalization is changing our place in the world as Americans. And the nature of that message is more ambiguous. Sometimes I think that message is designed to scare me. Sometimes I think it’s designed to motivate me, maybe engender some sort of patriotic spirit of competition in the face of a world that wants to dislodge my country from its place at the top of the heap. And when the presentation is over, I’m not sure what exactly I’m supposed to take away from the globalization message in this presentation.

Finally, because the globalization message comes first, I’m not sure which one of these two messages is the main emphasis. If the message is that the information age is going to require us to education kids differently, the globalization portion of this presentation clouds that message, in my opinion.

A final thought… the idea that someday we might change the way we think of time, and that I could have to tell people that I was born in 36 B.G. (Before Google), - I found that offensive, frankly. I don’t expect Google to become quite that important in the near future, and I expect the company to die a natural death in a few decades, chopped up and eaten perhaps by a private equity firm during a time of fiscal weakness, or maybe bought out by China’s sovereign wealth fund, the China Investment Corp.

I didn’t know before looking at this that Scott McLeod was involved in this presentation. I was a guest blogger at his site during the first week of February…


Betsy said...

Greg, as I'd expect from you, these are excellent comments on the presentation(s). Many of the changes that Karl and I made in version 2.0 were to address the issues (and inaccuracies) that you and others have brought up. Alas, no presentation is perfect, but we think 2.0 does a better job of being more motivating / less alarmist.

As can be imagined, the dialogue around the presentation(s) has been phenomenal. I've heard from LOTS of interesting people / organizations, each with their own perspective on the information age, globalization, etc. Good stuff!

Scott McLeod said...

Oops - apparently I'm logged into Gmail as my wife. That's supposed to be me, Scott McLeod!

Greg_Cruey said...

Hi Scott,

Thanks for the response. I've seen the presentation shown to large groups of teachers now at beginning of the year activities and similar events three or four times in my school division. It has obviously become one of the most influential statements available on the need to recognize the demands that technology places on education.