Category Archives: Education

Material Wealth Equals Intelligence? Part 1.5

After I published Part 1 of this essay, I heard from a friend who thought I was being too harsh in my treatment of the wealthy.  She also stated that the best way for those in poverty to have a chance to demonstrate their abilities and intelligence, and to achieve monetary success, was for them to obtain a quality education.  While this was not the point of Part 1, I do agree with her that a quality education is a key to ending poverty. Since the poor are unable to provide themselves with a quality education, the funds to provide this education must come from elsewhere.  I see two options: philanthropy and/or taxes. Both options rely on the wealthy (or at least those who have incomes well above poverty levels).  Therefore, if the relationship [>power = >possessions = >intelligence = >human] I describe is invalid, all of those with the most power and possessions would not consider the poor to be less worthy, less human, than themselves and would willingly provide the funds, whether via philanthropy or taxes, so that the poor could obtain the quality education they need to achieve monetary success.

As with every relationship, there are exceptions.  As I mentioned to my friend, Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin Group, does invest his money to improve the lives of the poor.  In addition, Branson is working to ensure that his businesses operate in a sustainable manner in order to lessen the burden to Earth’s biosphere.  If all of those with great power and possessions/money would follow Branson’s lead, the relationship I describe would be invalid.  But I suspect I will be waiting a long time.

PS.  Happy Birthday Sir Richard and President Mandela!  (July 18, 2012)

Material Wealth Equals Intelligence? Part 1

Recently, a supporter of Mitt Romney at one of his fundraisers equated poverty with poor education and, by implication, lower intelligence.  “I just think if you’re lower income — one, you’re not as educated, two, they don’t understand how it works, they don’t understand how the systems work, they don’t understand the impact.”  It seems pretty clear that this woman believes that her station in life, which is due to her wealth and the privileges her wealth can buy, makes her superior in all ways, including intelligence, to those without great wealth.  Although this egregious attitude appears to be pretty typical of the 1%, they are not alone in equating material possessions/wealth to intelligence. This relationship, >material possesions = >intelligence, has been in effect for at least 5000 years, perhaps much longer.

For millions of years, our ancestors were foragers moving around their territory hunting animals and gathering other foodstuffs with which to sustain life.  Since they were constantly on the move, minimizing material possessions was a necessity.  Particularly rich foraging environments, such as along the Northwest Coast of North America, did allow foraging groups to settle down and accumulate some possessions, but large settlements did not begin to become widespread until after the domestication of plants and animals.

Once a group settled down, it was easy to accumulate possessions.  The number of possessions increased when craft specialties developed.  Each family no longer had to make everything it needed.  Families could trade what they made for something different someone else made.  Increasing population size and craft specialization led to the development of class structure and governing hierarchies.  Those at the top now had the resources to obtain even more possessions that became status symbols.  The ancient “1%” not only had the highest status and the most possessions, they had all the power. We can modify the relationship to read >power = >possessions = >intelligence.  The belief in this relationship still holds sway many millenia later.

The result is that those in power, those having the most complex material culture (i.e. possessions) believe that this relationship is evidence that they are more intelligent than those lacking in possessions and power.  Those at the bottom of the social hierarchy in agricultural or pastoral societies who possessed the least knew they were considered inferior in all ways to those at the top of the hierarchy.  Enculturation in this society probably led them to believe this relationship of possessions and power to intelligence was true.  However, there were others who possessed even less than they did: the foragers.  The result was a disdain for the foraging lifestyle and a belief that foragers were inferior in intelligence to those who were not foragers.  Foraging was deemed to be too similar to how animals lived.  Foragers began to be seen by non-foragers as subhuman.  Therefore, as with other animals, foragers could be killed with impunity and their territories taken by the ‘real’ humans to use more ‘productively’.  This continues to happen in the Amazon, the forests of Southeast Asia, and anywhere else foraging populations struggle to survive.

If foragers, who have almost no possessions, are considered subhuman, then the poor, who have hardly more possessions, are themselves considered barely human.  Only true humans can be considered intelligent, so foragers are unintelligent and the poor are at the lowest levels of human intelligence; if they were truly intelligent, they would have many possessions.  Certainly, that is what the Romney supporter mentioned above appears to believe.  We can modify again the relationship to read >power = >possessions = >intelligence = >human.

Perhaps that particular Romney supporter does not consciously think of herself as more human than those who are poorer than she is, but her statements and behavior, and that of those like her, implies that subconsciously, she does believe that those in the lower economic echelons are less human.  Given a belief in the relationship of >power = >possessions =>intelligence = >human, it is not too surprising that those with that mindset do not want to pay more taxes that might go to government programs that would help lower-income individuals and families.  Only true humans, those like themselves, are worthy of support.

 

NOTE: Read Part 1.5 and Part 2.

 

Is racism OK if the group is extinct?

Along with some of my physical anthropology students, I attended a public lecture on the Neanderthal genome given by one of the men who worked on the genome.  An issue my students and I hoped the speaker would clarify is whether he considered Neanderthals a different species even though he admitted that EurAsians had some Neanderthal genes.

When one of my students asked about this, he stated that it was obvious they were a different species.  “Look at my graph! It’s obvious!”  However, it was not obvious.  His graph compared the DNA (presumably nDNA rather than mtDNA, but he was unclear on this) of three Neanderthal females from the site of Vindija, Croatia, to the DNA of multiple individuals from different 21st century populations.  There was a bit of a deviation of the Neanderthal lines from the non-Neanderthal lines, but the trend of the lines was the same. To further support his contention of different species, he said it was obvious from a comparison of the skulls of the two “species”.  He then showed a comparison of a La Ferrassie Neanderthal with a current European skull. This same student said that differences were not obvious when comparing skulls from around the same time period that belonged to Neanderthal and so-called moderns.  The speaker then began a jargon-dense explanation of a skull analysis technique that he felt proved his point.  I let this slide because of the type of audience present, but I did e-mail the speaker after the talk.  In that e-mail I noted that I’d been at conferences where one speaker using the technique he described ‘proved’ Neanderthals were a different species based on skull morphology, while the very next speaker, using the same technique and skulls, came to the conclusion that Neanderthals fell within modern human variation, and so were the same species as we are.  He didn’t respond to this.

Back at the talk, another of my students asked the speaker how he could be so sure of his conclusions when he had only three samples and they all came from the same site; and, further, had not been compared to ‘moderns’ from the same time period.  The speaker’s answer to this was not really clear, but seemed to be “Look at my graph! It’s obvious!”   I also asked him about this in my e-mail. He responded that he saw no point in comparing to “moderns.”  His comment: “We know that most of the DNA variation present within currently living humans dates back, on average, hundreds of thousands of years. Therefore, there is little to be learned from sequencing early modern humans. Nevertheless, this is being done anyway. In fact, there was a paper in Science last week
(http://www.sciencemag.org/content/336/6080/466.full) with DNA from several Neolithic humans. Unsurprisingly, they differ little from currently living humans.”

I replied that Neolithic humans lived thousands of years after Neanderthals (the time period in the article was about 5000 years ago) and were in the midst of one of the most severe selection events to affect humans due to the rise of contagious infectious disease among early agricultural populations, along with impaired nutrition due to restricted diets.  As we are still living in this changed environment of infectious disease and poor nutrition, it is not too surprising that “they differ little from currently living humans.”  Nor would it be surprising if they differed somewhat from Neanderthals, although that analysis was not done. However, the article does not really appear to support his point anyway.  Four individuals were tested: three northern European hunter/gatherers and one farmer who appeared related to southern Europeans. What this article points to is that, as with the Neanderthal genome, a tiny sample is used to make huge generalizations.

To enforce his point during his talk that Neanderthals were a different species, he implied that they were stupider than ‘moderns’ by comparing Mousterian tools of 150,000 years ago to cave art of 30,000 years ago.  In my e-mail, I reminded him of that fact that Neanderthals of 40,000 years ago were using Upper Paleolithic tools, and that the 10,000 years from 40,000 to 30,000 years ago is an extremely long time.  My comments were:

“Think how much our culture has changed in the past 10,000 years.  But even if you do not like that comparison, what about the Tasmanians who were isolated from the rest of the world for 10,000 years until found by Captain Tasman in the 1600s?  When found, their material culture was hardly more complex than is true of chimpanzees.  This, of course, says nothing about the complexity of the intangibles of their culture.  Were Tasmanians less than human because they had so little?  Certainly, many Europeans thought so since they willfully destroyed them.  But I think you will agree that racism is not a good way to judge whether a group is truly human or not.”

His response to this: “I think it’s OK to be racist against Neandertals. It’s the least of the offenses we are guilty of committing against them. In seriousness, though, they are extinct.”

My response to him: “So you think it is OK to have racist views about extinct populations?  Since the Tasmanians and Taino (among many other groups) are effectively extinct in the same sense that Neanderthals are extinct (i.e. their genes live on in current individuals, but their culture is gone), were (are) racist attitudes towards them OK?  Isn’t it racism that was key to their extinction?”  He did not respond to that e-mail.  Perhaps he realized he had gone too far.  Perhaps he was annoyed that I refused to accept his “obvious” evidence.

 

 

Contraception is a Key Women’s Right

I find it amazing and deeply disturbing that in the 21st century state legislatures in the United States are being inundated with bills (many of which have passed and been signed into law) that seek to restrict a woman’s right to control her own body and well-being.  Without these rights, women will find it very difficult to partake fully in politics and in the economy.  Perhaps that is exactly the goal of this type of legislation: to drive women back into the home where they are trapped by unwanted pregnancy and under the control of their spouse.

We know that the best way for women and children to escape poverty is for the women to have control of their reproduction. Being able to decide if and when she has children provides a woman with the opportunity for education, which allows her to find better-paying work.  Wherever women have control of their reproduction, the birth rate has declined and economic well-being has improved.  Why would legislatures in the United States wish to reverse this trend?  The only reason I can think of is fear.  Fear that women will gain too much power.  Fear that men (particularly white men), will have less of a say in the future.  Fear that they will lose control. Fear is repressive and destructive.

As a counterpoint to fear, Melinda Gates gave a great TED talk this month about the need for contraception.  Granted, her talk primarily dealt with women in developing nations.  But it is clear that what she says also relates to the current political climate in the United States.  It will be quite ironic if NGOs such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are able to bring reproductive freedom to women in other nations while here in the United States those same freedoms are being whittled away.

Half the Sky

We ignore women, their needs, their rights, their abilities, at the peril of our future.  Their issues are not ‘women’s issues’, they are humanity’s issues. The attempts to marginalize and/or ignore women may well be major factors in why the world is in such trouble economically and politically.  Gayle Tzemach Lemmon in her recent TED talk points out that women are marginalized in financing: they get micro-loans rather than entrepreneurial loans.  Granted, a micro-loan is better than no loan, but her point is that when a woman creates a business it is viewed as less important and less economically valuable than when a man creates one.  Treating women as ‘less than’ negatively affects all aspects of not only their lives, but their children’s lives, and, although the men generally do not recognize it, the lives of men, too.  Simple reasoning makes this obvious: women make up half of humanity; or, as in the Chinese proverb that provided the title for Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky, “Women hold up half the sky.”

As I write this, it is reported in the news that an Afghani women was strangled by her mother-in-law because she gave birth to a third daughter and not a son.  Her husband also appears to have been involved in her murder.  Sons are valued so much more than daughters that failure to give birth to one can lead to a woman’s death.  A woman can destroy her family’s honor by being raped.  The ‘solution’ is for her to marry her rapist, or to be put to death.  Being jailed for being raped actually protects the woman from abuse and/or death.  The girl’s hymen is no longer intact, so she no longer has value and has thus dishonored her family. As Kristof and WuDunn state, “The paradox of honor killings is that societies with the most rigid moral codes end up sanctioning behavior that is supremely immoral: murder.” (p. 82)

Young girls are ‘sold’ into marriages where they become virtual slaves.  Choosing your own boyfriend can result in your death. These examples all involve Afghanis, but any culture that does not value woman equally with men will find ways to demean, mistreat, and abuse women.  For instance, a judge in Canada (and he is not alone in this, as similar views have been expressed by judges in the United States) gave a mild (no jail time) sentence to a rapist because he, the judge, felt the woman had asked for it. These actions are done to keep women in their place, a place that is well below that of men.

Kristof and WuDunn have written a moving book highlighting the many, many ways women suffer from oppression throughout the world.  But they have also written about the women who have fought back against oppression and who are making better lives for themselves and other women.  For this to happen, the women must see themselves as valuable and as equal to men.  Education is the key.  Cultures that oppress women seek to deny girls access to education.  But cultures can change.  This is something that is too often ignored.  Simply because it has ‘always’ been done this way does not mean that it always will be done that way.  Holding back girls and women results in holding back the future.  Clinging to the culture of the past not only marginalizes women, but marginalizes that culture in an interconnected and globalized world.  Cultures can and do change.  Education is the first, vital step.

Education gives girls knowledge and with knowledge they begin to realize that they should have a voice in their lives; a say in what happens to them. With knowledge comes the power to fight back against injustice.  The first girls and women in their communities to come to this realization are very courageous.  They frequently must endure great abuse and hardship.  But they and their stories, as told by Kristof and WuDunn, serve as examples to other women and girls that change is possible, and change begins to happen.

Enmeshed with education are the healthcare needs of girls and women.  Girls who do manage to attend grade school often disappear from school when they begin to menstruate because the schools lack the facilities the girls need during their period.  A husband and brother in India realized just obtaining pads for menstruating girls and women was a problem, so he set out to solve this.  Girls are also often forced into marriage at that time, which also ends their education.  They need a way to manage their menstrual cycle and to obtain birth control so that they can continue their education.  Denying birth control to girls and women because of religious reasons (as has been done with US foreign aid) in effect denies them a future of their own choice.

When a large percentage of women in a particular country are educated and enfranchised, their political power is harder to ignore.  Issues that had been ignored, such as public health and children’s health, move to the political mainstream.  When women become the majority in the government, massive cultural change is certain.  In 1994, Rwanda was the scene of a bloody genocide.  When peace was restored, a new government decreed that women had to hold at least 30% of the seats in all legislative bodies.  Women now hold 56% of the seats in Parliament.  Rwandan culture has changed dramatically.  Rwanda is leap-frogging into the 21st century because the country realized that women are as valuable as men.

China has a long history of valuing sons more than daughters, so much so that with the one child policy and elective abortion, the country now has an unbalanced male/female ratio.  However, the government now realizes that a better policy is to educate girls and women.  When women are well-educated, they want to use their skills in the workplace.  This delays marriage and child-bearing while also improving the economy. Parents now realize that daughters can be just as valuable as sons. A win-win for China: slowed population growth along with rapid growth in gross domestic product. India also sees the value of educating women.  Bunker Roy created the Barefoot College which educates the poor to become technicians and engineers, among other occupations.  According to Roy, men are untrainable.  Instead, the Barefoot College trains grandmothers.

In the 21st century, women in all cultures must be equal participants in all aspects of life and business if we are to deal with the challenges the world will face.  Corporations are discovering that those boards of directors with a higher percentage of women are significantly more profitable than those with the lowest number of women on their boards.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide should be read by anyone who cares about the future.  The tales the authors have collected in their journeys around the world are moving, enlightening, and uplifting.  While oppression is common and severe, it is possible for change to occur.  The book concludes with a plan of action and a long list of things that the reader can do to contribute to the change that must occur.  The website (linked to above) also provides opportunities for action.  “Women are half the sky.”  We cannot succeed in the 21st century without equality for all women and men.

 

Facts and Evidence Don’t Matter

If you operate in an evidence-based world, the title of this post probably annoys/angers you.  As well it should.  Unfortunately, for increasing numbers of people, belief is more important than evidence.  In fact, evidence contrary to their beliefs may make them fight harder than ever to hold on to their beliefs.

Some news items from the believers point of view:

1] Jerry Sandusky [or fill in blank with whichever child predator is in the news] cannot possibly be a child predator because he loves children and created a charity for children.  Providing these believers with the facts and evidence of ‘grooming‘ just makes the believers angrier and more defensive of Sandusky [or whomever].  Vilification of the accusers occurs rather than analyzing the evidence.

2] How dare the state of Kentucky expect high school students to be taught and tested on evolution when it conflicts with the beliefs of Ricky Line, Superintendent of Hart County Board of Education!  (Education?)  “Stop requiring our teachers to teach, as fact, an evolution that would convince our children that they evolved from lower life forms and, therefore, have reason to discount the Bible and the faith beliefs that follow.  This is not an improvement in our public education system.” [Written to Kentucky Commissioner of Education Terry Holiday on 11/21/2011.]  Commissioner Holiday replied with a very well-reasoned statement of facts and evidence.  I doubt it convinced Superintendent Line.  Line’s beliefs will always trump facts and evidence.

3]  The Florida Family Association, a Christian group, is crusading against TLC’s program All-American Muslim because ‘TLC’s “All-American Muslim” is propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda.’  They are haranguing the show’s advertisers in an attempt to have TLC drop the show because it does not sufficiently cover the jihadist point of view. “The show profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish.”  How dare TLC show ordinary Muslims!

Clearly, the FFA crusade is ridiculous.  And yet, Lowe’s succumbed.  “Lowe’s has received a significant amount of communication on this program, from every perspective possible. Individuals and groups have strong political and societal views on this topic, and this program became a lighting rod for many of those views. As a result we did pull our advertising on this program. We believe it is best to respectfully defer to communities, individuals and groups to discuss and consider such issues of importance.”  So, Lowe’s, will you cease all advertising if enough people complain about the shows on which you advertise?  Or do you just pick and choose based on belief systems rather than evidence and facts?

4]  Only those who believe in God (or a god) are trustworthy.  Atheists are less trustworthy (more evil?) than rapists; and atheists are despised more than are gays.  This is according to recently-published research by Gervais et al. who conducted six different studies in order to clarify why those who are religious have problems with those who are atheists.  The researchers concluded it came down to trust.  Religious individuals simply cannot trust someone who doesn’t believe in a god because they hold the view that a belief in god provides the glue that holds society together.  However, Gervais et al. point out that “the least religious countries are actually among the most cooperative and peaceful on the planet.”   Belief that atheists are bad and untrustworthy trumps the facts and evidence that if we want a peaceful, cooperative society we would be better off with fewer individuals who are religious [See #3 above.] and more who are atheist.

One would hope that education would help eradicate erroneous beliefs.  But if facts and evidence just make believers fight harder, education probably will not work.  Then how can we solve this problem?  I’d like to read your ideas on this.

Meanwhile, have a great holiday season in which we work to increase cooperation and peace in our society.

 

 

 

 

 

Science is Political

I recently finished reading Shawn Lawrence Otto’s book: Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America.  Otto co-founded Science Debate 2008 which was an effort to get the presidential candidates to have a debate on the important science issues affecting the United States.  Despite strenuous efforts, the candidates refused to agree to such a debate.  The only outcome was that the final nominees, Obama and McCain, did finally agree to answer, in writing, not in debate, “The 14 Top Science Questions Facing America.”   I would like to think that there will be an actual Science Debate in 2012, but given that the only Republican candidate who seems concerned about science and the scientific illiteracy of his fellow candidates is Jon Huntsman, a man who has no chance to be the Republican nominee in 2012, this seems improbable.

Otto’s main thesis is that for the last several decades, scientists, while busy doing science, ignored the erosion of the public’s confidence in science and the rise of a belief system that claimed there is no objective reality; that we each create our own subjective ‘reality;’ therefore, the conclusions of science are only one way of viewing the world, and not necessarily the ‘best’ way.  This flight from objective reality may well be why the United States ranks #23 in the 2009 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test of scientific knowledge.  In addition, the United States ranks just above Turkey in a graph of countries depicting the percentage of the population accepting the validity of evolution, based on research published in Science. The educational system is failing the United States given that the researchers found that percentage accepting evolution actually declined over twenty years.  Otto is convinced that this is because scientists failed to recognize that science is political; that scientists have to write for and speak to the public in language that will make it clear that science is necessary for the future stability, growth, and well being of the United States.  Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin understood that science was political.  Their goal was to create a country where science could flourish.  They would be appalled to discover that at the beginning of the 21st century, a huge chunk of the population is retreating into the anti-science mysticism of the centuries prior to the Enlightenment of the 18th century.

One of the key concepts that has been lost in the relativistic present is that there are not necessarily two sides to every argument.  Otto points this out in the following example (p. 10):

Journalism: There are always two sides to every story.  Bob says 2 + 2 = 4.  Mary says it is 6.  The controversy rages.

Science:  Most times, one side is simply wrong.  I can demonstrate using these apples that Bob is right.

Politics:  How about a compromise?  New law: 2 + 2 = 5.”

Journalists create controversy where, based on the scientific facts, there is none.  “If one side presents knowledge and the other ‘but faith, or opinion, but not knowledge,’ [John Locke] simply reporting both sides is not balanced journalism and constitutes malfeasance by the press.” (p.204-05) Such malfeasance is in large measure due to the fact that few media sources in the United States actually have scientifically-trained reporters.  In fact, according to Otto, most media sources have cut or cut out their science departments.  This is in contrast to the rest of the world where science news remains a vital part of media coverage.

Otto also discusses de Tocqueville‘s views of American democracy, published in 1835, after his travels throughout the new country.  While impressed by many things, de Tocqueville also saw cause for concern.  He saw Americans as tinkerers/inventors rather than as thinkers.  The focus was on practicality rather than the search to understand the unknown; i.e. pure research without thought of how it might be used.  “His [de Tocqueville’s] tale [of 19th century China’s retreat from science] suggests the dangers posed by embracing tradition and precedent at the expense of openness and creativity, applied research at the expense of basic science, fear at the expense of wonder, utility at the expense of beauty, and an insistence on financially quantifiable projections before an investment is made, the idea of which runs contrary to the entire process of discovery and creativity.” (pp. 58-9)

“If knowledge does not have primacy in public decision making, then no truth can be said to be self-evident, and we are left with the tyranny of ideology enforced by might (p. 219)…led [by] a generation of leaders that are at once arrogant and ignorant…(p. 134) Ignorance is not bliss.  It’s tyranny.” (p. 252)

Otto points out that scientifically-literate children are most likely to have parents who are scientists or, and this is critically important, parents who are immigrants.  “Fully 70 percent of the finalists in the 2011 Intel Science Talent Search competition were the children of immigrants–a stunning figure considering that immigrants make up only 12 percent of the US population…” (pp. 291-92)

This matters because if the United States continues to restrict immigration and/or makes life difficult for immigrants, these talented students will be lost to the United States, while at the same time providing a ‘brain gain’ to other countries.  If anti-science attitudes continue to prevail in the United States, it will lose the future to other nations, particularly those in Asia.  During the Middle Ages, science burned brightly in the Islamic countries.  But fundamentalist, anti-science views came to dominate in those regions, and science was lost.  To say such a future is not possible in an anti-science United States is arrogant ignorance.

 

 

 

 

 

Bounding in to Solve the Textbook Cost Dilemma

Students are always strapped for cash.  Textbooks cost a bundle.  Some schools are now renting textbooks to students who cannot afford to buy new and/or for whom used texts are unavailable.  Many students hope to get by without buying the textbook.  But that can be a risky option.

Three entrepreneurs decided to solve this dilemma by creating a company that produces open-sourced, online textbooks matched to a popular textbook in a particular subject that students can access for free.  Free!!  How do they do that?  Well, with a major venture capital investment and a lot of contracted consultants, including me.

I worked on the college Biology textbook: mapping content, validating the content others mapped, and synthesizing the content of still other consultants into cohesive chapters that covered the same topics in the same order as in the chapters of the reference Biology textbook.  We consultants scoured the web for the best open-source materials on a particular topic.  The end result is an interactive text with graphics and video clips embedded within the text.  It looks great and functions well.  And it’s free.  Boundless Learning also has free textbooks for college Economics and Psychology.  They plan to produce free textbooks for more subjects in future months.

I was involved, in one way or another, in the creation of about 40% of the chapters.  So, believe me when I say, “This was a huge endeavor.”  Student-user input will be used to tweak and modify the text for an even better learning experience.  Is this the future of textbooks?  Maybe, for a subset of the most commonly-used texts; but probably not for the vast majority of textbooks for at least two reasons:   it is not that easy to re-create a textbook using open source material; and professors are unlikely to willingly give up both the prestige and revenue stream of writing and publishing textbooks.

What is this firm that is creating these free textbooks?   Boundless Learning was founded in March, 2011, in Boston, MA by three serial entrepreneur friends (Aaron White, Ariel Diaz, and Brian Balfour) with venture capital funding of $1.75 million. While their track record as entrepreneurs and knowledge of funding sources surely played a large role in obtaining those funds, improving education and educational products is very ‘sexy’ right now.   Bill Gates invests millions in schemes to improve education. Peter Thiel (of PayPal) has his own take on higher education: skip it and start a business.   He is providing fellowships to 20 young entrepreneurs under age 20.

Anyone who pays attention knows that education does need an overhaul, so the Boundless Learning Trio made a smart decision to move into this potentially lucrative field; which makes it intriguing that they are giving away their product.  Their ultimate goal appears to be to hook students with the free textbooks, and then to later offer premium services that will include ‘online tutoring, prep test help, and premium study aids.’  This is smart marketing, but will their funding carry them through until they are profitable?  This seems doubtful, so I presume they are looking for more funding from their original investors and from new investors.

Another concern is over how they will differentiate their premium products from those already offered by the Princeton Review or Kaplan, among many others.  How is the Boundless Learning team going to shake up the market for online tutoring and test prep?  And are those really the premium services they should offer?  In a phone conversation I had with Arial Diaz on October 18, 2011, I asked him about the viability of the premium services Boundless Learning is thinking about offering.  He admitted that even though students do have plenty of disposable income for pizza and movies, it may be difficult to turn free textbook users into paying customers.  Currently, only about 10% of those students who downloaded a textbook use it once a week or more.  At least 50% of the students appear to use it only to study for exams.  This is a major hurdle the team will have to overcome if they want to move these students into premium products.  Students may not know what they really need to succeed.  Tutoring and test prep have their place, but if Boundless Learning really wants to be on the cutting edge of an educational revolution, the team needs to think beyond the typical products.

According to Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap, business leaders want employees who demonstrate Seven Survival Skills:

•    Critical thinking and problem solving
•    Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
•    Agility and adaptability
•    Initiative and entrepreneurialism
•    Effective oral and written communication
•    Accessing and analyzing information
•    Curiosity and imagination

Perhaps Boundless Learning could really differentiate itself from the pack by developing premium services that aid students in achieving those Seven Survival Skills.  I suggested to Ariel that his team develop a game that increases critical thinking skills and offers a certificate of achievement for reaching the highest levels.  If they could get support for such a product from major businesses who recruit on campuses, this would encourage students to play the game so that they could show the certificate to recruiters.  Developing products and services which offer students the opportunity to increase their Seven Survival Skills may be a more difficult task than offering online tutoring and test prep services, but it would be more exciting, cutting edge, and a potentially huge game-changer in education.