June 26, 2010

Skating away on the thin ice of a new day...

One of the topics that is near and dear to my heart (at least right now) is reform of higher education.  Counting my own time doing time in college, I have spent nearly thirty years in higher education and have seen many sides of the university- from small private institutions to large public schools, and from being a hard core research faculty member to being an educator.  Struggling to succeed in these roles has convinced me that while universities do some things well they, like many other institutions in our society, have lost their soul somewhere along the way.  We have become too focused on serving our own self-interests. But it is easy to throw pop bottle from the bleachers; if you want to change the status quo it helps to come to the battle with a competing idea.  In a decade of working on program reform in higher education, I've come to believe that it isn't the students, instructors, or content, rather the fundamental structure of universities needs to change. 

As a life-long, but not particularly avid, gamer I, like some others, have come to believe the future of the university will be built on role-playing games.  In fact a lot of this blog reflects this theme and I've done a few YouTube videos trying to garner support for this idea.  The other day I came across a fascinating talk on TED that added some mind-blowing numbers to the ones I've already collected: 
  • Active online gamers spend 10,000 hours of play by the time they are 21 (almost as much as the time spent in school).  Note that ten thousand hours is the time estimated to master new skills and the time spent in school from 5th to 12th grade.
  • There are 500 million active online gamers worldwide (that will grow to 1.5 billion in the next 10 years).  The Pew Charitable Trust sponsored a study looking at the age distribution of gamers.
  • In the game World of Warcraft a total of 5.93 million man-years has been invested by players around the globe. 
  • 3 billion hours a week are spent playing online games 
The really amazing statistic is the last one.  I guess it isn't that surprising given the number of gamers, but three billion man-hours is a lot of hours.  I started wondering what other endeavors reached the billion man-hour mark, and what immediately came to mind was man landing on the moon.  A little internet research turned up this from a NASA site:
"To realize the goal of Apollo under the strict time constraints mandated by the president, personnel had to be mobilized. This took two forms. First, by 1966 the agency's civil service rolls had grown to 36,000 people from the 10,000 employed at NASA in 1960. Additionally, NASA's leaders made an early decision that they would have to rely upon outside researchers and technicians to complete Apollo, and contractor employees working on the program increased by a factor of 10, from 36,500 in 1960 to 376,700 in 1965. Private industry, research institutions, and universities, therefore, provided the majority of personnel working on Apollo."

Let's estimate how many man-hours it took to put a person on the moon by making a couple of assumptions:
  1. Assume NASA spent 13 years, from 1960 to 1972, working on Apollo.  
  2. Lets say everyone on the program worked 261 days a year (weekends off but no vacation) for eight hours per day.
  3. The number of personnel stays constant over the 13 years at the 1965 number from the quote above- about 377,000. 
If I multiply all these numbers together estimate of the total man-hours to put a man on the moon several times is about ten billion man-hours.  The time, in terms of man-hours, it took to put a man on the moon is spent on on-line gaming in less than one month. I know this argument is somewhat flawed.  A lot of gamers are young people without the training of engineers, technicians and scientists; big projects require funding and infrastructure; project management is a huge problem; etc...  But still, the sheer time spent gaming is stunning.  

Most people, particularly academics, would consider this a waste of time.  As a gamer, I don't.  We've created alternative worlds that are more fun, and at some level rewarding, to play in than our real world.  It is not surprising many of our best minds, most creative students, seek reward through play since the motivations to game are the same motivations to create.  This is not a problem of individuals, but is a problem of society and rewards for effort.  A problem that needs to be solved both by individuals, by institutions, and by policy.  And in all the discussion of policy the word "fun" is rarely heard.

Here is a challenge for engineering educators...  Imagine a education system where your courses and programs weren't required, where there wasn't the carrot and stick of grades to goad students.  How in this system would you fill your classes, motivate your students, and engage their long term interest?

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