Is There a Cobra Effect in Education?

cobraThe "cobra effect" is the term used for when a well-intended attempted solution to a problem makes the problem worse. This unintended consequence is often is used to describe environmental, economic and political solutions that work in reverse.

The term Cobra Effect" originated when there was still British rule in India. The British government wanted to reduce the number of dangerous, venomous cobra snakes in Delhi. They offered a bounty for every dead cobra. So, people were killing them and collecting the bounty. At first, the idea worked. But some enterprising people began to breed cobras to collect more bounties. The government became aware of this abuse and ended the reward program. The cobra breeders had no use for the snakes and released their stock (though it's not clear why people didn't just kill them while they had them in captivity) and as a result, the wild cobra population further increased.

I wrote about this term on my origins site and included a more modern example of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change trying to reduce greenhouse gases by offering carbon credits for destroying harmful gases (particularly HFC-23, a byproduct of a common coolant). As with the cobras, companies began to produce more  of the coolant so that they could destroy more of the HFC-23 byproduct waste gas and get additional credits

Is there a Cobra Effect in education? Are there solutions to a problem that make the problem worse? If you think you have an example, send me an email.


This is a good RadioLab program that gives many other examples of the Cobra Effect

Think Globally But Learn Online Locally

online cafe

One thing that MOOCs offered was the opportunity to take courses from top universities with famous faculties for free. Then, companies like Coursera and edX decided that a business model might be to offer those prestigious faculty and schools to learners for a fee. The fee would certainly be far less than the tuition at those prestigious schools, but then again you wouldn't be getting all the benefits of being a student at that school, including getting a degree.

Certainly, there are trade-offs, but it still seems like a good deal. Colleges big and small saw the opportunities and learned some things from the MOOC experiments and it did move online learning in some new directions in higher education and even at the secondary school level.

Despite all these global opportunities to learn, I have been reading that an increasing numbers of online students choose to study locally.

The Online College Students annual study for 2019 found that 84% of current and former fully online students either strongly agreed (44%) or agreed (40%) that their "online education was worth the cost and 47% of current fully online students said they planned to take additional courses from their institution after they earn their current degree.

As stated, this comes at a time when "students, parents and politicians seem to be questioning the value of higher education."

Does online learning appear to be a solution or part of the problem?

Another annual study (from Learning House, Wiley Education & Aslanian Research) that surveyed 1500 current or soon-to-be students in fully online academic programs (for undergraduate or graduate degrees, certificates or licensure)includes a section about how online students decided where, what and how to study.

58 percent of them said they had decided what discipline to study before they decided to study online. 63 percent said they had decided to study online because that fit best with their "current work/life responsibilities." Though we sometimes hear that students use online because it is their "preferred way to learn," only 34 percent gave that response.

The convenience factor is certainly a good part of why fully online students are still staying close to home. Though the surveys did not address this, I suspect that some students, though online, want to be able to access services (such as the library and counseling), offices, faculty and perhaps some campus events so that their online life has some real life college experiences too.

In my own experience with online programs, we also discovered that a majority of our online students lived within 50 miles of a campus or service center of the college where they are studying. In the latter survey, 67 percent of respondents were withing 50 miles and that was up from 42 percent just five years ago.

Some other takeaways:

  • "The growing number of schools offering online programs provides students with more options closer to their home. Local schools have greater visibility among employers and others in the community, which is valuable to students."
  • More than 80 percent of current and former students agreed that their online program improved their mastery of various "soft skills" such as critical thinking and problem solving, time management, and attention to detail.
  • Nearly three in five students age 45 or under said they completed some or most of their course-related activities using mobile devices, while another 17 percent said they would have liked to have gone mobile. NOTE Only 27 percent of students 46 or older said they had completed course work on mobile, and 51 percent said they would not want to.

Hack Clubs

anonymous hacker

I saw an interesting article about teen hackers who have to convince their parents that what they're doing is good rather than evil.

Wikipedia defines a hacker as a skilled computer expert that uses their technical knowledge to overcome a problem. But while "hacker" can refer to any skilled computer programmer, the term has become associated in popular culture with a "security hacker", someone who, with their technical knowledge, uses bugs or exploits to break into computer systems.

These high-school students are forming hack clubs to solve problems through coding in their schools. In this context, we can define hacking as coding, creating sites and apps, as in hackathons.  The hack clubs are generally student-led after school activities.

The term "white hat" refers to an ethical computer hacker. This computer security expert specializes in penetration testing and in other testing methodologies to ensure the security of an organization's information systems. They hack for good. The term "ethical hacking" is a broader term that means more than just penetration testing.

Following the cowboy movie iconography, the "black hat" is a malicious hacker. I have also seen the blended gray hat hacker described as one who hacks with good intentions but without permission.

I suppose the question that parents of a hacker - and educators and the authorities - might have is whether a young person starting as a white hat might become gray and be drawn to the dark side of black hat hacking.



Farewell to Curbs and Other Unexpected Uses of Technology

curbDevin Liddell is Chief Futurist at Teague, a firm that specializes in design for transportation. He thinks about how technology and design will change mobility. An article on that I saw via Amber MacArthur's newsletter discussed a few of those changes.

The one that surprised me the most was about curbs - that quite old and established way to separate the street from the sidewalk. In 19th century cities, they helped keep walkers from stepping in manure from horse-drawn carriages. But in the 21st century, Liddell says, “The curb as a fixed, rigid piece of infrastructure isn’t going to work.” He thinks there is a role for design in creating a more dynamic understanding of curbs. Nuanced with signage can change curb spaces from no parking to emergency-only to pay-by-the-hour parking.

A suburban curbside may not be an issue, but in cities and at airports, they are problem areas.

Liddell references Coord which is the urban planning spinout of Google/Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs. Can you believe they have Open Curb Data that maps the use of city curbs. Self-described "Coord makes it easy to analyze, share, and collect curb data. Curbside management now includes better compliance, safety, and efficiency for communities of all sizes."

Curb data? Really?