No Person Left Behind: Frenzied Race for Change Leaves More Behind
This is a transcript of my speech delivered on August 28, 2021 at the Australia-ASEAN Strategic Youth Partnership Digital Dialogues.
The digital divide is an observable reality. We need not look far because living examples of how and where digital works and does not–and the magnitude of change required to make this highly digitally-enabled New Normal an accessible, inclusive and an empowering reality for all.
We are working towards that direction–but we are still aways out from achieving that goal. What you and I share here today as an experience–meeting on Zoom and having a confab across borders–is what to us is the New Normal, a way of life, but what, for many more, is simply an unattainable luxury. This is a luxury many can’t afford nor do because they do not have the requisite access to technology, reliable internet, or basic know-how.
And in this panic to adjust to this New Normal in which digitalisation, digital transformation, digital enablement have become the distinguishing feature of everyday living–unknowingly leaving the poor and marginalised even more disenfranchised by society and its institutions in a frantic rush to embrace digital.
In my talk today, I argue that addressing the digital divide is not just an economic but a moral imperative. More importantly, although we are caught in this frantic panic to digitalise and elevate even the way we think and do because it is necessary, we must not forget that the solution to making digital transformation meaningful is, in the first place, analogue. Moreover, I argue that these “analogue” solutions are necessary for ensuring that no person is left behind by what is inherently discriminating.
I discuss the topic in three parts: first, why the shift to digital is painfully discriminatory and exclusive; second, why digitalisation is necessary even in promoting vibrant and highly participatory democracies; and finally, what is required to drive a more accessible and more inclusive digital world.
Why the shift to digital is painfully discriminatory and exclusive
Connectivity has long been a goal of the ASEAN, with its vision of achieving a seamlessly and comprehensively connected and integrated ASEAN that will promote competitiveness, inclusiveness, and a greater sense of community.
It’s easy to think that the goal is digitalisation. But it’s not. We are concerned about promoting the welfare and well-being of people for which digitalisation must work as a means, not as an end in itself.
The progress towards ASEAN’s goal was by no means slow, but COVID19 further emphasised how essential access to reliable internet is. We went into a grand experiment of a forced shift to a digital mode of doing business and conducting everyday affairs.
Take, for example, the case of the Philippines, which for 17 months now is still under a stringent community quarantine policy. Yes, our community quarantine policies adjust according to epidemiological dynamics, but this has kept the industry performing at deficient productivity levels, leading millions of Filipinos to become unemployed and even more families to slip below the poverty line. Naturally, household consumption contracts as income become unstable and uncertain, overall, leading the country to its lowest economic performance since the 1940s. As health outcomes improved on the margin and mobility restrictions slowly loosened, the country recovers this year, officially ending a recession. Still, the base is just too low and the dip too deep to bring it back to its pre-pandemic level sooner. Even then, being an economy driven mainly by the services sector, matched with an anaemic vaccination roll-out despite rising demand and decreasing hesitancy, many are still without jobs or forced to work from home.
And not everyone can work from home. With an internet penetration of about 74%, one might think that, at the very least, 74% of the population can quickly shift to a remote setup. But that is not the case when internet access is mainly defined by access to Free Facebook. The forced shift to digital is already, in the first instance, exclusive and discriminating.
Many do not have access to the internet. That’s a fact faced not just by developing countries but also by people around the globe. Two thousand nineteen (2019) pre-pandemic data from the Philippines shows that an estimated 63% of individuals have never accessed the internet. This proportion was smaller in more urban areas, but around 80-90% of Filipinos from more rural areas have never, in their lives, accessed the internet.
The most apparent reason why some do not access the internet is a lack of technical know-how, while the second most prominent reason is the high cost of subscription, and the third is unavailability. The price of internet service in the Philippines is not affordable: a ten megabit per second internet in the Philippines costs around USD 20.
On the top end of the minimum wage range in the Philippines, which varies per region, is USD 11.17, while on the lowest is USD 6.57. Considering that other essentials need to be covered, including food, rent, utilities, transportation, education-related expenses, one needs to invest at least a dollar per working day to maintain what is even barely an acceptable internet speed for remote work.
Furthermore, with a high incidence of informality in labour, only middle-income households holding office jobs can make the shift to remote work—even making the liberal assumption that they have reliable internet at home. Based on a World Bank report, only 20% of jobs can be done from home, and this estimate falls to 3% in low-income countries such as the Philippines.
Let’s take the story of CALFAMCO, a large and successful agricultural cooperative in the Southern Philippines. At the onset of the pandemic, under a strict lockdown policy, access to markets was limited, production stopped, and the only way they could survive the shock was through emergency loans from the government. Yes, these loans were made available to help alleviate difficulties brought about by the pandemic. Still, the only way they could access emergency financial support was by filing their documents online. They were not ready for this shift: they had no computers, no internet, nor the skills required to do it.
It took their community of mothers to teach each other how to do things online, raise funds for tablets, and lobby for better internet access in their area, which is far and remote from the conveniences of their city centre. The cost of adjustment is tremendous.
In a Free Facebook Internet economy, we cannot imagine an easier shift to remote learning for students. Today, millions of children from low-income families rely solely on the manual distribution of printed modules to learn, leaving very little room to secure the quality of human capital production in this mode of learning. They, too, did not have the requisite technology for the New Normal. Even if they did, would they have access to reliable internet sufficient for synchronous learning sessions when higher-income families constantly experience disruptions due to low-quality internet services?
The shift to digital is necessary, but its sufficiency lies in making the internet accessible to more households whose livelihoods, both present and future (as in the case of studying from home), depend on being successful in digital.
Why digitalisation is necessary for promoting vibrant and highly participatory democracies
Let’s take a look at another dimension of the digital divide.
2022 is critical for the Philippines. We will be electing public officials at the national and local levels in May 2022 in the middle of a raging pandemic that is not showing any sign of abatement anytime soon.
The Philippines, the first democracy in Asia, suffered a tremendous loss in the age of fake news and trolling when the franchise of a leading broadcast network was not renewed by the ruling party in the House of Representatives last year. Amidst a pandemic, for that matter, which is arguably the time when mass media is essential in influencing both private and public action.
Media consumption in the Philippines is still mainly driven by free-to-air TV. The non-renewal of ABS-CBN’s franchise signalled a shift in the media landscape, impeding the function of the press to correct distorted signals from fake news and propaganda-driven trolling. In the absence of a widely distributed and diverse mainstream, traditional media, the public lost a reliable source of information that has the power to correct such distortions caused by fake news.
Yes, Filipinos use social media the most, averaging 4 hours and 15 minutes of use every day, roughly twice the global average of 2 hours and 25 minutes which means that social media is a powerful source of information. However, the problem lies with social media being a lair of trolls and false information, which can distort truths, especially among less-educated individuals. And it’s worrying to note that more than 40% of Filipinos have not finished lower secondary education that could help equip them in determining the truth from falsity, especially when the fourth estate is no longer as effective in educating the public through facts. Furthermore, the absence of a diverse, highly liberalised mainstream media constrains the flow of reliable information to reach remote areas where internet access is absent or is unreliable.
Regardless of one’s political affinity and personal preferences on leadership, the election next year is nothing else but consequential. The country’s overall well-being—economic, health and social well-being—will be determined by the set of leaders people will elect.
And since this election will be conducted intra-pandemic, it is vital to appreciate how many of its attached processes, from voter registration to campaigning and mobilisation, the conduct and management of elections, will be facilitated AND fought digitally.
Take, for example, the ongoing voter registration drive. As of July, there are already about 61 million registered voters out of a potential 72 million voters, as estimated by the statistics authority.
Recognising the constraints imposed by the pandemic on mobility, the volume capacity of registration sites is limited following minimum public health standards. With no available online registration mechanisms due to limitations in current election laws, people can only get registered by going to the nearest registration site, but which does not conduct registrations when the region or city is under a strict lockdown.
Here is an interesting case: to provide sufficient motivation for citizens to get registered. Civil society came together in a drive to promote voter registration throughout the pandemic—but because there are real constraints to mobility and even the extent to which information is distributed in media, these campaigns were done most, if not wholly, online. Those who do not have access to the internet and have no access to reliable information from traditional media are left without guidance nor external sources of motivation to get registered.
A simple correlation exercise reveals that areas underperforming in terms of registrations relative to population forecast have lower internet activity and a higher incidence of poverty. Consequently, areas with relatively better internet activity and lower poverty incidence are over-indexed in registrations relative to population forecasts. Interestingly, the National Capital Region, the country’s business capital and seat of the government, is also underperforming in terms of registrations relative to population forecast at 69% vs the 89% national average.
If National Capital Region has better access to the internet, it must be the case that it would have access to information and guidance regarding voter registration. However, it is possible that those who have not registered yet come from the urban poor. And they are from households that, like in the production view of digitalisation earlier, do not have access to the internet in the first place.
How might then the voice of the urban poor reflect in the mandate that the country will accord its elected leaders in the elections next year if they are disenfranchised from participating in a vital democratic process—due in large part to their lack of internet access?
Furthermore, for those who are registered but whose perspectives may have been distorted by fake news, how might they choose well if there is no fourth estate in the form of a free press to correct false information?
History has shown that mandate, say, for the presidency in the country could be won by a slim margin. Suppose it means that more empowered citizens can register to vote and use facts, not lies, as their weapon against the tyranny of false information. In that case, making the internet pervasive, equitable, and distributed is a moral imperative, especially in an election year so fraught by division, hate, and distrust in a system that has not successfully addressed the needs of the people, especially the poor and marginalised.
One could argue that a vibrant democracy in the 21st century, particularly ones that can thrive in exceedingly difficult times, can nonetheless suffer in the presence of a digital divide, where participation in it / is now determined by who has the requisite knowledge, technology, sufficient skills, and access to reliable internet. Said differently, today, the greater the digital divide, the greater the divide in our democracies.
What is required to drive a more accessible and more inclusive digital world
From the sketches I provided about the harsh realities that a shift to digital brings, especially for those who do not meet each of these requirements to fully maximise the efficiencies and benefits due to digital, to how strong, vibrant democracies can suddenly become fragile with the absence of a generalised digital sophistication to participate in democratic institutions, we now appreciate better why it is not only an economic imperative but also a moral imperative to recharacterise the internet and digital technologies as essentially a public good as highways and the provision of national security are. After all, digital technologies and the requisite access to them must be in place to promote people’s overall well-being and welfare in any country.
And much of the solutions to explore in addressing this moral imperative is analogue more than digital.
In a related article I wrote on the ASEAN Digital Single Market in which I proposed a digital economic integration framework, I argued that a whole-of-society approach at both regional and country levels must be taken to ensure a competitive, innovative and dynamic region in the 21st century: ensuring that fundamental human rights and freedoms are protected and promoted which includes that there is, at the very least, a concerted effort to bring digital literacy as a right to every person through both formal and informal channels. Second, ensure that affordable, reliable and secure high-speed internet is accessible in every household. Third, we need a set of harmonised policies and market-level standards that make not only trade and commerce flourish but ones that make even greater participation in the economy and institutions possible. And lastly, a platform ecosystem that is built to the task of making the internet a highly participatory environment at scale.
These “analogue” solutions are grounded on even more fundamental aspects that are not digital nor tech in nature: a shared vision, a culture of learning, openness to collaboration and fair competition, and to act fast. The absence of these perpetuates a socio-economic structure that will be hard to correct in the long run. The longer it takes us to make the internet a public good like highways, healthcare, and national security are, the more people would be left behind, as we see now more clearly because of the perspective that the pandemic brings.
As leaders of this region, before we act and get too excited about technology because of our frenzy on getting the digitalisation ball rolling, we must remember that lives, livelihoods, and the way we live are at stake. And for that, we cannot forget that many more are still currently disenfranchised, all due to a digital divide caught up precisely in that frenzy to go digital.
Special thanks to Vince Eisen Yao for the research assistance.
Teaching in the time of coronavirus
As the term comes to a close, I look back and reflect on this unique experience of teaching amid a pandemic. Both courses I taught this term, by design, rely a lot on face-to-face interaction whether because case-based discussions are more personal or that big-think economics is best done with students just a couple of feet away from the platform. When alarm bells started to ring, and queues of students and faculty in face masks formed at the entrances of the campus suddenly became an everyday affair even before a pandemic was officially announced on March 12, the need to shift to remote learning became clearer. We talked about it casually not realising that it would soon become a reality, much less a permanent feature of the rest of the term. We were not even able to say ‘goodbye’ in person before we went entirely online.
Looking back, I realise that we seemed to know it was going to happen all along. Reading the chat threads (for feedback) and the results of a poll I ran at some point (for feedback), and the attendance levels in initial live sessions (I call them “hang out” sessions instead of synchronous), it seemed that remote learning was manna falling from heaven. I think part of the excitement was discovering the extent to which Canvas can deliver so much that initial sessions were packed and students “came to class” more punctually (no hassle of traffic or long queues to take the lift). The engagement was also more active (chatting is less of a hassle than raising your hand in class).
As the dust settled and students (faculty as well) got their first taste of how it is to be in six, seven or eight classes with two sessions each week delivered entirely online. Also, the initial momentum built over the first week was somehow lost because of, for better or worse, a temporary postponement of all online learning activities to give students, faculty and their families the time and space to adjust to the harsh realities of *being* in a pandemic. Combined, it made remote learning unsurprisingly unpopular: online attendance started to dwindle, participation became erratic, and emotions were generally high and all over the place. Even engagement beyond online classes became less piquant. It bothered me.
I thought to myself, “what is it that I am doing wrong?” I had sleepless nights thinking about how heavy online classes have become and how these classes I had led might be giving them more to worry about on top of the unique situation each student has with her family. Learning should not be something they worry about while battling whatever emotions they have about the pandemic. The question, to me, then became: how can I make learning a respite and a haven for the worried student.
I wrote to my students a Covid-19 “love letter” setting the plan going forward, that is a learning plan that is optimised to focus on #whatmattersmost. This plan was meant to address learning #whatmattersmost in the course, shedding the neat but “vestigial” content and keeping only essential ones while keeping learning outcomes in mind, so they can focus on #whatmattersmost in their lives. Together, we shifted gears so that we do not redline too fast nor too soon, which can drain everyone empty for no good reason nor outcome. At that point, it became clear that we needed to cruise at a comfortable altitude and at a speed that was mindful of the uniqueness of each student’s situation. Listening and feeling were critical to finding that sweet spot to keep real learning to flow freely even when the virus and some shared fear and real anxieties can be discouraging.
Technology is the solution and is the way through which gaps are bridged, but “high tech” cannot replace the “high touch” aspect of memorable learning experiences. This is a design problem. How can we design a learning experience facilitated by technology (“high tech”, baby) that engenders a “high touch”, inclusive and responsive culture? How can we make learning accessible for most if not all types of learners (as humanly possible)? How can we make learning a safe haven for students in different situations and those who are resolved in their pursuit of excellence?
Any design undertaking has tradeoffs, and a middle ground might be ideal for classes with students in diametrically opposed situations. It is a tough balancing act, and each class, instructor, student would have to feel their way through to find that sweet spot.
I am glad that my classes seem to have found this sweet spot, the right rhythm, and a collective commitment to do what is right not only for oneself but for others, too. There is nothing better than ending a term on a high especially, I think, in the face of an emotionally draining pandemic. For that and a lot of other reasons, I am thankful for having one of the best terms I’ve had. Admittedly, it was a harsh term for everyone (the pandemic is tough on faculty, too) — no one signed up for this but have to daringly accept (and as cheerfully as possible) because it is who we are. Our humanity should never have to stop just because of the compounding pressure of a pandemic, and learning and its provision need not, too. We just have to find that sweet spot, so real learning does not become a chore (nor a bore) or an additional source of bother.
“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” — Randy Pausch.
What I learnt from this experience:
Students are teaching partners, too. In crisis mode, I would venture that even in ordinary times, students are not merely recipients of instruction but are partners in making learning work. Yes, they receive grades for the work they put into the course, but they also influence the environment in which learning takes place. I learnt that partnering with students, getting their feedback, listening to suggestions, and creating the experience together not only makes the design problem relatively more comfortable to manage but also more meaningful to them. Taking students on a journey towards making their experience worth their while fosters an open, inclusive, and solution-oriented environment (which they helped to build).
A ‘dynamic’ syllabus works. From the onset, I replaced my rigid syllabus with a dynamic one that is flexible and continuously updated. While my primary syllabus, the basis of the dynamic version, as approved by the Dean and Department Chair, does not change substantially, changes in how students progress and the conditions in which their learning takes place can be reflected on this dynamic syllabus available as a collaborative Google Doc. With a dynamic syllabus, I was able to refocus the topics and rethink specific content that would fit the students’ learning needs while still achieving the desired learning outcomes. There are indeed many ways to accomplish a goal.
Keeping it interactive even outside contact hours. Student engagement in a typical classroom set up does not end when the bell rings. It goes on — students huddling with you at the end of the session, in the hallways, in 1:1 consultations, and email. These need not stop. I find that keeping in touch, in crisis or not, through groups (we call them “gc”, why not) helpful if not even more necessary in remote learning. It is where I can coordinate activities, share bits and pieces of other sources of knowledge, data, or even off-the-cuff thoughts and ideas. But more importantly, it is where I listen even when everyone is silent. It is where I feel and reach out when needed. They might not always be “chatty”, but they, too, are listening as well. It is the virtual version of “being there” for them.
Big classes held in plenary do not always work well. In a case-based learning class where students learnt in groups by doing cases together, I find those shorter sessions done in smaller groups to be more efficient in making learning stick. It is also more effective in working on challenging material and in engaging students more personally. Plenary sessions tend to lose the “high touch” factor, but this is also dependent on the time constraints the instructor has. It is a tradeoff I embraced; I allocated Tuesday and Thursday afternoons (and sometimes through to dinnertime, too) to meet with each group, one by one. It was a tiring exercise, but one that I would not have any other way.
Keep an open mind and be forgiving of yourself as you are of others. It can be an exhausting experience. Course preparations now include thinking of production considerations on top of content development tasks. What students can learn by searching on YouTube should no longer form part of our content, and what can be learnt outside a live session should no longer be repeated. Trust that students have the intellectual horsepower to look for bits and pieces of the puzzle; we need to add value to that learning bricolage by providing synthesis and insights they won’t find elsewhere. Recording sessions for “asynchronous” learning and facilitating live sessions are equally challenging. Recording sessions with your face on the material can take hours to do because there is an expectation of perfection (it is produced after all?) while facilitating live sessions requires the craft of keeping the attention of students away from competing distractions like Netflix, more gc, and newsfeeds of crushes. Bigger personalities are needed to maintain attention in live sessions; this, too, can be draining. So forgive yourself for not being perfect. You are doing the best you can and trust that students appreciate you.
Finally, I learnt that being an educator during this pandemic requires us to be there even when they are not or cannot be. We are there even when it is hard. We are there not only in good times but also in dire times. All we could hope for is that by being there, they too won’t give up on themselves.
To my students:
You made my Term 2 quite the ride. It was colourful and brilliant amid all this gloom. I thank you for that and for allowing me the privilege to be your mentor this term, and for making that experience not only memorable but also personally meaningful to me. Never relent because this journey you are on is for you.
Designing a Foundations of Economics course for a changing world
Over the past few weeks—and actually since taking the graduate course on history of economic thought in which I dabbled independently into economic methodology through the work of Professors David Colander, Diedre McCloskey, and Mark Blaug—I have been reviewing the approach I want to take for Foundations of Economics (FDNECON).
In my course preps, I was able to review a variety of work and ongoing commentary on the fundamentals of economics at the Principles (or Foundations or Introductory) level including that of Professor Mankiw and opinions from the economics opinion leaders and columnists. I attach Professor Mankiw’s reflection on textbook to this email, Professor Colander’s upcoming keynote on “Teaching Nuanced Economics” at the 10th International Developments in Economics Education Conference at the University of Warwick on September 13, and a few links (below) on the opportunity to reimagine Econ 101 (whether textbook or approach):
• Quartz: qz.com/1486238/the-unlikely-reeducation-of-econ-101/
• Washington Post: www.washingtonpost.com/opini…y.html
• Opportunity Insights (Raj Chetty’s Ec1152, a reimagination of Ec 10): https://opportunityinsightsorg/course/
• “What students learn in Economics 101: Time for a Change” by Samuel Bowles and Wendy Carlin (2019): discovery.ucl.ac.uk/10073…l .pdf
Initially, my course preps for FDNECON was substantially an updated version of my Introduction to Economics (INTOECO) course design which I reframed around the role and place of FDNECON in more “advanced” economics and business courses while retaining Sowell’s Basic Economics as the main text.
I designed INTOECO with liberal arts and a liberal education in mind—it was centred on basic economic concepts that shed light on everyday phenomena not so much that students would “think like economists” but for them to have a unique approach and more nuanced appreciation of their own discipline and personal interests (and better people, too!). Sowell’s accessible language and narration of relevant historical vignettes provided students a platform to understand what otherwise would have been highly theoretical concepts. Furthermore, it allowed students to connect the concepts to their personal experiences and pressing real-world issues which their reflective economic journey journal entries show. Furthermore, Sowell’s text being structured around key concepts in micro and macro using the most basic way of discussing it using vignettes leaves sufficient room for personal introspection for its relevance and application in current time whether the student is trying to understand the news or her disposition in life.
While keeping a class of 43 students engaged in active debate and discussion of the text proved to be quite the challenge (e.g., not everyone speaks up in a class this big neither do we have the time for everyone to speak up), their reflective journals demonstrate an even deeper form of learning that rote memorisation of concepts at this level does not provide.
However, the difference between INTOECO and FDNECON students is clear: most INTOECO students would not have any more economics courses to take (except perhaps for Development Studies and Political Science majors), but FDNECON students will need to take either COBMECO or COBECON. This difference in the goals of the course led me to the difference that I need to take in approaching my course design while staying aligned with the department-wide ELGAs and ELOs.
Thus, I have reset my course design exercise and course preps for FDNECON for which I develop the following guidelines for myself in finalising my plans for the course. Additionally, given that I now have three sections of FDNECON, the assessments I originally had in mind (like in INTOECO) would no longer work due to time constraints. In INTOECO, a student would complete 13 reflective journal entries at the ideal rate of 1 entry per week (some though not many crammed about 7 of the 13 towards the end of the term, as expected) aside from individual or paired term papers, weekly quizzes and an essay-type midterm exam. Implementing 13 journal entries per FDNECON student would mean I would have to read and grade over 1,500 short essays throughout the term and 120 term papers. It might work against the intent of achieving deep learning and student engagement if reading, grading and substantial commenting/exchange would take time away from meaningful content preparations for the course. This also triggered a change in the assessments I mapped out against the ELOs. Given three sections of FDNECON, I now have to consider pedagogical economy as well.
Design principles for FDNECON (C40, K47 and K49):
• Introduce economics both as science and an art and craft: theoretical models need to make sense in the real-world. Abstract models are introduced and treated as heuristics and not a template for policy nor personal action. Economic theory + moral reasoning allow students to understand nuance that is necessary for policy design, assessment and determination
• Design a course that embraces the truth that the students taking the course are not going to be economists by profession, but need its illuminating perspective to shed light on behaviour and economic patterns.
• Design a course that equips students with fundamental, working understanding of economics principles that prepare them for further economics and business courses. The focus at this point is not the search for truths, but ways to solve problems as is usually the case for most business undergraduate programmes. An engineering method or applied method (not applied science) guides the use of observation, data exploration and the use of heuristics only to look for answers that solve the problem. The scientific method as used in formal economic research is not emphasised in this design.
• Design a course that tackles the role that economics plays in society today: to address inequality, environmental decay, innovation, policy and politics, instability and growth in an era of unprecedented changes (i.e., permanent technological revolution).
• Design a course that blends the best of the Samuelsonian template and Mill-Marshallian approach; we provide theory, but subject that theory to challenge on whether the theory checks out with reality especially when solving everyday problems or whether they stand to shed light on even the news on the economy today. Again, normative and ethical value judgments are used (i.e., using Adam Smith’s Impartial Spectator device or J.S. Mill’s Devil’s Advocate). Engaged debate is necessary to not only heighten the appeal of economics to non-econ majors, but also to deepen the level of learning of core economic concepts brought to life by debates on real-world issues.
• Design a course that encourages students to build confidence working with datasets, learn processing data and derive insights independently or with their peers. Design with technology at the heart of the student experience, not an afterthought.
• Design a course that is consistent with the everyday interaction of students with economic concepts. In most cases, for example, they experience a world in which micro and macro issues (and decisions, implications) are inexorably intertwined. Another example is introducing imperfect markets, information asymmetry (i.e., in contracts), concepts of altruism, fairness vs the predigested goal of reaching economic efficiency and material wealth (i.e., no matter the problem or situation) earlier on rather than as extensions of perfect models that do not often represent nor describe reality whether in choices or markets.
• Design a course in which institutions, social structure, history and politics play a critical role in understanding economic outcomes that in the marginalist approach following the scientific method assume away for simplicity.
• Design a course that still facilitate deep learning while allowing economy and efficiency in facilitating the course. Fourth hour activities are thus reimagined beyond the term paper and reflective journal entries giving students the flexibility in the choice of medium (written or creative work) and setting (individual or small groups) for their final projects.
As such, I have chosen to adopt the Curriculum Open access Resources in Economics (CORE Project: https://www.core-econ.org) which is now in use in over 100 universities (including Columbia University, University of California, University College London) across 186 countries. Its main text, The Economy, and the Project is led by economist researchers and professors who found that the connection between what economists do and what is taught at the principles level often have a disconnect. Thus, their text is based on empirical data (many of which come from live datasets and ongoing contemporary work in various fields) that try to shed light on economic phenomena at the principles level, which the overly simplified models of, say, perfect competition cannot address nor explain clearly to students when assessed against real world patterns and human behaviour.
Inequality is the overarching theme addressed by the text along with environment, innovation, instability and growth, and the global economy today. Its approach is mainly heterodox “within the mainstream” as it does not dispute (at least not directly) the orthodox concepts that will still be used in more advanced courses in economics. It is heterodox in its presentation of economic concepts, but not in the content itself. It introduces a slight move away from convention by engaging students earlier on strategic behaviour, altruism, fairness in which game theory is the language used more often than pure mathematical abstraction. It also encourages students to pursue data exploration (datasets are public and accessible), for example, in answering exercises. It does not separate micro from macro although this flow does not distract the students for when they take on further studies in which economics is divided in that manner. It is anchored on historical context and the path dependence of economic outcomes giving sufficient focus on institutions, social structure, history, politics and policy. It also “flips” the standard flow of principles courses in which supply and demand instantaneously equilibriate in a perfectly competitive market to a market price in which both buyers and sellers are takers to a treatment that in most cases, they are price-setters. Perfectly competitive markets are introduced as a special case, which is consistent in the treatment found in Mas-Colell et al. (1995).
The upside of using CORE, aside from its content and pedagogical approach in delivering a principles course, is that its resources are virtually no cost to the student. Students may download the entire book on any or all of their devices. CORE uses multimedia and interactive features (as McGraw-Hill Connect ebooks would) and additional resources for further studies or exploration including datasets and guides. They provide rich content which may be used both in class or for personal study. The CORE community of professors also engage in forums sharing latest research, supplementary materials, additional insights that provide further nuance and guidance to those using the CORE curriculum. Additionally, they provide new sources of data and potential areas of interest for students’ projects.
The criticism of Professor Colander of the CORE Project is not unfounded—that while it is an innovative take on the principles course, it is still largely about science and not the nuances in which policy work (whether for industry or society) can be understood better. The text itself does not present normative and ethical judgment per se and does not introduce ways on how students can sharpen these much-needed skills as future professionals whose scope of work would require in almost every occasion the exercise of such judgment. Value judgments will be part of the case study experience I am introducing in this course which follows the business school style of learning by doing, only this time they are used to bring to life economic concepts as they are applied in the real world (i.e., three case studies will be used this term). As an example, Section 3.8 asks whether MRT=MRS is a good model. CORE argues, as is the argument in Samuelsonian tradition, that models like this “help us see more by looking at less” despite its lack of realism, an intentional feature, which could be subjected to further discussion on how individuals assess choices where MRT does not have to be equal to MRS.
Understanding that students will take up an additional and a more “advanced” economics course later on, so as not to preempt these courses, I will not focus this course at least not solely on mathematical purity in economic analysis (although I would use it as diversion once in a while to challenge students), but I would sharpen its interpretation for use in addressing the major themes of interest in this course. Current events such as Brexit, US-China trade war, the tarrification of rice, local innovation laws passed recently, etc. will be used throughout the course to drive the economic principles home blended with opportunities for students to assess the models using normative and ethical judgment.
Perhaps the change we want to see in the economy indeed starts with Foundations that is designed for a changing world.
Going beyond the mainstream
I stumbled on this reading before bed tonight. It is one of the classic pieces written by John von Neumann which is used in most history of mathematics courses:
As a mathematical discipline travels far from its empirical source, or still more, if it is a second and third generation only indirectly inspired by ideas coming from ‘reality’ it is beset with very grave dangers. It becomes more and more purely aestheticising, more and more purely I’art pour I’art. This need not be bad, if the field is surrounded by correlated subjects, which still have closer empirical connections, or if the discipline is under the influence of men with an exceptionally well-developed taste. But there is a grave danger that the subject will develop along the line of least resistance, that the stream, so far from its source, will separate into a multitude of insignificant branches, and that the discipline will become a disorganized mass of details and complexities. In other words, at a great distance from its empirical source, or after much ‘abstract’ inbreeding, a mathematical subject is in danger of degeneration. (Von Neumann, The Mathematician, 1947, pp. 180-196)
It is interesting to see that the same could be said of economics when its models become too elegant (l’art pour l’art, neat and structurally sound), esoteric (so as to demonstrate excessive sophistication more than is necessary) and far too detached from the real-world (empirical truths) phenomena it seeks to understand—when it distances itself too far from its empirical source, “or after much ‘abstract’ inbreeding,” it, also, “is in danger of degeneration.”
The world looks to the economics profession once again as the countries the world over fear even greater inequality, environmental degradation, instability even in the wealthiest of nations, the future of work against a worrisome backdrop of a global economy that is slowing down marked by signals that point to a possible recession of a different nature.
In a group chat, some PhDs exchange about the challenges to macroeconomists and how their models do not provide sufficient guidance for thoughtful policy work especially when it seems that the discipline is playing catch-up than potentially leading it. Where its representative household approach, the micro foundations of macro, and its many other assumptions given freely (and quickly) away to make theories upon theories work in the Walrasian general equilibrium sense all now seem to open even more questions than provide answers.
No one holds the perfect answer (I doubt no one would ever), but there needs to be more debate, deeper engagement—meaningful discourse, openness to even more agreement on nuance which makes policy work possible than futile disagreement on which science to use to answer a real-world problem. Science is not the problem, but it does not hold all the answers.
There is much more work AND LEARNING needed which aspiring economists can contribute to, but which may work better if there is agreement that the current mainstream thinking alone cannot solve problems today that no longer have the same nature as of those that were experienced generations ago.
Never let your handicap define you
In James Hayton, PhD’s post, “Never Let a Disadvantage Become an Excuse”, he provides practical tips on how to overcome one’s weaknesses or handicap in the pursuit of a doctorate degree where one might fall too easily into the desperation that comparison to the benchmark or standards or even other people in your cohort foolishly leads you to experience.
When I started my doctoral journey straight out of a dizzying fourteen-year tour of duty in the corporate world, I realised that I entered a foreign land, a new sport, and a new world. To succeed, one must master the land’s language (math, logic, and the prevailing rhetoric of economics) rather quickly, the sport’s rules, forms, and levels of mastery, and the new world’s complex landscape.
You see, I was never in the Math Olympiad or MTAP as some of my classmates did in grade school and high school. Nor was I the best in basic economics, whether in high school or university. The only math courses I truly enjoyed over two decades ago were Number Theory and Symbolic Logic. Instead, I dabbled with far too many extra-curricular activities believing these give an approximation of how the real world works.
I knew then that my foray into economics came with a petrifying handicap in the very language that models our economic behaviour. I knew too well that the rules of the new sport I so badly wish to pursue at the elite level are different from the distinctly codified culture of the corporate world. I also knew very well that the terrain of the academia which I am now still learning to navigate efficiently given its nuances–its quirks–would be unfamiliar and mystical especially to the untrained scholar.
All of these are sources of handicap in the highest, boldest and, one might say, the crazy pursuit of knowledge in economics. I still wrestle with it sometimes. But keeping my two feet planted firmly on the ground has kept my eyes wide open to it, allowing me to embrace that which makes me weak–to turn the unfamiliar, the new, the challenging into a daring commitment to conquer my handicaps and hopefully transform these into new sources of inner strength and self-mastery.
To deal with my own disadvantages, I work twice or thrice the “minimum” requirement:
– drills on real analysis, calculus—lots of it in between readings and writing even when there were no requirements to be submitted
– read widely about not only the courses I am enrolled in; diversified my reading to include trade books about the latest issues on economics that have reached the mainstream press
– talked to mentors about the quirks of the academic life and sought active feedback on how to be good at it
– sought the help of my classmates, while generally way younger than I am are more experienced in the technical aspects, like math, of the discipline
– kept an open mind that any kind of learning is still learning no matter its size and scope
…all of which have regularly led me to sleep late and work on weekends without an iota of regret.
Never let disadvantages become an excuse–embrace them, so they become advantages. Intellectual humility goes a long way in not only keeping us who are in this journey (and even those who are not). Do not succumb to diffidence; rise up to the call with a clear mind, an open heart and the will to overcome disadvantages. In the end, we have the world to gain and very little to lose, if any at all.
Innovation must not be kept in closed circles of academics
I think there is merit in sharing innovation in closed circuits of academics who understand each other and can therefore help each other enhance the output. This is the case when we share our research in strictly for academics only conferences and drive to publish papers in respected journals that are likewise read by academics too (they are largely not consumable for a majority of folks anyway!).
But, there lies a greater opportunity when academics reach out and participate in industry discussions and conferences, publications, and other fora that are attended (or consumed) not only by fellow academics but by policy-makers, the general public, entrepreneurs, and others who seek to drive change in a given space.
So much of academic achievement relies on the research productivity measure (number of articles published per year) that everything else (e.g., incentives) seems to rest solely on this KPI. Of course, publishing is a necessary milestone. Even I want to get published! It has a key role to play in ensuring we continuously generate original, high-impact research. But, should the buck end there only for innovation to gather dust in archives?
I have asked this so many times before — if we continue to work the way the system of incentives is designed to produce articles, how long will it take for the implications of such great, innovative research to generate social impact? Even graduate studies around the world are anchored on publication counts; as an incentive, once you meet the threshold, you get incentives.
A small faculty of, say, 10 professors hit the target of 1.5 articles per year. That is already, at the very least, 15 original work that can be converted into hundreds of content that can be used to craft new content pieces that can reach millions of people including policy-makers who can enact the conceptual change great research vividly paints.
Do a quick Google Scholar search on any given topic and you will see hundreds of pages with links to scholarly work. One can’t help but wonder the degree to which these have generated some impact in the real world. We’re sitting on a lot of content which we can attribute to the effectiveness of the incentives to publish. But what’s next?
Not everyone gets to be a Nobel laureate that every time they publish an article, there is some direct impact to policy generated. A vast majority of academics never gets a Nobel. So the question we must ask ourselves is, how can we drive impact for the research that we do beyond publishing for our own communities of fellow academics?
The academe is home to an insane amount of intellectual and creative horsepower. The opportunity is in how we can get that intellectual and creative horsepower to change the world. There is a lot of great work being produced in the academia, now how do we use these to actualise the change we want to see in the world?
The JSTOR Daily is one such awesome initiative that tries to bridge scholarly work and the general public. Its proposition “where news meets its scholarly match” addresses the opportunity to convert what otherwise would have been kept within the same closed circles of academics to knowledge that is relevant to more people.
We need more initiatives like this. And new forms of pushing the work towards real social impact beyond closed-circuit knowledge creation.
IESE, Harvard and Joy: win or lose, it’s a win.
It’s a wonderful time to explore and be scientists!
We live in an era of either having so much or so little, but one thing is certain: we live in a world in which it feels we are dealing with a lot of things all at the same time so much that we barely have time to ponder on where we are in life, where we are headed and its contrast to where we actually want to go.
We have a love-hate relationship with being busy (or we use ‘being busy’ as another excuse that has been socially made legitimate because everyone says it – and anyone who says he or she is too busy must be an important person). We have thus created this new reality in which being busy is an indication of being important regardless of whether one is genuinely busy or simply busy just because.
We also all too often ‘busy’ to reflect on how exciting life is even in the most uncertain of times. We just keep doing what we ought to do, rinse and repeat, without an ounce of reflection in our daily routine.
Having been on this journey for just barely half a year of being a full-time PhD student from a so-called glamorous life of corporate work, I realised that, indeed, we have an alarming scarcity of time everywhere.
Practical advice on how to overcome the Impostor Syndrome
A couple of factors make my Ph.D. experience unique.
One, I am doing a Ph.D. on something I never practised before in the field — not without considering marketing is actually applied microeconomics or treating communications as a signalling device. After 14 years of working in marketing and communications, diving straight into a Ph.D. in Economics is deemed by many a crazy move. In the first place, it is also a shift from full-time work to full-time studies.
Two, I often find myself in the company of classmates who are mostly way younger than I am. As some classes are shared by masters and doctoral students, the diversity in age and personalities is very pronounced. These heterogeneous classes would have, in some cases, a 20-year gap between the youngest and oldest students in class (I happen to have a 15-year gap with the youngest; so even then, there’s still someone older than me most of the time). This diversity has mostly positive effects that I appreciate; one of which is that young guns and the old ones seem to share complementary roles in understanding issues where the old ones provide some wisdom, the young ones would easily and confidently assemble in mathematically superior arguments. What the older students like me lack in mathematical tools is compensated by real-world experience. Conversely, what the young ones lack in real-world experience is compensated by their strong mathematical dexterity.
As I am now a day older being a 35 years young, I wish to thank everyone who greeted me on my birthday. Whether my 35th is a milestone birthday or not is up for debate, but I think that as I look back at the past twelve months, the last ten, twenty years ago, I begin to think it might be even more a milestone birthday.
The last twelve months have not been all chipper, that’s for sure. It is a mix of victories, losses, highs, lows, happiness, sadness, and many stories of redemption. In fact, I am starting to think that my horoscope last year (I was born a pig, the year of; mind you) could not have been more accurate. In 2016, forecasting for 2017 beginning Lunar New Year, almost everything it said happened to an astonishing precision. Maybe the stars and the universe do conspire to make the publishing of horoscope books every CNY a profitable enterprise for astrologers and geomancers. Feng shui stores and bookstores sell them at a premium!
My 35th feels like an entirely new chapter and I welcome it to be one leaving no time nor space (in the mind and heart) for any regret, angst, or hateful (or bashful) feelings anymore especially that, speaking of conspiracy, it seems that all my prayers have been answered. The universe is listening and has never failed to give what it thinks we truly deserve. So much so that strange occurrences that may cause us harm or to be hurt become essential to usher one along the right, prescribed, and well-deserved path.
Looking back, maybe there would not have been any better way to experience life but exactly in the way that I experienced it because it allowed me to discover a formidable inner strength that has, so far (at least), helped me weather the challenges I faced and emerge unscathed, happy, and content. I realised through real life experience that I am only as strong as my principles are. It allowed me to see past the people who have hurt me and to forgive them for good just as it gave me the courage to forgive myself for the things that make me fallible, irrational, imperfect. And with that, I learnt that the best way to enjoy life’s most precious gifts is to simply let life happen almost short of saying, ‘go with the flow and be free.’