May 2011

Of course my background as a science fiction fan had an influence on my decision to move from my original research field of computer mathematics into information ethics. This new professional interest has been reflected back in my personal social life, in particular in appearances on panels at conventions discussing surveillance in fiction and reality and other information ethics topics. I’ve wanted to bring the SF into the professional side for a while but saw few opportunities, other than the GikII conference. Last year I put a lecture on Surveillance in Science Fiction into my Information Ethics module, including setting one student an essay on this topic. This year I’m doing the same with the Information Society module – though only because the one student taking that module this term is studying American Literature as their main course and as they’re the only student I can adjust the content somewhat to suit the student’s background. I’ve managed to stick another little bit of SF into another of my modules as well. In the session on digital entertainment in the Social, Legal and Ethical Aspects of Computing module, which includes video/computer games as well as TV and other digitised entertainment, I’ve set the discussion topic (which leads to a student presentation and essay) on Alternate Reality Gaming and hence set Halting State by Charles Stross and This Is Not A Game by Walter Jon Williams as follow-up reading.

Another example of the contempt with which people in business hold educators, at all levesl, came up in this Diverse Issues in Higher Education article. The most telling phrase was Change the Equation Board Chairman Craig Barrett’s statement that “suggested making sure that math and science teachers have mastery of their subjects, and that more is done to relax teacher licensing requirements so that accomplished individuals from STEM fields can teach math and science.” SO, the way to improve STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education is by removing licensing requirements which ensure that teachers know how to teach. Yes, that’s the way to get people who are good at these subjects to go into teaching and do it well. Of course the problems with teaching are all down to bad teachers who’re lazy layabout who don’t deserve the massive salaries they siphon from the public purse. Nothing about the problems particularly in STEM subjects is to do with the disparity between starting salaries and conditions for teachers (never mind what you earn after 20 years experience as a teacher, what does it cost to take the teaching qualification and what is your starting salary compared to what else you’re being offered if you’re good at STEM subjects). These CEOs, most of who undoubtedly claim to be proponents of  “free markets” refuse to see the free market conditions that constant pressure on teacher’s salaries compared to the private sector have been one of the significant problems in recruiting teachers to STEM subjects. Some teachers in those subjects are good, those who have a very strong vocation for teaching and are willing to put up with a lifetime earning capacity and in particular starting salaries much below what the private sector offers. Of course there are some problems here, in that teaching unions are generally unwilling to see a market price set for different subjects. But the claim that the bar to getting people who are good at STEM into teaching is the requirement to have a clue what teaching is (here’s a clue – it really does require more than just knowing the subject) is by removing the licensing requirements is just bizarre. Start paying teachers competitive salaries and make teacher training free for those who then go on to teach for five years (and provide teacher trainees with a decent income in their training years) and perhaps we’ll see an improvement in STEM teaching. Parachuting in subject experts who don’t know how to teach will do nothing to improve the situation on those who know how to teach but aren’t good at their subjects in the first place.

Of course this would all require those CEOs to be willing to pay higher taxes so they’re never going to support that obvious route.