Investing in Human Capital, Innovation and Knowledge with the “iBOX”

Copy your ancestors, their words endure in books. Open them! Read them! Copy their knowledge. He who is taught will become skilled… A tongue is a king’s sword and speaking stronger than all fighting” – King Khety II (Instructions to his son Merikara.) Circa 9th & 10th Dynasties of Egypt, 2160 – 2125 BCE (from The Story of Egypt, author Joann Fletcher)

 The intelligence Box (iBox) is a home-grown proprietary technology for the delivery of premium, curricular-specific, educational content for Senior High School (SHS), Junior High School (JHS), and non-formal and skills training.

Through the introduction of the World Bank endorsed and funded iBox, the Centre for Distance Learning and Open Schooling (CENDLOS) seeks to address the hugely uneven access to best-in-class educational tuition and content nationwide, which thwarts the desired vision of a highly trained, future-ready Ghanaian workforce. As His Excellency, The President of Ghana, Nana Addo Dankwa, Akufo Addo bluntly stated at the WISE Summit in Doha last year:

‘The countries that have done well, even without natural resources, are the ones that have invested in education.’

The challenge now must surely be to establish by example a simple cause and effect relationship between the introduction of innovative policy or technology initiatives such as the iBox and undeniably positive national outcomes.

The ancient Greek Philosopher and Scientist Aristotle in his Metaphysics distinguished four different kinds of causes, two of which have temporal character, the “causa efficientis” or efficient cause and the “causa finalis” or final cause: that for the sake of which something is done.

Its purpose or ultimate goal. Modern science focuses almost exclusively on the former. Physicists go all in for efficient cause, where causes in the past determine the effects in the present: A common example is “Because she did turn the switch, the lights go on now.” Psychologists on the other hand tend to take their lead from the final cause: where the example is “In order to have the lights on, she turns the switch now,” or “I walk to stay healthy, so health is my final goal.” Causes in the future determine actions in the present.

Earlier in the month of October, the 2018 Nobel Prize for Economics was jointly awarded to the Americans William Nordhaus and Paul Romer. The Nobel Foundation website reported “This year’s Laureates William Nordhaus and Paul Romer have significantly broadened the scope of economic analysis by constructing models that explain how the market economy interacts with nature and knowledge.”

Professor Romer of the NYU Stern School of Business, New York in particular was cited

“For integrating innovations into long-run macro-economic analysis.”

On the subject of Technological change the official press release stated “Romer demonstrates how knowledge can function as a driver of long-term economic growth. When annual economic growth of a few per cent accumulates over decades, it transforms people’s lives. Previous macroeconomic research had emphasized technological innovation as the primary driver of economic growth, but had not modelled how economic decisions and market conditions determine the creation of new technologies.

Paul Romer solved this problem by demonstrating how economic forces govern the willingness of firms to produce new ideas and innovations. Romer’s solution, which was published in 1990, laid the foundation of what is now called endogenous growth theory.”  This theory holds that economic growth is primarily the result of endogenous and not external forces, and that investment in human capital, innovation, and knowledge are significant contributors to economic growth. Romer is acknowledged to be a pioneer of this theory.

Jeffrey Parker (2012) helpfully explains that according to Romer “…pure knowledge is non-rival, meaning that the use of knowledge by one person does not reduce the ability of others to use it. Most “private” goods in the economy are, by contrast, rival. To clarify the distinction, think about chocolate-chip cookies. Everyone can use the same (non-rival) recipe for chocolate-chip cookies but everyone cannot use the same (rival) chocolate chips.”

Parker further maintains “…Non-rival goods such as knowledge can be reused by the same person or shared with additional people at zero marginal social cost…Thus, efficiency requires that knowledge, once it has been created, must be distributed freely at a zero price.”

As luck would have it, I happened to be listening to BBC World Service radio just after the  announcement of the award, and I chanced upon an interview with Professor Romer, who good-naturedly affirmed that Ideas are unique in how easily and quickly they are shared; that globalization drives the spread of ideas; and, lastly, reminded listeners how the creation of Land Grant colleges in the mid-Nineteenth Century in the USA had led to the establishing of institutions of higher learning with a practical educational focus.

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This piqued my curiosity so I naturally read up on the Land Grant College Scheme online. What I learnt was profoundly instructive. In 1862 Abraham Lincoln (widely acclaimed to be the greatest American President) signed the Morril Act under which Congress granted to each state 30,000 acres (12,141 hectares) of land for each representative and senator “for the endowment, support and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be—without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics—to teach branches of learning as are related to agriculture and mechanic arts.”

This simple act initiated the remarkably successful land-grant system of agricultural education and research in the United States. It is worth remembering that President Lincoln signed the Morril Act amid the tumult of the nation-wrenching American Civil War. As the local proverb states “Ye be wu nti yenda?” which translates into English as “ Does the certainty of death make sleep undesirable?”

The Morrill Act, also known as the Land-Grant College Act (1862), was named for its sponsor, Vermont Congressman Justin Smith Morrill (1810–98). Funds from the sale of the land were used by some states to establish new schools; other states turned the money over to existing state or private colleges to create schools of agriculture and mechanic arts (known as “A & M” colleges). The world renowned Texas A&M University, the largest in the state of Texas, is one such A &M institution.  Other Land-Grant colleges that arose from this act include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T), Cornell University, and the state universities of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

The Morrill Act also mandated military training as part of the curriculum of all the Grant colleges, which resulted in the establishing of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corp, an educational program for future army, navy, and air-force officers. Subsequently the scheme expanded to include 17 predominantly African American colleges and 30 American Indian colleges. According to a  recent (2018) study by economists (Isaac Ehrlich, Yong Yin, Adam Cook) from the State University of New York, the Land-Grant College system has been recognized as a major factor in the faster growth rate of the US economy from the late nineteenth century onwards that led to it surpassing the United Kingdom as an economic superpower. Self-absorbed geeks in Silicon Valley with degrees from the likes of M.I.T certainly have much to thank Mr. Morrill for.

This is how we do it, I almost sang to myself after reading up on the Morrill Act. Of course, thoughts of Aristotle’s efficient cause instantly sprang to mind. Because Morrill and indeed President Lincoln turned on the switch all those years ago, the lights shine brightly today.

I felt I might be on a roll when that very week I also came across a fascinating article in the New York Times by Steve Lohr (M.I.T. Plans College for Artificial Intelligence, Backed by $1 Billion October 15, 2018), which reported on the creation of a new College of Artificial Intelligence (A.I) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is scheduled to open in late 2019, sharing space with other faculties before moving into its own new buildings in 2022. M.I.T confirmed two-thirds of the funds have already been raised, when they announced the initiative.

Its objective is ‘to prepare students not only to harness the powerful tools of A.I., but also to thoughtfully weigh its ethical and social implications.’

The college is to be called the M.I.T. Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, after Stephen A. Schwarzman, chief executive of the Blackstone Group, the big private equity firm, who gave the foundational investment of US$350 Million.

Here are a few of the memorable quotes from the article:

‘The goal of the college, said L. Rafael Reif, the president of M.I.T., is to “educate the bilinguals of the future.” He defines bilinguals as people in fields like biology, chemistry, politics, history and linguistics who are also skilled in the techniques of modern computing that can be applied to them.’

‘But, he said, “to educate bilinguals, we have to create a new structure.”’

‘M.I.T.’s leaders hope the new college will alter traditional academic thinking and practice.’

‘“We need to rewire how we hire and promote faculty,” said Martin Schmidt, the provost of M.I.T.’

‘The M.I.T. college is an effort to have computing baked into the curriculum rather than stapled on. It will grant degrees, though what they will be or their names have not been determined.’

Melissa Nobles, dean of M.I.T.’s School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences…said she saw the new college as helping non-computer scientists bring A.I. tools to their fields — “to what they really care about.”’

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“The college, Ms. Nobles said, offers the possibility of a renewal for humanities studies at M.I.T., where students flock to computer science and engineering.”

‘“We’re excited by the possibilities,” she said. “That’s how the humanities are going to survive, not by running from the future but by embracing it.”’

‘“I became convinced that this technology was so powerful it was really going to remake a lot of the world as we know it,”’ Mr. Schwarzman said.

More thoughts of Aristotle and his ‘grab bag’ of causes flashed across my mind again. Final cause or Efficient cause at work here? Both and both! Let there be light, but someone has to flick the switch on.

Although, the bucks and bang are seemingly all behind M.I.T, I firmly hold the view that the iBox is our own reachable light switch to illuminating the future of our nation.

Mark 6:4 says that ‘A prophet is without honour only in his own country.’ The same should perhaps be said of home-grown technology. We only whole-heartedly embrace a technology that on good authority has cut it elsewhere, but afford little time to celebrate local Ghanaian ingenuity and invention.

CENDLOS developed the iBox as an ICT component. It is a dual online/offline educational     e-resource platform designed to support secondary education in Ghana. The primary appeal of the iBox is that it is a proven technology. It brings classroom teaching to students digitally, and interactively. It does so ideally with a tutor per topic/lesson to take the students through the SHS and, indeed, JHS curricular online; and this can be remotely accessed via a range of portable, handheld computer devices.

The utility and flexibility of the iBox make it a uniquely suitable resource technology for the recently introduced double-track system, which is aimed at promoting quality education, while reducing the congestion the sharply increased student intake of the Free SHS Initiative has caused.

The IBox can also help to address the issue of both uneven and dipping performances in the West African Senior School Certificate Examination Core Mathematics and English Language subjects.  According to the 2018 results released by WAEC, Core Mathematics showed a drop in performance (42.73% to 38.33%) for score range A1 to C6 from 2017. Similarly, there was a drop in the performance in English Language (54.06% to 46.79%).

CENDLOS has already provided the hardware incentive in about 148 low-performing Senior High Schools to activate the iBox and access curricular-specific educational content to ensure that the desired value for the project is imparted and achieved in the short to medium term.

The roll-out to the other 472 Senior High Schools is contingent on the speedy provision of additional funds for the production and installation of more iBox’s, and the accelerated creation of educational content. Another future imperative is the supply of pre-configured portable handheld devices to all students.

The iBox guarantees the optimized delivery of premium educational content and is just the sort of technology I believe the eminent Austrian-American scientist and philosopher, Heinz von Foerster, would have enthusiastically championed.

Von Foerster’s Ethical Imperative is ‘Act always so as to increase the number of choices.

He also famously insisted:

  1. “Education is neither a right nor a privilege: it is a necessity.”
  2. “Education is learning to ask legitimate questions.”

{Finally} A society who has made these two discoveries will ultimately be able to discover the third and most utopian one:

  1. “A is better off when B is better off.”

Allow me to conclude with a passage from Professor Yuval Harari’s best-selling book ‘Homo Deus’ (2016)

“In the early twenty-first century the train of progress is again pulling out of the station – and this will probably be the last train ever to leave the station called Homo sapiens. Those who miss this train will never get a second chance. In order to get a seat on it, you need to understand twenty-first-century technology, and in particular the powers of biotechnology and computer algorithms. These powers are far more potent than steam and the telegraph, and they will not be used merely for the production of food, textiles, vehicles, and weapons”.

“The main products of the twenty-first century will be bodies, brains and minds…those who ride the train of progress will acquire divine abilities of creation and destruction, while those left behind will face extinction.”

If the alarming thoughts Hariri expresses do not get you yelling for the immediate and comprehensive roll out of the iBox in our schools across the nation, then I invite you to grab a downy pillow and sleep this one out. As the expression goes, wake me up when it’s over.

By Kofi Sarpong

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