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 BLOG >> August 2017

A Theory of Difficulty [Education
Posted on August 15, 2017 @ 07:44:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In David Perkin's book Making Learning Whole (2009) he has a chapter called "Working on the Hard Parts" in which he stresses the importance of mastering difficult skills and knowledge in order to get to the next level of performance. One of the exercises he has his students (teachers-in-training) do is to devise a Theory of Difficulty (TOD) for a given domain of skill/knowledge. The TOD is supposed to help these teachers-in-training to come up with a better curriculum for learning that skill/knowledge.

It may be useful to think about the TOD associated with successfully starting a particular line of business.

Imagine that instead of you starting your business, you have to teach someone else about how to start your business. Your TOD might start with these two questions:

  1. What makes starting my particular line of business difficult?
  2. What would the person have to learn in order to overcome those difficulties and be successful?

If I am starting a bike rental business the difficulties I would face in doing so are different than if I am starting a software development company. There are different things I have to be good at and master. A TOD for starting a business can't really be specified in abstract terms. David Perkins is critical of TODs that are overly general and often gives his students this feedback:

Please think about this some more and give us a theory of difficulty that is more specific to your topic. Give us one that doesn't sound like something that could be said for a hundred other topics. There are alot of topics that are complicated or commonly boring or initially unfamiliar or packed with points to remember. Please get specific! You see, theories of difficulty afford much more leverage if they target the particular learning challenges for that particular thing. ~p. 102

It is arguably much easier to come up with a TOD when there is established knowledge for the domain. In the case of starting up a particular line of business in a particular place, there may be no rulebook unless you are starting a franchise that provides ample guidance on these matters. Your TOD is subject to revision as you learn more about how to succeed in your particular line of business. You may learn, for example, that alot of your bike rental clients are coming from tourist accommodation owners advising tourists on what they can do. Now your marketing approach needs to change to target these accommodation owners. The particulars of what makes marketing your business challenging has changed.

When an entrepreneur starts a business they probably already have an implicit TOD about the challenges of starting that business. Perhaps it would help to be more explicit so that assumptions about where the difficulties lie are clearer and more subject to testing, revision, and hopefully mastery.

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The Control Revolution [Books
Posted on August 10, 2017 @ 06:47:00 AM by Paul Meagher

It has been a busy summer at the farm with little extra time for reading or writing, but last night I had the opportunity to peruse a couple of books that I picked up from local university libraries.

The first book is The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (1989) by James R. Beniger.

The book won the 1986 award for the Most Outstanding Book in the Social and Behavioral Sciences by the American Association of Publishers and NY Times notable paperback in 1989.

In this book Beniger argues that:

... society is currently experiencing a revolutionary transformation on a global scale. Unlike most of the other writers, however, I do not conclude that the crest of change is either recent, current, or imminent. Instead, I trace the causes of change back to the middle and late nineteenth century, to a set of problems - in effect a crisis of control - generated by the industrial revolution in manufacturing and transportation. The response to this crisis, at least in the technological innovation and restructuring of the economy, occurred most rapidly around the turn of the century and amounted to nothing less, I argue, than a revolution in societal control. ~ p. 6

So part of his argument is that a control revolution hit us around the turn of the 19th century (1870 to 1930) with the development of a host control technologies like telegraphs, railroads, bureaucracy, primitive computing, electricity, etc... The revolution however is by no means over - it is neither "recent, current, or imminent" - which I take to mean it is ongoing - it keeps (r)evolving. When Beniger wrote the book sometime before 1986, control technologies associated with new computing and networking hardware/software (aka "information technology") was becoming pervasive and was causing another "revolutionary transformation on a global scale".

One industry where the evolution of control technologies is having a profound effect is agriculture. Many current developments in control technologies are discussed in the recent book Precision Agriculture Technology For Crop Farming (2016) edited by Qin Zhang.

In the first chapter, "A History of Precision Agriculture", David Franzen and David Mulla itemize some of the innovations that had to happen before we could get to the stage of commercially available precision agriculture. These innovations include the development of a Global Satellite Positioning (GPS) network, advances in computing power for mapping, variable rate spreaders to control how much nutrient is provided in a specific area, robotics so that tractors can drive themselves, drones so that mapping can be combined with ariel sensing, developments in sensing technology for all agriculturally important soil characteristics, and the list goes on. There are no signs that precision agriculture will be a fad and there is evidence that it is being adopted faster in some areas like tractor driving before other areas like nutrient management.

It seems that Beniger's book is a good lens for understanding our current state of technological innovation and what might be expected in the future. Alot of innovation is associated with improving control, distributing control, localizing control, centralizing control, and sharing control so the control perspective might be used to evaluate the potential impact of new innovations on society (economically, environmentally, socially).

Recent advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) are spawning a new revolution in societal control. To understand these issues the control perspective that Beniger offers is useful.

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