Why it’s OK to sleep through my classes

I’m feeling a bit upset about the education system in Korea right now.  Midterms are coming up, and it seems to bring out the worst in everything.

In case you’ve forgotten, I teach English to first and second-grade students at a boys middle school.  This is equivalent to seventh and eighth grade in the U.S.  My students are 13 and 14 years old in western ages.

Next week they will have three days of testing, during which they will take examinations consisting primarily of multiple-choice questions.  This is a big deal, even for my first-graders.  In Korea, high school is competitive.  Everyone knows the ranking of the various high schools, and poor scores in middle school can mean attending a vocational high school.  This makes it very difficult to attend a decent university, and mostly relegates one to a blue-collar job.  

Obviously, this creates a lot of pressure for middle-school students.  As I mentioned before, my kids are in school from 8:30am to 4:30pm.  After school, most of the students attend private academies called hagwons.  It’s pretty common for my students to study at academies until 10:00 or 11:00pm.  With the upcoming exams, however, parents are pushing the kids even harder.  Yesterday I was told that many of my students are tired, because they have been at hagwons until 12:00 or 1:00am.

12:00 or 1:00am!  These kids are 13 years old!  I just don’t get it.  What kind of parent allows their 13 year-old kid to stay out that late on a school night, let alone forces them to do so?  As you can imagine, the kids are exhausted.  They fall asleep in class, and I really don’t care to wake them.  When they are awake, they’re bouncing off the walls, which is equally excusable.  If I had 16 hours of structured work every day, I’d be going crazy too.

I’m painting the system with a pretty broad brush, which probably isn’t right.  Not every parent does this, and not everyone agrees with it.  In fact, I’d say that most of the adults think it’s pretty sad, but you’ve got to keep up with the Joneses (or perhaps the Kims).  Nobody wants to limit their children’s opportunities, which I completely understand.

But they are limiting their kids’ opportunities.  One complaint I’ve heard from some teachers is that the emphasis is entirely on preparing kids for good jobs, which means good grades, good test scores, and a good school.  But skill at regurgitating facts onto scantron forms does not equal a good worker.  In my (limited) experience, the best co-workers have creativity and problem-solving skills.  They know how to manage time and communicate effectively in the workplace.  They know how to focus and perform when deadlines approach, but they also know how to relax when it’s necessary.  In summary, true success in the workplace depends on a set of interpersonal and organizational skills that aren’t always taught in school.

Unstructured play time teaches kids how to interact without following a strict hierarchy.  Real-world experience teaches common sense and problem-solving.  Spending time alone helps you process things independently.  The sheer volume of the academic workload here is really unfortunate.  I want to tell my kids to go ride a bike; when the chain breaks, you’ll learn something real.  Go climb fences, take apart your computer, start a crappy garage band.  Hell, just sit in your room and read a book.  No, it might not get you into a better high school.  But it probably will make you a better (and happier) person, and when you enter the workforce, you’ll have a lot more to offer.

Thus ends my rant for the day.

Another newspaper post (with bad statistics!)

I thought this would make a good follow-up to my last newspaper post.

An interesting entry on the Nieman Jornalism Lab blog suggests that online newspaper readership is less significant than most people assume.  Martin Langveld runs some back-of-the-envelope numbers to suggest that only 3% of reading occurs online.

Color me skeptical.  First, I question some of his assumptions.  He uses data suggesting that there are 116.8 million readers Monday-Saturday, and 134.1 million on Sunday.  This assumes 2.1 readers per paper on weekdays, and almost 2.5 readers per paper on Sunday.  I don’t know if I buy it.  I’d like to know if that figure includes only home subscribers, or if it includes higher-volume subscribers like universities and hotels.  I expect the number of readers/paper is lower in these settings, but that’s just my gut feeling.

Even if we accept these figures, Langveld makes an “educated guess” that each reader views 24 pages per day, which seems quite high.  As far as I can tell, he has no basis for this guess.  He also assumes that readers spend an average of 25 minutes with their papers Monday-Saturday, and 35 minutes on Sunday.  Again, I’m guessing this figure is too high.

He goes on to argue that online advertising is overvalued, and that it’s not surprising that online revenue is less than 10% of total newspaper revenue.

His post was prompted by another writer who suggested that online metrics overstate the number of internet readers.  This is probably true.  A precursory glance at page views and unique visitors would likely indicate an inaccurately high rate of online readership.  That doesn’t make Langveld’s statistics any more believable, however.  When pressed, he states that halving the number of pages read or the amount of time spent would give online readership 7% of the page views, and 6% of the total viewing time.  Langveld seems to assume this is an insignificant difference, but I disagree.

Surprisingly, I agree with one of his final points:

The fact remains, of course, that not only is online revenue alone insufficient to sustain news operations, but the print operations of our larger newspapers, having lost most monopoly pricing power, are not sustainable either, recession or no recession.

Neither online ad revenue nor print circulation will cover the cost of a traditional newsroom.  As newspapers cut back on the “expensive” reporting in favor of cheaper content, I expect they’ll continue to lose readers.  I don’t have data on the demographics of newspaper readers, but I’m certain that younger readers favor online content.  I expect they’re more apt to use non-traditional news sources as well, rather than the big names in the newspaper business.  It’s no surprise that the big picture is an ugly one for newspaper companies.

The question remains:  How will journalism be funded in the 21st century?  Maybe the traditional approach of ad revenue and subscriptions isn’t totally broken, but newsrooms would have to get a lot cheaper.  Perhaps jettisoning the overhead of the print operations would help, but I don’t really know.  I’m certainly no expert on the intricacies of the newspaper business.  Anyone have any thoughts?

Bad news for the newspaper business (but don’t look so worried)

Newspapers are in serious trouble.  This shouldn’t be a shocker to anyone, and the bad news just keeps coming.  On Monday, March 16, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer announced that it was done publishing paper editions, shifting to internet-only content delievery.  The New York Times covered the story here.  In addition to shutting down the printing presses, the P-I news staff is being cut from 165 to 20.  The site will consist of “mostly commentary, advice and links to other news sites, along with some original reporting.”

On March 23, the NYTimes reported that four newspapers in Michigan were ending daily publications.  In Flint, Saginaw and Bay City, papers would be printed only three days per week.  In Ann Arbor, publication will be cut to two days per week.  The Ann Arbor News is laying off its entire staff of 272, and will re-form as two companies.  One will release printed papers, while AnnArbor.com will provide web-based news.  The site will provide “some original reporting, and an emphasis on reader input and community forums.”  No word on how many people will be re-hired, but it will certainly be less than 272. (See the story here for more information.)  The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press are cutting home delivery to three days per week.  Newspapers in Philadelphia and Minneapolis have declared bankruptcy.

If you’re a newspaper junkie, this sounds pretty crappy, but one person’s crappy is another’s revolution.  Clay Shirky has written a fantastic essay on the problems facing the newspaper business.  He writes that the digital revolution parallels another revolution, brought on by the printing press.

The Bible was translated into local languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients. As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn’t know what to think. If you can’t trust Aristotle, who can you trust?


That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.

That’s the real kicker.  The newspaper business is broken, and we don’t have a replacement for it.  Digital media has challenged every form of print, recorded or broadcast media, but newspapers are really getting the worst of it.  At the very least, they’re getting it first.  File-sharing has put serious pressure on the movie and music industries.  Stop-gap measures like prosecution and digital sales aren’t really picking up the slack, but people still want recorded albums.  They still want to watch movies.  The physical medium and distribution method have changed, but the idea of an album or a movie has been (fairly) resilient.  The same is true of books.  The Amazon Kindle is making in-roads, but digital books haven’t really caught on.  For most people, even the best e-readers don’t match the appeal of a “real” book.

Newspapers are a different story.  Shirky says that the newspaper industry was fairly forward-thinking.  They recognized the potential of computers and networks and attempted to plan for the future.  The extent of the revolution wasn’t clear, however.

The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes (save the unthinkable one) was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift.

This isn’t panning out.  Advertisements and circulation aren’t generating enough revenue to cover the costs of maintaining a newsroom and printing papers.  And when a staff is cut from 165 to 20, it’s pretty clear that the end product won’t be the same.  “Mostly commentary, advice and links to other news sites, along with some original reporting” is not a newspaper.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Shirky argues that journalism has become so entwined with the print media that we consider them one.  But here’s the bottom line:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.

This is an essential point to remember.  We’ve come to think of the newspaper as a social institution.  The newspaper isn’t the institution; the news is.  We’re going through a chaotic time.  New outlets are springing up, old outlets are appearing less relevant or less sustainable, and it’s impossible to predict how things will settle out.  I’ll attempt one impossible prediction, however.  The newspaper (as we know it) isn’t long for this world, and that’s not a bad thing.

As the venerable old mediums struggle, technology has drastically lowered the cost of media production, creating millions of new competitors.  Again, this is an old story.  Between YouTube videos, self-produced music, self-published books, blogs, podcasts, there is no shortage of diversions available to consumers.  Did I mention it’s cheap?  This blog is hosted for $5 per month, plus a few bucks to register the domain.  I might not be as trustworthy as the New York Times, but I am certain that a new order will emerge.  People still need journalism, and someone will provide it.  There may just be a few (million) more contributors.

I don’t have any answers.  As Shirkey says, this stuff is brand-new.  Nobody can predict how this will shake out.  People are quick to point out how technology threatens social institions.  I don’t buy it.  Art, music, literature, journalism…these things are institions, and they aren’t in any danger.  The medium almost certainly will change, but the the medium is secondary to the true purpose.  Just relax, and remember that you’re living in a revolution.  It’s bound to be unnerving.