Tag Archives: online education

Government Spending: A Matter Of Priorities

I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.

Who coined that famous phrase? It was J. Wellington Wimpy, the intellectual hobo in the classic Depression era comic strip Popeye. Wimpy loved to consume hamburgers, but he was perpetually short of funds, and so he would incur debts (in exchange for meals) that would never be repaid.

Oddly enough, Wimpy was always a well dressed hobo. He often wore a blue suit, white shirt, and red tie, with brown leather shoes on his feet and a sturdy hat on his head. Although the authors of the strip never explicitly identified his original profession, his name and attire served as an effective parody of the banking industry.

After all, a well dressed man like Wimpy likely could have financed his own meals; the fact that he chose to borrow from others was simply a matter of priorities. And though his comic strip peaked in popularity during the 1930s, his strategy of debt financed consumption survives to the current day.

Desperately Seeking Shovels

Consider, for instance, the operating practices of the state of Connecticut. Last week, the Land of Steady Habits was buried in a blizzard. The city of Hamden led the region with 40 inches of snow fall, and the metropolis of Milford was right behind it with 38 inches.

Regrettably, for the residents of Milford, its municipal leaders had not invested in sufficient snow removal equipment to clear the roads on a timely basis. Thus, its citizens were stranded in their homes for days after the storm. Mayor Ben Blake was eventually forced to hire sixteen payloader vehicles from privately owned construction firms to free his own town residents.

So what is the town doing now? Is it establishing a fund to purchase additional snow removal equipment? Well, no … priorities being priorities, the city has issued a call for brigades of citizen volunteers to carry their own shovels to the next calamitous blizzard.

And what are the tax expenditure priorities of the State of Connecticut? If not directed towards snow removal, where are the funds being spent?

$2 Billion And Counting …

Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy answered that question last month with the unveiling of a new investment initiative entitled Next Generation Connecticut. Originally introduced as a $1.5 billion series of investments in the academic programs of the University of Connecticut, the total tab for the initiative was revalued at more than $2.0 billion after its full scope was released to the public.

Ironically, State House Republican leader Larry Cafero predicts that $2.0 billion will also represent the size of the government’s annual budget deficit during the next two years. “We’ve got other problems, too,” protested Cafero when he learned about the initiative. “We have roads, we have bridges.”

Of course, they also have snow. Lots of snow. And an insufficient number of snow removal vehicles to clear it all away. That’s why Mayor Blake issued his call for a volunteer snow shovel brigade.

Investments vs. Expenditures

The Governor characterizes the Next Generation initiative as an investment in the future of the state, and not as a series of expenditures. The bioscience, digital media, and engineering programs at the University are all expected to receive significant funding increases.

The initiative is also expected to increase the size of the student body at the institution. The University’s total enrollment is expected to grow by 30%, or by 6,580 students, with many joining an expanding engineering program.

Other university systems, of course, are choosing far less expensive paths to growth. The university systems of Florida and Texas, for instance, are each focusing on the development of a $10,000 undergraduate degree, one partially based on online education technologies. And university systems from California to North Carolina to Pennsylvania are beginning to embrace the free or extremely low cost offerings of online-only courses that are offered by organizations like Coursera.

Unlike its rivals, the University of Connecticut will be growing in a more traditional manner. And if the institution manages to generate long term economic benefits in excess of $2 billion, it may yet demonstrate that it is the beneficiary of the wiser investment strategy.

Still Wimpy!

Nevertheless, even if the Nutmeg State’s initiative eventually generates a positive return on investment, its strategy will maintain a decidedly Wimpy perspective. That’s “Wimpy” as in “J. Wellington Wimpy,” of course.

After all, Wimpy managed to acquire stylish clothing and to satisfy his taste for hamburgers simultaneously. But he needed to become a debtor to do so, and he never actually paid his debts.

Likewise, the state of Connecticut is managing to build its university system and to (eventually) clear its roads of snow. But it is borrowing billions of dollars to finance its operating activities, and for the sake of the Next Generation initiative, it is about to go even deeper in debt.

Will Connecticut be able to pay its debts, or will it eventually renege on them like Wimpy? The fate of the state hinges on this question, and only time will yield the answer.

The Avatars Among Us

What is the highest grossing movie of all time?

Perhaps it’s a classic film, such as Gone With The Wind or Casablanca. Or a great Broadway musical extravaganza, like West Side Story or The Sound of Music. Or a sweeping historical drama, like Lawrence of Arabia or Titanic.

Until last week, you actually would have been correct if you had guessed Titanic. However, on Monday, James Cameron’s epic tragedy of the unsinkable ocean liner was itself torpedoed by another Cameron film.

From Titanic to Avatar

That’s right; the highest grossing film of all time is now Avatar, the futuristic adventure of a man who uses a virtual reality system to fight a war on a distant planet. It’s a far cry from Titanic, a period piece set in 1912 that replicated an actual historical event with a flair for social and technological realism.

And yet, even though Avatar is now the box office champ on a “money earned” basis, it isn’t now (and may never become) the top selling film on a “tickets sold” basis. That’s because the prices charged for 3-D and other Imax films today are far higher than those charged just a decade ago. And fans of film classics rightfully note that it’s impossible to compare the ticket sales of modern blockbusters with those of early twentieth century cinema because the population of the United States has grown so much since then.

Nevertheless, the receipts of Cameron’s latest film are truly impressive. Avatar’s legions of fans, though, may not be aware that avatars are already walking among us, here on Planet Earth.

Walking, Talking … and Flying

Facebook users refer to their tiny photographs, the ones that appear next to their postings on the web pages of their friends, as their avatars. And, in a sense, their use of the word avatar is indeed a legitimate one; after all, those images are online representations of their own personalities.

But James Cameron’s avatars are obviously far more evocative than tiny photographs. His avatars are not simply projected onto Facebook pages; they are, instead, projected across galaxies onto distant planets. And they are not simply composed of static photographic images; rather, they are animated characters that can walk, talk … even fly.

Unfortunately, we on Earth do not yet possess the ability to befriend creatures across the galaxy and send avatars to visit them. Nevertheless, avatars today are being employed across the internet to visit people in every corner of the globe.

Across The Generations

As is true with many breakthrough communication technologies, avatar focused systems were first adopted by children and teenagers, and only later were discovered by parents and other adult users.  Disney’s Club Penguin, for instance, and Ganz’s Webkinz are trailblazers in children’s entertainment; they invite young people to adopt animal themed avatars, and to interact with each other in a virtual online environment. And video game vendors such as Sony and Microsoft maintain online gaming platforms for their customers, services that invite preteens and teenagers to engage each other through avatars.

Adults in the professional and business markets are also active users of avatar based virtual worlds. The authors of this online column, for instance, are frequent attendees and presenters of Continuing Professional Education (CPE) sessions for Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) in a virtual reality system named Second Life; these sessions are free and open to the public, underwritten by the Maryland Association of CPA‘s Business Learning Institute (BLI). And a wide range of business and academic avatars in Second Life are featured on the internet television network Treet TV Business, in shows produced by Cisco, Nokia, ISTE Eduverse, and other organizations.

The Future is Now!

Not all of these systems require users to consort with bright blue Pandorans, talking penguins, and refugees of futuristic Armageddons. Most BLI education sessions, for instance, are taught by avatars in solid blue suits and crisp white shirts … as if they simply step out of real world business seminars and pass through Alice’s magical looking glass into the virtual milieu. And avatars who inhabit the Cisco and Nokia worlds of Treet TV tend to sport the smart business casual attire of their Silicon Valley and Scandinavian counterparts.

In other words, the avatar populations of today’s virtual worlds generally reflect the full diversity of their creators in our real worlds, i.e. the people around the globe who feel the urge to travel to distant lands and interact with people from different cultures. James Cameron may have extended this concept to a fantastical trans-galactic future, but there are avatars now among us who are doing so on Earth today.