Why Education? Why Edtech? (My personal story of why)

Not being a teacher or a parent (yet…), people sometimes ask why I decided to make my life’s work about using technology to improve education. I made that decision while in rural Cambodia in 2010. In a country still struggling to recover from the brutal genocide 40 years earlier, we were visiting a learning centre that ran afternoon classes and learning activities, complimenting the local school’s morning-only classes.

The centre was run by Sonai, an incredibly entrepreneurial lady only a few years my senior. She was the first person in her village ever to graduate high school. (She jokes that she only did it because she couldn’t bear the thought of being a farmer the rest of her life. I don’t blame her!)

Together with a team of other young teachers and mentors, they were providing food, learning and leadership development to hundreds of students in that village. She is determined to lift her village out of subsistence living through her brilliant mix of education and entrepreneurship. It worked for her, it can work for these kids too.

When I got back to Australia, I began chatting with teachers, and my admiration for the profession grew more and more. These people were fiercely determined to provide their students with the best opportunities for a life worth living. Even in a country as wealthy as Australia, a good education often makes the difference between a life shaped by hope and opportunity, and a life that just scrapes by. And we weren’t without our own educational struggles: remote indigenous education, catering to special needs, struggling with new national standards and international competition.

I don’t have the personal make-up to be an effective classroom teacher, and I don’t pretend to know all the best practices or solutions to all of these problems. What I can do, is work with the most innovative teachers to craft solutions to the most difficult problems. They bring their teaching expertise, I bring the design, tech and startup know-how. (The idea for ClassHomie came out of one such meeting with Aaron Gregory, a teacher I have so much respect for. It has since been refined by input from dozens of teachers).

I strongly believe that entrepreneurs and teachers can, and should, work together to solve the difficult problems of education. By improving learning, we improve lives. This work matters, and that’s why I’m building educational apps, starting with ClassHomie.

Humans of New York (reblog)

Wow, just wow.

I struck up a conversation with him, and he casually mentioned that he was having trouble adjusting to Columbia, due to his “previous situation.” So I asked him to elaborate.

“I was born in Egypt,” he said. “I worked on a farm until 3rd grade with no education. I came to the US for one year, started 4th grade, but was pulled out because my father couldn’t find work and returned to Egypt for a year. The first time I went to an actual school was middle school, but the whole school was in one classroom, and I was working as a delivery boy to help the family. It was illegal for me to be working that young, but I did. When I finally got into high school, my house burned down. We moved into a Red Cross Shelter, and the only way we could live there is if we all worked as volunteers. I got through high school by watching every single video on Khan Academy, and teaching myself everything that I had missed during the last nine years. Eventually I got into Queens College. I went there for two years and I just now transferred to Columbia on a scholarship provided by the New York Housing Association for people who live in the projects. It’s intimidating, because everyone else who goes to Columbia went to the best schools, and have had the best education their entire lives.”

 

It’s free, but do you mind paying?

Here’s something I’d like to see more of: UberWriter is free (open source, GPL3), yet by default if you go to install it you’ll have to pay $5.  The old “free as in freedom of speech” rather than “free as in free beer”.

From the creator’s point of view, “Free as in speech” means several things:

  • The project is open to collaboration – if you have something to add, please do!
  • If you see a different future for this project than I do, you don’t have to ask my permission.  You can build on what I’ve started and do something new and different.  I may or may not want what to merge your changes back in.
  • If you’re not someone that’s likely to pay me money (you have a different native language, you live in an area I can’t sell to, you’re don’t have enough money…) then that’s okay, feel free to take what I’ve done anyway and see if you can build on it.
  • If you’re really poor (developing world, unfunded startup, student) then you can still use the software and pay it back (or pay it forward) later.  I’m just glad people are using (and enjoying) something I’ve made.
  • If you’re worried about security, you can know exactly what your software is doing by getting a developer to audit the code.  I promise I’m not working for your corrupt government.
  • If I ever close shop and discontinue the product, you can keep using it, without having to worry about where to get new copies.  Feel free to make new copies, or to hire a developer to maintain it, even to release your own version.  I promise not to get angry.

But from the creator’s point of view, “free as in beer” has several negative implications:

  • I don’t have a strong plan to make money off this, so it will remain a side-project or a hobby.  I might love it, but I’ll never give it the time, money and support it needs to be amazing.
  • I have to pay my bills.  So the work I do that pays bills will always be more important than the work I do for this project.

Commercial projects that succeed (especially software projects) often have a founder who is hugely passionate about it, and absolutely stoked that they get to work on their passion as their full time job.  For many open source developers, this isn’t a reality.

So what if you want to balance those two things:

  1. Create, invent, make art.  And give it away to the world in the most generous, considerate way possible.
  2. Make money so that I can continue to develop this, perfecting it and supporting it and giving it every opportunity to succeed.

Well, that’s what UberWriter is doing.  It has all the same freedoms as “free as in speech”.  And if you really don’t want to pay for it, you can find ways to get it for free, and that’s allowed too, it’s not illegal and it won’t make the creator cry.  But, if you want to get it the easiest way, and you want to support the developer, it’s $5.

I hope he does well, makes some money, maybe even is able to make it his main job – so that he is empowered to make some good software become really great software.  And I hope to see more people balance this act of being generous with earning a living… myself included.

People are clueing on…

VentureBeat has a write up on Why Venture Capitalists can’t afford to ignore EdTech any longer. The wider world is waking up to the fact that something needs to change.

I just hope the change is for something more open.  They compare it to the changes in enterprise – where people where locked on expensive propriety software, and the escape has come in the form of cloud computing and software-as-a-service. This is more open in some ways (You don’t have to use a Windows machine any more, you could use a Mac or Linux or your phone or tablet or internet-powered-fridge), but in other ways, it’s more locked.  You have to keep paying the monthly bill, with no promise it won’t increase later.  You have to trust that the company will never go bankrupt, or never go evil.  And even if the company has open APIs or let’s you download your data, it usually is hard to migrate over to a competitor later.

I’d hate to see education locked up like that.  You can have these amazing learning resources – but they’ll stay on our servers, thank-you-very-much.  We’ll help you define all your lesson plans, but it’s on the condition that they never leave our app, so you’ll keep coming back.  We’ll help analyse the data about how all your students are learning and performing, but that data stays on our servers and we might use it for something else later, and there’s not much you can do about that.

I want to fight for the upcoming EdTech revolution to be open:

  • The school stays in control, and isn’t held ransom to their software suppliers
  • The content teachers create is theirs, and they can hold onto it, share it, and take it with them if they switch to a different software product.  They don’t have to write everything all over again because their school switched providers.
  • People see the value of creative commons – and they gladly cooperate in developing the best educational materials, rather than hoarding what they do for their own benefit.  (I think the teachers creating great material tend to be generous, it’s the business people that they work with that might not be).
  • When someone goes to the effort to create amazing content, and they want to share it, they should be able to.  For example, an e-book shouldn’t be stuck on iPad only.  It should work on phones (cheap ones included), computers, printouts (to whatever extent makes sense) and competing tablets.  And be future-proof and work on whatever the next-big-thing is.

Education is too important for it to be controlled by a small group of start-up shareholders.

Win when your customers win

In announcing several new tablets yesterday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos dropped some wonderful quotes. One was, “Above all else, align with customers. Win when they win. Win only when they win.”

Bezos went on to say, “We want to make money when people use our devices, not when they buy our devices. If someone buys one of our devices and puts it in a desk drawer and never uses it, we don’t deserve to make any money.”

Amen. I think the lesson is exactly the same for open educational resources. If we’re really trying to help learners “win,” an OER provider hasn’t finished their job when they’ve published content. They’re succeeding when someone benefits from what they’ve done – and only then. We need to think harder about how to make this happen, and how to do it sustainably.

David on the Open Content Blog

I love this sentiment.

How can you set up your business so that the better it is for your customers the better it is for you.

Examples of people doing this:

  • Amazon, mentioned above – sells their hardware at low profits, expecting to generate further money as the user benefits from getting more content. The more content they get, the more they use it.
  • Dropbox lowers the price for you the more friends you send invites. You get more customers, they get cheaper prices and more convenience sharing with friends.
  • Some restaraunts have a “pay what you think the meal was worth” policy, some software follows the same model. The better you perform, the higher your pay. Another variant is an “unlimited trial” on software, that gives you as long as you need to see if the software is “worth it” to you.

Examples of people who do it wrong:

  • Phone companies use “cap plans” which give average users a cheap price, but the biggest users – who could be your biggest fans – get charged exorbitantly more, punished for using your product the most.
  • Gym memberships – here you pay a large fee no matter how often you use it. This may be viewed as motivation – go lots to get your moneys worth – but the reality is that it can make for a business model which separates the interests of the gym from the interests of the patron. The gym may avoid encouraging patrons to come regularly, because it means they can have more people enrolled and still not reach capacity. To take it differently however, there is no extra cost (no punishment) for using the gym as much as you desire.

Further possible examples:

  • A service such as Vimeo or Flickr, but if you achieve a certain level of popularity, they give you your account for free – for bringing so many new people to the site.
  • On signup, your client sets a target (to lose 10kg, to post a blog everyday, to finish a course). You only get paid as they achieve milestones on their way to this target. You are now motivated to help them achieve.

Of course, one problem with that last strategy is that it provides a financial disincentive to not finish – the further you get the more you have to pay.  In a way, this is then becoming similar again to the phone companies – you are charging people more for successfully engaging with you.

A different strategy again might be that of Fog Creek Software – your money back for any reason.  You pay full price up front, so you’ve already overcome the difficulty of paying money for something.  However, as a business you remain committed to making the whole experience worthwhile, or you risk them asking for their money back – and you’ve committed to give it to them, no questions asked.

It looks like a tricky balance, but one well worth pursuing.

Long Term Thinking

Here’s another thought provoking quote from Peter Thiel’s Lectures (or Blake Master’s notes on Peter’s lectures):

But there’s an alternative math metaphor we might use: calculus. The calculus metaphor asks whether and how we can figure out exactly what’s going to happen. Take NASA and the Apollo missions, for instance. You have to figure out where the moon is going to be, exactly. You have to plan whether a rocket has enough fuel to reach it. And so on. The point is that no one would want to ride in a statistically, probabilistically-informed spaceship.

Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup – Class 1 Notes Essay

It’s been a long time since I did Calculus in high school, but I remember the task of taking multiple points and applying a gradient or a curve to them: you looked for a pattern, developed an equation and you used that to guess at where future points might show up.

While at the moment I have two projects I’m working on (Enthral.us, and OurSchoolDiary), long term, there’s so much room for expansion. Seth Godin in his book Purple cow talks about how after a product has been developed and reach critical success, it’s crucial for the inventors to move on, and leave maintaining and “milking” the product for a team that’s better at maintainance. An inventor will just keep trying to break stuff – better to get them developing the next big hit.

Trends and Opportunities

So if I try to think long term, till after these projects, what trends do I see? And what opportunities do these open?

  • Decreasing price of technology (trend) -> Availability in developing world (opportunity)
  • Digital connectedness is increasing (trend) -> not being in the same physical space (or even the same point in time) as your teacher will seem less weird (opportunity)
  • Availability of stored content approaches infinite (trend) -> Every niche in content, and every variety in learning styles (or media types) can be catered to. (opportunity)
  • Computer profiling approaches scarily accurate (trend) -> Career / Interest prediction, based on passion, not assessment grades. (opportunity)
  • Ability to track behaviour, A/B testing procedures get really powerful (trend) -> Get statistics on the actual best practices for teaching – which way of teaching content is the most accurate? Improve the pedagogical effectiveness of your materials through data analysis. (opportunity)
  • IT specialist tools become more user friendly, accepted by other industries (trend) -> The incredible power of Git, and Github in particular, to co-ordinate teams of creators could be utilised in the creation (and modification) of educational media.

Planning to be “ahead of the game”

Given these trends, and the likely opportunities that will develop, can I position my products to be embracing these trends just as they hit critical mass?

Just a few thoughts:

  • Be working on a “normal person friendly” interface to GIT – possibly changing mental models / system models to match.
  • Don’t tie to a single platform – with the rise of the developing world, there is a high chance that the current big players (Apple, Samsung, Microsoft etc) will not carry over. New markets = new giants. So plan software and media that can adapt.
  • Get as much experience with A/B testing as possible, so that I can transfer those skills to educational media later.
  • Find teachers who are willing to experiment with out-of-class teaching, and work with them to pioneer online lessons.
  • etc…

Admittedly, these trends/predictions are not very long term. Most will probably be well underway within 5 years, some will be underway even sooner. Still, it’s a useful exercise, and thinking 5 years ahead of the competition is still better than chasing the competition. A good exercise to revisit.

Most people believe in X. But the truth is (something other than X)

Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, runs a unit at Stanford on business start-ups.  Blake Masters was in the class, and took a whole bunch of notes, which he then re-wrote as essays and shared with the world.  Reading them feels like I’m back at uni – lots of learning, lots of new ideas, and a whole bunch of things to think about.  I’ll probably have a few posts that come out of reading these.

In the first essay, he says:

You know you’re on the right track when your answer takes the following form:

“Most people believe in X. But the truth is !X.”

For OurSchoolDiary, my tag line might be:

Most people are trying to get technology into the classroom.  Meanwhile, we’re using technology to get parents into the classroom.

Copying the Best Ideas (from other industries)

I’m reading a classic for inventors and entrepreneurs: Purple Cow

One of his suggestions is:

Copy. Not from your industry, but from any other industry. Find an industry more dull than yours, discover who’s remarkable (it won’t take long), and do what they did.

I’m going to do just that.  The applications are for education.  Not any specific product, just ideas to upset everything in general.

Fast Food: Subway

What they did: made their main marketing campaign about an obese guy who ate only Subway and lost a huge amount of weight.

What education could do: get a struggling student to use your textbooks / media to catch up, and document their success story.  It doesn’t just show that your product works as advertised, it also provides hope to those who need it – they too can catch up.

Music Industry: iTunes

What they did: They made it possible to get pretty much any song, ever, at a moments notice.  If you wanted to hear a song, you could buy it.  Right now.

What education could do: When someone has a moment of curiosity – satisfy it.  No matter what the topic, have a quick explanation (with links to more in depth reading / watching) available at a moments notice.  Like Wikipedia, but more teaching oriented.  Possibly even have multiple versions of the same article (a 9th Grade student will want a very different summary of Newton’s laws to a Physics Major).

ISP: iiNet

What they did: Organised their entire branding around a persona (the friendly nerd), and hired an actor who played it perfectly.  Even when he’s not on screen, their communication follows the personality of the (lovable) persona.

What education could do: It’s known that students respond better to some teachers than others.  It’s also known that if a student feels the teacher “likes” them, they will work harder.  With education materials, the “narrator”, rather than adopting a dry persona, could adopt the persona of a teacher that will actually motivate students to study diligently.

Computers: Apple

What they did: They mastered the art of emotional design: approaching the design of everyday objects and optimising for positive emotions.  This massively increased loyalty to their product range.  See Donald Norman’s book Emotional Design for an exploration of this.

What education could do: Hire an interior designer to deck out every aspect of the classroom – walls, seats, lighting, decoration.  Plan lessons to appeal to each of the levels of design: visceral (Sight, sound, touch, smell, taste), behavioural (Is the content relevant?  Is it well structured and well presented?  Am I learning?) and reflective (Is this experience challenging me personally?  Am I creating memories? Does it make me feel good about myself and my choices? Does it have special emotional attachment?

Blogging Software: WordPress

What they did: Created some software which web designers could utilise for their clients – adding a huge diversity and richness to the ecosystem.  Meanwhile they offered a hosted service that anyone could use without the help of a web designer, and could be set up in minutes – giving them an income stream and a wide range of content (blog posts on all sorts of topics).

What education could do: Have a system that acts as a great base for Instructional Designers.  Take some of the grunt work out of the way, so they can focus on great learning experiences.  Meanwhile have a hosted service for a teacher with no budget to hire an instructional designer.  They can still add their content and benefit from some of the same tools, even if their usage is a little more limited.

Photography: Instagram

What they did: Encouraged people to see (and share!) the beauty in the world.

What education could do: Encourage people to apply their learning all around the world.  Imagine a website called “in-the-wild.com”, where people try to post a scientific phenomena they see in their day-to-day life (“in the wild”) and link it to a topic they are learning, with a brief explanation.  For example, a student could post about their car windscreen which fogs up when it’s cold, and give a simple explanation based on what they’ve been learning in class.

As many students do this, you build up a library of great examples.  (There may be some not great examples, but you could let a “like” or “rate” button raise the good ones to the top).

More importantly, it will encourage students to approach their everyday life on the lookout for how the things they have been learning about play out in the real world.  It will hopefully encourage them to approach life more thoughtfully and inquisitively.

This could also be used for other subjects:

  • English – examples persuasive writing / speaking (link to websites & videos)
  • English – examples of bad grammar and spelling
  • Science – experiments you can conduct at home
  • History – examples of history repeating itself
  • Geography – urban morphology patterns & google maps
  • Maths – everyday problems where maths proved useful (with or without a calculator/computer)
  • etc…

Coffee Shops: Greens and Co.

What they did: Greens and Co. is a coffee shop in Leederville near where I work.  They bought the biggest building on the strip, filled it with couches, music and cool decorations.  It’s big enough, open enough, and casual enough that it’s become the default hangout place for many people.  They sometimes even buy coffee.

What education could do: Set up the coolest hangout around.  Make the environment sweet, and convince them to come to this place.  Then while they’re there, have something beneficial for them to do. They come for the cool vibe, but while they’re there, they might get some coffee (or some education).  This could be more tutoring oriented (cool place to do homework, hey, we have some tutors around!).  It could be more exploring oriented (like Sci-Tech, with hands on learning environments.  Completely optional, of course).  Or it could be more to do with extra-curricular activities: leadership training, music shows (bands the kids are in!), drama productions, or even a chance for chaplains to catch up with students and encourage them in their holistic development.

Conclusions

I have no idea if any of these ideas will come to fruition.  Or if they do, if it’ll be me or someone else. But what I’m realising is that this piece of advice from Godin is priceless.  Copy the best ideas from other industries, and apply them to your own.  Great thinking.

(If you want to use any of these, go right ahead! Would love to see any implemented.  Let me know how it goes!)

A new project: OurSchoolDiary

So I’m working on a new project that has been brewing in my mind for a while. I’m going to aim to have a working prototype by the end of August, have users beta testing through till December and hopefully have my first paying clients by next year.

A screenshot of some of the first code for the project.

What is it?

The App is called “OurSchoolDiary”. It lets each school create their own School Diary app, where students can sign up and keep track of their homework, assignments and tests. The big win over competing solutions is that here, when the teacher adds an assessment or task, it automatically shows up in the students diary. We’re helping even unorganised students stay on top of their work.

On top of that, we’ll let parents receive emails informing them of their child’s progress. This way parents and teachers can work together to make sure they support their child’s education as much as possible.

And the final advantage, the school gets to show off how cutting-edge they are because they get their own “app”.  Logo and everything!

A Blog

As I go, I hope to keep track of my progress on this blog. (I’ll post to this category specifically, so you can subscribe by RSS).

Why keep a blog?

  • For the history, in case it is ever significant
  • For my own reflection and understanding, regardless of if it is a success.
  • To show off some cool technologies I’m using:
    • Web Apps – I’m not aiming for distribution through the App Store, I’m going a full HTML stack. Not even a hybrid using PhoneGap. This is a page you can view in a browser, and use offline, and the experience will be identical.
    • Haxe – this is a sweet programming language that lets you target Flash, Javascript, PHP, Java, C#, C++ and a platform called Neko. Up until now it’s main success has been in the indie-games market, but I believe it is mature enough to work for a full web-based productivity app.  Client and server. We’ll find out how that goes!
  • To look back on my decision making processes after we’ve launched, and see if my thinking was accurate.
  • To raise interest in the project
  • To explore some of the topics I find fascinating:
    • Usability
    • Design
    • New Marketing
    • Business Strategy
    • Contribution to the community
    • And a few more…

That’s all for now. I’ll try submit a couple of posts a week (at least) until I get this thing off the ground.