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.

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!)