Thursday, 25 April 2013

“Education Inc”

Ever wonder what would happen if Education was a start up looking for investment from venture capitalists?

Last week I tuned in to the InnoTech summit which is billed as “The only event designed to accelerate the UK Tech Economy by bringing together policy makers, business leaders and investors”

As I highlight in my last post "Start Up Education," I have a lot of time for start ups. I find the energy, passion, fortitude, enthusiasm and overall culture they establish can create a really great work environment... I also find that educators share many of these attributes and qualities.

However, I did find myself wondering at how keen the government seems to be associated with (and listens to!), the ideas, innovations and needs of the various stakeholders that make up the exciting "start up scene."   

The government being so attentive to startups may be somewhat ironic to educators, as this same organisation all but stifles any new ideas & innovations that the experts within the education sector come up with.

Policy makers certainly don't seem to be listening to education in the same way they do with the "in vogue" entrepreneurs - and educators are their colleagues/employees! Talk about familiarity breeding contempt! Then I thought, if you can’t beat ‘em... 

I slipped into a daydream* about what would happen if "Education Inc" was formed and went looking for Venture Capital Investment at a startup event like InnoTech**.

* A throw back to my own school days I'm afraid! In the event that any educators like this particular day dream, do me a favour and go easy on your current class daydreamers... One day they just might be one of your biggest fans!

** This Edu-Day-Dream-Blog-Post is completely fictional. Names, characters, incidents and locations (Particularly relating to "Education Inc" & "Kids Futures" VCs) are the product of this bloggers bizarre imagination. Any resemblance to actual people or events are completely coincidental... as coincidental as a Dr Seuss allegory (specifically thinking of Yertle the Turtle here).

Kids Futures  
An investment prospectus arrives at the offices of Kids Futures (Keep Investments Decidedly Simple Futures), Venture Capitalists who invest in businesses with really, really simple business models. This prospectus is for “Education Inc” and looks quite impressive;

"Education Inc Provides extensive personal and professional development for millions of customers at over 30,000 training centres. Our business is instrumental in assisting our customers to find their ideal role within the many professions and organisations within "UK PLC" 

The VC’s at Kids Futures decide to take a closer look. They arrange a visit to Education Inc's HQ to check the health of the company, to consider any risks of investing and assess what the return of investment might be. 

“Education Inc”

Kids Futures meet a number of people and departments at the company, and it soon becomes apparent that the model is not as simple as the prospectus suggested. In fact, it appears that Education Inc is in some disarray.

One of Education Inc’s associate companies, Off the Mark, who is responsible for quality control, is discussing how their role is to liaise between HQ and each of the local training centres. 

The discussion turns to how the company treats their customers. Off the Mark details how their customers are at the heart of what they do. Every branch has strict procedures to ensure that the views of their customers are heard... and they have a plethora of evidence to prove it! It seems like the most trivial details have to be documented to demonstrate that every process and procedure is being adhered to. 

During this meeting a disgruntled customer, Suli Breaks, is at reception and asks to speak to someone about his poor customer experience. It turns out that he’s not had the best training or advice, he gets an "unsatisfactory" response from the company's representatives and leaves without any answers. He is undeterred and leaves with resolve and that  “he will not let an exam result decide his fate” 

Off the Mark tries to pass this user experience as a “one off,” but Suli Breaks has detailed his complaint on You Tube and has over 800,000 views within a few weeks. Concerned "Kids Futures" asks to see the Customer Service Centre... and find that the department is in chaos!

Phones are ringing off the hook, millions of customers are calling to complain that they have been misled, the training they received has not helped them to find their ideal role within “UK PLC”. There are lots of great opportunities, but the training did not cover the skills required to allow customers to benefit from them. This obviously affects UK PLC's growth plans too.

Many unhappy customers hang up without speaking to anyone, despite their call “being important to the company” being caller number 1 million is quite a long queue, and people run out of credit before they get through... after all they only have £54 a week to live on. 

With over 1 million employees at Education Inc and revenues of £56 billion, albiet through a somewhat unpopular subscription model, how can this be the current state of the training provision? 

Understandably the experience at the Customer Service Centre raises some alarm for Kids Future regarding the quality and relevance of Education Inc's training. They continue to research the history, management, employees, culture & communications of the organisation.

History – An Out Dated Business Model?
Given Suli Break’s comments and the fact that over 2.5 million young people have had training which hasn't helped them, Kid’s Futures wonders how this company ever managed to get to thousands of branches with millions of customers.

When researching Education Inc’s history market analysts like Sir Ken Robinson, Sugata Mitra & Seth Godin highlight that this was, until recently, a reasonably efficient provider. The problem is that they have not seen and/or managed to keep up with the changes. The training methods used were designed for an economy that is all but gone, so is becoming more and more out dated.

This is not an uncommon scenario to the venture capitalists, they know that incumbent market leaders can be slow to see the changes - Board Members at large established companies can become set in their ways, and see any new industry ideas as “just a fad.” Their hubris means that the company starts to become obsolete... new ideas and business models emerge and take advantage of any inefficiencies or gaps in the market. 

While Education Inc's Head Office ignore the changes, other stakeholders are painfully aware of how out of touch the Directors are. The out dated nature of Education Inc’s business practices is having a detrimental impact on its customers, employees and the many UK PLC companies who employ Education Inc’s customers.

Off the Mark assured Kids Future that their customers are at the core of what they do, but Kids Futures findings suggest that while this may be the intention… it is not always the case, other preoccupations and distractions appear to get in the way.


Board of Directors
The Board do not use their own services, they elect to use a more expensive competitor PrivateEd. Never in the history of the company have Kids Futures ever invested in a company where the owners used a competitors’ services?! 

Chairman of the Board
The Chairman is on a number of boards, so only checks in on Education Inc once in a while, but the Operation Director keeps him up to date with day to day operations and strategic decisions.

Director of Operations 
The Operations Director does not appear to have a good working relationship with his branch managers, he seems to implement ideas with little consultation and/or does not appear to listen to any of his employees ideas or concerns.

Kids Futures are shocked to see the negativity between Education Inc HQ and the local branches. Branch staff tend to use Social Media, and HQ use other methods. 

Off the Mark
Off the Mark claims to work with each of the branches to ensure that quality control is high, but the relationship appears to be a fraught one. There seems to be a lot of animosity, which is a result of too much criticism and not much praise. It is interesting to note that the rival PrivateEd companies have high quality training, but do not have the same preoccupation with generating so much paperwork.

The companies that employ Education Inc's customers highlight that it really can be "a bit of a mixed bag” some of the people & training they provide is great… others not so good. UK PLC agreed that "Education Inc" really hadn’t changed with the times, One company put it very well;

“We fully appreciate how difficult it is to keep up with the pace of change, and understand that it must be difficult to train people for jobs that haven't even been invented yet! We have the same problem. In order for our business to keep up with these unknown changes it’s creativity and attitude/values that really seem to make the difference in the people they send us, but there doesn't seem to be too much emphasis on this.

It's hard to anticipate how business might change in the next 3-4 years and we’re not asking anyone to predict the future... But if Education Inc could just let the people who know their customers best - the people on the shop floor - and let them instill a sense of curiosity, a love of learning then I think we’d all be better off”


Branch Managers 
The Branch Managers showed genuine concern for the quality of training they provided, as well as for the culture they established for their customers and colleagues. However, many did feel that the red tape, out dated procedures, lack of budget and little trust was having a negative influence. The decisions of head office seemed to be having a detrimental impact in almost every area of the Branch Managers work... including their ability to make the much needed changes that could update & improve the training provision.

Customer Service & Trainers

The one group that demonstrated how important the customer was, and what their needs were, were the local Customer Service staff and Trainers.

They were able to demonstrate the most detailed knowledge of each and every user - their strengths & weaknesses, their hopes & aspirations, as well as their training needs & learning styles. The kind of comments we got when we asked “What can you tell us about your customers” were along the lines of; 

“How long have you got… I’ve been working with our customers for 30 years and have taught 3,600 students, I have cared a great deal about each and every customer... so this could take a while.”

When this group was asked about the culture of the organisation, they confirmed the VCs observations - employees at the local centres are doing great work under very tough conditions, but the support from Education Inc HQ "could be better," the lack of respect and trust was disappointing and frustrating.

When asked why they have stayed with the company, the VC's found the kind of resolve, passion, vision and enthusiasm for "creative disruption" that they expect to see in the companies they invest in;

“This is what I was born to do, I’m an educator. The feeling you get when you’re working with a customer who's struggling to understand a concept and then, suddenly, it clicks! They get that 'Ah Ha” moment!'... Or when a customer comes into your class with no confidence, but during the training starts to come out of their shell... Or hearing that the customer who had never been given a chance, who 'didn't think they were "very bright" is heading off to university"... This makes all the negative aspects of the job bearable!” 

When the out dated systems are mentioned the trainers agree that they are obsolete, but their response was "we find ways to work around the system, its not always easy but we care about our customers... Some of these kids face huge challenges and disadvantages, and if we don’t care and try to make a difference to these people's lives… who will?"

It was obvious that the Customer Service Managers and Trainers were intelligent, capable and care a great deal about their customers. They were clearly trying to do great work… but were having to operate from some rigid company policies, which is outdated and/or no longer fit for purpose. 

Culture & Communications 

Just like all the other processes and procedures, the culture and communications at Education Inc was more like what you’d find in the industrial age factory - A top-down, one-way, prescriptive communication method, countless memos to company employees on how they should behave in almost any setting. Every branch and every employee had to behave in a uniform manner regardless of any differences there may be regarding the branch location, individual customer needs or what each staff members' strengths or personality type was.

As with many companies Education Inc say all the right things in their mission statements and annual reports but, the reality is that there are shortcomings with;

1) The relevance of training they provide their customers 

2) Their ability to keep up to date with industires needs 
3) How their employees feel about the way they are treated

Significant improvements would be needed before Education Inc would be of interest to Kids Futures. The recommendations that would need to be implemented before any  Kids Futures investment was made are included below.

Kids Futures... A Reasonable Investment?
When the prospectus for Education Inc arrived it looked like a great investment opportunity, but it’s just too fragmented and bureaucratic. Like other incumbent market leaders since the digital revolution, Education Inc have resisted change and have lost touch with their customer base. 

The music industry made things difficult for the innovative companies like Apple by refusing to allow their music on iTunes. They also threatened users who wanted a digital alternative to CDs with legal action, which alienated their customer base and expedited their demise.     

This is not to say that Education Inc can’t be a great experience for each and every one of its users, it just needs a re-boot and an upgrade.

Complex System – But User Friendly
Any business with over 1 million employees and thousands of branches, which serves an extremely diverse customer base is going to have a lot of complex operational issues.

However, regardless of how complex the business is, in order to be a truly great company, it must be an intuitive, bespoke and enjoyable experience for the user... and, of course, be relevant to their needs.

Google have an army of coders, a city of servers and the most complex algorithms working behind the scenes, but the customer never has any indication of this complexity. All the user needs to do is type their search query into the text box… anyone who can use a keyboard can use Google. The search is relevant, bespoke, easy to use and meets the users needs.

The reason that Apple have great products is because they understand this, and always think of the user experience;

Mac User Manual -   Should be written in a way that a 3rd Grader can understand it.
Ipod -                           You should be able to find any song you are looking for within 3 clicks

Iphone -                        Steve Jobs insisted on the iPhone having a single button. His engineers said for 6 months it was "Impossible" but Jobs, always thinking of the user experience, insisted they found a way to achieve this.

As individuals the people at Head Office were knowledgeable and intelligent, but seemed extremely preoccupied with how popular they were. This has led to the Directors spending vast amounts of time looking for ways to blame others regarding any company shortcomings. This creates something of a toxic organsational culture, where accepting responsibility is perceived as being detrimental to career progression and/or as a sign of weakness. 

While this negative culture could seep into the local branches, the Branch Managers were aware of its disruptive influence and, wherever possible, try to limit its impact. 

We found some of the best people we have ever met at the local branches! These are the kind of people that are needed if Kids Futures are to get a good ROI from Education Inc, not to mention providing better training for their customers, or to help UK PLC to achieve their strategic goals and meet it's forecasts and growth projections.  

Millions trust these people with their children every day (although not the company’s Directors!), indeed Education Inc employs some of the most trusted people, but the Board do not seem to realise this.

Something that any investor will look for is how passionate are the people about what they do? Do they “love what they do; and do what they love.”

Many at Head Office appeared to be jaded, unenthusiastic, closed minded & uninspiring... even though many had only been in post for 2-3 years. However, there was plenty of passion within each branch.

Not only did many employees tell us that teaching is what they always wanted to do but, when customers were asked about any positive experiences they had with Education Inc, each and every one included comments about Education Inc employees who;

“Clearly loved what they did! And it showed! They made learning engaging and fun… They brought the subject to life... In fact I work in the field I do today because of Mr/Mrs X's passion for the subject. He/she was so enthusiastic about the subject that is was infectious… it was contagious... and I guess I caught the bug!”

The dichotomy of practices between Head Office and the Local Branches was evident in the culture.

Kid’s Futures was delighted to hear that there were regular board meetings at Education Inc HQ every Wednesday, but to sit in on the meeting was really something of an experience... the potential investors were quite shocked!

The meeting was chaos from start to finish, the entire time was spent arguing about why one department was doing a “less worse job” than all the other departments. From what the VC's observed nothing productive was achieved from the meeting… the scene was more like one of the rowdiest playgrounds they visited rather than a board meeting.

It was obvious that this group was in charge of commissioning Off the Mark with the company’s quality control, their idea of improvement was not dissimilar to these board meetings - to constantly criticise and humiliate – as well as threatening Branch Managers with redundancy and closure if productivity was not improved upon.

While there were complaints about Head Office practices and culture at each branch, the Branch Managers worked around this to make the most of what they had. Sure there were some disillusioned employees, a result of living with yeas of criticism about their ability and productivity but, in the main, everyone just got on with it and made the best of the situation... and endeavoured to make the customer experience as positive as possible.

This confusing relationship between Head Office and Branch Employees seemed to cause something of an ambivalent relationship with all Education Inc’s stakeholders - their customers, employees and UK PLC companies. 

In order for Kids Futures make any investment this would 
need to be addressed, with a lot less criticism and a lot more collaboration! Kids Futures' recommendations would be to look at the oganisational culture of companies like Google, Apple, Zappos and other successful companies, as Frances Cairneross observes;

"The common characteristic of success is the deliberate creation of a positive culture"

Education Inc & Kids Futures - Making an Investment
How might Education Inc achieve this kind of culture with thousands of centres, a million employees and millions of customers? 

Trust the people on the ground! They are doing a great job! But they are constrained, give them more autonomy! Tell them to get creative, collaborate with any and all stakeholders who want to help - whether at a local, regional or national level.

Will this mean Education Inc is standardised? No! But is PrivateEd Standardised?
Will giving up control be counter intuitive and scary? Absolutely!
Will mistakes be made? Almost certainly!
Lisa Endersby highlights that it might even be a bit of a messy process
Would the "people on the ground" make any worse of a job than the current system?

A Wake Up Call

...Unfortunately at this point I was abruptly awoken from my day dream (but at least it wasn't due to a flying duster! For the benefit of younger students - and teachers - a duster is a block of wood which was an old fashioned delete button. The flying part is because there was once a time when it was the teachers who threw stuff about if they were in a strop... Oh, how the times have changed).

But I did wonder if we might ever get to the stage where we took a bite out of Apple's model and have an Education System where the government provides the central platform (iTunes Store) but we have a million developers creating their own apps (Educators) that their users (Learners) love because there is more choice, the learning material is more suited to their needs... and more fun.

Is there a precedent for this?

Obviously there is the Finnish Education System which has no standardized tests, teachers are trained to assess children using independent tests they create themselves; or Private Education where there is minimal intervention...

But these examples don't really help to suggest how you might go from a centralised system to a local model. Are there other precedents where a once very centralised system has been changed to one where more decisions are made by the individual? 

I remember reading a article about how the US Army was moving from their rigid system of giving orders to each unit to a more efficient method of communication. What did they come up with? By telling the troops what the overall objective was.

So, if the mission was "to protect this hill" then each unit would obviously utilise their training and experience, but were also empowered to use their initiative to achieve the goal. It's fitting that this featured in an article about how great leaders beak the rules!

What's the worst that could happen if policy makers said

"Go Educate our young people? Find out what their goals are... then find whoever you need to (within or outside the school/college), whoever might be able help give each student the skills, encouragement, motivation or whatever else to help them achieve their goals"

Don't know the Answer? Get into groups and discuss it... Collaborate!
It's perhaps worth asking how does the success rate of any top-down education initiatives compare with any projects that are established because someone is passionate about their idea?

If any "top-down" ideas are unpopular with educators, how passionate will they be about the initiative? If there is little enthusiasm for it, how successful is it likely to be?

When we see programmes like "Jamie's Dream Schools," or Bank of Daves "PopUp Talent Shop" etc these are neither uniform or standardised... they aren't even conventional! But one thing that they all share is that the people involved are passionate about making it work. They share their vision and get "buy in" from whoever they need to achieve their goal... which usually involves changing the status quo and making a difference.

At the InnoTech Conference I found out about one of these fantastic and "unique relationships" between Ogilvy and Ravensbourne... I wonder if Kid Futures would be more likely to invest in this particular branch of "Education Inc"?  

A similar initiative that could help compliment and assist educators in paving the way, and help set students on the right path is - Pave (who needs to hurry up with their roll out across the USA and get over here).

Initiatives like these look like ones that just might set Suli Breaks and his friends down a different road... and that will have made all the difference!

Educators want to make a difference and will tell you the status quo is not working for far too many students... so if the Government has the time and enthusiasm for InnoTech and are willing to listen to the start up scene; then why not have InnoEdu "An event designed to accelerate innovation and reform in UK Education by bringing together educators, policy makers, business leaders and investors”

... If this doesn't happen you can't help get the feeling that the "exciting startup scene" won't be all that exciting for very long. If these start ups can't find people with the skills, attitudes, values or whatever abilities are required to allow students to take advantage of the opportunities that will help these emerging start ups to develop and grow.

...Here's the Pitch
Maybe the answer to when would Kids Futures invest in Education Inc would be when the model is simplified enough for a 3rd grade user to understand 

"At Education Inc we have passionate and highly skilled educators who we trust and empower to inspire our young people. We encourage them to be passionate and creative, to find and collaborate with anyone who can help our customers to find their place within UK PLC" 

NB I've no money to invest... but I am happy to invest all the time in the world for anyone with this kind of business model!

Maybe the answer to such a simple business model has a simple solution. Let educators take the lead more... then sit back and enjoy the ride! 

It might just be the upgrade "Education Inc" and "UK PLC" is looking for... It's got to be a better business plan than one that involves living in the past with an out dated system.

If you liked this post you may like "Are you Smart Enough to Work at Google" by William Poundstone; "Linchpin" by Seth Godin and "Confessions of an Ad Man" by David Ogilvy.

PS Suli Breaks If you read this... Great video! You may also be interested to know that I failed O-Grade English three times... (sat it 3 times because I was told it was important) got 3 "D" Grades but I did alright without it... Like you, I decided not to let my (rather poor) exam results decide my fate...

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Start Up Education

Are there any similarities between EdTech Start Ups and Educators? Do any differences make collaboration more of a challenge? Are there lessons that both groups can learn from each other?

I joined two discussions on EdTech this week, one was “The Education Innovation Summit” hosted by Arizona State University, where an extremely intelligent group of people who are passionate about education met to discuss how they are going to “Massively Creatively Disrupt Education” using Technology

Later in the day I joined another extremely intelligent group who are even more passionate about education as @blairteach @cybraryman1 @tomwhitby @web20classroom moderated their weekly #EdChat session, although this discussion looked like it might be quite different to the one taking place at Arizona. The topic here was “Why the push for technology in education? What does tech enable in education that could not be done without it?”

You might expect the views of these 2 groups to be quite different but, from what I could see, there was a great deal of consensus between the two forums. In the main, attendees at both events agreed that nothing will replace great educators... although there were some strong recommendations for, as well as some criticisms of, EdTech suppliers at both events.

Any Tech startup who has any hopes of becoming the next Google surely understands the value of getting to know their customers – working with them to find “product market fit,” knowing that you are ready to roll out when your “Net Promoter Score” is high within the "early adopter" market etc.

So it is concerning to see that some in EdTech can be either out of touch with Educators and/or can demonstrate more than a little insensitivity to their prospective customers. The rhetoric which can be used by some is along the lines of our EdTech will; 

Revolutionize this "inefficient, failing market"
Eventually replace the need for educators 

These may be the kind of statements that are required to attract VC funding but any “upstart” startups who are effectively implying "Educators are rubbish at their jobs and we have plans are to replace them" then it's easy to see why educators may not welcome EdTech with open arms! 

However if are able to look beyond the rhetoric, bravado & chutzpah could there be some valuable lessons for both groups? Could more collaboration help the most important stakeholder… our young people?

1) Educators – The speakers at the Education Summit continuously advised the young upstart, start ups to treat education with respect and highlighted that nothing can replace great teachers. I particularly liked the advice that Mike Feinberg, Steve Case & Jim Shelton had for any young ambitious company who might be looking to “massively disrupt” the status quo.

2) EdTech companies – In the event that you need any further validation of the advice given at the conference you should check out Tuesdays #EdChat archives to see how sick and tired educators are of bad products and aggressive sales tactics.

There is always that damned unfulfilled promise of FLYING CARS! #Edchat

Companies have a responsibility to sell their crap, we have a responsibility to call it crap if it is ;) #Edchat

Whatever the reasons, the lack of cooperation & collaboration (mistrust even) between Education & EdTech Startups perpetuates a vicious cycle.... Without educators insight and perspective, EdTech startups can never fully understand their customers needs... this will lead to more inferior products... leading to greater suspicion and mistrust. 

A key frustration that educators express is that the comments and actions of some stakeholders implies that they are not doing a good job, which leads to mistrust and suspicion with educators & policy makers... Irony or what?!

The State of Education 
More irony may be that any mention of "massive creative disruption" from Scilicon Valley may be unwelcome and seen as an attack on educators ability. While educators may not call it "creative disruption" they most certainly discuss how urgent the need for education reform is amongst themselves, and applaud two of the most trusted voices in education when they suggest that;

“Education is supposed to take us into a future that we can’t grasp… but nobody has a clue. Despite all the expertise we don’t know what the world will look like in 5 years time, yet we’re meant to be educating students for it” Sir Ken Robinson, Ted Talk

Likewise Sugata Mitra knows the value of great educators but argues that “Education isn’t broken, it’s obsolete” Sugata Mitra, Ted Prize winner 2013. In addition to this Mitra's Self Organised Learning Environment has similar attributes to MOOCs, although the two learning concepts can be perceived very differently by educators.   

One of the biggest challenges that educators cite seems to be the lack of innovation due to bureaucracy – whether the red tape takes the form of Government constrictions (standardised tests etc), Budget Cuts, or fear of failure from Education Leaders.

“If [kids] don’t know [the answer] they’ll have a go they’re not frightened of being wrong…if you’re not prepared to be wrong you’ll never come up with anything original…” Sir Ken Robinson. 

It's interesting to compare Sir Ken’s comments with David Feinleib's, Venture Capitalist & author of "Why Start Ups Fail," observations 

“The history of successful companies is often rewritten to make it look like they tried one thing and that their idea worked for them from the start. Most companies tried multiple ideas and products before they hit the right one. They failed repeatedly until they succeeded. Companies do not get it right the first time… the first Macintosh and the first release of Windows simply were not right—both needed major overhauls before they could become the runaway successes they represent today. 

Startups make mistakes when they are starting out, but Sir Ken observes that “We stigmatize mistakes, we’re now running our education system where mistakes are the worst things you can make” 

How did Apple & Microsoft manage to succeed while they “pivoted” and searched for “Product Market Fit”? This was only possible by keeping in close touch with their customers and the other participants in the emerging PC marketplace. And all stakeholders understood that these were new and cutting edge ideas and that teething issues would be inevitable.

So if the rhetoric of EdTech companies is preventing collaboration, and educations culture of stigmatising mistakes means that products must be perfect from the outset, it's no wonder there is disappointment... It's hardly a match made in heaven!

Trust – Poor Products & “Alpha” Personalities
I wonder if 2 of the main reasons that mistrust between EdTech companies and educators build up as a result of;

1) There being very few products that live up to the claims made by the company and/or their sales teams

Any products that don't live up to expectations are almost entirely a result of the lack of collaboration. The most successful EdTech companies will almost certainly be the ones who have fostered close working relationships with the sector.

2) There is something of a culture clash due to some potentially differing personalities; 

Educators                                                    EdTech Startups
Nurture young minds                    Vs             Business people 
Caring personalities                      Vs             “Alpha Male” personalities 
Conservative and/or Risk Averse Vs              Disruptive risk takers

It's hardly surprising if educators do not take too kindly to a young gun ho maverick who talk about “massively creatively disrupting education,” or when some alpha male types get a bit over zealous and say stupid things like “XYZ product will replace teachers” – Who is going to want to collaborate with someone that says “One day my gizmo will replace you and do your job”

Digital photography disrupted Kodak & Jessops but we take more photos than ever before; online retailers are affecting high street shops, but we still buy stuff... Apple revolutionised music to the detriment of the established market leaders in the industry, but we still have performing artists. I cannot imagine a day when we will not have a need for great educators who bring learning to life and inspire a life long love of learning in our young people.

Of all the professions who know what it’s like to be mistrusted because of the very small minority of mediocre practitioners... surely its educators? 

For Profit Sharks or Would be Educators?
So what would happen if we were able to put the rhetoric, differences in personality types (and the 1-2 idiot CEO’s/Founders) to one side for a moment and take a closer look?

Educators, would you recommend teaching as a profession? Your answer to a question like this might be along the lines of “I love working with the kids and making a difference to young people's lives but... I hate the culture/mistrust/testing/lack of career progression/lack of freedom to innovate due to sticking to the curriculum*”
*Delete as appropriate

If we take the way that educators are treated and then consider how “Generation Y/Millennial’s” lack patience and/or want instant results, does this mean that a generation of would-be educators are electing to “disrupt the status quo” rather than join it? A great example of would-be-educators might be to take a look at the Tioki founders background, some of whom have spent time teaching in the classroom, but elected to try to make a difference by founding a company instead.

Big Pay Day... Or Paying Something Back?
Today more than ever young people want to make a difference, as much as make a profit. If you watch Steve Case or Jim Shelton’s presentations you will hear how tough EdTech is. If the majority of EdTech Founders were just out to make a quick buck, you can’t help thinking that they would (or should) choose another sector. Steve Case suggests that EdTech companies can expect to wait10+ years before their services might transform education... he suggested that staying in business may well be more on the startups' mind, more than any thoughts of making huge profits. There are over 400 $1billion+ companies in health care; there are only 1-2 $1billion+ companies in education

Furthermore if you talk to founders of companies that become really successful, you will hear them talk about how profit is a byproduct of their passions and doing good work… some techies even change the world... but don’t make any profit at all; 

Speaking from experience, there are easier ways to make money than trying to introduce EdTech products to educators!

Common Ground… The Brutal Realities! 
I saw the Dali Lama speak at a conference a few years ago and will never forget how he opened his speech with a profound lesson in identity. He said “I am a human being, I am a Tibetan, I am a Tibetan Monk, I am the Dali Lama” He continued “I can choose which aspect of my identity I want to focus on. If I focus on the fact that I am the Dali Lama, I will be quite lonely… But if I choose to think of myself as a human being I have 6 billion friends that I haven’t met yet”

What would happen if we said "Hey we're all in education... so I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt" Or at the very least I am sure that there are some areas that all stakeholders can agree on regarding education today? 

Stockdale Paradox in Education – The Brutal Realities
In my last post I highlighted the story of Admiral Stockdale whose experiences has been coined "The Stockdale Paradox" by Jim Collins, I think most stakeholders would agree that;

1) The economy stinks
2) Youth Unemployment is horrendous
3) Political policy – whether economic or education is ineffectual.
4) Young people are becoming disengaged with learning in a knowledge economy 
5) The Finnish Education Model is universally praised

The overall result is that too many young people are disillusioned with education and with their life chances. Given the state of their prospects, the estates and/or conditions that they live in or social mobility’s’ horrendous record lately... who can blame them for being disillusioned?

In today's age of the blog and social media there are so many ideas, proposed solutions and perspectives that the range of options and opinions are dizzying, which can only be a good thing right? Actually so many ideas and so much choice can lead to “decision paralysis,” we find there are too many choices, so we end up sticking with the status quo. 

However, whether we listen to Sir Ken, Sugata Mitra, the numerous Education reformers on Twitter demanding to “Save Our Schools,” or the “disruptive upstart startups” the brutal reality is that the status quo is not working.

But this does leave the problem that there are just too many views, ideas, opinions… and too much choice. Even the most effective Education policy makers would struggle to assess and implement them all. 

If we add the "brutal realities" from Sir Ken's observations, or the evidence we have from how technology has disrupted the retail, music, media, photography industries, all of whom dismissed any possible digital threat as "A passing fad" then;

1) We haven’t a clue what the future will look like
2) New ideas need to be tested as we need to teach students for jobs that don’t even exist yet.
3) If Educators don’t implement changes then EdTech Companies are most likely to continue toward the march of "massively creatively disrupting Education" …although their services and our students may well be worse off without Educators input.  

It's perhaps also worth asking - Would you like to return to a time before you had ipad/ipods, Mobiles or the convenience and choice that Amazon and other online retailers provide? I think that the previous experts and market leaders at the industries who were "massively disrupted" might, but not their consumers... 

Education! Education! Education! …Meets Culture! Culture! Culture! 
EdTech Startups liaising with Education to ensure that their products achieve “Product-Market Fit” would certainly help to improve the latest tech toys & gadgets. But could greater collaboration provide wider benefits? Could it help to address issues of "decision paralysis" with good ideas? Could EdTech startups business methodology and experience play a role in organising, planning and testing the many suggestions and ideas to help with education reform? 

If I were looking for workable, practical answers for educators I would be more inclined to look to the organizations that are renowned for their great cultures, have experience of challenging & changing the status quo and have the ability to turn good ideas to marketable products. The last place I would look for such answers are from people who have made a mess of the economy, can’t control their own budgets (i.e. Deficit plans), cannot control organisations where they are the majority shareholder (Banks) or who treat their employees badly (Morale in Education seems pretty low to me)… or who have, frankly, made a mess of education!

Now it's easy to criticize and, as a rule I don't (or at least not on social media anyway!)... But my argument here is that there is a difference between criticism and facts! There are many teachers who also question many aspects of governmental policy. Maybe its not untested top-down, large-scale bureaucratic changes that are needed but numerous green shoots of innovation? 

Small Scale Education

An interesting point for educators, EdTech startups and policy makers might be the fact that this is the way things used to be. Governments have not always been so involved with education, there was a time when small-scale private enterprises were a lot more involved;

“Until the 19th Century, the small scale enterprises which provided the bulk of formal education were, typically, private concerns. The early universities were also independent; while in some societies there was a mixture of religious and charitable concerns. With the rise of the Nation State, and the development of the industrial society, all this changed. Education came to be viewed as a core responsibility of the state, and came more and more under tight state control… [as part of the] increasing tendency for government to actively involve itself in every area of social life.”  Alison Wolf “Does Education Matter,” 

Like so many other commentators Wolf goes on to question the conventional wisdom, and argues that we don't need more of the same; that continuing with the status quo risks undermining the very quality of the education we value.   

Thomas Friedman (Author of “The World is Flat) and Dr Tony Wagner (Harvard Education Specialist) make this same point by highlighting that “More than a century ago, we ‘reinvented’ the one-room schoolhouse and created factory schools for the industrial economy. Reimagining schools for the 21st-century must be our highest priority” 

Obviously educators need to work within the parameters of government policy but, at the same time they are "a bit rubbish" and are letting our kids down.

Starting Up Education Reform - Mistakes & Innovation
When looking to break any decision paralysis by assessing and exploring new ideas, collaborating with startups may well provide a useful model. 

I have highlighted previously how Further Education can replicate some of the practices of successful tech companies from a Business Development perspective and culture in education. Can educators learn from the way that successful start ups iterate their way to “product-market fit;” constantly experimenting and “pivoting” until they have a marketable product that can be rolled out? Would the advice & processes of successful entrepreneurs help educators to assess new ideas? What might this include? Would it be

1) Finding the right people – With any new idea you need early adopters who explore and experiment with finding new methods. If an idea has potential this group helps test the hypothesis, collaborate to "fix the bugs" and then spread the word to other groups when it becomes a really cool product.

2) Passion – Both start ups and educators will be all too aware of how difficult it is trying to engage someone who lacks enthusiasm on your team. Whether we’re talking about great products or great teachers – passion is a key ingredient... the same applies for new ideas, they require enthusiasm & commitment in order to overcome the obstacles to make them work. 

3) Product Market Fit – It takes a lot of experimentation, including a fair bit of trial & error before you find a workable concept that's suitable for prospective users. 

4) Target Market – Knowing which target market an idea will work in is key something may be a “great idea” for highly motivated & talented students, but not for less able students (i.e. MOOCs). 

5) Focus – The EdTech Startups that excel are the ones that have focus; they do one thing very well in 1-2 niche target markets… They don’t over stretch themselves by working on too many new ideas, projects or commitments. They also have manageable roll out/growth plans.

So if we accept that the status quo isn’t working and there are too many different views on the best way forward, would the best model be that educators who share an interest in an idea or learning concept in coming together to explore the possibilities? Guess what… It already happens.

Each week hundreds of educators who are passionate about different “niche markets” in education come together, to discuss best practice on various issues... all of which is unpaid and takes place outside of work time. With technology this includes - 1:1 programs, Assistive Technologies, Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT), Creating Innovators - Innovation & Creativity in Education, Flipped classroom, Game Based Learning, ipad, Early Childhood EdTech & EdTech in general (in its first week this discussion had 360 people coming together to share their ideas & best practice)

Making a Difference
Educators go into education to inspire young people, instill a love of learning and to make a difference in their students' lives... These goals are more difficult to achieve when your hands are tied by the bonds of ineptitude and indifference by people who don't believe in their own product, send their kids off to private schools and say that 
their kids are not political footballs WELL NEITHER ARE ANYONE ELSE'S!! Mike Feinberg makes this point very well in this video.

From what I can see educators could do a lot worse than to find out more about EdTech startups culture... there even appears to be at least one very high profile and successful precedent in education for this…

Just in case you are not convinced…
From what I have read about successful Tech & Startups and the much praised and admired Finnish Education System, it sounds a lot like the Finnish Education culture behaves a bit like a “Start Up Education” system.  

"Finland has no standardized tests… the public school system's teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves" 

Joe Mazza, from Knapp Elementary, spent a week in Finland and here are his findings from the trip, which I think encapsulates a level of trust and culture more like a start up than your typical education system. You can read more about Mazza's visit here - Penn-Finn13 Learnings

These principles are also starting to be employed in some other schools & education systems – The Lean Startup Model Goes to School

I hope that this (rather lengthy) post demonstrates that EdTech startups and educators may have more in common than it might first appear.

…And Finally
If you liked this post I am about to publish a report on “Technology in Education – Developing Relationships & Delivering Value” which discusses some practical ways that educators could collaborate with EdTech startups, and ways to make sure prospective providers have a commitment to quality products in education. Subscribe to this blog if you’d like receive a copy of this report when it’s ready

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Lessons in Adversity - Teaching Resilience

"What I don't understand is why, all of a sudden, my dad is so broke" 

This may be the kind of comment that educators hear quite often these days, as students may be having to experience and endure adversity because of the economic climate. Ever consider what the medium or long term impact that these challenging times might hold as these youngsters grow up?

The comment above is what one bright young student told his 4th grade teacher. However, this particular comment was from a few years ago, and any temporary financial setbacks he and his family faced did not have too much of an adverse affect on this young lads' prospects... his name was Steve Jobs. 

Indeed, some commentators say adversity may actually have helped. Malcolm Gladwell highlights this by looking at the experiences of post WW2 Jewish immigrant families in the 1950's who came to the US with nothing but a strong work ethic 

"The most important consequence of the miracle of US Immigrants was what happened to the children growing up in these homes where meaningful work was practiced. Imagine what it must have been like to watch the meteoric rise of their parents through the eyes of their children. They learned a crucial lesson: if you work hard enough, assert yourself and use your mind, you can shape the world to your desires. The Farkas study traces Jewish family trees and has pages of virtually identical outcomes, until the conclusion becomes inescapable: Jewish doctors and lawyers did not become professionals in spite of their humble origins. They became professionals because of their humble origins."

Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, had similar experiences. He faced adversity growing up as this was during the 1930's depression and his dad lost his job when he broke his leg. “If your dad had been successful, maybe you wouldn't have had as much drive as you do.” a friend once commented to which Schultz agreed, part of what drove him was a fear of failure.

In "Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression" Studs Terkel documents the impact growing up in depression had on a generation and how it affected them - keeping their money under their beds, never getting credit, saving more for a rainy day and that children growing up under these conditions became over-achievers - they wanted to ensure that they would always have money so that their kids would never share the experiences that they had.

All of which give weight to Andrew Carnegie's observation that; 

"It is not the rich man’s son that the young struggler for advancement has to fear in the race of life. Let him look out for the “dark horse” in the boy who begins by sweeping out the office"

I wonder what the impact will be on this generation who are enduring some horrendous experiences as they grow up and enter the work place? These experiences just might prove to be useful;

"I look for a trajectory in background stories, because that's a far better indicator of focus, intelligence and experience than what you can glean from a CV. For instance, an Ivy League alum with a high GPA is great, but even better is the person who was the first in the family to go to college and did well while working an extra job" Todd Carlisle, Google HR Manager

Can and should educators be using examples like the ones above and of Shackleton, Lincoln, Victor Frankel, stories from the Great Depression for people who all of a sudden face unsettling changes and, in some cases, terrible disruption and horrendous living conditions to give them hope? 

Its not as if these things have not been taught in the past. In "Does Education Matter" Alison Wolf observes that 

"We have almost forgotten that education had any purpose other that to promote [economic] growth. To read government documents of even 50 years ago, let along commentaries of the 19th Century, gives one a shock. Of course, their authors recognised that education had relevance to people's livelihoods and to the nation's prosperity. But their concern was as much, if not more, related to values, citizenship, the nature of good society & the intrinsic benefits of learning"

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Picks up on this by highlighting that "Ideally the end of extrinsically applied education should be the start of an education that is motivated intrinsically. At that point the goal of studying is no longer to make the grade, earn a diploma, and find a good job. Rather, it is to understand what is happening around you, to develop a personally meaningful sense of one’s experience. 

Finding meaning in these experiences is surely a priority, after all if you all of a sudden find that you're living in a car or eating rats how are students who are living through this supposed to concentrate? Its easy to see why their poverty might make them too traumatized to focus on school