Monday, 24 November 2014

What's Happening... At ClassDojo? Motivation, Media and the Facts

As the ongoing search for "Product Market Fit" continues I've found it useful to stop and take stock. In this post I share some of the lessons learnt... and let people know why I have no problem helping and supporting a few EdTech organisations that I am not involved with.

I've been reviewing the goals that I set myself two years ago, along with some of the ideas that I've bounded around with my PLN to try to determine why these projects didn't get the necessary buy in and to assess the best course of action going forward.

I've reviewed and am updating various projects and reports, including my Twitter in FE report, Business Development Ideas for FE and my Technology report.

By happy coincidence I've been updating this while reading Nick Bilton's book about Twitters early days "Hatching Twitter" and the trials and tribulations that it took to hatch that inoffensive (And what some would call pointless) little "What's Happening?" text box... A text box that's changed the world.

I don't know why I thought this, but I had assumed that Twitter was one of those companies that had a charmed existence... one that found it's "Product Market Fit" straight away and was an overnight success. No chance! Those companies don't exist. Twitter when through many of the same painful growing pains that any other young company goes through.

I imagine that I will be discussing this book in a number of future posts, today I want to focus on;

1) The roll out process of Twitter, and
2) The role that the vision and motivations of the founders had with the roll out

I would then like to apply these ideas to ClassDojo to highlight why I'd encourage educators to also show their support... Which they are already doing.

Roll Out & Product Market Fit
There is one comment from Hatching Twitter that jumped out and appealed to me a great deal;

"If people are going to embrace these new technologies, they will do so of their own accord, not because a company willed them to"

We get a clear example of this from the data when reviewing my Twitter in FE report. When I wrote this report 2 years ago just over 50% of colleges included Social Media icons on their homepage... Today all but 16 do!

How many FE conferences has Twitter sales people attended? How many sales calls or presentations have they made to individual colleges? None?

Like other successful companies the product sold itself. Here's Google Founder Larry Page's attitude towards marketing;

It was only when a product stopped working better than the competition that branding became a factor. By then you'd already lost. For a long time, Larry refused to even use the B word - because "branding" implied that the technology alone was insufficient for success.... Larry made it clear "If we can't win on quality, we shouldn't win at all" In his view, winning by marketing alone would be deceitful, because it would mean people had been tricked into using an inferior service against their own best interests" Doug Edwards, I'm Feeling Lucky

The trend is a familiar one with the top tech companies, we saw Apple pay get 1 million users in the first 72 hours of being launched.

There are not too many EdTech companies that can be included in the list of "Companies who have enjoyed rapid roll out because of product market fit" but ClassDojo is one of them.

Motivation & Vision
Something that always stands out with the founders of companies with this kind of growth is that their motivation and vision drives them, often at their complete disregard for revenue... at least when you compare revenue with this vision and the quality of the product/service.

"Ev had know all along that it had never been about the money... It was about making a dent in the universe." 

For Ev making a dent included giving people a voice. I did not know that Evan Williams was the founder of blogger, Twitter and Medium. Blogger and Twitter have become my window to the outside world. After reading some of Evans "Inside Medium" posts, as well as checking out some of the features of Medium, I will be using Medium and letting Educators know why it makes sense to use it for students too.

In Hatching Twitter another founder, Biz Stone, appears in the book to be unmoved by the power of celebrity or governments trying to influence any of Twitters decisions.Today Biz is supporting students through the fantastic "Circle the Schools" project and the Biz and Olivia Stone Foundation.

These 2 founders managed a team of 35 people from 2006-2009 and had made it onto the Time 100 Most Influential People and the Oprah show, as the service went from sending 5,000 Tweets a day in 2007, to 300,000 in to 35 million a day in 2009 (Noah Glass and Jack Dorsey also founded Twitter but were not always involved in the day to day operations).

What would Twitter be today without sticking to this vision? A mouth piece for mainstream media because they decided to sell to the first suitor? A plug in for Facebook? A forum that has the same kind of cosy relationships as other media moguls?

To use just one example that is topical for the ClassDojo founders, Twitter and Facebook took a very different stance with regard to user privacy. One of these companies appear to be doing what they like and using it data for ads; the other stuck to their guns and their vision.

Uber Annoying
All of these game changing companies start out with a handful of staff and I find it amazing to consider what these small but determined groups achieve... especially when you compare it with the status quo!

Twitter had 30 staff and millions of users and Tweets, ClassDojo has less than 50 staff and 35 million users. Give me these innovators over the 600 MPs who spend their days sitting around and arguing amongst themselves which party is the least useless any day of the week!

Here's an example, this week a few MPs dropped in at the annual Association of Colleges Conference, no doubt to remind delegates how great they and their party's education policies were... meanwhile over at Parliament Square students were protesting, some of whom were being beaten and arrested for protesting. Unsurprisingly, the mainstream press didn't cover the protests.

However, the press have picked up the issue student data and privacy with ClassDojo recently.

On Monday I saw an article called "Privacy concerns for ClassDojo and other tracking apps for school children" (NB Not including the link here demonstrates my contempt for the article).

Following the horrendous coverage of the Scottish Independence Referendum, the first thing that I think of when I see any news article these days is "Why is this publication producing this story? Why now? What's the angle? ClassDojo has been growing rapidly for a few years now, what's happened? A leak with some student data?

Nope. It might be argued that the press is at odds with any Silicon Valley tech companies who stores user data because of one company. This focus on ClassDojo may have been inspired by the ridesharing app Uber "Uber taken to task over anti-journalist privacy debacle," so are journalists turning on any startup that holds data?

Class Act
Please don't see this post as me dismissing the seriousness of the privacy debate but. However, the fact is that you simply do not grow to 35 million users with 1 in 3 US schools using a service in 2-3 years, without getting an a lot of things right... and from the outset!

The press articles I've read detail that ClassDojo developed their service AFTER interviewing and collaborating with educators! Their market research highlighted that class behaviour was one of the biggest issues.

I was not surprised to see the education community come out to rally round in support of ClassDojo. I am happy to add my voice in support of them, and I would ask anyone reading this to circulate this ClassDojo response to their followers: What the New york Times Got Wrong

It is also my belief that ClassDojo can actually turn this negative press into a positive and that their growth plans will not be affected by this negative press. I will be exploring some ideas in future posts.

In the mean time we have seen what negative PR can do around the privacy debate with InBloom and, as Barak Obama says in the Audacity of Hope, "I am whatever the press say I am"

So I would encourage educators to explore the facts around this story, compare any privacy concerns with ClassDojo's own data policies, look into the motivations and visions of the founders and, as always, the proof is in the pudding... Go ask the ClassDojo users and mentors about their experiences with this student behaviour tool... as well as the responsive bevhaviour of the company to educators ideas.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Start Up Education - Some Practical Examples

Twitter, Facebook, Ello, MyBook, School Circles
...Never Ending Innovation
Recently I've blogged about the importance of independent education institutions like academies/charter schools and the role that can play in Education reform, as well as their involvement with corporate organisations. These ideas have been discussed since I opened my blog, but recently I've focused on Newlands Junior College.

In this post I want to highlight that how and why this isn't a case of bias, but more an issue of size and autonomy...Having similar attributes to a startup enables these schools to do things that other types of schools may struggle to implement.

This isn't meant as a criticism, it happens in all sectors and even Tech giants can be susceptible... Yahoo was once the undisputed king of search, that was until "The little Engine that could" came along aka Google. Today there is speculation about whether or not Ello will unsurp the mighty Facebook.

I opened my blog as I wanted to highlight the importance of collaboration with various members of the community, as this appeared to be a differentiating factor between privileged private education and deprived inner city schools. My argument (In the form of a mini-novel)) was that "It Takes a Village to Raise a Child"

My most read blog post is "Start Up Education" which details what educators and EdTech companies can learn from each other. Given my interest in more collaboration involving a variety of stakeholders and exploring new ways of engaging our students I am extremely excited to hear about;

2) San Francisco's #OneCity initiative (especially their "Circle the Schools" project), and 
3) Some of the things that Activate Learning is doing.

But does any excitement and support for these alternative models mean that I don't value "traditional" schools and colleges and less? Absolutely not! Quite the opposite!

I'm supportive of these schools and colleges because their fresh perspective means that they are unencumbered by tradition, and their size and autonomy means that they can very quickly drop what isn't working and focus on what is.

These lean organisations are more likely to be the pioneers who can help with edreform that all educators can benefit from (For the same reasons I cite in my EdTech report). These schools are not necessarily "better." But having the freedom of effectively being a start up just makes them different and, arguably, this difference makes them better placed to test new ideas. 

Trapped in a Blender...?
"You are shrunk to the height of a penny and thrown into a blender. Your mass is reduced so that your density is the same as usual. The blades start moving in 60 seconds. What do you do?

This is one of the first questions that greets readers of William Poundstones book, Are you Smart Enough to Work at Google?

On first inspection this may sound like a silly interview question but (after had giving up thinking of a reasonable answer) I looked at the back of the book... and thought the rationale for the question was fantastic!

If you were shrunk to the size of a penny, your body mass would be reduced and you'd be strong enough to leap like Superman, right out of the blender.

Poundstone goes on to explain that the question is a metaphor. The growth of a company is all about change of scale. Solutions that work when something is small does not necessarily work as its scope expands.

Social Media
The issue of social media in mainstream education demonstrates this very well. I'm updating some college data at the moment, while reading Nick Bilton's book "Hatching Twitter"

Twitter started out as "a fun side project" but the companies main service floundered, and the founders found their "product market fit" was adjacent to what they were working on. Dave Feinleib observes this is typical in "Why Startups Fail" and the importance of testing new ideas... which is easier for smaller organisations;

"Changing the focus of a startup is not like the metamorphosis of a traditional business - Like trying to turn a high end clothing store into a construction company. Instead it is more akin to altering the type of food a restaurant serves. Although the cuisine the customers are served changes, sometimes drastically, the same chefs and wit staff can be used to make and serve it." Hatching Twitter

Today educators dominate Twitter, thanks to the trailblazers who explored the medium and became advocates of micro-blogging. But the coverage and uptake remains patchy in places.

A few years ago I compiled a list of College Twitter accounts and discovered that around 50% of UK colleges had Social Media icons on the college homepage. Today almost all colleges have a Twitter account and an icon on the homepage. Quite an impressive roll out! But the process followed the same pattern  

1) Early Adopters who pioneered Twitter... Who was the first educator on Twitter? Can you imagine the resistance did he/she get when trying to convince colleagues of the benefits of micro-blogging?

2) Early majority: as EdChat's started to appear others would have joined in

3) Late majority: We now have events like connected Educator Month to try to encourage people to get connected

4) Laggards... Pockets of resistance remain. While colleges have gone from blocking to displaying social media on their webpages there is still an on-going struggle to get all members of staff to get the value of social media, blogging and collaborating with the outside world. 

While connected educators continue to encourage the laggards, I wonder if these new, smaller institutions have had the same discussions and challenges regarding social media. We are seeing that some of these schools welcome any and all kinds of collaboration with various's encouraged and (in some cases) is even part of the curriculum. 

No-one would suggest that we use students as guinea pigs to test new ideas in education, but we still need to innovate given the pace of change. Pioneers who are ready, willing and able to innovate is more crucial than ever. This is easier to do in small, autonomous groups than in larger, more bureaucratic one.

When these new models come with a "Cast Iron Guarantee" of a college place or a job, what's the worst that could happen? Especially when the provision is for students who are already disengaged with education!

Ello Facebook
These issues are not confined to Education, there is a lot of buzz about the latest Social Media platform Ello, whether this will become a serious contender to Facebook remains to be seen.

If Ello does unsurp the incumbent market leader, it will be for the same reasons we should be excited about these new, smaller education models: they are not constrained by the task masters of the old guard (Ofsted) and traditional group think (Politicians).

The major appeal of Ello's "Value Proposition" is around an ad-free platform and guarantees around personal data. These are areas that Facebook may struggle to compete with because of its size, the number of employees it needs to pay, the members of the board and stockholders that they are now accountable to. Advertising is a key part of their strategy and it will be difficult to back track.

Activate Learning
While I am a huge advocate of 1) some new education models, 2) more collaboration and joined up thinking, 3) various stakeholders being more involved (Even sharing space), 4) business involvement and the importance of mentors...

Activate Learning
It's a bit of a culture shock when you encounter it.

When updating some FE College information I came across a very different website and model and it took a moment to get used to... It's definitely not you're typical setup!

But if Jane Jacob and Steven Johnston are right, and I believe they are, then the diversity of having secondary, further and higher education, along with workforce training,management consultancy and social enterprise is no bad thing.

In my opinion it's this kind of connectedness that gives private education the advantage, as all stakeholders work toward the shared goal, and taking a holistic approach around doing what's best for the student.

Given the pace of change in the workplace (along with the resistance to change in Edu) I think there is value in having smaller, diverse, autonomous and determined groups pioneering new ideas in education as well as the large, slow, bureaucratic, homeogenus organisations that the government likes to constrain with outdated assessment methods. If anyone disagrees with this suggestion I'd encourage them to check out "Waiting for Superman

I'm a huge fan of all educators, but I also enjoy working with visionary early adopters who question and disrupt the status quo. I feel the models above are better suited to explore and pioneer new ideas, which others will are able to follow once the case studies have been established.

Now how to get some of these Silicon Valley tech companies to roll "Circle the Schools" out to other areas? Hmm, let me think... Twitter Maybe? Perhaps some of the One City tech companies could join an EdChat from time to time. Here's a list of EdChats and their moderators