The Promise and Perils of Technology in Education

anonymous surfing

I have been thinking about this concept for a long time. Does technology really enhance the learning process? So many in technology believe it does, or will at least if used correctly (which seems to be a frequency problem because “correctly” in this context always seems to mean more often). But I am unsure. I am not a technologist, but an educator and don’t get me wrong….I love technology and I love to use it in the classroom to better engage my students. But here is what I am discovering by doing this…better engagement does not necessarily equal better learning. I think the odds are greater that some learning will happen when one is more highly engaged, but I haven’t seen any evidence that the use of technology in any classroom actually enhances the learning process.

I have seen recent evidence that students actually retain information better when they write their lecture notes instead of type them (http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/05/to-remember-a-lecture-better-take-notes-by-hand/361478/). It also appears that even digital natives prefer to read a paper book as opposed to an electronic copy because they clearly process information differently in print versus electronic (http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/why-digital-natives-prefer-reading-in-print-yes-you-read-that-right/2015/02/22/8596ca86-b871-11e4-9423-f3d0a1ec335c_story.html).

Much of this has to do with how digital natives use the Internet and the formed habits around Internet use. These are just observations but these must play a role in technology use in the classroom, how it’s used and how often it is used.

First, my college students who are really just on the fringes of being digital natives, use the Internet much differently than their professors, just one generation removed. Most individuals aged 40+ tend to use the Internet as a great big library full of information that they can access and use in a constructive manner. We learned how to process information differently than the current digital generation. We searched and discovered using the Dewey Decimal System (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dewey_Decimal_Classification ) and we did not have quick answers to questions at our fingertips. We had to work to find answers to questions and hence will work to find the correct information using the vast array of resources now available to us on the Internet as well. We value that process of immersion in a subject matter. Now, is access to all of this information eroding our ability to critically evaluate information and patience for search and discovery? Well, I know it is mine and I cannot be alone in this. I see it happening. Really, you want me to read an eleven page article? Can’t I just skim the headline and get the idea? That’s coming from someone who recognizes what is happening to my own ability to process and critically evaluate information. My own impatience when it comes to accessing relevant and meaningful information and it is eroding, slowly.

Second, habitual behavior built around the use of those resources available to us at our fingertips. Again, those of us who are 40+ use the Internet primarily to access information. We are still enamored by the vast amount of information now available to us that wasn’t available at this level even 12 years ago. The digital natives however have been raised in the era of social media and quick answers to simple questions. This is how they primarily use the Internet: quick answers and socialization. The era of Google where if one had a question, you could quickly look up the answer. No search, no discovery, no work, no process. The era of Facebook and Twitter and now the 100’s of other social sites as well. The context in which digital natives use the Internet is completely different than the rest of us. They formed habits around this: quick, easy, and social. Surfing the web or social sites. No immersion in a subject or in depth thinking. No feeding curiosity past the first site that pops up on Google. These habits don’t change when they need to find relevant and meaningful information. Their ability to think and focus past the first few articles they find is problematic.

This is our fault. We have allowed this. We have created this. In the effort to make more information accessible, we have made it less valuable because we value that which we work for and put effort into. We raised a generation of learners who don’t know how to learn because they only live on the surface of the information and lack the necessary skills (and patience) to dive deep and immerse themselves to search for meaningful answers. The truth is, this is how we all live now. The abyss, the darkness, the unknown; this is where we must go to better understand. But can any of us anymore?

“There Is No Spoon”

there is no spoon

I spent the first few years of my academic career as a young assistant professor in hell. It wasn’t the publish or perish kind of hell faculty experience at the big Division 1 Universities, but an overwhelming organization and planning kind of hell of being required to teach up to 15 different courses over the course of one academic year, some of which I would not even have considered myself to even be an “expert” in because I may have never even taken a similar course throughout my academic career as a student. Those first few years were absolute insanity. I knew a lot, but to be able to convey it in a way that made learning sense, create practical applications, experiential learning models, assessments that actually measured something meaningful; not to mention the sheer amount of just lecture preparation. I don’t have any other word for it. It was hell. But it got better.

I would say by the end of year 3, I had a much better handle on the content, the course infrastructure, creating a full-proof syllabus that savvy students couldn’t shoot holes through, and I was beginning to wrap my head around how students learn best. Which teaching methods were beneficial…and which ones were not. What the students responded to, and what they didn’t see as valuable. I suppose I would say my teaching matured, or became more real. Part of what drove that was the realization that I didn’t have to know everything and that guess what? Students can actually learn without me and from one another without me being the primary source of that information. In fact, with me guiding the learning process instead of controlling it, learners can actually learn more.

One of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite book series sums it up nicely: “It’s the questions we can’t answer that teach us the most. They teach us how to think. If you give a man an answer, all he gains is a little fact. But give him a question and he’ll look for his own answers. That way, when he finds the answers, they’ll be precious to him. The harder the question, the harder we hunt. The harder we hunt, the more we learn.”/The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. When it comes to learners actually learning something and valuing it, this is spot on. I often also use a quote from “The Matrix” as well when explaining this concept to my students, “It’s the question that drives us Neo”. Not the answers. It’s the quest, the journey, the search. That is what is important. Unfortunately our entire education system is built around knowing the answers, not around asking better questions. And this is where we fail. We don’t inspire curiosity or search and discovery, we inspire test anxiety and an outcome driven approach. We build widgets instead of free and curious thinkers.

Now the truth is, I would have never been able to think through some of this without those first few years of hell. Those years forged me into adopting an instructional model of constantly evaluating and re-evaluating education and learning theory and incorporating new and progressive ideas around learning into my classroom. Since then, I have been able to build on what was definitely a flawed core in the development of my classes and refine and improve, refine and improve. Will there always be room to improve my teaching methodologies, yes. But ultimately, my job is to inspire curiosity, not to spoon feed “answers” to my students. It’s a tough transition for many of them since they have come to expect someone will just tell them the answers. That’s a lot easier than having to forge your own learning path…to become intrinsically motivated to learn when the system focuses on extrinsic methods of reward. My job is to provide them as many opportunities as I can for them to do just that, forge their own path and take responsibility for their own learning. My role in their journey is to guide them and facilitate the process of their forging their own path, not necessarily following mine. I refuse to let them take the blue pill.

http://www.thehubedu.com/shelves/2989-blog-posts

To Learn = Downtime

neurons

I have seen more and more data on this over the past few weeks. Fragmented of course, which is how all of our information comes at us these days (notice the use of “at us” as opposed to “to us”, because information is coming at us, at a faster and faster pace and more and more fragmented). I see terms thrown around like “mobile learning”, “pervasive learning”, “learning chunks”, “learning bits”, etc…. I see conversations in LinkedIn groups by college professors that start with the question “ Are you having difficulty getting your students to read?” Well of course we are because no one can focus for more than a few minutes, adults or students and this is why we are now using terms such as “learning bits”!

It seems so simple right? Surely we get it. Or are we so distracted by all of this information we can’t process it, so we don’t get it? It’s distractions that are the problem. We are so busy inundating ourselves with information that we can’t process any of it. It’s there, it’s gone. All this information is actually keeping us from learning anything. We surf, we don’t dive or immerse ourselves in the information, which by the way, is what it takes to really learn and understand something. Do you know that all of the evidence suggests that we form permanent memories when we sleep and when we rest? This is when the permanent neural connections are formed. Not rest in front of a digital device either, we must stop, think, focus, process. This is how we solve problems. We have to focus, think, reflect. Why do you think the answers to some of those elusive problems we tackle come to us in our sleep or on vacation? It’s because our brain can finally rest, process and put together the solution. My best ideas come to me when I am on vacation. Often I tackle a problem during the day and wake in the middle of the night with the solution.

Yet we are so busy being busy, we can’t process the information and put the puzzle together in our heads either. We are so distracted we don’t even know we are distracted. We literally jump from one headline to another, one site to another, consume it and done. No time to process the information, no time to think about the context or the consequences, no time to verify the information. We don’t need to worry about a zombie apocalypse because we are already experiencing it.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love technology and all of the resources available to me through technology. But I wonder, I contemplate, I take time to reflect on what all of this information is doing to us, to our students, to my students especially. I mean at least when I read something I possess the critical thinking skills to give it a context and a framework, but not my students. Many of them have yet to develop that framework so for them, all of this information becomes a problem. Not just a distraction problem, a relevance problem. When we are learning about something new, which information is relevant and which isn’t? How can you tell? To know which information is relevant takes being able to filter the information by context and category. And there is so much information. Information I am exposing them to as well as all of the information they are finding on their own. This is one of the reasons I co-founded TheHubEDU. I wanted a space where my students could organize and contextualize the information they are learning about. Build their reference library free from the distractions of all the other social media. TheHubEDU is a place where all learners can come to immerse themselves in the information instead of riding the waves from one piece of information to another. I want my students to be active participants in their learning, not just passive consumers. TheHubEDU is my way of promoting and supporting that behavior. It’s not just another website, it’s a necessity for better learning in a world full of distractions.

The Big Picture Paradigm: Learning In The Digital World

puzzle pieces

When I think of the process of learning, the variables involved and the nuances within the process itself, I am consistently amazed that any of us ever learn anything at all! “Learning” is really quite difficult to define (and measure) and why I continue to argue that standardized testing only measures one type of learning and it’s not the type that is really meaningful in today’s world. So as usual, we focus on the wrong outcome.

The way I think of learning is the idea of putting together puzzles. There are two parts to this. Learners need the pieces and they have to know which pieces fit into which puzzle. In other words, learners also have to be able to integrate those pieces into a bigger picture. This ties into the two basic types of learning: informational and transformative. I think we all know that standardized tests measure primarily for informational learning. Think of this as the pieces of the puzzle. Those pieces are important. Without them, we never complete the puzzle. We wouldn’t even have a puzzle. But in today’s information laden world, there are just too many pieces. Imagine all of the information we are bombarding our students with (and what they access on their own) and then trying to put together puzzles with that. It’s one thing if we already have a context, already understand the bigger picture. Then we can easily decide what pieces fit into what puzzles. But not when learning. When in the process of learning we don’t have the context and we don’t understand the big picture. We might not even have the four corners of the puzzle established yet! And there are too many pieces to process!

Now, transformative learning is more about seeing that bigger picture. It’s about taking all of those pieces and expanding boundaries by building and continuing to build the puzzles. The boundaries of the puzzles are always changing and expanding. Transformative learning is better understanding the overlap and connections between the pieces and puzzles. It’s seeing the bigger picture, in 3D. We need the pieces, but we also need context. It’s not enough just to have all of the pieces. Transformative learning requires the integration of all of those pieces into a framework.

What we have really done with access to all of this digital information is make it really difficult for the average learner to integrate anything because they are overwhelmed with the sheer volume of information. We are training them to focus on the pieces of information instead of the bigger picture with all of this standardized testing. Therefore they are unable to connect the information in a meaningful way because they have been trained to focus on only the pieces of the puzzle.

I see this time and again in my college classrooms. Students lack context and all they see and focus on are the pieces of the puzzle, which is what they have primarily been tested on throughout their academic lives as well. They are unable to process all of these pieces and make the necessary connections, problem solve or critically synthesize the information and start putting the puzzles together. Students are completely overwhelmed with the sheer volume of information, the pieces of the puzzle. We have done this to them. This is one of the reasons we created TheHubEdu. I myself use it as a way to help me organize and contextualize what is arguably really great information available to me at my fingertips from a learning perspective. But then I already have the puzzles mostly put together. I can easily take a new piece of information and integrate it into an already existing puzzle. TheHubEdu helps my students following me on the site to better contextualize all of this information and they can use it to organize their own resources (puzzle pieces) in a way that helps them at least contextualize the information into an individual framework they can now build on. It’s transformative learning, basic, but transformative. It’s one way I can help them begin to build those puzzles and critically synthesize that information. Because all of this information, is not going away. So we have to find ways to help our students learn in an otherwise fragmented world. And now we have a tool that can do just that, TheHubEdu.

What the Internet is Really Doing to Perspective

A bookstore

I was meeting someone the other day at a small bookstore/coffee shop in the Cap Hill section of Seattle.  It was one of those rare, sunny spring days in the area so I didn’t mind the 30 minute drive each way or the total $5.30 toll to cross the 520 bridge both ways because it was one of those days you feel justified in suffering through the incessant rain and clouds more typical of the area to be able to experience days like that.  Not too hot, not too cold, clear blue skies…perfect.

I had never been to this particular location before though I had frequented another coffee shop right down the street.  So I walked in to this really unique store and being a bit early I began to peruse their book selection.  Not a huge selection like the mega bookstores such as Barnes and Nobles, etc… But as I was taking a look at the selection in this boutique bookstore I thought to myself, it’s been years since I have actually been in a bookstore.  Literally, years.   I used to spend hours in Barnes and Nobles and any number of bookstores for that matter.  Now, for the most part they have all gone out of business.  I was thinking to myself, “are there even any left”?  Thank you online shopping.

I can’t really blame these online sites for tapping into what is clearly a need to buy products online, I can only blame myself because I allowed myself to fall prey to the convenience of online shopping.  So now, most of my books, in fact in thinking over recent years, all of my books have been purchased through online sites.  But here is what I started to notice just walking through this boutique bookstore perusing the variety of books.  I have totally lost touch with all the different variety of books in all different categories.  Perhaps that is more a testament to my reading preferences these days as the books these online sites suggests for me fall into 3 categories: Fantasy/Science Fiction, Business/Entrepreneurship, and Education/Science.  And now I only see what is “suggested” as something I might be interested in reading.  And I know that what is being suggested to me does not comprise all that’s out there even within one category.  It’s group think , but for retail.  My world is shrinking and therefore so is my perspective and I have allowed it to happen.

I suppose on some level I had to be somewhat cognizant of this.  I am familiar with “group think” and how sites such as Facebook and Google tailor my searches and feeds to my previous activity.  I guess I had just never thought of it from a marketing/retail perspective.  I mean books, intellectual pursuits, now tailored to fit me and my interests, totally personalized.  Except that’s exactly the opposite of intellectual pursuit.  We all have interests and tend to focus on those interests in our intellectual pursuits but I had just never considered how much my world and therefore my possibilities were shrinking as I relied more and more heavily on these online sites to offer up to me something I might be interested in reading.

Some of this is my responsibility as I can always peruse the different categories of books available, but I don’t because I don’t have to.  It’s really easy to just look through the recommended and suggested items and over the years, my reading preferences have been tailored through those suggestions and recommendations.  This is my concern with “personalized learning”.  It’s great in theory but will it detract from the true meaning and value of education? Isn’t education supposed to be about expanding our horizons and perspectives?  I also realize our site, TheHubEdu could fall prey to this as well and now I vow not to allow that to happen.  The question becomes can we “personalize” education without sacrificing our need for different perspectives in order to challenge us and force us to grow?  And if not, what will be the costs to the concept of society?  What is the ultimate price for personalizing everything?  Instead of expanding our thinking and ideas, are we really only imprisoning them by having everything tailored to us?

Variables of Learning

grid

What I find most intriguing about the entire education debate is we repeatedly reduce education or the learning process to a minimum instead of discussing and including all of the variables at play when learning and then addressing each one individually.   This oversimplification completely bypasses the complexity of how and why anyone learns.  So what are these basic variables?

1)   Student

2)   Instructor

3)   Environment

This is actually the simplification, just looking at these 3 variables within the overall system without considering the factors that make up each and how they all interrelate, does the entire conversation a disservice.  So let’s break it down a bit further.

Student: Certainly not to be overlooked.  But what influences how, when and how well a student learns?

1)   Genetics: IQ, EQ, Focus, Personality

2)   Previous Experiences and Exposures

3)   Psychological Components: Motivation, Drive, Personality, Maturity, Values, Work Ethic

4)   Physical Health: Diet, Exercise, Sleep, Stress

Well, all of those components are what make us human.  But instead of treating students like individual human beings, we want them to be little robots who all think, learn and test the same at any given point in their lives.  That’s not even realistic given the wide range of factors in just one of the variables, the learners themselves.

 Instructor: Again, not to be overlooked.  What role does the instructor play in this dynamic exchange taking place?

1)   Previous Experiences and Exposures which dictates how well they convey and contextualize information (teaching experience)

2)   Ability to connect with students and help the students make connections to the material (this seems like a skill people are born with perhaps, genetics)

3)   Personality, Motivation, Drive, Maturity

4)   Physical Health: Diet, Exercise, Sleep, Stress

Hmmm, it’s beginning to look like a miracle any one ever learns anything at all given the complexity of this system so far.  How do you measure connection between an instructor and a student?  Because it’s vital.  What makes a great teacher is not a test score but the connections they create with their students.   But wait, there is one more component here.  The most complex of them all and the one most overlooked.

Environment

1)   Classroom environment: Well this one makes sense, right and on some levels the instructor is responsible for creating this environment.   But an environment is an ecosystem and the students play a role in that ecosystem as well.

  1. Challenging
  2. Supportive
  3. Friendly
  4. Open
  5. Creative
  6. Structured
  7. Distraction Free

2)   Overall environment (home, playground, extracurricular activities): Not really on the instructor here and since a child spends more time in this environment than the classroom, it likely plays a larger role in overall learning and this falls on the parents, family and community at large.

  1. Supportive
  2. Structured (to a point)
  3. Distraction Free
  4. Appropriate extracurricular experiences and activities
  5. Healthy environment: stress, exercise, diet, sleep

What really makes this complex is the interplay that must take place between all 3 variables and all the factors within this system.  This dynamic interchange playing out amongst these variables and factors either will support the learning process or detract from it.   The timing of all this is important as everything has to connect at the right moment and come together for learning to take place. It’s a confluence of events including the exchange between instructor, student and environment that cannot be predicted (or measured) by big data or at all for that matter.  A confluence of events that will never be replaced by an iPad or a computer.  A magical moment that cannot be standardized.  Yet, ironically, this is what is missing from the conversation.

We look to technology to somehow bolster this process yet it oversimplifies it.  Yes, we have access to more information.  I do wish we had a History channel when I was growing up.  I might have taken a larger interest in history if it could have all been presented in movies!  I really appreciate them now.  But do I better appreciate them now because I am older, have more experience and realize that history does truly repeat itself?  Do I appreciate it now because I have seen the impact history has on the present?  Is it my experiences that promote my new appreciation for history?  Do I appreciate it more now that I have a little more context or is it only because it’s now less about memorizing dates and facts and more about the story?  Even if so, would I still appreciate it as much without my life experiences?  A great movie cannot replace that moment when the light bulb goes off and the individuals make a connection to something bigger than themselves.  It might help, but it won’t help everyone.  It’s the connections that matter, the context.  Not just the information.

Someone has to guide this process.  It all has to intersect at just the right moment and I am guessing this cannot be predicted or forced as we are attempting to do within the education system.  All I can do as an instructor is provide broad enough experiences that increase the possibility the learner can connect with the material.  They either will or they won’t and some of that is on me as the instructor, but most of that is out of my control and no instructor should be held accountable for factors they cannot control.

Being an Academic and Entrepreneur: Parallels and Pitfalls (Part 3)

cycling

I really struggled with this one.  Not that I don’t recognize my own weaknesses, I do, maybe a little too well.  I struggled with how to frame them in a way that doesn’t sound as though these are set in stone and immutable.  I could also spend hours writing about them and believe me, there are many, many more.    But I try not to think of them as weaknesses, more as  growth opportunities as all the motivational, self-help, leadership books tell me to do.  However, that’s not that easy but what is easy is to focus and get caught up in them instead of trying to work around and through them.  My personal philosophy, “get out of my own way”.  All in all, here is where I see potential pitfalls of being an academic first and an entrepreneur second:

1)   Spinning.  I don’t mean the class either.  Being able to walk into a room of potential investors and spin the possibility of what we are trying to be. Make it seem like we are going to be the next FB or Twitter.  Give them the most positive potential outcome, although there is no data to back it up.  I tend to be more realistic, well I am a scientist and I like to project informed opinions, not belief sets.  I have seen people spin their idea and am amazed at their ability to completely convolute reality.   But this is what investors seem to like to hear.  Investors don’t want reality they want possibilities.  I like possibility too, but I don’t want to promise something I have no real idea can come true.  And that doesn’t mean I don’t believe we can’t do it, I just need data to back it up.  Big detriment.  Not a good spinner.  “Get out of my own way.”

2)   Connections. Academics are inherently isolated.  This is actually one of the aspects of our startup we are trying to address, to move higher education beyond it’s siloed thinking and isolated mindset.  Academics have to work really hard to branch out beyond their department, institution and field of expertise.  We like to do our research, teach our classes and think, preferably with other academics.  So by nature, it isolates us.  How does this work against me as an entrepreneur?  I have to work extra hard to make connections many have made and solidified over years in various industries.  I started in the negatives when it came to the right kind of contacts.  It does take time to make these contacts, especially the right ones.  “Get out of my own way.”

3)   Money. I was in school until the age of 31 so didn’t really make any money until I started my academic career in 2002.  Again, I am in education.  I didn’t work for a Fortune 500 company or a tech company making a six figure salary even for the 12 years I have worked.  I wasn’t able to sock away lots of savings I can now rely on.  I didn’t even make a livable wage until I became an Associate Professor, 6 years in to my 12 and then it was just barely livable.  So, no.  I cannot just quit teaching and live off my savings, because I don’t have any.  I am also not in the position to rack up lots of debt knowing I can just go back to my tech job and work a few years to pay it off.   It’s not just me either, my friends and family are in a similar position.   I had an individual once tell me I should be able to raise about $30k per friend and family member, you know, because he was able to do that.  He raised over a million dollars in a friends and family round and we should be able to do the same thing he said.  Problem is, most of my friends and family are in education.  I don’t know if that is more a problem with my reality or his, but the two don’t align.  Again, academics/education and salaries.  Another big detriment.  I don’t know if I can “get out of my own way here”, but working on it.

But here is the real question:  are these detriments going to stop us from moving forward?  Well of course not.  Am I a perfect entrepreneur?  Well, no.  But who is?  The success stories?  How much of that was just luck and fortuitous timing?  No one in this game seems to talk much about that yet we all know it’s a factor.  And yes, we can debate do we create our own luck?  Maybe, but only to a point.  How much does just pure grit and determination play a role?  Maybe more than luck, maybe not.   This is why we have teams, and I have a good one.  Are they perfect? No.  But they have grit and determination and we all complement each other well.  That’s the point of a team.  Perhaps these detriments (and strengths) are what give me the skills to become an awesome entrepreneur?  Detriments or pitfalls force you to do two things: quit or find creative ways around them.   Here is what I can say:  I don’t always know what I am supposed to do (and often when I ask I get conflicting advice), but I do know what I can do.  I know where and when we can take action and we do what we can when we can.  Life is less about the obstacles and more about how we work around them and not letting them stop us.   Sometimes it’s baby steps, sometimes it’s giant leaps but I believe in our idea, our product, our team and most importantly, I believe in myself.  We will do this and we will do it well.

 

 

Being An Academic and Entrepreneur: Parallels and Pitfalls (Part 2)

research

Our startup TheHubEdu was founded in September 2011. We didn’t know what we were doing, both co-founders from an educational background in a whole new world. It took us a year to wrap our minds around this and we really didn’t even have a product to test until September 2012, which was then kept locked down to a small test group for 12 months. I think of those first 2 years as a pilot project with enough data collected to now warrant a round of grant funding, or in the startup world a seed round.  Interestingly I have found parallels here as well.  In academia, in order to secure a large grant you really need 3 things:

1)   Really compelling pilot data and/or

2)   Big names on the grant (of researchers who have successfully been awarded grants and published off the data) and/or

3)   A personal history of grant funded projects.

What’s most interesting are the parallels to what is needed for raising money for a startup:

1)   Lots of users (good pilot data)/revenue and/or

2)   Big names (someone or some organization that supports your idea) and/or

3)   Previous success in the startup world…meaning revenue generating companies, which have either been acquired or are still active.

Again, seems the two worlds juxtapose quite nicely and are probably more similar than dissimilar when it comes to “funding”.

Here is where I also see parallels and aspects of myself that make me both a great academic and entrepreneur:

1)   Focus.  Academics can focus, sometimes to a fault.  Entrepreneurs need to focus but also need to be flexible around new ideas and/or pivoting.  Whatever it is, it isn’t perfect.  Nor am I.  Flexible focus.

2)   Strategy.  Now I am great strategist when it comes to pedagogy.  I know how to design a curriculum and course structure to optimize learning.  Taking a startup to the next level?  That comes with experience, right?  Thankfully I have surrounded myself with people who do have more experience with this and can facilitate this process.

3)   Budget management.  I had a small budget when I was department chair/program director.  We never really had any real money because higher education is pretty much flat broke.  But it certainly helped me make smarter decisions on how to spend what little money there was and that has to help as an entrepreneur bootstrapping all the way.

4)   Passion.  I didn’t really equate “passion” with my career as an academic while in the process.  What I really am is a lifelong learner.  I love to learn new things. This is probably what drove me further into my educational pursuits and it drives me knowing we have an awesome idea and we are going to see it through.

5)   Possibilities. Being able to see the big picture has certainly made me a better instructor because I can bring that perspective into the classroom.  It also makes me a good entrepreneur, because again, I see the big picture.  I see a way education can be better and I want to be a part of that.

6)   Perseverance.  I don’t think this can really be taught.  You either have it or you don’t.  For most academics, obtaining a PhD is more an exercise in perseverance.  Yes, there are those geniuses that pretty much get to do things their way, because well,  they are geniuses and everyone knows it.  For the rest of us, smarter than average but not genius level academics, we persevered.  We wanted it bad enough, we jumped through the hoops to get it.  I know many really smart people, who couldn’t do it.  Lacked the drive or the motivation or the wherewithal.  Couldn’t succeed in the “system”.  This has to be one of the main qualities of an entrepreneur.  You have to persevere and be tenacious.  You have to be willing to jump through the hoops because this system seems just as “academic” as academia.    Thankfully, I exhibit this quality, squared!

So yes, I see many parallels in the characteristics that make a great academician and entrepreneur.   I may have some of the characteristics needed to be a successful entrepreneur, but I also see some that might get in my way.    For my personal pitfalls when it comes to being an entrepreneur, tune back in a few weeks from now.

Being An Academic and Entrepreneur: Parallels and Pitfalls (Part 1)

Given this time of year is prone to self-reflection and now that I have ample academic experience and a little startup experience under my belt, I thought it appropriate to reflect on these sometimes dueling models of existence.  Most of my experience is obviously in education.   I understand research and pedagogy and have probably taught over 700 credit hours over my 12 years in academia.  Many research focused faculty teach perhaps 3-6 credit hours per year.  I have taught on average over 50 per year.  My focus has been teaching, best methods, best practices, learning models, etc…I thought this would be an asset when I co-founded an EdTech startup, now I am not so certain.  Here’s why.

I know that being an academic is a way of thinking.  It’s being critically evaluative of almost every (and I mean every) possible scenario or potential outcome.  It’s a tunnel vision perspective and it can be paralyzing when it comes to making decisions.  Academics by nature are reflective, thoughtful and not really action oriented.  They are focused on one area of the puzzle and frequently lack the ability to see past that.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  We need people who can live in theory as theory informs action.  Hypotheses, data collection, interpret results, change or solidify theory based on the result, revisit.  Sounds very entrepreneurial to me.  Have an idea, test the idea, pivot or kill the idea.  In reality, these two models juxtapose one another.  It’s all about testing a hypothesis.  The academic model might be to add to a continuing body of knowledge, the entrepreneurial might be to change the world but they are more similar than dissimilar to one another in actual practice.

It’s not just research that shares these similarities to entrepreneurship either.  What do you think teaching is?  It’s pedagogical research, informal mostly.  Teach a class one year get some feedback and see what works, what doesn’t and try some new ideas the next year.  It’s very similar to both research and entrepreneurship.  In this respect academia and entrepreneurship parallel each other nicely.

Now obviously I don’t have as much startup experience and I am really new to this entire paradigm.  But I wonder, is being an entrepreneur also a mindset?  Is it about reveling in all of the possibilities and then taking action to bring one of those potentialities to reality?  Being an entrepreneur certainly is more action oriented and once past a point, far less theory oriented as well.  It requires strategy and strategic thinking.  It requires seeing the big picture and knowing how your startup fits into it.  It requires customer service skills and listening to feedback. You need to be agile and quick.  What I have also noticed is there seems to be a “standard” way to go about this startup stuff.  It’s kind of structured, much like academia.  People want you to follow a certain path to success, or at least their path or their idea of what leads to success.  Perhaps statistically there is one path that has a higher probability to becoming a successful startup.   But isn’t being an entrepreneur on some levels about forging your own path?  Is there a definitive timeline that must be followed?  Hmmm, sounds more like a structure to me, something structured like academia?

Stay tuned for part 2 in a few weeks

Education: A Consumer Issue

A2 Consumersim Print

Neither the k-12 nor higher education systems are broken.  Hopefully we have established that at least.  The biggest issues within the education system are societal and no one wants to have that conversation.  What are they?  Well first, as a society we need to decide if education is about a job or about an educated citizenry.  It’s not that these two are mutually exclusive, and it doesn’t have to be either/or.  However, the purpose of public education, the reason it was established in this country to begin with was to educate our citizens.  The outcome happened to be better jobs.  But that was never the intention.  We wanted citizens who could make informed, educated decisions.   Who could read and write and critically think and therefore contribute to a democratic process.  Of course this led to better jobs.  It’s important to remember that most people in the US were farmers until the early 1900’s.   Before public education, only the well educated were educating their children at home leaving a large percentage of American children un or under educated.   Historically, white-collar jobs went to the more highly educated.  Also historically, the more highly educated came from white-collar and affluent families.

It was then in our quest for world dominance that our institutions of higher education fell into the same trap.  It just extended learning and hopefully enhanced skills that then led to even better jobs (managers) than just having a k-12 public education.   It was an unintended outcome. Then we started to see higher education as a means to getting a better job.  Nothing wrong with that, it was the natural outcome.   But now we are trying to simplify it and make it just about jobs.  Forget the process, it’s about the outcome. Here’s the thing.  If it’s only about jobs, let’s go back to trade schools.  Hell, let’s forget trade schools and just go back to apprenticeships.  That had to produce some great, highly skilled workers.  Let’s just do away with public education for that matter.  Why bother with a system that sucks our tax dollars?  Why even bother with educating our citizens, we have the Internet? Every child can just follow in the footsteps of their parents.  This is how it used to be.  This is great for the white-collar, affluent workers.  It might not be so great for those in less affluent or less educated households.  Why bother with education at all?  Let’s make it all about the jobs.  It would save us a lot of money in the process.  Hmmm, doesn’t seem very democratic.   It also seems to skip over the benefits of an educated citizenry.  But again, we have technology now.  Technology and information will become the great educator. I think they thought the same thing when printing presses were developed because now anyone could access the information via books and newspapers   They thought that about correspondence programs too when the US first introduced the postal service.  Of course if you don’t know anything about history, then you won’t understand that at all.

This whole issue of education just being about better jobs has had an unintended consequence that then becomes the second big issue.  We have turned education into a commodity and our students have become consumers of education, really of information, not even education.   We think of our students as products of the system.  That’s not entirely false but the issue with that approach is consumerism is passive.  I doubt a tablet coming off the assembly line had to be an active participant in its completion.  And therein lies the problem with students as consumers.  It removes the part where they have to be active participants in the learning process.  I don’t mean just evaluating a course or doing the research before buying a product (or picking a school) like you would a tablet, I mean learning requires their participation during that process.  They have to be invested in taking part and take responsibility for their role in the learning process.  But they don’t.  They want someone to spoon feed them or passively consume the information so they can test well and therefore prove they have “learned”.   They don’t want to think, that’s an active process.   Most students even think a test score is more important than what they actually learned.  This is not their fault.  This is the way they have been trained to approach education.  It’s not about learning, or their participation, it’s about a grade and a job.  The outcomes.   Of course for consumers buying a product, it becomes about their happiness.  Students want to be happy, especially if they are spending money and that makes their teachers and instructors customer service representatives.  Now again, that removes this whole active process.  It removes student responsibility from the equation.

We have a lot of interesting dialogue around creating an education system where students get to dictate their own learning and are actively engaged in that process.  Revolutionize the system and let the students solve problems instead of being lectured to by an instructor.  That’s great.  Of course, one can’t solve a problem if one doesn’t have some foundation from which to approach the problem.  That also assumes that all students want to be actively engaged in their learning.  Alas, that is far from reality in any classroom.  Most students  just want to consume it and pass a test.  God forbid they actually take part in their own learning and want to really learn something.  Most just want answers.  I watched a really great video that discussed the idea that we know people remember things better and value something more when they actually have to search for and answer their own questions.  Very true.  See how far that goes in a class.  The students will come back and say if they have to do all of the work, why are they paying you.  You see, because the instructor is now a dispensary.  They pay for it, the instructor dispenses what the student needs to know for the exam.  Consumer model.  This kind of conversation also assumes students want to learn.  Problem is their idea of learning is skewed toward test scores and grades not towards them actually working to learn something.  Here is how bad this consumer approach becomes.  I actually had a student once who wasn’t getting her way say to me “I pay your salary”.  Which of course implies since she pays my salary, it’s my job to make her happy.  I responded with  “Well, you don’t pay me very well, so I tell you what, get me a nice raise and I will consider your request.”   Still waiting for that nice raise.

I must say in the defense of students that not all are like this.  However, unfortunately it is only a minority who do really want to learn and see learning as being more valuable than a grade and also understand their part in that process.   Again, can we blame them?  This is how they are trained to think about education by their parents, society and an education system that focuses solely on grades and outcomes.  If you talk to most k-12 teachers they will tell you students are still curious about their world until around 4th or 5th grade and have lost all curiosity by high school.  We test it out of them.

Resources

http://www.pbs.org/kcet/publicschool/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_education_in_the_United_States

http://www.eds-resources.com/educationhistorytimeline.html

http://www.lwv.org/content/history-federal-government-public-education-where-have-we-been-and-how-did-we-get-here