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.