The Most Important Issues in Edtech Right Now

Someone asked me what I thought were the most important issues in edtech right now. This was my answer.

The debate of whether or not technology really aids learning

The dirty secret of edtech is there has yet to be an unbiased scientific study on how technology has quantifiably changed the learning outcomes of learners. I even know a tech-savvy teacher who once conducted a study of edtech that was as scientific and controlled as possible. He didn’t find a significant difference in the learning outcomes of his students. And if you ask a random sampling of teachers, you will probably get as many anecdotes of the benefits of technology, as stories of the detriments of technology.

In my view, technology is a tool that is meant to augment human interactions, not replace them. We are still in the very early days of understanding the effects and consequences of technology, especially social media. So naturally, there is and should be trepidation and caution. Hopefully, as a society, we can continue down this path in an enlightened way while continuing to study technology’s holistic effects. Efforts to teach digital citizenship to parents, children, and educators is a step in the right direction, as are plans to study the actual efficacy of edtech in the classroom.

I look forward to reading these studies and seeing more of these efforts. If technology is determined not to be a game-changer in education, I hope it is relegated appropriately while new methods continue to be explored.

The tension between raising investor capital and doing good

Being in the startup world, raising investor capital is a frequent topic. I get emails almost every week from edtech entrepreneurs about this. Which is ironic because I didn’t raise funding myself. Just about all of them go into the education world with the intent of doing good. But many aren’t aware, or are naive about the tensions between offering value to their investors vs doing good. The way investors make money is if your startup is acquired for a large sum or you have an IPO. So far, only a handful of edtech companies have had an IPO, with many more going the acquisition route. This means only a certain kind of edtech company can get funding; if you aren’t the kind of company that can have an IPO or acquisition, you likely won’t attract investors. And if you do, you’d better show progress towards one of these goals eventually.

Investor capital isn’t the only way to finance an edtech startup, however. Many bootstrap their startups with their own money, or build a revenue plan from the beginning. For those that sell to schools, they can rest easy knowing that most, if not all learning institutions want to see an edtech company that is making money. This is an indicator that the company will be around for a long time, and they care about longevity more than price, because the total adoption and deployment cost of using an edtech product includes the training and support costs. Also, selling to learning institutions is an enterprise play, which means requiring an effective sales strategy. This is something that may be too expensive or impractical for most cash-starved startups.

My preferred approach isn’t a glamorous one. To make it in edtech, I prefer the slow and steady, “in it for the long haul” approach. Bootstrap yourself in the beginning and start with a revenue plan that can cover your monthly operating costs, then grow from there. That way, you can concentrate on making sure you are constantly listening to educators and learners without the distraction of investors, and can explore features that help them, rather than features that might make you more “acquirable.”

The ethics of advances in technology

This is a broad topic that covers many areas, not just edtech. Within edtech, concerns include student data privacy. Fortunately, more and more companies are beginning to self-police and address these issues, but it still remains a concern for many. This coincides with the general consumer market’s concerns over data privacy as well, especially with social media.

Outside of edtech, concerns include artificial intelligence, artificial superintelligence, or at least artificial intelligence in weapons. Or “simple” miscalculations in algorithms that may lead to biased conclusions. And many others, of course.

I mention AI specifically because such advances are already being applied to edtech. In some cases, it can help make great strides in offering an adaptive learning environment. In others, it may contain unintended biases and errors that may lead to a poor learning environment. Uncovering such biases might be difficult, even expensive. Would a technology company be responsible for any such consequences a learner may face? Should they? How would such consequences even be tracked and determined?

Also: Will advances in technology be bound by ethical considerations? Should they be? Who would determine what these ethical considerations are? How would they be taught, monitored, and enforced? Many computer science programs offer an ethics class, or at least have it in their curriculum. I hope these classes are kept up-to-date, so programmers will have the right frame of mind when building these innovations. Technology can be a powerful tool, but a bad tool is still a bad tool.

The most important issues in edtech right now

In my humble opinion, these are the most important issues in edtech right now. What do you think are the most important issues?

Empowering the Ultra Poor with Mobile Technologies

Speaking of the ubiquity of mobile phones, want to hear a crazy fact? Mobile phones are more common than toilets in India.

Almost 45% of the population there have mobile phones, while only 31% have access to improved sanitation. This includes many of the ultra poor in India.

If you haven’t heard the term before, the ultra poor are defined as “receiving less than 80 percent of minimum caloric intake whilst spending more than 80% of income on food” by Michael Lipton (quote from Wikipedia). They are the poorest of the poor.

Funny how they have mobile phones then, huh? This is no accident. There has been a concerted effort to bring mobile technologies to the masses. The result is a dramatic shift in knowledge access. In a world where “you can tell the rich from the poor by their internet connections,” mobile technologies are becoming a great equalizer.

Building upon insights such as this, Kamael Sugrim co-founded the non-profit mPowering. She took her background in finance & marketing, Stanford MBA, experience with Salesforce (CRM) & SAP (SAP), and witty insight, and turned it upside-down, realizing she would rather follow her passions than to remain in corporate America. Thus, mPowering. As they state on their website:

We are a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting the world’s poor in their journey out of poverty. Through mobile technology and true out-of-the-box thinking, we give individuals and families the power to change their lives – forever.

Their first step has been to create mobile apps that harness the incentives of location-based gaming.

I know. Definitely out-of-the-box, huh? When I think of helping the ultra poor with mobile technologies, that’s the last thing I think of too. But it sometimes takes a radical new idea to break an established “norm” such as extreme poverty.

Here’s what Sugrim and team have done so far:

They’ve created a mobile app – Android (GOOG) at the moment – that allows children to check-in when they’re at school. Each check-in awards them some points that can be redeemed later at a food & clothing distribution center. The idea is to encourage these children to go to school, get an education, and still “earn” the basic necessities for their family. It’s a step above merely just giving the food & clothing to these families.

With the donations mPowering receives, they also give out free mobile phones to these ultra poor families, ensuring that all of them have access to this program.

Will it work? I don’t know, but this is just the start. They’ve got big plans and a motivated team. I’m sure they’ll experiment with all kinds of interesting, out-of-the-box ideas.

Intrigued? They’re taking donations right now. I’m sure they’ll be open to volunteers and fresh ideas too. Now that they’ve gotten mobile phones into the hands of their initial target group, they’ve got a platform from which to try new things.

They are initially targeting Orissa, the poorest region in India, though they plan on expanding to all countries where there is a need. Sugrim is over in Orissa this very moment, blogging, tweeting, posting, and recording videos of her travels. Follow along to see first-hand how they’re empowering the ultra poor and where they’ll go next. I’m following not just because I support their cause, but because I’m curious about which technologies they’re going to use next. Cloud computing and the ultra poor? Chatroulette for the ultra poor? Oh, the possibilities!

The Animated Secret Powers of Time

Now for some Friday fun.

Have you heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment? The one where good kids became bad? It was conducted by Professor Philip G. Zimbardo, a psychologist, professor emeritus at Stanford University, and author of The Lucifer Effect, and The Time Paradox.

Back on March 25 of this year, the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, or RSA for short, invited him to give a talk, “The Secret Powers of Time,” about his theories from The Time Paradox.

Then RSA dediced to have Cognitive Media scribe this talk. Cognitive Media is a UK-based studio that draws illustrations of talks, which they call “scribing.” They remind me of Common Craft, the US-based studio behind the Explanations in Plain English videos, though I find the beautiful illustrations of Cognitive Media to be absolutely mesmorizing.

What an awesome idea, this scribing thing. It’s a delightfully visual way of enhancing an already wonderful lecture.

Check out what they’ve done to The Secret Powers of Time. Great talk, great scribing.

Props to: Christopher Lim

Zuckerberg’s Law

It’s being referred to enough by the media that I think it will become a commonly-known adage. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s Law, I mean. And I don’t mean the “Once every hundred years media changes” statement he made. The other one:

I would expect that next year, people will share twice as much information as they share this year, and next year, they will be sharing twice as much as they did the year before.

Not only have I been hearing & seeing it in the press, but even industry movers, shakers, and funders are mentioning it. Most recently, Yuri Milner, the CEO and founder of the Russian Internet holding company Digital Sky Technologies, referred to it during his interview at the 2010 TechCrunch Disrupt conference. DST is also an investor of Facebook.

Zuckerberg’s Law hasn’t been proven yet, so it’s tough to compare it against a golden standard like Moore’s Law. But it certainly feels intuitively true. Will it become a golden standard too? Only time will tell.

The Fourth Wave

When venture capitalist John Doerr has a theory, people sit up and listen. Over at the TechCrunch Disrupt 2010 conference (happening today), he’s presenting what he calls the Third Wave. As reported by TechCrunch yesterday:

The First Wave was personal computers and the wave of disruption that caused. The second wave was the Internet, ditto. We are now, says Doerr, in the Third Wave.

What exactly is the Third Wave? It’s the tectonic shifts we’re seeing in mobile platforms (read his post here about the iPad), the social graph (particularly Facebook), and online commerce. All of these things are related and being accelerated by each other (Facebook is the largest mobile application, Zynga leverages Facebook and also stokes Facebook growth, Groupon is social/flash commerce, etc.).

John Doerr’s Waves of Disruptive Technologies

To summarize, it sounds to me like Doerr is saying:

  1. The First Wave is personal computing
  2. The Second Wave is the internet
  3. The Third Wave is social media & mobile devices

Common Traits of Disruptive Technologies

When I look at these waves, I see several common traits. Each subsequent wave builds upon one another. Also, each wave:

  • Increases the level of communication the previous technology affords. These advances, to some extent, mirror real-world interactivity, and extend beyond it. For instance, real-world interactivity only happens at a specific time, a specific location, and by the specific people who are present. Online interactivity can do this, and be at any time, at any place, and by multiple people in real-time or delayed-time. Additional information about the other person can also be shared, such as location, work history, and favorite restaurants, providing a context that real-world interactivity may not.

  • Decreases the distance & friction between two or more parties, consumer-to-consumer, business-to-consumer, consumer-to-business, and business-to-business. Each of those entities can be plural as well. This means the velocity of communication has gone from weeks to minutes to immediate. This also means traditional layers of hierarchy have broken down. A grade school student can contact a CEO or the President of the United States, for example. Or a fast food franchise can send a coupon to your phone if you walk by one of their restaurants.

  • Increases the utility of the previous technology for the user. The personal computer allows a person to write reports, spreadsheets, and presentations. The internet allows a person to conduct research on any topic in the world. Social media allows a person to communicate with friends, family, customers, and more. Mobile devices allow a person to conduct any of these operations wherever that person is located. It is becoming easier, faster, and in some ways, more effective & efficient, to accomplish all the tasks you need to accomplish.

  • Increases the level of intimacy of the technology, while conversely decreasing the level of privacy. A personal computer enables a person to publish print newsletters and reach a limited, yet known audience. The internet enables a person to publish websites and reach a vast, yet unknown audience. Social media enables people to publish thoughts, opinions, and self-expressions, and reach a vast, yet selective audience. Mobile devices enable people to publish anywhere, not just at their laptops, but on a train, plane, or even the toilet. The Third Wave allows you to share your intimate thoughts during potentially intimate moments, though the services are still struggling with the appropriate levels of privacy.

  • Increases the relevancy & clarity of the message. As the intimacy level increases with each wave, the sender is able to know more and more about the receiver. This enables the sender to customize and personalize each message, making it more relevant and useful to the receiver. A skilled sender will also know how to use the latest technologies to send a clear message that can prompt action and be measurable. There is still value to broadcasting a common message to the masses, though sending customized messages to targeted individuals will yield a higher conversion rate & return on investment.

Predicting the Fourth Wave

When placed in this light, I think it’s possible to draw tentative conclusions on what the Fourth Wave may look like. Some trends that I foresee are:

  • Predictive computing. Communications have sped up to real-time now. How much faster can you get than that? How about happening before it even happens? There are indications that predictive computing may already be here, so perhaps this will be just another trait of the Third Wave. Facebook already has a data science team that may know who you may hook up with. Ferreals.

  • Life action streams. Foursquare allows you to publish where you are when you are there, though it’s just a single message and not an exact note of when you arrive and when you leave. Miso allows you to publish what you are watching when you watch it, though it doesn’t let anyone know if you are tuning into the commercials or channel-surfing. The Fourth Wave may offer a continuous stream of all your actions. It’s a bit scary, but I could see its usefulness in ethnographic studies, television ratings, and perhaps tracking your children when they are at Disneyland with you, in case they get lost (mobile phones with GPS can already do this though).

  • Bio-sharing. Devices could be implanted into us to provide someone with immediate information about our bodies. To some extent, this is already being being done in the medical community, like the pacemakers that transmit a heart’s condition in real-time. But how about a device that monitors how well the body is holding up to chemotherapy? Or how happy or angry you are at a game? Could be a good predictor of riots. I suppose some enterprising individual could foresee social media uses too, like sharing when you’re hungry and when you’re sleeping.

What do you think may be in the Fourth Wave?

Photo via: cliff1066™

Print Books vs Ebooks

Amazon Kindle 2 There’s a fight afoot. Paper-based print books vs digital ebooks. Tradition vs innovation. Aw damn.

I’ll be the first to admit that I love books. I’m a total book geek. This year, I was going to try to complete a book a week, though sadly, that goal was too ambitious for my schedule. (I’m still going for it though!)

However, I love the ebook concept. It’s one I wholly support as a reader and a customer. I’m not sure how authors feel about them though. There’s at least one I know doesn’t seem to be a fan. As a hopeful author myself, I don’t really mind. I dig the environmental impact (assuming building the ebook readers doesn’t hurt worse than cutting down trees for books) and relatively low production & distribution costs.

In Argument of Print Books

There’s something cozy about a print book. The tactical feeling of the pages between your fingers. The musky smell of old ink and paper. The plump sound of the book when you “plop” it on the table.

In between readings, you can slide out your bookmark and scan the page until you find the last paragraph you read. If you want to reference something pages earlier, simply flip backwards in time. When you finish an especially good book, you can close it, sit back, feel the heft in your hands, and become awash with satisfaction. And then there’s the cover art and author’s bio on the book jacket. Delightful extras.

So with all that, how can a print book compete with an ebook?

In Argument of Ebooks

  • Portability – You can potentially carry your entire library around with you in one ebook reader. With hundreds of books in my library, that would be cool. And yes, I do enjoy re-reading or referencing old books on occasion.
  • Cost – One year, I spent nearly a grand on books. At that scale, I think I would be saving money with ebooks. Students could potentially save a lot on textbooks as well. This assumes the cost of the ebook reader itself can be made up from the cost savings of purchasing ebooks, of course. If you don’t purchase a lot of books, this may not be a true benefit.
  • Internet Access – This is more of a benefit of ebook readers than ebooks themselves. Most readers have Internet access and can offer enhanced features, such as integration with online dictionaries and encyclopedias. They can also supply readers with subscriptions to magazines and blogs, making them a one-stop shop for reading bliss.
  • Search – Even the best book indexes can’t match the utility of a well-made search. Exact text matches are good enough, but imagine a time the searches can also match synonyms & related phrases. That would be truly useful.
  • Notes – If you like to jot notes in the columns of your books, ebooks give you that ability as well. Couple that with the ability to search through your notes too and you’ve got a great research tool.
  • Interactivity – I like how Penguin is experimenting with interactive books on the Apple iPad (AAPL). That is a wonderful idea, especially for children. This could be an exciting new direction for ebooks and education.
  • Permanence – Conceivably, an ebook could last forever while a print book could decay over time. However, this argument depends on the permanence of an ebook reader and the company creating those readers.
  • Distribution – Another idealistic possibility is the ability to distribute ebooks to locations that might logistically prohibit large numbers of print books. Imagine a One Laptop Per Child program with ebook readers instead. Now imagine those children being able to access countless free ebooks. There are other logistics to worry about (power, Internet access, etc), but some third-world countries are already trying to solve that.

The Next Generation

The strongest argument for either format will be the preferences of the next generation, our children. Already, our children are growing up in an age of instant messenging, social media, and MP3s. Some even see emails as antiquated.

If they take to ebooks and ebook readers, then I suspect print books will go the way of newspapers, radio, and records. They will still exist because there will always be a benefit they provide that ebooks can’t, but the industry will shrink.

How to Rob a House with Google Buzz focused on Foursquare. It highlighted random people checking into public locations, implying that they weren’t home and thus, their belongings could be robbed.

However, it’s not a realistic scenario. All you know is that Random_Joe is at some restaurant or cafe. You don’t know where Random_Joe lives. So how can you rob him?

Enter Google Buzz (GOOG). And this is scary.

Every once in a while, I’ll check out nearby buzzes on Google Buzz Mobile. Usually it’s some harmless comment or random conversation. Sometimes it’s a helpful tip or review on a restaurant. On a few occasions however, I’ve seen people buzz from a residential location, presumably their home.

It’s not difficult to guess what you can do from there, especially if they haven’t limited their privacy options on their Google Profile. Yup, you can monitor their buzzes, learn about their habits, and even know where they are (and when they’re not home).

Methinks should switch their Foursquare feed with Google Buzz.

Fortunately, it looks like only a few people are doing this right now. I imagine using your mobile phone to buzz from home isn’t a common use case, though it clearly happens. Perhaps this should be a new best practice: Don’t do anything online that can share your personal address and your current whereabouts to strangers.

P.S. I also once saw a guy buzz about how much he hated dealing with customers. And he did this from his work location, a car repair shop. Guess which shop I’ll never go to.

Biz Idea: What I’m Feeling Right Here, Right Now

Here’s a tongue-in-cheek idea. With all the talk about the dangers of location-based services, I started to wonder: People share their thoughts (foursquare, Google Buzz (GOOG), brightkite), reviews (Yelp), and photos (Flickr) to the world with a stalker-friendly geotag. What else could they share?

How about their mood?

Remember a time when social networks were full of “How are you feeling today” icons and notes? Some people loved those mood icons. Some still do. I think MySpace (NWS) and LiveJournal still have them, in fact.

So how about sharing how you are feeling, exactly when you are feeling it, wherever you are feeling it? Maybe you could even take a picture of your face to reflect that emotion. Think of it as a real-time geotagged emotion.

Friends could follow your mood throughout the day as you travel through Machu Picchu, Tokyo, or a local softball game. Researchers could look into whether or not riding the bus dampens people’s moods. Stalkers could follow you around until you’re feeling low and vulnerable, then approach you and offer some candy.

I’m feeling pretty cheerful right now. Oh how I wish I could geotag this emotion in real-time to the world.