My Kodak Moments

I started working on this post some time ago, and it’s sat languishing in my drafts folder. I decided I needed to finish it after reading Why Kodak Died and Fujifilm Thrived: A Tale of Two Film Companies. I loved the articles analysis which broke down the disruptive innovation narrative. At the heart of it, it was Kodak’s lack of diversification that condemned the firm to its fate.

The Kodak story is one of the founding myths of Innovationism. It is foundational to supporting the notions of disruptive innovation and Silicon Valley, as I said:

The lesson from the Kodak story is not the power of disruptive innovation, nor is it the inevitability of technology to swallow up a business. The lesson lies in being able to recognise the points of inflection that could have changed the outcome. An understanding of the environment and conditions that led to key decisions being made.

Earlier this year I read a document that described this point in time as our “Kodak Moment” in Higher Education. Not the kind of moment you want to preserve forever, but one of those inflection points where the decisions we make now will determine our future. That insight is both thrilling and foreboding. How you approach this inflection point has to do with how you interpret history. So below I’ve outlined my “Kodak Moments”, those inflection points that I see Higher Education needing to address. And for no extra cost I’ll throw in some free suggestions for what we could do as an alternative to doubling down on a faster, better film processor.


Confusing what you do for how you do it.

At some point the mission at Kodak got confused and it began to conflate what it did with how it did it. As a company it helped people create memories on film. The “help people create memories” was the what, and the “on film” was the how and somewhere along the way the two became one. In doing so it narrowed the vision so that Kodak became incapable of thinking about itself beyond film. The comparison with Fujifilm suggests that part of their survival was that they unpacked what they did at a much deeper level. They didn’t just capture memories, they had industrial process and manufacturing that could be applied to other industries.

Higher Education seems to be in a similar position. It doesn’t seem capable of articulating what it does. Perhaps it’s because each institution has, and should, have its own unique service to offer. I think all should start with “Helping people …” because it helps define them as a public service, but what comes next isn’t so obvious. What’s strange though is the uniformity of how, across institutions right around the world – a structured program of courses running between 12-14 weeks each. That’s it. That’s the how for higher education and it can’t (or it won’t) think beyond that.

Tip 1: Change the How

If you want innovation in Higher Education then go after the how. The iPod didn’t change what music was, it changed how we listed to it. The iPhone didn’t change what computers did, it changed how they were accessed. The internet didn’t change what information was available, but it certainly revolutionised how we access and share it. If Higher Education wants to innovate it needs to rethink how it does things. Start with how we structure “learning” and rethink the agricultural timetable we seem stuck with as the only model for delivery. Then you can think about how we’re funded, how we engage students, how we engage our communities and how we will create sustainable models of education into the future.

A Lack of Diversity creates Fragility

Kodak relied on income from a small number of sources. Any products Kodak offered were really about bringing people back into using their core product – printing photos. Fujifilm on the other hand diversified their income through product expansion and investments into other areas, which was key to their success when the downturn in film started to bite.

Higher Education is just like Kodak and is incredibly fragile. It relies too heavily on just one product – degrees. Those bits of paper are really what it boils down to, the one product that provides the “rivers of gold”. And considering that there’s very little difference in the how you get those bits of paper you can start to see my concern with Higher Education.

There is no real product differentiation in Higher Education. Sure you can choose different logos and locations but that’s about it. It is a globally saturated market and you have universities around the world teaching the same way for the same outcome. It’s no wonder that every man and his dog in Silicon Valley is queuing up to disrupt the sector – it is ripe for disruption. What has saved education so far is that it’s more complicated than it looks, not the robustness of the existing paradigm.

Tip 2: Focus on Learning

Education has become a product rather than a public good and a civic duty. It’s been Taylorised and Skinner Boxed, quantified and analysed. Learning went from an innately human trait to something that is pathologised. A condition that can be measured, treated and made more effective through Deliverology.

Bring the focus of the institution back to learning. We need real product differentiation and that means rethinking the degree as a product. In a saturated market you can’t simply improve – better, cheaper, faster – it’s just not enough. You must evolve the market. Provide something new but also meaningful. Engage people in more meaningful ways, inject learning into the everyday rather than something you need to take a vacation from life to do. Improving the specs won’t facilitate the change that’s required.

Tip 3: Focus on Connective Spaces

The other thing I wanted to mention here is the University Campus. Some of the most beautifully kept and under utilised places on the planet. Universities are still stuck on their establishment based on exclusivity rather than their establishment for a public services. They seem stuck on excluding their communities, from engaging with them and inviting them to be part of something bigger. Universities aren’t shared spaces despite their prominence within their communities.

Utilise the campus better. Make them available to the public. Host services, build parks and paths and places to explore. Get your community in there and being part of the space. Offer fee for services – get library access, pool and gym passes, sporting fields, meeting rooms and video conferencing. Use the university to be a connective space, not an exclusive one. Demand that research serve local purposes and serves the local community first. Bind yourself to the community you’re in rather than pretending you’re not a part of it.

The Debt Generation

One of the often overlooked facts is that the success of Kodak led to an overload of artefacts. People now had albums full of memories, ones that they barely looked at. In order to attain those memories you were required to invest time, money and space. Kodak had created debt through abundance, that people now had to give something up in order to have memories. This helped create the perfect conditions for an alternative that offered to reduce those factors, to lessen the debt. Early digital photography had technical deficiencies but it was attractive to many users – real time review of photos, easy editing to fix red eye and wonky framing and the simple fact that you could delete photos you didn’t want. What digital photography provided was real world value, one that bypassed the debt incurred through film. By providing that real world benefit they looked past the shortcomings of the technology. It made their users better, made their lives easier and you once you have that you have the momentum to change the market.

I’m not sure I’m can see the real world benefit in Higher Education anymore. Yes education is important, as are our memories, but the level of personal and financial debt required to attain an education today has reached a tipping point. We are at the point where most students have to work in order to study, and I’m talking working at a level close to full time hours rather than a shift or two on the weekend. But have the universities rethought how they teach, how they asses, when they offer classes? Have they given much through to these constraints that students now operate under? Has the bureaucracy changed in anyway? No they plough on with the same how, the same 12-14 week program. The same forms and administrivia in order to get extensions or access services still apply. Sure you can learn online these days, but the courses tend to be designed to force you through content, is that a really attractive off? Is that worth paying money for? Is it worth more than a textbook? Is it worth paying for on top of the text book? Is the piece of paper worth it?

Tip 4: Think Financially

Universities really have to come to the table around the financial viability of what they are offering. Most universities charge the same for online courses as they do for on campus. Many degrees cross subsidise other degrees from the more expensive disciplines, but is that fair on the students? Most courses are structured to get access to government funding, but could they be funded in other ways? Could fees and debt be accumulated in other ways? Could students work with and for the university in order to pay for their tuition?

Universities need to have a dialogue around the broader financials of study, not just the bottom line of their operations. If you fail to do this students will walk, taking their money with them. This isn’t something they’ll tell you about or signal in any way, they just won’t come any more – that’s what we do when we make a financial decision. Engage your students, think differently about how this works, for lack of a better phrase – think outside the box.

A Brand Buys Recognition, not Loyalty

A lot is made about the strength of Kodaks name and position in the market. They were the dominant force globally, They had a great brand. But a brand isn’t the same thing as loyalty. People, despite everything that marketing departments will tell you, are not loyal to a brand. They choose a brand – for financial reasons, for convenience, for purpose – but never based on anything as obscure as loyalty. Could loyalty have saved Kodak? No. Kodak wasn’t anything that you could be loyal to. It was an industrial processes and manufacturing outfit, it made widgets that went into gizmos where you clicked buttons.

Universities however are full of people, and they can elicit loyalty. However it’s sad to see how little universities around the world grasp that. As they have commoditised their product, they’ve also sort to commoditise their workforce. This is clearly illustrated in the rise of casualisation to the epic proportions we see now. Labour within the university has become increasingly precarious, and more and more teaching is done by people by casualised staff. Because of the nature of their employment these staff aren’t loyal to the institution, in fact they can’t – in order to make a living wage many have to teach across multiple institutions.

Do you think our students are any different? When we have commodified the degree and there is little product differentiation do you think students are going to be loyal to the brand? The only difference in terms of products at the end of the day is the logo printed on the piece of paper that signifies their degree. You will never get people to be loyal to your logo.

Tip 5: Start with your Own People

Universities need to stop fooling themselves that they are a seperate entity in the broader labour market. You cannot bemoan the change in labour conditions and the fact graduates face an uncertain employment future when you are part of that problem!

Universities are still running under the assumption that they are employing labour, and a labour based business can simply improve their efficiencies by outsourcing to a cheaper labour market. Labour in this sense is a simplified concept, yes “labour” is required for the university to function but that term doesn’t reflect what most people within the organisation actually do. What they do is deal with people and information and to do this they required understanding, and understanding requires the development of knowledge. So what our people do looks less like labour and more like knowledge. There is a key difference between knowledge and labour – labour has a static value, but knowledge can grow and change. Knowledge can develop and change organically, labour can’t. The casualisation of university staff treats knowledge as static, robbing it of its very essence in order to make it fit nicely onto someone’s spreadsheet.

Universities have to start changing their own practices. There is a revolution needed in terms of knowledge work. It shouldn’t take the equivalent of Black Lung or mesothelioma in order for you to realise the working conditions in universities are unsustainable. You shouldn’t need suicides to remind you of the strain people are under.

You could have loyalty, but you need something worth being loyal to, and that is your staff and the experience they provide your students and your institution. Rethink what your staff provide you, engage them before engaging a consultant. The thing about knowledge is that if you invest in it, it grows and increases in value. If you have more knowledgable staff, if you treat them with respect and assist their growth then your institution grows in value you too. That’s worthy of loyalty.

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The Rise of Innovationism

Over the past few years I’ve witnessed the rise of a new kind of fanaticism, a new ideology that has taken hold within the tech industry and has begun to seep into other industries, sectors and government as technology increasingly important role. It defines itself through an undying and unquestioning devotion to the concept of innovation. It has reached a level in many areas where it has become more that just a function of a business, but an ideology – an ism.

Innovationism.

Innovationism looks past the history of failed innovations, incremental improvements and plain old luck, to cherry pick a creation story that exists entirely of lightbulb moments and messianic inventors and prophets. It is the new manifestation of the intelligent design story. The individuals involved come complete with omnipotent powers of insight, but there’s a wilful ignorance of their human failings and the simple fact that for every success there was a score of failures. Pointing this out to a devotee of Innovationism is tantamount to heresy and is met with howls of derision and abuse from the bro culture that regards TechCrunch as the Holy Book. It is through the lens of religion, and its side kick of fanaticism, that we can finally gain an understanding of what is going on within the Church of Silicon Valley.

The Kodak Moment

The story of Kodak’s failure to recognise and reposition it’s film business in response to emerging digital technology is legendary. Mythical even. The Kodak story is how we’ve been sold the concept of “disruptive innovation” and how innovation itself is justified. It helps transform it from a buzz word into an ideology. This Innovationism uses the Kodak story as a way of simplifying a complex business and economic environment with 20/20 hindsight into a simple message – Innovate or Die.

I See History

When I look at the Kodak story I see history. An environment and time made into an artefact that we can dissect and make sense of. History is how we can move forward, but it’s equally true that it’s why we stay rooted to the spot, doomed to repeat events again and again. What allows us to move forward isn’t history itself, but recognising the moments and conditions of inflection – learning and identifying when and what to change – and providing an alternative at the right time. These three things (recognition, alternative and timing) need to be done in concert in order to affect change. This is why history so often repeats – we can’t coordinate those required actions.

Innovationism bypasses that logic. It doesn’t seek to know or understand, it seeks only to innovate. Innovation is the means and the end. By their logic we must innovate or die, so that we can innovate and die. By dying we can live forever. Those that seek innovation are doomed to repeat history simply because they are not on a path to change it. Intersect it, maybe, but change it, no.

The lesson from the Kodak story is not the power of disruptive innovation, nor is it the inevitability of technology to swallow up a business. The lesson lies in being able to recognise the points of inflection that could have changed the outcome. An understanding of the environment and conditions that led to key decisions being made.

Ideological Distortion

We are dealing with an ideology that has distorted the function of innovation. That has bastardised it to suit the needs of it’s masters and support their world views, baked in biases and dangerous beliefs. It reinforces their privilege and distorted view of the world that needs another app or phone update rather than address the climate catastrophe their products are contributing to.

Innovation on it’s own is not the problem – it’s this particular manifestation. The move from a function that helps to facilitate change into an ideology. It has bought with it a destructive nature that is having a massive effect on peoples lives. From Uber drivers through to Facebook’s new army of content moderators – lives are being profoundly affected by those loyal to the dogma. And like those in power in other areas before them – the church, the aristocracy, the politburo – they remain unaffected. They benefit greatly from the adherence and growth of this ideology. It’s what funds the billions of dollars into the accounts of Bezos and Gates before him. It’s what widens the gap between rich and poor, divides cities and classes and people into ever smaller marginalised groups.

History doesn’t need to repeat. We have been here before. The church, the state, the aristocracy. All have risen, but all have fallen too. It’s becoming easy to recognise the problem. The time is right for change. We just need an alternative. It might be time to innovate.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy

This is the fouth year I’ve been invited to participate in the CSU Think Piece project. The idea here is to put forward a brief presentation on the challenges and opportunities of learning and teaching at CSU to help stimulate an ongoing and open dialogue. This years theme is “Leadership for Innovation in Learning and Teaching”.

If you would prefer to watch and listen the presentation is available on Youtube.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy

My Name is Tim Klapdor – the Online Learning Technology Leader in uImagine. In this think piece I wanted to explore the notion of leadership and hierarchy in the increasingly complex environment that is education.

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One of my long standing beliefs is that the human default for organisation is the hierarchy. It’s simplicity enables us to quickly organise a group of people in order to achieve a set task.

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And while default may just be, as Homer Simpson suggests, the two sweetest words in the English dictionary – I tend to question their value.

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The most obvious reason is that people rarely move beyond the default. For most of us the default isn’t the starting point, but the end. They are used as a shortcut – assuming for a fact that someone with more skills has looked at all the issues and made decisions on our behalf.

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While initially an organisational structure may have been adaptive, over time hierarchy becomes an embedded part of the culture. It becomes the default lens for seeing all problems and the default way in which they are the addressed. When all you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail.

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When it comes to defaults we need to start questioning the consequence of them:

  • What it is they entrench?
  • What do they avoid?
  • What do they hide?
  • What do they improve?
  • What do they enhance?
  • What to they leave behind?

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And more importantly WHO?

  • Who do they entrench?
  • Who do they avoid?
  • Who do they hide?
  • Who do they improve?
  • Who do they enhance?
  • Who to they leave behind?

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When it comes to current concept of leadership and the language around it, the default is to think about it in terms of hierarchy. In particular – leaders and followers – which immediately embeds a power dynamic based on Us & Them.

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This seems at odds with the kinds of organisations we want and of what we ultimately want to be a part of. But Hierarchy tends to distills roles into these kinds of binaries which may work well in simple organisations but tend to stretch and break the larger an organisation gets.

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The reality is that Hierarchies and the kind of leadership they promote won’t help us move into the future. One result of hierarchical organisations is that they divorce people from power. Rather than empower people, they seek to confine it to just a few and use the hierarchy itself as the mechanism to maintain and support this function. This kind of leadership has limited use and really only work well for small, simple problems – something that education is increasingly not.

So it begs the question:

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If we think about the kind of environment our organisation operates in – most would say that it’s pretty complex. There are a variety of connected, dynamic, interdependent and interactive factors at play – financial, social, personal and political systems that we intersect with at both individual and organisational levels.

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One way to make sense of this complexity is to use something like the Cynefin framework.

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Developed by Dave Snowden the framework is a tool to facilitate Sense-Making. Where we can plug in different situations into the framework to consider the kinds of approaches and characteristics that work in each of the domains.

You can find an excellent explanation of the Cynefin Framework from Dave himself on you tube

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In order to understand hierarchies and leadership in today’s climate I think we need to focus on the Complex domain. That what worked previously doesn’t work any more because the environment that we’re operating has changed significantly.

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Education is no long simple or even complicated because it now operates at a global and local level of interplay with various markets, governments, communities and individuals (both students and teachers). You throw in a couple of decades of computing and rapidly changing communications technology and we have a system that no longer knows what is best practice. It’s difficult to even define what is good practice.

Complexity challenges simple wisdom:

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“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result”

In a complex environment, doing the same thing twice will give a different result.

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“You can’t fix what you can’t measure”

You can intervene in a complex environment, even if you can’t measure it reliably.

Complexity also challenges existing measures and metrics and often finds them inadequate. Problems often have many contributing factors, often far beyond an organisations control, be they social, political or cultural. But rather than admitting defeat, complexity challenges us to find ways to intervene rather than fix or solve a solution entirely. That small changes can have big effects. And we see it when providing support to a student at a particularly difficult time results in them completing their degree goes on to ultimately changing their, and their whole family’s, lives.

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In the Complex domain even beginning to understand the problem requires experimentation. The final solution is only apparent once discovered and in hindsight it might seem obvious, but it was not apparent at the outset. No matter how much time you spend in analysis, it is not possible to identify the risks or accurately predict the solution or effort required to solve the problem. Complexity requires us to focus on emergent solutions.

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Associate Provost for Digital Learning a Middlebury College, Amy Collier uses the phrase Not-Yetness to describe what is happening in Distance and Online Education. To quote her:

In our context, emergence is allowing new ideas, new methodologies, new findings, new ways of learning, new ways of doing, and new synergies to emerge and to have those things continue to feed back into more emergence. Emergence is a good thing. For us, not-yetness is the space that allows for emergence. Not-yetness is not satisfying every condition, not fully understanding something, not check-listing everything, not tidying everything, not trying to solve every problem…but creating space for emergence to take us to new and unpredictable places, to help us better understand the problems we are trying to solve.

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Emergence is not only key to solving problems, but to discovering and defining them too. Emergence is the practice required in the complex domain and it looks and feels a lot like learning and research – two things that universities are more than capable of. It may seem counter intuitive but emergence is about loosening control and providing space for iteration and adaption. Of being willing to take risks and for risk to be part of the equation, rather than something that has to be eliminated. It is the realisation that to affect change it has to be in numerous small and in many different ways.

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A single silver bullet that will fix everything will never happen in a Complex environment.

But

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The way we currently do things doesn’t really allow for emergence and it certainly doesn’t support iterative development. These two things are key aspects of innovation. The silos and bottlenecks that hierarchy creates impedes innovation at Every. Step. Of. The. Way.

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One way is to rethink the concept of leadership and to uncouple it from the hierarchical structure. Leadership should be something that we can build and develop outside the hierarchy. To model a different kind of leadership, one that doesn’t rely on the concept of leaders and followers.

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Leadership is taking the responsibility to create an environment that facilitates a transition between states.

This is the definition I came up with during the Graduate Certificate in University Leadership and Management. It’s an attempt to define the role of a Connected Leader.

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Instead of authority there’s responsibility. Instead of control there is autonomy through a focus on environment. And instead of change (which is now the rule rather than the exception) I’ve tried to define a process that is more holistic and captures the journey as much as the destination.

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Another way to to change is to shift the focus from the vertical elements in the hierarchy and to develop of horizontal structures – teams that compliment, collaborate & share across divisions, schools and faculties. To augment the hierarchy and reduce the silo issues teams that span the silos that a hierarchy creates work together in a more holistic way. These teams share and create knowledge that span the organisation rather than it being concentrated.

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Another way would be to invest in areas that create diversity within the organisation. This would be a process of investing in innovations outside the normal “business functions” of the organisation and in areas that the organisation relies on for support. Technology is an obvious one, investing in the development new systems that support the delivery of our online courses. There are other areas like professional development that would allow use to develop and test new and innovative practices, course designs and methodologies

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Perhaps the best way to encourage Emergence is to provide greater autonomy. To allow individuals to explore within their unique circumstances. The work we’ve been doing in uImagine embodies some of these ideas. The Online Learning Model provides a language and a way of thinking about teaching and learning that allows individuals to adopt an adapt practices to suit their needs without being prescriptive. It’s elements provide a way of thinking about and conducting teaching and learning in the online space that is based in research and evidence. It is a way of allowing staff across the organisation to participate in the conversation and explain the vision for what our online course can be.

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Another method is to to connect the knowledge that exists across the organisation. Our next project, the Online Learning Exchange, seeks to support the autonomy of the individual by providing access to exemplars of practice. It will hopefully become a tool that provides individuals with the information they need to make changes to their subjects and practices, and in turn share those with the CSU community. The vision for the Learning Exchange is that it will become a resource for sharing – connecting knowledge across the institution by operating outside of faculty and school structures. It will become a place for not only finding exemplars of practice – but contributing to them too.

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Perhaps we don’t need to dispense with the hierarchy totally – it provides a stable scaffold from which the organisation can run. But perhaps we can create spaces in and around it in which we can work. Through which innovation and change can emerge through a culture that accepts the notion of not-yetness.

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Images

Complexity by Mark Skipper

Links

License: CC-BY-NC 4.0 @TimKlapdor

SXSW: Pop Edu

Day 3 at SXSW was a bit of a bad day. My Bubble Burst and then I was exposed to (by my own choice), what I can only call “Pop Edu”.

First up was the keynote presentation How to Think (and Learn) Like a Futurist from Jane McGonigal and then in the afternoon I went to the panel Igniting a Practice Revolution that included Sal Khan and discussed a project to improve the SAT performance using Khan Academy. I went to these presentations already a sceptic to the evangelical pronouncements both speakers are know for, and it was very much driven by a need to “know thy enemy”.

If Pop Music can be adequately described as music that appeals to teenagers and is a bland watered-down version of rock’n’roll, then these two panels are very much in the vein of Pop Edu. They also illustrate that the banal evil that lies behind pop music – commercial interests and maintaining power structures – exists in Pop Edu too.

If I was to break Pop Edu down it would look a bit like this:

  1. Neophilic – it’s all about the new, what’s next, quick fads not quality, high turnover, everything is replaceable – and will be in ever shorter cycles.
  2. Shallow – there is no depth to what’s being proposed. Everything is simplified and provided in bitesized pieces.
  3. Manipulative – it’s persuasive because it deploys tactics aimed at presenting a specific narrative. There’s always a half truth, but the whole truth is always glossed over with a convenient narrative (e.g. Everything is broken)
  4. Saccharine – The message is always too sweet and positive. It never delves into anything that looks painful or reflective of reality (e.g. never addresses race, inequality, sexism).

Unpacking the McGonical talk is a case study in Pop Edu. It started well. Here’s a narrative about a “successful” person – without addressing what it was they were really successful in doing. We can gloss over the pedagogically poor “projects” undertaken because they were “massive”. Lots of people equals success right? Just like platinum albums go to the best musician! That’s all before we get to predicting the future! McGonical hails from the Institute for the Future (which has sounds as credible as the Ponds Institute and the Laboritoire Garnier) which claims “helping all kinds of organizations make the futures they want”. So who wants the future McGonical is presenting? Who paid the Institute for the Future for the Learning is Earning campaign and what it represents? Let’s get an answer to that before we invest in that vision, OK? Now let’s get into the mechanics of what’s on offer. Just like a three chord pop song there’s not a lot of depth or nuance here, instead it relies on effects and gimmicks (think auto tune). Edublocks sounds cool and has all the right buzz words that Edu Pop needs – badges, blockchain, unbundling – but brush aside the buzz (no need to dig deep here, it’s shallow remember) and there’s nothing here that’s particularly innovative or good. The base unit of an Edublock is still time, this isn’t about learning it’s about delivering. I think you can see quite clearly this is an attempt to disrupt the monopoly that universities and community colleges currently have over accreditation. The end game however is not about accreditation – it’s about access to funds. Government funds in particular, and once you’ve got access to those then you can degrade the product to maximise profits. That’s how disruptive innovation works remember? But to get to a point where that’s at least possible you’ve got to get into the market – and Silicon Valley isn’t there yet. Yet – because Learning is Earning is part of a very distinct form of Edu Pop. Country had Nashville, Grunge had Seattle, Edu Pop has Silicon Valley.

Meanwhile Sal Khan is changing policy. I personally don’t have a problem with the Kahn Academy in the same way that some people do. I think for certain topics – in particular foundational mathematics – the drill method of learning works because it is about committing stuff to memory and then recalling it. Students can do this at their own pace in and in their own time. It’s simple but thats fine and making resources freely available to assist student is a nice thing. Beyond that specific purpose though you’re going into different waters, waters where the pedagogy the Khan Academy utilises falls over pretty quick. What works for foundational maths is not going to work for History, Art or even Science where there is more complexity and understanding required. What was interesting about this session was the good buddy routine with the head of the College Board – the people who set the SAT exams. What was interesting was not the fact that Khan Academy was involved in providing students preparation for the exam, that seems like a natural market, but the fact that the SAT WAS CHANGED in this process. That’s right they changed the test in order to assist students studying via Khan Academy. They removed the logic questions because, not only are they hard, you can’t really study for them, especially using the Khan Academy model. Despite waffling on about “mastery” what they were doing was removing the only real means to test mastery in the exam. Memorising and applying a set formula to a question is not the same as applying logic to it. The most galling fact though is that Khan Academy was influential in changing the exam to suit their product, not for the students. Again, no depth. Instead of assessing the suitability of the SAT they just changed the test to suit what was currently the new trend. Pop Edu pop at work again.

Rather than shake my beliefs, this all just confirmed my suspicions. It just made them clearer and tangible.

What was interesting was that during both session is how the audience reacted. McGonigal had the crowd right up till the video for Learning is Earning. At that point the sighs were audible as was the grumbling. The guy next to me was particularly explicit about how he felt with several audible groans, sighs and expletives. What was more noticeable was the walk outs. Streams of people just getting up and leaving. Pop isn’t to everyone’s taste.

Honestly the Pop comparison only came to me last night, but it’s been subconsciously inspired by the recent musical musings of various EdTechers out there and the fact that I’ll be talking Indie EdTech later this week. Indie music is a really interesting model for discussing Pop, because Indie is the antithesis of Pop. Indie is:

  1. Retro – there’s an understanding and knowledge of the past. Indie utilises history in order to make better decisions, avoid the pitfalls and do things more simply.
  2. Deep – it shows a real understanding of the underlying structures, is self critical, reflective and embraces the complexity of what’s involved. Talent is able to be exhibited and challenged in this environment.
  3. Open – it’s truthful and honest, often to a fault and its own detriment. There is no need to manipulate, Indie is what it is – it’s what’s on the label, it wears it’s heart on its sleeve (right next to the tattoos).
  4. Bitter – Indie relies on the ying & yang and often goes to the other end of the scale in order to justify itself. Disaster porn rather than candy. It wants to tackle the hard stuff and creates a space for real conversations.

What’s important to note is that Pop never changed anything. It’s never really disrupted or innovated anything. Seriously, ever. Music has always been changed from the outside and those on the fringe. Change is driven by the independent artists not those married to the mainstream. Pop just steals from Indie, distorts it into its own image and strips it of history & context. Pop always claims to be the new sounds, but it’s really just the same thing over and over and over again.

All this means I’m looking forward to Friday, when I can finally get my Indie EdTech on. And the drive there so I can listen to a few of my favourite tunes!


PS: While Jim Groom loves his punk I will always be a metal guy, and to me Metal is the great example of successful indie music scene. Here’s an entire genre that thrives outside the mainstream – no radio, no TV and no media. Yet it succeeds inspire of this, in fact it succeeds because of this. It’s global yet highly localised. It’s mobile and agile yet always remains committed to its roots and history. And metal is diverse, this is not a homogeneous or single strained style – this is a full genre that requires a whole family tree to encapsulate it. Metal is the antithesis of Pop, but also of rock and roll (for those not with me on that one, it at least bites it’s head off, swallows it up and vomits its back out). If we want indie EdTech to go far, become more Metal!

SXSWedu: The Obvious Innovation

My revelation or insight from one day at SXSWEDU:

What’s needed in education is better dissemination of good practice.

Based on the sessions I attended yesterday and the level they were pitched at that’s the only conclusion I can come to. But it supports my experience. At my own institution little is articulated by faculty staff about what good teaching practice is, what it looks like and how to do it. There is a disconnect from the practice required to do well and the profession itself.

Don’t get me wrong – there are many, many staff out there who don’t fit this generalisation. I’ve worked with them, listened to them speak and share, but they are not the majority.

Good practice in education seems to be nebulous – no one really knows what it is, what it looks like or how to describe it. They might be able to recognise it – but articulate it? No. That’s a big problem and may be why the education system seems to be in a quagmire at the moment and unable to truly move forward. If we can’t articulate what good practices are, then how can we move forward? How can we fight the colonisation from Silicon Valley? How can we petition against funding cuts and student debts? What are we fighting for?

I went to a session with members of the University Innovation Alliance which was interesting. What struck me though is their description of their work: Innovate – Scale – Diffuse. Nothing wrong with that at all, but given the climate my mind started to wonder – is that the right order of things?

If I was to make a change it would be to concentrate on the Diffusion of good practice first. Get it out there, get people discussing it, give people a vocabulary and shared language and provide rich examples that allow people to learn, share, adopt and adapt.

Then focus on scaling up. Once people know what it is you want them to do, they can get on with it. Show them how, provide them with the incentives, policy and structures to support their work. Scaling up what you know is easy, scaling up to early will only highlight issues and introduce an element of risk.

Finally, Innovate on top of a solid foundation. Innovating first leads to obvious issues and only entrenches the “pockets of innovation” that is the heart of our current problems. Get good practice embedded – diffused across teaching staff and scaled across the organisation – and then innovation becomes easier. Improve first, not fail first. The fact is that there’s 100 or so years of research and practice to draw on – we can do this without a whole lot of effort. I’m not advocating for a single form of good practice – far from it – education needs diversity and best practice should suit the organisation and student cohorts.

This Diffuse – Scale – Innovate pattern seems to match quite nicely with the work that I’m actually involved in at Charles Sturt University. We’ve developed a strategy and articulated a model that suits our institution. We’re working on the initial pilots to help us articulate and illustrate that model and we’re planning our scale up now. Once we’re there then we have a real solid foundation to innovate on and around.

There’s a lot of work to do – but the in the search for the newest shiniest innovation, we’ve forgotten the most obvious.

The Quiet Page & Linking the Web

A number of recent posts and articles I’ve read discuss the concept of linking – Will Deep Links Ever Truly Be Deep?, Beyond Conversation, Follow-up: Reader as Link Author, How we might link and The Web We Have to Save.

Each in their own way has resurfaced an idea that I had a number of years ago. The year was 2011 and I’d spent about 3 weeks in the US as part of professional experience program. I’d spent a lot of time in the company of some great thinkers and innovators. At at some point there was a discussion about books – the supposed death of print, the inadequacy of ebooks but the potential that digital technology has for rethinking what makes a “book”.

Out of those discussions and over some long days driving I started to flesh out some ideas about what could be, where could the concept of the book go once it had been made digital? I wrote it down, drew it up on paper and left it there. Knowing the idea wasn’t ready. I couldn’t see how it could be done. Not yet anyway. But I pulled that paper out over the summer and read through it. Rethought it and started to rework it. And the big idea?

The Quiet Page.

At that original point in time most discussion was around what digital could add to the reading experience. Media, interaction, social media, video, analytics, data metrics, the list was endless. I was actually draw to the simplified, the unadulterated text. To be able to experience words and language without distraction. Without embellishments. Without blue underlines, embedded video, high definition graphics, interactive elements or embedded social media – the quiet page.

Text delivered to my liking. My font, my size in my colour or screen setup. Quiet. Relaxed. Readable.

And from the quiet page we can add the ability to turn on functions. To add to the quiet page layers of functionality. To view the text in different ways. To move beyond the navigation of our magic ink, and to embed the text with additional contextual information.

the-quiet-page

  • To see it linked to other resources to show its research and context. The internal and external connections of the text itself. (Author)
  • To add richness by adding media, visual and auditory elements that help enhance the message. (Publisher)
  • To annotate it myself. To highlight underline and note. To visualise and add my experience with the text. (Personal)
  • To view others experiences of the text. To see their notes and discussions. To see their highlights and to experience the text in a social and shared way. (Social)
  • To create trails. To connect the text to other content, ideas and resources myself. To place the text in my context, my experience and my knowledge. (Synthesis)
  • And then to share those trails. To let others see how I’ve contextualised the text. To see my experience but to then be able to add to it and expand it. (Connected)

From the Quiet Page you can do all these things – because the page doesn’t change. Each layer is an enhancemennt, an addition to the text rather that part of it. The Quiet Page allows the text to be adopted for other functions and purposes. To become non-linear, lived, felt, experienced and shared. To map and chart the interactions with the text. To go far beyond the “book”.

The point was to link the text. Not just in one way, but many. Internally and externally. Personal and social. Private and shared. And to cross between those states. To make the external internal, the personal social and the private shared. To link the text to life.

This discussion around linking – in particular Mike’s contribution – has made that importance of linking clear. That it is one of the key differentiators of the digital – not just the linking itself, but what the linking enables. It allows connections to be formed – not just between data, ideas or information, but people too. They provide a way to express, to visualise and map connections. To share, create ad communicate with humanity beyond our physical and temporal constraints.

The link is unique and powerful. It drives the potentially of the digital medium and needs to be enhanced rather than killed off or replaced.

Otherwise all that’s left is the Quiet Page.

Innovation and the Novelty Factory

My ears and eyes seem to have been bombarded by one word so often over the last couple of weeks that I’m now developing something akin to shell shock. A nervous tick here, a Tourette-esque outburst there, a cringe and a cry, a bewildered look in my eyes and a wanton desire to disconnect and float away.

Innovation.

Over hyped and over used the mere mention of innovation makes me wince.

You see

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

What scares me about this trend is that now innovation is being talked about in government policy, institutional strategies and every goddamn mission statement known to man – and yet, I don’t think there is any understanding about what innovation is: what it really means, what it entails or the implications of adopting it actually are.

Horace Dediu posits a taxonomy which I think is extremely useful to help discern innovation and reduces some confusion:

Novelty: Something new
Creation: Something new and valuable
Invention: Something new, having potential value through utility
Innovation: Something new and uniquely useful

Using that model we can see that a lot of what people declare as “innovative” should be re-graded as simple novelty, and what people want in their mission statements isn’t innovation but creation. Innovation is not for everyone. It is not something that everyone should aspire to or need to achieve. In fact the pursuit of innovation often means that quality, sustainability and longevity are put at risk.

Innovation is a lot harder and more difficult to achieve because it is essentially change. And the reality is that most people don’t want to do that.

People want the same, but better. Faster and cheaper, but not different.

Change is hard. It’s disruptive and scary. Innovation isn’t additive, it’s subtractive – you have to lose or destroy something in order to attain it. It’s not the same but better, it’s different and better. It requires the embrace of something new, different and foreign.

Innovation is not something everyone should be striving for, and the reality is that they’re actually not. They use the label of “innovation” but if you listen to the pundits in government, technology and finance sectors what they actually want is Novelty. They want something that generates “new” at scale and from very little real investment or effort. What they crave is the Novelty Factory where you can package something differently, appify it, give it a new spin, change the colour and produce it at scale, but never actually do anything different. The reason for this is that novelty has the potential for massive profits, simply because who doesn’t like new? It’s engrained in our psyche to be curious and that’s exploited ruthlessly through an array of psychological manipulations that drive the cravings of a consumerist economy.

You’ll hear plenty about “disruption” but how much of that is actual innovation? How much is actually changing? Isn’t it just the same as before? Isn’t it just like the other thing? Isn’t it simile rather than metaphor? If we actually think about it, it’s distraction rather than disruption.

People don’t want to invest in innovation because change is really hard. It’s complex, expensive and risky and more often than not takes time – years if not decades. It requires behaviours and mindsets to adapt to entirely different concepts, inputs and environments. It requires people to leave behind what they did, what they built reputations on, what they trust and tacitly know, and replace it with something strange. Innovation is about trust and relationships more than anything else. It’s about building, shaping and learning not just coming up with ideas.

What most people want is novelty – simple, cheap, dumb and easy to sell. You can invest in that. You can profit from that.

Silicon Valley isn’t the hub of innovation – it’s a perfect model of the Novelty Factory churning out vast quantities of “new”, but affecting little real change. Sure there are innovators operating there, but they simply share the space rather than dominate it.

Real innovation requires change, not from the product but the audience, user or consumer. That’s where the complexity lies – it’s not about coming up with something new, its about convincing people to change. To let go of traditions and to trade in status, comfort and power from the old model to embrace something new and different. It’s for this reason that true innovation is exceedingly rare. There are plenty of new things we do, but how many require real change? How many were really just the same, but better? How many were subtractive and forced you to give away, give up and destroy?

Innovation is not as pervasive as we think, nor should it be as widespread as we’re led to believe.

I think there’s a need for a more nuanced approach to innovation, invention, creation and novelty. The distinctions are important and there’s a growing need to articulate the difference, to accept it and to choose what it is they need. If we want governments and institutions to embrace innovation we need to really understand what that means and what’s at risk. Maybe when we think about it novelty is enough, or that creativity is more important. Maybe that’s the real innovation.

*Image used https://flic.kr/p/4jCHgj

The Glass Slipper

Cinderella is a timeless story. So most people should be aware of the Glass Slipper, the shoe that fell off Cinderella as she ran away from the ball. It became the symbol of the perfect woman to Prince Charming (did he have an actual name?). Fairy tales and fables are supposed to teach us and illustrate the world and our problems in a way that we can comprehend. They can help us to see the other side of the argument and offer clear insight into how we as humans operate.

When we get to the Prince Charming part of the story we start to see that it is teaching us about how to solve a great problem. The great challenge we face is that people often confuse the problem with the solution and the solution with the tool. In this story the solution is Cinderella, not the Glass Slipper – because the problem he is actually trying to solve is his quest to find a queen. Cinderella is the perfect solution and the Glass Slipper represents a tool to solve that problem. The Glass Slipper is a red herring to most people and they tend to confuse it as actual solution. Clarity and vision are required to see past it to what the real problem is and not caught up hype and circus of the Glass Slipper.

OK, it’s time to decipher what the hell I’m talking about.

Well my experience is that often we loose sight of the actual underlying problem trying to be solved. We lack the insight to dig deep enough to find out what is the beating heart of the matter. We seem so often to view digital technology as the glass slipper. We confuse it with the problem or we see it as the solution.

The other problem with the Glass Slipper is that it gives us the illusion that all problems have a discreet and simple solution. The Glass Slipper for some reason gives us hope for a one-size-fits-all solution – but that is hardly the reality. We seem capable of glossing over the bit of the story where all the women in the land tried their best to squeeze their pudgy feet in. With girt and determination they thought they could shoehorn themselves into the shoe and become the queen. The reality is that it was a highly customised and crafted solution and one that was created by magic! Hey, this is a fairy tale – you can pull that sort of trick and you don’t need to get into the nitty gritty – and because it was magic and not the work of a team of artisans it lacks the temporal context the Glass Slipper needs to be truly appreciated. This isn’t a simple tool, and the only reason it seems so is because it was created using magic! The reality is that if we want our own Glass Slipper we need to craft it. It takes time and patience, resources, creativity, trial and error, research, testing, piloting, risk, failure, tears, sweat, blood, ideas, lightbulb moments and a steady hand.

The moral of my story is don’t be fooled by the Glass Slipper. It’s not the solution you’re looking for, it a tool to solve a problem. And unless you have a Fairy Godmother or access to other magical beings – pixies, elves, wizards or witches – don’t think that it will ever be simple and easy to craft.