When Every Family is a Startup

What I’m about to share is nothing new, but it is a significant societal and economic change in this connected world, and I contend that it has large and important implications for thinking about the nature of education in a connected world.

I returned from a trip to Hanoi, Vietnam a couple of months ago. While I was only there for a couple of days, I continue to think about the cultural experience. I don’t know what this says about me but I thoroughly enjoyed crossing busy streets in Hanoi. Amid countless cars and scooters rushing by, friends told me to just drop my head, step out into traffic and walk slowly but steadily across the street. Just don’t stop or change pace as someone may well hit you, they explained. Again, I’m not sure why I enjoyed this so much. Perhaps it was because I got to disregard pretty much every childhood rule that I’d ever learned about crossing the street or “playing in traffic.”

Walking or riding through the streets of Hanoi, you can’t help but notice the line of small businesses run out of the street-side first floor of each building, with families often living above. I’m certainly no expert on Vietnam, Vietnamese economics or the Vietnamese business landscape, but I was told that almost all of these are family businesses do not reach the financial threshold that requires them to go through formal processes with the government. Or some do, but they just don’t report it. If it is run by you and family, and you don’t make too much money, it is pretty quick and easy to start as many family businesses as you want, and that is a common way of life for families in a city like Hanoi. As such, one person indicated that many, perhaps even most, families living in Hanoi had one or more family businesses. It might be making and serving one type of street food. Or, it might be a simple and singular craft or service.

As other businesses develop in Vietnam, this massive family small business framework may well fade, with more people opting for jobs in companies. Again, I don’t know the Vietnamese landscape so perhaps that transition is well underway. Regardless, I’m intrigued by the parallel between what I saw in Vietnam and what is happening in the United States and the digital world at large, the growing options for work from home, self-employment, and small businesses.

Could it be that what I saw in Vietnam gives me a glimpse into what is happening in the digital landscape? The more I thought about this, the more similarities I saw between Ebay and these family businesses of Hanoi. One difference, and this is obviously a major one, is that the business efforts happening in the United States are often experimental and supplemental, offering people disposable income above and beyond what many do for full-time job. Yet, that is not true for all, and this digital marketplace has extended around the world. In fact, I just hired a person from Vietnam, another from Russia, and two more from the United States through an online service to do some graphic design work for me. There are plenty of people who have learned how to tap into the connected world to generate significant income or even a full-time salary.

The digital world, even going back to the 1990s, helped to create spaces for people to explore and experiment with self-employment, even if mainly for supplemental purposes. I remember the personal realization in the 1990s that, if I could generate any kind of website that garnered the attention of 10-20,000 viewers a month, I could create a business out of it.

Just scan what is happening on Ebay, Etsy, UpWork, Udemy, Fiverr, Patreon, Kickstarter, TeachersPayTeachers, and hundreds of other similar online services.

  • With Ebay, anyone can become a broker of used (or new) goods.
  • With Etsy, anyone skilled in a craft (or who gain access to purchase crafts so they can resell them to people in other parts of the country or world where there is higher demand) can set up a storefront.
  • With UpWork, you can be a consultant or independent contractor as a programmer, graphic designer or illustrator, administrative assistant, writer, social media specialist, editor or dozens of other areas. These people make money ranging from a few dollars an hour to well over a hundred dollars an hour, they can set their own hours, and they can do their work from pretty much anywhere.
  • With Udemy, people are designing fee-based, non-credit online courses on everything from photography to setting up a blog, and there are plenty of people who are making solid five and six-figure incomes doing it.
  • With Fiverr, people are making extra money by doing even simple tasks like writing a 300-word blog post.
  • Patreon is a digital platform that draws from a century-old tradition of sponsors or patron’s of certain people’s work, especially artists, but it extends far beyond that.
  • With Kickstarter and dozens of other crowd-funding sites, people are getting the capital necessary to produce a product ranging from a documentary to a new electronic device. Or, they are just using it to get pre-orders for products and services.
  • With TeachersPayTeachers, educators are selling worksheets, lesson plans and other products of their work as classroom teachers; and some boast of making six figures doing as much.

With modern debates about workforce development and the role of college education, these sorts of platforms offer us a glimpse into a future where most families have what many still consider a non-traditional revenue stream, even if it is a supplemental one. It shows us that anyone with valued knowledge or skill, regardless of how it is developed or acquired, has a better chance than ever to turn that knowledge and skill into an opportunity for significant income. We live in an age where it is easier than ever to create multiple streams of income without ever leaving your house. Who knows, we may well see ourselves venturing into a future where almost every family is a startup or small business. Given this emerging future, what are the implications for our schools and education system?

Autonomous Learning: A Life-Changing Education Moonshot

My favorite part of life in a connected world is connecting with mission-minded, high-impact people around the globe. As such, I am excited to tell you about a recent connection and an education moonshot in autonomous learning. It is one that could change the lives of countless children in some of the most disadvantaged parts of the world. This is a moonshot worth sharing and supporting.

What is an education moonshot?

An education moonshot is a bold and grand vision for a desired future condition in the education space. It starts with the equivalent of JFK’s speech to the joint congress in 1961, when he challenged a nation to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade. It was an inspiring speech, one that JFK repeated countless times over the upcoming year, but it took more than the words of an influential leader to make it a reality.

After speaking those words, there was a national rally around the challenge. The government allocated resources, and some of the best minds devoted years to making this happen. Along the way, some people even lost their lives amid the preparations and experimentation. In 1969, this vision became a reality, “a giant leap for mankind.” This is where we get the idea of a moonshot, and an education moonshot is nothing more or less than an equally compelling vision that is focused upon a social innovation in the education sector, one that represents a giant leap for humanity.

Meet Dev4X

With that in mind, allow me to introduce you toDev4X. The term “moonshot” is gaining use and attention in education, but I contend that is best reserved for the type of bold initiatives represented by Dev4X. We are not just talking about sustaining or incremental innovations, improving or refining past models and efforts. An education moonshot is a game-changer. It is doing something that has never been accomplished before. It is the type of vision that I learned about recently when I had the joy of talking with Bodo Hoenen, a social innovator and founder of Dev4X. This is an education startup largely powered by talented and committed volunteers around the world, all focused on, “Empowering all children, including the most underserved, to improve their lives and their future through learning.”

Why is this a moonshot in autonomous learning?

This isn’t just about trying to create more schools in different parts of the world. It is larger and more disruptive than that. Bodo wants to create a future where, “every child can learn anything they need, even if they don’t have access to formal schooling.” This calls for the design of hardware, a software platform, and access to learning resources (content) that lend themselves toward peer-to-peer learning, self-directed learning (or autonomous learning), and what Sugata Mitra coined as Self-organized Learning Environments.

Think of it as a social innovation that blends ideas inspired by game-based learning, the $100 laptop project (now known as the One Laptop Per Child Project) started a decade ago, self-organized learning environments, and lessons learned from Khan Academy. This is a project focused on a massive problem in education, the reality that countless children around the world have no access to teachers, quality schools, or educational opportunities. Now imagine inexpensive hardware and learning platforms that change that by allowing children to learn independently and through peer-to-peer networks.

What will young people learn from this platform? With an initial focus on literacy and numeracy, the Dev4X team is also planning to work with locals to design culturally sensitive content that focuses upon the knowledge most important to thrive and survive in a given part of the world. This is starting with projects designed for children in Liberia, rural Kenya, and serving the needs of girls in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Who will this help?

After decades of unrest in Liberia, most schools are empty shells with no resources. Books were burned and many trained teachers left the country. Even as there are efforts to rebuild an educational system, young people return to schools that are little more then empty buildings.

In parts of rural Kenya, schooling options are limited, but there is also no electricity grid or widespread access to the Internet. This means we need to build a system that doesn’t depend upon connections to the outside world, but instead builds a mesh network among all the people using the devices in given area, one that also empowers self-organized peer-to-peer learning across devices. It also needs be available in Swahili.

In places like Pakistan and Afghanistan there are efforts to increase access to education, but young girls remain largely disconnected from those opportunities. Their ability to get an education provides important opportunities for their future, but that is not a reality for many. If they are not able to attend school, then the Dev4X effort will bring learning opportunities to them.

Teachers are valuable, but as I’ve written many times before, the most critical elements in a learning experience are learners and experiences. As such, the Dev4X moonshot is focused on those two elements, inspired by an immediate need in the world. The education of one child is too important to wait on government resources and massive school reform projects. This is the start of an educational “design” experiment (informed by many experiments before it) that will show us a new way of thinking about increasing access and opportunity in a connected world.

How can I help?

As I mentioned before, Dev4X is a volunteer-powered effort, so your help is needed.

  • First, you can share this article and other information about the project (Watch and Share Bodo’s TED Talk here). In the sprit of TED, this is definitely an idea worth spreading.
  • In my conversation with Bodo, he also explained that they are still in need of more software developers, especially those experienced with Java and the Android platform.
  • Finally, look for upcoming information about a crowd-funding campaign where all of us can provide financial support to this inspirational moonshot.

What Innovative Education Startups & Schools Can Learn from the Rise of Craft Beer

I follow the news feeds on topics like entrepreneurship and startups, but I focus on news related to the education sector. Recently, a different type of headline caught my attention, What Your Company Can Learn from the Rise of Craft Beer. I don’t even drink beer, but something caught my attention in the title. The writer explained that craft beer sales increased by 17.2 percent while “overall beer sales” dropped by 1.9 percent. These craft beer makers are not just imitating the practices of the big name beer companies. They show a spirit of cooperation with other craft beer makers,  experiment with beer in new and creative ways, are driven by founders with a true passion for the product, and they are (collectively) looking ahead. As I read these suggested lessons in the article, I couldn’t help but notice how they also apply to those breaking new ground in the education sector, whether it is a new education startup or an innovative school model.

Do More than Imitate the Big Names

Education is full of imitation. In the higher education sector, we have a history of organizations striving to be like Harvard, Stanford or one of the élite schools. In the K-12 sector, we have private schools that often do little more than imitate the practices of the public schools but with a varying levels of exclusivity. Also in the K-12 sector, we see schools constantly striving to do and be what is trendy at the time, sometimes aided by the force of mandates. I’ve also seen University schools of education that talk more about state policies and mandates than any of the current research or cutting edge developments in the field. Among education startups I see some of the most innovative work, but even there we see people wanting to be the next [fill in the blank]. There is nothing wrong with learning from other organizations (I certainly do that all the time), but there is so much need and opportunity in taking the road less traveled in the education sector. The largest organizations are not always the best to imitate, and some truly compelling and promising innovations in the education sector are difficult or unlikely to scale. That isn’t going to captivate venture capitalists, but there are plenty of other workable funding models. This is about more than finding a blue ocean strategy. It is about breaking new ground, exploring new possibilities, and creating new opportunities. As stated by Todd Henry in the Accidental Creative, “Cover Bands Don’t Change the World.” If we are going to nurture a craft beer equivalent in the education sector (both with startups and schools), that calls for original work, or at least existing work with some creative twists.

Embrace a Spirit of Cooperation with Others Education Startups and Innovative School Startups

Years ago, when I conducted a study of the ten traits of leaders in innovative schools, this is something that stood out instantly. It didn’t take a formal study to see that these people loved to share and collaborate. They were often quick to help others who wanted to do something similar. They embraced a spirit of openness, recognizing that they were in this for something more important than patent and financial profit. This doesn’t mean that they ignored the importance of financial or competitive realities, but it does mean that they were driven by a vision that, regardless of the finances and competition, led them to lend a helping hand, share, cooperate and nurture a broader community around their work. We see this in innovative charters, magnet schools, private schools, amid certain groups like democratic and PBL schools, and elsewhere. I’d love to see this expand.

Experimenting with Education in New and Creative Ways

The article pointed out the interesting experiments coming from craft beer makers. You can find chocolate beer, hot pepper beer, oyster, key lime, peanut butter, banana and a hundred other flavors. I’m pretty sure there isn’t a widespread market for an oyster stout, maybe not for any oyster beverage. Yet, amid these experiments are some truly promising discoveries. That same thing is true in the “craft education” marketplace. As I’ve written before, I do not advocate thoughtless experimentation on children. Yet, given that the product, service or environment meets some of the basics (although even that is debatable), there is ample room to experiment, especially when we invite the learner(s) into the experimentation, making it part of the learning experience.

Passion-Driven Work

I don’t want to confuse emotion with passion. While some definitions of the word focus on emotion, I think of it more in terms of the conviction and drive. What I’m thinking of here goes far beyond a specific personality type. This is about the extent to which people truly care about what they are doing and why it matters.  They are “true believers” and while there are many challenges, they find joy in their work, and they are driven to be a difference-maker. In the education sector, I contend that work must be driven, in some way, by a desire to do something of significance, that ultimately and genuinely benefits learners. I sometimes call this the “Mr. Rogers Mindset” and it consider it a non-negotiable educational innovators.

Looking Ahead

Tradition has its benefits, but as traditions become more established, there can be a resistance to ongoing exploration of how to respond or adapt to what is new. The author of the article on craft beer explains that this looking ahead and openness to embracing the new is more welcome and open  among craft beer makers than the broader beer industry. It is the same for educational innovators. This means working through or moving behind cliché statements about new developments. I still find people who assume that using technology is somehow less personal. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. There are others who resist any number of developments because they have an opinion about it, but they have not truly investigated the affordances and limitations. Looking ahead is not about adopting every new development or buzz word, but it is about keeping our eyes open, being really curious, and allowing ourselves to explore them without having our minds made up before we begin.

The “craft beer” equal in education is alive and well. We see it in new education startups, open source projects, new school starts and restarts, even in those areas with long traditions like publishing and higher education. These are movements not trying to become the next [fill in the blank], driven by leaders with a passion for their product or service, cooperative, forward thinking, and experimenting in interesting and sometimes unusual ways. Many of these are unlikely to ever become mainstream in education, but that is not always the point. They meet needs of a niche audience and they support of vision of education that is not fixed, one that realizes variety of options is a far better direction to universal standardization.

A Research Challenge for Startups & Educators

Cloud 1I’m intrigued (and sometimes troubled) by the lack of research and data literacy in the field of education. I see it in school leaders, professors and classroom teachers. I see it in educat startups and established companies. I see it in myself. I”m ready to do something about it in 2015. How about you?

It was seven years ago and I was at a conference where founders of educational startups and newly established education companies gather. One of my favorite parts of these events is listening to stories of how these companies started. One evening I was sitting with founders or senior leaders of three education companies, two startups and one just out of the startup stage. This was the perfect chance for me to dive into one of my favorite conversations about why and how those in education startups go about their work.

“Why did you get into this work?” I got three completely different answers. One founder was a former teacher who ran into a problem in the classroom and decided to do something about it. It turns out that others had the same problem, so she did a little research and with the help of a startup incubator, she founded her first business. A second entered the education space from being a director at a major (as in one of the big ten) technology company and got tired of it. Over a few beers with a couple of college roommates, they decided to do something together, and they thought the education sector would be a good place to look. They brainstormed a list of problems in education based mainly on their own experiences as former students. Once they focused in on an idea that they liked, they ran it past some teachers and built a prototype in the evenings while keeping their day jobs. They launched it as a freemium product and were delighted to see the teacher interest. Within no time they had enough interest that they quit their day jobs and focused on this new venture. The third founder (who was with a couple of others from the same company) was not too interested in sharing. This was his second or third (maybe more, I can’t remember) startup, but his first in education. Of course, all this came out over a half hour chat.

I was one of those students who asked tons of questions in class and I sometimes feel like I’m still that kid. I must have asked twenty or thirty questions over the next hour and a half. Amid our conversation, we had a lively chat about the role of education startups. One founder really saw herself as an educator, and while she respected the viewpoints of other educators, she was not afraid to speak her own mind about what seems to be working and what isn’t in the field of education. The second founder was more hesitant. He was quick to explain that he is not an educator and he leaves the teaching up “to the experts.” He just wanted to provide a product/service that helps them do their job. That is where things got good.

“But what if those experts don’t really know what is best or most effective? I mean, if you have a dozen educators in the same room, you will find a myriad of claims and convictions about what works, what doesn’t, what constitutes good education, whether or not the Common Core is good for kids, whether project-based learning is practical and effective, the best way to teach reading…or math, how to address the impact of poverty and SES on student success, and all sorts of other things. How do teachers come up with those claims and convictions.” Well, that is sort of what I said. From there, the conversation took off. You had to be there, but it was good…definitely my kind of dinner conversation. It was candid, substantive, impassioned, and pretty entertaining.

Here is what I learned amid that conversation. Not one of the people at that table had read a peer-reviewed piece of research related to their product or service in the last twelve months. In fact, when I mentioned a few studies that seemed related to their companies, they didn’t know about most of them. In fact, some at the table looked like they were learning about this new treasure trove of ideas to inform their work. “Well, do you have someone on your staff who stays upon on the research?” Two of the companies did not. The third had a PhD in something like neuroscience and cognitive psychology who served as the chief learning officer or a similar title to denote their role in directing the educational soundness of the product.

Then I asked about the research that they’ve conducted or had others conduct on the effectiveness of their products/services. What does it do to improve student engagement, student learning, student something? One startup had a ton to share on that front, explaining how they used an approach that sounded very much like IDEO’s empathetic design thinking, sort of a blend of participant ethnography and action research. It was brilliant, and I loved hearing how their product/service was built, from the ground up, based upon the real-world needs of students. In addition to the design process, they had an independent researcher currently gathering data in the impact of their product/service. The other two didn’t say much. They talked a little bit about user satisfaction and how their product “makes things easier for the teacher or student.” They had done market research, but they didn’t seem to have much evidence to support the claims that what they were selling was genuinely good for educators, schools or students. I’m not suggesting that they didn’t have support. They did. Both of the other products/services made intuitive sense. They were things that seemed like they would generally be good.

Is our gut enough when we are spending billions on proposed educational technology interventions to educational problems, when we are asking school leaders to invest massive amounts of tax dollars in these products and services? As I’ve written before, having a business in the education sector raises the bar for you. You are part of a social entrepreneurship movement whether you are formally a non-profit or for-profit. It seems to me that this is a call for doing research and/or analysis to find out what is working and what is not. At least get to know resources like the What Works Clearinghouse.

Before this comes off as a lecture to education startups (too late?), I should look back at those of us in educational institutions as well. How many educators and administrators consistently read scholarly research about education? I’m talking about the people who are identified as the professionals. The truth of the matter is that many educational decisions in schools are not informed by current research nor are there strong plans to analyze ongoing data to help adjust what they are doing. Look at the Common Core adoption around the United States. The adoption of this new set of standards was done without a even running a full pilot or field test. I’m not arguing for or against CC, but we would think that something that big would include a plan, from the start, to make sure it was truly shaped by the best research and tested in an ongoing way. Or what about the testing culture in education? What does the research say about it? What about 1:1 programs, new literacy programs, math curricula, and STEM programs? What about the impact of a college education? There is research in these areas, but most of us don’t read it or use it.  So, can we blame education startups for following the same pattern? The field of education continues to have a fascinating anti-educational approach to quite a few things.

I realize that there are philosophical battlegrounds in what I’m writing here. It is not as simple as asking if you read the research and conducted studies to determine impact. Nonetheless, promoting a growing culture of evidence-based practice would be a great start for us in 2015 and beyond. I’m not even arguing that we have to do all the research upfront, just that we try to stay modestly informed about past research and strive to collective and analyze evidence on our products, services, methods, and strategies.