Posts about 30dayswwgd

Hacking education: Google U

I’m lucky to be at a great Union Square Ventures session on hacking education today. I believe education will be restructured radically and that will be accelerated out of the so-called financial crisis. You can follow tweets at #hackedu; Union Square will put up the entire transcript later.

In honor of hacking education, I’ll put up all of the Google U chapter in What Would Google Do? (the rest after the jump):

* * *

Who needs a university when we have Google? All the world’s digital knowledge is available at a search. We can connect those who want to know with those who know. We can link students to the best teachers for them (who may be fellow students). We can find experts on any topic. Textbooks need no longer be petrified on pages but can link to information and discussion; they can be the products of collaboration, updated and corrected, answering questions and giving quizzes, even singing and dancing. There’s no reason my children should be limited to the courses at one school; even now, they can get coursework online from no less than MIT and Stanford. And there’s no reason that I, long out of college, shouldn’t take those courses, too.

You may suspect that because I’m a professor, I’ll now come out of this litany of opportunities with a rhetorical flip and demonstrate why we must preserve universities as they are. But I won’t. Of course, I value the academy and its tradition and don’t wish to destroy it. But just as every other institution examined in this book is facing fundamental challenges to its essence and existence in the Google age, so is education. Indeed, education is one of the institutions most deserving of disruption—and with the greatest opportunities to come of it.

Call me a utopian but I imagine a new educational ecology where students may take courses from anywhere and instructors may select any students, where courses are collaborative and public, where creativity is nurtured as Google nurtures it, where making mistakes well is valued over sameness and safety, where education continues long past age 21, where tests and degrees matter less than one’s own portfolio of work, where the gift economy may turn anyone with knowledge into teachers, where the skills of research and reasoning and skepticism are valued over the skills of memorization and calculation, and where universities teach an abundance of knowledge to those who want it rather than manage a scarcity of seats in a class.

Who’s to say that college is the only or even the best place to learn? Will Richardson, who teaches fellow educators how to use the internet in the classroom, wrote an open letter to his children, Tess and Tucker, on his blog, Webblog-ed.com: “I want you to know that you don’t have to go to college if you don’t want to, and that there are other avenues to achieving that future that may be more instructive, more meaningful, and more relevant than getting a degree.” He said education may take them to classrooms and lead to certification but it also may involve learning through games, communities, and networks built around their interests. “Instead of the piece of paper on the wall that says you are an expert,” he told his children, “you will have an array of products and experiences, reflections and conversations that show your expertise, show what you know, make it transparent. It will be comprised of a body of work and a network of learners that you will continually turn to over time, that will evolve as you evolve, and will capture your most important learning.”

If that is what education looks like, what does a university look like? I asked that question on my blog and entrepreneur and technologist Bob Wyman (who works for Google) responded by abstracting the university and identifying its key roles: teaching, testing, and research. I’ll add a fourth and unofficial role: socialization. Let’s examine them in reverse order.

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WWGD? – The scientific solution to the world’s problems

“They are doubling down on the technocratic approach,” Siva Vaidhyanathan, who’s writing The Googleization of Everything, said in today’s NY Times responding to news that Google.org will focus its philanthropy more on its own science and technology and integrate its charitable arm more with the company. Agreed.

But then he adds in the Times: “The habits and ideology of the company will lead the philanthropy rather than the needs of the communities or the planet.” No, I think it’s actually more hubristic than that: Google believes its technology, science, methods, and intelligence are best suited to solve the needs of the planet.

On its blog, Google.org head Larry Brilliant said – as he announced that he’d be moving to corporate to become philanthrop evangelist and would hand over the foundation to long-time Googler Megan Smith:

During our review it became clear that while we have been able to support some remarkable non-profit organizations over the past three years, our greatest impact has come when we’ve attacked problems in ways that make the most of Google’s strengths in technology and information; examples of this approach include Flu Trends, RechargeIT, Clean Energy 2030, and PowerMeter. By aligning Google.org more closely with Google as a whole, Megan will ensure that we’re better able to build innovative, scalable technology and information solutions. As a first step, Google has decided to put even more engineers and technical talent to work on these issues and problems, resources which I have found to be extraordinary. In this global economic crisis, the work Google.org is doing, together with our many colleagues around the world, to help develop cheap clean energy, find and fight disease outbreaks before they sweep the globe, and build information platforms for underserved people globally, is more important than ever.

In moment such as that, we see how Google think its ways can solve big problems. And maybe they’re right. We can only hope so.

For today’s 30 Days of WWGD? snippet, here’s an excerpt from the chapter about Google.org’s technocratic method brought to the energy and environment: the essential scientific optimism of invention as a means of solving problems:

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Here is our one example of an industry being remade in Google’s image that is not hypothetical. Google?.org, the company’s philanthropic wing—supported with 1 percent of Google’s equity and profits—is trying to reinvent the energy industry and with it, our energy economy. It is funding companies and research looking for ways to make power that will cost less than that generated with coal. Their geeky name for the initiative: RE* * *

[Note: Google recently announced PowerMeter, which begins to do these things.]

A portfolio instead of a diploma

Teacher Mark Pullen wrote on his blog great thoughts on students leaving school with portfolios instead of just diplomas. The next day, he was reading What Would Google Do? and found that we agreed on this, I’m happy to say. Mark’s ideas:

After 13 years of work getting a K-12 education, why is it that all a student has to show for it is (if things go well) a diploma?

It seems to me like our goals should be so much different, such as:

In writing: students should have a very rich blog with hundreds of quality posts on it, as well as several major self-published pieces and several other items that were genuinely published by outside sources (editorials in the local paper, columns for a trade magazine, etc.)

In science: students should have at least one patent and/or at least one invention that they’ve actually created a prototype for (or, better, that has had copies of which have actually sold)

In math: students should be able to balance a checkbook, understand how to stay out of debt and avoid credit spending, and understand how to interpret biased statistics and advertisements correctly; they should also be able to solve any real-world math problem they may encounter in life (figuring out the reduced cost of having improved gas mileage, determining the amount of interest that would accrue on various home loans, figuring out which jar of peanut butter costs less per ounce, being able to make two-thirds of a batch of something, etc.).

In social studies: students should be able to read every article in the newspaper and understand (when applicable) the article’s significance and the historical events that have led up to the event being described. When applicable, students should also understand the geography of the location(s) being discussed, as well as the religious and political backgrounds of the people groups involved

Finally: students should be heading to their post-K-12 life with a plan for the future, rather than just heading to college because everyone is doing it. They should have an extensive understanding of a significant number of careers in their preferred field(s) of study as well.

Kind of cool: a patent instead of a sheepskin.

As a second 30 Days of WWGD? snippet for the day (because I’m a bit behind), here’s the bit from the book that Mark quoted:

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Perhaps we need to separate youth from education. Education lasts forever. Youth is the time for exploration, maturation, socialization. We may want to create a preserve around youth—as Google does around its inventors—to nurture and challenge the young. What if we told students that, like Google engineers, they should take one day a week or one course a term or one year in college to create something: a company, a book, a song, a sculpture, an invention? School could act as an incubator, advising, pushing, and nurturing their ideas and effort. What would come of it? Great things and mediocre things. But it would force students to take greater responsibility for what they do and to break out of the straitjacket of uniformity. It would make them ask questions before they are told answers. It could reveal to them their own talents and needs. The skeptic will say that not every student is responsible enough or a self-starter. Perhaps. But how will we know students’ capabilities unless we put them in the position to try? And why structure education for everyone around the lowest denominator of the few? . . . .

The next role of the university is testing and certification: the granting of degrees and anointing of experts. The idea of a once-in-a-lifetime, one-size-fits-many certification of education—the diploma—looks more absurd as knowledge and needs change. Are there better measures of knowledge and thinking than a degree? Why should education stop at age 21? Diplomas become dated. Most of what I have done in my career has required me to learn new lessons—long past graduation—about technology, business, economics, sociology, science, education, law, and design. Lately I’ve learned many of these lessons in public, on my blog, with the help of my readers. That is why I urge other academics to blog and be challenged by their public. I believe that should count as publishing. Blog or perish, I say.

Our portfolios of work online, searchable by Google, become our new CVs. Neil McIntosh, an editor at the Guardian, blogged that when he interviews young candidates for online journalism jobs, he expects them to have a blog. “There’s no excuse for a student journalist who wants to work online not to have one,” he wrote. “Moreover, the quality of the blog really matters, because it lets me see how good someone is, unedited and entirely self-motivated.” Our work—our collection of creations, opinions, curiosities, and company—says volumes about us. Before a job interview, what employer doesn’t Google the candidate (a practice banned by law in Finland, by the way)? Our fear is that employers will find embarrassing, boozy pictures from spring break, but that’s all the more reason to make sure they also find our blogs and collected works. . . .

Google Air?

As I sit in SFO waiting to go to EWR, I’m seeing that Continental is taking a few good steps down the road to Googlification or at least transparency. When I check on the flight status, I can now see where the incoming equipment is and judge for myself how credible my departure time is. For years, I’ve asked gate agents for that information and now Continental is giving it to us. Yeah.

Also, the airline is publishing openly the list of stand-bys for seats and for business-class upgrades (using just three initials) so people know just where they stand. Now imagine that with this information, we passengers could start a marketplace around them: Maybe I can buy somebody’s upgrade or window seat.

On the way out to San Francisco, when I sat in Newark enduring the dreaded ATC delay (but the airline let me sit out that delay in the airport and not on the tarmac — and I tweeted my gratitude), I was using the Samsung-branded plugs (and also I tweeted my gratitude). Later, I found another tweeter saying that she had been sharing a power tower with me (which led to a sniggle from another tweeter) and wondering whether I was watching my name. I responded and said that I wish she’d said something. We missed each other until we both tweeted on the other end of the trip. Today, I saw her tweet about flying back to New York; I asked whether we were on the same flight; we weren’t, but I warned of more ATC delays today.

Now imagine that we have internet access on the plane and in the airport. So we could start a Twitter hashtag for every flight: #CO449. We can gather around that and meet each other, arrange to share cabs on the other end, get recommendations for restaurants and hotels and events, and maybe even manage that marketplace of seats.

That’s what I write about in the book, imagining the Googley airline. So that’s today’s 30 Days of WWGD snippet:

* * *

In contemplating how to remake an airline with Googlethink, I had just about given up. What can one do with such a commodity service, particularly one that has deteriorated so badly? Air travel’s business model today is based on overselling seats, billing us for checking bags, charging for pillows and pretzels and just about everything they can think of but air, jamming planes to the point of torture, treating customers as prisoners who can be kept on runways for hours without the food and water an inmate is allowed, and withholding information—all the while raising prices. Google couldn’t fix that. No one could.

But then I applied Google rules about connections and the wisdom of crowds with Zuckerberg’s law of elegant organization and my own first law and asked how travelers on planes, trains, and ships or in hotels and resorts could be given more control (of anything but the cockpit, of course). And I wondered, what if passengers on a plane were networked? What if a flight became a social experience with its own economy?

Start here: Most of us are connected to the internet on the ground. Soon, we’ll be connected in the air as planes, like hotels, finally get wireless access (after earlier failed attempts). Wi-fi is good for airlines because they will have something new to charge us for and because it will keep passengers busy and perhaps less likely to grumble and revolt at delays (though we might just blog and Twitter every problem and indignity as it occurs). Once connected with the internet, passengers could connect with each other. It would be easy for the airlines—or passengers themselves—to set up chats and social networks around flights and destinations so we could hook up before and during a flight. We could organize to share cab rides once we land, saving each other money. We could ask fellow passengers for tips about restaurants, museums, and stores and ways to get around. If the wi-fi were reasonably priced and if there were electric plugs at our seats, we could also spend hours happily playing games with each other.

Back when the 747 was introduced, it was supposed to offer lounges where passengers could hang out together. That didn’t last long as every inch was soon crammed with revenue-producing seats. Lounges are supposedly set for a comeback in the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A380 superjumbo jets. So imagine if in our onboard, online social network, we could find people we want to meet—colleagues going to the same conference, travelers with shared interests, future husbands and wives—and we could rendezvous in the lounge. The flight becomes a social experience.

I know this vision sounds far-fetched given our current experience of air travel. But play along. Socialization could be a key to decommodifying the airline. What if passengers chose to fly on one airline vs. another because they knew and liked the people better? BMW drivers mingle with each other on Facebook; Lufthansa passengers could do likewise and they’d have more in common—shared affection for travel and for a destination. Remember: Your company is the company you keep. Your customers are your brand. Airlines might want to encourage more interesting people to fly with them because interesting passengers would attract interesting passengers. Airlines could offer discounts and benefits to people who are active and popular in the social network. Today, airlines offer only seats: commodities. What if, instead, they were to offer experiences and societies? I know, the last thing we want most of the time is to get stuck with a talkative twit in the next seat. Maybe that’s because, by the time we get on a plane, we’re in rotten moods. Suspend disbelief still. Imagine returning to the days when we met interesting people in chance encounters in the air. Maybe passengers could choose to sit next to each other. Next to the right talker, I might tolerate a middle seat. It would probably have to be David Letterman or Oprah sitting next to me. But it could happen.

These passenger networks raise the possibility of creating a new economy around the flight. Airlines could set up auction marketplaces for at least some seats, as JetBlue began doing experimentally on eBay in 2008: What’s it worth for you to fly to Orlando next Monday? Rather than buying seats only from the airline, if late-booking passengers could also buy seats from fellow customers in an open marketplace, that could solve some of the airlines’ overbooking problems, reducing the need to pay bumped fliers. Yes, speculators could arbitrage seats, but if they’re paid-for and nonrefundable, what problem is that for the airline? Resellers become market makers. This exchange sets a new market value for seats that in some cases will be higher than the airlines’ own fares.

The airline could use the exchange as a prediction market to forecast and maximize load. It might see a surge in demand for a destination, perhaps for reasons it could not predict (a new conference or festival, good media coverage for a getaway, a travel bargain, or currency fluctuations unleashing pent-up demand). With sufficient notice, the airline could add capacity, which would keep it ahead of arbitrageurs. The airline always controls supply and now it would know more about demand. Similarly, if a flight were light the airline could offer passengers alternatives at big discounts to enable it to cancel the flight and reroute equipment long before departure, creating savings at the bottom line. The airline would increase efficiency and profitability; the passengers would get a dividend; and the environment would get a break. An open and flexible social marketplace could transform the airline economy.

Hacking education

Educators – like musicians, journalists, carmakers, and bankers before them – won’t know what hit them. But as sure as change is overtaking every other sector of society, it will overtake education – as well it should. Our cookie-cutter, one-pace-fits-all, test-focused system is not up to the task of teaching the creators of the new Googles.

I’m one among many who believe that there are huge opportunities in education, not just to change and improve it but to find new business opportunities. That’s true especially now, as the economic crisis forces people to reconsider and change paths. Note the post below about increased applications at journalism schools. A friend of mine who works in a community college is seeing a surge of people coming back to school to finish degrees and buff up resumes.

I’ve seen this commercial a few times with its stirring call for change and expansion of education. It comes from for-profit Kaplan University (a division of Washington Post-Newsweek; indeed, the division that subsidizes the newsrooms there; as journalism becomes more educational, I believe the can find synergies beyond financial ones). Kaplan is arguing that its for-profit schools can give students more practical, more useful education in more ways:

Here’s another Kaplan ad:

Now see this statement of need by students at Kansas State in the digital ethnography class of the amazing Michael Wesch:

I put those up in the wrong order. The students show the need; Kaplan thinks it has a solution.

For today’s 30 days of WWGD?, here are snippets from the beginning and end of my chapter on education, Google U:

* * *

Who needs a university when we have Google? All the world’s digital knowledge is available at a search. We can connect those who want to know with those who know. We can link students to the best teachers for them (who may be fellow students). We can find experts on any topic. Textbooks need no longer be petrified on pages but can link to information and discussion; they can be the products of collaboration, updated and corrected, answering questions and giving quizzes, even singing and dancing. There’s no reason my children should be limited to the courses at one school; even now, they can get coursework online from no less than MIT and Stanford. And there’s no reason that I, long out of college, shouldn’t take those courses, too.

You may suspect that because I’m a professor, I’ll now come out of this litany of opportunities with a rhetorical flip and demonstrate why we must preserve universities as they are. But I won’t. Of course, I value the academy and its tradition and don’t wish to destroy it. But just as every other institution examined in this book is facing fundamental challenges to its essence and existence in the Google age, so is education. Indeed, education is one of the institutions most deserving of disruption—and with the greatest opportunities to come of it.

Call me a utopian but I imagine a new educational ecology where students may take courses from anywhere and instructors may select any students, where courses are collaborative and public, where creativity is nurtured as Google nurtures it, where making mistakes well is valued over sameness and safety, where education continues long past age 21, where tests and degrees matter less than one’s own portfolio of work, where the gift economy may turn anyone with knowledge into teachers, where the skills of research and reasoning and skepticism are valued over the skills of memorization and calculation, and where universities teach an abundance of knowledge to those who want it rather than manage a scarcity of seats in a class. . . .

On its official blog, Google gave advice to students, not about where they should learn but what they should learn. Jonathan Rosenberg, senior VP of product management, blogged that the company is looking for “non-routine problem-solving skills.” His example: The routine way to solve the problem of checking spelling would be use a dictionary. The non-routine way is to watch all the corrections people make as they refine their queries and use that to suggest new spellings for words that aren’t in any dictionary. Rosenberg said Google looks for people with five skills: analytical reasoning (“we start with data; that means we can talk about what we know, instead of what we think we know”); communication skills; willingness to experiment; playing in a team; passion and leadership. “In the real world,” he said, “the tests are all open book, and your success is inexorably determined by the lessons you glean from the free market.”

Rosenberg’s best advice for students and universities: “It’s easy to educate for the routine, and hard to educate for the novel.” Google sprung from seeing the novel. Is our educational system preparing students to work for or create Googles? I wonder.

[Thanks to Fred Wilson for the headline to this post]