A Business Technology Place

Writing’s role in our lives

In a recent speech, the principal of my kid’s school talked about the importance of writing in the overall education process of a child. It made me think of my own life where I didn’t really begin writing regularly until I was almost 40. It’s important to me know, but really held no significant meaning while I was in school or even college.

My kids don’t show any motivation to write other than what is required for a graded assignment. Maybe it’s because writing for graded assignments doesn’t always let you write from your heart. Assignments are by definition something that someone else chose for you. But I believe,the best writing comes from a desire within and a passion to write to express feelings and emotions. A post I wrote about a Cooperstown baseball trip comes to mind as a writing that flowed from my mind when I was on an emotional high from a life experience.  It was easy writing and captured a moment and a feeling. My kids haven’t made that leap to enjoy writing. I hope someday they will.

It’s also a challenge for students to embrace regular writing today because we live in media consumption oriented society rather than a creation oriented one. The 1% rule of the internet states that “ only 1% of the users of a website actively create new content, while the other 99% of the participants only lurk”. It’s easy to be a content consumer, but not so easy to be a content creator. In this case I’m referring to content creation as the process of writing thoughts as more than posting pictures and status updates.

As I see it, even if we don’t write for audience, we can write for ourselves. We can write to explore and record our thoughts.We can write to think about and form opinions.  It’s a healthy exercise and has many rewards. This was in part, the principal’s thought. Maximize your learning thinking and writing. It’s never too late to get started.

Flipping the classroom

I have often thought that I would have enjoyed a career in academia.
I loved being a student. For some classes it was the thrill of the material and learning. For other classes, where I wasn’t as connected to the material, I was drawn to the game of education and making the best possible grade. At Georgia Tech, some of the early core classes were graded on a curve, so the game was definitely “on” for top grades.

But as I reflect on it now, I enjoyed more than the subjects, topics, and grades of being a student. It was the whole system of life. In college I had some flexibility in designing a schedule (afternoon classes vs morning) and then chose how to break-up my day. I was pretty disciplined in college so I never had an issue of neglecting course load for social activities. But yet I had time for social activities with a fraternity and other organizations. I could change my study schedule around a little if needed to accommodate whatever I wanted to do on any particular day.

Good students don’t necessarily make good teachers. But I think I could have been a good one. I volunteered as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher for eight years and found the classroom environment and student interaction to be energizing. I don’t pretend that teaching once a week for an hour is the same as rigors and challenges for teaching full time. But my teaching experience did fit within my overall enjoyment of the world of academia.

Getting technology into the classroom.
But I chose a different path. I’m a technology guy that keeps learning through reading, discussing, and experimenting. This past weekend I read an interesting article about a school that is flipping the classroom by using video in the out-of-school environment. The idea is to tape the base teaching lesson so that students view the lesson outside the classroom. Then during class time students go through what traditionally be homework exercises alongside the instructor(s).

The problem this solves is removing the frustration at home when the student needs help from the parents, but the material is too complex for the parents to help. In this model the student has direct access to the teacher for help while completing the exercises.

For the teacher, this type of system provides new ways to relay and teach information. They can use different techniques such as labs, lectures, or travel to record the course material. Taping the material ahead of time could allow them flexibility to capture additional items might not be able to in a classroom setting.

Whether or not you agree with this approach is not the point.
This type of frame work still requires discipline on the students part to watch the videos. I found myself asking would a student be more likely to watch a video or work problems at home? But then I realized the bigger picture. This group of teachers is searching for ways to improve education through technology. They are experimenting, as a marketer would do, to measure the success of new teaching techniques. What works for one class (small group of students), may not work as well for the next class. Much of the success and failure of a particular technique will be based on the personality of the class and the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals within it.

As a parent, I totally get the problem this solves. I’ve been in the situation with a high-school student asking me for help on homework. While I was confident I could research and find the answer, I wasn’t able to do it immediately. It’s frustrating for everyone involved. So I applaud the efforts of this teaching team to look for solutions. I like their use of technology and fitting it into a model the students will relate to.

Rethink text book distribution

Text books are made for the education and instruction of students in our society right? Well, that’s the academic answer at least. Certainly the amount of money in the text book industry is benefiting a load of people in the value chain. Authors, publishers, distributors, retail stores, etc.Text Books

But really. Have you seen a student lately? They carry around backpacks busting at the seams.  I weighed my son’s back pack tonight and it topped off at 20 pounds! Let’s be real, this can’t be healthy for the kids and certainly in this day and age we have other options for getting educational content to students other than over-sized printed text books.

Online textbooks or computer versions have been available for some time now and ocassionally offered in academic environment. These are good alternatives, but present a few problems:

1) They require reading the text book from a computer screen.  Large amounts of reading from a back-lit screen is hard to do and eye-stresser. I haven’t found anyone yet that really likes this option for heavy reading.

2) They are not portable. What if you need the book in the classroom and at home? Laptops are not available to everyone and while they are close to portable aren’t always convenen

So now it’s 2010. The Kindle and iPad are making waves and I’m watching my kids break their backs trying to get to the bus. Let’s rethink to the obvious solution:

Get each student an eReader and have them load their textbooks onto this device.

Here’s why it works for everyone involved:

  • The students – The most important people in this equation are the students. They create the demand for the entire value chain: schools, authors, publishers, etc. They benefit because they get a portable device for reading valuable content. It weighs next to nothing and can even take notes and create markup.
  • The schools – Take the budget for buying the printed versions and  use that amount to negotiate with the eReader providers and publishers for the eReader and eBooks. The student is assigned an eReader at the beginning of the year. If they lose it, then they have to purchase another one with their own dime (same policy today on text books). You could even require a deposit which is returned when the eReader comes back at the end of the year. Optionally offer the students the ability to purchase the eReader to keep and reuse.  For colleges and universities, you can require the purchase of the reader and purchase of the books. Basic eReaders today sell for the price of a single textbook. It’s a one time purchase and in the long run text books should be less expensive for the student. Just imagine an article about a college/university that is decreasing a cost to its students instead of a double digit gain each year.
  • The publishers –  It’s best to get involved in this game now and be a player rather than ignoring it so that the others determine a way around them and make their service irrelevant. They should continue to work with authors to make distribution easier.
  • The authors – Somebody still has to write the text!
  • The retailers – In a college and university environment they now sell eReaders and find a way to distribute the texts electronically. Their physical space requirements for textbook inventory just fell off the charts. So they can either refill that space with other merchandise or reduce their footprint and costs.
  • The trees – Yep, this is the environmentally responsible solution and the trees love it.

It’s really just a matter of time before this happens. Oh yeah, maybe, just maybe we’ll get the love of reading back into some of our students. These eReaders don’t have to be limited to text books. Students would be able to download and purchase any eBook they wanted to read.    So what are we waiting for?