Tag Archives: innovation

Is Education Fundamentally A Technology Problem? (#education, #tech, @NewYorker, @AltSchool)

What happens when the computer engineering bubble hits the Silicon Valley finance bubble in a collision directly overhead of the philosophy of education?

AltSchool.

In “Learn Different“, the New Yorker surveys a for-profit, tech-inspired elementary education startup. Some key takeaways of the company’s approach to education, according to the reportage:

  • No professional school admin; school is run by teachers
  • “Micro-school” with small total enrollment
  • Mixed classrooms; pre-K through 3rd grade in combined learning environment
  • “Franchise” model; locations in major cities throughout the US
  • “Highly tailored” education that uses technology to track student progress
  • “Playlist” driven lesson plan; students work through pre-assigned steps on tasks of interest
  • Surveillance; students are recorded with video and audio for later playback and analysis by teachers
  • Big data; used to analyze student progress and adapt lesson plan to strengths and weaknesses
  • Private tuition, approx. $30,000/yr

According to the editor’s tag on the article, AltSchool is an example of “Silicon Valley disrupts education.” In the disruption literature there is the idea of disruptive and sustaining technologies– disruptive technologies create a paradigm-shift in the strategic world upon which the industry in question competes, while sustaining technologies simply allow for more efficient continuation of the existing competitive dynamic. Better horse breeding practices are an example of sustaining technology in the era of the horse and buggy, while the internal combustion automobile is an example of a disruptive technology in personal transportation.

If AltSchool is disruptive technology, then the questions are:

  1. What is the primary strategic principle for mainstream education?
  2. How does AltSchool represent a paradigm-shift?

It’s perhaps difficult to say exactly what the principle of mainstream education is. There are many interest groups who vie for influence over the system so it is by no means a monolithic group. That being said, there is perhaps a cohesiveness of interests: provide jobs and economic resources for “educators” and administrators (including the politicians who are the ultimate stewards of the system) while creating a student body that will be cooperative with the political system around it and willfully integrate into the various economic relationships that sustain it. “Question everything” this is not.

The AltSchool gives meek lip service to the idea of an individual-oriented learning experience, but upon further investigation it seems that this is not about making the student the master of his education, but making the education a more subtle component of the student’s social indoctrination.

Ventilla [the founder of the company] also wanted students to focus on developing skills that would be useful in the workplace of the future, rather than forcing them to acquire knowledge deemed important by historical precedent. “Kids should be spending less time practicing calculating by hand today than fifty years ago, because today everyone walks around with a calculator,” Ventilla told me. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to do math—I shouldn’t have to whip out my phone to figure out if someone gave me the correct change. But you should shift the emphasis to what is relatively easier, or what is relatively more important.”

While there isn’t necessarily anything blame-worthy in being mindful of conditions in the workplace which students might one day be interacting with, it also isn’t exactly revolutionary to incorporate job-worthiness into one’s educational philosophy. The “workplace of the future” is an extrapolation of the “workplace of the present” into future periods.

In San Jose, students’ scores on annual state tests were made available only after the end of the school year. At AltSchool, Seyfert could keep tabs on her students’ daily, if not hourly, progress. Every task card on a student’s playlist is tagged to denote not just academic skills, like math and literacy, but also social and emotional skills.

What is the value of all of these statistics? If you are teaching to a standard (ie, you have an end goal in mind of what your student should “look like” when their education is “complete”), then being able to measure progress toward that standard would be instrumental. The application of technology to this problem of measurement might introduce some efficiencies or even  capabilities that are impossible without it. But then, this wouldn’t be a disruptive innovation but rather a sustaining innovation.

If your methodology is centered around the development of the individuality of the student himself, then the best such statistics can provide is a description of strengths and weaknesses. There would be nothing actionable as there would be no specific goal. Suzie is good at math. Jerry is good at reading. But what of it? And even then, these descriptions would only be valuable to compare Suzie and Jerry to others, but what value are such comparisons to the individual being compared? He cares not for it.

Like other AltSchool teachers, Seyfert was drawn to the startup because of its ambition to make systemic change. Two or three times a week, she told me, she gives colleagues feedback about the school’s digital tools. The Learner Profile, Stream app, and other tools are only about a year old, and AltSchool’s personalization still requires considerable human intervention. Software is updated every day. Carolyn Wilson, AltSchool’s director of education, told me, “We encourage staff members to express their pain points, step up with their ideas, take a risk, fail forward, and fail fast, because we know we are going to iterate quickly. Other schools tend to move in geologic time.” (Ventilla may question the utility of foreign-language acquisition, but fluency in the jargon of Silicon Valley—English 2.0—is required at AltSchool.)

The obsession of the school seems to be in building excellent quantitative measurement tools. These pieces of software can be updated and tested rapidly. But the educational principles themselves produce effects which are long in both maturation and duration. We can’t be sure of their results until many years have passed, if even then, and they’re most easily tested through logical inquiry, not mathematical interpretation. As human nature and cognitive capability are not improving any faster than iteratively through “geologic time”, it’s unclear what value these rapid upgrades to the software provide to the improvement of the philosophic principles of education that have supposedly been disrupted by AltSchool.

There was some humorous contrary evidence:

The previous day, Otto said, a guest teacher had come in to lead several students in a 3-D-modelling project, using a Web site called Tinkercad. “We built little models online—some people built phone cases, or little towers, or yo-yos,” Otto said. “I built a toilet, because I thought it would be fun. It has lots of different components—you have the base, you have the seat, you have the back.” He clicked to the site and pulled up his model. “I was looking around at pictures of toilets online,” he said. “I think I want to make it a bit more shaped for your back. I also want really sanitary toilets. And I want to make it really comfy. I’m quite bony, and I’m small, and if they don’t have a cushion they hurt.” Eventually, Otto said, he planned to 3-D print his prototype: a model toilet, fashioned to his personal specifications and preferences.

I really enjoyed this comment and I am glad the journalist captured it. First, it suggests that maybe the AltSchool is creating some spaces for the individual student to explore their interests, deeply. Second, Otto comes from a financially successful family whose parents are accomplished corporate types. It seems that, given the freedom to pursue his own interests, he can think of nothing better than building a comfortable toilet. That must give mainstream educators (and maybe even his ambitious parents) the chills!

If you can pull your own preferences out of your head for a moment and just look at this boy’s effort from his own perspective, though, isn’t it glorious?

The point of the hackathon was to sketch out in code potential solutions to “robot tasks”—routine aspects of a teacher’s job that don’t require teaching skills. Kimberly Johnson, the head of product success and training, addressed the team. “Basically, what we have told teachers is we have hired you for your creative teacher brains, and anytime you are doing something that doesn’t require your creative teacher brain that a computer could be doing as well as or better than you, then a computer should do it,” Johnson said.

Since the previous hackathon, three months earlier, teachers at AltSchool had filed more than a hundred digital “tickets” to Johnson, indicating how AltSchool software might be improved. Some teachers had asked for a more streamlined way to input data. Johnson acknowledged, “It is a lot of work to go into each card and click the learning objective and click the score and click ‘save.’ It’s just four or five clicks, but it adds up.” The teachers also wanted to enter assessment scores to groups of kids at once. “If you say, I want to give all of these kids threes, and all of these kids fours, there must be an easy way to do that,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what it would look like, but you could probably hack something together.”

Again, the emphasis on data technology over teaching philosophy. Now, it sounds like the school is trying to free up the teachers to focus on teaching by improving their technology interface. But the question begged is, “What makes the technology interface so central to their teaching philosophy?” This comes back to the question of disruptive versus sustaining technology. How is the student served by all the assessments? Life is its own assessment.

But AltSchool’s philosophy of education is also essentially utilitarian, even as it celebrates the individuality, autonomy, and creativity of its students. It holds that children should be prepared for the workplace of the future—and that the workplace of the future will demand individuality, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking.

We turn now to that great social philosopher, Ludwig von Mises, who said of genius and the creation thereof in his “Human Action“:

The genius does not deliver to order. Men cannot improve the natural and social conditions which bring about the creator and his creation. It is impossible to rear geniuses by eugenics, to train them by schooling, or to organize their activities. But, of course, one can organize society in such a way that no room is left for pioneers and their path-breaking.

Now here are two very different philosophies. At AltSchool, “individuality” and creativity are being taught as part of the lesson plan and the methodology of the school in service of the demands of a future workplace so envisioned. For Mises, the creative individual is something natural, inexplicable and uncontrollable and he is in service to himself first and foremost.

I think it is Mises’s ideas that are disruptive here.

AltSchool’s perspective does not necessarily require abandoning texts that have long been considered central to a humanist education, but it does mean approaching them anew. One middle-school class undertook a lengthy study of the Iliad by focussing on the theme of “rage” and designing a spreadsheet that logged instances of it. They then used data-visualization techniques to show their findings, and wrote persuasive essays based on their results. Afterward, their teacher, James Earle, wrote, “Analyzing a piece of literature this way turns the work into a piece of robust data that can be understood quantitatively, in addition to allowing a qualitative reading.”

But what is the value of this new understanding? What does it add that is new and different? Yes you can do this, but what thinking informs the should?

Mediratta [vice-president of product] envisaged a time when AltSchool technology would get “into the sci-fi realm.” What insights might be drawn from aggregated data culled from video and audio? He spoke of the video moments that teachers were bookmarking. “The next useful thing would be for us to analyze all the things that are bookmarked, and to draw inferences,” Mediratta said. “Like, bookmarks seem to happen when the classroom is noisy. So let’s generate a few other interesting moments that the teacher might want to look at—say, a moment when the classroom was full of kids but was dead quiet. What was happening there? Is this good? Is this bad? Or you could look at a moment when it was absolutely chaotic—but maybe that is what the activity called for. So we can start applying machine learning to this data to start driving inferences. Maybe what we should be doing is detecting when the classroom gets noisy, and then we could have the head of the school, who is also an educator, stop by your classroom and participate and help.”

The meta-philosophy of modern education is control, the schooling agenda is a by-product of the aim to control others. The desire to control the schooling environment seems to be what is behind the focus on applying technology to surveil and measure the students and their activities.

AltSchool is not disrupting anything as far as I can see. From my understanding of what education is and what education isn’t, I don’t see a place like AltSchool meeting my needs, but that does not mean it won’t be successful in terms of the paradigm of mainstream education, within which I believe it is situated.

Quotes – Machiavelli On The Risks To Innovators (#innovation)

And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.

~Machiavelli

A Thought On Nintendo ($NTDOY, #innovation)

Although Nintendo missed its sales targets for the Nintendo 3DS platform, they still sold enough of the systems and its games to give credence to the argument that Nintendo’s business model (independent hardware manufacturer plus proprietary franchise software development) has not been killed and buried in a ditch by the transition to mobile, freemium, changing lifestyles, etc.

What is missing in most discussions of Nintendo’s fortunes, however, is the following fact: what has appeared to die is the profitability of Nintendo’s business model.

That is to say, Nintendo still has a market for its proprietary business model, but going forward it appears to be a marginally profitable effort. However, a business with marginal profitability could have strategic (ie, competitive, brand) value, which is why Nintendo may have decided to keep their hat in that ring.

But it is clear now that Nintendo is a box of cash, with potentially valuable franchise IP sitting on top of it, pursuing a “blue ocean” market.

In other words, Nintendo is not presently an operating company, but a development company that might transform back into an operating company at a later date.

Therefore, the analysis of the value of Nintendo now and in the future hinges on the answers to several questions:

  1. How much, and at what rate, will Nintendo Development Company (NDC) burn through their cash stockpile before finding a new operating business? And will they burn through all of it?
  2. What potential valuable uses do their existing IP have that they are not yet considering them for?
  3. Will NDC’s existing franchise IP have value in their new, blue ocean market?
  4. How valuable will the new, blue ocean market be relative to the past size and scope of the company, its present market cap, size of present cash hoard, etc.? (That is, how big is the potential future market?)
  5. Will they abandon their previous markets once they’ve secured a new market?

Notes – The Art Of Profitability: Time Profit (#profitability, #business, @CreditBubbleStocks)

(A multi-part co-blog series with CreditBubbleStocks.com about the book The Art of Profitability, by Adrian Slywotzky)

Chapter 5, Time Profit

Many of guru David Zhao’s profit models come with simple illustrations which capture the essential ingredient of the profit model. The image of the Time Profit model is an X-Y axis with “$/unit” on the Y-axis and “time” on the X-axis. Plotted across this chart is one line, which runs from the top left corner toward the bottom right corner at a 45-degree angle reading “Price”, and another line below that labeled “Cost” at a more mild angle, eventually intersecting with the “Price” line near the right side of the chart and then overtaking it.

The concept is simple: Time Profit is generated by being the first to market a new product or service because over time imitators will compete and eventually drive price toward cost. Time, therefore, is of the essence.

In TAOP, Zhao and Steve discuss Time Profit models in the context of firms without special legal protections (such as patents or copyrights) on their works which serve to shield them from competition. However, whether such legal protections are permanent or limited in duration, the Time Profit model principle is the same– only by being first to market would you even be afforded such legal protections in the first place, so there is an incentive to be first else you finish last.

Zhao and Steve discuss the Time Profit model within the context of an investment bank constantly innovating with new financial products. But this model could also easily apply to pharmaceutical and software development companies (which enjoy legal protections on their products), as well as a tech product manufacturer, such as a smartphone manufacturer, whose core product features are likely not subject to legal protections. Here, the Time Profit model is essential as the first firm to get a product to market with a valuable innovation that creates a consumer craze can capture a premium for their products while competing firms figure out how to duplicate this technology and make it standard in their follow-up product offerings. These “second place” firms are doomed to earn commodity returns on their products, only the first-mover gets to enjoy a profit premium.

Like the Customer Solution Profit model, the Time Profit model is more than just a specific business model, it is something of an essential feature to the competitive conditions of any firm in any industry facing innovative development which, practically speaking, is all firms in all industries. Whether a new product, a new service or a new internal or customer-facing process, all businesses seek to adopt one another’s best practices to save costs and increase profitability. The first firm to innovate something that is eventually imitable by others gets a profit advantage during the period of time between innovation and imitation by others. Time Profit models can be thought of as temporary competitive advantages due to periodic innovation.

As David Zhao teaches, a key component of the Time Profit model that is often overlooked is the role diligence in the innovative process plays:

Tedium is the single greatest challenge for a business that’s built on innovation

The first act of innovation is thinking, the arriving at of a brilliant new idea. The second act, and far more important, is the doing, the translation of an innovative idea into an innovative product, service or process. This part requires the same rigmarole of standard business practice: making phone calls, sending emails, training people, holding meetings, crunching numbers, keeping people on task and pulling in the same direction, etc.

Innovating, idea-making, is sexy and fun. But turning innovative ideas into real profit is often boring, common and time-consuming. The people and firms that are able to apply energy and determination to this part of the process are the ones who can most consistently capture the Time Profit. As innovator Paul Cook says, “What separates the winners and losers in innovation is who can master the drudgery.”

Ancillary Notes

Chapter 5 had a few other points worth mentioning, some of which were connected to carryover discussions from earlier chapters.

The first point concerns the power of critical numerical thinking. When working through a number problem, Zhao advises,

Getting the order of magnitude right is what matters, not the details

This is similar to Buffett and Munger’s “approximately right versus precisely wrong” dictum. Zhao also talks about using the numbers to ask and answer critical questions; the numbers of business (assumptions, projections, actual results, etc.) can tell us a story, but we have to be curious about the numbers. It’s not enough to wonder, “Why are the numbers what they are?” we have to be able to put forth some effort to attempt to answer such questions ourselves. As Zhao says,

Being able to take the measure of the world is one of the most crucial skills we can develop

The second point, which is arrived at in a discussion of business innovation, is the “paradox” Zhao observes in the semiconductor industry, which is that the firms involved “copy each other’s chips, but not each other’s business models.” It is the business model which is responsible for mastering the Time Profit concept and other models discussed in TAOP– why don’t more managements focus on copying successful business models rather than imitating successful products and services?

It brings to mind a question for potential investors, too. Which businesses could see their value dramatically improved by focusing the company’s efforts on copying the leading business model in the industry rather than engaging in the rat race of perpetual product innovation/imitation?

The final point has to do with the nature of learning. Steve the student asks Zhao for a copy of his notes from a previous meeting. Steve wants to see how Zhao solved a problem they both worked on. Zhao suggests,

you’ve got to learn how to solve these problems in your own way

the idea being that true knowledge means being able to solve a problem in your own way, not by imitating somebody else. This is why some firms are innovators while the rest are imitators. Innovators are capable of solving problems their own way; imitators just copy the innovator’s solution. But it’s a lesson that’s important to the budding business analyst, as well. How will you solve problems when there is no guru there to teach you? You have to find your own path and do your own thinking.

Until you can do that, though, as Steve says, copying a few “Picassos” to practice a known master technique can be helpful.

Notes – The Art Of Profitability: Pyramid Profit (#profitability, #business, @CreditBubbleStocks)

(A multi-part co-blog series with CreditBubbleStocks.com about the book The Art of Profitability, by Adrian Slywotzky)

Chapter 2, Pyramid Profit

The Pyramid Profit model consists of multiple quality and price tiers for products, targeted at multiple types of customers (and customer preference), which creates two powerful dynamics for the business:

  1. Protects them from competition from market entrants below (commodity market)
  2. Creates profitable “customer migration” opportunities as loyal customers move up the steps of the pyramid (franchise market)

Why is this model so powerful?

As guru David Zhao teaches,

Your pyramid has to be more than just a collection of different products at different price points. A true pyramid is a system in which the lower-priced products are manufactured and sold with so much efficiency that it’s virtually impossible for a competitor to steal market share by underpricing you. That’s why I call the lowest tier of the pyramid the firewall. But the most important factor is the nature of your customer set. The customers themselves form a hierarchy, with different expectations and different attitudes toward price.

The competitive environment all businesses would prefer to have is that of a franchise, where their product is deemed uniquely valuable and essential such that the business can capture a franchise premium in its margin structure, a premium which is enduring and protected from competition over time by the proverbial “moat.”

Simultaneously, the competitive environment all businesses fear is that of a commodity market, where the only way to distinguish your product from someone else’s and incite the customer to buy is by offering the lowest price. It is a true race to the bottom and the turnover for businesses in commodity markets can be quite high.

As discussed in Clayton Christensen’s classic, The Innovator’s Dilemma, most innovators arrive in a market as low-cost entrants. Incumbent firms see no problem in giving the low-margin business dregs to them as they’re happy to play in the higher-margin markets upstream. The hungry commodity firms are constantly looking above them at the juicy margins available in this other market– can they apply their innovative, low-cost practices to this higher-margin space and move in for the kill? As Christensen details, so often they try and succeed.

This is the genius of the Pyramid Profit model. Incumbent firms are protected from innovative, low-cost competition by offering a low-to-no margin product that creates a competitive “firewall” at the most vulnerable place in the market, the violently dynamic commodity space. Then, they are free to play in the middle and higher margin markets without stress.

There is an additional benefit, as well. By capturing new customers even at the low-margin end of the market, the firm is able to increase customer loyalty and brand familiarity over the customer’s lifecycle. Over time. these (presumably) younger, poorer customers turn into older, richer customers following the circumstances of life.

The value of a Pyramid Profit model depends on the shape of the pyramid. A pyramid with a wide base and a narrow top is relatively inefficient and less valuable as most of the business volume is captured in the low/no-margin mass market whereas the high-margin premium market remains under-promoted. An ideal shape would resemble something more like a skyscraper tower– the same width for all tiers, all the way up, with enough segmentation via price/quality tier to progressively move customers up the pyramid at a rapid pace. The more business that is concentrated at the upper levels of the pyramid, the better the margins and the more profit the firm can earn.

The Pyramid Profit model can be found in many well known businesses, even though it is a rarer circumstance than that of the Customer Solution Profit model discussed in chapter 1. A good example is the automobile industry with its “economy” and “premium” brands (for example, Honda and Acura, or Chevy and Cadillac). Even within each brand, many manufacturers have managed to create a “pyramid” of quality, price and even features/capabilities (for example, Honda has the LX base model, EX, EX with leather and EX-L with navigation; it also has the Civic for the entry buyer, the Accord for the more sophisticated, the Odyssey for the family buyer, etc.). Another example would be the airline industry, such as Virgin Atlantic’s “Economy”, “Premium Economy” and “First Class” seating and service tiers. However, no airline seems to have created separate brands/carriers that focus on one tier of the pyramid over another, instead this segmentation always occurs per aircraft (contrast this to a “single class” carrier such as JetBlue or Southwest Airlines, though notice that even these firms have begun to offer new passenger tiers for additional money such as early boarding, extra luggage capacity, etc.)

Speaking of the auto industry again, one of the most prodigious Pyramid Profit employers has been Toyota. Toyota offers three brands in the United States: Scion, Toyota and Lexus. Scion was a brand developed specifically for the young car buyer, initially offering lower price points, simpler model choices and a “no bargaining” purchase experience that was supposed to capture a first-time buyer and put them into the “Toyota system” for the rest of their automobile-buying lives. Then, there was the mass market, multi-trimmed and multi-segmented Toyota brand, offering cars, vans, SUVs and light trucks to the everyman. And finally, there was Lexus, the flagship brand for wealthy, older, image-conscious and highly-demanding customers.

Toyota’s pyramid is awkwardly shaped, however. It’s base, Scion, is miniscule and definitely low/no-margin. The middle step is enormous and fairly profitable relative to the rest of the industry. And the top is much wider than one would expect it to be, being both relatively high-volume for a luxury market and quite profitable despite ongoing margin erosion in the industry overall. Indeed, Lexus auto dealership franchises are consistently one of the most valuable and sought-after brands in the industry alongside BMW and Audi, commanding high market multiples reflective of their premium value.

The key to a successful and highly profitable pyramid is twofold. First, you must be lucky enough to operate in a market that is conducive to segmentation of customers (especially self-segmentation). Second, you must know your customers well– the Customer Solution Profit at work again! The better you understand your customers and their specific needs, the better you will be able to create custom quality and pricing tiers in your pyramid that will meet their subjective needs.