EdTech Part 1

In the last several years there has been growing interest from entrepreneurs, angels and venture capitalists in the K-12 EdTech space. Yet this interest has been primarily speculative in nature with little actual venture funding to back the “buzz” and few successful exits to date. In the public sphere, there is certainly much focus on school reform by the government—at the local, state and federal levels. Nonetheless large, bureaucratic education agencies, much like large private corporations, are ill equipped to pivot quickly enough to address the systemic challenges education faces today. Against this backdrop funding disruptive EdTech startups focused on changing education would seem lucrative, but venture firms have been slow to back EdTech entrepreneurs. On the flip side, entrepreneurs have not witnessed many successful exits in education to motivate further innovation in the K-12 sector.

Nonetheless, opportunities do indeed exist. Nancy Hanover, of the International Committee of the Fourth International, estimates that the education technology market is a $47 billion market. As large as this number seems—it number refers primarily to those directly as the forefront of education: namely students and teachers. This number does not include the broader impact of education players that are more on the fringe of the industry: parents, administrators, publishers, suppliers, test-prep companies, tutors, etc., An entrepreneur with an innovative product that focuses on just a small segment of one of these markets could in fact do very well.

Framing the Debate

With all this interest in education technology it has become less apparent who is getting the highly coveted venture funding and what ideas are the most valuable—both to venture firms (seeking a return on their investments) and society as a whole. Leading education technology researchers like Peter Knapp and Kathleen King have long discussed bringing technology into the classroom as a replacement for older methods of instruction or to learn traditional material in new, technologically enhanced ways. Others such as Zane Berg and Mauri Collins have focused on societal shifts and learning pattern changes as a result of computer mediated communication.

Despite the advances made in these research fields, most of these efforts have been focused on taking traditional practices that have been used for centuries, placing a new layer of technology on them and re-introducing them into the classroom—old ideas that are simply done in new ways. The smart board, for example, is a tool that allows students to do a number of useful tricks and makes it engaging to interact with. Yet, at the end of the day, one can’t help but notice that the smartboard is simply a modern blackboard with some bells and whistles. Very few agents in the EdTech community have proposed a fundamental shift in the way society views the intersection of education and technology.

This changed in 2006 when Marc Prensky published a bold article in Edutopia entitled “Shaping Tech for the Classroom.” In the article Prensky argued that in order for education technology to improve education in a high impact, long-lasting way, there needs to be a completely new architecture for learning and framework for the classroom. Education needs to be re-imagined in a way where technology is used to implement new ideas in new ways. I would argue that EdTech startups that are high-impact, disruptive players in the space think about education and the learning process in completely new ways. Likewise, venture capital firms looking to invest in EdTech should invest in companies doing “new things in new ways” rather than “old things in new ways.”

Tumblr: Innovation in Advertising

I have had something of a difficult time getting into the groove with Tumblr. I have nothing really against the product. Tumblr has a unique microblogging / social networking platform that clearly adds value value to its largely teen and college user segments. In 2011Tumblr boasted an 85% retention rate (compared to, for example, 40% at Twitter). It’s just that my current social media toolkit provides me with a range of options for all my needs. I have…

  • Twitter – for my status updates or thought of the day
  • Pinterest – for my photos / video “blogging”
  • WordPress – for my longer, more thoughtful posts
  • Facebook – for my day to day social interaction
  • Quora – for the questions I have that my current network can’t answer

With all these tools, I’m not really sure where Tumblr will fit into my current computer-mediated-communication (CmC) tool-box. However, there is one thing about Tumblr that I thing is truly innovative and something to look out for: their advertising structure.

The founder of Tumblr, David Karp, has long been a critic of traditional banner or adsense advertising. It can be invasive / annoying for users and costly / ineffective for advertisers. Recently, Tumblr has been toying with some new advertising models that seem to be headed in the right direction.

For example there is the Highlighted Post option. Users or advertisers can pay $1-$5 and have their post get a special sticker to make it standout from the rest in the dashboard. To draw a parallel to one of my favorite sites 4-5 years ago (Digg), it’s like you are paying for “diggs” so that your post ranks higher and therefore gets more views. Sticker options include words such as “On sale now” or “Today only.” These paid blog posts stay at the top of Tumblr home pages of users who are already following those blogs. Users can also click “dismiss” to remove the adds. Furthermore, advertisers are only allowed to link to pages that appear on their own Tumblr blogs.The combined effect of these features is a less invasive experience for users and a more effective, targetted add for advertisers.  It is therefore no surprise that advertisers are lining up to access the 60 million blogs on Tumblr.

Website Basics 101

I’ve recently gotten a few questions from friends about how to build a website, so I thought I’d do a post with an overview of the basics behind building websites. I am by no means an expert on this subject myself, but when I first started coding the summer before my freshman year of college, I had no prior programming experience and spent a fair amount of time just hunting around for good guides to learn from before I built up a basic working knowledge of the various components of a website. I hope this overview will provide a foundation from which I can delve more deeply into specific topics in future entries.

1) Client-Server Architecture
When you type in the url of a website and hit enter, you are sending a request from your device (laptop, desktop, mobile, etc.,) through your browser (Firefox, Safari, Chrome, etc.,) to a remote server asking for the server to load the page of the website for you. The web server receives the HTTP request and then processes it as a static file (html) or as a dynamic file (PHP, Python, Ruby, etc.,). If the file is dynamic, it may require interaction with a database. If this is the case, then as the server is running the script on the file, it will query a database (such as MySQL) and return important data back to the server. The server then serves up the page and sends it back to you through your browser. What you then view is the front end of the website. All of this generally happens in under a second. Below is a diagram of the process:

Diagram Courtesy of ProgrammerPlusPlus.

Let’s unpack these interactions a little more.

2) The Front End
The front end of a website refers to what you see when you view a page. You may see text, figures, color, layout, etc., The front end of a site is generally divided into two categories: content and design. The content refers to the actual words, images and other features on the page. Content is coded using the hyper-text markup language or HTML for short. The design, layout (color, alignment, text size, etc.,) is all coded using cascading style sheets or CSS for short. CSS and HTML work together to make the front end of the site visually appealing. Front end designers often add in things like javascript, flash and AJAX to make the site more visually appealing, but the fundamentals behind the front end are HTML and CSS.

3) Going Dynamic -> Programming Languages
If you want to create something that goes beyond a static page and actually allows user to interact with the site and with each other, you will probably need to use a programming language to create functions and to filter and place content provided by users into data stored in a database. This will require a programming language such as PHP, Python, ASP.NET, Ruby, Perl, etc., If you are just starting out, I highly recommend the PHP framework as the support, documentation and resources out there on PHP are incredible. There’s a reason why many of the heavy hitters out there like facebook, wikipedia and wordpress use PHP. It is an incredibly robust language and easy to scale if you plan well.

4) Building in a Back End
Most major websites and startups these days work with data provided to them by users. For example right at sign up, facebook collects data in the form of: first name, last name, email, password, gender and birthday (and that’s just barely the tip of the iceberg in terms of data they collect and store on users). In order to store and retrieve data, you need a database to house all that data. There are a number of databases that are known to do this well, but MySQL is a database that has long been at the forefront of data storage. In order to place, retrieve and manipulate data, you will need to know the Structured Query Language or SQL.

If you’re new to the coding scene, this may seem like quite a bit to digest at first glance, but luckily the Internet has a tremendous amount of resources on each of these topics. I’d highly recommend Codeacademy – it’s a great way to visually learn how to write code. I also recommend the W3C markup validator to make sure your code is bug free. Finally be sure to test your code across browsers (Firefox, IE7, Safari, Chrome, etc.,) as minor differences is display across browsers can occasionally be a nuisance for users. Good luck and happy hacking.

Mobile Corner: Some Themes

Mobile has been the one of the big buzz themes in startup land for the last year or so. Companies like Foursquare, Spotify and Flipboard are pushing the limit of what our cellular devices can do and generating incredible innovation in areas like social networking, news delivery, digital entertainment, gaming and peer-to-peer communication. Yet despite these successes the market is still quite raw and much remains unknown about what makes a good mobile app successful. Even less certain is the revenue model. Should mobile startups today go with in-app or separate app freemiums? Virtual currency? Subscriptions? A 100% ad based model?

What does seem clear, however, is that, as with web 2.0, it’s all about creating traffic. If you can create a tool that provides value to users and makes something about their lives simpler or more engaging, you may have something that could garner attention in the mobile market. So here are a few of my thoughts on what might make a mobile startup successful:

1) Be light-weight and simple

I doubt that users of mobile apps are looking to get the same experience that they get on their laptop or home computer. The hours spent on facebook on your couch at home are less likely to happen when you’re up and about. When it comes to mobile, people want things that are simple, fast and easy to use. They want to be connected on the go and are focused more on 1:1 connections rather than large social interactions. Kik for example has pushed the frontier of texting, making it an incredibly fast (we’re talking real time) and light weight platform that goes cross-platforms (Phone, Android, Windows Phone 7, Symbian, and BlackBerry)

2) Consider Gaming

The great thing about mobile devices is that they can be taken anywhere. Most people spend a fair amount of time traveling each day (whether on a bus to school, train to work, etc.,) With that commute comes the time to play games on platforms like Zynga. Games have traditionally been a single player human-to-computer interaction but, increasingly it’s becoming more interactive allowing people to connect with existing friends and play peer-to-peer. There are some “gaming” apps that are a bit more serious in nature. Everest for example is a mobile platform for framing and achieving goals. The app lets you create specific goals, break them down into incremental steps and then focus on achieving these goals with the emotional support of friends. This will be an interesting startup to follow as it moves out of beta.

3) Style. Style. Style.

One of the most important keys to the success of a mobile device is its “elegance” factor. Appearances and first impressions matter in the competitive and still developing world of mobile. Apps should follow basic principles of design and usability; they should also mimic the desktop interface closely (or at the very least follow similar conventions). A thoughtfully and creatively designed product stands a much greater chance of being successful in the mobile world. Here’s a link to some mobile apps that were knockouts in terms of style in 2011:

http://mashable.com/2011/12/27/best-mobile-apps-2011/

Migrating to a New Spot

I recently decided to mash things up and move over to this new blogging platform and design template. I was a little frustrated with having my blog entries sort of scattered on a few different platforms and figured that wordpress had the best toolkit to synthesize everything and then continue to build.

There are a couple reasons why I really like the wordpress publishing framework:

  • Unlike other “free” and “open source” solutions that have hidden agendas, WordPress is completely free.  It doesn’t start charging when you hit a certain size, nor does it close off any of its code to you.
  • Plenty of platforms out there offer plugin functionality, but WordPress is by far the smoothest and easiest to use.
  • WordPress has the best SEO in the self-publishing market. It also has great data analytics and all the features for tagging, ranking and categorizing.
  • Because it is such a popular toolkit, there is a large base of community support. It is possible to find blogs, forums, and tutorials to answer pretty much any question.

I hope that this will be a much more permanent home for all my thoughts on startups, technology, education and anything else I feel like blogging about.

EdTech Corner: Nilsby

I’ve been meaning to do a quick post about a start-up I’ve been advising and am really interested in promoting but just haven’t had the time to really dig into for a while. I’m afraid to say that this post isn’t going to do justice to the importance of a toolkit like Nilsby, but it’s enough to say that a community like this is much needed for the millions of families with a special needs child.

The start-up is called Nilsby and it focuses on creating an online community for special needs students, teachers and families. The site allows members of the special needs community to ask questions of each other, offer advice and provide support. The startup just got out of private beta, and they looking for people to add content and help grow the site. If your a teacher or parent with a special need student, this site is for you and I’d encourage you to check it out today.

I did what?

Google has become more than just a search engine. Since its early years, Google has evolved into a platform that provides a wide array of tools and services to users. Through Google you can find everything from video sharing capabilities (YouTube) to social networking (Orkut/Google +) to metrics and analysis (Urchin). But it wasn’t until recently that I realized just how far reaching Google really is and how much data they have on users.

Google Dashboard

The dashboard feature on Google is very convenient and easy to use. It can almost be compared to a computer’s desktop or some other related organizing feature. Google’s dashboard can be personalized to the user depending on the applications they have added to the dashboard. For example my dashboard included:

And the best part of Google Dashboard is that it doesn’t require any maintenance from the user. Rather, it tracks one’s use of applications and organizes the applications on the dashboard for the user. Google Dashboard also provides short summaries on recent activity or usage of the Dashboard. For example, Google Docs informed me that I “owned” 51 documents, was “sharing” 216 documents and had “opened” 247 documents. It also provided me with the dates of my most recent activity. In general, I found this information to be useful and unobtrusive.

Google History

Google History on the other hand was much more surprising, to say the least. Essentially this feature tracks all of a users web searches in alarming detail. There were many interesting stories that could be told each day just by looking at my web searches. On any given day, Google History could provide insight on my work assignments, what music I was listening to and what mood I was in. Here were my top visits last month:

1. wikipedia

2. twitter

3. techcrunch

4. young changers

5. venture beat

These 5 sites did not surprise me, but Google’s ability to record my web usage did. Even more impressive was the way in which data on my usage was presented. Below is a graph of my hourly search activity over the last month.

The way the data is presented in this nice graph makes it possible for anyone to read an understand the trend in my use (which peaks at around 8pm).

Business with Google

One interesting aspect of Google’s services is that they serve as a pull factor into the “Google Universe.” When users spend more time using Google related services, Google is able to track more data on them. This data is then paired effectively with advertising to create a business model that is incredibly strong. As a result, Google has for years been placed on the internet pedestal.

Social Practices and New Media (Mobile)

The cartoon above seems to get straight to the heart of much of Lee Humphrey’s research on social interaction in today’s wireless era. When we interact with others whether face-to-face (as in the case of the man and chicken above), via computer mediated communication (like in Hancock’s study on butler lies in Instant Messaging) or by telephone (as in Humphrey’s study of caller interaction), we are constantly looking for ways to avoid awkward situations, feelings of vulnerability or having our private space violated. This is particularly true when two individuals are dialoguing face to face and are suddenly interrupted because one individual receives a phone call.

The Situation

This past Sunday I was hard at work assisting an entrepreneur I’ve been in touch with for some time now with some basic product development. My two housemates, Tim and Andy, had just returned from a dinner run with subs and chips and were munching away at their sandwiches while having a heated debate over where we should all go for our next break. Suddenly, Tim received a call from his cousin. The phone conversation lasted approximately five minutes during which time Andy increasingly became more and more uncomfortable. At first he simply gnawed away at his sandwich while pretending to ignore the phone conversation. After a few minutes of restlessly rapping his knuckles on a coffee table Andy flipped on the television set in the room and started watching ESPN until Tim finished his phone call.

Analysis

Before Tim’ received the call from his cousin, he and Andy were both withs. As such they had been giving their full attention to each other and the debate at hand: vacation plans. Together they had a common identity or purpose which helped them avoid feeling vulnerable despite the fact that they were in a public place. However, the moment Tim received the call from his cousin on his cell phone, the relationship changed. Andy quickly became a single and Tim became a “with” with his cousin who was on the phone.

As a result, Andy began to feel awkward and vulnerable. Because of these feelings of awkwardness and vulnerability, Andy tried very hard to do several things. First, he tried to pretend that he was not listening to Tim’s conversation. This could be seen by the fact that he oriented his body away from Tim in an effort to give James more privacy. The second thing Andy did was to attempt to appear occupied. He first preoccupied himself by ravenously downing his sub and then moved on to watching television. Both of these actions were attempts to appear occupied and socially adept.

 Applicability of Identified Social Practices

In her work on social interaction in the wireless era, Lee Humphreys identifies a number of social practices—many of which still apply today. Caller hegemony—or the idea that the person making the phone call has power over the call recipient is still prevalent. This is primarily true because the caller has all the information on why the call is being made and what the topic of discussion is going to be. Nevertheless, the rise of caller ID has taken away some of that power as the recipient now at least has an idea of where the incoming call is coming from.

The rise of texting is an even larger break from the social practices identified by Humphrey. It is becoming more of a social norm to carry on a text message conversation while interacting with someone completely different face to face. This is a result of the fact that text message conversations require less time and energy on behalf of the texter relative to a phone-to-phone converser. Thus, an individual can potentially be a “with” with a face-to-face entity and a CMC entity simultaneously. This is especially true if one is good at multitasking.

The Leviathan and Facebook Messaging

It’s incredible how quickly social norms have developed on facebook since its founding in 2004. For the most part, we all have an idea of what’s socially acceptable behavior and what’s unacceptable, inconsiderate or even downright creepy. Much of this social awareness on facebook has to do with the fact that most interactions start off Face to Face (FtF) before moving to the social networks computer-mediated communication (CMC) basis before finally ending up as mix-mode relationships. There are, however, a few gray areas that aren’t quite so established. I will examine the facebook messages feature.

The Norm

It seems like the growing trend with facebook messages is to treat them the same way as you would treat a new email in your inbox. Most people have the email notification feature for facebook messages turned on. As such they are notified very quickly when someone leaves them a message. The standard, socially acceptable behavior when receiving a facebook message seems to require responding promptly to the message, just like you would to any email that requires a response. Responding later than a few days is considered unacceptable and often raises concern for the original sender.

 

The Leviathan

Failure to follow the social norm and respond quickly usually leads to a few negative consequences. As with many people, I’m very busy during the week juggling work, grad courses, a nonprofit and a healthy interest in technology. In addition, I turned off the facebook email notification feature for messages that come into my email inbox—I simply found the feature a little annoying and not worth the hassle of spending time cleaning my  inbox each day.

The combination of being very busy and not having the email notification for messages turned on has led to my breaking the norm of timely response on a few occasions. My cousin in London and I communicate frequently about our weekly activities and how our respective families are doing. I usually respond promptly to her messages and multiple questions about how I’m doing.

However on one occasion, I failed to respond to her facebook message for just over a week. This led to a lot of anxiety on her behalf as she thought I may be ill or depressed. She ended up calling my mom and frantically explained how worried she was. This of course made my mom worried about my well being. Before I knew it everyone in my family—both immediate and extended—was calling me to ask how I was doing and to offer their own medical advice. I quickly realized that I ought to respond to facebook messages as soon as possible if not suffer from a barrage of inquiries about my well being, which were well taken but slightly embarassing.

 FtF Departures from CMC

Facebook messages don’t really have a face-to-face equivalent. As such, it is difficult to discuss the enforcement of norms and the leviathan. On the whole, FtF violation of norms usually lead to less sympathy and more hostility. Typically, if you see someone and they try to engage you in conversation and you ignore them, they will take offense or decide to ostracize you. In that sense, the consequences of ignoring another person when inhabiting the same physical presence are much more severe. After all, CMC is far more conducive to concepts like deception and practices like butler lies than FtF interaction. So it should come as no surprise then that the enforcement of CMC norms do not directly translate over to FtF communication.

The Psychology Behind Mobile

Lying as a rule is generally considered socially unacceptable and morally wrong. Something is considered a lie if it is intentional and creates a false belief. Some would argue that there are certain situations in which lying is socially beneficial. This is most argued when it comes to other oriented lies—lies to benefit others. Regardless of whether one sees lying as justifiable or not, everyone has lied—even if it’s a lie about the most harmless thing—and everyone acts deceptively from time to time. When it comes to computer mediated communication, lies and deception are perhaps more common than in face to face communication.

Butler lies are a particular category of lies that utilize deception to manage social interaction. Butler lies can be used to avoid a new conversation, smoothly exit an ongoing conversation or explain other communication behavior. In John Hancock’s study of Instant Messages, of the 6996 messages sent, 685 (10%) were identified as lies, and 132 (1.89%) were classified as butler lies. I analyzed 30 text messages from my phone’s sent list and came up with the following results:

 
30 Total Messages
27 true messages
3 lies
2 butler lies

Thus, 10% of my messages were lies and 6.7% of my messages were butler lies. These results are fairly similar to the results found in the Hancock study but with an increase in the percentage of butler lies. Looking at my messages I saw that the 2 butler lies had to do with attempts to end an ongoing conversation and to explain communication behavior. The first butler lie occurred when I was talking to an annoying individual in my major who was asking me to basically give him the answer to one of the problems on our weekly problem sets. I exited the conversation with, “sorry man I’ve got a class now. I’ll catch you later.” Of course I didn’t have a class, and I never called him back. Nonetheless, the butler lie allowed me to remain polite and seem interested in helping.

The other butler lie occurred when a friend asked if I wanted to get lunch with her. I responded with, “I’m real sorry, but I have a meeting then – let’s meet Thursday.” I didn’t have a meeting later on that day but I decided to lie because Thursday was more convenient for my schedule. Stating that I had a meeting was used as an excuse or justification for my self oriented lie.

I think that lying on IM is much harder than lying via SMS text messages primarily because of the issue of speed. Text messages limit the time pressure placed on an individual to respond because there is no sense of presence or visibility. An individual could be preoccupied with other activities and could take a long time to respond. Because there is less time pressure, individuals text messaging have a longer time to compose a well drafted excuse that allows them to lie convincingly. When using an instant messenger, the pressure to respond quickly is much higher due to a stronger sense of presence and visibility—unless there is an “invisible feature.” This means individuals are under a stronger time constraint and less able to compose well thought out, deceptive lies. In that sense, one could argue that IM is perhaps morally better for society than SMS. But that is an incredibly personal and subjective question.