As part of the work I’m doing for the Design Lab at my school, I’m reading a lot of books about entrepreneurial mindset. Currently, that means two books:
- Seeing the Big Picture by Kevin Cope
- Business Model You by Tim Clark, with Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur
I like them in conjunction with one another. The Kevin Cope book is definitely what we’ve learned to call left-brain, because it’s all so very wordy and verbacious and linear, even though it’s describing a very non-linear process. The Tim Clark book on the other hand is very right-brain-y, with lots of diagrams and photographs and sample images and forms to fill out, and questionnaires to fill out — although the questionnaires are as much left-brain linear as they are right-brain, the way these boxes are arranged winds up leading me into thinking about weird patterns and cross-curricular arrangements of information, and what does this thing over here have to do with that thing over there?
It’s all very powerful.
A bunch of my teacher colleagues from all over the country, perhaps all over the world, are currently at ISTE 2012. I hope they’re having a great time. It should be wonderful. Maybe it’s amazing. I went in 2008 or 2009 and had a very interesting time. ISTE is the International Society of Technology in Education — I gather that Sir Ken Robinson was the keynote speaker, and if you haven’t seen his TED talk at some point, you should.
The thing that impressed me most about ISTE, though, wasn’t the keynotes or the workshops, although I got a lot out of mine — and it made me want to incorporate wikis and blogs into my regular active practice as a teacher. No, the thing that got to me was the astonishing range of products and services available in the vendors’ area on the first floor, and the astonishing range of companies and organizations actively involved in siphoning money out of the schools, both public and private.
I can only imagine that it’s gotten worse, not better. It was also clear that companies like FableVision, concentrating on tools to expand students’ creative skills and mindset, were getting outclassed and outsold by companies that manufactured ever more complex content-delivery systems like SMARTboards and Mimios and Prometheus systems.
And I was immediately reminded of the Nuremberg Chronicle. Produced in 1490-91 in Nuremberg by one of the most prominent Catholic printers in Europe, this was a coffee-table-sized special edition of the history of the world. Albrecht Dürer did many of the illustrations, as did his master and many of his co-apprentices. It had maps and family trees, and year-by-year chronologies of most of the major events of the previous six thousand years, right back to the creation of the world.
The book bombed. It came out in 1492 at the Frankfurt Book Fair (still a major release date/location for, six hundred years later!) after a two-year lead-up in production. Two weeks before, Columbus had left for his first voyage of discovery; by the time he came back, the Chronicle’s maps and chronology were utterly outdated. The prestige clients the publishers had hoped to attract — archbishops, university libraries, kings, princes, prominent financial families — bought the book, but in insufficient quantities. They didn’t like type, and they didn’t like print. Manuscripts were the prestige books to own, not printed ones. The lower and middle classes couldn’t afford the Chronicle; it was too expensive. And by 1494, the book was outdated, and outclassed.
The middle classes could afford the cheaper versions of it produced by rival printeries, though: Books produced in quarto or octavo form, usually at a sixth or even a tenth of the price of the massive Chronicle, and without illustrations. Dürer’s plates and woodcuts for the chronicle began to find their way into cheaper documents, like broadsides and religious tracts.
The author that the Nuremberg printer turned down, in order to produce the vanity-press-like Chronicle? Martin Luther, the most popular and bestest-selling author of the entire 16th century.
Look, there’s no denying that educational technology is important. But it’s also become more than a little too Nuremberg Chronicle-like. It’s too expensive, and it diverts enormous amounts of resources from the students and teachers to the companies that service (or perhaps prey) on the educational system. It requires software upgrades and technical support and machine after machine after machine — more cables, and more wifi hubs and more… more… more. The prestige clientele have largely already abandoned the general public schools in favor of private or elite public institutions, though. The public schools are already not offering a product that the current elites want for their own children. And more big-ticket items are not going to help public or private schools succeed better at completing their (current) mission of producing better test-takers.
Because that mission, ultimately, is not in alignment with what the parents want for their kids. In fact, the only reason that home schooling hasn’t really taken off like a shot yet is that not enough parents really understand how much genuine harm these tests do to their kids. They’re being sold on a Nuremberg Chronicle-style education, replete with bells and whistles and Dürer illustrations and incorrect maps… And Khan Academy’s free software is just down the Internet aways. It may be wrong, but it’s cheaper.
Meanwhile, the private school kids are getting a different education. I won’t say better, just different. The teachers have fewer pupils, the students get a lot of motivation at home (because mom and dad could afford a new car for what this educational service costs for a year, or make a down payment on a house for what it costs for several years… and it’s not quite breaking the bank… yet… but a lot of the middle-income families are feeling the pinch, even with financial aid, because there are layoffs at work, and mom’s been home taking care of the kids, and orthodonty costs the earth, don’t you know?), and there are different kinds of accountability in private schools. There’s an exemption from a lot of testing for private schools, and that leaves more time for music and art and drama, the alleged “extras” of the western curriculum (even though they’re not extra, they’re core to the Western world’s imagination of itself… but that’s a different rant on another day).
Anyway, back to entrepreneurship, after a long but relevant detour. The point is, there’s all this educational technological hardware and software, which is largely about expensive hardware delivery. A digital whiteboard doesn’t do anything more elaborate than record pen strokes, really, or show movies — things that can be done much more cheaply with an iPad, a $40 dongle, and a digital projector. Or even more cheaply with an ordinary whiteboard and a cellphone camera. Or even more cheaply with an old-style chalkboard, and the externalized costs of the kids’ own cellphones.
The Nuremberg Chronicle guys thought they were going to make a killing marketing to the 1%-ers who ran things, never imagining that the whole business of making books was going to collapse in on the heads of the old landowning Catholic elite, and that publishing — honest-to-Gods books — were going to be the cheap new power base of the Protestants, the merchants, the city-dwellers and the financiers. Just like these edutech folks making elaborate devices such as clickers and Digital White Boards and the rest, though, the NC publishers misjudged the market badly. They’re producing elaborate machinery for public schools that can’t afford the tech, and for private schools that don’t have enough students or the pedagogical model to use the tech. The homeschool market will never buy this high-powered stuff, either — it fits neither their pedagogy nor their inclinations nor their pricepoint. And at means, sooner or later, it’s likely to be an oversaturated market.
On the other hand, there are a lot of you teachers who have specialized learning — what to teach, how to teach, and when to teach what to whom — who are in a position to start thinking entrepreneurially about teaching and about learning, and to identify the real markets in education. But that means starting now. Read some books. Write a business plan. Change your business plan. Research. Talk to people in school and out. What are you going to need to make it? To make it big? To survive? To thrive?
How will it help you? How will it help your school? How will it change your relationship with your students? These are not idle questions: school districts all over the world, but especially here in the US, are disempowering teachers, diminishing their credentials, damaging their reputations… what’s your overarching plan?