Saturday, September 21, 2013

Staying away in droves

Some commentaries on the digital age suggest that there is a unique economics associated with connectivity, i.e., that the old rules do not apply.

For example, a BBC commentary by Peter Day and colleagues on ubiquitous networks' impact on small, rural businesses emphasized how critical it was to connect far flung operators with customers, suppliers and markets.  Fair enough, but the suggestion was made that 'normal economics do not seem to apply' to the Internet, because no how much supply there is, demand seems to grow and grow to match or exceed supply.

Sounds right, in that we seem to be able to get more Internet speed for less in many cases, i.e., Moore's Law may apply to connectivity.  But, what about micro-economics?  Does demand never curve downward when it comes to connectivity?  Having been 'burnt' by mobile network providers who (still) charge outrageous roaming fees, many of us use only wifi when abroad as data charges dampen our demand for connectivity.

Two other examples suggest that demand for connectivity has marginal limits.

First, consider the Deloitte report ('Upwardly Mobile') that found uptake of mobile services in the UK is far less than the capacity (supply) available there.  The biggest deterrent in the case of organisations is not cost, but rather management's resistance to letting employees out of their sight, a problem certainly not unique to the UK.

Meanwhile, another report from the US suggests that while a large proportion of the population are connected to fast and relatively inexpensive broadband, 20% are opting out, i.e., not connecting.  See 'Most Americans are wired, but millions are not plugged in.'  Again, this phenomenon is not unique to the US as many developed economies are struggling to get the 'last mile' of broadband penetration.

On the one hand, this is another indicator of individual choice, which is important.  But, on the other hand, as more and more modern information and services are available primarily on the Internet, having a large portion of any population disconnected could have a substantial impact on the nation's economic and political development. Ignorance may be bliss, but leaving too many people behind in the Internet age is also problematic.

As for managers' attitudes toward flexible and/or mobile work, are business schools doing enough to educate managers and leaders for a connected age?  What about organisational leadership in an inter-connected, mobile era?  As the Internet has become the nexus of political economy, are we preparing future leaders for this world?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Two tales of digital disruption in the classroom

As we head back into the classroom this semester or quarter, the disruptive changes to the classroom teaching space have never been more dynamic, from a technology perspective.  Consider two recent stories in the New York Times.

In the first story, we learn how a brilliant young student in Mongolia benefits from an M.I.T. MOOC (Mass Open On-line Course) to secure a place in this year's M.I.T. freshman class.  It is an incredible story of the powerful reach of a mega-brand teaching institution into, of all places, Mongolia.  But, this tale is not just about the potential of MOOCs and connectivity to shrink the world. It is really about the vision and responsiveness of M.I.T. to accept highly capable students from around the globe, not just into its on-line courses, but ultimately--for a few--to reap the benefits of campus life at the physical institution.  It is also a story about mentors from top universities and the commitment of local teachers in Mongolia to transform their economic chances through information technologies.  See the story of Battushig Myanganbayar here.

The second story, written by an educator, details the pros and cons of secondary and even some primary schools requiring and, in some cases, providing tablet computers to all students.  This tale gives us a sense of the commercial companies--including Rupert Murdoch's mass media companies--that are developing the technological and development platforms for these initiatives.  We hear radical and reticent reactions to the idea of transforming classroom learning to more individualized instruction, centered primarily on the screen, i.e., the tablet computer.  While the technology providers and teachers both recognize the need for change and improvement in teaching techniques, both acknowledge that the technology itself is not the answer.  It is still about teaching, not the technology.  For more on the tabletization of teaching, see the NY Times story here.

Both stories illustrate what I believe is critical about teaching with technology.  These are drive, desire and design.  What drives the Mongolian teacher to embrace M.I.T.s MOOCs is a deep desire to improve the economic development of the region.  What seems to be driving some school districts' introduction of tablets is strong selling by the technology providers, mixed with a sense of desperation and frustration with America's world ranking in pre-collegiate education.  What is missing from the introduction of such technologies seems to be the development of the teachers' capability to creatively and confidently re-design their teaching techniques to accommodate the technology's affordances.  The point is that good courses require good design and good design in teaching is more than switching eyes back and forth from the teacher to the tablet.

Desire includes the individual learner's attitudes, needs and perceptions.  The Mongolian genius is constantly thinking of new problems to solve--elegantly--for others.  Force-feeding tablets to the full range of high school kids reminds me of the conversation I had a year or so ago with a 16-year old, who spoke derisively about being required to use a 'tablet' at school.  I was surprised to hear so much distain for what I thought would be 'cool' at school, until she made the distinction for me.  She said it would be great if we had iPads, but instead we have to use 'tablets.'  School boards hearing pitches from tablet providers should remember that teens and fashion are not going to be separated soon, or easily.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The lost art of letter writing...

Last evening I had the great pleasure of hearing Drew Bartkiewicz here in the Washington, DC area.  Drew is a co-founder of Lettrs, who are 'building a post office in the cloud.' The basic idea is to re-introduce letter writing as a nearly-lost art form and foundation of personal communication.  The software is elegantly simple, yet compelling in its power to help us reach out and connect with others, be they grandparents who love receiving a physical letter in the mail or someone far way who may have never received a letter in their life.

The fledgling company also has a social mission of helping young people learn the art of crafting a letter and as such offers a counter-point experience to the superficiality of communication media based on 140 characters (of which less than 20% are ever read, much less cherished).

Cool features include being able to send calligraphic letters on Japanese rice paper from your smartphone, and being able to post letters on your fridge, archive old boxes of letters, and so on.  As for the company's business model, my take is that the check may already be in the mail.

For more on the value of personal letters, see my post on Richard Harper's book, Textures.