To Be or Not to Be…

And the “be” does not refer to existence but rather to “for-profit”.

I have been taking Dr. Paul Kim’s graduate course in education at Stanford University, and the invaluable class discussions have really made me think about mobile technologies in education, business, and how exciting it is to navigate the ever-changing waters of the digital seascape.

In the last class we saw a presentation from Namita Dalmia, an MBA student, and a presentation from Leo Shmuylovich of Virtual Nerd. The presentations and discussions had me thinking about motivation. When we set our minds to come up with solutions to problems, improve the state of education, start a business, or pursue a new endeavor, where do our motivations lie?

When I am designing a new game or educational product, I have in my mind’s eye the children that will be engaged with it. In my mind these children are curious about the world, hungry to learn, love to play and want to be an active participant in their exploration rather than a passive listener. I am motivated by these children to create the best educational tools that I can, while striving hard to take the creator out of the end product.

But like any other field, in educational technology, there are many players with varying motivations. For some, making money—and lots of it—is the motivating factor. This came up in class when we were discussing whether a not a viable business should be for-profit or non-profit. In a for-profit model, money is the motivating factor, especially when presenting the business proposal to investors. Investors want to see and hear how your business will make money, with the educational value of the product being secondary. Even if the educational value is substantial, and the need even greater, if it is not a viable money-making business model, then you may find yourself lacking in investment capital. In a non-profit model, while funding is a concern, it seems to me that the focus is on affecting positive changes without worrying about being profitable. This mission-focused model, as opposed to a money-making model, is at the forefront of my current perspective.

In an educational ecosystem where the technology is rapidly evolving, the need to stay focused on your mission is paramount. If your mission is to provide quality educational tools, you can focus on the best way to do that, and not be sidetracked by the most profitable way. Traditional, for-profit textbook companies start to seem obsolete when you can access a wealth of free information from the Khan Academy. The delivery systems are changing, and so too are the users. I feel that the best way to be adaptable to these changes is to be structured in such a way that you and your business can easily change direction to stay ahead of the curve. In my experience this is difficult to do when you are entrenched in a specific business model where the primary concern is being profitable. You are less likely to adapt and restructure if your current product is making money and keeping the investors happy.

Of course I understand the desire to make money, and large amounts of it, but this is far from my mind when I am engaged in my work. So I will end this post in the same way I began it, with questions:

Should making money be the motivating factor? Will changing the focus of my motivations help inform my product? Does it make it better or worse? When you examine two diametrically opposed motivations with different methodologies, how is your product or business model affected? Are you still able to focus on your mission if you are constantly concerned with ROI, especially when the return may not be measured monetarily? Is there a hybrid model that has experienced tremendous success in both worlds?

Should I suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? Or take arms against a sea of troubles?

How many questions was that?

What motivates you?


Technovation Challenge National Pitch Night

When I was in high school (many, many, smartphone-less-years ago) we were lucky to receive a remedial course in web page design. The opportunities to enhance our education through technology were far and few between, and rote learning from dusty textbooks was still the pedagogical piece de resistance of the public school curriculum. So it was with great satisfaction and amazement that I attended the Technovation Challenge National Pitch Night this Saturday presented by Iridescent at Google headquarters in Mountain View.

The Technovation Challenge is a new program started by Iridescent, an educational non-profit in Los Angeles. The program was designed to help young women think and act like entrepreneurs in a “start-up company.” Over nine weeks, these girls participated in a program that helped them create mobile phone app prototypes. Using App Inventor for Android, they formed teams and joined forces with female mentors from the business and academic communities.

As I sat and watched these confident finalists present their prototypes I thought about the future landscape of education. What a wonderful heuristic experience! Not only does it engage women’s interest in technology, it is an entire cognitive, experiential and holistic way to gain valuable programming and entrepreneurial skills. This sort of immersive learning, where students are working in groups, using technology, postulating and receiving feedback,while facilitated by a mentor is a glimpse of where education should be heading. And as mobile technologies become an accepted part of formal education, these types of programs will become a necessity.

There were six teams competing at the national finals, and each team presented their app prototype to a team of judges for evaluation. They had to think about what utility their app would serve, what costs and marketing issues existed as well as think about potential competitors and their solutions to the competition. They also had to answer some tough questions from the judges.

For the most part, these innovators had designed app prototypes that offered technological solutions to problems that existed in their high school-centered lives: electronic flash cards, a social events app for high school kids, a “fashion guru” to help you coordinate your outfits, and a way for parents to track their kids via smartphone.  Another team took the frustrating task of trying to hail a cab in New York City and offered a digital explication.

In my opinion all the teams were winners that night, but the official grand prize winner, who will have the chance to develop their app for the Android Market, was team Sparkling APPles with their I.O.U. app. Their design helps you keep track of things you’ve lent your friends and the items you’ve borrowed from them.  Where was this app twenty years ago when I let my buddy borrow my Millennium Falcon for the weekend?

Technovation Challenge founder, Dr. Anuranjita Tewary, and Iridescent’s CEO Tara Chklovski have done a wonderful job creating a program that promotes women in technology. It should serve as an educational model for traditional curriculums where teachers and students find themselves struggling to keep up with technological advancements. Our world is constantly evolving and for the educational system to stay abreast of new technologies, we must offer students a way to immerse themselves in digital landscapes. It’s the future—and it should be the present.

So keep one eye on Iridescent and the other on the young women who’ve participated in the Technovation Challenge. Their designs might be coming to an app store near you.