Educators as Luddites?

I love the word “Luddite” but I don’t want to be one.  According to Wikipedia, it has the following origins:

“The Luddites were a social movement of British textile artisans in the nineteenth century who protested – often by destroying mechanized looms – against the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution, which they felt was leaving them without work and changing their way of life. It took its name from Ned Ludd.”

So…if I ask students to turn off their cell phones, laptops and iPads in class am I a Luddite?

blog28Educators and others are debating this topic on message boards and discussion forums.  Some say learners have to turn off all the outside “static” so they can focus and participate.   Others say that the burden is on the professor – if you are interesting and engaging enough students they won’t be tempted to browse, tweet and text in class.

I don’t agree entirely with either position.   Let’s face it, the Luddites destroyed looms but the Industrial Revolution rolled right along anyway.  On the other hand, I have experienced firsthand the frustration of having students texting right under my nose—it just doesn’t seem like good manners to me.

Is there a middle ground?  I’ve been trying to imagine ways I make use of connected devices in my entrepreneurship class, such as having a short breakout period where students do live market research and then return to discuss and share their findings.  But it would be a challenge trying to figure out an application for every single class period.   And not all students have connected devices,  although I imagine the time will come when students are either issued devices, as Seton Hill is doing in fall 2010 with iPads, or classrooms are equipped with easy connectivity in class.

One way or another, our way of life is going to change.  And there are too many iPads out there to destroy them all!

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Will iPads (and other technologies) Connect or Separate Learners and Educators?

Some say the iPad is a toy, while others rave that it will transform education.  (See an interesting discussion in an April issue of the Chronicle for Higher Education.) A book I am reading now, “The Social Life of Information,” by John Seeley Brown makes me think that neither prediction will pan out.   Brown notes, “the information age, highly rationalist though it seems, is easily trapped by its own myths.”    As examples, he points to all the unfulfilled promises of paperless offices, the demise of the fax machine (still holding on stronger than ever), the end of the university (still going strong), and many other dire predictions for change.

Where prognostications are most likely to fall down, he points out, is where information technology is predicted to “replace the nuanced relations between people.”  This reminded me of the e-Learning boom, where it was predicted that education could suddenly be scaled so that one teacher could teach thousands of students at a go leading to massive structural change in education.  A study in 2006 by Tomei showed that the optimal class size for online courses is 12 students, not an economically attractive number that will result in closing the door of the university.

iPads may be a great little device for taking notes, viewing media and browsing resources, but in classrooms the most important thing is the relationship between the learner and the educator.  Only things that transform the teacher/learner relationship will truly transform education.

In my experience, using digital video in class can heighten the relationship I have with the students because it provides a shared experience that we can talk about and learn from because it provides a sort of “virtual contribution” that allows for debate and disagreement.

For example, I have been known to start my entrepreneurship class by playing this clip by one of my favorite interviews with Don Katz, who founded Audible (the top audio information and entertainment service) in 1995 and then sold it to Amazon in 2008.  In the clip, Katz is answering my question about whether entrepreneurs are born or made.

If  Katz were physically present in my classroom, students could be reluctant to disagree with his views.  However, using technology to bring his comment into class inevitably leads to a rich discussion on the very first day of class, focused on whether it really matters to take a course in entrepreneurship (i.e., if you think entrepreneurs are born, why bother?)

References:  Tomei, L A. 2006. “The Impact of Online Teaching on Faculty Load: Computing the Ideal Class Size for Online Teaching.” Journal of Technology and Teacher Education 14:531-541.

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Parenting: A Balancing Act

DSC_6409Manuel Lora, my faithful team mate, helps me with this blog and often makes great suggestions for content and passes on interesting links.  This week he sent me an article that argues when parents praise their teens too much it can result in laziness and a lack of resilience.  As a result, the teens crumble at the smallest sign of failure.  I imagine Manuel sent this to me because of my interest in parenting and mentoring.  Manuel has a darling son (most photographed child in the universe…but let’s face it, he’s worth it!!) who just started walking; my kids are all in their 20s.  This has led to many interesting conversations.

When I wrote a response to Manuel, he suggested that I share it in this blog:

Dear Manuel:  Thanks for the article. Parenting is such a balancing act.  My watchwords with my kids were “logical consequences.”  Whenever possible, let the kids take the logical consequences of their action, as long as it is not super dangerous (a little danger is inevitable).  And don’t condition them to expect your praise.  Instead of saying “I’m so proud of you” I’d try to say “I can see this is really something special for you and you feel great, right?” But it is a trial to be consistent time after time.  Luckily, all three of mine have strong self-esteem but not the fragility mentioned in the article.  Phew!

blog26_1This all applies to entrepreneurs and their mentors as well.  Mentors have to balance encouragement and empathy with tough love.  And entrepreneurs definitely have to be ready for failure.  At certain times, the mentor has to let the inexperienced entrepreneur learn the lesson firsthand (trying to sell and getting rejected).  But at other times the logical consquences are major (not putting the right people on the patent application), the mentor should step in and put on the brakes.

It’s sorting out which strategy is right for which circumstance that drives us all crazy.

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Playing Fair

blog25My husband is a fanatical fan of the Tour de France, happening right now.  While I think it is best to watch each of the dozens of 3-4 hour broadcasts in fast forward just to catch the ending, Tom prefers to watch and appreciate the strategy and beauty of competition.

This year, something happened that surprised me.  On Stage 2, there was a crash (actually, lots of crashing this year) and many of the teams had riders hurt.  What fascinated me was that the leader, Fabian Cancellara“held back” and rode more slowly to allow other top contenders to rejoin the front pack.  He did this even though it meant that he would lose the yellow jersey (award for the leader of the “general classification”—changing hands as people change positions). Don’t misinterpret this as soft-hearted; cycling is a super competitive sport (a rider was just ejected for dangerous head butting in attempt to gain position).    But  Tom explained that there is an unwritten code for this kind of thing in cycling.  Cancellara was quoted as saying:

“It was the right thing to do to wait, so everybody comes together to the finish line together,” he said. “When you have everybody on the ground and people five minutes behind because they can’t find their bike then it’s only normal……I think fairness comes before being selfish.

Hmm….Do we ever see this behavior in the business world?   What we seem to have lost in our current economy is this sense of how the good of the one may, at strategic times, be set aside for the good of the whole.  Or simply out of fairness?  Maybe it is naïve to expect it but I would sure like to see some of this in business.  And while we are at it – how about politics??

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Serial entrepreneurs: What do they seek?

Last week I wrote about Dan Pink’s contention that once our basic needs are taken care of we humans seek three things in our work: Mastery, Autonomy and Meaning.

This may be especially true for entrepreneurs.  Or not? I got to thinking about this by last week when I read the Forbes article about Elon Musk taking his electric car company, Tesla, public.   As a serial entrepreneur, what does he seek?  He co-founded PayPal, a phenomenal success, and proceeded to pour all his wealth into the new company, which has now suffered heavy losses and put a big dent in his personal wealth.  Despite being broke, Musk appears eternally optimistic and somehow, I think he will land on his feet. This is a common story for serial entrepreneurs, who found company after company, regardless of the financial risk.

Why do they do it?  I revisited our eClips interview with Elon Musk to see if I could pick up a clue about his motivation as an entrepreneur. There is no doubt that Autonomy is first and foremost for him, based on his entrepreneurial pathway, but what about Mastery and Meaning?

In the clip below, he discusses the run up to PayPal and reveals the thinking process.  He’s looking for further mastery in the internet space.  Yet later in the interview when he begins discussing space travel, he seems focuses on the financial return.  And what about Tesla?  Is he motivated mostly by trying to change the world (Meaning) or wants to be known for coming up with the best electric car (Mastery?).

Musk may be an outlier (he is apparently the inspiration for Robert Downey Jr.’s interpretation of Tony Stark in Iron Man), but I wonder.   What does keep them going when most of us would simply deposit the money someplace safe and live off the interest.  Or would we?

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It’s about the Teacher, Silly! or, Don’t Ban PowerPoint—Learn How to Use It (or switch to Keynote)!

23_1Consider this scene:  A faculty member from Pima Community College recently apologized to the audience that although he had requested an advanced room, he had been given one without a blackboard and eraser.  His point was that some tools support the art of improvisation better than others:  chalkboard=good, Powerpoint=not so good.  (See the full story here.)

I liked this quote from the article, which appeared in Tomorrow’s Professor:

  • “A good faculty member….must be like a good comedian – “knowing the audience, responding to the audience” and either extending one line of thought or regrouping when something hasn’t worked.”

They go on to point on that if you blindly let the PowerPoint slide show dictate the pacing of your lecture, you have lost the improvisational art of teaching.

For me, the real point is that the focus of a classroom should be on the connection between the student and the teacher and not between the student and the technology.    Writing on the blackboard with an extended period of time showing your back to the classroom is just as bad, in my opinion, as advancing PowerPoint slides in an autopilot fashion.

Here’s how I make sure that even when I use video, a very compelling and riveting technology, I make sure that I don’t break my own connection with the students.

  1. Keep the lights on.  Today’s projectors let us do that.  Dim lighting sends an audience into entertainment mode.
  2. Interrupt frequently.  I maintain a dialogue with the video itself, pausing it, explaining a point or posing a question to the students and then revealing the answer during the remainder of the clip. F
    1. Poweroint – click to stop, click again to play
    2. Keynote – use the Inspector Tool to start the clip exactly where you want and then click to stop, click to play from the same spot.
    3. Rewind.  Used sparingly, it is effective to replay a very short section of the video over again a few times to make a point.
    4. Ask for reactions.  Create a dialogue with the students, you and the “virtual speaker” by

Bottom line:  Whatever tool you use—blackboard drawings, PowerPoint, Keynote or standup comedy—it is HOW you use it that matters.

Recommended reading:


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Skills-based Volunteerism: Why swing a hammer when you are best at taming a spreadsheet?

It was while Rachel Chong was lifting a piece of lumber that weighed more than she did that the epiphany came to her.  Wouldn’t it be better for the world if she helped with the finances, ran some spreadsheets or wrote a volunteered her time doing something that made use one of her real skills?

This was the seed of an idea that grew into her new company, Catchafire, a business that is “changing the way people volunteer.”  As Rachel explains in this clip, she is applying existing technologies to create a site focused on matching well-defined, short-term projects with the specific skills of individual volunteers.  This creates a more effective, efficient, and rewarding experience for both sides.

Rachel may really be on to something, based on the work of Daniel Pink, recently presented in an ultra-cool video by Daniel Pink.   He argues that when people have at least a modest standard of living, there are three things that motivate them to do well (hint:  money doesn’t work).  People achieve at the highest levels if they are given:

  • autonomy
  • a chance at mastery (improving what they enjoy)
  • purpose

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So if Catchafire can tap into my desire to get better and better at storytelling with digital media (which I have been doing for more than a decade) by matching my skills with a nonprofit needing help telling its story, I’ll enjoy the experience and do better than when I am asked to bake a casserole for my church!

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What’s your Optimal Tension Zone?…or…How to Preserve your “Thinking Around” Time?

blog21When the son of a good friend of mine was around 6 or 7, his mom used to find him walking slowly around the yard with a certain look on his face.  “Petey,” she’d ask “what are you doing?”  “Oh,” he’d answered, a bit startled as if coming out of a trance, “this is my ‘thinking around’ time.  I really need my ‘thinking around’ time.”  That phrase always stuck with me over the years….how wise Pete was to know at such a young age that “downtime” is critical to wellbeing.

We all need thinking around time – just to wander and allow ideas to gestate.

Now, I’m a list maker.  I use tools like the Action Method and Google to organize my to-do list.  My family chuckles at my checklists, which can be found in my purse, on my desk and odd places, like under the bed.  Productivity matters, right?   And that organizational discipline works for me, for the most part, but being a slave to it can also squeeze out my thinking around time.

This week, I had a restless feeling—I  just wasn’t being productive!  Only a week earlier I had tackled and conquered a difficult project, writing an in-depth case study that involved the content of more than ten interviews, organized the remainder of my summer projects, and followed through on several important deadlines.  I got to mark an entire column those oh-so-satisfying checks on my to-do list. So why couldn’t I seem to focus this week?  Each day, I’d start with the best of intentions, but end up getting lost in the black hole of email or playing with my new iPad, or allowing myself to jump unproductively from task to task, finishing only a part of each one.  (And my rule is you cannot check off an item unless it is finished.)  It was frustrating.

blog21-2Turned out I really needed some thinking around time.  At one point, I stomped out of the house in frustration, deciding if I wasn’t making progress on that blasted list, at least I should get some exercise.   Puffing along on my walk, my brain slowly began to relax a bit, and I found my mind wandering, turning over ideas and thoughts in random, un-list-like ways.  In the middle of this disorganized, chaotic, storm of thinking, I had a BIG IDEA.  THE BIG IDEA itself (more on that in a later blog) is not as important as how it came to me.

My lesson learned was:  worklife is a mix of thinking around time and executing on the good idea.    This is what Caroline Baillie calls the “optimal tension zone” – where you are just engaged enough to come up with a good idea, but now so task-oriented that it blocks your creativity. And, she adds, the optimal tension zone is different for each person.

Now of course, to make something of that BIG IDEA, I’ll need to start a few checklists and work my way through them, but for now, thanks, Petey,  for reminding me to always  preserve my thinking around time.

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What’s in a name? The Dyson School (of Applied Economics and Management)

The big event this past week for my department was the announcement that the Dyson family endowed our program for 25M.  We will now be known as the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.  The Dyson School, for short.   And it turns out that having a short version does matter.

Why does it matter? We already have an outstanding undergraduate business program.  But no recognizable brand. We have and award-winning research and extension programs in Management, Environmental  and Resource Economics, International Trade and Development and Agricultural Management and Finance.   But no recognizable brand.  Our students get great placements, win awards and are amazing performers in all walks of life.  But they have no recognizable brand to label their business cards and resumes.

What we have been missing is a concise, meaningful brand statement.

Believe me, the department has been through dozens of visioning and branding exercises.  But the problem has always been that when talking to the press, prospective students, potential partners, the stumbling block is when you have to say:    “Well, I’m in the  Department of Applied Economics and Management in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.”

These 14 words will now be replaced by two:  “I’m in the Dyson School.”

Don’t get me wrong.  The money matters too!  We are all are very excited about using the funding to grow our programs, improve our teaching resources, underwrite our research and expand our outreach.  But those effects will be felt in the long run.   Right now, we can start to re-brand ourselves with the prestigious two words that quickly convey who we are.

The broader lesson:   every entity that craves attention needs a short, concise statement that immediately conjures up their program, school, business, or non-profit.  This is highlighted in the following three clips of John Dyson (Charles’ son) , talking about the crafting of the phrase “I love New York”  during his tenure as Ag Commissioner for the state.   Couldn’t be more appropriate to our situation:

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It’s not about the idea (or creativity)


This week, I am featuring favorite clips from my various interviews with Scott Belsky, a Cornell grad (OK, so he also has an MBA from Harvard…) who was recently named one of the 100 most creative people by Fast Company.    He’s also recently published his book, Making Ideas Happen.

Scott’s successes never surprise me.  I saw it all coming during his days as an undergraduate at Cornell.  Not only did he fashion his own major (creative!) through the Interdisciplinary Studies option, but he also shaped his own experiences at Cornell to be unique.  He ran a small startup, he was a leader in all kinds of activities, including the Cornell Entrepreneurship Organization, and he did creative independent study projects in place of standard coursework.

Scott always had the entrepreneurial bug, exploring new ideas, turning over options and thinking in a visionary way.  After graduation, he spent time at Goldman Sachs,  where he landed a position in their prestigious Pine Street Leadership program, but I just knew that the entrepreneurial itch would catch up with him.


Accordingly, I wasn’t at all surprised when in 2007 he started his business:  In the clip below, you can hear how he approached it in the early days, including his decision to pursue the company at the same time he was enrolled in the MBA program at Harvard!

One component of the business is the Behance Network for creatives, with a homepage so beautiful, I just go there once a day to browse the amazing photos and stunning artwork. I also love Behance’s product line, which includes, beautiful paper products, and a terrific online tool called the Action Method, that has helped my team organize projects and share to-do lists.

Here are some more of my favorite clips:

Scott talks about the components of a startup that can make or break its success:

In this clip, Scott provides a sense of the deep responsibility you feel when leading a company:

Here, Scott dispels the myth that entrepreneurial life is all about flexibility and autonomy.

I highly recommend Scott’s book.  Although focused on “creatives”, I find his advice a practical and challenging approach relevant to anyone struggling to go from ideas to action.  His somewhat surprising advice has little to do with creative techniques for brainstorming or methods for opening up the creative juices.  He sticks to the three things he says are needed to make any idea happen: “modify your organizational habits, engage a broader community, and develop your leadership capability.”

Scott lives this philosophy, making each idea a project, with clear action steps, managed carefully to create forward momentum.  In his entrepreneurial venture, he has modeled the use of collaboration, creating excitement around all his projects and taking the lead in moving them forward. His advice sounds simple, but I have found it challenging to follow in practice Nonetheless, the principles are effective when I succeed in applying them.    Well, Scott never promised it would be easy.

Once final piece of thought I’d like to share is from a clip, where Scott talks urges listeners to maintain a fundamental belief in their entrepreneurial vision, even while adapting and shaping the products and services along the way:

“I feel like every day is an investment in something …..You don’t necessarily know what will come of it. ….So we have to kind of have some faith in what we believe will be the right path but also some openness to whatever happens.”

That is both comforting and challenging.  Just like Scott.

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