The Toolshed

A place for visioning, tinkering, and building around the topics of education reform, technology, and female entrepreneurship.

Focus.

I recently read the following start-up advice: “Focus is your most scarce resource.”  I promptly jotted it down on a post-it and affixed it to the front of my notebook (which accompanies me everywhere), and it’s been glaring at me ever since.  I can’t recall where I read it, but am thinking it was either from Steve Blank or Alistair Croll, and it’s exceptional advice for any start-up.  It’s ridiculously tempting to jump at the shiny opportunities that you suddenly come across — “Aha!  Someone is noticing us!  Someone sees our potential!  Let’s scurry to jump on that opportunity!”  And, to a certain extent, that nimbleness is necessary to the success of many a start-up.  It can also be really hard to see beyond the goodness of an idea into the amount of work it will entail and the true cost-benefit analysis it reveals.  For example, say a really cool video production company says: “You guys are an amazing non-profit.  We want to profile you and put together a video for you to use for promotional purposes.”  Wow!  What an awesome windfall — great marketing and at a high production value.  Where do we sign up?!  Well — not so fast.  When you think through what this will entail: several conversations worth of planning and sharing about the organization with the production crew; exchanges and negotiations with mentors, school partners, and parents of mentees to get the filming crews into the classrooms on the right days and get release slips signed; the actual filming; edits and feedback; etc. — is it worth the multiple days of effort when you are one of three full-time employees with many moving parts?

It could be — but approaching this and any other opportunity or fork in the road thoughtfully and with a mind toward not only mission alignment but what I’ll call “central problem alignment” is critical.  When I say “central problems alignment,” I mean that at each stage of the organization’s development, we should have some key learnings we are looking for — some cluster of central problems we’re trying to solve.  It might be: “Will this product sell better to teens or college students?”  It might be: “Will our organization work better with an in-house tech team or an awesome subcontractor?”  It might be: “Should we change our business model?”  Recognizing that those are the core problems you’re working on as an organization — maybe even calling them out in scrums or throwing them up on a white board on the wall — will help you evaluate opportunities as they arise, as you can say: “Well, that’s an interesting idea…but will it help us solve X problem right now?  No?  Then let’s punt it down the road.”

The same goes for product — at every stage of the product’s development, I need to ask: “What do we want to learn right now?  Will doing X get us closer to learning that?  No?  OK, put that in the add-later queue.”  I emphasize “what do we want to learn” because I think that’s more important and authentic than “what do we want to prove.”  Every feature we add should be getting us closer to learning more about what makes a product ridiculously successful and well-designed.  Without this constant “come back to center” moment, we run the risk of feature creep or falling into the trap of keeping up with the Joneses or even feeling like we’re roaming aimlessly.

This is all much easier said than done.  And I also feel that some projects can be worth the strain if they earn you a big name affiliation that might set off a cascading effect of sorts, so perhaps the example above is imperfect.  But focus, I think, is truly a start-up’s scarcest resource when there are 3000 and 1 things calling your name.

 

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The Big Pivot.

At Moneythink, we are working to develop a technology that will supplement and enhance our face-to-face mentorship program.  But we have a hunch (based on early success with a prototype, the incredible thoughtfulness and intelligence of our partners, and — likely — our own chutzpah) that this technology may fundamentally change the way we operate.  It may flip the curriculum, or lead us to modify its orientation or its delivery.  It may change the mentorship model in a meaningful way, and lead us to want even smaller mentor: mentee ratios (or, conversely, it may mean that the technology makes a larger ratio possible).  It may generate new sources of earned income.  It may unveil new and previously unthought-of partnerships and collaborations.  These are all programmatic and financial changes that we’ve been thinking through and around.  But what does it mean for us as an organization?  How can we remain nimble enough to accommodate this big pivot?

I use that word carefully, as I’ve just been digesting an incredible article that Steve Blank wrote about pivots that the so-called “Unicorn Club” (i.e., U.S.-based tech companies established in the last ten years that are currently valued at $1B or more) have made in their journey to the very top.   So my question is: how do we prepare ourselves for what could represent a huge pivot that will likely impact almost all of the nine different “business model” components he’s identified?  What organizational preparations need to be made?  How do we accommodate when we are a lean, mean, 3-person team?

For context: I used to work for a non-profit focused on increasing access to education through free, open, online courseware.  (We began to build this program well before the year of the MOOC — in fact, three years before — so we didn’t know the hailstorm we were about to fly into.  But that’s a story for another day.)  The main learning I want to focus on here is the role that technology played in the non-profit structure there, because it’s led me to think very critically about how we approach this tech pivot at Moneythink.  At my previous employer, we were using technology to achieve our mission of “driving the cost of education down to zero.”  But the org structure was not set up to accommodate or reflect our tech-heavy approach — we outsourced all development and were frankly impeded substantially because of this arrangement.  It would take weeks to implement modest front-end changes — not to mention larger scale hopes to change platforms and add new features, much-wanted plans that became increasingly pressing and stress-inducing given the rapidity with which our peers out in Silicon Valley were moving.  We also lacked a CTO or the equivalent — meaning that smart, well-intentioned staffers with no experience in technology were making key tech decisions based on the best of their research abilities and their seniority in the organization.  How could we possibly have kept up with our peers at Udacity and Coursera, staffed as they were with dozens of engineers working full-time to improve the UX and overall learning experience?  When pressed as to why we weren’t able to keep up with the Joneses, the best explanation I could muster was: “We are an education non-profit using technology to achieve a goal; these guys are uber-financed tech companies selling an educational experience.”

I say this lovingly and without severity because I believe that this scenario is consistent with that of many non-profits, which tend to be heavy on programmatic depth, knowledge, and rigor, but understandably light on tech and business savvy.  This is largely because non-profits are staffed by incredibly sharp, dedicated, heart-in-the-right-place experts in a given field — not business generalists and certainly not technologists.  In my lit studies, we liberally used and abused the phrase “othering,” especially in post-colonial and feminist analyses of various works.  That’s sort of the framing I’d use here: even the best, sharpest of program folks tend to “other” (FYI: using “other” as a verb here — classic lit nerd move) tech efforts, rendering them appendages to their offerings rather than a core organ.  (Kind of gross analogy there — apologies.)

But I don’t think this needs to be the case, and I think there are ways to thoughtfully pivot into a new type of non-profit org structure with tech at its core rather than its periphery (and from all angles — from a mission standpoint, an organizational structure standpoint, a resource standpoint, etc.)  This is why Ted and I have been talking more recently about how to prepare for success and accommodate a more intensive move into the tech space, thinking critically about our staffing needs and overall org structure, our resource allocations, and our impact measurement framework.  We want to make room for technology to become a core Moneythink offering, and to snugly situate ourselves around that offering however we can.  Looking forward to sharing what we learn along the way…

Standing Meetings: A Surefire Way to Kill Momentum.

I recently told a friend: “There’s no way to kill momentum like a standing meeting.”  Despite the hyperbole, I think there’s something to this.  When I assumed director-level status at my previous employer, the first thing I did was do away with standing meetings within my department (and, later, the entire organization).  Standing meetings are often put in place with the best of intentions: senior leadership want regular communication, an open forum for conversation, and either intra- or inter-departmental exchange.  Some might even talk about the fact that these meetings “establish a regular drumbeat” for progress, or that they hold all team members accountable for week-on-week accomplishment.

But in reality, they rarely accomplish much.  In most standing meetings in which I’ve participated, we go around the room to share updates with one another, which in turn means that staff feel compelled to exaggerate their progress and/or talk at length about projects that are neither interesting or relevant to the majority of the rest of the meeting.  Worse, they typically stymie employee productivity for the day — if I open my calendar at 9 AM and see the standing meeting at 9:30 AM, I will probably defer throwing myself into a project until after the meeting.  (Yes, this touches on the broader issue of maker vs. manager time, but I think that standing meetings have a propensity to truly deter the potential for productivity in a given day.)  They also kill energy.  I guarantee that the majority of your staff and your co-workers dread their standing meetings and mentally prepare for an hour of day-dreaming. (That’s another frustrating facet of the standing meeting: they almost always drag on too long.)

There are, of course, circumstances in which regular meet-ups are necessary — typically around specific projects with specific completion dates.  But I would take great pains to refashion and reframe these regular convenings.  In my former position, I called project-specific weekly meetings either “scrums” or “stand-ups.”  The emphasis was on brevity and informality — “Quick, let’s put our heads together to make sure we can work through this specific issue” or “OK, shoot: tell me where we are with x.”  And I  would often actually stand up during them — you move through necessary topics much more quickly and you feel more energized.  I would also liberally cancel them if there was nothing to report or review.  I’m currently working on a project with our developers, and they share a similar ethos: we have no standing agenda.  If we have nothing to cover at the outset of the meeting, we dismiss immediately.

Am I being overly Draconian on the topic of standing meetings?  Probably.  But in a time where many companies are looking for ways to become leaner, more agile, more innovative, I would suggest trimming the fat wherever possible within your employees’ workdays.  What are the recurring events, processes, and deliverables that you assign your employees that yield minimum benefit?  I would boldly venture to guess that standing meetings almost universally fall into this category.  I would also reflect on the desired outcomes of these meetings — what do they accomplish?  Is the goal to get everyone on the same page?  Encourage progress?  Call out strong performance?  Etc.?  There are probably more creative and engaging ways to get the same results without the pain of an hour-long all-hands.

Am I off-target here?

 

 

The Technical Divide.

I read three interesting articles on women in technology this week: one by a male programmer angered by the fact that he had enjoyed certain privileges by “looking the part” (i.e., fitting the gender and ethnic norms as to what a “programmer” looks like) while friends of different ethnicities and the opposite gender had been micro-bullied out of the industry; another by a female programmer frustrated by  her position outside of the “technically entitled” caste because of her gender; and a final one about steps companies can take to attract and retain women in their technology departments.

I always cringe when I read these articles.  I find myself sucking in or holding my breath or contorting my body in a strange way.  I think it’s because many of these articles teeter dangerously on the edge of circular reasoning.  That is, they pose an argument that is useless because their conclusion is one of their premises: women should be in technology because women should be in technology.   And there’s nothing like circular logic disguised as a truism to hook unwilling listeners.  I don’t denigrate the impulse, the frustration, the genuine anger, especially in the voice of Tess Rinearson above.  In fact, I share it.  And I’m glad that there are women and men upset by the obvious imbalance and the “micro-aggressions” (I’m borderline on that concept) they experience in the workplace and beyond.  I’m thrilled that this is a conversation.  I’m ecstatic that women are leaning in.   (I should mention that I am a huge, huge, huge fan of Sheryl Sandberg’s — I listen to her TED talk before I need to deliver a big presentation or attend an important meeting.  Her success and her thoughtfulness about it — pure adrenaline.)

But then I read a statement like this: “This problem can be fixed, but we need to start by acknowledging that the fault is with the employer rather than with women.”  [Insert me wringing my hands.]  There must be a more elegant, meritocratic, thoughtful approach to this issue than villainizing corporate America.  At a minimum, let’s acknowledge that employers are only a part of the issue.  What do we learn from our families, communities, religions, political environments as we’re growing up?  Who are our role models?  What do our educators tell us?  What do our peers tell us?  What do our magazines tell us?  What do our books tell us?  What do our toys tell us?  I resent the idea that women can’t “make it” because a group of smarmy men are sitting in a back room, burning the resumes of female applicants — which, while I exaggerate the representation, is frankly not that far off from what you’ll read.  I guess that I feel uncomfortable — angry? — when articles make me feel as though I’m a victim.  I don’t want that label, thankyouverymuch.  I want to be a competitor.

In my opinion, the most powerful lever for change is in women in the aggregate — that is, women who are willing to band together and help other girls and women up the ladder.  (Heads up: I’m importing Sheryl Sandberg’s credo here, nearly wholesale.  If you’ve not yet Lean In yet, get thee to Amazon.)  In order to change the equation, we need to have female pioneers who make it to the top and both proactively help others into the network and, more passively, serve as a role model for future generations.  We need forums for women to gather, set a precedent, and make a statement en masse.  We need spaces and programs geared specifically towards teaching girls and women to code.  This is why I’ve co-founded a chapter of the EdTechWomen  community up here in Chicago.  This is why I have been hauling ass the last few years, chasing the C-level — at least, in part.  Part of it was just me wanting to do me.

 

Thoughts on App Success Measurement.

When I was getting my feet wet with app development,  I spent some time studying up on metrics for app success.  I found that a lot of the metrics conventionally applied — conversion rates (ARPU or average revenue per user), usage (DAU – daily active user / MAU – monthly active user), session length — either did not apply or would not really tell us anything about whether our app was successful in helping our teens build their financial capability.  For example, while we do expect a lot of touchpoints between the student and the app in order to track their progress within the app, length of session is not necessarily a critical metric for success.  I’m more interested in knowing whether a kid sets a goal and meets it.  Or whether a kid successfully creates a LinkedIn account and adds five contacts.  Both of these examples are among the challenges in our nine-week challenge curriculum for the pilot this spring — and neither of them requires much time in-app.  (N.B.: As a reminder, the Moneythink app is an interactive social platform designed to engage youth around financial challenges that build financial awareness, skills, and habits.  The challenges are issued and facilitated and, in some cases, verified by Moneythink mentors, though engagement is largely driven by peer-to-peer interactions in the app.  Youth earn points for completing challenges that they can ultimately “cash in” for real-world rewards.)

metrics2

 

{A lot to digest…}

I was fortunate enough to speak with the incredibly sharp Mark Bruinooge, CEO of Tykoon, who shed some important light on success measurement.  Tykoon is a mobile experience that “empowers kids and their families to develop stronger financial habits and values through real-life learning experiences.”  Kids are able to tick off chores that they complete in order to earn IOUs from their parents for money that they can ultimately redeem to purchase items that they want.  The idea is that the app serves as a mobile intervention of sorts — kids use the app to record their purchasing goals  and then can track their progress towards those goals, ideally spurring multiple conversations about saving, spending, goal-setting, and beyond with their parents.  Mark pointed out that the success of Tykoon centers around whether parents are able to have those offline conversations with their kids — something not immediately measurable by the technology.  It occurs to me that Moneythink shares a similar quandary — believing as we do in the efficacy of a blended learning model, where kids “do things” using technology and then their mentors review those “doings” in order to create a teachable moment in class — much of the success relies on the effective communication of feedback in the classroom.  And how do we quantify that?

phone-child-tasks

 

{Tykoon‘s child-facing mobile app design.}

At the same time, many of the challenges that students will complete have intrinsic behavior measurement opportunities — for example, in one challenge, as I referenced above, students set a minigoal for themselves.  They set their goal and then snap a photo when they’ve achieved it.  These can be as small as “I want to save $5 this week.  I’ll do it by avoiding Starbucks tomorrow.”  The end goal is not only more money in the student’s pocket, but an inclination toward more mindful spending and evidence of self-discipline.  (One of the most startling aspects of the prototype was seeing how thoughtlessly our teens use their spending money — most of them report that they don’t know where their money goes, that it seems to disappear, etc.  When we mined the SnapTrack news feed we set up in our prototype, we saw exactly where it went: the vending machine, fast food restaurants, and the occasional discount clothing store.)

At any rate, I’m landing in a place where I am realizing that while the holy grail is having students complete all of the challenges that they are issued, there are a lot of conditional or proxy metrics that will help us figure out the ideal conditions for challenge completion.  And once we’ve isolated those, we can work on tweaking design (on both technology and content fronts) to ensure even higher rates of success post-pilot.  One complicating factor in the short term is that we are tracking success and engagement differently for our two different constituencies: mentors and mentees.  For mentors, our hypothesis is that the more that mentors engage with the app, the more likely students will be to complete their challenges.  (This was largely informed by our prototype test — at first, we were entirely hands off.  We discovered that quick, small-scale interventions along the lines of: “Jeremiah, why don’t you share your #savings moment with the group?” truly worked and spurred increased engagement.)  So, in the pilot, we want to learn whether mentors are verifying challenge completion promptly — and how many log-ins a week it takes to do this effectively.  We want to match the number of “cheers” and “nudges” (whether through “liking” mentee posts or leaving a comment) to the relative engagement of their mentees.  And if these numbers are low, but student engagement is high, we want to learn how much the in-class experience affects this, if it all.  If mentors are disinclined to use the app, we want to know why and what would help them — texts? push notifications? emails?

4_student_main

 

{Sneak peek of student-facing app design for our Moneythink Mobile app.}

On the mentee side, we want to know how many challenges are begun vs. completed, how many challenge progress posts are submitted, how many likes and comments they are leaving.  If we see substantial attrition on certain challenges or on the challenge curriculum overall, we want to focus on those points and determine how to increase retention through challenge design.

On both sides, we want to learn which pages are most frequently visited — are kids skipping to the challenge rooms?  Should the app open there instead of their current home pages?

In short, there is a lot to learn from the pilot and I’m doing my best to isolate the most important features and to sort through the important pieces of data to collect now, vs. what to worry about later.  As Eric Dynowski, one of Moneythink’s incredible advisors and mentors and CEO of the Turing Group, told me on the phone this morning: “Better to have way too much data and to measure way too much to sift through than the alternative.”  A lot to learn here — can’t wait to share what I learn in a few months, once I’m done with my data bath!

Going Native.

One of the toughest decisions I had to make during the app design process was whether we were going to design a mobile-ready web application or a native application.  (Spoiler: we ended up going native.)  Having done a lot of hand-wringing and tossing and turning on the topic, I thought I’d share the framework I built for myself (on the fly) as I was weighing our options.

native

 

{Image via Sheridan.com}

Important caveat: there are no right or wrong answers here, in my opinion, which is why we’ve seen big companies like LinkedIn and Facebook go in one direction and then shift to another.  (Both of them began with mobile-friendly web apps and then went native.)  There are pros and cons on both sides, and this is a decision that requires a lot of careful thinking and balancing.  I asked myself the following questions:

1.  Will the app make use of native smartphone features?  (Or will the use of those features dramatically optimize the experience?)

Our app is designed to make primary use of the smartphone’s built-in camera — youth post their progress on most of their financial challenges by snapping photos and posting them to a “challenge room news feed.”  This design feature made the decision to “go native” fairly straightforward.  If you’ve ever been prompted to toggle between apps while trying to accomplish something in one app, you know how frustrating a non-native experience (i.e., without the camera API) would be.  (In my opinion, there’s nothing more frustrating and disruptive than clicking a link that then launches the Safari browser.)

In this fantastic article, mobile technology guru Michael  Mahamoff also makes the point that “smartphone users demand alternative surfaces such as widgets and notifications. While the latter is starting to get support in HTML5, it’s often difficult if not impossible to construct these UI surfaces from the browser, and even HTML5-powered native apps are limited in their means to provide rich, interactive interfaces outside of their primary arena.”  Though our minimum viable product will not include notifications of this kind, we envision that as we move to concept, this will be a crucial feature addition, as our target market (youth between the ages of 16 and 18) are accustomed to viewing a cross-application feed of notifications in their smartphone notification center.  I think this is an important observation that the tech world should keep an eye on — possibilities for notification “channels” are emerging.  As  this article points out: “Our portal is our app screen. Our network isn’t Facebook or Google or Twitter. It’s the phone address book that is the union of those three imports. And on the phone we stop dreaming about “If only there was a service that integrated functions of Twitter, Gmail, and Snapchat!” Because there is a service that integrates that — your phone’s notifications screen.”

I digress here.  But the point is — think carefully about the features of your app’s design.  Will it make use of the phone’s GPS?  Scan?  Camera?  Etc.  If so, lean towards native.

2.  Will the app have a complex UI?

Let’s be honest: all native apps will feel more elegant and rich than their web app counterparts.  If you question this, check out Facebook through your mobile safari browser.  Then remember that Facebook has hundreds of engineers who work on optimizing this experience.  That being said, there are interfaces that are on the simpler side and won’t be as dramatically impacted by the comparatively clunkier web app experience.  For example, if your app primarily consists of “static” content for reading/reviewing (for example, a blog or news syndicator), or maybe simple checkboxes to demonstrate interaction, then the mobile-ready web app won’t be dramatically improved in a native format.  If, on the other hand, your user will need to interact quite a bit with the screen or will be providing a lot of user-generated content, the equation changes.  For our app, youth will be updating a “challenge room newsfeed” with their progress.  Envision the clunkiness of a newsfeed refreshing every time you enter something new — possibly taking you to the very top of the newsfeed, or not showing new entries in real time.

If you want to get even more advanced in this conversation, note Mahamoff’s comment that: “The HTML5 “write-once, run-many” argument was more compelling when platforms lacked strong visual identity. A bespoke, run-anywhere, HTML5 UI could be just as good. These days, that’s just wishful thinking; Android, Windows, and BlackBerry have joined iOS as platforms with distinctive look-and-feel – and have discerning users who truly give a damn. So while HTML5 still aids reuse in some areas (subject to the fragmentation concerns mentioned above), user interfaces must be customised to build a great app. Even then, there are inevitably telltale signs and a lot of performance work that could be avoided in native platforms.”

3.  Are you planning to make frequent updates?

If yes, web apps are infinitely easier to update on the fly, and you don’t need to worry about version control.  You also don’t need to worry about app store approval — which, for iOS apps, can take days and even weeks.  (The Google Play store takes less time, but there is a process involved.)

4.  Are you trying to design something universally accessible?

If yes, web apps are likely the smarter route.  This was the biggest sticking point for me in my decision-making: in an ideal world, we would have come up with a way to provide the app to all of our students right from the get-go.  But our budget and contract only permitted the development of either a native app for Android OR iOS (not both) OR a mobile-ready web app.  It came down to weighing the pros and cons of getting the UX right with a native app vs. including all students with a web app.  At the end of the day, we decided that engaging students was more important.  We were worried that the UX would be so compromised in web app form that it might foreclose on our opportunity to engage youth longterm.  (N.B. One survey revealed that user engagement with a native app is 2x that of a web app.)

At the same time, the fact that only about half of our students will be able to use the app during our pilot this spring is admittedly imperfect.  We were comforted by the fact that, during our prototype test, student engagement largely followed cohort-specific trends and dynamics.  (That is — we ran multiple cohorts within three different classrooms, and specific cohorts within classrooms tended to vary with engagement — but not classrooms as a whole.)  We also saw that Android devices enjoyed a slightly larger market share, which made sense to me — there are a variety of different Androids at different price points.

It should be noted, however, that the web app route has browser segmentation issues — that is, browsers can be inconsistent in supporting HTML5, and you need to guard for these use cases.

5.  What are your budget restraints?

Native is always more expensive, especially because you’ll need to design for both Android and iOS (and potentially beyond…?)

6.  What sort of experience is your target customer accustomed to for this sort of product?

Youth are especially picky about design.  They’re much less forgiving than older generations, who have seen the idea of a native app come into existence.  We heard kids say: “If it’s pretty, I’ll use it,” and, on the other side of the spectrum, one student told me: “Craigslist is so ugly that I won’t use it.”  Our youth are accustomed to the rich, elegant native app experience.  I also felt that owning real estate on the smartphone would be especially important in terms of driving app use — would students remember to navigate to our web app when unprompted?  (N.B.  Users today spend almost 8x as much time in native apps than they do in a mobile web browser.)

7.  Will the app encounter difficulty in getting approved by an app store?

Something to keep in mind!

Send me your thoughts!

 

Edunomics.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune of meeting the brilliant and thoughtful Jim Jacoby, founder and CEO of ADCMi, the American Design and Master-Craft Initiative.  (Check out his podcasts here — a fascinating and worthwhile listen.)  We met at 1871, a tech start-up incubator and home to ADCMi’s Chicago campus (such a cool space), and connected on a range of topics that funneled around the seismic waves that have been running through the higher education landscape over the past few years.  He asked whether I’d take a look at a draft white paper on “a new economics in education” that he was working on, and I eagerly accepted.  After completing the final sprint for Moneythink’s design engagement with IDEO.org (see my reflections on this experience here and here) and then enjoying the holidays with family and friends, I finally found time this morning to read through this bold treatise, which asserts that we are in the process of transitioning from a knowledge economy to a wisdom economy, and that this shift has broad and serious implications for our current education system.  I share this opinion, though I would quickly add that I believe that this transition will take a long time to complete and that there are many unsettling comprises that will be forced and accepted in the process that could have long-term detrimental repercussions.

To put a finer point on it, Jim comments that:

“…there’s a new set of market values that is trying to emerge at least along-side the old. As mentioned, relevance and wisdom is the emerging currency. Hard assets like facts have less value and can trade more efficiently without human intervention. Conversely, nuanced assets like relevance and wisdom have huge value and require significant human intervention. Consider the switch from the gold-standard to our current full-faith system. Moving piles of gold around to manage massive economies became silly. So how do we find our way to a new standard? Well, as has been feared with bitcoin, it’s not going to be found in throwing out the old systems wholesale. Instead, it will be a period of fair and transparent trading — within and between systems. In time the two value sets will rebalance or the new will overtake the old at least in terms of valued language and metrics.”

My fear is that during the “period of fair and transparent trading — within and between systems,” we will watch yet another class-based education gap emerge, one where the “haves” are earning traditional degrees from top universities, free to study liberal arts and other fields of study less directly applicable to current employer needs, and the “have nots” find themselves in a low-cost (or free), competency-based workforce training program (potentially one where employers and government agencies foot the bill).  While I find this scenario rosier than our current circumstances, where we have hundreds of thousands of students dropping out of college, finding themselves permanently indebted to an education that they frankly would have been better off avoiding from the start, and perpetuating a cycle of inter-generational poverty — it is a chilling scenario nonetheless.  (Note that I do not float lightly the comment about students being better off avoiding higher ed in the first place.  I wince to make such a comment, as I believe that education is a human right and that it is the cure to many social and cultural ills.  And I have been many times reminded of the statistic that individuals that complete college will, on average, earn $500K more than their counterparts that fail to do so.  But I have seen the numbers — around 50% college attrition! — and if we know that we can continue to expect these numbers, I feel that these individuals are far worse off with the enormous albatross of unforgivable student debt hanging around their necks.  We need a high school counselorship program that presents youth with options rather than prescriptions.  We need a culture that embraces the miscellany of different educational, trade, and employment pathways that students can and should take.  The artificial emphasis on earning a college degree is doing as much bad as it is good.  But this is a topic for another day — to be continued.)

The above scenario and much of Jim’s article also begs the bigger question: what is the purpose of education?  Jim criticizes our current educational model for being “disconnected from the employment market.”  But can we say that our system is failing if it is not creating a prepared workforce?  I would — but many will take issue with this assumption, and it is worth dwelling on, as I feel that much of the friction surrounding the “year of the MOOC” hovers around this central question.

Thoughts?  Objections?  Let me hear you!

Maker vs. Manager

One of the biggest adjustments between my previous position as director of a non-profit open courseware initiative and my current position as Chief Innovation Officer at Moneythink has been the tremendous mindshift between operating on manager’s time vs. maker’s time.  In the past, I derived inspiration from Sheryl Sandberg, striving for efficiency and a tightly-packed schedule organized around specific agendas.  I leaned on extensive calendar-driven to-do lists in order to measure and chart my progress and I strained for efficiency and punctuality in my day-to-day.

At Moneythink, I need to spend a lot of my time tinkering, brainstorming, observing, and commenting.  I need to block out large expanses of unstructured “maker’s time” during which I read, take copious notes, and — largely — write to know what I think.  Recognizing this “maker’s time” as equal to but materially different from “manager’s time” has required some mental gymnastics.   I’ve trained myself to be so output-oriented that living in the creative process has (at least in my first few weeks) occasionally left me feeling unproductive.  That being said, when I turn a big corner and find myself piecing together a more formal or robust representation of my thinking, I feel as though I’ve seriously accomplished something.  Perhaps part of living on maker’s time is recognizing that there may be latency in this system–I might need to adapt to a new cadence of achievement, but the scale of each achievement will be much more satisfying.

The other transition implicit in this shift is a move from managing people to creating things.  I have a lot of thoughts on management, but the high-level ones to note here are (1) that good managers are made, not born, and (2) that managing people well is incredibly difficult, full-stop. When I was initially promoted to a managerial position, I advanced because I was good at what I did — not because I had any business supervising the work of others.  And I would easily say that I failed far more times at managing my staff than I have in attempting to do anything else.  Management is a serious business and when you fail, you are impacting the experience, the emotions, and — in the worst of situations — the livelihood of those you manage.

While there are many things I valued about the opportunity of being a manager, it felt remote from the action.  I wanted to be in the weeds, doing the actual building and tinkering myself.  I’m right at home in my new role, though the shift back into the details has been more dramatic than I’d estimated.  Looking forward to sharing what I’ve been creating the last few weeks soon…

Outfield/Infield: Field Research with IDEO.org

I spent the better part of my first week on the job at Moneythink (now three weeks ago!) completing field research for our mobile application project with three incredible colleagues (and lovely people) from IDEO.org.  There is no better onboarding experience I could imagine, full-stop.  I arrived, freighted with expectations, and I left, simultaneously bowled over by the power of what we’re doing and humbled by the imprecision of my novitiate assumptions.

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{Our students at Christ the King Prep School completing some worksheets for us.  Image courtesy of IDEO.org’s esteemed John Won.}

Before I share the week’s many epiphanies (and I do mean epiphanies, in all its connotative glory — a word I do not take lightly thanks to a heavy application of James Joyce over the course of my graduate studies in literature), I should first mention the recurring feeling of moving into and out of zones of confidence and comfort over the course of the week.  Or rather, the feeling of blurring and then refocusing these zones as my perspective evolved.   I arrived imagining myself going into the outfield in a lot of ways — examining how youth that are underbanked, generally under-resourced, and overall economically distanced from the mainstream (and, to be candid, from my own experience) think about money.  In large part owing to IDEO.org’s human-centered design process, which I alternately shouldered and shadowed, I left with a radical reconceptualization of the playing field that left our teens playing the bases.  This grand shift in perspective is symptomatic of a range of other, smaller, adjustments and readjustments that had me moving from a position of insider to outsider and back again, from knowing to unknowing to knowing again, and so on.  (Perhaps this is the experience of all researchers, and if it is — wow.   I can’t help but connect the experience more broadly to tropes of Othering, The Subaltern, identity, and related literary jargon that occasionally haunt me.  We won’t go there today.)

But: let’s backtrack to the project itself.  Moneythink mentors urban, low-income youth in personal finance  through a near-peer mentorship model centered upon a 21-module Economic Opportunity Curriculum.  About a year ago, our CEO, Ted, noted and paired two important observations: a) nearly all of our students have smartphones and b) students make all of their financial decisions outside of school, i.e., outside of the Moneythink program, which runs in urban high schools.  Ted wanted to build a mobile tool that would extend the learning opportunity and afford students the chance to demonstrate that they’d taken to heart what they’d learned in class.  He’d more or less walked us right into that tricky, highly topical hotspot of topics around behavior change, the quantified self, and personal tracking.  With this app, we’re pushing away from measuring financial literacy (i.e., awareness of financial tools, decisions, behaviors) and driving towards measuring financial capability  (financial behavior and decision-making).  There are a lot of smart people thinking about the latter (including the bright folks at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the D2D Fund, with whom I have had the good fortune of speaking), but there aren’t yet any  rigorously tested measures that tell us: “Yes, this person is a financially capable individual because she has done x, y, and z.”

At any rate, we contracted with IDEO.org, the non-profit wing of the design giant IDEO, and the development firm CauseLabs, to figure out what this might look like.  Following IDEO’s protocol, we spent the first week interviewing our students, our mentors, experts in youth engagement, and youth not enrolled in Moneythink to learn how our core demographic interacts with money and mobile.

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{Students play our budgeting game while IDEO.org’s Rafael looks on in the upper right-hand corner.  Image courtesy of IDEO.org’s John Won.}

Below, a few top-of-mind epiphanies:

1.  For our teens, money is social.  Money comes from people, is freely and widely discussed with people, and is most often spent with or for people.  Even among the more financially independent teens we interviewed, money has not yet become “professional” or been conceptualized as a part of an economy beyond their own communities.  Many of the teens leverage their relationships with their parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, siblings, and significant others in order to access money, which they tend to receive sporadically. Our teens are also uninhibited when it  comes to talking about their personal finances with others.  I couldn’t determine whether this is part of a culture of oversharing that Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and other social media have cultivated or whether there are narrower, demographic-specific forces at play (maybe all youth are more willing than I recall to divulge this information?  Maybe these youth come from communities in which families are more likely to loan money to one another, thus removing the taboo?)  Regardless, these teens seemed eager to share and interested in a solution that might require a friend or peer to approve/comment on spending and saving habits.  Finally, our youth often contribute back to their families if they are earning money or spend their money shopping and eating with friends.

2.  Money is earned sporadically.  The majority of our teens have not yet entered the workforce and receive money from family members on their birthdays, at Christmas, and through occasionally dispensations of “spending money.”  For this reason, budgeting, while an important lesson in our curriculum, feels remote for our teens.

3. Teens may face legitimate constraints around opening a savings account (or any bank account, for that matter).  Coming into the project, I had anticipated that one metric we might use for measuring financial health could be the number of students we had moved from operating on a cash-only basis to opening a savings account.  We discovered that, as mentioned above, many of our students have not yet entered the workforce, making a savings account an unlikely tool — and, further, making a mobile application designed to reward the act of savings challenging to implement from a logistical standpoint.  (If our teens receive money sporadically, this might mean only two or three opportunities per year to move money into savings.)  Secondly, some of our students on the West side of Chicago (and I am presuming this to be true in other urban areas) are undocumented and are therefore unable to open bank accounts.  Some of our mentors working primarily on the West side of the city estimated that up to 80% of their classes are undocumented!  Finally, branched banks are a scarcity in low-income urban areas — there are few financial incentives for banks to open in these communities.  We spoke with a representative from a big bank who mentioned that the individuals we serve tend to carry low balances and tend to run up overhead costs by calling customer service for account information, requiring additional support for everyday transactions, and using the in-branch services more than the average client.  There are potential solutions here (a fully online bank; credit unions; etc.) but given that we work in around 30 different communities across the U.S., this may take a long time to sort.

4.  Our teens are uniquely resourceful.  As I mentioned here, our teens display an admirable and innate resourcefulness.  During a budgeting exercise, my colleagues and I were wowed by the cleverness of their financial decision-making — they knew how make a dollar stretch in the most minute of ways, whether by getting rid of a data plan and using free WiFi at a known local spot, trading out a phone for a laptop with a messaging app installed, eating at home, finding bus vouchers through community services, etc.  Watching the four girls in my group pool these cost-savings strategies was nothing short of incredible — their instinct for saving was self-evident.  There were many other one-off instances of this behavior, including one student who, during a lesson on compound interest, suddenly perked up and said: “Why don’t you just put a lot of your money in right before they add the accumulated interest at the end of the month and then take it out?”  Though we explained that this strategy wouldn’t pan out, I was impressed with how quickly they were thinking about ways to optimize the return.

5.  Our teens are genuinely distanced from the mainstream and learn about personal finance from their friends.  I cannot tell you how many times I heard students ask practical, need-to-know questions like: “How do I open a bank account?” “How do I know what bank account is OK?” “Is a college loan a good idea?”  “How do I take out a college loan?”  “My friend said X account is the worst because they have the most fees.  Is that true?”  In sharing this with one of my friends at the Center for Financial Services Innovation, she responded: “And what happens when Moneythink isn’t there to answer those questions?  Do they just stop asking?  Where do they go?”  Observing the lack of information and the lack of resources that these students have around accessing financial products and financial information was just the sort of self-evident assessment that I needed to remind me of why the work so many are doing in the area of financial literacy is relevant and needed.

6.  Also, teens like selfies.  A stray thought, but we were struck by this common refrain throughout our interviews with teachers, mentors, and students.  There is something interesting to glean from this from a design standpoint — the smartphone’s design has popularized an entire genre of photography by virtue of its ease of use and its facility in self-expression.

More to come soon…!

Heutagogy + Mentorship.

I recently came across this chart legislating the differences between pedagogy, andragogy, and heutagogy.  Setting aside the awful terms of art we’re facing here, I was struck by how off-putting — or, more fairly and aptly, out-of-date — the pedagogy column is and how relieved I am that revisionist educators like John Hunter and Sugata Mitra are evangelizing with a different pedagogical credo.  I mean — really, what is to be said of the statement: “The learner has few resources — the teacher devises transmission techniques to store knowledge in the learner’s head”?  The language alone makes my stomach turn: while we’re at it, please insert a chip in my head and call me a robot.  Moreover, most of the children I’ve met have two incredible resources that many adults lack — a natural curiosity and wide-roaming imagination.  (As an aside, I recognize that I’m writing with particular and perhaps unfair force on this point.  Sugata Mitra has elegantly noted that “it’s quite fashionable to say that the education system’s broken — it’s not broken, it’s wonderfully constructed.  It’s just that we don’t need it anymore. It’s outdated.”  Elsewhere, he has commented: “The Victorians were great engineers. They engineered a [schooling] system that was so robust that it’s still with us today, continuously producing identical people for a machine that no longer exists.”  In short, we should be critical but fair when addressing the current education system, acknowledging the deep roots of our current model and, above all, avoiding at all costs denigration of the teacher.  My sister teaches K-1 at a public school in Virginia and the way she manages the multiplicity of simultaneous demands, instincts, and responses cycling through her classroom is nothing short of magic to me. )

Returning to the chart and setting this jarring “pedagogy” column aside, I honed in on the term “heutagogy” as a useful coinage to describe some of the areas of the education industry that have been generating the most buzz: the MOOC (and, to split hairs, the cMOOC, not the xMOOC), the flipped classroom, and educational gaming.  (To be fair, Maria Montessori paved the path for this art form long before we had the Internet.)  It occurred to me that the phrase also aptly describes the approach Moneythink is going for in our classrooms: not financial education, but financial mentoring, financial heutagogy. Our mentors are coaching students as they encounter–to quote my brilliant colleague Ted — “the densest concentration of life-changing financial decisions that they will ever make in their lives.”  We aren’t making decisions for them or prescribing financial products and solutions or peddling a circumscribed financial agenda–we are equipping them with the language, tools, and awareness to address decisions as they arise; we are guiding the conversation; we are listening.  I warmed to the phrasing in the chart: “managing the self-managed.”  I like the framing here and want to bring this home to our hard-working mentors as a new lens for understanding what they are doing in the classroom as a part of our soon-to-launch “Xcelerator” Google Hangout series (more on that, including a likely name change, to come soon).

As I reflected on this framing in conjunction with my experience conducting field research with our partner IDEO.org (see early thoughts from my colleague and co-conspirator on the IDEO.org team, Rafael, here), I felt a sudden jolt, a tug at the end of the fishing line.  I recalled that while I had been in the midst of an epic brainstorming session that may or may not have involved a brief photo-shoot with an IDEO.org branded stuffed animal, Rafael asked: “We should begin by asking: What’s right with these students?  What makes them unique?”  The question was arresting.  We’d talked a lot about teens in general, about how they spend money and interact with mobile.  But what about the specific slice of the demographic–low-income, urban 11th and 12th-graders–to which Moneythink caters? As an edu-nerd, I instantly thought about all I’d read on the topic of strengths-based education and found myself traveling down a long thought cycle circling around our curriculum.  But from a design standpoint, it made me realize that one of the tremendous and unique strengths of our core demographic (those that I’d spent a lot of time interviewing and observing) is just how scrappy and resourceful they are, and in the most unexpected of ways.  (I’ll explain this in full in a later post — lots of rich examples here.)  I commented that our students know how to save money and make money stretch far better than we could ever project.  The design of our solution would therefore need to be more flexible, more lightweight, even, to accommodate the miscellany of their individual financial narratives and decisions.  (PS: I realize I’ve said this a lot, but more on the overall project to come soon, too.)

As I thought about heutagogy, then, this revelation from our design discussion began to sing–what if both the technological and educational modalities we’re working on share the same design ethos: to make space for the student to learn and experiment and do on his or her own, but with support (and the occasional nudge) from either a mentor or the mobile app we’re building?  More to come…