Monday, April 30, 2007

21st Century Digital Learning Environments......Unintended Consequences and Inconvenient Truths!

How'd You Do In School Today?

With Edline Online, The Report Card Goes 24/7 and Every Test Is An Open Book

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 30, 2007; C01

At the beginning of this semester, Laura Iriarte Miguel switched anatomy classes.

No big deal. Students at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg can shift courses around at the start of each term. But when Iriarte Miguel remained on the roll in the wrong class for several days, her parents began receiving notices from Edline -- an online, up-to-the-sec grade-tracking program used in Montgomery County middle and high schools -- about her unexcused absences and zeros on quizzes.

Finally, one night at dinner, in between bites of spaghetti, her parents grilled her about her truancy and her rotten anatomy grades. She hadn't told them she had opted into another class.

"They wanted to know why-why-why-why," Iriarte Miguel says. She set them straight, but the air was still poisoned. The suspicion, she says, "accumulated in the back of their minds during the whole day."

This could be a simple story of parental expectations and teenage lackadaisicalness. But it's also a tale of an innovation at the nexus of a morphing world -- symbolic of the changing nature of childhood, America's abiding faith in education and the unforgiving quality of technology.

* * *

Growing up isn't what it used to be. Time was, parents set boundaries, children tested them. There was always a question of how much parents should know and how much kids should tell them. School was often a black box to parents. Mom and Dad dropped their kids off in the morning and had nearly zero understanding of precisely what went on during the day.

High school in particular has been a time of experimentation, says Ellen deLara, an adolescence specialist at Syracuse University. "People are inventing themselves, trying out different ways of being in the world, trying different faces."

Now along comes Edline to help erase the illusion -- and reality -- that school is separate from the parental world. That separation, deLara says, "is a buffer that's actually critical for healthy adolescent development."

Constant monitoring -- the equivalent of a nanny cam trained on teenagers -- "doesn't allow for confabulation," she adds. Nor does it provide "space for thinking about how to present bad news to parents. Instead, parents can jump to conclusions, and essentially, try and convict their teens, all before hearing from them."

The result is double-edged: Edline -- and other programs like it, such as SchoolFusion and School Center -- provide students, teachers and parents with an online meeting place to discuss day-to-day assignments, tests and grades. But it also enables parents to keep track of a kid's academic progress -- or lack of progress -- in a heretofore unthinkably micromanagerial way. Parents can know everything; children have no wiggle room. Gone is the fudge factor, the white lie. A student makes a D on a quiz, a D shows up on Edline. No matter that a student leads a discussion in class or puts forth a cogent point. Or has the possibility to retake the quiz, make up the poor grade or do extra credit work over the weekend.

This swift knowledge of success or failure can drive a wedge into families.

Exhibit A: More than 20 anti-Edline groups have popped up on Facebook with names such as "Edline Is Hazardous to My Health" and "Edline Is Ruining My Life." These two groups, it turns out, were founded by Montgomery County high school students.

So was the largest of the anti-Edline clubs: "Child abuse increased 78% since the Edline was created." With more than 6,000 members, the online klatch is Iriarte Miguel's co-creation. She says that when she and a guy launched it she was being tongue-in-cheek. But there is a real sting.

"Edline really doesn't give us an opportunity to explain why our grades aren't up to par," Iriarte Miguel says.

An A-minus student planning to go to the University of Virginia in the fall, she hears from scores of kids all over the country who are frustrated by the technology's watchdog qualities. A sampling of comments:

"My mom literally watches my sister like a HAWK on Edline," writes a student from Tampa. "Can't say that she has had many fun weekends since Edline was created."

And another note from Los Angeles: "Whatever happened to trying to improve grades before the report cards were sent out? This is so dumb!"

* * *

With computers, everything is binary -- one/two; either/or. There are few in-betweens. Gone are the rough edges, the gray areas. And there are unintended consequences.

Technologies often solve and cause problems at the same time. Cellphones, advertised as devices for knowing the whereabouts of someone at all times, also allow that someone to call from, and pretend to be, anywhere. Edline enhances communication among parents, teachers and students. And it can also destroy communication.

Sherry Turkle, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, warns against "overtechnologizing." A grade-tracking system like Edline, Turkle says, "sounds to me terribly intrusive."

The best way for parents and students to communicate is to talk about what is going on at school, she says. "When you just see a grade as a number, it's not necessarily opening the possibility of dialogue. Potentially it's closing down dialogue."

Turkle says Edline reminds her of the panopticon, an 18th-century idea for a specially designed building that would enable jailers to watch prisoners without the prisoners knowing they were being observed. The panopticon has become a metaphor for Big Brother.

The question the culture should be asking about monitoring technologies, Turkle says, is: "Is this just making children feel surveillance in a way that is uncomfortable for everybody?" The Internet, she says, can be used as a "blunt instrument."

In the old, pre-Internet days, parents who attended back-to-school nights and knew the names of their child's teachers were considered involved. Edline, and other monitoring technologies, take involvement to a whole other level.

"Parent involvement is known to be the key factor in positive student behavior and achievement," says Edline Vice President Marge Abrams. "How parents use the information is a parenting decision. Hopefully, if parents use the information to work with their child in a positive caring way, this parental involvement will lead to good achievement. Edline does not change the way a parent parents. If a parent uses the information in a punishing way, the same parent probably punishes at report card time."

Love it or hate it, Edline is expanding.

Abrams says the service was created in the late 1990s and today is being used in every state and in other countries. The privately owned company won't release its earnings or a complete list of its customers; schools pay about $2 per student for Edline. Edline, she says, has "many thousands of clients," including schools in Harford County, Md., and Chesterfield County, Va.

There are 38 middle schools and about 25 high schools -- 75,000 students -- in Montgomery County, according to schools spokeswoman Kate Harrison. All but three of the high schools began using Edline this year.

Next year, all the schools will use the service.

* * *

Many American parents don't think that keeping close tabs on their children's school activities is so dumb. They think it's smart.

Countless American success stories revolve around a caring teacher, a challenging class, a top-drawer education. A whole subset of the entertainment industry is built around the glorification of pedagogy. Think "Dangerous Minds" and "Finding Forrester."

In this country, "the middle class -- and anyone wishing to become middle class -- believe that education is the escalator to higher social status and financial well-being," says Larry Cuban, a former district superintendent of Arlington Public Schools and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University.

"The early-20th-century progressives saw schooling as the engine of democracy and the instrument by which immigrants would become Americans and middle class," he says. "Both business and civic elites have sold public schooling, getting a diploma, and now going to college as ways of entering the labor market and succeeding."

The same people, Cuban says, "particularly at the beginning of the 20th century and in the past three decades, have linked better schooling and getting credentials to better jobs, a strong economy and higher lifetime earnings."

With so much riding on success in school, watchdog technology such as Edline and its immediate techno-feedback have an obvious appeal. For hovering "helicopter" parents, it's a high-beam searchlight. No bad grade escapes its harsh glare.

Chris Barclay is a member of the Montgomery County Board of Education whose daughter goes to Einstein High School in Kensington. Although the students at Einstein call it "Dreadline," he says that the grade-tracking service "helps hold your child and your child's teacher accountable." The software allows working parents to stay connected.

Laura Hajdukiewicz, a biology teacher at Andover High School in Massachusetts, loves the software. She liked it so much at her old place of employment, the Bromfield School outside of Boston, that she persuaded Andover to try it. She tells of parents who found out through Edline that their son was reading the novel "To Kill a Mockingbird," giving them something to talk about at dinnertime. She says a parent who is a cardiologist volunteered to come into her class and speak when he learned through Edline that the class was studying the heart. "It's opening lines of communication," Hajdukiewicz says. "Students like it when they are doing well."

Hajdukiewicz asked more than 100 students in several grades for their opinion of Edline. She says the response was overwhelmingly favorable, although they felt their parents were now micromanaging their grades. "They like it for their own use but would rather keep things 'quiet' which is a fairly typical teenage response," she writes in an e-mail. "They also feel that their parents check it more often than they do!"

Carol Blum, Montgomery's director of high school instruction and achievement, says that Edline has helped to cut down on the number of e-mails and phone calls that parents make to teachers.

In the past, she says, "it wasn't as easy to be in touch with parents." A teacher would send out an interim report if the student was in danger of failing and by the time the parent received it, "it was almost too late," she says. "This way if a student is in trouble in a course, a parent can see it in a timely manner."

And students can know where they stand. "The biggest pro, coming from the high school perspective," says Christopher S. Garran, principal of Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, "is that Edline gives the students more information about their grades and where they stand in class."

A student can go online, Garran says, "and quickly see the impact that a zero might have. He can more easily see the effect of not having worked very hard." At the same time, "when they get an A, it immediately shows them how powerful that is."

Garran tells parents: "How closely you monitor your child's progress is a personal decision.

"Parents have to remember what it was like when they were in school . . . remember when you didn't get that homework assignment in on time."

A lot can happen, he says, "between that first quiz and the final grade."

Saturday, April 28, 2007


Detroit Free Press

Granholm's call for school aid cut raises the stakes

Districts express alarm; GOP says governor is overreacting

LANSING -- An irate Gov. Jennifer Granholm put the heat on Republican lawmakers Thursday, announcing she would cut money to public schools by $125 per pupil unless the GOP agrees to a tax increase to make up for falling tax revenues.

School officials said the cut would force them to tap emergency reserves or borrow money to balance their budgets -- difficult options with just six weeks left in most districts' school year. If money isn't restored in the new budget year, they said, layoffs and program cuts loom.

"I'm assuming most districts are going to be able to at least keep open their classrooms," said Mike Flanagan, state superintendent of public instruction. But he said some may cut transportation or lay off administrators for the rest of the school year.

Granholm said Michigan's continued weak economy, which translated to lower-than-expected tax revenues, forced her decision. New data, she said, show that the state fell $136 million short of March sales tax projections. She plans to officially notify school districts Monday of the aid cut. The Legislature will have one month to find cash to avoid the reduction.

Granholm's announcement fueled partisan discord over a state budget crisis whose solution has eluded Granholm and lawmakers since she announced in January that reduced tax collections had put the state $900 million in the hole.

Republicans accused Granholm of using alarmist tactics to force a tax increase and insisted the immediate budget problems could be solved through spending cuts.

Granholm also said she would notify physicians and hospitals of reduced state payments for treating Medicaid patients because of a general fund deficit she said has grown to $500 million.

Granholm implored several hundred school officials at a Lansing conference to urge their state senators to raise taxes and avert the cutbacks. She said she has cut state spending so much that further cuts will harm education, public safety and health care.

Senate Republicans have opposed tax hikes for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, although they hinted they would consider new or higher taxes for 2007-08 along with more cost-cutting. Many House Democrats also have shunned a tax increase unless significant numbers of Republicans agree to one.

Granholm, visibly angry, told reporters that Republicans are stonewalling budget negotiations with extremist views against taxes.

"We need revenues to be able to save our schools," she said. "I'm angry at Senate Republicans for having purely an extremist ideology of never, no way ever, regardless of how it impacts Michigan, will they ever consider revenues. That philosophy is damaging to Michigan."

Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, dismissed Granholm's label as unproductive name-calling. Bishop, in a statement, said the House and Senate have cooperated to erase part of the budget deficit.

"The governor seems intent on derailing the bipartisan progress via her obsession with a massive tax increase on Michigan families," Bishop said. "Republicans and Democrats have both demonstrated in legislation that the current-year deficit can be balanced with cuts."

Warren Consolidated Schools Superintendent James Clor said a $125-per-pupil cut would cost his district of more than 15,000 students about $1.9 million. He said the district's $13-million reserve would last three months.

"This is a shock, that it has to happen instantly," Clor said. "I hope it's a move that Granholm has to do to have these senators and legislators wake up."

He added, "What happens to districts that have no savings? Do they just close on that date? What do you do if you have no money?"

Avondale Schools Superintendent George Heitsch said a $125-per-pupil cut would cost his Auburn Hills district more than $400,000, which he said would be lumped onto next year's deficit.

Asked whether it would force an early end to the school year, he said, "We would not want that to happen."

This week, the Senate sent to Granholm a House bill that lops $300 million from the School Aid Fund deficit, mostly through accounting maneuvers. The bill still left a $62-million school budget hole. Granholm said she plans to sign it.

Combined with the March revenue shortfall, the School Aid Fund will remain $198 million in the hole when state economists meet in May to officially announce new revenue projections.

Earlier this month, Granholm and the Legislature cut $344 million from the current year's budget.

Sen. Nancy Cassis, R-Novi, chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees tax issues, said Granholm hasn't done enough to trim such growing costs as health insurance and pensions for Michigan school employees. She said the governor's criticism of Republicans makes it more difficult to reach a budget compromise.

Cassis said a tax increase might be considered as a last resort for the 2007-08 fiscal year, adding that school funding may have to be scaled back, though not as much as Granholm's $125-per-pupil cut.

Contact CHRIS CHRISTOFF at 517-372-8660 or

Copyright © 2007 Detroit Free Press Inc.


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April 27, 2007

Daniel Howes

Daniel Howes: Jig is up on fat school funding

You'd be irritated, too, if you'd been re-elected governor in a landslide last November

And your party, in control of the state House for the first time in a decade, dissed your plan for a 2-percent tax on services in about as much time it took you to propose it.

And your speaker, a private equity shark-turned-Democrat, didn't buy it either. Then he and the guys heading the tax policy committee recast a replacement to the Single Business Tax that Republicans, automakers, key chambers of commerce and other business leaders greeted with the kind of respect and qualified consideration that made you look, well, like an outsider.

And your tactic of whipsawing more revenue from the Senate GOP so you can plow it back into the entitlement maw that is Michigan's public schools didn't work. So the answer, just months after magically coming up with $220 more in (pre-election) per-pupil funding, is to take more than half of it back, call the Republicans "extremists" who "won't consider revenues" and bank that the public buys the charade.

But here's the bipartisan problem facing Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester: The cash burn consuming Michigan public-school funding won't stop unless something changes fundamentally.

Almost every penny of the cash Granholm found last fall, minus the $125 per head she's promising to pull back, wasn't headed to "the kids" anyway. It was destined for negotiated health care benefits and retirement fund payments whose rates are dictated by state bureaucrats.

Here's an example that should be familiar to Bishop. In the current year, according to estimates prepared for the Rochester school board, the 14,800-student system has an estimated payroll of $57.95 million for 847 teachers. The district pays pay an additional 17.74 percent, or another $10.3 million, into the state teacher retirement system.

By the 2008-09 fiscal year, estimates show, Rochester schools expect to be paying 21 percent of payroll (up from 14.87 percent in '04-05) into the system. That's $13.2 million on top of an estimated $62.9 million in payroll for a total of $80.9 million (including payroll taxes), or easily more than $100,000 per teacher.

The point here is not an emotional one, although it will surely be made that, or that teachers are "the problem." It's that the system, absent either massive revenue expansions through growth (unlikely near-term) or annual tax grabs (more likely), is financially unsustainable -- even in comparatively wealthy Rochester.

Rochester's payments into the state retirement system are expected to be 28.1 percent higher by the 2008-09 year than today, while salaries are expected to increase 8.5 percent over the same period.

Compare that to your 401(k) at work, where employers typically contribute 4 percent or 6 percent of salary as a "match" to employee contributions. As salaries grow through raises and promotions, the contributions grow even if the percentage doesn't because to increase wages and, at the same time, increase the percentage match would outrun the ability of almost any business to keep up.

But that's exactly what's going on in many school districts across the state. It's not the only challenge among countless others facing Granholm and the Legislature, but it's a major one pressuring state and local budgets every year -- and it needs to change.

Daniel Howes can be reached at (313) 222-2106, or Catch him Fridays with Paul W. Smith on NewsTalk 760-WJR.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

On Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurialism in Michigan

Monday, April 16, 2007

Updated Study Says Michigan Still Struggles to Grow Entrepreneurs

LANSING - The latest Small Business Foundation of Michigan's Entrepreneurship Score Card, released Monday, finds that Michigan last year lost ground in developing new, high growth job-creating entrepreneurial small businesses.

The Score Card gives Michigan a 2006 grade of "D-minus" for entrepreneurial dynamism, down from the 2005 "D" grade and edging closer to the failing "F" grade that Michigan received for 2004.

The Score Card project is a collaborative project of the Small Business Foundation of Michigan (SBFM) and GrowthEconomics, Inc. Financial sponsors are Automation Alley, Central Michigan University, the Edward Lowe Foundation, Lawrence Technological University, MERRA, the Michigan Entrepreneurial Education Network, Michigan State Housing Development Authority, Michigan Technological University, MiBiz, Next Energy, Schoolcraft College, Saginaw Valley State University and the Small Business Association of Michigan.

The SBFM defines entrepreneurial dynamism as a composite measure of Michigan’s performance in entrepreneurial change, entrepreneurial vitality and entrepreneurial climate.

“While Michigan has not achieved its full entrepreneurial dynamism potential, there are some things it does right – it is still making tremendous progress in areas critical to robust entrepreneurship, such as private lending to small businesses, university spinout businesses and entrepreneurial education,” said SBFM executive director Mark Clevey. “However, the economic impacts of factors like globalization and restructuring of old-line industries will continue to have negative effects on entrepreneurship.

Michigan needs to do even more if it is to accelerate entrepreneurial dynamism and create more jobs for our struggling economy.” Here’s how Michigan ranks compared to other states: Entrepreneurial Change (the amount of recent entrepreneurial growth or decline in an economy): 46th Entrepreneurial Vitality (the absolute level of entrepreneurial activity): 38th Entrepreneurial Climate (the capability of an economy to foster entrepreneurship): 38th Business Costs and Productivity: 41st Quality of Life: 37th Government Efficiency and Regulatory Environment: 26th Infrastructure: 24th University Spinout Businesses: 16th Workforce Preparedness: 10th Education and Workforce: 8th Broadband Coverage: 4th Private Lending to Small Businesses: 3rd

Although the Foundation does not advocate policy positions, Clevey says Michigan can improve its entrepreneurial dynamism by paying greater attention to entrepreneurial education, economic development strategy, access to capital, technology commercialization and developing a business climate that nurtures entrepreneurs.

Promotion sponsors are Ann Arbor SPARK, Creating Entrepreneurial Communities (CEC), Michigan State University; Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, Great Lakes Angels, Inc., Great Lakes Entrepreneur Quest, Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance, Michigan Homeland Security Consortium, Michigan Interfaith Power and Light, Michigan Ross School of Business, Center for Venture Capital and Private Equity Finance, Michigan Center for Innovation and Economic Prosperity, James Madison College, Michigan State University; Midland Tomorrow, Michigan Venture Capital Association, Prima Civitas Foundation and Vision Tri-County.

Author: Staff Writer
Source: MITechNews.Com

Friday, April 20, 2007

Technology's ability to personalize instruction

Technology's 'greatest potential' for education: Personalizing instruction By Dennis Pierce, Managing Editor, eSchool News March 29, 2007
Calling technology's greatest potential for education its ability to personalize instruction, Katie Lovett, chair of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), kicked off the group's 12th annual K-12 School Networking Conference in San Francisco March 28.
The conference brought together school district chief information officers and other educational technology leaders from around the globe to discuss key ed-tech challenges and solutions. One of these challenges, Lovett noted in setting the stage for the meeting's opening general session, is the need to break out of the mold of the one-size-fits-all approach to instruction.
Lovett, who is the CIO of Georgia's Fulton County Schools, introduced Chris Dede, the Timothy E. Wirth Professor of Learning Technologies at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. Dede moderated an opening general session that explored two creative yet very different approaches to personalizing instruction with the help of technology.
One of these approaches is, a United Kingdom-based international virtual learning community. offers an alternative to traditional education for students who, for a variety of reasons, can't cope with school.
"We're the absolute antithesis of what school is," said Jean Johnson, project director.
Johnson explained that Notschool allows students to take ownership of the curriculum and shape their own education. They can choose their areas of study, and because instruction is asynchronous and online, they can choose when they'll participate. "Teenagers don't want to learn at 8 o'clock in the morning," she said--but, given a choice over the direction of their education, they do want to learn.
Operating within the confines of the traditional school system, Virginia's Fairfax County Public Schools--the nation's 12th largest school district--is working to create an Individual Learning Plan for each of its 163,000 students. "It's time to craft our vision for the future, instead of dwelling on the past," Superintendent Jack D. Dale told conference attendees.
After Johnson and Dale described their respective projects, Dede moderated a discussion about the challenges each faces. He concluded the session by noting that, while it's clear technology allows educators to personalize instruction "in ways we never could before," school leaders often must confront significant political and cultural hurdles to make this happen.
(Note: For highlights of this opening general session, see the nine-minute video clip titled "Personalized learning.")
Re-engaging students
A key idea to emerge from this opening general session was the need for schools to re-engage today's youth.
"Why are kids on MySpace?" Johnson asked conference attendees. "They're there because they want to be there." But, too often, the same can't be said about school. Today's students are growing up immersed in a world of video games, cell phones, and instant messaging--but when they get to school, they're often forced to leave these technologies at the door.
In an international symposium held March 27, the day before the conference officially began, CoSN brought together education leaders from several nations to discuss how computer games and simulations--interactive media that today's students embrace and understand--can be used as serious learning tools.
The symposium included an address from Lord David Puttnam, a widely respected British filmmaker and education official. Puttnam, whose films include The Mission, The Killing Fields, and Chariots of Fire, is the only non-American to lead a major Hollywood studio, having run Columbia Pictures in the 1980s. After retiring from the film industry, he went to work for the United Kingdom's Education Department, where he has sought to spread the message that today's schools must change if they are to reach a new generation of learners.
In an interview with eSchool News, Puttnam said education can learn a lot from the entertainment industry. The primary lesson? "Know your audience," he said.
(Note: For highlights of the interview with Lord Puttnam, see the five-minute video clip titled "Know your audience.")
The exploration of computer gaming as a serious approach to instruction continued on the conference's first day, with a session examining a project in Japan, called the Instructional Activities Game (AIG), that is using games in teacher education, and another session that looked at existing research on the effectiveness of using games to teach core curricular content.
Consortium for School Networking
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Thursday, April 19, 2007

On INNOVATION STATIONS and "Shade Tree Mechanics"

An Evolutionary Approach to Innovation

by Richard Watson

Can biology teach us anything about innovation? The essence of Darwinism is that progress is created by adaptation to changed conditions. What starts as a random mutation can also spread to become the norm through a process of natural selection.

The same is surely true with innovation. New ideas are mutations created when two or more old ideas combine. For instance, Virgin Atlantic Airways is what happens when you cross an entertainment company with an airline business.

Virgin itself is also a good example of mutation and adaptation. The music retail business was created when a postal strike threatened to shut down the fledgling mail order record company. Virgin Atlantic was the result of an unsolicited approach from outside the company. Virgin Blue (a low-cost airline in Australia) is a similar story.

In my experience, what makes Virgin innovative is a strong sense of self, an ability to experiment, the skill to cross-fertilize ideas, and a willingness to change. The company has largely grown, not through the unfolding of some master plan, but through an accumulation of learning and ideas caused by threats, accidents and luck.

So, if external events and adaptation are the driving forces of biological evolution, is it possible to develop an innovation process that seeks out accidents and mutations?

This is an idea being developed by companies like Brand Genetics in the UK and Dr. Ron Alexander in Australia.

The list of things created by accident is certainly impressive; Aspirin, Band-Aids, Diners Club, DNA finger printing, dynamite, inoculation, Jell-O, Lamborghini, microwave ovens, nylon, penicillin, velcro and Vodafone to name just a few.

However, one of the defining characteristics of business is a preoccupation with orderly process ("If you can't measure it, you can't manage it."). So it's hard to imagine corporate cultures embracing randomness -- or agreeing with John Lennon, who said, "Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans."

Accidents are born of experimentation, but the automotive and fashion industries are almost the only industries that publicly experiment with radical mutations. What, for example, is the soft drink industry equivalent of a concept car at the Detroit Motor Show?

Zara, the Spanish clothing retailer, is a classic example of experimentation and adaptation. Store managers send customer feedback and observations to in-house design teams via PDAs. This helps the company to spot fashion trends and adapt merchandise to local tastes.

Just-in-time production (an idea transferred from the automotive industry), then gives the company an edge in terms of speed and flexibility. The result is a three-week turnaround time for new products (the industry average is nine months), and 10,000 new designs every year -- none of which stay in store for more than four weeks.

The analogy of biology also leads to an interesting idea about whether companies are best thought of in mechanical or biological terms. Traditionally, we have likened companies to machines. Organisations are mechanical devices (engines if you like) that can be tuned by experts to deliver optimum performance.

For companies that are looking to fine tune what they already do, this is probably correct. A product like the Porsche 911 evolves due to a process of continuous improvement and slowly changing environmental factors. The focus is on repetition. Development is logical and linear.

However, if you're seeking to revolutionize a product or market, the biological model is an interesting thinking tool. In this context, biology reminds us that random events and non-linear thinking cause developmental jumps. Unlike machines, living things have the ability to identify and translate opportunities and threats into strategies for survival. A good example is Mercedes-Benz working with Swatch watches to create the Smart car.

Creative leaps are usually the result of accidental cross-fertilization (variation) or rapid adaptation caused by the threat of change. Hence the importance of identifying an enemy, setting unrealistic deadlines and using diverse teams to create paradigm shifts.

The latter is a route employed by MIT who mix different disciplines together. As Nicholas Negroponte puts it, "New ideas do not necessarily live within the borders of existing intellectual domains. In fact they are most often at the edges and in curious intersections."

This is a thought echoed by Edward de Bono, who talks about the need for provocation and discontinuity. In order to come up with a new solution you must first jump laterally to a different start or end point.

For example, if you want to revolutionise the hotel industry you need to identify the assumptions upon which the industry operates and then create a divergent strategy. This could lead you to invent Formule 1 Hotels (keep prices low by focusing on beds, hygiene, and privacy), or another value innovator, easyHotel (keep rooms cheap by making guests hire their own bed linen and clean their own rooms).

What else can you do to create these jumps? A good place to start is to look at the edge (fringe) of existing markets. Here you'll find the misfits and the rebels. Companies that see things differently. People young enough not to realise that new ideas are impossible, or old enough not to care.

How else can you use a Darwinian approach to innovation? Here are five ideas:

  • Look at the big evolutionary picture -- what are the driving forces?
  • Create mutations -- unusual combinations of people and ideas.
  • Look for new ideas and conditions that could disrupt your market.
  • Treat accidents as opportunities for divergence and adaptation.
  • Cooperate with other companies (create mutually beneficial eco-systems)

Finally, remember the words of Charles Darwin, "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change."

Garage Shop Innovation

by Richard Watson

Too much experience, too much familiarity, or too much money can kill innovation fast. That's why game changing ideas tend to come from a lone inventor or two in a cramped garage.

A while ago I wrote a piece for Fast Company called "An Evolutionary Approach to Innovation." The central idea was that Darwinism teaches us quite a bit about innovation. In particular, random mutations and adaptations caused by a particular local context or by rapidly changing conditions can spread to become the norm through a process of natural selection. Innovations are generally mutations created when one or more old idea is cross-fertilized by another.

The same is true with trends. New trends emerge when someone starts to think or behave differently -- or starts to create or customize something because existing offers do not fit with their needs or circumstances. If conditions are right a trend will become widely accepted, eventually moving from the fringe to the mass-market and from early adopters and trendsetters to laggards. Trends that occur at an intersection of other trends may also turn into megatrends, which are the key disrupters and drivers of innovation and change across all industries.

Creative leaps also tend to emerge when someone with a differing perspective tries something new -- either through bravery or sheer naivety. If that person is young or comes from another place (i.e. a different discipline or perhaps a different country) things sometime start to happen. Put two or move differing people together and the sparks can really fly.

But why is this so? In my experience it's because older people have usually invested too much under the current system and therefore have too much to lose if a new idea displaces an older one. Equally, people that don't move around or come from the same department or discipline sometimes fail to see what is hidden under their own noses, whereas people from ‘somewhere else' often see it.

For these reasons game changing ideas and radical innovations tend to come, not from well-funded industry incumbents (i.e. large organizations), but from lone inventors or a couple of individuals in a cramped garage. In other words, too much experience, too much familiarity or too much money can kill innovation faster than phrases like "I like it but" and "We tried that once."

Perhaps this explains why, for instance, 25% of Silicon Valley startups are created by either Indian or Chinese entrepreneurs. They see things differently. Another example of outsider thinking and mutation is Virgin Atlantic Airways. Richard Branson managed to shake up the airline industry precisely because he did not have an airline industry background. So when other airlines were worrying about legroom, routes and punctuality, Branson was cross-fertilising his experience from the entertainment industry and worrying about why flying wasn't more fun.

Not all new ideas and innovations make it of course. It's a case of survival of the fittest (or luckiest). Eventually, however, the sheer number of new ideas that are hatched means that a few emerge and make it into the mainstream where they do battle with deeply set vested interests. Then it's usually youth and energy versus experience and money. Organizations are like this too in a sense. They start of hungry, agile and curious and end up bloated, lazy and stiff.

So my question is this. If external events and adaptation are the driving forces of innovation, is it possible to develop an innovative culture and process that seeks out change and mutation? Moreover, if evolution is the result of genetic accidents is it possible to replicate such accidents through experimentation? An imminent threat of extinction would certainly explain why it often takes a crisis to spur a lazy and bureaucratic organization to adapt and embrace change.

My answer is that generally speaking it's not. This may be a heretical statement, especially coming from someone that makes a living advising companies how to create innovation systems, but I think it's true. Some large companies are excellent at innovation. It's their reason for being and is imprinted in their DNA.

However, for most large organizations innovation is an inconvenience. Organizational cultures develop a kind of corporate immune system that subconsciously suppresses or rejects any new idea that could threaten the existing business. Quite right too. The primary aim of established organizations is to extract revenue and profit from legacy businesses and not to do anything that would upset the apple cart.

This primarily means executing flawlessly in the present and requires tight control and strict hierarchies. Small companies, in contrast, have less to lose and are not encumbered by their history. Their mental models about 'what works' are less fixed and they are more open to picking up weak signals about change.

So here's my idea. If your organization is the kind that does innovation well, then great. Equally, if you're halfway decent at innovation, keep with the program and perhaps play around with some of these thoughts about using trends as a framework for innovation and scenario planning. If you're lucky you may give birth to a strange mutation. If this happens recognize it as a gift and run with it as far as it goes.

If, however, you are the type of organization that's not very good at innovation then give up. That's right. Throw in the towel and get into hunting instead of agriculture. In other words stop trying to grow your own through research & development and go out hunting with mergers and acquisitions instead. Seek out small innovative companies and buy them.

Big organizations, even ones that are really bad at innovation, are very good at scaling up an idea and dealing with everything from intellectual property and sales to marketing and finance. This is handy because these things are precisely what startups and small companies are often very bad at.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Saturday, April 07, 2007

NSF ITEST Grant 2007: Submission

Information Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST)

Program Solicitation
NSF 07-514

Replaces Document(s):
NSF 05-621

NSF Logo

National Science Foundation

Directorate for Education & Human Resources
Division of Elementary Secondary & Informal Education

Preliminary Proposal Due Date(s) (required):

January 05, 2007

January 04, 2008

and the first Friday in January thereafter

Full Proposal Deadline(s) (due by 5 p.m. proposer's local time):

May 10, 2007

May 08, 2008

and the second Thursday in May thereafter

*March 22, 2007

I wanted to share with you that we are invited to submit a full proposal to NSF-ITEST program. I would appreciate it for your time for a meeting at your convenience. We would definitely happy to have your input in this proposal.

Mesut Duran