Attaining and Sustaining a Dynamic Learning Environment

Stop for a moment and think about this: on any college or university campus, members of at least 3 generations are collectively working together to engage in learning, creativity, and discovery. Too often, we begin any description of higher education with the roles of student and teacher.  Better to think that we are a multi-generational community with a shared objective–hopefully, a shared passion–for learning. Passion both for our own learning, and for supporting a dynamic learning environment.

If we start from this alternate place, this shared objective and this diverse learning community, what would we want to emphasize?  How would we build and sustain a dynamic learning environment? I think we focus on these four things:

  • Personal relationships and connections
  • Intellectual fulfillment and growth
  • Uniqueness of experience
  • Shared Identity

Personal relationships and connections. A dynamic learning environment is interactive, with frequent and high quality interactions among students, faculty, staff, and friends. Of course, many of these interactions are conversations that we probably wouldn’t find anywhere else: engaging and exploring ideas and perspectives in a deep, critical, and thoughtful way. Yet there should also be many more: internships to connect students with alumni and friends, work-study opportunities to connect students with staff, living and learning communities to forge life-long personal bonds with peers, and “applied” instructional experiences outside of the traditional classroom where faculty and students can work closely together to conduct research, teach or tutor, develop creative work, or serve the campus or community.

Intellectual fulfillment and growth. A dynamic learning environment is flexible, where instructional activities and initiatives align and center on the learner. The conventions for delivering higher education instruction are so well assumed that it can be easy for faculty to think of instruction in terms of what happens in their own courses or labs. In a dynamic learning environment, in contrast, instruction is aligned systematically throughout the entire student experience. Units coordinate their curriculum both internally and with other units, instructional innovations are welcomed and studied for effectiveness, and student advising is centered on the whole student rather than on a transcript. Beyond the classroom, institutional resources are also learner-centered–websites, for example, become tools for enrolled students instead of advertising to prospective students.

Uniqueness of experience. A dynamic learning environment is emergent, where the unexpected and unanticipated is welcome. Interdisciplinary activity is encouraged, seeding conversations, courses, events, research, and degrees. Nontraditional students find their experiences and backgrounds appreciated. The institution invests in infrastructure that can capitalize on real-time events, such as funding opportunities to responses to current events, or technology infrastructure that connects campus centers to the world.

Shared Identity. Finally, a dynamic learning environment is vibrant and engaged, where all campus constituents perceive and express a personal connection to the institution. The campus offers multiple shared spaces that are well-designed to be welcoming and so are filled with constant activity from students, faculty, staff, and friends. These constituents share similar understandings of the values and characteristics of institution and, importantly, they see in it a place for themselves now and in the future.

Let’s concentrate on building and sustaining this environment, rather than on one that is careful and planned. We may be less able to predict outcomes, but we’ll be more able to achieve our central mission of learning, creativity, and discovery.

How do you demonstrate your new app is compelling?

Start-ups aren’t just for technical folks anymore.  Entrepreneurs with good ideas come from all disciplines, and can partner with developers to turn their vision into a product or service.  Folks who are able to recognize and analyze communication processes and needs (hey, listen up, comm majors!) are in a great position to invent great apps.

Michael Cusumano gives some great advice to would-be entrepreneurs as well as to their potential funders and investors.  He lists 8 things that should be used to evaluate the strength of a start-up proposal:

  1. A Strong Management Team
  2. An Attractive Market
  3. A Compelling New Product or Service
  4. Strong Evidence of Customer Interest
  5. Overcoming the “Credibility Gap”
  6. Demonstrating Early Growth and Potential
  7. Flexibility in Strategy and Technology
  8. Potential for a Large Investor Payoff

This is a fairly wide ranging list, and each element is important. When I work with students–whether they are studying communication, computer science, or media design–I challenge them to think more deeply and strategically about two items on this list: developing something compelling, and providing evidence that people will want what you’re offering.

Many entrepreneurs struggle to articulate what is compelling about their idea. We all can have this problem — I mean, we’re just, you know, excited by it…and…it’s so obvious that others will feel the same way, right?  As Cusumano points out, though, the bottom line is that entrepreneurs need to show that people will (a) use their product or service and (for many ideas) (b) pay for it.  So, to say that an idea is compelling is not to say that the idea is great in some abstract way that we can wax on about.  Instead, it is to concretely demonstrate its value to a base of users.

A mistake some investors and funders make is to accept as evidence that there are already a group of beta users or testers and maybe plans for marketing.  Cusumano cautions against this, but doesn’t really offer much advice on what to do instead.  He does advise to have at least a prototype or a limited engagement of a service.

So how do you get out of this Catch 22? Entrepreneurs need investments to build to get the users, but they need users (it seems) to get the investment.

This is a fundamental question, of course: how do know which investments will be successful if you are looking at new ventures? As Cusumano’s list suggests, it’s possible to look closely at things like the business plan, the leadership team, the market and how well the new venture is positioned in it.

These other elements are important, to be sure.  But if the product is not compelling, even these will not be enough. So, what should we expect instead?

I advise designers to build their case from a social or communication perspective.  At the most fundamental level, show that people, regardless of the technology available to them, have a strong need for something or already have a strong interest in something. Be as specific as possible without (and this is most critical and the hardest part) slanting your observations toward what your new product provides.  The way you answer this question will set up the challenges you’ll have to address for growing your user base. The basic assumption operating in my advice (widely supported by research in many areas) is that most people (not the early adopters, not your friends and family) don’t go around looking for change.  We tend to stick with habits. We don’t like uncertainty.

If your idea lets people do something that they can already do reasonably well with other means of communicating (including using other products or services) concentrate on where is a low threshold for adoption.  Show how your idea will seem very similar to the user but will be valuable because it is more efficient, more accessible, less costly, more easily disseminated, etc.  I call this a converting idea. Think of Encarta which was successful for many years because it worked hard to look like an encyclopedia.

If your idea lets people do something different than what they can do now, it is better if what it does is let people do more of the same or what they do now “plus” something added on, rather than something completely new. Show how users can get all of the main functions they expect and they will be able to do something they couldn’t do otherwise. I call this an augmenting idea. Think of Wikipedia.  It didn’t do quite as good of a job as Encarta of looking like an encyclopedia, but it did offer very timely information on a much, much wider range of topics (those that might not have made the cut for Encarta).  It does well enough as a converting idea, but really shines as an augmenting idea (and lately has increased its focus back on converting–to better match our expectations of what an “encyclopedia” looks like).

The last type of idea is the transforming idea.  These are the ones that get designers most excited.  These will “change everything.” These will reinvent, reimagine, revision. And most of them will fail.   Those that don’t will need evangelists to change the way people think or other inducements (like organizational policies or new laws) that require them to change.  Remember the basic assumption: Most people, most of the time, avoid change.  If your idea requires the user to completely rethink the way they see something, most people won’t go to the effort.

Now, the nice thing about seeing all of these together is that there is a sweet spot to aim for.  Find the idea that can start as a converting idea, grow into an augmenting idea, and then finally prove itself to be a transforming idea.  Any fantastically successful idea will follow this path. Two examples:

  • facebook tapped into the social processes already adopted by college students, augmented that with novel ways of showing the information (but the information itself was still familiar), and finally has transformed our idea of what it means to be connected to one another.
  • Youtube was familiar to watching home movies or obscure cable channels, it just let us do that online. As content became more mainstream, it stayed familiar – like watching television.  Entrepreneurs saw the augmentation potential and began creating native content.  Now it has transformed our understanding of the broadcast landscape, with mainstream media integrating comments and feedback and youtube “programs” being produced for traditional television programming.

And this pattern is repeated over and over again among successful ventures. Compelling ideas tell a story that center on ordinary, typical, even mundane communication and social processes. They don’t need evangelists (though evangelists could help in accelerating change) and they don’t emphasize how cool the technology is (though indeed it might be).  Don’t worry though: because working and living with each other is still awfully complex, this still leaves lots of room for great ideas.

Cusumano, Michael. (2013, October). Technology strategy and management: Evaluating a startup venture. Communications of the ACM, p 26-28.

Real-time facial recognition and the end of obscurity

Google GlassObscurity, and our expectation of it, is a concept I haven’t thought about before.  We know that modern uses of technology bring a whole host of concerns about threats to privacy.  We also know that people can post comments or images online anonymously, and that they don’t always live up to our highest ideals for civic conversation (see, for example, the very recent reports of anonymous users posting horrible tweets and pins to Robin Williams’s daughter) .  Obscurity relates to these, but is a whole new angle.

We expect obscurity when we are in a crowd or wandering in a public place.  It’s not so much that we expect to be anonymous–though, technically, that is there too–as we expect to not be noticed.  We expect that pretty much everyone in this crowd or shared place –including ourselves — is happy to pass by everyone else without even registering who it is they pass.  Obscurity means that if I passed you on thecrowd street, I wouldn’t really notice it, and then someone were to stop me 10 feet later, I would be unable to even correctly guess the color of the shirt you are wearing. Google pops up these synonyms for obscurity: of the state of being unknown, inconspicuous, or unimportant. And that promise of obscurity is useful, it allows us to go to the grocery store, or the movies, or a concert, any of the other places of our daily lives without having to think about who might be recognizing us, or watching us.

When we are diligently (obsessively?) tagging ourselves and our friends in photos we post to facebook or twitter or google+ or instragram or whatever, and when governments and other institutions (like schools) create databases of photos, we are adding to a massive trove of information that experts are figuring out how to use in real-time facial recognition. Add this feature to Google Glass, and you can no longer expect obscurity, because the technology will have no problem registering and remembering and identifying every person it passes.  How will this change social expectations?  If Glass recognizes someone in a crowd before I do, will I be expected to stop and chat?  If Glass gives someone else information about me, can they pretend that we have met before, you know, at that BBQ at Doug and Shelia’s last summer?  This article raises the very really concerns for the lives of protected populations, such as victims of domestic abuse.

This is an interesting example of how technology brings to the surface expectations and assumptions we didn’t really know we had — or at least, that I hadn’t fully appreciated for myself.   I look forward to some comm research in this area.

Erica Klarreich, “Hello, My Name Is…: Facial Recognition and Privacy Concerns”, Communications of the ACM, August 2014, p. 17-19.

3D printing for a wearable Facebook?

Thought experiment: 3-D printing as information and communication technology

Recently, ASSETT invested in a 3-D printer. This device receives jobs from a computer, the same way as your typical laser or laser jet printer. But the jobs you send aren’t documents. Instead, they are instructions for exuding liquid plastic layer by layer into a 3 dimensional object. Other 3-D printers (3DP) can use other materials such as liquid metal or even granulated sugar.

Popular for some time in the corners of computer science focused on crafting, or “making.” There are special gatherings of these folks at events called “Maker Faires”, which brings together all things crafty. At my university, computer science professor and Maker Faire enthusiast Mike Eisenberg has enthused about 3-D printing for quite a while now.

We held off in ASSETT for a few years first, because the printers were very expensive and second, because we couldn’t really see many ways the technology could help A&S faculty improve teaching and learning. What a difference a few years makes — printer cost has decreased dramatically, and we have done our own investigation to discover courses that could be enriched by either faculty or students creating 3-dimensional objects. None of these were communication courses.

So, here is an interesting challenge for you: How (if at all) can 3-printers be a communication technology? Document printing replaced earlier means of putting information paper, and wide scale adoption altered communication and information flows and changed the way we both disseminate and store information. Printing ink on paper is easily a communication technology.

I don’t see 3-D printing replacing any current modes of communicating. This makes it more difficult to adopt, because we can’t just overlay our current perceptions and practices onto its use. Instead, 3DP will have to offer us something new–either by augmenting what we can do, or completely changing or transforming something in our worldview.

A fairly safe guess is that 3DP will change interaction and teamwork in design domains, or any domain that already has a building or making component. A little farther out there is a guess that it can augment relational communication, particularly at a distance. What if we develop material analogs to emoticons? Instead of sending someone a happy face, we send them to their desktop 3DP a command to print a smiley (or some new 3D equivalent)? OK, and here’s a stab at a transformational idea — what if we combine 3D printing with wearable computing, where we create custom components for devices or sensors that communicate with one another, and that aggregate that information into a dynamic set of data that in turn alters the information in the sensors as well as instructions for what to print. Like a wearable Facebook.

Keep an eye on this technology. Will be interesting to see what emerges.

Statutory damages and innovation

For the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with the Media Informatics program at Linnaeus University in Vaxjo Sweden. I have been a guest instructor in a course called Social Media Ecology. There’s lots I enjoy about this opportunity, including the chance to learn about what my innovative friend Marcelo Milrad is working on. But perhaps the most enriching for me both personally and intellectually, is working with students from across the world who represent many different disciplines–most of them technical, such as computer science or instructional technology design.

In this course, what I bring to the table is (not surprisingly) a perspective that teaches students how to put communication first when conceiving and designing a social media application. This is challenging for them (and I think challenging for most people) because it is the technology that stands out, and they want to change the way people do things. A Herculean or, perhaps, Sisyphean task. More on that in another post.

What brought this to mind just a few minutes ago was an article I finished reading in the July 2013 issue of Communications of the ACM, by Pamela Samuelson. She is explaining why statutory damages are so chilling for innovation in new media. The laws that govern how intermediaries (what I think of as those whose business models depend on using content generated elsewhere) can operate are not only strict, but also highly punitive. One adverse decision can bankrupt a startup instantly. As I work with students, I realize that I need to be mindful of this — yes, intellectually and hypothetically, we can think of lots of cool and interesting applications that repurpose data (content), but building one might cost you a fortune rather than making you one.