Four Tools For Building Cool Stuff Online: Or How To Start Thinking Outside The Box


I went to the Supercharge conference the other day in Wellington. This was a business conference… nothing to do with literacy, numeracy or even education (I know… thank goodness right…?)

Lots of cool stuff. The coolest though was the 40-minute presentation by Justin Wilcox of Customer Development Labs.

At the start of his presentation, he said that in the 40 minutes that he had to speak he was going to do the following:

  1. Come up with a product idea.
  2. Get some customer feedback.
  3. Build a website
  4. Launch the product

Considering that by the time he had said all this he only had about 35 minutes left I think we were all rather skeptical.

But he pulled it off. And these were the tools that he used:

1. Customer Discovery Ninja

Just this on its own was very cool to see in action. The Customer Discovery Ninja is a tool that allows you to connect to potential customers in North America. They sign up because they have time on their hands and get a small reward for participating.

Justin had decided that he wanted to create some kind of Fitness Tracking App, so he had selected various categories and subcategories in the Customer Discovery Ninja. And ended up with something relating to fitness, weight loss, and diet as the key areas.

From there, he opened the phone line and waited for the call. 10 minutes later someone connected and we listened to him interview a guy in New York who was struggling with diet and weight loss issues.

After a few minutes, it was clear that what this guy needed was not a fitness tracking app, but some kind of product that allowed him to track what was working when it came to diet.

So based on the dialogue, Justin switched away from his initial idea to the diet tracking idea. And then he had about 10 minutes left to do everything else.

2. Instapage

And this is mostly what he used: Instapage. Within about 2 minutes, he had built two landing pages for his new product. Instapage allows you to create web pages via drag and drop.

And then he  created an alternate version of the page so that you could do A/B testing. Instapage makes this really easy. I haven’t tried any of this yet, but based on the demo I think it’s all doable.

3. Powtoon

From here, Justin wanted to jazz up the landing page a bit with a short animated video. For this he used Powtoon. Powtoon advertises itself as an alternative to Powerpoint. It;s drag and drop like Powerpoint or Keynote, but you end up with a animation at the end.

So another 2 minutes to create a short animation. And then he imported this into the Instapage landing pages.

4. Celery

Finally, he wanted a button on the landing page to take pre-orders for the product. So he used Celery for this. Celery is very simple. It’s just a button for taking credit card information for pre-orders. Buyers don’t get charged until your product launches.

And then he launched it.

So Justin didn’t actually create the product, but he did something that was in line with the lean startup method: Come up with a minimal viable product idea and then see if anyone would buy it.

From here, he would be able to take pre-orders to fund the development of the actual product.

It was fast and dirty. But it was impressive.

Justin practises what he preaches as well. And you can have a look at his series of books on how to implement this kind of thinking at his website here: The Focus Framework.

This stuff is cool. I wish I knew this when I started in business. Talking to Justin afterwards, he said that everyone wishes the same thing. And that we all come to these conclusions late.

In my field, we tend to be good at what we do. But this is only in terms of our technical skills. We get professional development and training in these areas.

But we are often rubbish at the skills we need to use our technical skills to build and run a sustainable business. We don’t know how to make a buck… to put it in crude terms.

Most of all, I think we need this kind of thinking in education: Customer validation, lean startup methodology, designing a minimum viable product, product testing.

And then quickly pivoting when it’s obvious that something isn’t working. Unfortunately, the regulatory environment (both TEC and NZQA) act in ways that run counter to this kind of thinking.

This is not their fault. But it’s time to start thinking outside the box.

Really thinking outside the box.

What do entrepreneurs do that you could do if you work in education? Part 2: Self assessment

We ship widgets

In my last post I discussed some of the things that I’ve borrowed from entrepreneurial and design thinking. These have worked successfully for me and allowed me to gradually change how I think about my work and allowed me to survive and thrive in a chaotic and uncertain work environment.

Like I also said, this is what has worked for me. I think it could work for you as well, but you need to adapt what I’m saying here to your own context.

I want to do two things to take it a couple of steps further.

One is provide an informal way for you to assess how far down this track you might be yourself. And it’s fine if the answer is “not at all”.

The other is to illustrate what I’m discussing here with some examples of the kinds of resources, tools, and apps that I use. You can find more on this in Part 3.

So first of all, here’s a short self assessment exercise. It’s fine if you don’t know the answer to any or all questions.

Also, my context is education and training that is funded in some way – either though government funding, user pays funding, or some combination of both.

Short answers only please. You can write them in the comments section.

  1. Define “customer” in one sentence.
  2. Describe your particular customer(s) in five words or less.
  3. Define “business model” in one sentence.
  4. Describe your (or your organisation’s) business model in seven words or less.
  5. Define “iterate” in five words or less.
  6. When did you last brainstorm, prototype or iterate some component of your education or training work?
  7. What was it?
  8. What systems have you designed?
  9. What do you use to manage tasks? A task is anything you need to get done for your work.
  10. What do you use to manage projects? A project is any number of tasks you need to complete for a bigger purpose, e.g. enrolling a learner, teaching a course, designing a new resource
  11. List any cloud-based productivity tools you use?
  12. List any digital creative tools do you use?

I’m going to be discussing my answers to these questions in my workshop next week and I’ll post a follow up with answers shortly.

In the mean time, if you are unfamiliar with any of the terminology used in the eleven questions I and you’re interested in what I’m saying I suggest you get online and do some research.

5 Questions That Will Make You Uncomfortable If You Work In Education

It’s an uncomfortable business


Working in education is a tricky and often uncomfortable business. Especially if you want to get paid… And if you work in education sometimes even just using words like money and customers make you feel uncomfortable. You’d better click away now if you’re offended already.

The “Customer” is not a straightforward matter


Still, it gets worse, one part of the problem is trying to figure out who your actual customers are. And this might sound kind of strange, but it’s not a straightforward matter. And your main customer might not be who you think it is.

If you’re like me, you have different kinds of customers. All at the same time. These different kinds of customers often have different (and possibly contradictory) needs and expectations.

Paying versus value creation


So how do you figure out who these customers are? Well, you can start by asking these two questions:

1. Who’s paying?

2. Who are you creating the most value for?

You might not need to, but sometimes you may need to decide if your main customer is EITHER the person or organisation that you are creating the most value for, OR the one who is paying you the most. This can be important depending on what key deliverables are for your work.

The tension


There is not always a tension between who’s paying versus who you’re creating the most value for. But sometimes there is. People have different needs and wants. So, how will you deal with this? There’s only one answer:

  • Embrace the tension

The Money


One way to start thinking about this tension is to follow the money. Ask yourself the question again: Who’s paying?

If your education programme or training is mostly (or completed) funded or subsidised by a government department or similar agency then you better start thinking of them and treating them like a valued customer. Their investment is paying for or subsiding your delivery, outcomes, and probably ensuring that you can pay the rent.

There’s nothing like the promise of continued employment to incentivise your work…



However, there’s still the issue of value creation. One way of defining a customer is to determine who you are creating the most value for. Which of these groups are you creating the most value for?

  • The funding agency or other investors?
  • Your learners, i.e. the ones in front of you in the training environment?
  • Your learners’ employers?
  • Your learners’ learners, staff, or clients (if you’re working with tutors and trainers like we do)?

It’s complex


So… are your learners the ones allowing you to pay your bills and meet payroll? For us, it’s more like our learners (and their learners) are the combined end-users of the training that we deliver. They don’t pay, but we do create value for them.

Our customers then are actually a combination of our learners’ employers and a government funding agency (these two groups pay for the training together) as well as the learners themselves (who are non paying customers).

So… understanding who your customers are and getting paid in the education business is a bit more complex than just shipping widgets.

It’s seldom a simple business transaction. The main thing to realise is that organisations and government departments that fund education and training are like venture capital investors. And learners can be customers too, even if they are non-paying customers.



Finally, after you’ve figured out whatever complicated and often contradictory mixture of customers you’re attempting to create value for, you also need to ask these questions for each customer group:

3. What do they really want?

4. Are you really delivering the right results?

5. What’s the return on investment for each?

6. Who’s getting the best return on investment?

So, tar and feather me with the brush of economic reductionism… These last questions make me uncomfortable. But they’re great questions to keep asking.

Calling all Literacy Numeracy Professionals…


I’ve been turning this over in my mind for a while… I’m not sure whether there are so many opportunities for this, but having worked in such a narrow area of education since 2007 I feel that I’ve now got a fairly sharp lens through which to analyse certain kinds of training.

This is particularly for programmes that have (or are supposed to have) an embedded literacy and numeracy component. I was lucky enough to experiment with some of these ideas this week with one of my clients. 

I think that I’ve got the basics of a framework that I could apply in a whole range of situations and parts of this draw from the specific NCALNE (Voc) work that I’ve been doing over the years (and will continue to do).

There are several dimensions to this framework and they go something like this:

Evaluative Questions

This is the same idea behind the NZQA’s external evaluation and review (EER) approach, but my questions are much more specific to embedded literacy and numeracy. For example:

  1. Context: How are you contextualising this training to the needs of your learners? And how well are you contextualising it?
  2. Principles: What is the approach to embedded literacy and numeracy that underpins your design and delivery? What principles of adult teaching and learning underpin your training?
  3. Process: How are you embedding literacy and numeracy into all aspects of your design and delivery? What about with regards to needs analysis, diagnostic assessment, learning design, materials and resource design, training, assessment, and evaluation?
  4. Practices: What are the embedded literacy and numeracy practices that your trainers and tutors use and model? How explicit or visible are they? What are the embedded literacy and numeracy practices and observable behaviours that you expect to see in your learners? And what do you actually see and observe? 
  5. Product: How do you measure the success of the final output? For example, when the programme is complete what are the critical success factors that allow you to compare this programme against another? This includes business related factors (e.g. was this repeat business with a previously satisfied customer) or educational factors (e.g. learners scores improved significantly on the assessments.

I think that an organisation could use this framework to benchmark programmes internally. Currently, the tertiary environment doesn’t support or reward organisations for benchmarking externally. However, this kind of framework could be a start, and at least companies could customise the different dimensions to suit their own culture and context.

There’s one other part to this though…

A register of credentialed embedded literacy and numeracy trainers

Here I’m thinking of an external quality mark which has nothing to do with NZQA. I’ve written about this idea before. Basically, my idea would be as follows:

  • It’s voluntary.
  • It’s free or cheap to join.
  • You join as a trainer or tutor.
  • You have to meet some minimum criteria including NCALNE (Voc) credentials.
  • You have to be actively working to embed literacy and numeracy into some context.
  • You could join on a number of different tiers (working towards meeting the criteria, attaining the minimum criteria to register, and then exceeding the criteria because of extra work or study that relates).
  • You have to renew your membership yearly.
  • Organisations could join too, but only on the basis that they have tutors or trainers who have met the criteria. For example, a company or organisation with a full cohort of staff that meets the ALEC “Good Tutor” profile could then apply to join under this criteria. Or if not a whole organisation, then perhaps a particular department within an organisation.

This would allow tutors and trainers to benchmark themselves against others and some kind of recognised standard. And it would allow organisations to benchmark themselves against others. E.g. Organisation A has 10 tutors who all meet the Good Tutor profile in a particular academic year versus Organisation B who have 5 tutors who are working towards this as a goal.

Having data on which tutors and trainers see themselves as active in the field of embedded literacy and numeracy could also help us drive more effective and ongoing professional development as we’d have a database of engaged users to survey in terms of what they need to stay engaged and keep developing.

Would you join?


Keep calm and reduce churn: What will the new education business models look like?


Education researcher and blogger Damon Whitten posted an excellent analysis of the reasons for tutor churn in the tertiary sector on his blog the other day.

When I read it, something went ping in my brain. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I posted an immediate summary here and then an extended rant about the topic here.

Each time I started writing, I wanted to get to this idea of new business models. Each time I failed and got sidetracked on all the other things floating around in my head related to this.

Anyway… here’s the thing I wanted to get to. It amounts to a set of untested assumptions about the future of education and education business models:

  1. If we are going to address the tutor churn issue as well as a whole lot of other systemic issues in education we’re going to need some new education business models.
  2. These new business models will disrupt the existing system to an order of magnitude equivalent to the disruption experienced by the music and film industries in recent years.
  3. The rolling out of these new business models will mean that the existing institutions and the people they employ will either evolve or whither away.
  4. New institutions built around new business models will emerge and threaten the status quo.
  5. Government funding agencies will wield a double edged sword of requiring real, sustainable, and measurable education outcomes from learners on the one hand, and the continued drive for increasing cost efficiencies, on the other.
  6. The only way to continue to achieve increasing cost efficiencies in education will be to leverage educational technologies that use the internet’s ability to massively scale without massively increasing costs. Anyone’s business model will need to take this into account.
  7. The way forward will be patchy to start with, but it will effectively shift the focus of education (and power) away from institutions towards learners and… something. This something could be teachers. But it could also be teaching delivery platforms where learners engage with content. Or a combination of both. Whatever the scenario, the institutions will become less powerful (just like the record labels have).

I don’t have any apocalyptic end point or anything like that. In fact, I think that the outcome  for many learners is going to be better with increased choices over educational pathways. However, there will be losers. And the old business model may co-exist alongside the new ones for a long time.

So what can you do about all this?

There are several responses:

  1. Be the ostrich: this isn’t an option if you’re reading here. But for many people and organisations the default response will be to bury their heads in the sand.
  2. Watch and observe: At least if you’re self aware enough to notice what’s happening you can still just wait and see how it all pans out. But you need to be ready for the opportunities that may present themselves along the way.
  3. Upskill and or cross-skill: You will need a new skill set to survive. However, you don’t know what that is yet. Luckily this doesn’t matter. Just get involved in some kind of training anyway. Extend your expertise in the same area. Develop your expertise in a new area. It doesn’t matter. This is because the underpinning skill that you’re trying to develop is learning how to learn new stuff.
  4. Foster strategic partnerships in order to collaborate: This requires some serious thinking. Who can you work with where you can genuinely create wins for both parties? From an organisational perspective, this could involve partnering with a larger organisation who can subsidise your over heads in some way. E.g. would a corporate partner provide free or cheap rooms for your face-to-face training because of some benefit to them (like you’re training their people).
  5. Unpack how really effective online business models work. For example, have a look at how TradeMe, Spotify, or iTunes works… how do the transactions occur? How is value created? What is the revenue model?
    • In iTunes, music listeners purchase digital copies of the songs they like. The artist records this once, but can sell it again and again. iTunes takes a cut. Could you produce digital education products that would qualify for a portion of the government’s education spend?
    • With Spotify, it’s a subscription model. Would anyone subscribe to your teaching? Could you run an education business on a subscription model? This business model certainly works for your mobile phone provider.
  6. Experiment with online education and assessment platforms. There are a lot of different ways of doing education online. Many of the tools to do this are free or cheap now, e.g. YouTube. Have a look at what others are doing, like Sal Khan at the Kahn Academy.  Or check out Pathways Awarua – the fantastic home grown NZ online platform we used to get our NCALNE (Voc) training online as part of a strategic partnership and collaboration. There are plenty of other platforms out there that you can play with – either as a learner or a developer.
  7. Look for better ways of quality assuring tutors and organisations. I’ve been thinking about this one for several years. I would not like to be responsible for adding to the already large burden on tutors. However, I know from my professional development work with hundreds of tutors over the past 10 years that it is possible to identify the kind of profile that a better tutor is likely to have. I written about this before here, here, and here with regards to the kinds of tutors that we work with. A logical extension of this would be to set up a voluntary, opt in, registration for foundations tutors along these lines. The ones who meet (or are working towards) the criteria could gain a tutor-specific quality mark. Where an organisation could show all the tutors met the profile, the organisation could also gain the quality mark. This would give tutors higher status if they are career tutors with more experience and better qualifications. Something like this is an inevitable development given our current trajectory. It’s just a matter of who does it and how well.

Dealing with tutor churn in tertiary organisations: What we need is new business models…

churn 2

Colleague and fellow education blogger Damon Whitten posted a great analysis of what is possibly one of the key issues facing foundation level tertiary education: the churn factor. I wrote a brief summary here

In short, lots of tutors leave their jobs (and possibly their teaching careers) before they have a chance to really come to grips with any or all of classroom management, content knowledge, and how to teach.

The reasons why tutors leave aren’t highly complex. You can read why in Damon’s original post. Likewise, the solutions possibly aren’t that complex either. For example, as a tutor do you feel appreciated? As a manager or owner, do you appreciate your staff?

That’s not to say that the situations that tutors and organisations find themselves in aren’t complex… I know they are. Anyone who has been through the NZQA external evaluation and review process knows how complex the internal workings of private and public training organisations can be.

One of the things that really resonated with me Damon’s comment that tough (tougher) times are possibly coming and what we need to be doing is looking for different ways of doing education. Here’s Damon:

The pressure will be coming on soon for PTEs to produce ‘real’ learning outcomes.  There is a cull coming (we have already seen the start of it) and those organisations that don’t begin the transition to become real education organisations will not make the grade.  Mastering the art of moving learners through Unit standards will not be preparation for the next wave.  Those credits will have to reflect authentic skills development. That means if you re-assess any learner in 6 months they should easily pass the assessment.  Ask yourself, what if you reassessed all your learners right now on the units they have passed, with no teaching or support, would they easily pass the units?

We need professional tutors, who want to do this for a career.  This may require an entirely different business model in order for current funding streams to make this possible.

Now… there’s a whole big discussion to have on the first part of this:

  1. How are we going to teach and train in a way that really does prepare learners for the future?
  2. How can we address the current problems of learner assessment around unit standards?
  3. How reliable are our assessors?
  4. Are our current methods of assessing educational standards valid?
  5. Is it the system as a whole or are the weakest links in the system causing it to break down?
  6. If a learner has passed their NCEA level 1 literacy and numeracy unit standards but they can’t score above steps 4 and 5 on the TEC’s assessment tool for these skill areas… then what does this mean?

I don’t have the answers for these questions, but it certainly gets me thinking. However, its the second part of Damon’s quote that really interests me. To paraphrase:

  • Do we need totally new business models in education in order to effect the kind of change that we need in order to stop the churn (and address a whole bunch of other systemic issues)?

I think we do. And I’d add to this the following: funding agencies and business owners will not sacrifice their drive for further efficiencies in education either. 

In other words, not only are we all going to have to step up and become “real” educators working in “real” education providers delivering “real outcomes”, we are going to have to do this in an environment that will become increasingly constrained in terms of financial input.

This is means educational disruption on a scale that we haven’t seen yet.

Try this as a thought experiment:

  1. Remember how you used to consume music (e.g. radio, cassettes, records, CDs).
  2. Now think about how you consume music today (e.g. MP3s, iTunes, YouTube, Pandora, Spotify).
  3. Then think about this transition, how long it took, and the effect it had on the music industry (e.g. on record companies, CD manufacturing plants, promoters, artists, bands).
  4. Now substitute education for music. In other words, think about how we consume education today (and for the last 200 years).
  5. Then try to imagine how we will leverage technology to experience and consume (yes consume) education in 12 months, 5 years, 10 years.
  6. And think about the effect of this transition on the education sector (universities, polytechs, private providers, owners, managers, teachers, tutors, trainers, learners).

Pause and let that sink in for a while… If you’re not convinced do the same thought experiment with film. Or any kind of media.

The business model for iTunes didn’t exist until Steve Jobs and Apple invented it in 2001. It was an inevitable development that followed on from the invention of portable MP3 players, which in turn took over from the Discman, and the Walkman, and the personal cassette player, and before the record player, and the radio…

I’m with Damon. What we need is to invent new business models for education. What will these look like? Well.. we don’t know, because we haven’t invented them yet.






Churn: Dealing with the chronic turnover of tutors and trainers in the education sector


The tutors are revolting…!

Well.. they’re not actually revolting, but they do keep leaving. This is a major problem for the tertiary education sector including private and public.

Maths and education blogger Damon Whitten has absolutely nailed this issue in his most recent post. Here’s the skinny:

  1. There are some great things happening in the entry levels of the post high school tertiary training environment.
  2. However, we have some massive systemic issues that continue to limit anyone’s success here, whether education providers or their learners.
  3. One issue is the high turnover of tutors and trainers.
  4. This is compounded by poor organisational management in organisations which means that accumulated knowledge and professional development walks out of the door when these tutors leave.

Here’s what I found really interesting: Damon cites research that says that it takes around four years for new tutors to learn each of these:

  • classroom management;
  • the actual content they are supposed to teach;
  • and how to teach…

In that order. This should leave us gobsmacked… That means that a tutor will really start to hit her stride in about the 12th year of teaching

I’d really encourage you to read the entire article as Damon also tackles the following questions.

  1. Why do tutors leave?
  2. What are some possible solutions to dealing with tutor churn?
  3. What lies ahead in the future?

These are critical questions moving forward. They are also key questions if you are involved in managing a tertiary organisation, (or worse, like me) own one, or are one of the hard working, under appreciated tutors thinking about leaving.

Comments to Damon’s blog if you want to argue about this!