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.

7 More Trends In Education That Will Disrupt Our Work as Teachers


A while ago I wrote about 7 trends in education that will disrupt our work as teachers. Here are 7 more. There is some crossover between them. But 18 months is a long time in internet years and the situation in education is changing.

1. Consolidation

In New Zealand, there is a good trade in private training establishments (PTEs). Well, recently anyway. There is also a trend for public training providers to merge (at least the smaller ones). One of the organisations buying up PTEs is now a publicly traded company listed on the NZX.

It’s economics that motivates these sales, acquisitions and mergers. And hey, if you’re reading this and you’ve got the budget, then feel free to make me an offer…

Times are tough for some education providers. We are all expected to do more and more with less and less. The hidden side to consolidation is closure. Education providers will close if they can’t make a profit, sell, merge, or otherwise pivot. This includes non profit organisations.

2. Offshoring and outsourcing

Here’s how to do it. Develop and or buy a mix of face-to-face, blended, and online education products. Decentralise your training. Centralise your back office. Shift this back office (or most of it) to a cheaper offshore location. Others could handle customer service, compliance, accounts, administration, etc. In a completely different location. Like Manilla, for example.

Teachers and trainers could also be offshored and outsourced. This is harder though, especially if you’re funded to deliver training locally. But, there are ways of meeting this halfway. One way is to use a flipped classroom method or similar, with classroom based coaches and tutors.

3. Complexity

The education bureaucracy runs on rules related to compliance and funding. These rules become increasing more complex. This is just the nature of things. Compliance is a kind of taxation and inflation. Despite a few fluctuations, it always increases over time. This means that if you can navigate the complexity you can survive and thrive.

If you need someone to navigate this for you then you will always find yourself lower down the food chain. This complexity exists in all domains. So, it’s possible to learn the rules in one domain, but not understand them in another.

These rule systems are algorithms. And we should expect their administration to become computer driven and automated. This is why administrators and middle managers are being fired out of all bureaucracies.

4. Opacity

This is related to complexity. Humans are complex. So are bureaucracies as they comprise of humans (mostly anyway). Technology increases the interdependence of the parts in a system. And this increases complexity inside a system.

The 21st century education-compliance-funding-technology bureaucracy is a complex and bewildering beast. The increased complexity in the system makes it harder and harder to see the causes for the problems that we’re funded or paid to mitigate. This is opacity.

For example, in the field of adult literacy and numeracy education, the causes for low levels of adult literacy and numeracy are opaque. It’s hard to see what’s behind poor student performance. It’s a whole ecology of issues and it now seems impossible to separate these out with any coherence.

This is not a problem in practical terms as we can still see the effects and stage various interventions. But, discussion around causes (however interesting) starts to lose it’s meaning and value.

5. Automation

I’ve already written about the self driving car as a metaphor for 21st century educationMOOCs are another part of this experiment. I’ve written about our own experiments with this  including unbundling our training, how to improve MOOCs by embedding foundation learning. I’ve also done a podcast about it here.

But, automating education is fraught with difficulties. As it should be. Embarking on a course, doing a qualification, or even just learning a new skill is not the same as doing an online banking transaction.  Or watching cat videos on YouTube.

There are two barriers to automating education. One is that most of the automation models fail to have any real business model attached to them. In other words, they open source all the knowledge for free. This means that the perceived value goes down.

Participants often fail to complete since they have no skin in the game (e.g. money or other form of accountability).

Our solution to this problem is to lock up most of the assessments and the credentialing process, while keeping the content side open. So MOOC for us = “Mostly” Open Online Course instead of “Massively”.

The other problem relates to the need for human intervention in the learning process. People need coaching by people.

You can substitute videos and clever online interactions, but at the end of the day people want someone to tell them to do something, that they’re on the right track, and to answer questions and provide encouragement. Our solution has been to do this by txt, phone, and email.

As I’ve alluded to, automation of the complex rule systems that drive the funding and compliance machinery should be straightforward. I’m not passing judgement here. But in a system administrated by machines there is little room for fuzzy decision making, risk taking, or innovation. This means that innovation in education needs to come from outside of the existing funding and compliance structures.

6. Fatigue

Continual restructuring, closures, mergers, complexity, opacity, and increasing risk for those in education mean that people get tired. Particularly smaller players.

The education system is in danger of creating a kind of educational chronic fatigue syndrome where the troops on the ground are chronically fatigued due to overwork and the continual threat of job loss. Not to mention other pressures such as maintaining student numbers.

7. Risk

Education is a multi-billion dollar industry. Because of this investors including government, want to see a return on their investment. All investors want to get their money (or value) out as soon as possible. This is a rule.

This leads to short term solutions that fail to take into account the bigger picture. For example, are poor student outcomes a reflection of the larger national or even global economic success and failure cycles? Do these then impact on family situations, jobs, health, and other variables?

Risk is now shared all the way down through the system. Perhaps this is as it should be. I don’t know. But, it seems short sighted.

Organisations and people who are over-exposed to risk in the system will work to mitigate that risk once they are aware of it.

There are two parts here. One part relates to awareness. Education providers are only just starting to wake up to the inherent risks involved in having skin in the education game.

The other part relates to mitigating the risk. Managing the upside against the potential downside, for instance. It doesn’t make economic sense to have a million dollars in revenue if you are spending it all to stay afloat.

How to survive and thrive…?

I don’t have a solution. I do think there are some broad principles that apply. But, you’ll have to wait for another post.

4 Things I Can Do to Become Antifragile in Education


Nassem Taleb is an expert on risk and probability and he recommends in his latest book that we become less fragile, more robust, and actually antifragile.

This is more than just Sissy Resilience… and this means that when the stuff hits the fan you actually bounce back stronger than before, and actually made stronger by the disorder around you.

Education is fragile. And working in education opens you, your career, your mortgage up to all kinds of fragility by implication. This is bad.

Education, of course, is good. But if we want to survive as educators in this increasingly fragile landscape we need to embrace the fact that it’s fraught with risks and randomness of all kinds.

And we need to do things to mitigate the risks to ourselves and our businesses where we can.

One of the lessons from Taleb’s Antifragile for me seems to be that rather than avoiding things like risk, uncertainty and variability we should be embracing them. And in fact, seeking them out.

With that in mind, here’s my take on 4 things I can do in education and in my work that hopefully increase my ability to be really resilient by intentionally playing around with risk, randomness, uncertainty, and variability.

I’m not saying that they’ll work for you… but if they work for me I’ll let you know.

1. Disrupt my education business model


The idea here is that either I can wait for someone to disrupt my work or I can disrupt it myself and maintain some slight control (even if it’s illusory) over the disruptive factors.

Our education business models are pretty much a last century paradigm. Mostly the old-school business model goes something like this:

  • Someone pays a fee + I deliver training. I might possibly award some kind of credential if the stakes are a bit higher.

Leaving aside the problems with our current models of education, let’s focus on messing with the business model.

My real business model is the unique package of things that allows me to sell education and training and generate revenue. This would still hold true even if I worked for a non-profit or charitable organisation.

But consider the new business models though… They’re online. They require people to transact online. That either means a shopping cart or a subscription-based approach.

Bothered by that…? Me too. But disturbing thoughts like these have been nagging at me for awhile. It’s time to do something about it.

If you’re curious about business models Alex Osterwalder’s book really helped clear things up for me in term of what a business model is and gives some great examples. There’s also an iPad app you can play around with.

2. Open source my expertise and knowledge


Am I the only one who has noticed that the world I live in is radically different to the one I grew up in, even the world I started working in…?

Everything is being disrupted and education isn’t any exception. Aside from firing middle management and cutting dead wood, I think we’re going to see changes everywhere in education resulting in education products for learners that are cheaper, faster, smarter, and more convenient.

What’s more, as we move forward, education will most likely become open sourced, and possibly crowd sourced. This will come at a cost, of course. Some of us won’t survive.

But one of the things that has changed for certain in my mind is that there is no longer a competitive advantage in sitting on any kind of “secret sauce”. The new secret sauce is open source.

And that has implications for my job. And my expertise. What I know and can do is not just information, but a big chunk of it probably is. And that information really wants to make itself freely available to others. This is just the nature of the web.

And the thing is, if I don’t open source what I know, then someone else will do it for me. Either they know they same stuff and they’ll open source that, or they’ll just upload what they’ve learned off me.

So I need to do it first. That’s why I’ve open sourced what I know about our approach to embedding literacy and numeracy via Pathways Awarua and through making our course content freely available to everyone.

Doing nothing is not an option. In fact, doing nothing while everyone and everything around you moves forward is pretty much the same as going backwards.

3. Design the way I want to work


I think that another part of the solution is to design the way that I want to work. For me this means:

  • treating everything as a project
  • working on these projects with a small agile team
  • being mobile and “always on” (except when I switch everything off)
  • working from home (or anywhere)
  • having a team that is geographically dispersed,
  • and mostly ignoring conventional establishment wisdom relating to what I do.

To expand on these, everything in education can be a project. This includes training, resource development, writing and publishing, and running conferences. If I make everything a project then I can project manage. I use Basecamp for this.

“Always on” means that I can work on my projects anywhere. Most of my work is written on laptops and devices in various cities and towns in New Zealand. I now use cloud-based applications almost exclusively for this including Google Docs, WordPress and Evernote. I also use Dropbox and Google Drive to manage it all.

4. Look for new ways to do the same stuff


Another part of the solution for me is to do education and training in new ways that meet the needs and demands of 21st century work and life. This is where expertise needs to collide with new opportunities and disruptive technologies.

And this is hard because it means I have to learn new stuff. And sometimes things don’t work out.

I’m not quite sure where to go with this in all honesty, but something that I’ve done intentionally is to mess around with different online platforms used for authoring education and training materials. I’ve tried a bunch of them, but the one that stuck was the Bracken platform that we used to write up our course and assessment modules.

Authoring software is kind of tricky… and it’s time consuming to learn how to use… but something that is a whole lot simpler and still incredibly disruptive is video and audio. The incredible success of Kahn Academy continues to testify to the disruptive power of video.

I’m hoping to make this year the year I really get serious about capturing much more of our training, resources, knowledge, and expertise via niche audio and video content.

What have I missed? What do you have planned for 2015 that is going to make you stronger, more resilient, resistant to risk, and ultimately more antifragile?


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.

Change in some foundation-level tutor qualification requirements: NCALNE (Voc) Requirement from 2015


The TEC announced recently that from 2015 the NCALNE (Voc) qualification and training will be a requirement for some tutors. Here’s the announcement in full:

Beginning in 2015, the TEC will be transitioning to requiring tutors who teach foundation-level courses to hold an appropriate qualification, such as the National Certificate in Adult Literacy and Numeracy Education (Vocational/Workplace) which is known as NCALNE (Voc).

The requirement will only apply to the following funds for 2015:

  • Student Achievement Component (SAC) levels 1 and 2 (competitive and non-competitive, including the Māori and Pasifika Trades Training initiative)
  • Literacy and numeracy provision (Intensive Literacy and Numeracy, as well as Workplace Literacy).

It will not be required for foundation-level courses for:

  • SAC levels 3+
  • Youth Guarantee
  • Adult and Community Education
  • Gateway.

In the future, achievement of the NCALNE (Voc) qualification may be required for other funds.

What this change means for providers and tutors

For 2015 a transitional approach will be taken. Providers should be working with individual tutors to confirm one of the following:

  • the NCALNE (Voc) qualification has already been achieved
  • the tutor is in the process of achieving the NCALNE (Voc) qualification
  • the tutor can demonstrate competency in teaching literacy and numeracy in a way that is comparable to achieving the NCALNE (Voc) qualification. Note this option must be on a case-by-case basis and should be discussed with the TEC in advance. This option will be phased out by December 2015 (at the end of the transition period).

In October 2014, we will publish a list of which qualifications that have learning progressions and use the Assessment Tool will be exempted from the NCALNE (Voc) requirement.

A set of questions and answers has been developed to provide additional information.

More information will be made available on the TEC website in mid-October 2014 to assist tutors and providers with preparing for the 2015 transition.

MOOC 2.0 – Why the future of online learning is about embedding foundational literacy, numeracy, and learning-to-learn skills


If you work in education or you’re just interested in education you’ve probably been following the developments of MOOCs – Massively Open Online Courses.

Debate around the MOOCs tends to be polarised. I’m always interested in anything in education that creates such strong emotional responses regardless of which side of the fence you tend to sit on (bilingual education is another good example).

I follow Wired magazine online as they often report on interesting things that are happening regarding the intersection of technology, education, and design – which is really where I see myself working as well.

The other day, they posted an interesting article about Anant Agarwal, one of the founding fathers of online university education. Agarwal is an MIT computer science professor and the CEO of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based non-profit, edX.

The MIT edX is it’s own thing, but they also supply their platform as open source code which is being used by a lot of other universities and organisations around the globe.

Agarwal is aware of the criticisms around MOOCs. Some of these criticisms include, for example:

  1. How effective is computer mediated versus classroom teaching?
  2. Why do MOOCs suffer from low completion rates?
  3. How do you develop a sustainable business model around “free” content?

In any case, Agarwal is convinced that we are on the cusp of what he’s calling MOOC 2.0.

In simple terms, what we’ve been working with in terms of online learning is essentially a first generation product. What we’re moving into will be the next iteration of open online learning. Imagine if Steve Jobs had given up on version 1 of the iPhone because it had a clunky operating system or a limited set of features that didn’t work as well as he’d envisaged.

In the closing words of the article: “To judge a breakthrough technology by only its earliest flaws is to ignore all the good it might do when given the time and the trust to do it.”

So welcome to MOOC 2.0…!

This got me thinking about our own mini MOOC – which is more of a “mostly open online course” – and where I think the future of MOOCs and online learning needs to go.

Which is the following:

  • Embed foundational literacy, numeracy, and learning-to-learn skills into all MOOCs and other forms of online learning.

Since 2007 in New Zealand, we’ve been developing and working with a specific set of skills and practises around how vocational and trades tutors can embed literacy and numeracy into their training.

I think that this same model can be applied to online learning of all kinds. My hypothesis is something like this:

  • We will see an increase in learner uptake of content knowledge as well as course retention and completion if we embed foundational literacy, numeracy, and learning-to-learn skills into online content-based courses at the level of the learners.

My comments here apply to academic courses as well as more practically-based trades and vocational training.

The embedded approach works great with carpenters and hairdressers, but let’s try it with academics as well.

  • Why should learners in an academic pathway struggle with their work just because the professors assume they come to the learning with a pre-existing set of foundational skills?

We know these learners usually don’t have these skills, but often we get bogged down in not wanting to be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. It’s time to get over that and teach people what they need to know in order to learn what they need to know.

And we have a good model in place that suggests we can do both at the same time. This means it’s efficient and a value for money investment.

I think that the embedding model, which involves an explicit focus on the underpinning literacy and numeracy skills and content that learners need in the contexts that they are learning, could be the key to unlocking huge growth in online education.

I’m not just talking about learners taking courses on learning how to learn. What I’m talking about here is key principles and practices from the world of embedded literacy and numeracy directly applied to the design of all kinds of content-based learning, and in particular via online media of every kind.

By building and developing foundation level skills in a multitude of contexts and for the wides range of content we would be fostering life long learning both online and offline.

What would this look like in practice? I’m glad you asked… that’s what I want to explore moving forward. And that’s what I think we could export to a global market.

Any thoughts…? Hit that comment button…

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?