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Save the Cheerleader, Save the World

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March 01, 2013
General Information
Michael Schubach

Remember that promotional slogan?  It was from season one of the NBC television series, “Heroes,” which was about… well, I can’t actually say for certain what it was about.  I watched it and tried to know but remained steadfastly plot challenged.  Super heroes, corrupt government officials, time travel, cosmic interpersonal relationships – all of this created content so mystical that it defied the human attention span.  But in the end, what really resonated was the show’s catchy catchphrase that implied that one seemingly inconsequential gesture could yield profound results with an earth-shattering impact.  And so it is with technology.

This past year has been a hallmark for leveraged technology – using the means at hand in small ways to change the world – as distinct from simply pounding out a collection of shiny objects. (My latest shiny score, by the way, came Christmas when I received MusicLite, a remote-control light bulb that picks up your iPod® tunes from an RF transmitter so that you can hear music from any light fixture in your home or apartment.  In fact, you can install up to 72 MusicLites in a single dwelling, for those who aspire to their own leitmotif playing in every room in the mansion. Until Christmas, it had never dawned on me that I needed a singing light bulb but now I’m wondering how I lived without it. 

Back in real life, the first and best example of the use of leveraged technology from the past year is the re-election of President Obama.  There are any number of reasons that can be offered for the President’s victory, but the lynchpin cited by the campaign itself was the work of the data boys who made themselves into algorithmic overlords.  The Democratic data boys didn’t canvass the base and urge them to vote, which would be the political equivalent of a hotelier leveraging guest history to send a special offer to targeted guests. Instead they correlated data from disparate (seemingly insignificant) sources to identify those who might vote if approached correctly on individualized hot-button issues.  In essence, they used data analysis from any number of unrelated sources to make new voters from those who only had the propensity to vote.  This would be the political equivalent of a hotelier ignoring guest history in favor of a new, more interesting module called calculated guest futures. 

The algorithmic overlords themselves have an overlord, Mr. Nate Silver, a political analyst, New York Times blogger and undisputed master of big data correlation.  Mr. Silver wasn’t always undisputed, according to Ms. Jill Mahoney of Toronto’s, “The Globe and Mail,” Joe Scarborough (the host of “Morning Joe” on MSNBC) labeled Mr. Silver, “a joke,” for holding steadfastly to his prediction that Mr. Obama had a better than 70 percent chance of winning the election.  By Election Day, in what I can only hope was an act of defiant data retaliation, Mr. Silver revised his prediction to more than 90 percent.  When the dust had settled, big data, as one political analyst observed, “…was the absolute undoubted winner of this election.”  
But let’s not talk politics. Besides being an unfit topic for social intercourse, it only appeals to a maximum of 47 percent of us at any given time, plus or minus a 3 percent margin of error.  Instead, let’s talk about education, an arena with even greater save-the-world potential. Educational paradigms are in the process of being upended by your friend and ally, technology.  The way we’ve been teaching people has remained basically the same for the past several centuries, except that somewhere around 1957, the school A/V team was invented and rainy day movies were added so that junior and senior high school students could avoid dressing down for gym class in inclement weather.  This giant leap forward may have improved student health during the cold and flu season, but the unintended consequence was the dawn of sedentary video viewing. The real winner was Walt Disney’s “Beaver Valley,” a thoroughly forgettable nature documentary that made a fortune in recurring residuals in the cooler climate zones. 

The current educational process is a time-honored (a euphemism for antiquated) assembly-line model from the Industrial Age that uses an instructor teaching students who are segregated by age and taught in a many-to-one ratio within a set time frame (term, quarter, semester, academic year). Each day, the requisite amounts of wisdom are flung at the crowd and then the students retire to their respective kitchen tables in order to complete the homework that demonstrates their understanding and mastery of the subject.  Since the time-to-mastery is the constant, the actual level of subject mastery attained becomes the variable.  Students meet with widely varying degrees of success, leading us to the rise of a society of diploma holders who are not certain what the hell a diploma is.

I can speak firsthand to the lunacy inherent in this system.  Several years ago I was in an MBA program where we were basically sent home with a textbook and an assignment to teach ourselves statistics. We were to return to the next session to see if we had succeeded.  It was at that second session that I observed to the professor that if I were capable of teaching myself statistics at home in my spare time, I would have done so years earlier. I would also like to point out that the instructor in question, a professional educator with his Ph.D., wasn’t bright enough to teach me statistics in an entire semester, so why he thought I could do it myself was completely beyond me. 

Enter Salman Kahn, founder of the Kahn Academy.  What began as one man’s attempt to leverage YouTube to help him more comfortably tutor his cousins in mathematics has become a collection of more than 3,500 class titles commanding more than 200,000,000 views and a worldwide phenomenon. Recorded lectures are nothing new – during my undergraduate years, the University of California offered “Bio 20: Biology for Idiots and Liberal Arts Majors” in videotaped sessions.  However, in order to see those tapes, we had to present ourselves at the appropriate classrooms three days a week at 8:00 a.m. (That’s how we knew the class was designed primarily for idiots.) What is new is the virtual classroom with 24/7/365 access to the instructor and lesson content. YouTube has finally fulfilled its mission to be something other than a showcase for Diet Coke and Mentos explosions. Now the act of listening, which was the primary student activity in the old classroom model, has become the homework session. Demonstration of subject matter expertise and practical application has become the new classroom activity. This inverted model, Mr. Kahn’s accidental but brilliant idea, offers terrific new opportunities provided by applied technology, that same magic bullet that transformed the Industrial Age into the information era.

The old paradigm began to crumble when Mr. Kahn noticed that his student cousins preferred video delivery to live sessions because the YouTube classes were repeatable and schedule friendly.  Gone were the guilt, embarrassment and peer pressure that the more challenged students felt as they struggled with a new concept.  If at first you don’t succeed, play, play it again.  By making class duration the variable, the equation changes to make subject mastery the constant. Notice also that the differences in the student demography are minimized, and that inherent issues of age and gender discrimination vanish just as the brick-and-mortar walls did.  

Another way that technology is helping reform education is that the Web is eliminating distance, and therefore cost, from the quality proposition.  As Mr. Kahn points out in his new book, “The One World School House: Education Reimagined” (2012), in this model your study buddies can be in New York, Los Angeles, London, Johannesburg, Singapore and New Delhi all at the same time.  A collaborative international peer group working to make each team member smarter and more productive is one scenario that is replacing the local school study hall, just as the Internet replaced the 24-volume encyclopedia and the trip to the library.  Sure, there are those of us who are a little saddened by the decline of print media, but consider those who never had access to such resources in the first place. Consider further the benefits of a Harvard-caliber education being delivered to those who will never leave the confines of their own village or town.  Can we afford not to be making this change, as quickly as our society will bear the weight of the surprise?

People have a tendency to think of technology in terms of the devices they buy, but I prefer to think of it in terms of its underlying concepts, there to be bent and molded into practical solutions.  Leveraging technology is like working with Legos – using pieces of different sizes, shapes and colors to build something completely unexpected and greater than the sum of its parts. Just like Legos, leveraging the genius and interoperability of what already surrounds us is the perpetual promise of technology. It’s not the music and it’s not the lights – it’s the singing light bulb that brings us one step closer to the Jetsonian future that we humans deserve.

Michael Schubach is a regular contributor to Hospitality Upgrade and can be reached at Michaelschubach@me.com.

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