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Tuesday
Dec222009

A Post That Is Both An Epilogue and A Prologue

What it year it has been!  I'm sure that I was not the only one to have faced a tumultous twelve months, which included significant business and personal obstacles.   And what to make of our external environment?  There is always turmoil when a society faces not one, but several major reform plans simultaneously.  It hardly matters who was to blame; what matters is that for whatever reason, 2009 became the year where a "perfect storm" occurred, and with it exposed America's vulnerabilities in its economic, education and health care systems, to name a few.  This is a critical period in our nation's history, but again, a historian could easily argue that every era had its own set of major obstacles. 

Maybe the time of the American Revolution and shortly thereafter was the gravest moment in our history?  Maybe not.  What I would rather propose, is that it is times like these where we need great leaders to emerge, people who are not afraid to make mistakes, not afraid to try new things, yet have the charisma and leadership to create a movement and rally a very large group of people.  As the year winds down, and a new year is about to emerge, I can think of no more eloquent quotation than this redacted section of a letter than our founding mother, Abigail Adams, wrote to her son John Quincy (our 6th president), on January 12, 1780 on the eve of embarking on a long journey with his father (our 2nd president) to France to broker their alliance with the colonies in the struggle for freedom. 

"Some author, that I have met with, compares a judicious traveler to a river, that increases its stream the further it flows from its source ; or to certain springs, which, running through rich veins of minerals, improve their qualities as they pass along. It will be expected of you, my son, that, as you are favored with superior advantages under the instructive eye of a tender parent, your improvement should bear some proportion to your advantages. Nothing is wanting with you but attention, diligence, and steady application. Nature has not been deficient.

These are times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. Would Cicero have shone so distinguished an orator if he had not been roused, kindled, and inflamed by the tyranny of Catiline, Verres, and Mark Anthony? The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. All history will convince you of this, and that wisdom and penetration are the fruit of experience, not the lessons of retirement and leisure. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities, which would otherwise lie dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman. War, tyranny, and desolation are the scourges of the Almighty, and ought no doubt to be deprecated. Yet it is your lot, my son, to be an eyewitness of these calamities in your own native land, and, at the same time, to owe your existence among a people who have made a glorious defence of their invaded liberties, and who, aided by a generous and powerful ally, with the blessing of Heaven, will transmit this inheritance to ages yet unborn.

Nor ought it to be one of the least of your incitements towards exerting every power and faculty of your mind, that you have a parent who has taken so large and active a share in this contest, and discharged the trust reposed in him with so much satis faction as to be honored with the important embassy which at present calls him abroad.

The strict and inviolable regard you have ever paid to truth, gives me pleasing hopes that you will not swerve from her dictates, but add justice, fortitude, and every manly virtue which can adorn a good citizen, do honor to your country, and render your parents supremely happy, particularly your ever affectionate mother,"

A. A.

Monday
Dec072009

A Compelling Argument for Using Comic Books in the Classroom

I'm going use this blog post to bring awareness to a event I founded and recently put on with the help of a very talented and dedicated group of planning team colleagues.  TEDxPeachtree is an all-volunteer group devoted to developing and sharing the TED experience on a local level.  The event, which brings
together inspirational leaders, innovators, artists and entertainers in metropolitan Atlanta for a day of networking and sharing of ideas that shape our future, was held on December 4, 2009 at the Savannah College of Art and Design-Atlanta in the heart of midtown Atlanta. 

When I took out the license to organize a local TEDx event, my objective was simple:  bring a "TED-like" experience to the Atlanta community and expose the community to something they could not possibly imagine.  It was an incredible day, and all I did was plant the "seed."  My experiment in human nature showed unequivocally that a diverse of people who never met before could collaborate and build something truly special.  It was an honor to work with such a talent group of individuals.

One talk is very relevant to  this blog, and unexpectedly hit the radar screen of TED curator, Chris Anderson, to the best of my knowledge.  While all of our talks were given exteremely high marks, it was clear that this one found a special niche in the heart and minds of both the local TEDx community and the TED community as a whole.  Elizabeth Glibert talked about finding your creative genius, your "ole" moment, and Josh certainly had his on Friday.   The talk will be posted very soon, but he made a very compelling case for how comics does a far better job at teaching kids how to read.  When the talk is uploaded, I will let my resders know.  To read more about this very talented presenter, please check out his bio on our website and also his interesting nonprofit, Reading With Pictures.

I will expand on his excellent points soon, but one thing is crystal clear:  if we do not change our definitions of what is considered appropriate learning tools for the classroom, we will fail to close the global achievemetn gap, but most importantly, fail to prepare our children for a digitally-driven world.

Friday
Nov202009

More On Using Taxes To Spur Innovation

In my previous post, I personalized the elegantly-written letter that the President of Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute drafted on the topic of how to build an "innovation ecosystem."  I believe unequivocally that this thesis can be applied in large part fo a number of industries, and I wrapped it around a discussion about game-based learning and innovation in our education system.  I would like to spend this post focusing on one of the critical pieces that game-based learning and other educational technologies are lacking:  access to a healthy pipeline of investment capital.

I raised an idea that is not a new one by any means:  how to better leverage the mechanisms that the government has at its disposal in order to jumpstart this emerging ecosystem.  Using the government's resources for effectively would create incentives to spur more development of these critical learning tools, so that the economic system can be moved into equilibrium.  At present, there is an excess demand and little to no supply, and suppliers are discouraged due to immature funding models.  As previously mentioned, a healthy ecosystem needs more than just foundation/nonprofit and government grants to be "sustainable."

In an August 17, 2009 BusinessWeek article,  the case is made that the current tax code is outdated and has resulted in the United States having higher effective corporate tax rates compared to those of other nations.    How do we make the tax code more "internationally competitive"?  Allow businesses to capture most or ALL of the benefits of their investments in R&D, workforce training and new machinery and equipment, particularly IT.  I would also add early-stage businesses to this definition.   As quoted from the article:  "There is a new body of thinking, called "Innovation Economics," that is based on a view that economies differ by time and place and the only way to make effective policy is to pragmatically analyze each situation.  Market forces alone often do not produce optimal outcomes and that public policy, including tax policy, that corrects these mismatches can enhance societal welfare."

So how does the author suggest we use the tax code to provide such "innovation incentives"?  Congress should considering doing the following:

  • Expand the R&D tax credit by increasing the Alternative Simplified Credit rate from 14% to between 20% and 40%, depending on how much investments are increased.
  • Broaden the definiition of "qualified R&D" from beyond that involved in inventing a product to that involved in developing a production process.
  • Broaden the current flat credit for collaborative energy-related research to any area of research and expand the rate from 20% to 40%.

In addition, our system should encourage investment in new capital equipment, perhaps by allowing companies to write off investments in capital equipment in their first year instead of having to depreciate them over many years.  Further, by allowing employee-training expenditures to be counted as qualified expenditures for the Alternative Simplifed R&D Credit, it would result in creating higher-skilled workers.

I would take this even further.  As mentioned in my previous post, Congress should IMMEDIATELY provide incentives to angel investors and venture capitalists for investments in start up companies within certain industry boundries.  They must make the market for these investors, and once the profit incentives take root (when the industry forces right themselves), these incentives can be gradually rolled back. An interesting blog post by a venture capitalist from T2 Venture Capital a year ago called out the venture capitalists as an industry that thrives on "inefficient markets" because they can seize upon certain "arbitrage" situations that plague such markets.  As the author states, what policies will create a level playing field for all innovators, not just help the large players win bigger?"

Our system needs a healthy staple of risk-seeking capital, fearless entrepreneurs, skilled supporting professionals and a strong social network.  Just listen to experts like Michael Porter.  But most importantly, we need to celebrate and enhance risk-taking.  Successful leaders will tell you that you learn more from failures than successes.  We can NOT be afraid to fail.  It's worse to not try and to try anything.

So if the government wants our education system fixed, do more than just one $5 billion "Race To The Top Fund."  Change the playbook; in fact, maybe we should just blow it up and start from scratch.  Any reason why we still teach our kids in predominantly 30-40 minute class sessions.  A new colleague of mine, one of the architects of the Asia Society International School Studies Network ("ISSN"), uses 90 minute class sessions.  That may seem trivial, but its far from trivial.

 

Lets start changing the parameters of the playing field and create a fever pitch that our politicians need to hear.  Isn't that how our democracy is supposed to work?  Isn't that how we birthed the Declaration of Independence?  Make your opinion known, and let the viral nature of the Internet take over.

 

 

 

Wednesday
Oct282009

Building A Successful, Sustainable Education Industry Ecosystem

I have been thinking a great deal about education reform and the best way to do it.  I am not a prophet, but I am an experienced strategist, executive at Fortune 100 media companies,  and battle tested entrepreneur. 

While I have met many of the thought leaders in education reform, my particular area of interest is developing games that are fun, engaging and educational.  Research clearly demonstrates how games can lead to successful learning outcomes, and that it's time that this area be nurtured.  It is refreshng to hear educators talk about using learning tools that will "connect" with students.  We've also been saturated with talk about "21st Century Skills."  I too am guilty of using the term.  But how do you build an ecosystem of game-based learning products?  That is a topic I'd like to tee up peripherally today, and perhaps devote additional posts exploring a bit deeper.

 

A woman I met more than two years ago, Merrilea Mayo, is one of the smartest people I know.  She is also an avid gamer, and a PhD.  Her white papers on games and successful learning outcomes was one of the foundational pieces I absorbed when formulating my own vision for games and learning.  Recently, Merrilea asked me to peer review a white paper on Serious Games for K-12 and the challenges in scaling successful business models.  It got me thinking quite a bit - increase in demand but little supply.  What does that mean?

 

According to various academic sources, including an interesting letter that Shirley Jackson, President of Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute, presented to the Detroit Economic Club just recently called "Expediting Serendipity:  Building an Innovation Ecosystem."  Many of the elements can be applied to game-based learning products.  An innovation ecosystem depends on, as Ms. Jackson put it, "strategic focus, idea generation, translational pathways and financial, infrastructural and human capital."  ALL of these elements must be abundant and effective if such an ecosystem will be sustainable.    And an intricate set of relationships must be cultivated.  These include academia, industry, labor, the financial sector and government.

With the current state of game-based learning, we have academia and in small part, industry working together.  But here's what's missing:

  • a robust, diverse,  talent development system for game development
  • a large number of existing and emerging suppliers of such content (industry)
  • a financial sector that has not been actively investing in these companies due to legacy experiences with the challenging economics of investing in the education sector
  • a government system that has, up until recently, been slow to encourage, incent and evangelize these types of pedagogical tools.  The SBIR grant process is cumbersome, tedious, with long lead times and arguably unqualified reviewers evaluating grant applications. 

So to sum up, business models are challenging (as Merrilea correctly points out) because many critical elements remain unfavorable.  So how do you move forward?

Ms. Jackson at Renssalaer has some very salient points (I am referring to her points verbatim here) and I will add my comments in italics:

  1. As the education system, like the health care system, is an expression of our basic values, the federal government can take on multiple roles that can drive or influence innovation.  While the "Race To The Top" Fund is a start, they must also provide tax credits or other incentives for private companies developing such products.  A simple criteria can be establised to ensure the products meet some level of educational standard, and "educational" can be loosely defined.
  2. The government is the key decision-maker, policy-setter, investor, regulator, consumer, end-user and endorser across multiple fronts, and it must use both regulatory and incentive tools effectively. This is not meant to "overregulate," but to create a roadmap and put its full resources behind executing the roadmap.  The problem with the Education Stimulus bill is that the funds were allocated before a specific, actionable roadmap was made.  With all due respect to the honorable Education Secretary, the "four pillars" do not contain specifics about curriculum, assessment, teacher training, pedagogy, federal vs. state control, etc.
  3. States should be incentivized to fund research labs and talent development programs to ensure that human capital is abundant, and diverse.  The only way to change an industry that has been notoriously homogeneous is to align incentives with various metrics, one of which can be diversity (but not the only metric as I do not want to raise affirmative action issues).
  4. Not until venture capitalists see a path to signficant ROI will they begin to invest more than just a one-off experiment from time to time.  Perhaps in the short-term to spur investment and innovation, angel investors and venture capital firms can be offered subsidies or tax credits for investments in early-stage companies focusing on K-12 Education Technology, so this definition would be broader than simply game-based learning concepts.
  5. A robust innovation ecosystem requires translational pathways that bring discoveries into commercial, or societal use. One area Ms. Jackson propses is possibly granting universities an automatic exemption to patent law for the use of proprietary intellectural property in noncommercial research. This does not dilute the importance of intellectual property, but in certain instances, it absolutely appropriate to spur open-source collaboration amongst researchers. Policy-makers must cultivate new kinds of partnerships between industry, universities and nonprofits.  This is one of major shortcomings of the lack of robust venture capital communities in much of the United States with the exception of CA, MA and NY, and to a lesser extent, TX.
  6. Our innovation ecosystem may well require more early-stage government support for potentially transformative business concepts in this space.  We need Centers for Innovation Management which  which can offer expertise targeted by industry, and span across universities in any one geographic cluster.  These centers, some of which are already established in various cities, must foster connections between inventors, entrepreneurs and research facilities, established companies and markets around the globe.

 

There is more to emphasize here, but major kudos to Ms. Jackson for her logical, comprehensive set of criteria for not just helping rebuild Detroit, but that can build just about any ecosystem, including game-based learning products.

 

Sunday
Oct252009

Thanks To Educational Games Research

While I plan my next blog post, I wanted to formally express my gratitute to popular educational games blogger John Rice for his entry of October 10th that promoted this blog.  In the early days of my research of the games and learning niche, a number of thought leaders told me about John and his very thought-provoking blog.  To the best of my knowledge, John has one of the most well-known blogs in the ed tech sector, and he continually raises the questions that many are afraid to ask, or even respond to.

 

I do not make it a regular habit of carving out time to comment on other blogs, but I do read them regularly.  Video game addiction is one of those "Pandora's Box" questions that has unfairly mischaracterized video games due to the 80/20 rule.  The 20% (in this case far less than that) are overshadowing the value of the remaining 80%.  So I felt compelled to add my perspective and as a result, John and I have found some areas of common interest, and I look forward to cultivating this new relationship over the coming months (and years).

 

John's blog is certainly one to review if you are an educator, parent, student, or just someone who believes that games can be effectively used in the 21st century learning environment.