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Five Questions With an Innovator: Nikhil Goyal

Nikhil Goyal

Nikhil Goyal is an international speaker and the author of “One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School”.  He is currently penning his second book, scheduled for release next year. Goyal’s work has appeared in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, he was selected as a member of Forbes 30 under 30, won the 2013 Freedom Flame Award, which counts Martin Luther King Jr. as a past recipient, and was called the “future Secretary of Education” by Diane Ravitch, the former Assistant Secretary of Education, and the Washington Post last year. He is also 17. We had the opportunity to ask Goyal a few questions for the inaugural edition of our new interview series, Five Questions With.

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Tablets in Grade School: Why Apple Should Launch a Smaller iPad

Let’s get one thing perfectly clear from the beginning—despite speculation and rumors to the contrary, Apple could not have released a smaller iPad this year. The iPad line is still too new for Apple to split it in half and keep profits high. The production of a smaller tablet would have required that Apple retool their entire supply chain and give up tremendous economies of scale, sacrificing high margins to produce a new product that would cannibalize sales of the ten inch iPad.

But next year is a different year. By then the iPad will have reached its fourth birthday and competition from mobile phone and laptop vendors will be at a fever pitch. Window 8 will be on store shelves and Android 5.0 Jelly Bean will have been made available to vendors. Amazon’s second or third Kindle Fire will be up for sale, likely alongside a larger sibling, and Samsung will have had a chance to refine their tablet offerings and create a truly compelling S Pen. Much of the field will, like it already does, rely on smaller form factor tablets to clearly differentiate themselves from the new iPad. The launch of an Apple branded Lilliputian tablet would squash the development of Android market share while heading off a resurgence of the Microsoft brand. Small tablets are the most successful iPad challengers, but a smaller Apple tablet could easily destroy its burgeoning rivals.

Nevertheless, competitor offerings alone are not enough to justify a bifurcation of the iPad form factor. Apple is not a company that releases products just to be in the same space as other manufacturers. Apple never released a netbook, they pulled out of printers when they were most profitable, and they never made a serious play for the enterprise. Apple’s astounding success has come from it’s uncanny ability to see opportunity in the failings of other technology companies and respond to them with original hardware coupled to wonderful software. The iPad was a response to Microsoft’s attempts to slam Windows into a new market, the iPod was a response to terrible music players, the iPhone was a reply to crappy smartphones, and the MacBook Air was a rebuttal of Atom powered netbooks. Apple only introduces a new gizmo when it is absolutely certain it can innovate successfully while growing its share of the industry’s profits. Apple has already answered the call for a computer platform that moves beyond the PC; simply making it smaller would seem to do little to address an unmet market need.

But Apple has already told Wall Street what need it wants to meet. The education business is based on decaying models ripe for real disruption, and Apple wants to be the agent of change. In January, Apple held a large press conference for what seemed to be a relatively minor announcement—an iTunes category for textbooks, a WYSIWYG e-book creator, and a new version of iBooks. The products unveiled were not especially important, but Apple’s articulation of its vision for the future was. Tim Cook wants Apple to be the dominant player in classroom technology. The iPad, Apple’s post-PC success darling, was the star of the show. Students were shown flipping through pages of text, looking at diagrams, and playing videos without ever having to turn on a Mac or open a book. What was a little strange, though, was the age of the students Apple used to showcase its products. Apple chose not focus on colleges, or even high schools, where the high price of textbooks makes iBooks an easy sell and an obvious fit. Instead, Apple decided to pitch iBooks for grade schools and middle schools, and did its best to show how iPads for all could change the face of the primary schoolhouse.

The problem Apple failed to acknowledge at the event was not one of software, but of hardware. Children love using iPads, but its size gets in the way. When adults and teenagers hold an iPad, or any other ten inch tablet, there’s an easy intimacy that defines the relationship. The iPad strikes a wonderful balance between a larger screen size, better for productivity, and a smaller size that’s easier to handle and carry around. When you give a smaller child an iPad that careful balance is immediately disrupted. An awkwardness is present that is never seen when adults play with a tablet. Children’s iPads are left propped up or prone, they are almost never held in the hands for extended periods of time. The iPad’s 9.7 inches, so perfect for adults, are just too much for kids. If Apple is as serious about selling iPads to schools as they say they are they will need to introduce a miniature tablet, one small enough to not intimidate younger learners or interfere with their digital education. With the iPad 2 and iBooks they already have the price point and the software, now all they need is the form factor.

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#Edtech and #Edreform: It’s About Communities, Not Bureaucrats

We are social animals. You don’t need another blog post telling you that.

But what you might need is a little information about how #edreform is becoming more social. It is younger, tech savvy, and, ironically, it is not entirely concerned with ed reform.

I found this out when I stepped off the plane in Seattle after a five hour flight from New York and met Gregg Alpert, who is the new Developer Evangelist at Pearson’s Future Technologies Group.

Gregg had seen me check-in on Foursquare, which I had broadcast on Twitter. He sent me a Tweet asking if I wanted to meet up. We did.

This is what education is becoming. If there is no “market” for education entrepreneurs, there is a community and because it is a community, people feel comfortable meeting people who would normally be perfect strangers.

We met at the gate for his San Francisco flight, shook hands, and then sat down while I ate a burger and drank some water before my connecting flight.

Themes discussed: what is the education tech market; what are community managers like me and him doing with education and technology communities; learning how to code at Codeacademy; mutual friends; the new hubs in education technology (NYC is definitely getting bigger); my history and my theory that the baby-boomers who were trying to jump start the education reform bus are probably not going to be the ones who create the change, though they might have sparked the conversation.

The last point is important. Because a certain generation my age and younger works on the web, their conversation is actually more than just talk and relationships with politicians. It’s proactive, active talk. Talking forms communities, exposes new technologies, creates hackathons, and unites people who would simply be out of reach if they worked or lived in the system the baby boomers think they are trying to change.

Innovators come from outside of the system.

The current ed reform movement, pre-X-Generation and pre-Y-Generation, is still inside the system. Baby Boomers are just aligning themselves for new power and control, mimicking the system that they came from.

Their “change” is not change. It’s the spark of change, certainly. There are great rhetoricians here. There are people who have their hands on the levers of budgetary power, political control and relationships.


The real change is going to happen on platforms and it will be “consumer-driven.” Those consumers are students, communities, and teachers. They are not, in most cases, people who have branded themselves as education reform Leaders.

Why? Because it is on platforms that learning and community organization will begin, and it is on platforms, and through platforms that people come together.

It’s not about finding new leaders in the same system and changing it. It’s about activating the platforms and the communities that are already coming together outside of the system.

UdemySkillshare; Khan Academy (to name a few): they are more than just disruption makers in the evolving education vertical; they are more than just platforms that enable people to learn and to teach. They are really the platforms on which mini-societies will be built. They will be micro-communities and much more.

Since platforms mix and mash up people from different communities offline, these new education platforms will completely flip on their heads not only the district model for K12 and all the trappings of what we have come to believe is the public education system.

It will, for example, be the place where a primary student from Ghana can learn the same information as the kid from Wisconsin. And they won’t do it at the same time, though they might have the same teachers.

When that happens, leadership is less about filling the places of power and then flipping a switch. It’s really more about organic utilization of reputation, getting along with your peers and enabling learning through sharing and collaborative consumption, a la the Airbnb model, on platforms that students and people use every day to get their own version of learning enabled.

In this case, peers are not political leaders and political leaders mean less to education, since the intimacy and sharing enabled by platforms is so open, and so frictionless, there’s no need for the levers of power to push through authority.

It’s your classroom, because it’s modeled after your identity and your friends, and your way of learning.

Imagine a 34,500 person classroom, and the conversation andt he communication that goes on there, asynchronously. This may be taking a big leap in logic, but it is entirely possible that education will become a lot like the search for influencers on the web.

When you are managing learning of thousands of students, you need to find students in the legions that can manage their own communities. Kids do this already, on Facebook, on other platforms. Students do this outside of school, just like Gregg and I did this.

We see each other. We meet. We learn from each other.

Credibility, certification is not packaged as control and like a system. It’s more about who you know and what you know, and how you treat other people.

In that kind of model — where student leaders help craft the learning environment — district control doesn’t look so feasible.  A standardized system doesn’t seem to make sense.

Education looks more democratic. It looks like a conversation, and it looks like getting things done.

Say goodbye to helping leadership get smart on the district level, and say hello to getting community started. The platforms are already active. It’s already happening.

The students are ready to learn.

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Technology is The Key to Education Reform

Image: Joshua Lott for The New York Times

There is no question that the education system in America needs to be reformed. Proposals have been made by individuals, groups, and both sides of the aisle, but no significant progress has been made. Nothing has been done to stem the slide that our education system has been on for the past 15 years. We’ve all heard about the statistics. The question now is, what can we do to fix it? I believe technology is the key.

This generation is vastly different from previous ones. Those of us in our 20’s and 30’s grew up with technology, but we weren’t born with it. We didn’t have cell phones and iPads in elementary school. Our desire, like generations before us, was to go outside and play, not sit inside and play video games, or get on Facebook. Sure, our interests migrated to these tasks, but the change didn’t happen until we were older. That change happened after we had to go the library to study, after we had learned the same basic curriculum that our parents had completed during their time in school.

The world completely changed during our years in the education system, but that system did not. The American education system has become the “house between two skyscrapers.”

Photo by NYScout

We as a society have to change the way we learn. Sure, we have seen some advances — especially in universities — where technology is commonly utilized in class and to study, but the change has to be at the root.

We grew up without technology — and in our early years — learned without it. When we shifted, we moved to something more advanced. The current generation is moving backwards. This current generation grew up with technology from birth, and is still using the same teaching styles and mechanisms that we grew up with.

The most obvious indication that we need reform our teaching methods are the unbelievable statistics. The dropout rate had been on as steady decline for over 20 years – until 2008 when the recession hit. But even with the increase, we still have less than half of the dropouts that we had in 1985.

The truly baffling number is 3.4 million.

3.4 million is the number of jobs that are available — but cannot be filled — due to the lack of qualified workers.

Teachers are teaching and students are graduating, but they are not learning. For years, the technology students had at home was matched by the schools. But times have changed, and technology has evolved — but our education system has not.

A dramatic change needs to be enacted, for we are on the precipice of not having a capable workforce in the very near future. The next generation is supposed to move forward, not backwards. To achieve that forward movement, our curriculums — our system — has to shift forwards as well, and to achieve this, an emphasis on technology has to play a key role.

We can come out of this recession tomorrow. But if we don’t teach the next generation properly, if we do not restore our archaic education system to the pinnacle that it once stood upon, this recession will feel like a bump in the road.

This article was originally published on Black Web 2.0.
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In Education Technology, There are Often More Questions Than Market Forces

Whenever anyone talks about the education system needing more innovation, here is what they are talking about: The education system was built in the nineteenth century and still operates as if it is in the nineteenth century, while most of those of us who have graduated from it have moved on to do other things.

Yet there are still a few of us among the passing millions into the world of work who turned back and wanted to make something that disrupted education, made it better, and changed the way it functioned.

The Three Ring team talks about the evolution of their product to a room of investors, entrepreneurs, and teachers.

When we talk about trying to deliver innovation to a nineteenth century school system, we are really talking about a kind of abolition of the teacher and the student — enabling them to work, live and learn in a system that is much more like the world they already  live in when they are not learning within the school walls.

That kind of thing is going to have take a lot of nurturing, talking with teachers, learning from students and creating a cultural space that enables and empowers the rich sharing that can create that innovation. Basically, we need to create a kind of Silicon Valley in education that is less about earning paper and flipping companies and mostly about sitting down at the table, and creating real education tools that work, and have had the market forces pushed against them to prove they work.

The challenge is that education — since it is a government system — does not work like a market. And culturally speaking, educators do not work like capitalists.

Because they don’t, and because it isn’t, education is an extremely special place, often misunderstood. But I think that’s changing.

The Big Night

“The notion that a video is always more interesting than the teacher is…uh….wrong.”

When I heard Steve Silvius, one of the founders at Three Ring say that at our first Ed Tech Entrepreneurs NYC meetup on February 28, I knew that something wonderful had happened in the education technology vertical. Entrepreneurs were not, as they are sometimes vilified or incorrectly labeled, a bunch of geeks with no education scruples who want to exploit the current education system and use it to make products so they can make a lot of money.

They are — still geeks — who are deeply interested in education as it is practiced, and they get it.  They GET IT.  And we had proof.

The Proof

Four companies — some of them just barely off the ground, some of them getting funding from investors — presented their education technology ideas to a room filled with 220 or so teachers, students (higher ed and secondary), investors, and other entrepreneurs.

The environment they displayed to was one of builders, teachers, people who want to either invest in the future of our education system, or make an education system that looks more like one that is useful to a genuine 21st Century economics era.

They presented because they wanted to know what teachers and students think of their product, because the way that the current education system is set up, teachers don’t have enough time to spend their day looking at education technologies and entrepreneurs have not had very much success cold calling teachers to get their feedback.

Doing it Differently

I used to be a teacher, so I fully understand the division that exists between the dog eat dog real world of capitalism and the sanctuary that is learning and improving one’s self so that one can one day go out in the world and make the most of life.

For the most part, from K12 all the way up through higher education, that system works very well. Kids come to school to learn. We nurture them, we envelope them with our wisdom and our goodness. We send them up through the ranks improving all the way.

But we are not always providing people with the right tools to get this done. Teachers are too busy to experiment with learning technologies that come from left field, so they don’t. Entrepreneurs can’t gain any significant access to the learning environment, so they go about doing what they do best, but without the most crucial part of the equation — the consumer.

Part of this is cultural. No teacher likes to think of his student as a consumer of vendor tools.

They like to think of them as humans.

Teachers give the best insight into learning, so they should have the most exposure to new learning technologies. Entrepreneurs need to spend more time with teachers.

Humans work best operating in a network of cultural exchange. Education creates this cultural exchange, but because it’s education, and becuase it’s important, and because it’s a state and federal funded enterprise, there are no forces that would allow entrepreneurs and teachers both to work together quickly and earnestly to make education products that facilitate the kind of learning America needs to be creating solutions to real 21st century problems.

In other words, we have real edge of the envelope thinkers and doers inside and outside of education — teachers and entrepreneurs — who are basically trapped in a 19th century system in a 21st century world.

The Realities

Money is not strictly speaking bad, but you need money to build. And you need teachers to create meaningful education projects and products. If we can encourage them to work together as team members, as practicing better halves of each other, we have many battles to win.

There’s no way to be an independent, education-loving entrepreneur and push out the big products to get them tested, unless you get a huge dose of capital. But then you can’t really get a huge dose of capital unless your product has a lot of traction (or a lot of students and teachers using it).  Since it’s hard to get these products in front of teachers and students for some of the logistical and cultural reasons listed above, change in education is slow. Big products are guesses.

Vendor driven solutions are based off of a seemingly timeless system put in place by law, but there are some among us who question whether building education products out of a law is the same thing as using al ean startup method to build education products that start out in the hands of teachers, students and parents.

That’s why my partner Saad Alam and I launched the Ed Tech Entrepreneurs Meetup. We want to be part of the sea change in how educators, entrepreneurs, administrators, and communities work together.

We want to create a cultural space for learning about ed tech, creating relationships between all significant parties, and we want to have fun doing it.

It’s working.

Forums like the Ed Tech Entrepreneurs Meetup are here to spread awareness and fill a cultural void — creating a mashup that is quintessentially about learning and education and also about building a new education field.

When we looked out across the room and saw a standing-room only crowd, it was really hard to convince either of us that we were not creating a cultural space where real educators, students, and community leaders, school administrators and budget operators meet with entrepreneurs to give firsthand reviews and feedback on what makes their products work and what makes them not work. This was happening in the room, right here.

Change happens when people believe they can participate in their own future. And in that room that night were many, many people who saw their future, and it involved working together and creating new opportunities for students.

I closed out the night by saying that I felt inspired by the number of innovations I had seen, but that I was even more inspired by the ideas that technology and the liberal arts had no better place for convergence than in education.

I was reminded of a teacher who had said to me that there was a difference between writers and people who write things. Writers, he said, give something of themselves to people. Their work is a gift.

Teachers are like this, too. I have been a teacher, and I can testify that every day of my teaching career was about giving almost all of myself — and sometimes all — to the students who needed and wanted to learn.

Entrepreneurs are no different.

That’s why we invite both of these groups to our meetup, to share information on how classrooms operate, how budgets work, and how teachers live their day to day lives in the school system. We share what it takes to build something, what it takes to test, test, and test until you get it right.

We mix up the culture, and create innovation. The similarities to a real classroom, and the energy of learning and change are uncanny.

We will be doing these meetups once every two months to start, and then once a month as they gain traction.  We will have keynote speakers, real teachers, who come to discuss their every day experiences in the classroom. We will work closely with teacher fellows programs and with education technology directors of school districts, to bring the right people into the room to ask questions, give answers and create ideas.

Investors will be part of our guest speaker series.  Entrepreneurs will present their products. Community leaders will be in the room to rally forces of change.

And we will do all of this in the independent spirit of teaching.

Douglas Crets is the co-director of Ed Tech Entrepreneurs Meetup in NYC.  He operates this forum for inventing, building and learning with Saad Alam, co-founder of Citelighter.