Tag Archives: education

Outsourcing Parenting to Technology?

I was at an event the other night featuring a panel of education technology entrepreneurs talking about how their companies teach kids skills beyond the traditional three R’s of the school curriculum. For example, Class Dojo is supposed to use gamification to improve kids’ behavior, with the founder talking about the importance of improving self-control (the famous marshmallow experiment). EverFi teaches kids financial literacy and Mindset Works is meant to change the very mindset, or self-conception, of children.

Then I got home, and saw on TV that Verizon commercial in which a kid’s family can’t be at his French horn recital, but they can watch him via connected devices. It’s a sweet commercial, for sure, and someone sitting on my couch (not me) got a little misty eyed. But it got me thinking that maybe we are outsourcing too much parenting to our technology.

I mean, yes it’s sweet that the kid’s dad uses a tablet camera to watch the recital, but wouldn’t it be better if the dad were actually there? And to the extent that self-control can be taught, shouldn’t parents be teaching it rather than some technology company? Especially since most of these education tech companies are started by entrepreneurs, not educators or child psychologists (except for Mindset Works).

I’m not trying to criticize any of these companies or entrepreneurs, all of whom are doing good work trying to help kids. And I’m not criticizing parents or teachers who use these tools. I’m not even definitively saying that I think using these tools is bad. After all, leveraging technology is something that we all do. When I use Excel instead of green ledger paper, am I outsourcing my financial analysis to Microsoft? No, I’m just using a tool that makes me more efficient. So why does it feel different when it comes to parenting?

Perhaps I am just hopelessly retro, thinking that parents should manage kids themselves, instead of using every tool available. Perhaps it is because I am not (yet!) a parent, so don’t fully appreciate the desire to do everything you possibly can to improve your children’s lives. Or perhaps I fear that parents who outsource teaching their children aren’t using the found time to be with their kids, but on themselves. I can’t rationally pin down why this parenting technology makes me uncomfortable; it just does.

Readers, what are your thoughts?

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Multinational Corporations and the American Commons

Harvard Business School recently launched what it’s calling the US Competitiveness Project, which is “a research-led effort to understand and improve the competitiveness of the United States.” To publicize this effort, Harvard Magazine just published a series of interviews with some of the professors involved. I don’t normally like reading interviews, because they tend to have a ridiculously high length to content ratio, but these were quite dense in content, and I recommend the whole set of interviews as important reading for anyone interested in the state of US business or multinational corporations operate.

The interviews ran to almost 20 magazine pages, so I won’t even try to summarize them. But I will note a recurring theme, which was about American companies investing in America. The professors called this America’s “business commons,” which they defined as “a skilled workforce, an educated populace, vibrant local suppliers, basic rule of law, and so on.” They pointed out that “historically, American businesses invested in these resources deeply, and that helped to build many of America’s strengths.”

Copyright 2012 Thoughtbasket

Interestingly, the professors went back and forth between reasons to support America’s business commons, from what I call “hard” reasons (those that drive profitability) to “soft” reasons (patriotic calls to support America).

Hard reasons included:

  • Outsourcing calculations often overestimate cost savings
  • Local manufacturing can drive product and process improvements
  • For most multinationals, the US still makes up the majority of their business

Soft reasons were more vague, with a desire of “many in the business community to roll up their sleeves and do things in their communities” being a typical statement. Michael Porter (a giant in the strategy and competition fields) and Jan Rivkin define US competitiveness as including “raising the living standards of the average American.”

This all raises an interesting dilemma. If the role of corporate executives is to maximize returns to shareholders (this is how most US managers operate, although there is in fact disagreement regarding shareholder v. stakeholder approaches: read relevant articles here, here, here and here) then they shouldn’t care whether they build America’s business commons or China’s business commons or any other business commons, except to the extent that any given commons supports their business. In other words, if Jeff Immelt at GE thinks that investing in China’s educational system will generate higher returns than investing in America’s, that is what he should do.

However, I suspect that most executives at big US companies would feel uncomfortable with that. Since most of them were born in the US, raised in the US, and live in the US, there is probably some part of them that feels a loyalty to the US, that wants to build America’s commons even if building China’s commons has a higher ROI. How do these CEOs reconcile their duties to shareholders with their inherent patriotism? I don’t know. The professors in the US Competitiveness Project would suggest that the disconnect is not as great as many think; that building the US commons DOES have a high ROI. But based on my reading, it sounds like they would also give executives permission to foreground their patriotism over pure shareholder analysis, at least on borderline cases.

In addition to Michael Porter and Jan Rivkin, other professors interviewed included Willy Shih, Rossbeth Kanter and Thomas Kochan (who actually teaches at MIT, not Harvard).

The University Isn’t Going Anywhere

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There is a lot of talk going around about how universities are broken, and Silicon Valley is going to put the Ivy League out of business. Certainly change is afoot, and continued tuition hikes at twice the rate of inflation are ridiculous. Online universities like Udemy and the Miverva Project are interesting, and may even succeed, depending on whether success is measured in teaching students or in making tons of money. But if success is measured in pushing the existing elite universities out of their current position, don’t hold your breath.

Kevin Carey wrote a piece in The New Republic saying how the roster of leading companies has completely changed over the last century but the roster of leading universities has not. American Cotton Oil is gone, but Harvard remains. Carey states that this is unsustainable; education should be as prone to disruption as business.

But there is a deep flaw in Carey’s analogy. Companies go out of business mostly because people no longer want their products. When was the last time you bought cottonseed oil, or film for your camera? But people still want what universities are offering, especially elite universities. Is education still valuable? Yes. Is a Harvard degree still valuable? Yes. I don’t want any cottonseed oil, but I sure want my kids to get a Harvard education and diploma. And as long as the desire for education and prestige remains (ie. as long as human nature still rules), the elite universities will remain so.

CEO Council Issues Liberal Recommendations

The Wall Street Journal recently gathered a large group of CEOs together to discuss the top issues facing the country. The broad theme was “How to Rebuild Global Prosperity.” Under that theme were four subsections, and in each subsection a committee of CEOs produced five recommendations. What was fascinating to me was how each set of recommendations matched up with generally liberal positions.

The Energy and the Environment committee recommended:

  • Diversify U.S. energy
  • Promote energy efficiency
  • Cap-and-trade bill
  • Federal plan for electric grid
  • Diversity transportation systems

The Economy and Finance committee recommended:

  • Sustainable job creation
  • Bring back winning spirit in U.S.
  • Build greater certainty
  • Enact global trade pact
  • Tax reform

The Educated Work Force committee recommended:

  • Education is our top priority
  • Council for educated work force
  • Reward effective teaching
  • World-class teacher corps
  • Mobilize parents for change

The Health Care committee recommended:

  • Reform health-payment system
  • Measure health outcomes
  • Hold patients accountable
  • Reform medical malpractice
  • Promote integrated care

I’m not saying that these are a super-liberal set of recommendations. Certainly if Mother Jones or Howard Dean issued a set of recommendations on these topics, they would be different, although there would definitely be some overlap. But if you take the entire set of recommendations, I would say that they match up more closely with the Democratic platform than with the Republican platform. And if you take the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, I’m not sure that they would agree with any of the CEO recommendations.

What does this all mean? That when you get outside of Washington DC, the country isn’t as polarized as the media makes it seem. A collection of the most powerful CEOs in the country comes up with recommendations that are mainstream liberal. The majority of citizens are sitting solidly in the center, and if politicians and pundits would stop acting like jerks – if they would stop, listen and think – then maybe we could actually solve the big problems that our country faces.

In Defense of Elitism

The McCain-Palin campaign, and Republicans in general, keep attacking “elites.” What’s so terrible about being elite? When the US military has a difficult assignment, who does it send? Its elite commando teams, the SEALs and the Green Berets. If you want to win a gold medal, who do you send? An elite athlete like Michael Phelps. If you have a heart problem, what doctor do you want? An elite cardiologist.

For doing difficult things, we generally want the best prepared person we can get. After all, you wouldn’t get on an airplane piloted by someone who had barely gotten through flight school. But when it comes to the presidential election, the contest for possibly the hardest job in the world, suddenly the approach gets reversed. Advanced training and cerebral approaches are eschewed in favor of plain speakin’ and gut instinct.

I’m not saying you have to go to fancy schools in order to be a good president. George W. Bush went to two of the fanciest, and he’s pretty well cheesed things up. But neither should prestigious degrees or eloquent speech preclude one from being elected. There is nothing inherently bad about being elite, nor inherently good about being average. That being said, I don’t want Joe the Plumber running this country, although I want my president to remember who Joe the Plumber is. Or as Jon Meacham put it, “Do we want leaders who are everyday folks, or do we want leaders who understand everyday folks?”