Fixing Inequality At The Source — Primary Education

It was like living in a science fiction novel. For the first seven years, grade school bored me. I had no interest and it showed in my grades. The teachers sucked, and school was nothing more than a barrier between me and the technology (read: gaming) that really engaged me in any free time I had. Then everything changed. It was in social studies, during a semester about history, of all places. Boring, right? Well, yeah, it had been. Up until this moment.

One second I was sitting at my desk, horsing around with my buddy Tom, waiting for Mr. Higgles to walk in and begin our American History class, a thought which, once upon a time, could have put my jaw in danger from a ginormous yawn of reflexive boredom. But today we could barely retrain ourselves; we’d been hearing about today’s material from students in the classes ahead of us for literally two years and had been waiting for this section on the American revolution to begin since Fall.

Finally, Mr. Higgles appeared and the students’ focused attention spread like a wave of rapt silence as the first ones noticed him at the front of the class. A mischievous smile ghosted his lips and crinkled his eyes–Higgles loved teaching this stuff and we couldn’t help getting swept along with his enthusiasm–and he waved his hand.

Oh, holy crap. The classroom disappeared, our seats disappeared, our clothes changed, and Mr. Higgles changed!

Suddenly we were colonial soldiers, sitting on stumps, on logs, in the chill and snow-covered environs of eastern Pennsylvania, looking beyond George Washington, across the Delaware River into New Jersey, where we would march tonight to surprise the brutal, occupying forces of the Hessian General Johann Rall. We weren’t going to liberate our friends and relatives from beneath the Hessian boots this night, but we sure were going to surprise the crap out of them!

Mr. Higgles as George Washington. He was awesome!

The next two hours were branded on my memory. I played a part in the American Revolution. I kicked some Hessian butt. And I got to follow, and watch, George freakin’ Washington! The action periods as we moved through colonial America got us engaged in History like never before. But even the lecture periods had us attentive; not only did we need to get this valuable information, we had to keep an eye out for enemy spies seeking to discover our secrets!

I learned to love learning.

I’ll never forget that class and that experience…just one of the multitude that made learning come alive for me (and Tom!) in 7th grade and following years!

I spent some time musing about the possibilities for creating virtual reality classrooms a couple months ago–a couple months before Zuckerberg’s announcement of (what I believe to be) Facebook’s brilliant acquisition of Oculus VR. Here’s the skeleton:

The most important factor within a school’s control determining the quality of a student’s education is the quality of the teacher. A great teacher and an interactive environment create otherwise unparalleled student engagement and learning.

Teachers matter most. Great teachers are rare in most students’ lives. Often critical life skills remain undeveloped because students get stuck with poor teachers in their STEM (and other) classes.

Under Industrial Age Schooling paradigms and in an era of continually shrinking discretionary (education) budgets, most grade-school teachers in any given school system aren’t top-percentile educators. Nor are they incented to be. So great teachers are rare and the best ones will often find themselves venues where their abilities are better recognized and rewarded. Unfortunately, those venues aren’t accessible to the majority of grade school students.

But it doesn’t have to be that way any more.

What if every student whose family had the desire could be taught every class by the absolute best, brightest, most imaginative and most engaging teachers? How different would our children’s lives–and educations–be? What benefits might our world derive from developing that latent potential in our next generations by giving them the stronger education that creates a foundation for innovation, productivity, and happiness?

Ultimately, while I still love the idea, I don’t think this is an opportunity for a small, under-capitalized group of people. And it would be an uphill struggle against powerful institutional forces like teachers unions and others who’d fight tooth and nail for the maintenance of a crappy status quo, prioritizing their own interests over the students’.

But in the near future, a well-capitalized group comprised of people from online education community and the massively multiplayer online game industry (to handle the shared-experience networking infrastructure) will come together, perhaps backed by Bill Gates’ (or Zuckerberg’s) level of resources, and they’ll be able to overcome the financial and political forces currently dominating educational systems and in favor of systemic stagnation.

More musing:

The Environment

  • Last year, developers built software that provided an immersive (and some would say mind blowing) VR experience that worked within the previous developer-version of the Oculus Rift, though the resolution was only 720p and motion blurring and latencies caused wearer discomfort after a short time.
  • At CES this year, a new version of the Oculus Rift featured a new capability for 1080P projection, and reduced motion blurring, providing a foundation for more comfortable, longer, VR immersion.
  • Sony continues to enhance their virtual headset (HMZ-T3Q) to both improve the experience and evolve it toward supporting VR/game-play experiences), and has teased that the PS4 will support VR play.
  • The largest university in the world is University of Phoenix, a private, online, for-profit university. Unfortunately, the dated execution of the curriculum results in low graduation rates. There is no similarly sized and profitable private K-12 institution.
  • Parents in the US and many countries are decreasingly satisfied with the quality and relevance of their children’s public grade-school education, but lack the money or ability to home school or send their children to a private school.
  • Education in developing countries is recognized as one of the single most important requirements for long-term growth and global competition.

The Forecast

  • Reduced manufacturing costs of 4K displays, ever-increasing processing and accelerometer and head-tracking technology, and miniaturization will produce comfortable, extended-wear VR headsets within 2-3 years.
  • The hardware for participating in a VR experience, currently limited to inexpensive PCs will soon be available in the most popular consoles. Along with growing Internet penetration, even in remote parts of the world, we are trending toward ubiquitous accessibility to the hardware and connectivity required for (at least simple) VR interactions in massively scalable environments.
  • Haptic gloves and body suits will deepen the immersion of VR experiences (though they aren’t required for simple VR immersion, such as classroom instruction).
  • Support for and integration of these peripherals in games will drive mainstream adoption and accessible pricing, further penetrating the market with the accessories needed to participate in online VR education venues.

The Assets

  • A proven Multi-player Game Platform, capable of serving the environment and teacher tools that would allow teachers to broadcast classes to students, and configure the classroom environment to improve student immersion, improving engagement and learning.
  • A team experienced in building 3D environments, with licensable client technologies that could make creation of relatively simple 3D environments, like a virtual classroom, rapid and cost-effective.
  • A team well-versed in the demands of, and moderation of, online virtual communities (and meeting / instructional spaces).

The vision

  • First, create a destination portal where anyone could craft, rehearse, schedule, market, sell, and then present mind-blowing virtual education, or entertainment, then allow them to record, publish (and sell) those classes or diversions, instructional presentations, or even full courses, with revenues generated from student/participant sales, or ad revenue (imagine being a marketing department being able to market your product in VR to a captive audience before, or during breaks in, or after, a class!
  • Craft virtual classrooms, and provide teacher and student tools, enabling individuals, schools, or private institutions, around the world to place students (or participants) into the most effective (and inexpensive!) learning environments available.
  • Create the multi-participant tools sets that allows students to interact with teachers (or a teacher’s assistant) in a way that provides the benefit of a small classroom environment (from the student’s perceptions) to even massively scaled, auditorium (and larger!)-sized classes.
  • Partner with (or acquire) an accredited online K-12 school, or license their curriculum.
  • Extend the opportunity for the best teachers in the world to teach via VR, in a crafted environment that feels to the student like an optimum-class-size experience, regardless of the number of people in actual attendance, with the same degree of direct interaction with some of the best teachers in the world.
  • Create a model where teachers could be deployed who specialized in teaching their specific expertise, their passion–because enthusiasm for the subject matter is communicable. Even making discrete blocks of subject matter available to public schools would enhance the quality of education for most classes, allowing “guest” teachers to teach specific hours, days, or weeks of any given course.
  • Enable students to attend school by sitting in either real-time live-cast virtual classrooms, or by logging into a previously recorded/scripted class if live attendance isn’t possible.
  • Create the availability for students receive the most imaginative effective education available in the world, from the world’s best teachers, either from home, or from gathering centers/auditoriums

Thoughts

  • Gaming will both drive penetration and ubiquity, as it has so often done throughout the history of consumer PC performance.

Johnny gets up too early in the morning–guaranteeing sub-optimal learning for the first two hours–and catches a bus into his public school. There, amidst often crowded, occasionally hostile conditions, Johnny is herded through a lock-step educational process that has changed little from the early industrial era whose needs it was originally emplaced to serve. In his classes, he’s often lectured to by senior, tenured teachers who, obviously to the kids, cares little about whether or not the students are engaged or interested, hasn’t been incented or interested in updating their course for years, and doesn’t think it’s important to tie the course’s relevance into the system of tools that grade school education should be providing to students.

As we head into 2014, experts are predicting that we’re about two years away from high-resolution, astoundingly immersive, virtual reality. This winter, companes like HBO are demonstrating experiences like taking a virtual elevator up the 700′ ice wall famouslly depicted in the hit adaptation of the “Song of Ice and Fire” books in the series titled “Game of Thrones.” Despite the use of the last-generation Oculus Rfit VR headset, which sports only 720p resolution (versus the current version’s 1080p), the combination of an immersive visual experience with good sound effects is blowing people away. People “ascending” the cliff face, standing within a simple cage with the VR headset on, are literally having their fear of heights kick in as they’re taken up the 700′ cliff, then lowered again (fast enough to incite a degree of fear at coming down too hard!).

All that’s needed to craft a fully immersive experience is the visual immersion in a reasonable resolution 3D environment and a great sound system–and we’re there now. Adding in haptic peripherals like gloves or a body suit, or gyroscopically stabilized implements, and subtle control of temperature and artificial breeze, perhaps with 6-axis, omnidirectional treadmills, will enhance this experience, but aren’t as important to immersion as the caliber of the actors (or CGI MOBs). After all, we as humans can become immersed in an envrionment sitting in a chair watching a 2D presentation if it’s done right.

Marrying a VR environment with an underlying mulitplayer architecture capable of managing the interactions of a moderate-sized group of people opens the door to unparalleled educational opportunities a la VR classrooms.

Imagine if children living in inner cities, in the country, or in a completely different nation where infrastructure and education aren’t as developed as in the economically stronger 1st and 2nd world countries, had access to the absolute BEST teachers iin the world. Imagine how much better their education would be if the not only were taught by the best teachers in the world, but were taught in an environment wherre the teacher had the control over the environment to fully immerse their students into the environment, and where classroom and instructor topologies supported–encouraged!–student groupings by learning pace, for every subject.

Imagine how different the world might be within a generation.

Sales In The Digital Age: The Exotic Disconnect

Respect For The Customer QuoteThe following saga contrasts the experiences between two corner-case consumers of exotic sports cars. Despite their “first-world problem” nature, the embedded customer experience anecdotes hold lessons for any executive, entrepreneur, brand manager, department head, or visionary aspiring to be one of those things.

Customer ownership experiences reflect a manufacturer’s corporate culture and degree of respect for the customer. Resourced intelligently, even customer problems become sales and loyalty drivers, more than making up for inevitable engineering or production quality assurance failures. Short-shrift the post-purchase customer experience and wronged customers in this digital age are motivated and empowered to create terrible brand drag. Disappointed customers degrade expensive marketing ROI. Just a few pissed off customers can wreak havoc on an entire brand, driving away future sales.

Wouldn’t you think luxury brands that cater to an exclusive customer pool would manage problems well in this connected age? It doesn’t have to be expensive, so it’d be the height of folly not to. Right?

Crazily, many luxury brands still fail epically at managing problems in even the simple ways that can mean so much to dismayed customers. I refer to this kind of failure as an Exotic Disconnect because it’s so prevalent in boutique, luxury companies like those producing exotic cars. The exotic disconnect is what happens when a company goes to great lengths and huge expense to engineer and position its products or services–its brand–as distinct, as coveted, as exclusive, but has placed all emphasis on engineering and marketing while failing basic management of the post-purchase customer relationship. It’s painful to behold, even if you’re not the dismayed consumer victimized by such a failing. Ferrari used to be famous for their Exotic Disconnect. Their brand defines high-performance exotica among those whose impressions are based on marketing more than reality, but Ferrari has labored for decades under the sales-harming perception of apathy, if not disdain, toward owners.

Before venturing irreversibly down the entrepreneurial path, I spent significant corporate time doing customer, product, technical, and community support for large corporations. My term in corporate purgatory spawned conviction that responsive, anticipatory customer relations drives sales. Handling failures adroitly turns them into customer acquisition multipliers. I carried that religion into my entrepreneurial ventures and count that caring execution as a success factor.

But great CRM grows from a culture and processes integrated throughout a company’s execution channels. But focusing on it is rarely sexy because it requires people to contemplate failures in areas for which they’re responsible. Very few executives chomp at the bit to champion corporate anticipation of their professional face plants. It’s not so much pride goeth before the fall as pride causing the fall. So few companies list managing the post-purchase experience as a core competence. As a result, CRM efforts are rarely assigned superstar talent, commensurate authority, or the resources allocated to more conventional slices of revenue development initiatives. But organizational success increases when all members feel invited to anticipate failures and contribute to building the processes that convert production problems into customer loyalty and evangelism.
mclaren-mp4-12c

So when I’m subject to product failures that get poorly handled by companies that under invested in my post-purchase experience, it chaps my ass. It means the company has been lazy–because doing this well doesn’t have to be expensive. Conversely, when a company excels, I’m motivated to evangelize and repeat purchases. I damn sure take care of companies that take care of me. If a company earns my loyalty, that investment will return in their sales. I am not alone in this.

Porsche, and more specifically my local Porsche dealer’s service center, does this really well. Alas, my poster child for Exotic Disconnect failures in this blog post is McLaren, whose policies and dealer service center have repeatedly screwed this pooch six ways from Sunday.

As a car guy, I’ve embraced a life-long love affair with performance cars. I buy the most performant cars I can get my wife to approve, and then I drive them. By that I mean at every excuse, including tracking the shit out of them every chance I get. Unlike those who buy exotic sports cars primarily as garage ornaments so they can practice their wax-on/wax-off, kung-fu skills between occasional (and ginger!) Sunday drives, I stress my cars (safely and with all recommended maintenance, of course). As far as I’m concerned, if a company markets a car as bred for the track, that’s where the owner should be expected to spend at least some of their time. My friend the McLaren owner feels the same way. So we both track sports cars when life allows.

His car cost more than twice what mine did. Both have needed warranty repairs. Neither one of us is dismayed by this; shit happens, and complex systems are subject to failure. My car, the Porsche 997 GT3 pictured as the header image on this blog, has suffered component failures that could arguably be attributed directly to my repeated stressing the car’s systems in both autocross and HPDE events at various race courses. My friend’s McLaren problems have all been the kind of component failures that sometimes plague high-end boutique manufacturer’s hand-built cars and are often expected and accepted by those consumers as long as they’re professionally handled. None of the problems he’s had have anything to do with the way his vehicle is driven.

Enter the Exotic Disconnect. Contrast our experiences.

I have my Porsche service tech do periodic tech inspections of my GT3 before driving it 150mph in HPDE’s. He has discovered cracks in my car’s rotors that exceed the recommended spec (7mm) on two occasions.  His (and Porsche’s) attitude is: It’s a car that’s designed as a track car. The customer shouldn’t be penalized for using it for the designed purpose (I’ve heard that approximately 70% of GT3 owners track their cars). A warranty shouldn’t only apply to babied or garaged cars. From my position as a consumer, Porsche’s corporate culture says: We build performance cars that will stand up to performance driving. At the same time, they recognize that complex systems will have the occasional inevitable failure. So they’ve established processes that minimize customer inconvenience–solid communications, professional and personal service, and a free loaner car while yours is in the shop. The dealer’s service center reflects the manufacturer’s culture. They both recognize they’re links in a critical chain and handling the occasional failure is an investment in the brand and future sales, not just an expense to be minimized at any cost.

And now this blog post’s poster child: My friend bought a McLaren because his research indicated that McLaren owners tended to be more satisfied with their cars than Ferrari owners, and the McLaren MP4-12C was developing a reputation as both unbelievably capable on the track but also comfortable and reliable for daily use. Ferrari’s Exotic Disconnect cost them a sale. However, when the time came for my friend to send his McLaren in for its first annual service and a couple niggling warranty repairs, it took 3 weeks and multiple calls to get the dealership to pick up the car (the transport service is paid by the customer, which he knew going in, but the lack of follow through by the service center was frustrating). Strike one. Eventually the car was picked up. Then, nothing, not a peep from the service center. Ten days later he calls, and the car hasn’t been serviced yet. Another week goes by without communication from the service center. He calls and they’re “just about to get to it.” Strike two. Long story short, as the car approached its third week in what has begun to feel like a service black hole, my friend finally has to give the service center an ultimatum because he’s scheduled to drive the car in a parade and HAS to pick it up. The morning he begins the trip to the dealership, 340 miles away, it’s still not ready! Though the car was (just about) ready by the time he got there, it’d been a six week ordeal just to complete basic service and a couple of warranty repairs that weren’t dependent on parts availability.

Fast forward to last week. He’s driving his McLaren back from the barber shop. The 12C is still under warranty with less than 5000 miles on McLaren Left Rear Turn Signal Loosethe odometer. He pulls into his garage and gets out to find the left-rear turn signal light has fallen out of the fender and is hanging by the electrical wire. The car wasn’t hit or otherwise damaged; a light-assembly retaining tab had simply broken and it was obvious that light assembly would need to be replaced–something he could easily do himself upon receiving the part. No biggee, shit happens. So he emailed a description of the problem and a picture to the dealership’s McLaren service manager. The picture clearly showed the problem, and that there’d been no impact damage to the light assembly or surrounding fender. The piece just broke and fell out. He got no answer to his email. Several days later he calls and is directed to another service manager, who asks that the email be resent to him. My friend does so immediately. …a day later that service manager calls him back to say, “We will have to check with McLaren to see if that will be covered under warranty.”

McLaren service then added insult to injury when they called the next day to admit McLaren would cover the issue under warranty but they wanted the defective light (which still worked and was usable if held in with tape) sent to them before they would send out the replacement light. When my friend complained that would render the car inoperable for the 2+ weeks it would probably take for the part order and exchange, he was grudgingly told they could cross ship the items, but they would need his credit card so they would be able to charge him the cost of a new light if he didn’t follow through by sending the defective light back (remember, he’d sent a picture of it clearly showing it was broken and hanging out of the car).

As I heard this, I found myself thinking, “Are you freaking KIDDING me?” How does a company clever enough to build a world-class super car with such advanced engineering bumble such basic customer relations opportunities? They’re striving to sell vehicles to a market segment that is willing to buy cars that cost literally TEN TIMES the price the average consumer will pay, and McLaren can’t be bothered to streamline post-purchase problem handling with an eye toward making their customers feel valued?

When pleased, this McLaren owner is an evangelist. I mean, sometimes you can’t shut him up! And he typically buys an exotic super car every couple years and is happy to let others drive it to check it out. Like many in that community, he browses and occasionally participates in forums where people of like interests congregate and share anecdotes. All it takes for companies to harness his enthusiasm and benefit from his extensive network and communications with other super car buyers is to respect him as a customer. He’s not a prima donna; he merely expects a prestige company to reasonably manage their service links. There are well-understood process and market examples for establishing processes that flag failures in service scheduling, work quality, and streamlining expectation-exceeding responses to issues any technician should be able to evaluate as reasonably likely to fall under warranty and be empowered to handle. Do those things and that company will benefit from customer evangelism.

Why in hell would a company NOT care about having their customers voluntarily, enthusiastically, sell that company’s products for them? How dense do you have to be as an executive or dealership owner to forsake that kind of revenue multiplier?

Does my friend still love his McLaren? Yep. But he’s also pissed that his ownership satisfaction, which is a BIG part of owning a prestige, exotic car, has been degraded. In this case, McLaren, the McLaren dealer, and the McLaren service center chain had an enthusiastic customer that would have been a source of significant future revenues and referral sales. Instead, they motivated him to broadcast his dismay in conversation and online, potentially driving potential customers toward another brand.


Leverage your customers

My friend has heard from others that their service centers take better care of them, but my friend is stuck with the dealership closest to him. Consistency is part of complete brand management; it’s the individual’s experiences that drive their opinion of the brand.

My friend won’t buy another McLaren no matter how many cool videos journalists post in articles or to Youtube. Nor would I after talking to him. On the other hand, I’ll buy another Porsche and after talking to me, my friend probably will now, too. His future Porsche won’t be as exotic, as head-turning as his McLaren was, but he’ll expect to be happier with the ownership experience. He’ll feel respected and appreciated by Porsche. That’s important when you’re spending hard earned money.

Someone at McLaren should fall onto their sword for saddling their company with that kind of uncompetitive thoughtlessness.

A Tough Week For Rough Men

“People Sleep Peacefully in Their Beds at Night Only Because Rough Men Stand Ready to Do Violence on Their Behalf.”

Whether you’re a member of the camp that holds that misquoted Orwellian sentiment as a simple reality, or more likely to group with the rest of Kipling’s  “Humanitarians,” most people could agree that this is a tense time to be a Ukrainian, and no doubt an even scarier time to be a soldier in the Zbroyni Syly Ukrayiny, (ZSU), (phonetic spelling) or Armed Forces of the Ukraine.

As an Infantryman who was once part of an Army that spent a decade facing the Russian (then, Soviet) Bear across the Fulda Gap, training for the dreaded day when some idiot let slip a luftballon, I feel and fear for our Ukrainian brothers in arms. With overwhelming force to their front, and a government behind them that neither invested heavily in military spending nor adopted any reality-based, asymmetric resistance doctrine, nor secured themselves with the NATO membership or other alliances that could have served to deter invaders, those Ukrainian soldiers are facing a grim future–especially if ordered to present some kind of fatally symbolic, conventional defense.

Eight years after Russia pulled brazen geo-political trickery to foment then support “separatist action” in Georgia and two years after they were given a by from the current administration’s Leader, who’s on record as proclaiming the Russians “no longer a geopolitical threat,” those dang Russkis are at it again…and using virtually the exact same playbook as in 2008, this time to grab the strategically important Crimea.

And they’ll probably get away with it. It will be immoral, and it will cause local chaos, and it could very well become much more expensive to the Russians than Putin is forecasting, especially if our State Department shows (and carries through with) uncharacteristic punitive resolve in support of our Ukrainian “friends.”

But a little bit of PR bolstered by the fourth and fifth estates’ highlighting the most sympathetic face of Ukrainian politics, Yulia Tymoshenko does not a strong deterrent make.

Ultimately, regardless of pre-election positioning, our current ruling administration is a pragmatic one. In Washington these days, pragmatism is a euphemism for “in the interests of the economy, Wall Street, and other influences Obama’s base doesn’t really follow very closely because they’re happier believing he doesn’t, either.” And when it comes to events in the Ukraine, a small horde of uppity Cossacks trampling an isolated peninsula is just not going to matter much to the Money Men.

On March 3rd, 2014, the sages at Credit Suisse issued this telling statement: “Russia is only 2.9% of global GDP, with the Ukrainian economy accounting for a further 0.4% of global GDP. Russian imports from the US and Euro area are $11bn and €87bn, respectively (or 0.7% and 4.6% of total exports, accounting for less than 0.1% and 0.9% of GDP). So in itself, it is hard to see the Ukrainian crisis having a significant impact on global growth.” The report added that in spite of those pesky Russians (okay, those are my words), “Our US earnings model points to 8.5% EPS growth for the S&P 500 this year (slightly below consensus at 9.1%), and we continue to believe that US margins will not peak until 2016.” (“Macro and market implications of the Ukrainian crisis,” Credit Suisse, 3 Mar 2014).

In other words, “Hey Western World Leaders, don’t sweat it, don’t fret it, we’re still tracking so don’t rock the boat!” There’s certainly calm, rational thought to support this.

But it doesn’t stop us from feeling sorry for Ukrainian Soldat Kovalenko, who may wake tomorrow or Wednesday morning looking down the imposing 125mm bore of a Russian T-90.

In the Infantry, we’d articulate our empathy for Soldat Kovalenko’s plight with the phrase, “Там, але для благодаті Божої, перейдіть І.” Sometimes it stinks to be a geoplitical pawn. All you can do is lean forward in your foxhole, pop some Ranger candy, keep your weapon clean and your bayonet sharp, and mutter “Hooah” with steely eyed determination. Boys, it’s gonna be The Suck this Spring and unless the markets really get concerned, you’re probably on your own.

Sorry.

Inspiration from…a cartoonist?

Inspiration from…a cartoonist?

The prose of a highly successful cartoonist is not where I’d normally look to find potentially life changing advice and inspiration. Yet that is literally how I’d characterize the worthiness of Scott Adam’s book, “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big,” and the value I assign to having read it.

Take-aways: Goals are for losers; systems are for winners. There’s power in affirmation. Choose your actions based on the energization they give you. Don’t be an asshole.

Scott’s lessons and advice dovetail nicely with “The Power of Habit,” a read that I also recommend highly…unless you’ve gotten yourself to that happy(?) point where you no longer feel the need of or have interest in achievement.