Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Instant Messaging in the workplace

Instant Messaging (IM) allows people who are working to interrupt each other with quick questions, and equally quick responses, in a sort of short-hand socializing. IM is banned or simply not supported in most corporate environments -- only 18 percent of Fortune 500 companies allow IM in the workplace. That's a little like the internet a few years ago. Remember companies refusing to allow employees to access the web at work because they believed it was counterproductive or insecure?

IM has been one of those contentious technologies that corporations don't approve of because of its frivolous roots. It's hard to control or monitor, it may have security problems, and it rarely leaves an audit trail. It's disruptive.

Which is why it has been succesful. AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) started out many many years ago as a feature of AOL, the least business-like of the online services, and was adopted by teens as a natural way to stay in touch. Microsoft and Yahoo launched their own instant messaging service, because you couldn't woo AOL customers away if you were going to deprive them of their AIM. People started using IM as an aid to collaboration in the workplace, and it rapidly became a communication tool that many could not do without. Why is it popular? E-mail is cumbersome and slow, and ill-suited for quick informal exchanges; the phone is similarly unwieldy. Like SMS, Instant Messaging is, well, instant.

And that matters to business.

IM is no longer a marginal technology: A Pew Internet and American Life Project report says that 11 million people in the US use IM at work. There are more than 76 million IM users in total, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, with MSN finally edging out AOL (28.6 and 27.6 million respectively).

Typically free with a consumer account at MSN, Yahoo, or AOL, Instant Messaging is now trying to find a corporate business model. Companies such as Jabber, Akonix, and Five Across are providing IM tools that look a little more business-like than the gaudy, smiley-face-laden interfaces of AIM. They hope to overcome the prejudices that corporate decision-makers have by presenting IM as a serious communication tool in a serious package.

IM will generate $131 million in revenues in 2004. But according to the Radicati Group, IM-revenues will hit $413 million in 2008. Jabber is already the corporate IM tool for companies like Disney and AT&T. Their approach has been to go for the enterprise sale, and implement IM top-down. Companies like Five Across seem to be taking the opposite approach: make the basic tool free, get lots of people to use it, then sell a corporate upgrade.

As with the web, once business accepts IM as a useful productivity tool, we’ll find many creative uses for it.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Books printed on demand in Ugandan villages

This article in Wired magazine shows what can be done for education in developing nations, with technology and a little imagination. An organization called Anywhere Books is providing free custom book-printing services out of a modified vehicle that visits Ugandan villages. In partnership with the Internet Archive, Anywhere Books can print from a catalog of public domain works. (These include books, of course, but also cover a library of reports, articles, images, and audio). They also partner with Pact, a non-profit development organization. So while kids can get reading books, farmers can get how-to guides.

All of this on a $150,000 grant from the World Bank.

Here in the US we have all been using remote print-on-demand services for years: if you are in New York about to rush to JFK to catch a plane to a client meeting in Chicago, you submit your presentation or report to an online Kinko’s site and nominate where you want the hardcopy printed and delivered from. By the time you reach your client, a pile of locally-produced reports is waiting for you.

Anywhere Books is a novel twist on that concept. Now if only they can replace Alice in Wonderland and Peter Rabbit with something more relevant to the local Ugandan culture.

Nielsen finally rates commercials! So what?

For years, advertisers have been trying to get Nielsen to report on the audiences for commercial breaks, instead of just the audiences for television programs. Everybody knows that the audience shifts when commercials come on: some people go to the kitchen, some go to the bathroom, some surf the channels till their show returns. Advertisers want to know who is actually watching their ads, instead of inferring this from who is watching the shows around the ads. Now Nielsen has agreed to provide minute-by-minute audience stats right through the commercial breaks.

Advertisers are delighted, though it will probably cost them millions to get the data.

The question is “why does it matter?” The information will tell them nothing useful, other than perhaps giving them ammunition to bargain down the rates charged by the broadcasters. But since all networks will probably have similar audience attrition during breaks, the relative desirability of their ad slots will probably not change.

Audience composition and size during a break does not matter, because it is bound to be more dynamic and less predictable than audience composition during the television program. And the actual content of the ads will have a bearing on audience retention – a slot with some popular creatives will retain audience, while a slot with less riveting ads will lose audience. So the data for a particular slot is not predictive of the data for the same slot the following week, unless the ads don’t change. And there are much cheaper ways of testing the attention-grabbing power of an ad than handing over millions of dollars to Nielsen.

What will be interesting, though, is to know the average scale of the audience loss and how it varies in size and composition as the evening progresses. Interesting, but not particularly actionable.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

New Jersey expands its online job training program

Today, labor commissioners and officials from more than a dozen states and the federal government are meeting to talk about leveraging e-learning to teach job skills to low-income workers. They have evidence that online learning actually works. The AP is reporting that the New Jersey region of the U.S. Department of Labor's Women's Bureau has completed a truly successful pilot program in which it provided 128 women, all low-income single parents, with internet access and a computer, and had them take essential job skills training online from home. After the program their average wage rose 15%. Now New Jersey is expanding the program and other states are following.
In Maine, Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman is exploring how to tie in the New Jersey program with one there that gives seventh- and eighth-graders laptop computers for the entire school year, putting around 30,000 laptops in homes around the state. "I think this is going to mushroom into something very big," said Plotkin.

Of course it is.

The internet has been an underutilised training resource for too long. Once it becomes obvious that anytime-anywhere learning is helpful to people who otherwise could never get it together to learn, the question becomes "Why have we not done something to address the access obstacles before?" Those obstacles are not insurmountable, and, with a little imagination, solutions are not impossibly expensive.

Giving laptops to people to allow them to learn is not that expensive, given the benefits to society that can result. But it doesn't have to be laptops. Access devices are now available in the $200 price range, and that price is falling. And entire cities can be WiFi enabled for less than many companies spend on a corporate LMS.

Let the corporate trainers squabble endlessly over the finer points of implementing e-learning. Let the Luddites say that technology must be rolled out slowly and carefully. If you provide access to learning opportunities on the internet to people who need to learn, they will do so, no matter how unsophisticated the training vehicle may be. If learners such as those in the New Jersey program are motivated to succeed, they will do wonders with whatever is available to them. Just Do It!

Monday, September 20, 2004

Targeting car buyers on the information superhighway

J. D. Powers has just released the results of a survey of more than 26,000 consumers who leased or bought a new vehicle in January or February 2004. Apparently nearly two thirds of all new car buyers in the US use the web as a resource, and half of all new car buyers use it to help them pick make and model, and find the right price to pay. As other industries are discovering, it is not just Gens X and Y that are using the web to make big-ticket buying decisions. Nearly half of all new car buyers over 60 years old used the web in their search for the right vehicle.

As more buyers are looking to the web for pre-purchase information, manufacturers are actually responding by providing sites that now go beyond the mere brochure-online of a year or two ago. So while six out of ten "online automotive customers" still start their new car search at third-party sites, four out of ten go right to the manufacturer's site, and this proportion is growing.

This is the beauty of integrated marketing, creating awareness and interest using conventional media, and pulling those potential customers to a tactical microsite or brand website for an immersive, comprehensive, salesman-free experience to turn that interest into desire.

A great example of targeted personalized marketing is Audi UK's latest promotion for the A3 Sportback. I received an invitation to view a movie online which shows Audi engineers discovering a link between the heritage of the Audi and the DNA of Godfrey Parkin! I was invited to send similar invitations to other people, who also got to watch their own personalized movie. This is a very creative twist on microsite viral marketing.

It's a pity that manufacturers are getting e-marketing right, but shy away from e-commerce. In most cases you still have to go to a dealer to place an order for a new car. And (in my limited experience) don't expect much in the way of online customer service after the sale is closed. Forsprung durch Technik is still about manufacturing engineers and marketing execs, and has not quite made its way to dealers or corporate finance people. But that will come with market pressure.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Web Marketing Association's WebAward Competition Winners

This year's Web Marketing Association's WebAward winners were announced this week, and can be seen, if you have the patience, via a surprisingly user-unfriendly awards site. I've listed all the best-of-industry winners below. Overall winner was agency Arc Worldwide for their work on the potentially unglamorous Behr Paints, who now provide some really useful functionality on their site. Why would you go to a paint manufacturer's site? To do exactly the kind of stuff Behr has made possible: to get inspired, to create and try out colors, and to get expert advice on your project. Behr is not advertising its products; it is providing a custom service.

The overall "Top Agency 2004" award went to Arnold Worldwide who won thirteen WebAwards this year.

The award winners tend to be heavy on gratuitous Flash intros, but collectively they are a good window into the state of marketing online across many industries.
Of particular interest:

Hass MS&L
Best Education Website
GMability Education

Vérité, Inc.
Best Marketing Website
Symantec Client Security 2.0 Channel Launch Kit symantecclientsecurity.verite.com

Redhead Interactive
Best Consulting Website

Best Design Website
Gigapixel Creative, Inc.

Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt
Best Professional Services Website
Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt Website

PixelMEDIA, Inc.
Best Retail Website
ECCO USA, Inc Web Site

The complete "Best of Industry" awards were:

Cisco Corporate PR
Best Public Relations Website
News@Cisco: Innovating Cisco's Corporate Press Room

Standard & Poor's
Best Institutional Services Website
Standard & Poor's

Batiz.com, Inc.
Best Government Website
Drive Clean

Gigapixel Creative, Inc.
Best Design Website
Gigapixel Creative, Inc.

Impact Interactions
Best International Business Website
SAP Community

webfact gmbH
Best Broadcasting Website
Endemol Corporate website

Redhead Interactive
Best Consulting Website

Imirage, Inc
Best Credit Union Website
APCI Federal Credit Union

MarketSource, Inc
Best Construction Website
Four Seasons Consumer Web Site and Franchise Portal

Fusion PR
Best Directory or Search Engine Website

Hill and Knowlton
Best Computer: Retailer Website

Best Restaurant Website
Mercy Wine Bar

The Tuesday Group, Inc.
Best B2B Website
Universal Studios Consumer Products Group

Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt
Best Professional Services Website
Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt Website

Best Home Building Website
Crane Performance Siding Web Site

Roche Diagnostics
Best Health Care Website
Diabetes Assistant

Strong Financial
Best Brokerage Website
Strong Financial

Arnold Worldwide
Best Events Website
Pods Unite
Currently not available

Best Advocacy Website
Register and Vote 2004

Gerard Konars
Best Small Business Website
Bridal and Formal, Inc. Website

Best Game Site Website

Best Sports Website
RBK Sound and Rhythm

Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide
Best Intranet Website
DHL Merger Intranet

Diamond of California
Best Food Industry Website
Emerald of California Website

Saturno Design LLC
Best Legal Website
Pierce Atwood - Attorneys at Law

Brody PR
Best Real Estate Website
RealEstateJournal.com, The Wall Street Journal’s guide to property

Moving Minds, LLC
Best Financial Services Website

Best Internet Service Provider Website
Verio Global IP Solutions

Best Airline Website
AirTran Airways - E-Annual 2003

Best Beverage Website
Early Times

Organic, Inc.
Best Telecommunication Website
Sprint PCS Ready Link site

WeightWatchers.com, Inc.
Best Online Community Website

Kel Geddes Management Ltd
Best Catalog Website
The Anne Geddes Baby Clothing Collection Website

VSA Partners, Inc.
Best Investor Relations Website
Ameritrade Holding Corporation Web Site

BGT Partners - Miami
Best Leisure Website

Allied Capital Corporation
Best Investment Website
Allied Capital Corporation

Aesention, Inc.
Best Associations Website
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce

Vérité, Inc.
Best Marketing Website
Symantec Client Security 2.0 Channel Launch Kit

bbdigital (Blattner Brunner)
Best Mutual Fund Website
HighMark Funds Website

Best Publishing Website
New Homes Guide Website

Hass MS&L
Best Education Website
GMability Education

ISL Consutling
Best Toy & Hobby Website
Chevron Cars

BURST! Media
Best Newspaper Website
Christian Science Monitor

Best Faith-based Website
A Worldwide Community of Christian Photographers

PixelMEDIA, Inc.
Best Retail Website
ECCO USA, Inc Web Site

Bent Media
Best Consumer Goods Website
TABASCO® PepperFest®

Best Music Website
Sting: Public & Pay Member Site

Blitz Digital Studios
Best Entertainment Website
The Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divded Website

I.T. UNITED Corporation
Best Non-Profit Website
WWF Children of the Earth

Conselleria de Turismo - Generalitat Valenciana
Best Regional Website
Official tourism site of the Land of Valencia

Ion Global Limited
Best Bank Website
HSBC Card Services HK

Macquarium, Inc.
Best Other Website
The Home Depot Nursery Certification Program

Best Medical Website

Best Application Service Provider Website
Leopard em Web site

Stellent, Inc.
Best Biotechnology Website
Genzyme Web Initiative

Azavar Technologies
Best Diversified Business Website
CFC Corporate Website

Weber Shandwick Web Relations
Best Military Website
V2C2 Electronic Press Kit (EPK)

The Weather Channel
Best General Interest Website

Idea Integration
Best Employment Website
Aegis Therapies

Bridge Worldwide
Best E-Zine Website
Health Expressions

Hanon McKendry/The Brand Consultants
Best Advertising Website
Lake Effect Website

Nurun Inc.
Best Manufacturing Website
BRP Corporate/Brand Web Ecosystem

Bailey Lauerman
Best Energy Website
Abengoa Bioenergy

Best Insurance Website
Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey Website

CNET News.com
Best News Website
CNET News.com

Peppers & Rogers Group
Best Media Website
Peppers & Rogers Group

First Marketing
Best Email Website
Mediacom e-news

Arc Worldwide
Best of Show, Best Interactive Services Website
Behr Paint

Quicksilver Associates
Best Travel Website
Seabourn Cruise Line

Best Family Website
Bring Elsie Home

2Advanced Studios, LLC
Best Movie Website
Exorcist The Beginning

Wind River
Best Computer: Software Website
Wind River

Interactive Sites
Best Hotel and Lodging Website
The New York Palace Web Site

Hill & Knowlton for HP
Best Computer: Hardware Website

Onlinefocus, Inc.
Best Transportation Website
FedEx Identity

eSiteful Corporation
Best Magazine Website
Saudi Aramco World

eSiteful Corporation
Best School Website
Plano Independent School District

Best Radio Website
Live365 Internet Radio

The Harrington Group
Best Portal Website

EYE and MIND Studio
Best Arts Website
EYE and MIND Studio Website

Visual Arts Press, Ltd.
Best University Website
School of Visual Arts Website

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

How surfers' eyes scan your site

The Eyetrack III survey tracked the eyes of people as they looked at news web sites. There's a lot of interesting detail on their site that may give web designers and e-marketers some food for thought. The study focused on news-style web sites and aimed to see if there were different viewing and comprehension results for different styles of layout. But the insights go way beyond news site design issues.

The sample used to produce the report was only 46, and most of those sampled were Anglo/Caucasian (apparently eye-shape can defeat the Tobii ET-17 eyetracker that was used). So you can't get any meaningful data about ethnicity or other segmentation such as education. But the big-picture aggregates are interesting, and the heat-maps that are used to display the data are really great.

I got involved in a much more primitive eye-scaning study back in the early 1980s. We were trying to quantify the impact of placing brands at different heights on supermarket shelves, testing the impact of "shelf talkers" (the supermarket shelf equivalent of an ad banner), as well as trying to see what package designs got most eye-attention from passing shoppers. I think we concluded that whatever the results were telling us was exactly what we would have expected anyway, so the testing had little real value. It seems that what Eyestracker III tells us is also pretty much what we would have expected anyway, but it's nice to have it confirmed.

From my perspective, the most interesting observations were on advertising. With web ads getting a clickthrough rate of less than 0.5 percent, the more we know about surfer interactions with ads, the better. Some highlights:

Performance of an ad is very dependent on its placement. Ads in the left and top sections get more attention than those in the right and lower sections of a page:
We found among our test subjects that there were often instances when they did not look directly at ads, even for a fraction of a second. That doesn't mean they didn't see them at all -- in some cases eyes fixated close enough to the ads to be able to view them in peripheral vision; in other cases they looked at ads directly; and in many cases, they didn't see them at all. And placement of ads mattered a lot.

Visual breaks in design can be barriers to ad visibility:
participants tended to avoid ads when a visual barrier of either white space or a border sat between the ad and the editorial content. A border or rule, or a visible area of white space, seemed to stop many people from viewing an ad.

Ads that blend into the page, especially text ads, get more attention:
ads that blended into surrounding editorial content on a news homepage attracted people's eyes more often than ads that featured contrasting colors or designs. If an ad was approximately the same background color as the rest of the page, it received more eye fixations.

The size of an ad has an impact, with large ads performing well:
Larger ads are seen before smaller ones, our observations suggest. The larger ads on homepages do not, however, get viewed for any longer than smaller ads. With the exception of text ads ... all banners of all sizes on homepages were seen, on average, for between 0.6 and 1.6 seconds.

Some other observations in the "well we knew that, didn't we?" category that really could use further detailed study:

  • Ads inset within article text are seen more than most others.

  • Mouseover-expand ads were viewed more than other banner ads.

  • Static ads vs. animated ads revealed mix results.

  • Ad creative quality, content affect viewing behavior.

  • Small pop-ups are quickly viewed, then closed or hidden

  • The Eyetracker III study opens up the potential for a lot of other less generic studies based on the same technology, but with bigger sample groups. It might help answer questions like such as do surfers have different eyepaths depending on their home language or alphabet, and what are those paths? What role does site color scheme play? In e-learning, does animated content really make comprehension or retention faster than static content? And is a picture really worth a thousand words?

    Kudos to the Eyetrack III team for a fascinating study, and even more kudos for providing such a comprehensive insight into it on the dedicated Eyetrack III website.

    Monday, September 13, 2004

    Viral marketing gets communal

    There was a time when viral marketing was what Hotmail did so successfully - attaching your pitch and contact link to someone else's messages in order to spread the word through a kind of endorsement-by-default. But as the internet population evolves into more sophisticated networked communication, including p2p communities, viral marketing is getting more subtle -- and more creative.

    The contestants on this season's "The Apprentice 2" all have profiles on Friendster, the online community. This is an interesting effort to make reality TV even more real, to add layers of depth to the entertainment experience, and to generate buzz from fans that will bring others into the fan-base. It's not the first time: as part of the marketing of the movie "Anchorman" each of the key characters had Friendster profiles, so you could talk to them and about them.

    I suspect this is just the beginning of a trend toward exploiting online communities to build marketing momentum. It's a natural progression for interactive mixed-media marketing campaigns, because it starts to personalize the experience of the individual consumer, and allows for a sustained level of interest and involvement beyond the 15 second spot. Popular television shows and movies started offering fan sites rich in information and background several years ago; then they added centralized threaded discussion capabilities to try to stimulate interaction. Stimulationg decentrazized peer-to-peer communication in an organic community is a logical next step.

    But it takes some courage to do this -- traditional marketers have usually had an almost paranoid obsession with controlling what is said about their brand and how it is said. Those who live by viral marketing can die by it too.

    Of course, online p2p is only one aspect of the drive to go viral. Face-to-face communication and good old fashioned e-mail and IM are effective ways to spread the message, so long as you have a core group of advocates in your target market ready to get passionate about your product and make the effort to tell their friends. Services like P&G's Tremor are hoping to crack the secret of teen word of mouth advertising. They use "social marketing", leveraging the stories teens tell each other about a product to amplify the essential promise of the product and generate a wave of viral advocacy. Tremor claims to have a posse of 200,000 or more teens on its books who meet the criteria to be "connectors". A connector is someone who is not only networked wide and deep, but is also an enthusiastic early adopter and a persuasive communicator.

    Network television should start to worry about losing both audience and advertisers. Not only are teens spending less time in front of the box these days, advertisers are finding alternative ways to get their message out to them.

    But it is not just teens who use online communication, so I guess we can expect some of the advertising for cars, financial services, and pharmaceuticals to start along that path any time now. Car manufacturers have already had success with mixed media interactives, such as running radio campaigns that drive listeners to a website. Encouraging knowledge-sharing, community-building, and p2p advocacy under a Ford or Pfizer umbrella may already be on the drawing boards.

    Thursday, September 09, 2004

    The American dream loses its appeal for foreign students

    A while back on a discussion forum (I think it was trdev), I made the point that the US will only start taking China and India seriously as major economic threats when those countries stop sending their best and brightest to US schools for their education, and start favoring their own academic institutions. Well, it's happening.

    Applications to US graduate schools from people in China, India and Korea — the countries where the majority of international students come from — dropped 45%, 28% and 14% respectively from last year to this year. According to a study released by the Council of Graduate Schools and reported on in USA Today, U.S. graduate schools this year saw a 28% decline in applications from international students.

    The reasons cited by those institutions surveyed included the increased difficulty in getting visas and the perception that the US is less foreigner-friendly since 9/11. They don't mention the fact that US-based high-tech careers are no longer a major draw since our knowledge industries are being offshored at an alarming rate. Or that the rapid growth in opportunities at home makes the American dream relatively less attractive than it used to be.

    America is no longer the education-and-career destination of choice for many in places like China and India. Their own domestic hi-tech economies are booming while ours is deflating. And as a new affluence and international prestige sweeps across those countries, the quality and reputation of their premiere education institutions grows too.

    Maybe the lack of interest from foreigners also accounts for the dramatic drop-off in applications for undergraduate engineering and sciences positions at US universities; it certainly exacerbates it. As I mentined in a post last month:
    India keeps graduating more technical people than the US, so the “economic discontinuities” are likely to be around for a while. US enrollments in computer science degree programs are apparently down 30-40 percent on 1999. A June 19 article in the LA Times said computer science enrollments at MIT dropped 44% from 1999 to 2003. "The decline has hit just about every type of school. At UC Berkeley, the number of students enrolling in computer science and computer engineering dropped 41% in that period. Enrollments at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta fell 45%. Nationwide, new enrollments are at 1996 levels — and few expect them to rebound soon."

    This is not a temporary blip in the numbers. It is the start of a serious trend that has very bad economic implications for the US. If Americans are not pursuing careers in the sciences, and foreigners are not attracted to come here to pursue those careers, where does it leave the US knowledge economy a decade from now?

    Automatic customer recognition, with fries

    "Good afternoon, Mr. Yakamoto. How did you like that three-pack of tank tops you bought last time you were in?" So says a smiling holographic Gap employee on a giant screen, greeting Tom Cruise as he enters the store. The movie Minority Report is set in 2054, but personalized marketing at store level is just around the corner. And fast-food chains are leading the way.

    The starting point is supply chain management on a micro-scale. If you want to maximize profits in fast food, you need to anticipate orders before they happen. You can do that with modeling -- massaging all of your historical sales data to produce a predictive model of what is going to be ordered at what minute of the day. You can fine-tune that model by watching in real-time the volume and nature of traffic approaching your store. According to this report in InformationWeek, some fast-food outlets have implemented a system that gives food-preparers a few minutes advance notice of a likely order. It uses cameras to recognize the type of vehicle entering the drive-through, infers from past data what type of order is about to be placed, and notifies workers to get busy preparing it. A mini-van is likely to order more burgers than a sedan -- it's that simple.

    Now that's a clunky and imprecise system compared with the eye-scanning person-recognition system of Minority Report. But it apparently has dramatically cut average wait times, has reduced waste significantly, and has cut average training time for new hires from three months to just over a week!

    Imagine the impact on the bottom line of a system that recognizes individual customers and knows their ordering habits. The existing system could be easily updated to read license plates instead of just recognizing generic vehicle types. But that's low-tech. How about a system similar to toll-road smart-tags that each vehicle or each walk-in customer would carry, transmitting at a distance a unique identifier that pulls from the database of past transactions today's likely order? Perhaps a frequent customer card like those issued by Starbucks, but with a smart RFID tag embedded?

    This is not far-fetched Spielberg sci-fi. It happens already in the virtual world of e-commerce. There are not many people who do not have a computer overloaded with cookies from every site they have visited. Those cookies serve as personal identifiers, and make your visit to Amazon.com or any other site more personalized. Privacy advocates warn of potential abuses of the cookie system, and there are many, but consumers don't seem to care. Surveys have shown that we are willing to risk privacy for the convenience of personalization online.

    So how much resistance will there be to the concept in the real world of brick-and-mortar retailing? Would I really object if, on my next visit to Blockbuster, I was greeted by a virtual host who not only recommended a movie that I would probably enjoy, based on my history of past rentals, but ran a trailer for me? Oh, I forgot -- Blockbuster has gone online, too, and that service is already virtually available...

    Wednesday, September 08, 2004

    The Human Touch

    Technology does not design learning experiences, educators do. If you don’t like the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, do you decry frescos and paintbrush manufacturers? Or do you take it up with Michelangelo and Pope Julius? If a project has no constraints, it can take forever, cost a fortune, look spectacular, and still not meet the expectations of its customer. If educators abdicate their responsibilities to programmers, or if they fail to see or exploit the potential of a technology, they carry much of the responsibility for the resulting shallowness of the end result. Clearly, every technology imposes limitations. But the internet imposes far fewer limitations – and presents far greater opportunities – than previous linear distribution technologies like books, video or television.

    In a long and surprisingly ideological article titled The Human Touch, Lowell Monke bemoans the impact of technology on education. Lowell is an assistant professor of education at Wittenberg University, and his article focuses on K-12, so his perspective is different from those in the corporate learning world. His starting position is that those with faith in technology have always been spectacularly wrong about their technology’s ability to revolutionize education, and that the internet is no exception.

    My response is that critics of new technologies have always been spectacularly wrong about the impact of those technologies on society. And where today’s technology is concerned, yesterday’s results have little predictive value. Or, at least, the lessons of history are easily misinterpreted. In the big picture, I agree that much of what passes for online education is a pretty poor effort; but I disagree that it is technology’s fault. If “the human touch” is absent from a learning experience, it is because those who designed the experience failed to grasp that the internet is all about connecting people with each other.

    A computer can inundate a child with mountains of information. However, all of this learning takes place the same way: through abstract symbols, decontextualized and cast on a two-dimensional screen. Contrast that with the way children come to know a tree—by peeling its bark, climbing its branches, sitting under its shade, jumping into its piled-up leaves. Just as important, these firsthand experiences are enveloped by feelings and associations—muscles being used, sun warming the skin, blossoms scenting the air. The computer cannot even approximate any of this.

    Neither can a classroom, or a book. And therein lies a problem with much of Lowell’s position. Before one dismisses technology enhanced learning, one should first judge its alternatives by the same standards. Yes, much of the knowledge we encounter online is abstract and two dimensional, but so is what we read in a book or see on a whiteboard.

    McLuhan understood that the consumption and manipulation of symbolic, abstract information is not an adequate substitute for concrete, firsthand involvement with objects, people, nature, and community, for it ignores the child’s primary educational need—to make meaning out of experience.

    Again, this is true. But, again, if internet technologies are intelligently invoked they can add to the experience and the meaning in any lesson. When I was a kid, Afghanistan was a place that hairy dogs came from and where the Khyber Pass was. I had no idea what a pass or a Khyber actually was. Today’s child can e-mail children at schools in Kabul. That’s context. That’s experience. That’s meaning.

    Lowell uses the example of the simulation game “Oregon Trail” to illustrate his point that simulations fail to teach about reality; that players learn that managing resources is what it takes to be a pioneer, not courage, ingenuity, and faith. He blames technology, but this weakness is in the person or people who conceived the simulation, not in the technology itself. And this is where Lowell really loses me: he asserts that technology has a “propensity to promote certain qualities while sidelining others.” Yes, Marshall McLuhan talked about this as amplification and amputation, but (much as I used to devour his work) McLuhan didn’t get the future right.

    So why is it that schools persist in believing they must expose children to computers early? I think it is for the same reason that we take our children to church, to Fourth of July parades, and indeed to rituals of all types: to initiate them into a culture—in this case, the culture of high technology. The purpose is to infuse them with a set of values that supports the high-tech culture that has spread so rapidly across our society. And this, as we shall see, is perhaps the most disturbing trend of all.

    What is it about those who have decided that technology is A Bad Thing that makes them read deep and disturbing Stepfordian subtexts into its proliferation? Technology is freely adopted because it makes our lives easier, enriches our leisure time, and makes us more productive or more efficient at work. Technologies that do not do these things for us do not proliferate. Are there downsides to doing things with technology that we used to do some other way, or were not able to do before? Undoubtedly. But I for one am delighted that my calculator replaced my slide-rule, and that I am much more in contact with people at a distance than I was when sending a letter involved filling a fountain-pen, finding paper and envelope, and going to the post office to get a stamp. I enjoy getting the news in my fields of interest fed to me in real-time via RSS instead of waiting till 11pm and hoping the local TV news will find time between the police reports and Hollywood gossip to cover news that is relevant to me.

    Every tool demands that we somehow change our environment or values in order to accommodate its use... the music teacher whose program has been cut in order to fund computer labs; the principal who has had to beef up security in order to protect high-priced technology; the superintendent who has had to craft an “acceptable use” agreement that governs children’s use of the Internet ... What the computers-are-just-tools argument ignores is the ecological nature of powerful technologies—that is, their introduction into an environment reconstitutes all of the relationships in that environment, some for better and some for worse. Clinging to the belief that computers have no effect on us allows us to turn a blind eye to the sacrifices that schools have made to accommodate them.

    Right. Every school has a limited budget. Within that budget, there are competing priorities. In some schools, books are more important than desks, and teachers are more important than books. In others, the football coach has more clout than the music teacher, and the library loses out to the science labs. These are issues of policy and politics. If it is too disruptive, too complicated, or too expensive to internet-enable a school, and a sound enough argument cannot be made for the technology, don’t do it. Or lobby for more funds to make it possible, because five years from now every school will be connected and seven years from now nobody will be able to imagine how they got by without it.

    In reconstituting learning as the acquisition of information, the computer also shifts our values. The computer embodies a particular value system, a technological thought world first articulated by Francis Bacon and René Descartes four hundred years ago, that turns our attention outward toward asserting control over our environment ... As it has gradually come to dominate Western thinking, this ideology has entered our educational institutions. Its growing dominance is witnessed in the language that abounds in education: talk of empowerment, student control of learning, standards, assessment tools, and productivity. Almost gone from the conversation are those inner concerns—wisdom, truth, character, imagination, creativity, and meaning—that once formed the core values of education. Outcomes have replaced insights as the yardstick of learning, while standardized tests are replacing human judgment as the means of assessment. No tool supports this technological shift more than computers.

    This is a little silly – though I accept the notion that “those inner concerns” are important, if they have disappeared, it is hardly a result of some rampant technocratic ideology. The world is not the comfortable predictable place it was fifty years ago, today’s student is exposed to hundreds of times more information than an earlier generation, and educators and learning processes have to adapt to stay relevant. The changes in those processes are conceived and implemented by people, not machines, though I agree that machines have made those changes possible. There is no doubt that, like corporate employees, students have to learn more about more things every day, and have decreasing amounts of available time in which to do it. Traditional school systems with rigid start and finish times, fixed curricula, pre-defined contact hours, and teachers under as much pressure to keep learning as their students, are ill-suited to accommodate these learning demands. With careful design, self-managed learning can ease the burdens of teachers and students, without creating a generation of out-of-touch machine-fixated sociopaths. Just as corporate trainers are finding that blending online learning with classroom interaction can save time and accelerate learning, schools should be exploring ways to make classroom work more social and hands-on while basic knowledge is taken care of online.

    I am currently working with the Alliance for Childhood on a set of developmental guidelines to help educators create technology-awareness programs that help young people think about, not just with, technology. This is not the place to go into the details of those guidelines. What I want to emphasize here is that they share one fundamental feature: They situate technology within a set of human values rather than out in front of those values. They do not start by asking what children need to do to adapt to a machine world, but rather, which technologies can best serve human purposes at every educational level and how we can prepare children to make wise decisions about their use in the future.
    Bravo! This – and not all of the lead-up to it in his article – is what is really relevant and important. Once again, the complexity of the debate about technology leads me to agree enthusiastically with the conclusion and recommended actions, while finding the rationale to be full of holes. Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is great, so long as the reasons don’t acquire credibility in themselves.

    We need to take responsibility for what we do with technology, instead of allowing technology to dictate our strategy or constrain our vision. In order to do that, we need to learn enough about technology to understand what it is, and is not, capable of doing. Unlike with Word or Excel, where not being a power user merely means you take longer to get things done, educators who do not fully grasp the potentials and pitfalls of technology enhanced learning risk doing real damage – to their learners, to e-learning itself, and to their own careers. It is not enough to have mastered an authoring package – educators need to be competent analysts of learning problems and architects of learning solutions. They need to be able to put together the right plan and select the right tools for the job. The best solution may not be a technological one at all, or it may involve elements of different technologies mixed with elements of “traditional” processes such as classroom work or mentoring. If you can’t see the big picture, you should not start building.

    Monday, September 06, 2004

    Low-cost web access device for developing nations?

    Getting e-learning and e-commerce to people in developing nations is problematic if their annual income is only a few hundred dollars --- or less. Even if the internet is available, how do people afford a computer to access it? This sub $250 PCtvt device being developed by Carnegie Mellon may help. Smart WiFi phones are more portable, and may soon cost a lot less, but the PCtvt shows what is already being done with the traditional desktop concept.

    It's intention is really to entertain and aid communication in a community, rather than be used as a personal computing device. But it combines a limited computer and a browser with a radically simple icon-driven design, can handle e-mail and voicemail, and can be used as a television and a videophone. All for less than $250.

    The success of this PCtvt depends on their being some kind of telecommunications infrastructure available so it can be hooked up to the net. That may work in a place like India, the PCtvt's initial destination, but it won't work in Africa or anywhere else that landline phone systems are simply unavailable to the poor. Access to the internet can be resolved, at least in urban areas, by wide-area WiFi hotspots of the sort that will be commonplace in America and Europe within a year or two. But the access devices have to be WiFi enabled.

    The PCtvt could herald a wave of new concepts in low-end computing at price points that, in volume, will beat the $200 mark. How about a similar device without the television but with WiFi access, more powerful browser functionality, and secure encryption? It could be used for transactions (e-commerce) and learning (basic literacy, school, teacher training, university, employable skills training). Back such a device with free-to-cheap ASP services to help people set up simple websites and start small online businesses, and a government or aid agency could have a rapid and significant impact on the population of an underdeveloped urban area.

    Wednesday, September 01, 2004

    Philadelphia: free wireless broadband across the city

    The city of Philadelphia is planning to make high-speed wireless access free to anyone in the city by turning 135 square miles into a gigantic hotspot. This is a great example of enlightened leadership acknowledging the importance of universal access to everything the web has to offer. And the remarkable thing is the price tag -- using new wireless mesh technologies, they believe they can get it done for around $10 million dollars plus one and a half million a year.

    This is the first example of massive-scale urban wireless access enablement. It's been done in other places, where CBDs have been enabled. I posted this about a plan to provide wireless to Nantucket island, but that was a mere 800 acres.

    If the first mega-project can be done for this little, what will the tenth or the hundredth project cost? The implications for education and economic development in developing countries are staggering. Development agencies and governments currently put several million dollars into providing the equivalent of an internet cafe, using old-fashioned cabled systems hooked up to desktop iron, that benefit a couple of dozen people at a time. For a little more, you can flood a city with high-speed access from devices that are cheaper than desktops. You could wireless enable every school, home, small business, and government agency, giving them access for free.

    Of course there would be resistance from the vested interests, and there are other practical considerations such as how people get their hands on mobile devices. But the effect of putting a powerful catalyst for development in the hands of the masses is hard to imagine. And it seems to me that the cost of bridging the digital divide so is no longer an issue.