Posts Tagged ‘social networks’

“I’ll see your 10,000 and raise you….

August 16, 2011

In “Dancing with the Stars” I talked about what a classroom with 10,000 students might be like. The transformation of higher education has begun, and the pace of that change is accelerating.

Dick Lipton’s blog Godel’s Lost Letter has since attracted tens of thousands more.  It is a virtual seminar that, for example, coordinated a global effort to referee an important paper in the theory of algorithms.  At times, the number of viewers topped 100,000. Now Stanford’s Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun are offering an online course in artificial intelligence that will enroll 58,000 students.

On September 12, I will join with 60 or so colleagues to offer a MOOC for tens of thousands of students.  Georgia Tech  students will get credit, and others will get badges that could be convertible to credit if they ever enroll at Tech.  Other institutions will announce their approaches to certifying achievement in the course. A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course, a style of college-level teaching that was pioneered by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. The first MOOC, offered in 2008 by George and Stephen was devoted to the subject of their research, a style of learning called connected connectivism. It attracted 10,000 students.

The 2011-12 MOOC is all about transforming university learning and the organizers hope it will attract a much wider global audience.  They are calling it the Mother of all MOOCS.

The course will also be a C21U experiment on self-certification, a concept I discussed in my book. Where will this all lead?  It’s far too soon to predict an outcome, but within the last year, the number of experiments in higher education has exploded.  If you believe like me that innovative change is just what traditional colleges and universities need, that’s a good thing. The way to innovate is to try out lots of ideas.

An Abundance of Choices

November 13, 2009

Kalinga Raipur

I have in recent years — and for many different reasons — become a fan of Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind.[1] Pink has a compelling framework for thinking about value.  First, can what I am trying to do be done better (or cheaper or faster) by a computer?  Second, is what I am offering in demand in an age of abundance? Finally, can what I am trying to do be done more efficiently elsewhere?

As readers know by now, I am working on a WWC book about higher education, and  I have found that that the question of value is central to understanding where American higher education is going. Simply put, when there are abundant choices for university education, will traditional universities offer enough value to be able to withstand the coming pressure of a global marketplace?

Here’s why I am concerned.  In any market with growing demand and abundant choices, there are only three ways to win: have an unassailable brand, offer the lowest prices, or offer the most compelling value.  Even better is to be able to win with both price and value. There is really only a handful — 70 at most — of global brands in higher education, so for most of the 3,000 or so accredited colleges — let’s call this the Middle —  it’s a matter of finding the right balance between cost and value.  Universities are profligate consumers of resources, so it came as no surprise to read in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education that 58 private colleges have now joined the $50,000 club.  Public universities are not far behind.  If I am right about winners and losers in global marketplaces, the institutions in the Middle who are at most risk had better get the value equation right.  The problem is that most of them don’t have a very clear idea of their value.

That’s significant because  half of the world’s population has joined the free market economies in the last fifteen years. For the most part, these are countries with rich educational heritage, that also understand the value of a well-educated labor force.  The market for higher education is bubbling as new and established players alike  scramble to figure out how to reach hundreds of millions of students:

But the demand for higher education is continuing to increase with more and more students wanting a higher education today than ever before. How can we bridge the gap between increasing demand and decreasing government funding for higher education? The only option is to tap the private sector to participate in the funding and provision of higher education. The process of increasing private participation in higher education has already begun with a few states like Chhattisgarh and Uttaranchal having passed legislation to permit the setting up of private universities in their states. Indeed the private sector has been funding higher education in India for a long time, albeit on a very limited scale. The Birla Institute of Technology and Science at Pilani in Rajasthan, which is funded and run by the Birla Group Trust, became an officially recognised university as far back as 1964. Other institutions like the Manipal Group in Manipal in Karnataka have been running private colleges since 1953 and the Manipal Academy of Higher Education became a deemed university in 1993. Many other self-financing colleges were set up in the early 1990s and a few of them have now become deemed universities.[2]

The problem for American universities is that, since  few of them understand their value to traditional students, the chances are slim that they will figure out what the millions of new students want. I can tell you that it’s not football. Nor is it finding ways to “dumb down” an American degree.


In fact the emerging markets are moving aggressively to close down storefront diploma mills.


To the extent that most universities in the Middle concentrate on classroom instruction, the business model of higher education is under tremendous pressure.  Although university level training and an aging population will continue to drive demand for classroom instruction, the experience of students in large, multi-section introductory courses is much worse than well-conceived and executed performances by world-class experts who have a passion for communicating their love of subject.

So if few instructors are equipped to compete with the zip of a star from ItunesU™ (see my Dancing with the Stars post) then how does the 21st Century university make itself valuable?  Universities must reinvent themselves as creative entities– and they must do it in a way that is smart public policy and is also economically sustainable.

That brings me back to Daniel Pink and what he sees as the elements of creativity:

  1. Design – Moving beyond function to engage the sense.
  2. Story – Narrative added to products and services – not just argument.
  3. Symphony – Adding invention and big picture thinking (not just detail focus).
  4. Empathy – Going beyond logic and engaging emotion and intuition.
  5. Play – Bringing humor and light-heartedness to business and products.
  6. Meaning – Immaterial feelings and values of products.

This is not a bad start for universities that want to redefine their value.   This was true in when the Medieval monk Peter Abelard  provoked his students to question orthodox thought, and it was true when Thomas Jefferson realized that a university education might result in peer groups that were specialized to the sciences.   Charles Vest realized that the value of an MIT education did not lie in the lectures and textbooks but in energy and intellect of the MIT community.   It is true that the most immediate way to experience a community is to live within it, but it is not the only way.   The technology of social networks and on line communities extends the reach of physical community beyond geographic boundaries.

To deliver on a vision like that American colleges and universities are going to need new leadership, because there doesn’t seem to be much  appetite for doing much more than nibbling around the edges.

[1] Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, Riverhead Books, 2005


[2] Private Universities in India — Why? How? Education in India,

Social Fragmentation and the Economic Stagnation of Atlanta’s IT Cluser: Q&A with Danny Breznitz

September 28, 2009

Georgia Tech’s Danny Breznitz and Mollie Taylor just completed a study of how communal roots and a rich complex of social networks can impact the health of high tech clusters and entrepreneurial activity.  Entitled The Communal Roots of Entrepreneurial-Technological Growth? Social Fragmentation and the Economic Stagnation of Atlanta’s IT Cluster, the preprint of their report has, as you might expect from the title, already attracted some attention in Atlanta.

One conclusion of the Breznitz-Taylor report is that the effects of social networks often dominate the availability of other, more quantifiable resources in determining the long-term health of  industries in a region.  Since I devoted my first post to exploring the impact of fluid social mixing on the Silicon Valley culture, I thought it would be interesting to sit down with Danny Breznitz to get his thoughts on why he thinks this is so.

A former Fellow at MIT’s Industrial Performance Center, Danny’s book Innovation and the State won the 2008 Donald K. Price award for the Best Book in Science and Technology Politics.

Danny started out by telling me he had already thought about it in terms of colliding worlds: local economic development and technology entrepreneurs.

Q: My premise in “Proposition 13” is that social mixing is evidence of many other social networks that come into play when new companies are hatched in Silicon Valley.  Do you think that’s true?

A: Yes, we argue in our paper that these kinds of networking relationships increase social capital in a region and that a cluster rich with social capital actually binds key companies and individuals to the cluster. That not only makes it harder for them to leave the region, it increases the supply of specialized talent that startups need,  as well as the ability of disparate players to meet and come together with novel ideas across domains of knowledge.

Q: Your paper has an intriguing title.  What does it mean?

A: We studied the IT industry in the Atlanta metropolitan area to find out why so many apparently successful Atlanta companies leave the region for California or other states.  This is true even for companies that came out of places like Georgia Tech or were founded by Atlanta natives so you would think that the ties to the region were strong.  This is what we mean by stagnation.  The answer seems to be that without a a rich multiplex of social networks cluster development will stagnate.

Q: You say that Atlanta’s High Tech cluster is stagnant.  In what way?

A: Stagnation is a way of describing what happens to a region when there are no local clusters with sustained growth.  Atlanta is still a global leader because of the many technology initiatives that attract entrepreneurs, but over the past ten years or so many of the most promising companies have decided to leave the area altogether.  What is especially problematic is that the most promising high tech startups — the source of future grown — are the ones that are most prone to move away.

Q: Can you give examples?

A: Every data set we looked at told the same story: technology startups with consequence tend to leave Atlanta.  If you look at the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s list of “Top Venture Capital Deals” from 1999 to 2007, for example 42% have left Georgia. In fact, 40% leave within the first three years of getting their first round of VC investment, and hence we become a feeder cluster if you will.  We are in real danger of becoming one big technology incubation center whose successes are raided by other regions.

Q: In the same way that MASPAR left Boston for Silicon Valley?

A: Exactly.  In the case of MASPAR it was the ready availability of all the people, talent, money, and other resources that would be needed to grow a successful company. In the case of Atlanta companies that leave the region, California and the New York/New Jersey areas are by far the most frequent destinations:  California because it is the leading technological cluster and New York because it is the leading financial center. These are also two major sources   of venture capital for the Atlanta technology industry.

Q:  Atlanta touts Georgia Tech, GRA, the proximity of universities, transportation and infrastructure as reasons high tech companies should locate here.  Do you disagree that these are important factors?

A:  This is called “factor availability”. The availability of factors like universities is definitely important for technological entrepreneurial growth. So not only do I agree that these are important but I think that Atlanta and Georgia have been doing a great job in this regard. However, our research indicates that societal variables are just as important and maybe are even more important. There is a growing body of thought among researchers that supports this view from a theoretical standpoint as well. Our findings suggest that if we do not come up with new ideas and policies to change the societal environment of the technology center in Atlanta, we will not enjoy the fruits of our own investments.

Q:  It’s been over a decade since Analee Saxenian noted that flattened hierarchies helped explain the economic disparities between Route 101 in California and Route 128 in Massachusetts.  How does your study add to her insight?

A: Saxenian’s study concentrated on the structure of the high tech industry in Silicon Valley and Boston’s Route 128 and we agree that hierarchical companies make it more difficult to share knowledge and talent. We wanted to understand the situation in Atlanta and to bring all the tools of modern social research to bear on the problem.  In fact, you can argue that Saxenian’s book was talking about social capital, although she did not use that term.

Q: Do you think Atlanta economic development planners have taken those effects into account?

A: We think that the planners have done a good job at emphasizing factor availability which is important in beginning new companies, but corresponding attention has not been given to the health of the local community. Although the factors are necessary, they are not sufficient.  Without a better supply of social capital it will be difficult to sustain cluster growth. On the positive side, the initiatives and leadership of The Enterprise Innovation Institute suggest that Georgia Tech leadership has reached the same conclusions.

Q:  Why the gulf between Entrepreneurs and Economic Development Offices?

A:  I am not sure it’s a gulf. It’s a difficult question because policy planners can only do so much to help.  Economic Developers can influence variables through programs like GRA.  At some point, for example, the personal involvement of top executives from Atlanta’s leading companies needs to be promoted. We should also remember that companies are for profit organizations – if companies believe that they have better chances of maximizing profits or returns for their investors somewhere else they will be under immense pressure to leave. We must realize that and tailor our policies to ensure the these pressures are mitigated and that the perceived advantages of other regions do so not seem to be so high in the eyes of  the people who made relocation decisions: the founders, boards, investors and customers.

Q:  What are the three things that could be most helpful in reinvigorating Atlanta’s high tech cluster?

A: We have to look in the mirror.  It’s easy to reflect on how well we’re doing, but it’s more difficult so say:  “Well, we need to add more attention in these other areas too because what we’re doing now is just not enough.” First, I think a new set initiatives anchored around Georgia Tech should be developed to focus on how current and future large Atlanta companies can maintain closer connections with Atlanta’s high tech industry.  Second, I would like to see renewed attention to stimulating a more local VC industry. VC’s are critical to shaping the social network of the companies in their portfolio and as long as those networks are located somewhere else, local companies will always be at risk for relocating closer to the networks.  Third, I would like to see Atlanta executives more involved at all levels of entrepreneurial activity.  Executives who have “made it” invest their own money in Atlanta, which is important, but that is not same as the many different kinds of social involvement that it would take to embed startups in the region. A leadership group that took on this challenge would be a very good thing for Atlanta.

Q: What should Atlanta business leaders be doing to take advantage of the city’s strengths?

A: In addition to the leadership group?  I think promoting the kind of social mixing that you were talking about in “Proposition 13” and has been so important in other healthy clusters would be a good first step.  The Enterprise Innovation Institute at Georgia Tech has funded us to continue this research, expand and update our databases, and provide more focused policy recommendations.  I hope Atlanta business leaders will also help as our study goes forward.

Q: Are there lessons learned from the situation in Atlanta that can be applied  in other cities?

A: Our findings are based on social networking theory and an approach to data analysis that synthesizes information from many sources.  We think there are lessons from studying the relationship between business-social structure and entrepreneurial growth.  Comparing the findings for Atlanta with other regions would help us understand, for example, whether there are geographic factors that come into play or whether the international environment is important.  I think the main lesson, not only for Atlanta, is that you have to go beyond the traditional view of what is crucial for  high tech growth and take a hard look at the health of your community.