I went to two events this past weekend that helped form some thoughts about my relationship to my work, teaching students. The first, on Friday was “Rise of the Independents,” a crash course into the coworking world with Chris Guillebeau author of the $100 Startup. The second was The Brooklyn Food Coalition Conference in Greenpoint.

In the $100 Startup Chris Guillebeau interviews entrepreneurs who either left their job by choice or were let go and found themselves with the opportunity to pursue an independent career. I see Chris’ book as almost the polar opposite of the Lean Startup, which is focused heavily on high-growth startups. $100 startup instead looks at people who are figuring out how to make a living on their own with little or no capital investment and with a minimal trial and effort strategy. At the event on Friday, Chris talked a lot about the idea of value. If you are adding value, providing a good or service people want then you can make a profit. If things aren’t going the way you’d like, you can adjust to figure out what the value is and how to better provide it. The book $100 startup chronicle everyday people making decisions like this some are indeed making lots of money on their businesses ($1M+ per year), but they’re doing so with little to no capital investment or traditional business loans. Tony Bacigalupo underlined the work of the book in his introduction by describing how this  major shift towards microbusiness is happening despite being under-reported in the media.

Chris Guillebeau Speaks at the Rise of the Independents

At the Brooklyn Food Coalition conference there were workshops on everything from why you shouldn’t eat meat to food politics and policies to navigating the minutiae of government red tape to build a rooftop garden. It was clear that no matter which side of the argument you were on over whether food is a basic human right and shouldn’t be subject to market fluctuations, that most of the action was in the local organizing. Every where you turned you saw t-shirts and fliers for local gardens community coops, CSAs and meetup groups for neighborhoods. Just like with the microbusiness revolution described in the $100 Startup the talk is important but grossly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of action happening on a local level. While at the conference I took a workshop on food security and profit where the conversation quickly turned to a discussion of GMO labeling and concerns about the safety of food, and how to protect against contaminants. I’m always struck in these conversations how closely it mirrors discussion of software patents, DRM and file-sharing. Companies want to protect IP to the detriment of the spread of ideas. Rebel farmers share seeds illegally circumventing copy-protection measures put in place by these large corporations.

There used to be an understanding that college was a four year phenomenon followed by lifelong employment with little to no variation until retirement. It’s almost laughable to type such absurdities now. The realities of the modern economy is that jobs change frequently and skill-sets even more.

When I left my full time job to start a consulting business I was following in the footsteps of millions of other accidental entrepreneurs. I knew teaching would be a big part of what I do but wasn’t 100% sure it could be a business. By experimenting with adding value raising and lowering prices trying out platforms and venues, I was able to figure out a way to make it work. There’s so many resources available for learning today Meetup, General Assembly, Eventbrite, Skillshare, Girl DevelopIt, CodeAcademy just to name a few. It’s quite possible, as I’ve written on before, to make a living by being a teacher and a lot of people do. But like so many things happening in this new microbusiness, sharing-economy a lot of the work is happening under the radar.

A lot of my colleagues don’t realize I’ve worked in academia for a number of years. In fact almost exclusively except for the last six years working in training and education at Apple Inc. Like many people I share the belief that the education system and academia is broken. Unlike many others I don’t believe this means there’s no good in it. I do, however think there are some key factors that make the industry of education seem outmoded. Here’s just a few factors:

  1. Traditional education is a vehicle for debt 
    Far too much financial aid and school budgets are going towards overhead costs. No doubt it’s expensive to run a university but one doesn’t need to stray far to see students waking up to the fact that the debt they’ve been lead into is a broken promise of society. See this video of Michael Ellsberg discussing the issue. One of the problems that was outlined by Tony Wagner at the Skillshare Penny Conference last month in New York (video here) is that student’s aren’t being taught the right skills. Wagner outlined his mission for teaching entrepreneurial skills for adaptability in the new economy. In some respects this is a no-brainer. If one is encouraged to take on a debt shouldn’t that loan agreement be entered into only when both parties have a tacit understanding of what it takes to repay said loan? I know my bank, granted a wonderful local credit union in Brooklyn (http://brooklyn.coop), requires a multi-week course on debt repayment before taking out a business loan. Education is an investment towards future employment. Shouldn’t the rules of debt and the realities of the market enter into the discussion before graduation?
  2. Education is an ongoing process
    There used to be an understanding that college was a four year phenomenon followed by lifelong employment with little to no variation until retirement. It’s almost laughable to type such absurdities now. The realities of the modern economy is that jobs change frequently and skill-sets even more. I remember when I entered the workforce there being discussions of who should use email and who should know how to type. Only certain employees (mainly secretaries) might have a functional understanding of Microsoft office. That seems like a distant past now. Everyone must know basic Office skills. The same shift is happening with web technologies. I see in my classes every month dozens of traditional and graphic designers who’ve seen their client base and workload transition over to the web with rapid pace. They’re playing catch up along with everyone else. If you are just entering the workforce today the reality is that you’ll have to keep up your learning. In fact only those who continually adapt will move forward. Entrepreneurial skills are the WPM of the 21st century.


Tony Bacigalupo at the Rise of the Independents

So what is to be done? The reality is changes are already taking place even if under the radar for the society at large. Many New York tech startups are focused wholly on education or on resources that enable education and communication. There’s a new emphasis on entrepreneurship. But it’s still not enough. The market needs to continue growing and expanding. We need to stop seeing the emphasis on educational resources purely as a market and more as a movement. Similar to how the local food movement is being driven by the loud voices (think: Whole Foods) it’s also incredibly reliant on a strong grass-roots army of local and urban farmers. There are plenty of large voices in the ed tech community (and there will continue to be more) but there needs to also be a recognition amongst teachers and content providers that they are working towards a set of common goals.

Let’s breakdown the idea of the classroom as the sole locus of enlightenment. This means a new emphasis on personal responsibility.

So what are these common goals?

  • Education happens anywhere: The four years and you’re done model is outmoded and outpaced. Learning can happen in a video, in an online course, at a meetup, by reading a blog article or reading a book. The point isn’t that traditional educational institutions don’t matter. Peer review is an incredibly powerful tool. At the same time the experience of learning can and should be experienced subjectively. Let’s break down the idea of the classroom as the sole locus of enlightenment. This means a new emphasis on personal responsibility.
  • Open Source + Curation: Borrowing techniques from the open source software movements, education should be widely available and accessible. This may seem a daring or foolish stance in the age of Information where silos of knowledge are fortified by a pristine paywall. As the saying goes free as in freedom not as in free beer. I need only to point to my own experience to show an example of how this works. I teach a class called Getting Started with WordPress. WordPress is an open source content management system free to download and use from WordPress.org. The full documentation for WordPress is available for free online. There are hundreds and thousands of resources available for free online but I still charge ~$30 for my class which is basically a culling together of resources I’ve found since I’ve been an avid WordPress user for seven years. Why do students pay? They are looking for someone to explain it to them in an interesting and clear way. They know that they can find the content I teach available for free online (in fact I tell them this) but I’m saving them time and effort by giving them all the important things in one 90 minute session.
  • Education should be Entertaining: This may be somewhat controversial but if you’re looking at a solution that responds to the market demands of education then adding drama into the mix should not be ignored. Emotion and memory retention are highly connected. If you’re able to create a drama through teaching, which forces the students into uncomfortable territory but ultimately rewards them by having them find their own solution there’s a higher probability that they will remember the information. Though I’m not a gamification expert, I believe this is some of the argument for why it’s being so rapidly adopted into education.
  • Collaboration: As I said above one thing that binds together the organic and local food movements as well as the open source and microeconomic movements is the recognition of common goals. That is to say that there can be disagreements and debates within the movements but it’s the commonality and especially the respect for the grassroots that makes these things flow together. In the adult education category there’s a lot of room to grow here. Too often I hear academia and established professional training institutions see startup education brands and technologies as a threat. Likewise there’s sometimes a chip on the shoulder of the upstarts since they too often feel they’re not getting adequately recognized for their efforts. To borrow a well trod phrase: can’t we all just get along? Instructors should feel empowered to move fluidly between traditional academia and online and offline independent training.

In fact only those who continually adapt will move forward. Entrepreneurial skills are the WPM of the 21st century.

  • Entrepreneurship: Finally instructors and students should begin to see themselves as entrepreneurs. Not all should or will be but the more we open the dialogue to making education a grassroots effort the more we’ll have to be open to discussions of profit and how to make sustainable models of educational resources. This sense of business acumen is something that will in turn inspire our students as students become employees and entrepreneurs and then give back by teaching their own skills to others. So student becomes teacher who then becomes student. Just as the gardner grows her own tomato for her salad and when she has an excess shares with her friends and colleagues.

In conclusion education is changing. It’s becoming more agile. There’s more resources than ever for any one to share their valuable skills with others. At the same time there’s a recognition that traditional models aren’t living up to their promises. Edupreneurs need only look at the $100startup model and the local food movements to see that the grassroots are an important and in some cases a foremost influence on larger trends as a whole. Indeed one of the most interesting things about education is how it’s already woven into other movements seamlessly as a tool. We need only recognize our common goals and work together to make the impact we’re looking for.


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