One year ago today, I silenced myself

FrankBWSXSWeduOne year ago today, I was preparing my final presentation for an education technology conference, a practical session at ISTE on students’ digital footprints and privacy.

One year ago today, I had finished dealing with comments and tweets on my last education technology analysis, a snarkfest for GeekWire on edtech trends, fads, and WTFs.

GeekWirecolumnsOne year ago today, I walked away from formally writing or speaking about edtech. I did so after two decades of writing and speaking about edtech, in locations as varied as New Zealand and DC, and for vehicles as varied as EdSurge and MindShift.

It was a departure I had planned for months, after many well-received keynotes and columns as an independent observer.

ETIN2As 365 days passed, a few began to notice my absence as a speaker or attendee at industry-focused conferences (this month, I shed my Advisory Board member role for SXSWedu, one that I’d held since 2012). A very fewer have asked: Why?

I usually coyly respond that it was time, that I was pruning extraneous activity. Now it seems worth unpacking that further into three reasons:

  • The influence of stupid money. Venture capital has an important role to play in accelerating startups and good ideas. But cash can equally and aggressively propel bad ideas. It was becoming increasingly clear that, as with consumer tech in the late 1990s, too much money was chasing too few good ideas in edtech by the middle of this decade. That gold-rush mentality was influencing what people wanted to write about, read about, hear about, and even which conferences waned and waxed.
  • The binary religious war. More and more of the conversation about edtech — inflamed by limited attention spans and limited social media character counts — devolved into an “edtech is education’s savior” or “edtech is de-humanizingly evil” binary argument. (There also were hidden financial or social agendas in which edtech was purely used as a stalking horse.) The truth is far more nuanced. Edtech is a tool that can be used both badly and well under human direction. And “edtech” is no longer just one thing, like a network connection, or a device, or software: It takes so many forms, that loving or hating “edtech” generically is meaningless. But nuance is not currently in vogue in popular dialogue, and I deal in nuance and its antecedent, thoughtfulness.
  • The lack of anything new to say. I still have plenty I’m observing and noting about education technology. I’m just no longer saying it publicly, because so much of what I have to say would repeat what I’ve said before about appropriate use, workable business models, realistic speed of change and all that. The only thing worse than a voice crying in the wilderness is the cranky old guy repeatedly yelling, “Get off my lawn!” Sometimes, the best approach when you have nothing significantly new to add is to simply shut up.

I still work in edtech. I still believe it has promise. I still occasionally write and speak about other types of technology (most recently, on subjects from Amazon to digital public media for GeekWire).

But as for edtech? Others can own the microphone and keyboard. I’ll let my previous work speak for itself. Unless or until, that is, I get so worked up that I can’t stand being silent anymore.

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P.S. Still reading? Even though I’m not formally writing or speaking about edtech right now, I do tweet. And an ad hoc comment might occasionally leave my lips. As it appropriately did at ISTE this week, a year after my last formal presentation. Kevin Hogan pulled me in front of a camera to ask me about trends I saw on the exhibit floor for his Tech & Learning Live broadcast. Enjoy. But please don’t get used to it.

Awards don’t matter, until you get one

SJPAwardsI will openly admit that yes, I’ve won two awards for my recent writing in GeekWire from the Society of Professional Journalists. And I’m delighted to have done so.

This weekend, at the SPJ Gala held in Seattle for the Northwest Excellence in Journalism contest, I was honored with second place in Editorial & Commentary for a selection of three GeekWire contributions, and third place in Critique & Review for my piece, “As science fiction ascends, its popular award – the Hugo – threatens to nosedive.” (Both were in the Small Daily Print and Online division. Size does matter in award competitions.)80100_spjlogo-for-header.png.300x300_q85_autocrop

There is a type of bashful condescension about awards in the creative arts. “My work speaks for itself.” “I’m not competing with others.” “Money will get you though times of no Hugos.” (Anyone with a long memory of awards in science fiction will be able to attribute that last reference.)

But the reality is awards can serve useful purposes: to draw audience attention to good work that isn’t wildly popular, or to give artists (including writers) a rough benchmark of whether their peers think they’re hitting the mark.

Flanked at the reception by KPLU's Ashley Gross and first reader Dee Dee Catalano.
Flanked at the reception by KPLU’s Ashley Gross and first reader Dee Dee Catalano. (Photo: Sara Lerner)

I’m pleased to note that two great online-only news outlets, Crosscut and Seattle Globalist, took the first place awards in the two categories in which I placed. But coming in right after them makes me happy, since they do such good and broad-based work.

The last time I placed in an SPJ competition was in 2013, a third place in Commentary when there was a different online-only category. This year is better. (I don’t enter every year, even though I’ve been writing for GeekWire since 2011.)

If you’d like to see the three pieces that added up to this year’s Editorial & Commentary honor, they are:

And yes, for those counting — the last one actually won twice. Writing about Hugos apparently will get you other awards, if not a Hugo itself.

Old columnists never die, nor fade

It’s been nearly a year since I made the conscious decision to not pursue new speaking or writing opportunities about education technology.  Think of it as a pruning of extraneous activity. But previous columns — and comments — about edtech and even tech persist to spur new observations.

IMG_20150617_132617(For those wondering, my self-imposed exile date was last June 30, shortly after my EdTech for Export keynote in Wellington, New Zealand. That was a wonderful swan song in terms of content and setting. And yes, I want to go back and see more.)DSCN1326

At the same time as I ended my edtech speaking and writing, I took a hiatus from my non-edtech analysis and commentary for GeekWire, which I’ve since resumed as circumstances and snark allow.

Yet I wasn’t invisible in that near-year, even without the recent GeekWire byline re-appearance.

  • EdSurge picked my brain when the Software and Information Industry Association acquired the members of the Education Industry Association in April, because I’d been an SIIA Education division board member and once keynoted events for both organizations;
  • KIRO-FM Seattle interviewed me about what Microsoft’s launch of its Minecraft Education Edition meant for its “ed cred” in January, as I’d analyzed Microsoft + Minecraft for GeekWire in the past (which GeekWire itself noted at the time);
  • USA Today, in a January article on Apple’s brand in education and elsewhere, cited my observation that Apple’s “brand is being nibbled to death by many ducks” (yeah, I love analogy and metaphor); and,
  • GeekWire’s Generation App podcast trotted me out as a long-time tech industry dinosaur observer in March when it examined video cord cutters and why they did or didn’t do it.

Of course, I continue to have a full-time role in education technology. I’m still learning. Just a bit less distracted as I absorb more.

The bottom line of the continuing coverage? In a digital world, when you have a reputation, you can run. But it appears you can’t hide. No matter what that reputation is. Or how much fun you’re avoiding.

Saving (digital) public media in Seattle

Jazz24captureThere is no shortage of media “voices” in a digital world. But when a unique, successful online voice like Jazz24 is set to be extinguished by an unexpected sale, it’s time to speak up.

I did exactly that in my role as a commentator and analyst for GeekWire. In the piece, “KPLU’s proposed acquisition by KUOW puts a global online audience at risk,” I pointed out the to-that-point under-covered fact that if the sale of Seattle area public radio station KPLU’s license to KUOW went through, it would likely mean the end of a highly popular, global digital audio stream.

Jazz24studiosessionsThe intent reported in my commentary was later confirmed by the public media news site Current, complete with supporting emails, in a story titled, “Email shows KUOW saw ‘no sound business vision’ for Jazz24.”  (Current also kindly quoted my GeekWire commentary in an earlier story it wrote on the fund-raising drive by the community group Friends of 88.5 FM to buy KPLU’s license from Pacific Lutheran University, instead of letting KUOW buy it.)

There is still no guarantee, as of this writing, that the fund-raising effort of the Friends of 88.5 FM non-profit and the #SaveKPLU movement will succeed, though it’s awfully close to reaching its goal. (Update May 26: The fund-raising goal has been met; negotiations on the purchase remain.)

Yet in a digital-first and sometimes digital-only world, any threat to an analog media source shouldn’t just be dismissed as the inevitable end of an old model. The analog media outlet should be viewed in the entire context of its analog+digital presence because sometimes — as with KPLU — that sum, and the potential loss, is far greater than any individual part may imply.Jazz24Facebook

It’s Amazons, all the way down

CatalanoAlexaA month or so ago, I marked my fifth anniversary as a GeekWire contributor by picking up my writing after a ten-month hiatus. (I’d still “contributed” during that hiatus — notably as a speaker at the GeekWire Summit and inside others’ stories and podcasts — but not in pieces under my own byline.)

It appears that in my absence, Amazon has been busy.

So I visited Amazon’s first physical bookstore in Seattle, and found that its major accomplishment isn’t as a bookstore, but in how it merges the online and offline shopping experiences almost seamlessly (“Amazon Books: 4 months later, the retail giant’s bricks-and-mortar experiment feels like a winner“).

I bought an Echo Dot and was impressed in how it gives you more options to output streaming audio than the original Echo, even as it still lacks sync capability across more than one Echo in a household (“Echo Dot review: Hands-on with Amazon’s smart, squat, almost-too-independent Alexa sibling“).

Then I borrowed an Amazon Tap, and liked how it was smaller alternative to a traditional Echo with portability despite the incredibly crappy Alexa app experience (“Amazon Tap review: Say hello to my little friend — and new travel buddy“).

And somewhere in the midst of all of this, GeekWire’s Todd Bishop and I brought Alexa (in her Echo guise) into the studio to record an entire podcast with us (“GeekWire Radio: Amazon’s Alexa returns as our special guest“).

So at this point, I think I’ve done my Amazon time. I’ve definitely completed my trifecta of Alexa device reviews, if you go back to my first one (“Amazon Echo in the house: Superior streaming speaker with so-so smarts,” an opinion since improved thanks to Alexa’s mad skillz or, as Amazon would put it, “Skills”).

Now on to other subjects. My wife only has to say, “Oh my God. It’s another one,” once before I take notice.

Science fiction and the future

What’s the future going to look like? That simple question has fueled the work of philosophers, theologians, scientists, stock pickers, and, of course, science-fiction writers. So naturally it was the focus of my session at the 2015 GeekWire Summit in Seattle.

Joining me for the lively, 40-minute, and mercifully PowerPoint-free discussion were Hugo and Nebula award-winning author Nancy Kress, futurist and writer Ramez Naam, and former astronaut Ed Lu.

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One of my favorite parts of the session was a utopia/dystopia lightning round, in which I asked for quick assessments of which direction seven developments might take us, including:

  • Uber
  • Self-driving cars
  • Internet of Things
  • Robots overcoming the “uncanny valley”
  • iPhone 17S
  • All knowledge only digital in form
  • President Donald Trump

You can read a partial transcript (including the lightning round) on GeekWire. And, there’s a full video of the session on YouTube.

And for those who prefer podcasts, an eight-minute audio excerpt on the role of science fiction in looking ahead to the future is part of an episode of GeekWire Radio, starting at 25:25.

Lu also had some choice words on the current state of NASA. And the three all expressed both concern and delight when asked what keeps them up at night. I was simultaneously entertained and learned a lot from my guests. I trust you will be, too.

When columns subside: Why I’m taking a break from column writing

GeekWirecolumnsIt usually begins politely: “I really like your stuff in GeekWire.”

I mutter a thank you, asking them what they’ve liked. “Well,” this especially hypothetical reader responds, “That cheat sheet on trends and fads in edtech was great. And your leveraging of Tomorrowland to call for more, and better, optimistic visions of the future was a good read.” Then the pause.

Always, the pause.

“But why were both of those in May? And there’s been nothing since?”

As with relationships, French recipes, and government programs, it’s complicated. But let me unpack it as briefly and best as I can.

First, GeekWire and I have not parted ways. I’ve been a columnist (and occasionally more than that, filling in on the editorial desk and contributing other non-column posts) since Todd Bishop and John Cook founded the tech news site more than four years ago. Technically, I’m on hiatus (or less technically, a very extended summer break) due to several other demands. But it’s unlikely the regular column will return in its earlier frequency and form.

The why?

The speaking. Every public talk I give is a one-off. I don’t reuse presentations, because I know every audience is different (and I’d also bore myself if I always said the same thing).  I’ve been verbose: a June keynote on education technology in New Zealand, an early July session moderating a discussion on student privacy at ISTE, a late July on-stage interview of science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow for Clarion West, and participating in or moderating three panels at the World Science Fiction Convention in August. Every speaking gig requires the research of at least one column; a keynote, far more. Plus, in most cases (and especially New Zealand), travel time.

The day job. The start of June marked a rather intense annual effort as I again researched and wrote two detailed chapters (on instructional content and assessment) of the forthcoming MDR EdNET Insight State of the K-12 Market Report. Not only did that consulting project suck any remaining writing air out of my brain, but at the start of July, I set aside my education technology consulting practice to join SchoolMessenger as its vice president of marketing strategy. Since then, I’ve been drinking from the fire hose of new employment, trying not to drown. So far it’s been refreshing. But also time consuming.

The breather. Occasionally, a columnist needs to take a break and re-assess direction. I’ve done this with tech columnist and news media contributing analyst roles going back (cough) two decades, starting with Seattle Weekly/Eastsideweek, KCPQ-TV Seattle, Puget Sound Business Journal, and now GeekWire. (And that’s just the long-term tech stuff — I’ve also done shorter-term edtech columns for NPR’s MindShift and EdSurge, regular science and science-fiction book reviews for the Seattle Times and Amazing Science Fiction, and even sci-fi film reviews for The Comics Journal.) This is a happy break, very unlike the shorter one a year ago in which both my spouse and I learned some lessons about sharing bad news on social media.

I’ll resurface at the GeekWire Summit in early October in Seattle, interviewing an astronaut, a computer scientist or two, and a science-fiction writer or two on the future of technology.

And after that? There’s no deadline for me to start regularly writing again. But as my history — and the length of this  “brief” explanation — reveal, I will write. I don’t think I’m physically and mentally capable to not.

Edtech fads, trends — and extra-credit myths

Education technology is a hotbed of activity. And some developments will stay warm, while others, now overheated, will rapidly cool.

It’s helpful not just to companies, but non-profit organizations in education and educational institutions themselves, to have an idea of which is which.

At the EdTech for Export conference in New Zealand last week, I flipped the questions I’d been asking other industry execs (“Fad, trend, or it’s complicated?“) into advice for the industry itself. It’s mostly U.S.-centric, and has only a three-to-five year time frame.  Both are key caveats.

Below is my presentation — with screen-by-screen notes — on nine developments (from Open Educational Resources to the rise of iPads and Chromebooks). Plus I highlight five bonus myths about education technology, corrected. The last has turned out to be one of the most popular parts of my presentation on Twitter.

Or, if you’d prefer, the full 30-minute video has also been posted by my New Zealand hosts, which may be more entertaining that clicking through slides and reading text.

(Et4e15 – Keynote 3| Frank Catalano, Intrinsic Strategy from Grow Wellington on Vimeo.)

As with any free advice, it may largely be worth what you paid for it.

Continue reading Edtech fads, trends — and extra-credit myths

In defense of science optimism, and Tomorrowlands

TomorrowlandmainscreenI love a good dystopia as much as the next science-fiction fan. But let’s not get carried away.

Over at GeekWire, I give qualified praise to the new Walt Disney Pictures feature, Tomorrowland, more for what it represents than for what it is. I did enjoy it for its classic Disney YA (for non-literary genre types, that’s code for “Young Adult”) approach. And it gets props for the many science fiction (a pop culture shop staffer named “Hugo Gernsback,” after the editor of the first U.S. science-fiction magazine) and Disneyland (multiple appearances of the original Space Mountain building in a city skyline) references scattered throughout.

But what I especially praise it for is its tone, and the premise that science and engineering can be a force for good. That’s a tone missing all too much in the prevalent pop culture celebration of all things zombie and post-human-accelerated apocalypse. Both kinds of visions can entertain and be thought provoking.

Tomorrowland’s story? A bit obvious (especially for adults), and a bit muddled. But nice narrative touches, good acting, and fun to look at.

Read, “Ignore the critics: The world needs more Tomorrowlands,” at GeekWire.

Edtech cheat sheet: 10 trends, fads, and WTFs

I think the phrases that have gotten the most attention are “Burning-Man-for-investors” and “they called it ‘assigned reading.'”

Why the freemium trend is better than "free" for the "customer"
Why the freemium trend is better than “free” for the customer

Over at GeekWire, I end the spring 2015 education technology conference season (which itself is almost at an end: I’m still speaking at two more in the second half of June, one in New Zealand, one in Philadelphia) with my humble summation of the state of ten hotly discussed education technology developments.

I also conveniently define them in a sentence for normal human beings who don’t speak edtech jargon. (I’m not one of those “normal human beings,” I’m afraid. Never been accused of that, nor had it proven in a court of law.)

My summary judgement of each — whether it’s currently a fad, trend, or a WTF — comes with a small bit of trepidation. Not because of the conclusion. But the wording. In my public speaking, I’d often label the triumvirate instead as “fad, trend, or it’s complicated.”  But honestly, the two WTFs I identify truly are more than simply complicated — they’re mystifying in either their failure (so far) to take off in education, or in the overblown claims of supporters that ignored hundreds of years of human-to-human interaction. WTF, indeed.

The fact both have the word “open” associated with them is pure coincidence, since something “open” is also one of my trends.

Oh, and those two phrases getting attention? One has to do with the ASU+GSV Summit. The other with flipped classrooms. You can figure out which is which.

Read, “Education technology: Your cheat sheet to 10 fads, trends, and WTFs,” at GeekWire.

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