Garage Universities

I am wary of playing too much into the Silicon Valley myth, and nothing can be more central to that myth than the garage start-up. Nonetheless, the idea of a “university start-up” seems almost unfathomable, outside the less-than-interesting world of for-profit universities. I may want to buy a Tesla (automobile start-ups probably pre-date the Silicon Valley garage), but do I really want to invest in a four-year degree as the first cohort?

Reputation matters for a Tesla, but I do end up with a decent chunk of steel (and plastic aluminum). And yes, I’m buying some kind of caché: I have a Tesla and must therefore be cool by extension. With the university degree, that’s all I get. I get to say “I am a college graduate” or “I am an ASU graduate” or “I am a Stanford graduate” or “I went to school in Boston.” In other words, I give up a good chunk of cash, and four years of my life, and get certified. People know that I was good enough to get into Harvard, so I must be good enough to work for them.

Yes, I hear you saying university is more than that. It’s about social networks. It’s about socializing people into a particular class. It’s about organizing your time and behaving at some minimally professional level. And maybe it’s even about learning a little along the way. But that’s not how people choose their universities, even if they could. Yes, many do come to ASU because of its reputation as a party school, but usually they also want it to provide at least some indication of future ability to pay school loans. (And ASU happens to do pretty well in that regard.)

Because of this, you are unlikely to buy into a degree from Hyundai university. It might be cheaper than the Princeton sheepskin, it might even be a much better bang for the buck, but when you are buying brand, you can’t afford to take chances. And that means it is much harder for Hyundai U to even compete with Mercedes U–it is a self-fulfilling prophesy. The barriers to entry for “real” schools are incredibly high. And a lot of that has to do with the size of required investment. (I think you could make similar arguments about the difficulty of making progress on residential building for the same reason.)

Unbundling and Garage Universities

One way to address this is to unbundle the things that the university does. I’ve written about this before on several occasions. A few years ago I gave an Ignite talk at DML on the topic of Garage Universities–but few people were interested. (Ironically, they preferred the talk I didn’t plan.) The basic argument was that the linchpin that held together the university bundle was the credential: the certification of the 4-year degree. Pull that out and things fall apart.

The university structure falling apart is a scary thing to many people, but I remain convinced that many of the best parts of the university will not only survive, but thrive. I also think, at least in the US case, that what really needs innovation is schooling in K-12, but in many ways that’s harder to crack. In that realm, though, you have seen new opportunities for start-up schools, and starting a private school–because they tend to be relatively local and limited in scale–is pretty easy.

What happens when you have a new system that allows for the agglomeration of smaller learning “chunks”–a kind of rolling up of degrees through the earning of smaller certificates. Among other things, it means starting a “small school” of higher education becomes much easier. I don’t have the time, money, or risk-taking behavior to start a new university, but I could start a program, and I could definitely start a course or series of courses.

Small courses and series already exist, of course. I can go to the Learning Annex and improve my understanding of Tarot, for example. But these courses exist on the fringes and are not in any way interoperable with university credits. Of course, there are very real economic reasons for universities not to accept credit not earned at the university. At one level at least, it means that tuition dollars are going to someone else. But it also costs money to evaluate outside credit and decide what “counts.” Articulation agreements make that a little easier, but they are time consuming and difficult to manage.

Coin of the Realm

A unified set of standards around certifying learning would not change this immediately, but it would cut down in the overhead of accepting, verifying, and sharing credentials. A good set of badging structures constitutes an innovation infrastructure.

Certainly, this doesn’t save anyone from the hard part: designing exciting and effective learning environments. Or even for the slightly less difficult task of figuring out how to pay for it. Just as a number of technologies made selling online easier–eBay, Paypal, Etsy, Square–a microcredential infrastructure makes it easier to experiment. At present, it seems like MOOCs are the experiment du jour, but there are other forms of experimentation possible, both within institutions and outside institutions.


The question everyone seems to be asking is what the tipping point might be for such an infrastructure. I am a fan of the Mozilla Open Badge Infrastructure, in part because, unlike the examples in ecommerce I mention above, it is not controlled by a single entity. There is no guarantee that it will happen, but if it does, it needs to happen at a large scale, and it needs to happen where people already are.

That means places like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, at least as a start. Ideally–and this is where it gets tricky–it means that it happens the same way across these platforms, and no one tries to own it. There is a promising mention of the Mozilla OBI in Reid Hoffman’s “Disrupting the Diploma” post. But on the other hand, there seems to be an effort to try to bottle badges up, keep them at home, all the better to monetize them. I suspect strongly that–like for blogging–the future of badges rests on understanding the sharing process.

We need to understand better the mechanisms of why people might post a badge and what they get out of it when they do. And that means more than private sharing or putting it on a personal portfolio, it means understanding how badges pass into the open, participatory worlds of social media.

It also means understanding how microcertifications relate to other forms of marking achievement and experience, both quantified and more informal. A number of systems exist for marking “karma” or check-ins. A better feeling for the range of ways in which experience is shared, appreciated, and recorded.

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Twentieth Anniversary

Twenty years ago today, Jamie and I were married. This picture, taken some time after we were married, probably deserves some explanation. A group of us had discovered that “Sometime’s Funky Street Cafe” (a place down the street from the 500 Rakan Gyokuhoji Temple that seemed to be run by teenagers) carried Red Stripe Beer, and made a night of drinking a lot of it. Having closed down the place, our mötley crüe had three options: go to John Festa’s, the depressing expat hangout downtown; move the celebration to one of our flats, whispering to avoid scandalizing the neighbors; or climb Mount Fuji. The answer seemed obvious enough, so we dropped by a liquor store to buy a giant bottle of sake to open at the peak (the owner was kind enough to sell us a six pack of tiny bottles instead) and hopped the last train and bus to Fuji-san. This photo is probably by 8th station, by which time we were all pretty sober, now determined to reach the summit by dawn. And no, I wasn’t a Tri-Delt; my debonair wife had lent me a sweatshirt since I at some point in the evening decided to do this in a T-shirt.

I think it would have been impossible for us to even begin to guess how our lives would play out over the next twenty years. We are both very different people today than when this photo was taken and I mean much more than the fact that I would be physically unrecognizable to my 21-year-old self. We have become ourselves in ways that I think we are both more happy about than not. Of course, everybody changes, and sometimes that means they grow apart, and that is fine. But that has not been the case for us. At this point in our lives, we’ve been married longer than we haven’t. So much of who I am is indistinguishable from my relationship with my spouse that I cannot imagine being myself without her.

When we got married, our promise was that we would challenge each other to become better people. I don’t know how well I’ve kept that promise to Jamie, but all of those things I am most proud of in myself I owe to her influence. Most people questioned my decision to ask Jamie to marry me when we were both so young. (And many thanks to those of you who either didn’t question it, or didn’t voice those questions.) I will now tell a story that I have never told anyone, including Jamie.

Several months before I asked her to marry me, I had a nightmare. I was 40, but that wasn’t the nightmare. I was back in Southern California, having lived a daring life of intrigue, on leave as a young ambassador to a far off land. I hopped off my motorcycle at a stylish restaurant. When I was seated, I caught the eye of someone who looked familiar: Jamie. After a brief career on the stage, she had opened a series of popular restaurants. We were both successful in our careers, dashingly good looking, and had found our paths through life. And the moment our eyes met, we knew what we had lost. Twenty years we could have been together, and we had at some point thrown that away for what was behind the curtain. I woke up with a rock in the pit of my stomach. The easy thing is to not realize what is right there, right now. To believe that it can’t last.

A few nights ago, we watched O, Brother Where Art Thou, since both boys like that old-timey sound and we had conveniently forgotten about a couple of scenes (Klan rally, frog murder) that would need a bit of explanation. At the beginning of the movie, the analog of Tiresias tells the Soggy Bottom Boys that they will find a treasure, but not the one they seek. The blind seer rides through town at the conclusion, just as the protagonist passes with his newly reunited family. I was explaining to Jasper the meaning that the (not always subtle) Coen Brothers were imparting, and found myself in tears. Here was my treasure, Jamie and our two sons, and I am the luckiest man in the world. All because I asked, and she said yes.

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There lived on Actinuria a young inventor by the name of Pyron, who learned to pull wires out of platinum so thin, you could make nets with them for catching clouds. Pyron invented the wire telegraph, and then he pulled the wire out so fine, it wasn’t there, and in this fashion he obtained the wireless. Hope entered the hearts of the inhabitants of Actinuria, for they thought it would now be possible to establish a conspiracy. But the cunning Archithorius monitored their conversations, holding in each of his six hundred hands a platinum conductor, whereby he knew what his subjects were saying, and at the first mention of the word “revolt” or “coup” he instantly dispatched ball lightening, which reduced the conspirators to a flaming puddle.

Pyron decided to outwit the wicked ruler. When he spoke to his friends, instead of “rebelling” he said “reheeling,” instead of “insurrection”–“instep,” and in this way he planned the overthrow. Archithorius meanwhile was puzzled why his subjects had taken such a sudden interest in shoe repair, for he did not know that when they said “thread the laces,” by this they meant “run him through and through,” and boots too tight signified his tyranny.

– Stanislaw Lem, “Uranium Earpieces,” 1972, published in Mortal Engines, Michael Kandel (trans.)

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Getting Glass


Google selected me as one of (the many) Google “Glass Explorers”, thanks to a tweet I sent saying how I would use Google Glass, namely:

What this means is that I will, presumably over the next few months, be offered the opportunity to buy Google Glass before most other people get to. Yay! But it is not all good news. I get to do this only if I shell out $1,500 and head out to L.A. to pick them up.

Fifteen hundred dollars is a lot of money. I’d be willing to spend a sizable amount of money for what I think Glass is. Indeed, although $1,500 is on the outside of that range, if it did all I wanted it too, I might still be tempted. But it is an awful lot of money. And that’s before the trip to L.A.

To be clear, the decision is mostly “sooner or later.” I’ve wanted something very like Glass for a very long time. At least since I first read Neuromancer, and probably well before that. So the real question is whether it’s worth the premium and risk to be a “Glass Explorer.”

As with all such decisions, I tend to make two lists: for and against.


  • I get to play with a new toy first, and show it off. Have to admit, I’m not a big “gadget for the sake of gadgets” guy. I don’t really care what conclusions others draw relating to my personal technology: either whether I am a cool early adopter or a “glasshole.” I use tech that works for me. So, this kind of “check me out I got it first” doesn’t really appeal to me. I guess the caveat there is that I would like the opportunity to provide the first reviews of the thing.
  • I get to do simple apps: This is actually a big one. I’m not a big programmer, and I don’t have a lot of slack time this year for extra projects, but I would love to create tools for lecturing, for control, for class management, and the like. And given one of the languages they support for app programming is Python–the one I’m most comfortable in–I can see creating some cool apps for this thing. But… well, see the con column.
  • I could begin integrating it now, and have a better feel for whether I think it will be mass adopted, and what social impacts it might have. I am, at heart, a futurist. I think some people who do social science hope to explain. I am interested in this, but my primary focus is being able to anticipate (“predict” is too strong) social changes and find ways to help shape them. Glass may be this, or it may not, but having hands on early on will help me to figure that out.


  • Early adopter tax. There is a lot of speculation as to what these things will cost when they are available widely, and when that will be. The only official indication so far is “something less than $1,500.” I suspect they will need to be much less than that if they are to be successful, and while there are those throwing around numbers in the hundreds, I suspect that price point will be right around $1,000, perhaps a bit higher. That means you are paying a $500 premium to be a beta tester, and shouldering a bit of risk in doing so.
  • Still don’t know its weak points. Now that they are actually getting shipped to developers and “thought leaders,” we might start to hear about where they don’t quite measure up. Right now, all we get is the PR machine. That’s great, but I don’t like putting my own money toward something that Google says is great. I actually like most of what Google produces, but “trust but verify” would make me much more comfortable. In particular, I already suspect it has two big downvotes for me. First, I sincerely hope it can support a bluetooth keyboard. I don’t want to talk to my glasses. Ideally, I want an awesome belt- or forearm-mounted keyboard–maybe even a gesture aware keyboard (a la Swype) or a chording keyboard. Or maybe a hand-mounted pointer. If it can’t support these kinds of things, it’s too expensive. (There is talk of a forearm-mounted pad, but not a lot of details.)
  • Strangleware. My Android isn’t rooted, but one of the reasons I like it is that it *could* be. Right now, it looks like Glass can only run apps in the cloud, and in this case, it sounds like it is limited to the Google cloud. This has two effects. First, it means it is harder for the street to find new uses for Glass–the uses will be fairly prescribed by Google. That’s a model that is not particularly appealing to me. Second, developers cannot charge for Glass apps. I can’t imagine this is an effective strategy for Google, but I know from a more immediate perspective that while I am excited to experiment with apps (see above) for research and learning, I also know I won’t be able to recoup my $1,500 by selling whatever I develop. Now, if you can get direct access to Glass from your phone (and this would also address the keyboard issue), that may be another matter.
  • No resale. I guess I could hedge this a bit if I knew I could eBay the device if I found it wasn’t for me. But if the developer models are any indication, you aren’t permitted to resell. You are out the $1,500 with no chance of recovering this.

I will keep an open mind, and check out reviews as they start to trickle in from developers, as well as reading the terms & conditions, but right now, I am leaning to giving up my invite and waiting with the other plebes for broad availability. And maybe spending less on a video enabled quadracopter or a nice Mindstorms set instead.

Or, someone at Google will read this, and send me a dozen of the things as part of a grant to share with grad students so we can do some awesome research in the fall. But, you know, I’m not holding my breath. (I do hope they are doing this for someone though, if not me. If Google is interested in education, they should be making these connections.)

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