Is Your Mobile Solution A Fire Extinguisher?

Submitted by on Wed, 03/15/17

Dr Jeff Borden is the Chief Innovation Officer at Saint Leo University in Saint Leo, Florida. This post is a contribution to the Modo Labs guest blog series. 

My family loves the Food Network. My wife enjoys the cooking competitions and even my 9 year old gets into the act with the kid cooking shows. But my personal favorite is an oldie but a goodie – I like Alton Brown’s, “Good Eats.” And the beauty of being an education innovator is that I get to find solutions to problems in contexts outside of education. Let me show you how @altonbrown is onto something we (Higher Ed) need to pay attention to.

Quite honestly, the reason I have Alton Brown on my list of top 5 people I’d like to have over to dinner (although hopefully he would offer to cook, as I’d hate to subject him to my meanderings in the kitchen) is due to the powerful learning that takes place on the show. I drool over the food, but I marvel at the learning experiences he creates. To call him a “Food Professor” is not a stretch at all. Each episode has what Derek Muller (of Veritasium fame) found through his doctoral research. He found that a teaching video must include specific things to increase actual learning: (essentially) humor, clarity, and conflict. Just watch the Food Network’s most learning-centric show and you’ll see people dancing around with balloons pinned to their leotards, over-the-top southern robber baron’s, and a Bond-esque kitchen utensil distributor guiding the viewer to the right tool for the right situation. All this while learning how to make the perfect chocolate chip cookie or the ultimate omelet…brilliant.

It’s that last reference that I’d like to use for the impetus of this blog though. It’s easy to argue that Alton Brown is the smartest chef-scientist on the planet. If that is so, I think it’s fair to say that we should listen to the man when he says something, especially if that “something” is repeated throughout his lessons. One such assertion he makes in multiple episodes, is that no kitchen tool should fulfill only one job. The only single-action tool in any kitchen should be a fire extinguisher. Period.

As the Chief Innovation Officer at Saint Leo University, that nugget of advice is part of my innovation quiver. Of the arrows I sling regularly, like associative thinking (see Innovator’s DNA by Jeff Dyer for more info), the implementation of multiple ideas by which to find a “great” idea (see Jack Foster’s book, “How to Get Ideas”), and the crucial work of neuroscientists helping us see how people in fact learn (see John Medina’s, “Brain Rules” for a nice primer), the principle of multi-use solutions also helps me find the center of my targets more often.

Just think about the solutions you have at your institution. How many of them fit this bill? I dare say that most Higher Education solutions are one-trick ponies. The bevy of one-off solutions at any school is staggering. I say this for two reasons. Firstly, before landing at Saint Leo, I traveled the globe – 250K miles per year – working with educators at every level, in multiple countries. For ten years I saw, first hand, failed solution after distressed implementation. And second, I also found that almost every problem had a single tool or solution in place, making it problematic on several levels.

Take the problem of scheduling as one example of hundreds. Even at my own school, scheduling is a dilemma. We have a module in our ERP that has a scheduling solution. We have an app associated with our LMS for scheduling. A few programs have purchased off-the-shelf scheduling solutions too. But mostly, our school schedules students using excel spreadsheets and/or pen and paper, then transfers them to a digital repository. And we’re not alone. I was at a major Ed Tech conference this year listening to a new scheduling tool’s pitch (a start-up). Their claim was that 73% of schools had no assistive technology to help scheduling be done more efficiently, let alone one that might help students be more successful in their program journey. I have no idea if that number is accurate, but from my experience, it doesn’t seem too far off…

But think about what a scheduling software could do. Not only might students be able to truly schedule themselves, allowing advisors to…well, you know, advise, but it might even help students craft a stronger path through school. We know that choice is important to learners, even if it is the illusion of choice. Scheduling software can provide flexibility, even if only around a few pathways, to help students find classes they have to take as well as classes they want to take. Likewise, schools can start to schedule classes and faculty out much further in advance if said solution ties into the right systems. It becomes possible to more easily see “bad course recipes” and steer students away from them. (You know – the 2-3 courses that when taken concurrently result in a poor retention rate or lesser grades, etc)

It’s also easy to see this one-size approach in the toolsets we have. Where can you find scheduling applications? As stand-alone products? Yes. Tied to Student Information Systems? Yes. Tied to some Learning Management Systems? Yes. Added to new learning analytic products? Yep, there too. In other words, the issue is important enough that commercial vendors have tried to “sneak” it in from dozens of angles. Yet most schools still stick with pen and paper. So the solution doesn’t help with any other problem, nor does it tie into any other solution.

So what does this have to do with Mobile? Besides the obvious notion that there’s a mobile module that can tie to your ERP and deliver scheduling or advising on a phone, this strategy matters greatly to Saint Leo. See, we don’t want a mobile solution that only solves one problem. What problem does it typically solve? From our perspective, mobile solutions today generally help with logistics, but not much else.

When I say logistics, I think you likely know what I mean, but let me give a few examples. Most school apps today (go download a few and see what I mean) help students know where the buildings are. They also tell you what the cafeteria is serving. They allow you to send a message to a department or they let you see the school calendar, including sports activities. They aid in process management for the student experience.

Shouldn’t mobile apps do more than that? The obvious next move is to help people connect more easily. Some mobile apps are starting to give students (although not as often teachers or staff) the ability to connect to other students. Through ratings, activity feeds, micro-blogging, instant messaging, and the like, people can start to apply social credibility to people, places, and events. Nice!

But I submit no mobile app should stop there! Social networking is great – truly. But social learning…now we’re talking! Isn’t this the core mission of your institution anyway? Isn’t learning at the heart of why your school exists? It’s the reason my office is the office of “Learning Innovation” – not just innovation. We could create an incubator for start-ups that might find 2-3 small businesses emerge per year, but the return to the school and community is not meaningful enough to warrant this. We have 15,000 students who need to go out into the world having learned how to critically think, how to find problems (vs solely solving them), how to innovate themselves…so my team is dedicated to finding ways learning can be improved, at scale. Shouldn’t a mobile experience augment that mission?

And now we’re starting to get at how a single solution can deal with many problems. At Saint Leo, our activity feed (which is being “mobilized” as I write this) supports three kinds of socialness. Personal socialness is the starting point and is fairly simple actually. We make recommended suggestions across our student, faculty, and staff populations to try and connect people based on likes, similarities, etc. But we don’t stop there.

Organizational socialness is next. We want students to be able to subscribe to the events of the Tutoring Center or a Greek Society or the Film Club. We want our students to see their activity feeds filled with University business that impacts them directly. And then we feed in academic socialness.

By feeding the discussions and other communication events from classes, our learners (and instructors) are always reminded of our ultimate mission. Those academic conversations spill out into “real-life” for our students, and suddenly, there is a social ecosystem surrounding learning.

So is that social learning? Probably not without some debate and semantic gymnastics. But I’m not done. At Saint Leo, we want social learning, not just parallel socialness in our mobile experience. This has led to the displaying of specific, collaborative tools through the mobile delivery system that allow students, in both synchronous and asynchronous ways, to interact with one another academically. In other words, peer to peer and peer mentor situations are baked right in, just a click away from the cafeteria menu or the campus events calendar.

Add to that the innovative, albeit experimental work we are doing with virtual reality and (more exciting to me) augmented reality, and our mobile solution is suddenly impacting solutions across the spectrum. In other words, our mobile solution is no fire extinguisher. It slices, it dices, it blends, and more. And the data we get…well, that’s likely another blog. Let’s just say each “fact” from our mobile experience feeds back into our data store of every other learning “fact” we are collecting, thereby making the machine learning better and better over time.

I hope you’ll watch an episode or two of my favorite cooking show. You’ll enjoy it. But more than that, I hope you’ll join me in vowing that our education apps, tools, and solutions will never be a single solution to a single problem ever again. It’s not only poor stewardship, but it’s not terribly innovative to do otherwise.

Good luck and good learning.

jeff_bordenDr. Jeff D. Borden
Chief Innovation Officer
Saint Leo University


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