Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Two Startups in One Week

Last week turned out to be far more hectic than most, with the simultaneous launch of two startups I have been involved in for the past few years.

When I went into the life of academic mathematics some 42 years ago, I could never have imagined ever writing such a sentence. Nor, for that matter, would I have had the faintest idea what a “startup” was. It’s a measure of how much society has changed since 1971, when I transitioned from being a “graduate student” to a “postdoc,” that today everyone knows what a startup is, and many of my doctorate-bearing academic colleagues have, as a sideline to their academic work, started up labs, centers, or companies. What was once exceptional is now commonplace.

Massive changes in technology have made it, while not exactly easy, at least possible for anyone in academia to become an “edupreneur,” to use (just once, I promise) one of the more egregious recent manufactured words. This means that, when our academic work leads to a good idea or a product we think could be useful to many of our fellow humans, we don’t have to sit back and hope that one day someone will come along and turn it into something people can access or use. We can make it available to them ourselves.

MOOCs are one of the most recent examples. If any of us in the teaching business finds we have developed a course that students seemed to have benefited from and we are proud of, we can (at least to some extent) bottle it and make it available to a much wider audience.

Of course, we have had versions of that ability since the invention of the printing press. Today, millions of people, academics and non-academics alike, use those printing press descendants, websites and blogs, to achieve a much wider audience for their written word.

A somewhat smaller (but growing) number have used platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo to make video-recordings of their lectures widely available.

To some extent, MOOCs can be viewed as an extension of both of those Internet media developments. A MOOC sets out to achieve the very ambitious goal of bottling an entire college course and making it available to the entire world—or at least, that part of the world with broadband access.

The launch this past weekend of the third iteration of my constantly-evolving MOOC on Mathematical Thinking was one of the two startups that gobbled up massive amounts of my time over the past few weeks. Even though, having given essentially the same course twice before, the bulk of the preparatory work was done, implementing the changes I wanted to make and re-setting all the item release dates/times and the various student submission deadlines was still a huge undertaking. For with a MOOC, pretty well everything for the entire course needs to be safely deposited on (in my case, with my MOOC on Coursera) Amazon’s servers before the first of my 41,000 registered students logged on over the weekend.

When you think about it, the very fact that a single academic can do something like this, is pretty remarkable. What makes it possible is that all the components are readily available. To go into the MOOC business, all you need is a laptop, a word processor (and LaTeX, if you are giving a math course), possibly a slide package such as PowerPoint, some kind of video recording device (I use a standard, $900 consumer camcorder, others use a digital writing tablet), a small microphone (possibly the one already built in to your laptop), and a cheap consumer video editing package (I use Premiere Elements, which comes in at around $90). Assuming you already have the laptop and a standard office software package, you can set up in the MOOC business for about $1500.

Sure, it helps if your college or university gives you access to the open source MOOC platform edX, or is willing to enter an agreement with, say, the MOOC platform provider Coursera. But if not, there are options such as YouTube, websites, Wikis, and blogs, all freely available.

My second startup was supposed to launch at least a month before my MOOC, but a major hacking event at Apple’s Developer Site delayed their release of the first (free) mathematical thinking mobile game designed by my small educational software company, InnerTube Games. Both launches falling in the same week is not something I’d want to do again!

Why form a company to create and distribute mathematics education video games that incorporate some of the findings and insights I’d developed over several years of research? The brutal answer is, I had no other viable option. Though several years of research had convinced me that it was possible to design and build “instruments” on which you can “play” parts of mathematics, in the same way a musical instrument such as a piano can be used to play music (in both cases by passing the need for static symbolic representations on a page, which are known to be a huge barrier to learning for many people), I simply was not successful in convincing funders it was a viable approach.

Clearly then, I had to build at least one such instrument. More precisely, I had to team up with a small number of friends who brought the necessary expertise I did not have. Again, a few years ago, it would have been impossible for an academic to found and build a small company and create and launch a product in my spare time. But today, anyone can.

Sure, even more so than with MOOCs, to form and operate an educational software company, you need to work with other peoplethree in my case. (That, at least, has been my experience.) But the key point is, the technology and the resources infrastructure make it possible. You don’t have to give up your day job as an academic to do it! And just as a MOOC provider (or a YouTube, website, blogging platform combo) takes care of the distribution of your course, so too the Web (in my case, in the form of Apple’s App Store) can make your creation available to the world. At no cost.

We are not talking about enterprises designed with the purpose of making money hereI am essentially in the same game as the writing of academic works or textbooks, and in my case less so, since my books cost money but my MOOC and my game are free. Rather we are making use of a global infrastructure to make our work widely accessible. If that infrastructure involves for-profit MOOC platforms or software companies, so be it.

The fact is, it has never been as easy as it is today for each one of us to take an idea or something we have created and make it available to a wide audience. Sure, for both my examples, I have left a lot unsaid, focusing on one particular aspect. (Take a glance at my video game website to see who else was involved in that particular enterprise and the experience they brought to the project. That was a team effort if ever there was!) But the key fact is, it is now possible!

For more about my MOOC, and MOOCs in general, see my blog For my findings and thoughts on mathematics education, see many of the posts on my other blog together with some of the articles and videos linked to on the InnerTube Games website.

And for another (dramatic) example of how one person with a good idea can quickly reach a global audience, see Derek Muller’s superb STEM education resource Veritasium