Why The Future Is Now: An Interview with Alex Mann

Alex Mann, our freelance journalist, who has delivered the “lessons from the field” series of blog posts, has a deep-seeded passion for education and entrepreneurship. Taking a break from running his startup, AM Analytics, and from interviewing teachers from around the country for this blog, he has agreed to do an interview with Stephen Tom of Teacherlinx to share his thoughts on the state of education:

How are you involved with education?

My involvement with education has evolved since I graduated college in May. This time last year I was attending classes and lectures, arguing respectfully with my professors, completing mundane assignments and essentially spending half of my time contributing to the output of a degree. However, my university was a proponent of entrepreneurship, allowing me to pursue my own projects as part of my diploma. As an ode to Mark Twain, I never let my schooling interfere with my education. Now that I’m out of school, I build businesses, an educational experience to the fullest. Instead of a professor, the invisible hand of the market now grades my work.

The word ‘education’ is misrepresented, signified as process with a set ‘start’ and ‘stop’ date, rather than a continuous journey. It’s really a cultural dilemma more than anything. Even though I’ve completed school, I continue to position myself in situations and with people that require consistent learning. I’m always in the middle of a few books, breaking apart a topic that interests me. I write on my blog regularly, attempting to apply the art of entrepreneurship across various mediums, forcing me to think through ideas, right or wrong, publicly. I also advise a few people younger than me, and even one older, that have had different life and business experiences than me. I get as much as I give to those mentor relationships. I learn by helping others learn.

How do you think education can be improved today?

The biggest setbacks in education include the access gap to technology and the bureaucratic, unionized culture. A classroom has been historically viewed as a single learning entity because teachers don’t have the resources to treat student needs individually. One solution could be personal computers, that with the aid of a teacher, would allow students to learn at their own pace, method and style, rather than matching the classroom average of the same factors. It’s a costly endeavor, but a shift that needs to be enforced technically, culturally and politically.

The other improvements include the implementation of digital ebooks, games, collaboration tools and creative coursework. The comfort level for these tools is already high because students use them regularly. If they are applied in the classroom, the tools can create a fun, democratic learning environment. An advantage to using digital tools is the access to data streams. Decisions, particularly in education, have been historically made from trial and error. Hard data sets will provide the opportunity to measure student progress digitally, providing deep insight into specific learning styles. This will allow for calibration and correction on both a low-level for teachers, students and parents, and from a high-level for entire school districts, states and even countries. Data doesn’t lie.

The economics of a digital-centric education sector should push the price down of schooling in the long-run, especially as resources move online. Universities can actually outsource entire curriculum to content portals like Academic Earth. This would still require a class organizer to drive the coursework, but the cost savings could be tremendous. I don’t know how universities and their highest paid professors would feel about this, and convincing them it’s in their best interest may be the biggest struggle.

What do you think of schools, teachers, and students today?

We’re experiencing a market correction. Meaning, the interests, needs and goals of the key stakeholders–the schools, teachers and students–are not aligned. The number one reason, which shouldn’t be a surprise, routes back to financial interests. Universities should take innovation as seriously as any business institution would, but that requires a risk appetite they currently can’t afford. The education sector is facing a hurdle similar to the newspaper industry, where the available distribution technology wasn’t taken seriously until they were already lagging behind. The future to act is now, but may require the aid of the government to align the correction.

What would make you want to become a teacher?

It depends on what you mean by ‘teacher.’ I don’t envision myself trading business for a position in academia. Too many rules. But, I’d like to think my role now includes occasional teaching activities in terms of writing and mentoring. If I heighten the perspective, awareness, opinion or knowledge of a reader or mentee, contrary or otherwise, then I’d feel like I was teaching. Other ‘teacher’ activities I enjoy, but wouldn’t want to do full-time, include public speaking and guest lecturing. I’ve been invited to do both, which satisfies the extent of my academic bug.

I have an immense amount of respect for teachers, and I would never say my role now matches the dedication that many of them give every day.

Public or Private school? Why?

My knowledge on the private vs. public debate originates with the fact that degrees, in the most traditional sense, matter less than they used to. To answer your question, I’d say it doesn’t matter. The student makes the school; the school doesn’t make the student. Unless private school is solving a special need or learning challenge of a student, I don’t see the purpose of paying top dollar for a private school education. But, there are other issues that often decide this, such as family history, social status, politics and financial situation.

Choosing public or private schooling also depends what you are interested in professionally. An Ivy League degree will probably help you get a job at Goldman Sachs or Mckinsey, if that’s what you want. Overall, it’s becoming clear that ‘what’ education matters less than the ‘right’ education. And, the ‘right’ education doesn’t mean the most expensive.

Do you think that education in America is improving? Why or why not?

Education has become a victim of the mass marketing paradigm, where graduating requires cooperating with standardized course work, limited learning methods and inflexible professors that are not helpful to progressive learning. The truly educated people I know have questioned the hell out of the ‘one size fits all’ process. The American education system helped me learn how to think, and also enabled me to question authority. Besides that, my usual answer about American education is that I’m happy with the friends that I made. The social factor is ignored more than it should be, while being one of the most important.

The system is improving, but slowly. The necessary steps are not only huge political endeavors, but they need to be applied on a monster scale from the bottom-up. Education means different things to different people, but we’ll see a trickle-down effect starting with the universities. We are beginning to see the spark of a correction, which ignites by people taking a step back, having a look around and saying ‘something’s just not right here.’

Education is…

“…that which reveals to the wise, and conceals from the stupid, the vast limits of their knowledge.” – Mark Twain