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Learn Fast and Adapt, Especially in Education

The mantra, “Fail early, fail often,” needs to die a fast death. This phrase has become the calling cry for many startups over the past few years, and I feel as though it has become the safety net in case a company blows through all its money. I understand the underlying meaning—that setbacks can and will happen on the road to success—but the phrasing is all wrong, especially when it comes to education.

This past week I was at iNCAOL 2014, a K-12 conference full of dedicated and forward-thinking educators, and a big topic was competency-based education (CBE). Michael Horn was a keynote speaker, and this phrase was tweeted and re-tweeted from his presentation: “Fail fast so you don’t have a spectacular failure.”

This is no criticism of Michael, but it struck me as the wrong place to talk about failing as an option. A couple of years ago, I may not have noticed the use of this term; however, after working at College for America at SNHU and now spinning off Motivis Learning, I’ve seen firsthand what negative connotation the “F” word has. (I call it the “F” word because Kate Kazin, the Chief Academic Officer at CfA, has drilled that into the entire team’s head.) We don’t talk about students failing, ever. CfA is a full competency-based program where there is no failing; there is only “Mastery” and “Not Yet.” That simple shift in language can lift the dreary weight of failure off of a student’s shoulders—and trust me, that weight is there.

During my time at CfA I have seen many students start the program with a bag of excuses already in hand to explain why they are not going to succeed. Like the startup companies, they are preparing the safety net to protect themselves in case they “fail” (using the meaning life has taught them).

It’s hard to blame them, since failure is a negative thing to most people. Yet, Thomas Edison understood that there is no such thing as failing. When a toddler takes his first steps, his parents don’t say “he is failing to walk.” They say “he is learning to walk, and it is going to take time.” Edison said the same thing of his own accomplishments: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Competency-Based Education Is Like Agile Development

To help manage this process, the team adopted agile development methodologies. Agile development, which got its start in the software field and has since been adopted across industries, doesn’t allow for “Fail, Build, Measure, Repeat.” Instead, the process is “Learn, Build, Measure, Repeat.”

Agile development is a phrase used in software development to describe methodologies for incremental software development. Agile development is an alternative to traditional project management, where emphasis is placed on empowering people to collaborate and make team decisions in addition to continuous planning, continuous testing, continuous improvement, and continuous integration. When I started at College for America, we were building the curriculum, the processes, the software, the team…everything from the ground up. We were basically flying the plane as we were building it.

That became our mantra. We never talked about any of our pilots or tests as failing; it was all learning. We learned what worked and what didn’t so we could improve the student experience and improve student outcomes.

This approach of “Learn, Assess, Repeat” in education (and specifically in CBE) creates students who are interested in continuous and lifelong learning. Self-paced progress mixed with a continuous assessment model removes the fear of failing and creates the opportunity for the student to learn at a more personalized level.

Failure Isn’t an Option

Failure truly shouldn’t be an option in education. Even the tiniest bit of success feels great, so should it matter if it took the student one try or four tries?

Our answer is easy: no. The goal is mastery of the material—not just getting by. At CfA, there is no penalty for resubmitting. Rather, we prefer you resubmit and eventually be rewarded with and for mastery. In fact, it is after multiple attempts to get it right that we truly internalize and “know” something in ways that will stay with us.

“Getting by” isn’t working, and education isn’t one-sized fits all—it is one size fits one. Educators have the knowledge, and while many are scared to try something new (probably because of fear of failure), it’s time to “Learn Fast and Adapt” in the classroom. It’s already happening in hundreds of places; it just needs to happen faster and now.

I can promise you WON’T FAIL.

Great Advice From Harvey MacKay

Life is too short to wake up with regrets. So love the people who treat you right. Forget about those who don’t. Believe everything happens for a reason. If you get a chance, take it. If it changes your life, let it. Nobody said life would be easy, they just promised it would most likely be worth it.

People Don’t Want Degrees

Today I was in a planning session, at the College for America (CfA), discussing our model, our audience etc. The topic of what students want from their education came up. Theodore Levitt’s quote came to mind, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.” I think in most cases the same could said of the college degree — “People don’t want a degree. They want a job.”

I am fairly new to the education space but in my efforts to take in as much knowledge I can, I start to see a big hole. I don’t think this any secret but colleges are failing to help students achieve employability. This failure is happening on multiple levels, for example:

  • Outdated and irrelevant curriculum
  • A lack of career planning services
  • Pushing students through the system to make the numbers look good
  • Lowering the standards on what “passing” means

At the end of it all, the student is in left in debt and unemployed. The whole economy is pulled down.

Fewer people with student loans are buying homes, according to data in the report. Of borrowers ages 25 to 30 who are taking out new mortgages, the percentage of those with student debt has fallen by half, from nearly 9 percent in 2005 to just above 4 percent in 2012.

The fed report sees a connection, stating, “The higher burden of student loans and higher delinquencies may affect borrowers’ access to other types of credit and the performance of other debt.”

source: Student Debt Nearly Tripled In 8 Years, New York Federal Reserve Reports

People want jobs.

Small companies are popping up all over the place because they know people want jobs. A great example of this is Dev Bootcamp. For $12,200 a student can be enrolled in a 9-week intensive training program. Monday – Friday, 40 hours a week the student will be trained to get a job as an entry level developer. Starting pay for an entry level Ruby on Rails developer – about $75,000 a year, if in San Francisco or New York it is almost $90,000.

If I were 18 again, sign me up!

As I sit here and write this I wonder is the degree obsolete? Sure I want my doctor to have a degree as well as my nephew who is architecting bridges – overall though, how many jobs really need it?

Is credentialing and proving competency, like we do at CfA, the way to go — a trade school like renaissance? Electricians don’t sit through history class; they learn the skills needed to get licensed.

Do you need four years of college to really get the job? Is this just one check box on the human resources list or just because that is the way it has been? Can we reduce it to two years of focused work and rethink education, rethink what success means and encourage life-long learning? Clearly Dev Bootcamp thinks they can do it in nine weeks.

I don’t have the answers, just thinking out loud. I do see educators scared to change and that scares me. The people who I would have thought to be most open to it haven’t been. I know this a sweeping generalization and I know there are amazing teachers doing incredible work — however I see a lot of fear.

Education needs to change, a teacher’s role needs to evolve and people need jobs.

Opinions expressed here are my own and not that of the College for America.

Generate a Certificate Fingerprint from Salesforce Identity

I have recently been working on Single Sign On using Salesforce as the Identity Provider. I needed to connect Instructure Canvas to Salesforce via SAML and they required the SHA1 fingerprint to be included in the setup. This fingerprint is a SHA-1 hash of the X.509 Certificate provided by the identity provider.

Login in to Salesforce and go to Setup → Security Controls → Identity Provider

Once here download the Metadata, this is just an XML file. Open it up with any text editor. In the file you will find a string of characters enclosed in the tag labeled <ds:X509Certificate>. This is the X.509 certificate.

Identity MEta

To generate a fingerprint of this certificate, copy the character string and paste it into a new text file. You’ll need to add a header and a footer to this file so that SSL can recognize it as a certificate.

The header should be
“– – – – –BEGIN CERTIFICATE– – – – –”
and the footer should be
“– – – – –END CERTIFICATE– – – – –”

Place each on their own line in the file and do not include the double quotes. Stripped down example:

Example Cert

At this point you can simply copy and paste the whole file into http://certlogik.com/decoder/. Scroll down a little and look for the properties. Copy and paste the Fingerprint (SHA-1) into your service and you should be all set. If you are not comfortable using this site you can use openssl command line tools.

It’s The People Stupid

Good Seth post this morning (Clean Bathrooms). I was having a similar conversation yesterday .. “If you take a lot of time to ask, “how will this pay off,” you’re probably asking the wrong question. When you are trusted because you care, it’s quite likely the revenue will take care of itself.”

My Take:
When you first start a business your goal shouldn’t be to sell it for as much money as you can. That rarely works. You should start a business because you think it is cool, people will like it and because you are passionate about it. Then you create a great customer experience so people stay with you. The intangibles. The product matters but the people behind the products matter more. There are dozens of companies that do what you do. The people who sell, implement and support day to day are what keep a customer happy. They want to trust you will do the right thing for them. As Seth said, once those things are taken care of then revenue solves itself.

To borrow from James Carville’s “It’s the economy stupid.” — I think this can be boiled down to, “It’s the people stupid.”

F2 Error code on Kenmore Elite HE3 washer

After 8 years of almost daily use I got my first error code on the washer. After a little googling around it seemed as though it might be as simple as clearing out the filter. I followed these simple steps and everything seems to be back on track again:

  • Unplug the washing machine.
  • Remove the panel on the front by removing three screws at the very bottom. You will probably need to tilt it back to get a good angle on them.
  • The pump is in the center and has a plastic handle that can be unscrewed to remove the filter. As you unscrew it water will come out. Be ready with some towels.
  • Look amazed at the dirty filter.
  • Clean the filter.
  • Put it all back in.

I did a small load with the front panel off just to make sure there were no leaks before I put it back on.

Setting Up Ruby on Rails Issues

I recently picked up a new MacBook Air to start developing with Ruby. Out of the box it has Mac OS X Version 10.7.3. Yesterday a new version of the, “Ruby on Rails Tutorial” was released that included the use of Bootstrap. Perfect timing to start playing around.

As I started to follow the tutorial on getting setup I started to run into issues. After googling around a bit I finally got things rolling so I hope this saves some people a little bit of time.

Issue 1: make: command not found

This was an easy one. I had to install XCODE 4.3 using the App Store.

Once I installed XCode I was hoping to be on my way again but quickly ran into another issue. Turns out the command-line tools are now a separate install within the XCode application. To install the command-line tools look under the “Downloads” tab of the preferences panel, under “Components”.

I tried to continue but ran into the next issue.

I later found out I could have just downloaded the command line tools from: Downloads for Apple Developers. 
I confirmed this with another developer in my office who was trying the same setup.

Issue 2: rvm requires autoreconf to install the selected ruby interpreter however autoreconf was not found in the PATH

After a little research it appears Apple no longer provides this tool so I had to find the gcc. I came across a few articles and multiple variations but the simplest seemed to be just to download the package from: : https://github.com/kennethreitz/osx-gcc-installer/downloads

I am sure there are other ways to get this going but it worked for me. Please let me know if this worked for you or if you had any variations that could help others.

Firing Bad Employees

Tonight I was reading an article, How to Fire the Employee Who’s Holding You Back. In it I found a few key points which management often overlooks.

  • Once you’re sure an employee isn’t working out, act on that conclusion. The longer it takes to fire someone, the more you’re in danger of losing respect from the rest of the organization.
  • Firing someone is never something we want to do, but it’s inevitable, and if you’re a leader it’s something you’re going to have to get used to.
  • Nobody likes conflict, but while you dither, your company may lose customers, money, or productivity.
  • Tolerating sub-par performance can also impact the morale of other employees.
  • Other employees will want to leave if they feel they’re not being recognized while someone else is doing less and getting a break.

It is never fun firing someone, especially in this economy, but bad employees can be a drain on an organization. If you are having discussions on a regular basis about a bad employee it is time to pull the trigger and move on. You will be happier and so will your employees.

Advice from Dick Costolo, CEO Twitter

On an episode of TechStars one of the companies gets flown to meet Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter. When asked for a piece of advice Dick offers this up, “Don’t get swayed by clients who will offer $100,000 more if you offer a bunch of features you really weren’t planning on building. You want to make sure you don’t get this barnacle on you that you have to scrub once a month.”

I’d add, ‘try’ not to alter your road map for a client. As great as the deal is, as much as you want to close it and do whatever it takes to close the deal, once you get into this cycle you will go from being a software/product company to a pro-services company. Once in a while it might make sense, but be careful, once you start to slide down that slope it is hard to turn back.