Blogger Commitment Extraordinaire: An Interview with Larry Cuban


X9PSO6cF_400x400I’ll come right out with it. My Dad, Larry Cuban — Stanford emeritus professor, former high school teacher, district superintendent, and prolific author on education — is the epitome of writing discipline: he’s been cranking out blog posts two times a week for nine years…yes, almost a decade.

I wanted to find out how he does it, to inspire others to start on their blogging journey, and to motivate bloggers already in the trenches (including his own daughter👩‍💻).

Tell me a bit about your blog.

It’s called Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice. I aim for 800 words for each post, two times a week. I have at least one point I want to make. I use lots of examples to back up the point, and then I take a position on it.

What specific topics do you cover?

Because it’s education and includes both policy and practice, it gives me a lot of latitude to write about what I want — from state and federal policy to school reform to classroom lessons. Education is so connected to other institutions in our society so it’s easy to also analyze business, the practice of medicine and teaching, and other similar topics. I try to make connections between things, it makes writing more challenging and interesting.

How do you find blog post ideas? Do you have an editorial calendar?

I am always reading a lot of books, newspapers, magazines, other peoples’ blogs, and a lot about corporate, medical, and governmental practices. Ideas just kind of get married to one another, and that to me is exciting. I don’t have an editorial calendar but I do have some regular sections on the blog. There is a monthly feature on education cartoons with different topics, for instance, how teachers and kids use digital tools, and an intermittent post I call “Whatever happened to..” about past innovations and popular school reforms over the ages, like teaching machines and phonics. I also do an anniversary blog post every year thanking readers and featuring annual blog stats.

Do you ever run out of topics?

Ideas don’t always come to me. Sometimes I’ll ask others to do a guest post. Other times I’ll recycle posts and update them with a new opening and closing. Then there was that “Poems about Education”… not such a big hit. Readership dropped. Not doing that again.

I still marvel at the fact that you write twice a week. How the heck do you do it?

That’s a complicated answer: One, I like to write. Sometimes you hear blogging is passé but I find it very invigorating intellectually. I like to take ideas that I have and convert them into prose that gives me a chance to express myself. Secondly, the blog is a vehicle to teach others. I’m highly motivated to share because I think my ideas matter and give me a form of teaching. Teaching has been a major part of my life.

What advice would you give to would-be bloggers, or those in need of a writing adrenaline shot?

Ask: Who is your audience? Once you have an audience, read other blogs you admire and try to figure out an angle that gets at what you want to communicate. It’s important to always have a hook. Also, have the self-confidence that what you’re saying matters to the audience. Last but not least, make a commitment to try to do it for at least year. Writing, revising, and editing is hard work but very satisfying when you push that button “publish” and hear from readers.





Companies Marketing Technologies to Public Schools: But Who is the Real Customer?

This week I’ve turned the writing reins over to my father, Larry Cuban. He and I sometimes banter about the similarities in marketing to companies/consumers and schools. This week he offers his opinions about B2S—Business to Schools (yes I made up that acronym, let’s see if it sticks).

The way companies are marketing new technologies to schools just ain’t working. There are three problems companies have in promoting and selling new devices and software to K-12 schools (over $18 billion spent in 2013 alone):

1. They are marketing to the wrong people (know your target audience)

2. Lack of knowledge on how teachers and students actually use the “product”

3. Overhyping what new devices and software can do with students

New approaches are needed, but we’ll get to that later.

Marketing to the wrong people

Apple, Dell, and software firms have a hard time figuring out who their customers are: They want to have students and teachers use their products, but few sales reps ever talk or listen to teachers. Instead, most companies market their products to school district IT professionals, district office administrators, and superintendents. Why? Because school officers are the ones who recommend to boards of education what to buy and how to deploy devices and software. From start-ups to established companies, sales reps rarely involve teachers or students in their pitches to district officers or school boards. So the paradox is that the real customers (teachers and students) have little to do with purchasing decisions. Reason? Money decisions rest with district officials.

But what about parents? They “buy” products also. They are customers too in every sense of the word. Most parents are concerned that their infants and toddlers will learn to read early before they even set foot into kindergarten, much less first grade, the traditional gateway to reading for nearly a century. Ads claim that their software will give their children an “edge” in learning over other kids. So marketers have to also target children because, as one advertising exec said: “We’re relying on the kid to pester the mom to buy the product rather than going straight to the mom.”

How do teachers and students actually use the “product”?

Surprisingly, this question is seldom asked by market researchers in high-tech companies selling to schools. Instead, they depend upon the usual array of soft, quick, and dirty findings reaped from focus groups and teacher, student, and administrator surveys. Cheap, easy, and fast, yes, but provide any real meaningful data? Not so much. The real customers are not seen nor heard: no direct observation of students working with tablets and software.

Without knowing how students actually use the equipment, it is all guesswork piled atop the unreliable results from surveys and focus groups. Of course, to pursue better answers, it is quite expensive and intensive labor for marketers. Academic researchers, however, do such investigations, (see here), even ones that work for for-profit firms who ask the right questions (see here). Seldom do market researchers dip into academic studies.

Why do marketers hype what new devices and software can do with students?

Look at ads for software for schools and you will see words that promise student engagement and improved academic achievement (see, for example: Dell Computers: 2011-western-heights high school). Like hot dogs and mustard, or Harry and Sally, hype and over-promising about technology and new mobile devices engaging students, raising test scores of minority students, and closing the achievement gap are joined like Siamese twins. “Schools powered by (insert your favorite software company name here) report impressive gains in first year.” Yet most of the evidence supporting such claims is missing in action.

Sure, there is the “novelty effect” where teachers and students in the first six months praise galore how iPads or Chromebooks have riveted students’ attention. But the shine wears off and the hard work of teaching lessons every day, with and without new gadgets, kick in. The evidence of software and devices lifting academic achievement is simply not there.

New ways of marketing?

These three problems marketers face in promoting technology to public schools get at the heart of selling high-tech innovations to public schools.

In deciding who is the real customer, the truth of the matter is that district officials—not the true consumers of teachers, parents, or students—are targeted customers—and this is a fundamental problem.

As for market research, please, no more Internet surveys and “carefully selected” and “hand picked” focus groups. The reliability and validity of such instruments is incredibly low and not to be trusted. Paying randomly-selected students, parents, and teachers make far more sense in using focus groups. Also, it is more sensible to harvest academic studies done by teachers and researchers about what actually occurs in classrooms.

Finally, no more over-the-top claims for products that promise outcomes for teachers and students that do not have a prayer of ever happening. Like youth creams marketed to middle-aged women, it’s the same story for claims about new technologies in classrooms. Dialing back bloated promotion, reducing the hype, and injecting a small dose of humility would be unusual and, in my judgment, of low probability of ever happening but it worth hoping for, nonetheless.