Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Takeaways on the future of education

As I mentioned last week, I was able to attend the iNACOL Virtual School Symposium last week in New Orleans, where the theme was "Inventing the Future of Learning".  It was a true "drinking from a firehose" experience with 2,000+ attendees and hundreds of breakout sessions.  For a great overview, check out these blog posts at Getting Smart:
Here are some of my own takeaways:
  • The keynote speaker, John White, Louisiana Superintendent of Education, made a depressing point about the overwhelming bureaucracy around education in this country: 14,000 school districts, 50 states, federal departments, politicians, unions, nonprofits, and vendors - all creating a super-fragmented quagmire that is in no way ready to embrace the amazing new potential of educational technology.
  • Louisiana is actually ahead of Texas in empowering local schools, encouraging charters, and supporting vouchers.  Louisiana students also have "course choice", allowing them to pick online options to replace any courses at their school.
  • 46 states have aligned around the new "Common Core" curriculum, and vendors are aligning amazing new eLearning technologies with that curriculum, and yet Texas continues to go its own way and miss out.
  • Texas does have a Virtual School Network (TxVSN) that has approved over 1,000 online courses for Texas students, with a heavy recent focus on making sure those courses are fully accessible to the disabled.
  • Schools are still locked into an outdated "seat time" mentality when the real issue is not time, but the amount of actual learning that's occurring and students' ability to demonstrate that learning.
  • Texas does have good regulatory initiatives around free Open Education Resources (OER) which can dramatically reduce spending on textbooks, led by our local state representative Scott Hochberg.
I was both inspired by the amazing innovation that is happening all around the country and dejected by the slow adoption by the education system.  One thing that occurred to me was that eLearning technologies seem to be radically reshaping the optimal configuration of school buildings where they are fully embraced (single teacher classrooms are very sub-optimal), and yet HISD is running a $1.9 billion dollar bond issue referendum to replace schools with buildings that ultimately function a lot like the old ones.  Yes, I know they want to make some technology investments, but I don't think they have a handle on how radically education will shift over the next decade, and we're going to get locked into a lot of obsolete buildings that are going to be built by these bonds.  I support most of the other bond referendums on the ballot (especially the Metro referendum and ParksByYou, Prop B), but the HISD one does have me concerned by this issue and the fact that it will have to raise taxes to pay for it.

To close out, if you're interesting in reading more on an amazing vision of the future of education, I highly recommend this inspiring new book by Sal Khan of Khan Academy fame:


Thursday, October 25, 2012

Megabus trip report

I just returned from an eLearning symposium in New Orleans (more on that in a future post), and for the trip I decided to try the new Megabus service from Houston.  I still think this kind of express intercity bus service substantially undermines the cost-benefit case for high-speed rail, but there's nothing like first hand experience to really understand the pros and cons.

  • Incredibly good value.  A few days out I got a round-trip ticket for $44.  It can be as low as $2 if you get it far enough in advance.  Southwest wanted $400, and I would have spent north of $100 on gas and $100+ on downtown New Orleans parking if I drove, not to mention the loss of productivity for 10-12 hours round trip and the full depreciation cost of adding 700 miles to my car (IRS says 55.5 cents per mile, or $388, including gas cost).
  • Convenient pick-up and drop-off locations.  In Houston, their lot is next to the Metro HQ downtown transit center and a light rail stop.  In New Orleans, it's on the edge of the French Quarter next to downtown, within walking distance of where most people want to go in New Orleans.
  • Productivity.  I was able to get a lot of work done for the 10-12 hours round trip, including free wifi and power at every seat.  Love the downstairs seats with a table.
  • Comfort.  The double decker buses have ~80 seats, but neither leg was more than a quarter full, so plenty of room to stretch out.  Here are interior pics.  Fun fact: a new megabus costs $790k.
  • No TSA security or having to arrive for departure an hour+ early.
  • Street pick-up/drop-off.  Good weather for me, so no problem, but you may not be so lucky so be prepared.  Not having the overhead of a bus station keeps prices low.  In Houston they do have a covering to keep the rain off, but not in New Orleans, which is just an open sidewalk.
  • Speed.  They go a pretty steady 65-70mph - which is not going to compete with a plane or HSR.  Still, our driver did not stop on the outbound leg, and we made it in a quick 5 hours instead of the 6.5 hours on the schedule.  
  • Spotty wifi.  It fades in and out as the bus moves from cell phone tower to tower.  I had to get in the rhythm of opening as many browser tabs as possible while the access was good so that I could stay productive reading when it went out again.  No video streaming - they block it, but it wouldn't work anyway.  The internet seemed much better and more stable on the return trip - not sure why it was different than the the first leg.
  • Ride can be less than smooth.  Of course you're at the whims of the quality of the road surface you're on.  I don't think most people had any problem with the ride quality, but I was trying to write notes, and it didn't do wonders for my handwriting.
  • Don't be even a minute late. (some people may consider this a pro)  They tell you to be there 15 mins before departure.  Do it.  One woman showed up as we were just pulling away from the stop in New Orleans, and they didn't let her on.  Lucky her.  Why lucky?  Well...
  • It really, really sucks when the bus breaks down.  Our transmission died near Lake Charles on the return (heard maintenance did not secure the transmission fluid cap and it slowly drained out).  We ended up stuck on an exit (and later at a rural truck stop after a tow - a cultural experience in itself) for 4 hours waiting for a rescue bus to come from Houston to get us.  We were supposed to get into Houston by 11:15pm, but instead got in at 4am, 11 hours after departure.  Ugh.  But hey, it's better than a plane breaking down in flight, right?
On the handling of the breakdown:

  • My major complaint with the breakdown was the long delay sending out a rescue bus.  We actually had problems twice before the third and final breakdown (we had to pull off the road and restart the bus).  In each case, we were told they would send a rescue bus out as a precaution, but they actually didn't.  And then when we died for the third and final time, we were told the rescue bus was "leaving the lot in Houston" immediately, but it took 3.5 hours to go 150 miles, which implies to me it left an hour+ later than they said.  It arrived with a fresh driver and a mechanic.  I think they delayed to get the mechanic at 10pm at night, which means they sacrificed customer service for their own convenience.  The mechanic certainly could have come out separately later on his own.
  • They immediately sent out an apology email to us with the estimate of the rescue bus arrival time.
  • They followed up with another email refunding all our tickets to our credit cards.  They refunded the full round-trip amount too, not just the return leg.
  • They also sent an email voucher for one free round trip ticket.
  • They arranged for rides to get people to their final destinations at 4am in the morning in Houston.  The original driver made these arrangements with each passenger while the new driver took us the last 2.5 hours back to Houston.  I thought that was very kind of them.  You could definitely hear that friends and family weren't thrilled to be asked for pickups at 4am instead of 11pm.
Overall: they screwed up early on not sending out the rescue bus much sooner, but were proactive after that in trying to make up for the inconvenience.  I overheard a couple Greyhound horror stories on the bus, and they definitely seem to be well above Greyhound in the customer service department.  Maybe over the airlines too, although that's a low bar these days.

Other tips
  • Bring a bottle of water and snacks.  I brought some trail mix, which was perfect.
  • Bring an iPod and headphones.  You may want to drown out the conversations around you.
  • Bring your phone recharging cord in your carry-on.  Luggage is in an inaccessible rear compartment.
  • The toilet on the bus works in a pinch, but, for comparison, is a notch below an airplane toilet (no sink - just hand sanitizer - and you're on a swaying bus).  You'll want to use real restrooms when they're available.  I'm told most drivers do include one 15 min snack/bathroom break at a gas station convenience store, but you can't count on it.
  • The earlier you get there, the better seat selection you get.  Most popular include the tables and the upper level front seats where the road unfolds below you (please be kind and don't take a table seat unless you plan to use a laptop).  They say be there at least 15 mins before departure - I'd say arrive a half-hour before departure and you're likely to be near the front of the line.  But if you do this and get the last table seat ahead of me, you are now morally obligated to give it up to me, since I unwisely shared this tip online instead of keeping it to myself... ;-)
Bottom line: a winner, just come prepared and don't be overly reliant on the schedule (i.e. don't schedule an important meeting right after your theoretical arrival time).


Friday, October 19, 2012

Sabine River Rivalry at Reliant?

I was reading in the Chronicle about the Texas A&M-LSU rivalry renewing again tomorrow, and it occurred to me that, now that TAMU is in the SEC, there is the potential for a new annual rivalry to match Texas-OU game in Dallas at the Texas State Fair every year.  Has anyone considered a similar game in Houston at Reliant for the annual TAMU-LSU game?  Obviously we're somewhat similarly between College Station and Baton Rouge.  And we could build our own festival around it like the Texas State Fair (although probably on a smaller scale).  The tourism potential is huge.  And I'm sure there are enough alums of each in Houston to make it a very big and profitable event for the schools (worth giving up a home game every other year).

Anyone know if this idea has been floated or the schools approached?  And if you know anybody at Reliant or the GHCVB, please pass this along.  A Sabine River Rivalry at Reliant has a lot of potential for both the city and the schools.


Monday, October 15, 2012

Perspectives on branding Houston

Early in the summer, Josh Dinsman of Notre Dame, a PhD student working on his dissertation on branding cities, came to Houston for a short research visit.  He interviewed many key people here on perceptions of Houston, and kindly summarized his findings in an email to me.  He authorized me to share those findings with you, and I'd love to hear your reactions in the comments:

There were some common themes that came through in all of the meetings:

1. Everyone I talked to remarked that Houston is a hard-to-define city that lacks an iconic structure or image around which a brand can be built.

2. Everyone also lauded Houston for its economic, political, and cultural diversity.

3. The lack of zoning in the city was also a major talking point, which while perhaps making the city less aesthetically pleasing, was talked about favorably for contributing to the diversity of the city.

4. Everyone mentioned that Houston has great restaurants! (side note: I took my family back to the Original Ninfa's on Tuesday, and everyone loved it. I also got to try Pasha Restaurant over by Rice, which was also excellent).

5. Everyone I talked to described Houston as a city of "opportunity."

6. Everyone noted that Houston is not a tourist town, and all seemed to think it would be a good idea to use the money that is currently used to promote tourism to instead promote economic development.

7. Everyone seemed to think that Houstonians are proud of their city, and while the national image of the city may still be either neutral or negative, they feel that Houstonians have gotten over their self-esteem issue and aren't too bothered by what outsiders think of their city. Because of this, and because the city recovered so well from the recession, continues to succeed economically, and doesn't depend on tourism for its well-being, everyone seemed to think that it isn't really that big of a deal if Houston doesn't have a brand.

Other interesting notes:

...there has not really been any tension between the Partnership and the GHCVB's branding campaigns. In fact, the two organizations do coordinate with each other to some degree, attending trade shows and expos together, and there is even section in the Opportunity Houston quarterly magazine that is reserved for the CVB's current "My Houston" campaign. Perhaps the most interesting point taken from this meeting was that the marketing department for the Partnership focuses solely on promoting "facts and data" about Houston and is not interested in becoming involved in a civic branding campaign. While the image of the city is important to their work, they don't necessarily try to create or shape that image in any way, but rather let the hard data on job growth, cost of living, etc. speak for itself.

Dr. Klineberg was great. From him I mostly got an overview of the diversity and rapidly changing nature of the Houston area. He does not himself do much research on the image of the city or its attempt at branding, but he did provide me with some data from the Houston Area Survey showing that while Houstonians complain a lot about their city, a vast majority of them still think it is a better place to live than anywhere else.

Finally, I had a great meeting with ttweak. They gave me a great overview of the "Houston: It's Worth It" campaign, including the pushback they got from the CVB. They made an interesting connection between HIWI and the Las Vegas brand, "What Happens Here Stays Here," in that both of them were successful because they had a degree of tension built into them (Houston's in that there was tension between the guys at ttweak and city officials who didn't like their unofficial campaign, as well as tension in the sense that HIWI openly recognized the city's many afflictions; Vegas, in that the image of the city being promoted by "What Happens Here Stays Here" is not very popular among the local citizenry, and there is also tension in that while great for promoting tourism, the slogan has also had some negative effects in that it has turned away businesses who could have helped to diversify the city's economy).

Cities' CVBs and other local officials are often afraid of offending anybody, they want to make everyone happy, and in the process end up producing bland, cliched, and often patronizing brands/slogans that have lost that degree of tension. I found this to be a very interesting insight, especially considering the fact that while HIWI achieved this tension from a more grassroots, bottom up, unofficial campaign that depended completely on the participation of local Houstonians, Vegas achieved this tension in a more top-down fashion with no input from locals. Thus, there was tension between locals and city officials in both cases, but with each side coming at the issue from a different direction in each case.

Finally, they also mentioned that someone in Detroit contacted ttweak about doing a "Detroit: It's Worth It" (DIWI) campaign. Although he authorized them to use the "It's Worth It" tagline, the DIWI campaign never gained steam and and never really got off the ground. They believed that this may have been because Detroit doesn't suffer from the same type of bad reputation that Houston does, but I'm not sure about that. When people refer to you as "murder city," I don't think that is a very positive image to have. Thus, the failure of DIWI could have simply been to the lack of leadership/effort in really getting the campaign going, or, in my view at least, I think it also says something about the local culture and the pride that each city's citizens have in their hometown. Despite its afflictions and neutral/negative reputation, Houstonians seem to be very proud of their city and proud to call themselves Houstonians. I am not so sure that the same can be said for the people of Detroit.  For a lot of them, Detroit probably isn't worth it!

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Sunday, October 07, 2012

Summer 3Q12 Highlights

It's time for the Summer 3Q12 quarterly highlights post, which was a particularly prolific quarter for highlight-worthy posts (imho). These posts have been chosen with a particular focus on significant ideas I'd like to see kept alive for discussion and action, and they're mainly targeted at new readers who want to get caught up with a quick overview of the Houston Strategies landscape. I also like to track what I think of as "reference posts" that sum up a particular topic or argument; and, last but not least, they've also been invaluable for me to track down some of my best thinking for meetings or when requested by others (as is the ever-helpful Google search). They're not quite as useful as they were when I was still doing multiple posts each week, but still have some value (at least for me).

Don't forget we offer an email option for the roughly once/week posts - see the Google Groups subscription signup box in the right sidebar. An RSS feed link is also available in the right sidebar. As always, thanks for your readership.

Spring 2Q12:

Winter 1Q12:

And don't forget the highlights from the first few years. For what it's worth, I think the best ideas are found there, often in the first year (I had a lot "stored up" before I started blogging) and most definitely in the 5th birthday retrospective.


Monday, October 01, 2012

Debottlenecking downtown freeways, #2 metro better than #1, commuting trends, rising universities, and more

Lots of smaller items this week:
  1. NYC dominates with 39% of all the nation's transit commuters.
  2. Despite many billions of dollars of federally subsidized rail lines, only NYC and DC have had strong transit share growth since 2000.  Light rail focused Portland has been completely flat.
  3. Houston is not in the top 10 for commute times, which is impressive for the 4th largest city in the country.
" doesn’t seem like a sign of national health that America’s political capital is suddenly richer than our capitals of manufacturing and technology and finance, or that our leaders are more insulated than ever from the trends buffeting the people they’re supposed to serve."
"Rice is one of only four schools to receive a top-20 ranking in 25 of 26 attributes. Among national universities, Rice is No. 2 for intellectual development, preparation for career success and value for the cost of education, and No. 5 for college experience and overall assessment. In the category “would recommend to a student,” Rice is No. 6. It’s No. 7 for household net worth and No. 8 for overall happiness. It ranks No. 11 for three attributes – friendship development, likelihood the alumni would choose Rice again and the percentage of alumni giving. Rice’s overall rank among 177 universities (national and liberal arts combined) in the guide is No. 4.
Last month the Princeton Review’s “The Best 377 Colleges” ranked No.1 for the happiest students in the country for the second year in a row. The 2013 guide also ranked Rice No. 2 for best quality of life, best-run college and students’ love of their school, No. 5 for relations between the city and university and No. 7 for lots of race-class interaction in addition to several other top-20 placements."
  • The Chronicle recently ran a story on a study being done to de-bottleneck the freeways around downtown, including the idea of a giant one-way roundabout (!).  I discussed a much simpler solution at HAIF: elevate 4 or 6 express I45 lanes over the Pierce elevated.  They would have no entrances or exits - they would be express-only lanes through downtown.  The existing lanes would act to handle all the exiting/entering traffic.  I think they could be plugged in to the very long+wide freeway ramps near Scott Street.  I don't think they would necessarily solve all of the problems downtown, but it could be an affordable solution that creates massive improvements.  As they say, don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good - and I think a perfect solution will be unaffordable in today's TXDoT budget realities.
Finally, to end on a humorous note, the awesome xkcd online comic recently posted their notorious "Click and Drag" comic which probably single-handedly measurably reduced national productivity that day.  As Wired pointed out, you could spend a very, very long time exploring it.  I gave up pretty quickly, but found this great clip out of it online that somebody else found - and it was an all the more impressive find because it was all alone in a gigantic open sky of white space.  I have no idea how they found it.  But I'm glad they did, because I found it quite amusing.  Enjoy:

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