Stupid money

In which I mull online education, travel to Florida, and remember my first Mac

This is the first time I've been home in Vancouver for more than a day or two since early January. It's chilly and grey. William Gibson famously started his novel Neuromancer with the line "The sky was the color of a television tuned to a dead channel," and while nobody under age 35 gets the joke, it's still the best description of a Cascadian winter I've ever heard. It's good to be home.

Hail and farewell

Concordia University in Portland, Oregon announced that it will be closing at the end of the spring term, joining a number of smaller schools around the US shutting their doors due to their impossible economic situation.

An interesting side note about Concordia is that they had anticipated the changing demographics and tried to pivot to an intensive online-education model. I remember a wealth of advertising in the Pacific Northwest about Concordia's programs. Problem: that wealth of advertising was expensive. So was the partnership with their online learning provider, according to the Oregonian.

In the early 2000s many thought online education would commoditize and supplant face-to-face education, but it hasn't happened as quickly as some expected. There's a wealth of literature about supplying online education that amounts to it's not as simple as you think it should be. I liked this recent example which pointed out how online pedagogy benefits from enhanced teaching requirements, which is one of those intuitive concepts that would cause certain professors I knew to jump straight out of their chairs in wrath. We've seen around the world that one of the biggest barriers to effective online education is the digital divide - do students have access to the net with enough bandwidth to participate in online courses? In many cases, including areas of larger nations like the US, Canada, the answer is no.

In talking to customers what we're often seeing is that online and F2F education work best when partly blended. The Catholic Education of Western Australia (CEWA) system has students widely scattered across a vast, mostly empty geographic area. They've seen success with a program that brings all the students together for a week, to get acquainted and develop a rapport - then conducts the rest of the term online. It mitigates some of the loneliness and lack of connection often reported by students in online courses often report.

Ironically, Concordia seems to have known that, as they were expanding both their campus and online footprint before running out of money. I'd be curious to know how integrated those plans were, and what lessons we could learn from them.

Where I've Been

Last week I expected to be at Microsoft HQ in Redmond, but ended up heading out to Daytona Beach, Florida to talk to a customer for an afternoon. It was a whirlwind of a trip, 24 hours gate to gate. We had a spare hour due to some logistics confusion, so my boss got us out on the beach. Seattle has had torrential rain for weeks, so I think she appreciated the sunshine even more than I did.

I spent a day or so at the Campus Connections Summit in Microsoft's Executive Briefing Center, catching up with some customers and co-workers. It was great to see David Kellermann give some updates on his work. I watched with fascination a working session where some campus leaders wrestled with the idea of measuring return-on-investment, ROI, for their university. (That's not simple in an academic environment. It's not like you're counting profits, after all.)

I've spent a lot of the last couple weeks collecting customer feedback on this announcement. That feedback resulted in this course correction. Sometimes listening to customers means recognizing when you're about to screw up.

Macs

Old Microsoft, as I call it, had a few less-lovely cultural norms. A minor one was the performative dislike of any product that was a Microsoft competitor. The famous example was Ballmer stomping on an employee's iPhone, but it was a known part of the company culture. Employees were discouraged from using non-Microsoft products, including but not limited to Apple stuff -- and this despite making a flagship Mac product in the version of the Office suite. You need that context for this story:

Like most Microsoft employees, I was given a few stock options when I joined. Everyone including my financial advisor told me "oh, that's your retirement savings right there." The idea behind the stock options was that I'd have an option to buy stock at the price of the day the options were set. It was a great idea -- as long as the stock price kept going up.

I officially joined Microsoft in late 1997. In retrospect, that was lousy timing. The Windows 95 glow had faded, the dot-coms were starting to organize, and the browser wars and subsequent DOJ suit were heating up. Microsoft's stock was high, meaning that the option price was set high.

Fast forward seven years, when the options expired and had to be cashed out. Microsoft's stock price crashed when the ruling in the DOJ case was announced and hadn't recovered. (It wouldn't start rising again for almost a decade.) Unlike a lot of people, my options were "above water" -- barely. My so-called retirement fund would last maybe two weeks. But I couldn't sit on the options any longer. I had to cash them out or they'd be worthless.

This, I said, is stupid money. It cannot be reinvested, or spent on something practical. I need to do something stupid with this money. Something that would annoy the Microsoft c-suite, by preference.

So I cashed out the options, took the money, and spent it on a PowerBook G4.

I've been using Macs at home ever since, though I mostly use Windows machines at work. When I rejoined Microsoft in 2017, one of the first questions my then-boss asked me was: "Do you want a Surface Pro, a Surface Book, or a Macbook Pro?" In the old days this would have been like giving a Coca-Cola manager the option of drinking a Diet Pepsi. I was dumbfounded.

In case you're wondering: I ended up with the Surface Book for work, which I later traded in on a Surface Laptop 2. I'm typing on it now. It's one of the best laptops I've ever had. I'm looking forward to finding an excuse for an upgrade to a Surface Laptop 3.

Inspiration

Last year around this time I was visiting Nairobi. It’s a fascinating city with a lot of energy, and the people are amazing. I watched a group of women sing a bride from her car to her bridal reception here at the Karen museum.

Onward

We're coming up on a long weekend for the US and Canada so I'm going to (gleefully) get offline and start working through my book pile. No newsletter next week; normal service will resume the week of February 23. In the meantime, feel free to drop me a line and let me know how you're enjoying Shrewsbury Tech -- especially if there's anything I can improve. More to come!