Cache me if you can

I’ve been in a few conference presentations lately where the topic of geocaching has come up.  Usually, the presenter asks the question “who knows about geocaching?” and about three hands go up.  The presenter then tries to give a quick explanation about it for those who haven’t heard about it – “it’s like a treasure hunt”, or “it’s a game where people hide things for others to find”, or other similar explanations.  While these summaries are mostly accurate, they don’t really give enough information and many people seem interested to know more about it.

Thanks to a long involvement with 4WDing, I’ve been playing with GPS and digital mapping for a while now, and I’ve done quite a bit of geocaching over the last few years, including placing our own.  When I started I was using a Garmin GPS V, a great little GPS that can basically do it all – multiple datum switching, realtime path tracking, waypoint extrapolation – you name it, it does it.  Trouble is, it’s not connected to the web, so “going geocaching” had to be a preplanned activity.  I had to look up geocaches in advance on the official website at, print out all the information sheets, and then manually enter the GPS coordinates into the Garmin.  Once the cache was found, when I got back home I had to go back to the website to report the cache found.

Lately, I’ve been having a lot of fun with a terrific little iPhone app called, simply, Geocaching.  On the 3G connected and GPS enabled iPhone, you can pull the device out of your pocket, press the Find Nearby Caches button and it will take your current GPS coordinates, go to the website and find all the nearby caches. Pick one, and the app will grab all the relevant data, draw a map, plot your position and the position of the cache, give you a compass to guide you, and it will lead you right to the cache. Once you find it, you have the ability to report the find directly in the app, making it a seamless end-to-end experience. Although the iPhone app lacks some of the more sophisticated features that a “real” GPS offers, the convenience factor that comes from being able to do the vast majority of geocaches anywhere, anytime, without any special preparation, makes up for these shortcomings.  It’s not free, but for me, has been well worth the $12.99 it cost me on the Apple app store.

Linda and I were out walking today so, geeks that we are, I pulled the iPhone out and did a quick search to find that there were two caches within 500 metres of where we were. We found them both of course, but on the second one, I made this short video that hopefully explains a little more about geocaching and how it works.

If you haven’t tried geocaching yet, give it a go.  It gets you out into the fresh air, is an interesting use of technology, and most of all it’s great fun.  I reckon it offers some terrific opportunities in education, and is a way to integrate technology in a really hands-on way that brings a whole lot of skills together – mapreading, fitness, resourcefulness, even a bit of maths. I’ve always had a hard time getting it introduced into schools because a class set of GPS units can be a bit expensive, but with the development of apps like Geocaching for the iPhone (and similar apps for other devices, such as Geocache Navigator on Nokia S60 phones) maybe it’s not such a stretch for kids to have these tools on their own phones instead.

What’s that? What do you mean your school bans phones!?

So Much Silicon

Being a bit of a technology geek, one place I’ve always wanted to visit is Silicon Valley.  Stretching southwards from San Francisco to San Jose, the Bay Area and Silicon Valley are home to many of the world’s major computing and technology organisations. Birthplace of companies like Apple, Adobe, Google and Twitter, breeding ground for new ideas at universities like Stanford, and host to big annual tech events like MacWorld and WWDC; the SF Bay Area really is a slice of geek Mecca.

So I’m pleased to say that I’ll be spending the next week or so here.  I’m actually here for the Adobe Summer Institute, a 5 day conference and workshops held at Adobe’s San Jose offices as part of their Education Leaders program.  We get to spend all week immersing into the serious end of fun stuff like Photoshop and Flash.

This afternoon I visited Wikispaces, a company based right here in San Fran only a few blocks from my hotel.  Wikispaces put a message out on Twitter a while back asking for volunteers in the bay area for anyone interested in taking part in some usability testing for some new Wikispaces features.  Purely on the off-chance, I dropped them a line and mentioned I’d be in SF in mid July, and Adam from Wikispaces replied back to say sure, drop in and be part of it.  So I found my way down to their office this afternoon, met Adam, James and Jess and spent about 90 minutes doing some really interesting usability testing, talking about some cool upcoming stuff in their products and having a great chat about usability, interface design and web navigation in general.  It’s always good to chat with super smart people doing cool stuff, so I was really pleased to have had the opportunity to drop by.

I had a bit of a wander around Union Park, dropped into the Apple Store on Stockton to leech a bit of free wifi while I listened to some of their free presentations. Then it was back to the hotel for a couple of hours of sleep before going for a walk through Chinatown and up to North Beach.  The place was buzzing… but I really do hate traveling alone!  There’s something about sitting in a restaurant on your own that is just kind of pathetic… Instead, I bought a couple of hot pizza slices and kept wandering, taking in the atmosphere, trying to appear only slightly less pathetic.

Anyway, I’ll try to put up a few short posts while I’m here just in case anyone is interested.  Big day of sightseeing tomorrow, and still trying to wrangle a visit to the TWiT Cottage on Sunday to meet @leolaporte… not sure if that will come off or not, but it’d be kinda fun if it does…

Cutting out the Middleman

One of the side effects of the new web is greatly increased disintermediation, or cutting out the middleman.  It seems that everywhere you look, entire industries are being turned upside down because the web makes it so easy for people to completely bypass the traditional “middlemen” that we all used to rely on so heavily.  Musicians are bypassing record labels and releasing their music directly to their fans.  Authors are bypassing publishers and using services like to self publish. Homebuyers often know just as much about the real estate markets as the agents.  Ordinary people can buy and sell shares without the need to go though expensive stockbrokers.  In all of these processes (and many others like them) unless the middlemen add real value along the way, they face eventual extinction.  Why would you continue to pay someone to do something that you can just as easily do yourself?

This disintermediation seems to be obvious in three main areas… creation, distribution and promotion.

When it comes to creation, there are plenty of software tools now available that allow average people to create content in ways that were simply not even remotely possible 20, 10, even 5 years ago.  When I think back to some of the image manipulation processes that I had to master back in art school – I’m thinking of something like doing a four-colour separation of a photographic image – it was hugely expensive, time consuming and required highly specialised equipment.  Today, it’s a menu choice in Photoshop.

Same thing with making music.  Back in my younger years I played bass in a band, and to get studio time to even record a simple demo tape was horrendously expensive – hundreds of dollars an hour. The tape machines required to do multi track recording were huge beasts of things that cost many thousands of dollars to buy.  Today, I could get just as good quality using GarageBand, a program that comes free on every Macintosh computer.

Think about the changes involved in creating content for the web… not so long ago you needed a funny hat with a propeller on it just to make a website.  You needed to know about html coding, javascript, FTP servers, file types and naming conventions, plus a whole lot of other techno-geekery if you had any hope of putting a decent website online.  It was tricky, and the average person really struggled to do it.  But look what the new web, the read-write web, web 2.0 – call it what you will – has done to this process.  Blogs and wikis have changed things so dramatically that your 75 year old mum can now run a website using some free tool like Blogger or WordPress.  No need to hire an expensive web designer, or buy a lot of expensive gear.  Just sign up for a free account, click edit and start creating stuff. It’s a total turnaround.

The creation of nearly all media has undergone these same basic shifts.  Photographs, music, video, animations, text, page layout…  you name it, and the tools to produce it have gone digital and had their costs reduced so far as to be virtually zero.  Not all that many years ago, I can remember paying someone about $70 to use a desktop publishing program and a laser printer to design an A4 certificate… these days you wouldn’t even consider paying someone to do that. I wonder what that person is doing to make money these days?  I doubt he is still able to charge $70 to knock up a simple A4 document! Why?  Because most people can now do this sort of thing for themselves.  If you have the willingness to learn how to make something, the tools you need to create it are probably available at almost no cost.  Barrier one gone.

The second aspect is one of distribution.  Once you make something, you need to get it to people.  You only need to look at what peer-to-peer music distribution is doing to traditional models of distributing music to see that these are fundamental changes in how these things will work now and in the future. When people can consume music by downloading it, whether legally through services like iTunes or Amazon, or illegally using BitTorrenting or through sites like Pirate Bay or Kazaa, they are bypassing the old model of stamping the music onto disks, packing them in cardboard and shipping them on trucks to shops where people have to go to get them. It’s ridiculous when you think about it.  When music is digital, nothing more than a bunch of binary bits, the notion of committing them to a piece of plastic called a CD and then distributing it by trucking it all over the country is quite ludicrous.  Binary bits are digital… it makes far more sense to push them across the Internet. You don’t need to put a CDs in the mail just to give your friend a copy of a song you want them to hear, just transfer it directly to them over the web. Expand that idea out to be a band who distributes their music over the web to thousands of fans, and things take on a whole new slant. In the process of doing this of course, we potentially bypass a whole lot of middlemen – record labels, music publishers, CD producers, trucking companies, etc – unless they see the changes happening around them and respond to them quickly, these middlemen will be left high and dry, expertly servicing a market that no longer exists.  The Internet is totally reshaping whole industries, removing the friction from processes that were once held together by chains of middlemen. Barrier two gone.

The last aspect is promotion.  Telling people about stuff.  Getting the word out.  Marketing.  There was a time not so long ago that PR people wrote press releases about new information in the hope that journalists would pick up stories and help spread them. The flow of media was controlled by middlemen – journalists, newspapers, radio and TV. We heard what they wanted to tell us about. Our information was managed so that we paid attention to what the middlemen wanted us to know about, not necessarily what we were interested in. If your interests were out on the long tail, you were on your own.  Not any more.  Social media, social networks, they have allowed individuals to connect and share and converse and spread ideas far more efficiently and far faster than ever before. “Getting the word out” about something no longer requires a highly paid PR expert to write a finely honed press release just to get attention… a 15 year old kid with a webcam can be the next viral sensation on YouTube, generating millions of views at no cost with no middlemen.  Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Youtube, blogs… these tools of the new web – tools of ordinary people – are reshaping and redefining the way we move messages around and how we share and inform each other. In many cases you don’t need middlemen to do this, just the right tools and a bit of strategy. Barrier three gone.

I got thinking about this as I booked my own flights and accommodation for a trip to San Francisco this week.  After visiting the airline websites, shopping for the best deals and booking myself a seat, I then forwarded the confirmation email to a service called TripIt, which parsed the email and generated an online itinerary for me. I forwarded on the confirmation emails from the hotels and car rentals and TripIt easily worked it all into a well structured itinerary, complete with estimated travel times, links to confirm check-in times, even Google maps giving me directions from airports to hotels.  I’m not a travel agent, but I apparently don’t need to be… there’s an app for that, as they say.  If I WAS a travel agent I’d be extremely concerned for my future, and desperately looking for other ways to add extra value to my middleman role.

The real point though, is thinking about how all of this applies to education.  So many other fields have been affected by this massive shift away from needing middlemen – travel, music, publishing, public relations, product distribution, you name it.  But what about education?  Is there such a thing as educational middlemen?  If so, who are they? How will they add value in the future? How is the Internet likely to reshape the world of education?  Are educators really susceptible to the same shifts and changes that nearly every other industry is experiencing, or are we somehow different? Immune?  I doubt it.

Just like a travel agent who suddenly realises that she has hardly any clients booking flights through her, or the book publisher who finds that the last 10 bestsellers were all self published,  at what point will educators suddenly realise that the world has seriously shifted and the old rules that once worked so well no longer apply.

Who are the educational middlemen?