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February 2010

Schools and young entrepreneurs

There was a piece on ReadWriteWeb earlier this month about the Teens in Tech conference: ‘They haven’t learned that the sky is not, in fact, the limit - and for god’s sake, don’t tell them.’

Teens In Tech Conference 2010 from ReadWriteWeb on Vimeo

In January, Stephen Heppell, quoted in the Guardian, said of the iPad: ‘It’s gorgeous, I want one, but I want to see children and teachers develop for it … nearly there.’

I’ve been meaning for some time now to say something here about what George Burgess, a final year student at St Paul’s, has been doing. I’ve known George for three years and he’s the most business savvy student I’ve ever come across. It’s in his blood: he operates with a shrewdness and an eye for opportunities. George is alert to changes in the game:

‘The idea that anyone, all the way from an individual to a large company, can create software that is innovative and be carried around in a customer’s pocket is just exploding. It’s a breakthrough, and that is the future, and every software developer sees it.’ — Apple’s Game Changer, Downloading Now, NYT, 6 December, 2009

Late last year, George had his iPhone app, GeoRev, accepted and on 24 November it appeared in Apple’s store. You can read about it on his website, EducationApps. From George’s press release:

GeoRev is designed to help students revise for their Geography GCSE exam and consists of 600 multiple-choice questions. These questions are separated into 15 topic areas with both foundation and higher tier options. The topic areas aim to incorporate the majority of material required by major exam boards.

GeoRev is the first of many revision apps Burgess will produce as part of his business, EducationApps. The business aims to produce high quality education applications for the iPhone and iPod touch which help pupils to learn and revise for exams.

Since then, he’s released a free, LITE version of GeoRev with only 150 questions, with the aim of sparking further interest in the full version by giving users an opportunity to try it out first. (When I spoke to George in early February, he’d sold over 400 copies of GeoRev, now priced at £1.19.)

Not standing still, he’s gone on to release two Economics apps, with revision notes for Units 1 and 2 of Edexcel’s AS Level Economics. The notes are split into topic areas and there’s a search function to allow users to quickly find relevant material (particularly helpful for homework). ‘I’m currently working with teachers to try and produce the following GCSE apps before Easter: Maths (a basic version of this might be available within the next two weeks), Chemistry, Biology, Physics and RS. I’ve also received permission from OCR to use their word lists in the making of my foreign language apps. I’m therefore working with a developer in Australia to get these started.’

Oh, and over Christmas his seasonal Trivia Quiz made it into MacWorld.

George ran his first idea for an app (GeoRev) past the school and then drew up a contract with our Head of Geography: they co-wrote the questions and answers (George is studying Geography at A Level). Once version 1 was out of the door, he began working on new features for version 2, including random testing and beat-the-clock.

He’s happy for me to re-tell the story of how, in our junior school, he got into some trouble … as a result of his business sense. Travelling quite often between the UK and the States, he noticed how his friends liked the American sweets he brought back. So he started bringing them back in quantity and selling them on. That’s what business people do, but it’s not quite the form traditionally expected of school pupils. (Bruce Chatwin got into trouble as a schoolboy at Marlborough College when he exercised his discerning eye and bought stuff from the local antique shops that he knew would fetch a good price in London. In his case, the local dealers got together to protest to Chatwin’s headmaster: Chatwin was destroying their credibility, they said …)

One thing I find admirable in what George has done is that he’s done it at all, whilst still at school. He’s not the first, of course: there’s a long line now of school-aged innovators seizing the reins, writing code and changing the world a bit.

In George’s case, he didn’t write the code for GeoRev himself. Like me, he’s not a coder, but unlike me he had the idea for an app, knew what it should do and what it should feel like, found a developer in Pakistan and commissioned the work. And in order to do all this, he approached my colleague, his Geography teacher, and invited him to enter into this business proposal, contract-based, clearing the idea with the school as he went.

Since George got his first app on the market, other GCSE revision apps have started to appear. He’s swift to watch for new competition, seeing what each does and appraising the strengths and weaknesses of their products — ‘this developer produces quite boring and basic apps (including the ICT one), which consist only of audio commentary with some notes on the screen’; ‘these ones only cover science but look quite good, with a similar approach to mine (multiple-choice questions)’; ‘this developer just produces revision flash cards with text and pictures’.

It will become a crowded space and then there’ll be the inevitable shake-out. That’s his challenge. Ours is to respond adeptly to this most significant change in empowerment: not just to tolerate or learn to cope, but to create the ethos which encourages entrepreneurial initiatives and offers guidance and support — not least in avoiding the pitfalls. I’ve seen more complicated, student-driven initiatives just recently, and one thing we can bring to all this is a sense of realism about legal and other issues surrounding these ventures. But ‘realism’ must not be a reason for dampening enthusiasm. We’re here to guide and enable, as best we can, as these young entrepreneurs aim high.

Things you might try to pass on

I find it hard to believe that the Paxman/Kissinger encounter on ‘Start The Week’ occurred all the way back in 1999 (here’s a Guardian piece about it, too). (I heard it live and I’d love to hear it again: all these years on, a kind of acoustical aftershock is still resonating in my head.) It’s recalled in the first comment to a 2002 post by David Weinberger. Weinberger calls Kissinger a ‘disgraceful, banal man’.

I came across a quotation from Kissinger recently that struck me. (That’s thought-provoking in itself — to come across something that seems important said by someone for whom, at best, you don’t much care.) This is from Nat Torkington’s excellent O’Reilly Radar post earlier this month, Rethinking Open Data. The last sentence is his own.

Henry Kissinger said, “each success only buys admission to a more difficult problem”. I look forward to learning what the next problem is.

In the same post, there’s a lovely bit which runs:

As Krishna was told by Arjuna, “a man must go forth from where he stands. He cannot jump to the Absolute, he must evolve toward it”. I’m just noting that, as with all creative endeavours, we learned about the problem by starting to fix it. …

Conveying something valuable about life’s complexities and problems — that’s one of the very best things in teaching, whether done within a disciplined area of study, in guiding an enthusiasm or individual project or in being alongside someone in the larger matters of living itself.

Bucky tweet.jpeg

I liked very much what the Guardian reported Rowan Williams said recently in a lecture about Dostoevsky: ‘he loved Dostoevsky’s characters because of their soul-searching and sharing of other people’s burdens’. And there was this (the words are Williams’ own):

Irony is when you recognise that your own sense of dramatic power is always something that is going to be absurd in the light of truth. The readiness to cope with that absurdity is something that you have to learn in order to grow up.

That’s good.