Strategies for Adoption in Higher Education

This is one of my responses to the call by the Gates Foundation for Next Generation Learning.  The question was “WHICH INTERACTIVE TECHNOLOGIES HAVE THE POTENTIAL TO BE MOST WIDELY ADOPTED AND WHY?”

To answer the question specifically: technologies that show the potential to be most widely adopted will have a combination of network effects, a sticky user experience, and a low-resistance path-to-market that focuses on users and circumvents institutional decision making.
Student-centered web services like Chegg, CourseHero, Cramster, Notehall, Zinch, Unigo, GulliverGo, ULoop, and others have the chance to get the widest distribution.
We can also assume that any innovative product will have highly social elements that tap into network effects.
Monetization does not necessarily follow distribution, (though Chegg is killing it).  The easiest way to monetize is to sell a product to the user or get in the lead gen game (like myedu.com did), but it’s also the easiest way to lose focus on bringing innovation to education.  In order to fully monetize the user base the service will need to offer products to the institution, using the extensive student distribution as a lever.  Zinch has this model, though it also plays the lead gen game.  The most high-profile company to pull this path-to-market off in the commercial world is Yammer.
When it comes to the thesis of Next Generation Learning, NextGen seems to skip the fact that consumer-focused products with sticky and simple user experiences will win big and be able to translate that into a new learning platform.  In particular, Watermelon Express has executed well on their product development. Grockit is also making a bold play with a similar test-prep like point of entry, but with a clear platform for a “DIY” Adaptive Learning Environment with gaming mechanics.
When it comes to course management products, either a disruptive model will have to back it’s way in or the new new thing will have to have an open-source distribution model with a value-added services business supporting it.  There’s simply not a real economy around EduPunks for the forseeable future, institutional adoption processes are slow and painful enough to kill any start up, and Blackboard is out to push out or scoop up anybody that gets traction.  In particular, I have hopes that someone will hone in on an opportunity around real-time classroom participation through the form of backchannelling here.  Drew Harry at MIT has open sourced his backchan.nl.  HotSeat came out of Purdue but I’m not sure how they plan to spin it off.  The good part about education is that there are lots of people willing to collaborate all across the world.

To answer the question specifically: technologies that show the potential to be most widely adopted will have a combination of network effects, a sticky user experience, and a low-resistance path-to-market that focuses on users and circumvents institutional decision making.

Student-centered web services like Chegg, CourseHero, Cramster, Notehall, Zinch, Unigo, GulliverGo, ULoop, and others have the chance to get the widest distribution.

We can also assume that any innovative product will have highly social elements that tap into network effects.

Monetization does not necessarily follow distribution, (though Chegg is killing it).  The easiest way to monetize is to sell a product to the user or get in the lead gen game (like myedu.com did), but it’s also the easiest way to lose focus on bringing innovation to education.  In order to fully monetize the user base the service will need to offer products to the institution, using the extensive student distribution as a lever.  Zinch has this model, though it also plays the lead gen game.  The most high-profile company to pull this path-to-market off in the commercial world is Yammer.

When it comes to the thesis of Next Generation Learning, NextGen seems to skip the fact that consumer-focused products with sticky and simple user experiences will win big and be able to translate that into a new learning platform.  In particular, Watermelon Express has executed well on their product development. Grockit is also making a bold play with a similar test-prep like point of entry, but with a clear platform for a “DIY” Adaptive Learning Environment with gaming mechanics.

When it comes to course management products, either a disruptive model will have to back it’s way in or the new new thing will have to have an open-source distribution model with a value-added services business supporting it.  There’s simply not a real economy around EduPunks for the forseeable future, institutional adoption processes are slow and painful enough to kill any start up, and Blackboard is out to push out or scoop up anybody that gets traction.  In particular, I have hopes that someone will hone in on an opportunity around real-time classroom participation through the form of backchannelling here.  Drew Harry at MIT has open sourced his backchan.nl.  HotSeat came out of Purdue but I’m not sure how they plan to spin it off.  The good part about education is that there are lots of people willing to collaborate all across the world.

Why Smartboards are a Dumb Initiative

When you get called to post by “The Innovative Educator,” you post.

I roll my eyes every time I hear people talk about putting Smartboards in the classroom. Ugh….

Don’t get me wrong, Smartboards are cool.  They are just the least cost-effective way to improve learning I’ve ever seen.  (Except for building new physical plant, that’s worse.)  We need to acknowledge that all a Smartboard does is 1) instead of using the mouse at the keyboard to interact with content, the presenter can stand at the board (and there’s some wow factor there that might amuse students for an hour), 2) and it makes saving content on the whiteboard a little more efficient.  (You can essentially use Microsoft OneNote and press “Save” with a projector and get the same love.  Or, you could use an Overhead Projector, a transparency, and a scanner.  Or, you could take a picture of the whiteboard with a camera and save it to Evernote.  The “save the brainstorm” possibilities are endless on a much smaller budget.)

Anyways…

Here are my two arguments:

1) Smartboards don’t change the model that’s broken. They just make that model way more expensive.
2) Smartboards are an administrative cop out. Administrators like Smartboards because when they spend money on technology they need to spend a lot of it and it needs to be on things they can point to and count.

1) With a Smartboard, the teacher still controls the content, stands in front of a classroom, and has to manage a bunch of kids through a lesson plan they’d rather not be managed through. It doesn’t give kids an adaptive learning environment, doesn’t differentiate instruction (though it does make it a little more media savvy), doesn’t enable social feedback, doesn’t reduce teacher workload, doesn’t make lesson planning more efficient, yada yada.  It just makes the whiteboard a little more attractive.  2) Smartboards are an administrative cop out; instead of re-imagining what school/classrooms/learning looks like/the student-teacher relationship, they write proposals with line-items, they spend money and buy things.  Administrators get evaluated on test outcomes, true, (not learning outcomes), but they also get evaluated on anything else that can fit into spreadsheets and reports.  A senior administrator can ask: “Why do you need more money?” and a junior administrator can say “Because we want to buy Smartboards.”  This is convenient, because if you want to ask for additional resources, you need to specify how you are going to spend the money.   Saying “I would like an extra 200K to experiment with ways to improve learning outcomes” just doesn’t cut the cheese.  It’s also doubly convenient because an administrator can look moderately successful just by spending that money on what they said they would spend it on.  ”Test scores are up 1%!  And, we bought as many as 30 Smartboards!!!!”  It’s less risky to buy objects you can count than spend money on more ambitious initiatives – like, let’s say, reading and math remediate for students supposedly at grade level.

Having said those two things, if I was teaching I would be thankful for a Smartboard only because I’m a gadget geek.  Personally, though, I’d rather everyone in our education system start working towards re-imagining what’s possible.

Engage Learners with A “Do Something” Curriculum

This is cross posted at “The Innovative Educator”

The Innovative Educator’s popular post “Fix Boring Schools, Not Kids Who Are Bored” struck a cord with many readers. Add me to the list of bored, restless, and misbehaved children that fit in the educational system like a square peg in a round hole. In second grade, my school tried to hold me back for not being “developed” enough after consistent misbehavior.  As a result my mom took me to get some tests done and I tested into fourth grade. Weary of putting a scrawny ADHD dork into rooms full of boys three years larger my mom opted not to go this route.  By High School, I set a school record, but not the kind that makes a mother proud. By that time I wasn’t buying the whole scene. I got into punk rock and my record was for the most detentions served.  I was never engaged in school. My success as an adult, occurred despite, rather than because of my education. If not for reckless ambition following the onset of testosterone and political activism involved in the positive side of the punk rock subculture, I might have never reapplied myself.

The most irritating aspect about school for me was the focus on remembering fleeting knowledge.  The curriculum was content driven, and though there were some skills that came along the way – writing, mathematical, and analytical, – the daily practice of schools was in the  “do homework/take the test,” kind of vein.  I wanted dramatically to learn TO DO SOMETHING.

Even then, when the internet was still in its infancy, it was clear to me that content knowledge was almost always something you could look up and master quickly when needed, but that to learn to “do something” – to learn to produce good work, from scratch and of economic and social value – was what would be relevant in the world.

Today, I run an education focused start-up called Inigral in San Francisco.  Being an entrepreneur means having to immediately learn (and hire and support others in learning) a range of skills and procedures. I need people on board that can do things and/or throw themselves into something and learn full competency quickly.  Contract law, finance, design, product development, engineering, etc.  The world of work makes it painfully obvious that the school curriculum is not aligned to the world outside school.

Some people are fortunate to find programs where they can pick up these kind of skills in college, and there’s some validity that the core curriculum in part sets the basic platform for later economic contribution.  But, mainly, I see that people figure this out how to “do something” DESPITE the schooling system rather than because of it.  For example, in my own company our Chief Technology Officer taught himself software engineering in high school, and an intern I hired taught himself video production.

School can effectively prepare students if they don’t focus on “procedural knowledge” – the act of mastering and employing a skill to attain value.  School must start teaching that life is a series of new processes and skills you will have to master, therefore the operation of acquiring new skills is perhaps the most important skill of all.

Just as important is the ability to anticipate what kind of skills will be relevant, to adapt, and to proactively learn from them.  After all, the necessary skill set in the workforce transforms rapidly.

This is not a new idea.  We have seen trade-based courses and non-core electives that focus on skills.  We have also seen the rise of Project-Based Learning and other models of instruction.  However, I have yet to see a “do something” curriculum or school design. Somehow the American conversation on education actually devalues approaches without a singular focus on core content.  It’s that strange obsession that, I feel, has us barking up the wrong tree altogether.

The Class Size Debate Continues

Many people have put forward data on the fact that reducing class size will create better learning outcomes.

There is data that smaller classrooms can lead to more de facto “tracking:”

This may be true, but in the words of an internet entrepreneur: it won’t scale.

With lecture capture, video, and interactive content, content delivery can scale.  With computer delivered assessments, assessment can scale.  This means that teachers are now liberated from the workload related to content delivery and writing and delivering assessments, which used to take up much of their job.

If you scale content delivery and assessment, as in making functional classes for content and assessment BIGGER, you can liberate teachers to focus on other matters – like the process of learning that happens in between.

Show me that new school design.

Facebook for Incoming Classes: While Admissions’ Back was Turned.

Brad J. Ward recently discovered that marketers from a company interested in reaching incoming freshman was out disingenuously making hundreds of X University Class of 2013 groups on Facebook. The perspectives from both Ward and his commenters are worthy of some deep consideration.

While backs were turned snubbing social media and Facebook, people with interests were proactive and hosted conversations they wanted to be visible in and a part of.  This should not be surprising; it is natural.  There are instances all across the web where marketers who have the interest and the budget “host” conversations, groups, and networks.  Some seem authentic, some seem like posers.

Here’s my thing: would Nike get accosted for creating “Atlanta Runners and Athletes” with a map of Atlanta?  I know I know, you’re going to say its not the same thing.  And, it’s not.  The city of Atlanta isn’t actively trying to manage its brand and doesn’t have a trademark on its aerial image.  However, it is the same in the sense that this is a reasonable thing for Nike to do because Nike wants to be there when people in Atlanta coordinate athletic activities.

CollegeProwler shouldn’t have to apologize for creating groups. (Universities could send them a cease and desist for hijacking the branding, which was in poor taste.)   Now that admissions offices want into those groups, I bet if they asked CollegeProwler to kindly turn over administrative rights in exchange for a link to the CollegeProwler site in the group posts, CollegeProwler would be more than happy to hand them over.

Facebook is a free for all, and no group is the “official” group of anything just as @student points out. You could, right now, go and create a group called “The OFFICIAL Brittany Spears Fan Club.”  Then, you could dramatically portray Ms. Spears all wrong.  Her fans would in no way be duped by this; they just go wherever there’s claim to support her and they will ultimately gravitate to the best community and the most authentic communication channel.

So, admissions offices could be like the record industry – they could make a lot of enemies by waging war on all of the people taking advantage of their own slowness.  Or they could do what would work: go host the best community and create the most authentic communication channel about their college or university.  The could try it through an off-facebook community that will just add another barrier to particpation.   Or, they could figure out how to tame the beast.  Talk about your strategies here in this Facebook group.

I, of course, hope they do it by watching our intros on Facebook for Universities and Colleges and ultimately choosing to use Schools on Facebook.  After all, though I think I am authentic. a secondary motive for this discussion is that Inigral, Inc is present in these types of conversations.

Technology Implementation in Higher Ed: What do GRCC and Carnegie Mellon Have in Common?

On Friday I got a chance to pick the minds of two great individuals: Eric Kunnen of Grand Rapids Community College and Jay Brown of Carnegie Mellon.  The two might seem like they wouldn’t share too much in common, Kunnen is Coordinator of Instructional Technologies at an outstanding community college, and Brown is a Director of Marketing for Web Communications at a top research university.  However, both share a passion for the social web and edge technology… and aren’t afraid to pursue it.

You might know Kunnen for his well circulated GRCC blog, his visible involvement is edge uses of Blackboard, and his early and loud adoption of Coursefeed on Facebook (full disclosure, they are theoretically a competitor of ours).  Carnegie Mellon recently pulled off effectively riding an authentic instance of “viral content” – that rare combination of keeping the content ( “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch) authentic, genuine, and “free” while integrating the phenomenon into their overall communications strategy.  CMU’s presentation at the AMA Symposium on Higher Education was, IMHO, the best example of rubber meets the road at the conference.

Equally as important to their passion is that their institutions and the leadership at them actively encourage them to experiment with utilizing new technology.  Brown described Carnegie Mellon as an “Entrepreneurial Atmosphere” that bled into institutional practices.  He had mentioned in his AMA presentation that the best angle in edge marketing is to just put stuff out there – if there’s no kickback, move on and get even more courageous. All campuses that get great attention for their use of technology, like our founding partner ACU, seem to have this sort of culture – a culture that’s shorter on conversation and longer on execution, and by nature experimental in its analysis of all things new.  As Kunnen put it: “We don’t want to sit around and talk about it meeting after meeting.  We just do it.”

This reputation for technological gusto rubs off as a “Je ne sais qua” factor.  However, the method is always the same: the institutions hire good people, give them or embrace an existing sense of mission, and let them do their job.

As someone who thinks about overcoming barriers to innovation in education, I commend Kunnen and Brown and their institutions for living on the edge.

Video Platforms in Education, Facebook Video in Education, Facebook Video Now Embedable.

Well, I’m going to take a cheap shot at getting street cred here: I was hanging out the other Saturday with Chris Putnam, a 22 year old GSU drop-out that is responsible for Facebook’s video offering. (Many of Facebook’s early hires were either graduating Harvard and Stanford CS students or young, hungry, overly talented hackers getting stir-crazy at big state schools.)

Putnam told me about the softlaunch of a Facebook feature I’ve been dying for: “Facebook Video is now embeddable,” he said.  I had been waiting for this moment.

Facebook video, just like Facebook, is a technological wonder. It keeps better resolution, presents a bigger window, and has fewer glitches than most video offerings. As with most technological problems on the internet, it’s not the actual product (in this case, the video) that’s hard to make, it’s hard to make that same product highly functional and fast when there are millions of concurrent users.  This is where only Facebook and Google can play, and its amazing that Facebook can even play on this field because until this past year it was literally a bunch of ivy grads and dropout savants staying up late drinking red bull.  I think YouTube, now powered by Google, recently came out with a size and res that trumps Facebook, but I haven’t figured out where to load one and Facebook Pages are way more conducive to marketing purposes than are YouTube channels.

Here’s our video conversations on Facebook for Colleges and Universities. It talks about how Facebook can be used for recruiting, enrollment management, retention and persistence, educational enrichment, and alumni engagement.

At Inigral, we’ve been using Vimeo for our promotional videos up until now. Viddler, I think, has the best UI on their video player, but both Vimeo and Viddler get choppy when during playback.  I think YouTube is so cluttered with nonsense that I don’t want any Inigral promotional content to get much audience there.

I’m sure as Educators we sense the power of reduced barriers to video distribution. Unfortunately, most video content on the internet is senseless; but on the back of senselessness educators everywhere will have their own video content publishing and distribution platforms for free. John Couch, VP of Education at Apple, told me in his office once “the brilliance of iTunesU is that it’s becoming the most powerful distribution platform for educational content and it’s all subsidized by the music and movie industries.” How’s that for innovation.

Now if we could just get the oil industry to subsidize school improvement…..

Reduced Class Size: An Inefficiency in School Improvement

I got a chance to chat with with a successful former Yahoo! manager the other day at a VC in Palo Alto; the discussion focused almost exclusively on school improvement at the k12 level.  Of particular energy was our conversation on class size.  My perspective, confirming Dan Meyer, is that class size is more or less besides the point and not worth pondering too much as a school improvement tool; but worth pondering, no actualy highly concerning to me, is that the movement to push down class size is probably the most inefficient, least cost-effective way to improve our schools.  To boot, the backbone of the movement is based on controversial and misappropriated research that kind of resembles Mortgage Backed Securities (it’s meta-analysis of less than scientific studies, like divvying up the findings of so many research projects that even the authors can’t keep track of where their data comes from or what’s in it).

No, actually, I can think of an equally inefficient use of money: one-to-one computing and the One-Smart-Board-per-classroom movement.  But, back to class size.

Smaller class sizes show a correlation with increases in performance, sure.  But it’s teachers 1) having control over the classroom and 2) building relationships with students that are behind the performance increases.  There are simply more cost effective ways to achieve these same elements of a good education.

My major thesis about class size is that it totally depends on the point in the lesson cycle the students are in.  Students benefit from effective, relevant delivery – but this could happen in groups of hundreds, through a textbook or through programs like Sesame Street.  Students benefit from rigorous, diverse, and differentiated activity – but this can happen in small groups and independently as long as there is focus and guidance.  Students benefit from cooperative, creative activities with analytical problem solving – but that’s more likely to happen in the performing arts.  And students benefit from formative assessment, re-teaching, and performance and content evaluation – but this can happen with a combination of an adaptive learning environment, a learning journal, and a college-student grader.

Really now, I think the conversations in education should move away from expensive diamond-studded, silver-bullet ideologies (based on opinionated research) and move towards outside-of-the-box, common-sense thinking.  Is that too much to ask?

School Reform Ideas and Michelle Rhee: Bankrupt on Big Ideas?

Well, I’ve been following this Michelle Rhee dictatorship for some time with much interest. With all the buzz lately – the article in the Atlantic and Time Magazine for instance – I figured I might lay down some commentary IMHO.

Michelle Rhee doesn’t have any ideas. At least she hasn’t revealed any yet. Or, most likely, the press doesn’t care enough to cover them. From what I see, her bold first move seems to be stuck in the bold first move phase.

With a long-run perspective, I’m interested in destroying the political structure that stifles school reform and allowing myriad beneficent dictatorships to bloom and comparing their results. In the short term, I’m remarkably skeptical until I see real Ideas (Ideas with a capital I) come out of DC.

Rolling heads and scaring the pants off everyone, generating resentment from most people you have to work with ( even with the applause of spectators ) isn’t an idea; it’s poor leadership and a hackneyed way to quickly get the allegiance of subordinates.

Leadership must invest in talent, must have a commitment to bringing in good talent, pushing out bad talent, and creating incentive structures that bring out the best in everyone. And in this, Michelle Rhee does have an operating principle that has been missing in education. One that, unfortunately, isn’t as revolutionary as people want to laud. Managers in the private sector have been complete champions in investing in talent, and the fact that it is so difficult to use this “must have” operating principle in more public sector services and institutions is deplorable. The fact that this operating principle has not been in use in public education is not an indicator of its revolutinonariness but is rather an indicator of a political system designed for stability and inclusion rather than efficiency and innovation. In the sense that Michelle Rhee wants to create a structure where leadership can invest in talent, I cheer Michelle Rhee on. If she has to do something with dramatic flare and uncompromising intimidation in order to shake up the system to get to where this operating principle becomes, well, an operating principle within our school system, I will be her fan boy.

The part where her lioness tactics come up short is twofold. First, dismissing hordes of people whose talent has been confined by the structures in which they work assumes that those individuals don’t have latent talent. I’ve worked with alongside hundreds of teachers, and for the most part they universally are committed and can be innovative when given the freedom and the wherewithal to do so. Second, axing people only generates allegiance when the entire community is given a coherent vision to work towards and each community member can clearly see their own role in the renaissance. Otherwise, it either quickly disintegrates into a disorderly herding of cats or behind the uncanny order is chronic dishonesty that leads to nice statistics but Great Leap Forward style mistakes.

My humble recommendations to Michelle Rhee:

1) Work with people to release their talent.
2) Publish a coherent vision with Big Ideas.

And, in case Michelle Rhee reads this, or in case you want to introduce me to her or anyone else going head first into school reform, I will list my Ideas below:

1) Scaffold skills and behaviors with more attention than academics. Once kids learn how to engage, the academic payoffs are gargantuan.
2) Streamline aligned multimedia content delivery and assessment, creating time for teachers to address real teaching and learning. Every teacher building content and assessments, stuck in continual delivery, is a complete inefficiency and wholly distracting.
3) Mandate comprehensive remediation using adaptive learning environments until every child is blue in the face or has the fundamentals to participate. Start this as soon as a child gets even a month behind. Children that don’t have the fundamentals ultimately hold back entire classrooms.
4) Build a schedule from scratch and alter building design around moments in the real lesson cycles: preview, delivery, reflection, assessment, content evaluation / activity modeling, monitored activity, individual activity, assessment, process evaluation. Hour or Two hour blocks provide no structure and make no sense.
5) Dramatically increase the number of hours engaged in school. All the data shows we lose them when they’re not in school.
6) Facilitate students relationships with authentic role models. Otherwise everyone can only imagine careers they see on TV.
7) Focus on health and fitness, the arts and creativity, and social, creative, and constructivist projects. It’s these totally neglected elements that create an environment for engagement.

I can go into more detail for anyone with the mind to chat.

Disrupting Textbooks: cK12 and Flat World Knowledge

In Nyack NY, north of NYC, a seed is forming.  Flat World Knowledge, a company bent on disrupting the textbook business, is getting ready to move into a private beta next spring with 10 textbooks in business and economics.  Jeff Shelstad, CEO, and Eric Frank, CMO, left regular textbook publishing where, as of late, publishers are fighting to keep their head above water by jacking up prices and skewing the revision process.  After hooking up with David Wiley and Brad Felix, the group decided to turn the textbook market on its head by utilizing open source methodologies.  Just looking at their team and advisory board, you know they are going to be one of the leaders in a nascent effort to shake down the publishing money tree, and perhaps liberate considerable cash flow for both higher education and k12, who annually see somewhere around 20 billion a year spent just to get textbooks that seem, to digital natives, a bit dry and out-of-date.

 

The movement to completely disrupt the textbook market has other players bound for significant traction.  cK12, run by Neeru Khosla, is focusing on the k12 market and is perhaps a little further along in product development.  (Honorable mention, Chegg, the “Netflix” of texbooks, based in Santa Clara, is reducing the amount students pay for books by as much as 70%, and has already hit some $10MM dollars in revenue.  But, let’s focus on this open source model championed by cK12 and Flat World Knowledge.)  Out in the heart of Sillicon Valley, cK12 is in the right place to come up with innovative technology.

 

Both cK12 and Flat World Knowledge have their own open publishing platform.  They reach out to highly reputable authors to write the first textbooks on topics targetted to both early adopters and for high impact.  (With cK12 its Engineering).  Since each textbook is under the Creative Commons License, they each have a way for teachers who use the textbook to “modify” it and make it their own, and then share the modified version.  Eventually, they hope to allow open textbook creation, and I think that’s possible now on cK12.  However, it is important that the organizations earn a reputation for quality and authority, the primary drivers of textbook adoption.

 

While cK12 is a non-profit, Flat World Knowledge plans to make money through on-demand printing (because, let’s face it, most people want to hold what they are reading in their hand if they are going to be spending hours and hours with it) as well as ancillary supplemental materials, a $14BB dollar market.  I personally believe that the best disruptive products usually come from for-profit businesses.  However, the CTO of cK12 is Murugan Pal, which should completely render that tendency invalid, at least in this case.

 

Though both products are still too early to weigh their great advantages and disadvantages, I’ll be really excited to get in and use them.  I’ve talked to people at both groups (Murugan Pal even met me for coffee) and I couldn’t be more hopeful that something big is afoot.  It’s part selfishness: I have a thematic approach to US History that I can’t wait to get out.  And I’m in the process of open sourcing my college readiness curriculum, Academic Ninjitsu, so I’d love to have an outlet for that where teachers can go and change how they need to.

 

Share your thoughts about open source textbooks.  And be sure to use the products.
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