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"In shadowy, silent distance grew the iceberg too": an Australian blog about changes in higher education

Competitive advantage?

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It’s not really my business, but it seems to me that the promise that competition delivers consumer benefits is in the “If I had a dollar for every time … ” category of overuse. Mostly this proposition seems to be based on the assumption that if I’m selling lemonade next to someone else selling lemonade, we’re going to compete for the lemonade market either by offering superior or cheaper lemonade, and either way, the passing parade gets a better deal on a hot day just because there are two of us.

But I’m not so convinced that this argument scales up when the cup of lemonade is a campus LMS, as Phil Hill suggests on Michael Feldstein’s blog:

However these battles shape up, higher education clients are going to be the richer for having true competition fueled by new investment – the Silicon Valley mentality, even if the geographic locations are not in Silicon Valley.*

The problem is that the virtues of competition imagined here are limited by the extent to which ‘higher education clients’ can match the volatility of innovation and investment conditions with some nimble contractual skipping of their own.

But this isn’t how it works. Typically, the commitment to a campus LMS is a hefty one, not only because of the way contracts are drawn up, but because higher education clients are complex institutions, with the maneuverability of container ships.  Once the ink has dried on the contract, that client is essentially off the market for a long time.

There are two reasons for this, beyond the standard contract length. First, the whole process is really time-consuming and higher education clients do actually have a few other things to do with their time. Selecting an LMS thoroughly takes months.  It’s not a coin-toss decision (although by about halfway through the process everyone wishes it was). Rolling it out properly, rewriting the rules of internal business ownership and risk management, designing and implementing staff training, transitioning and remodelling content — all this takes months.  This is even before the first student user has appeared in the new system. Longer term curriculum change to take advantage of the new things that the system will do takes months.  And all these months can’t happen simultaneously, so we’re starting to talk in terms of years.

Secondly, most traditional higher ed. clients are still in transition to the conceptual rethinking that eLearning represents, especially in terms of the potential for open education to turn the whole lemonade business on its head.  So while there are really visionary calls for a “revelatory politics” of the way that open education might crack open the fundamentals of higher education business planning, not to mention pedagogy, there’s no sign that university leaders want the business model cracked open all that much.  They’re still hoping online will solve the bricks and mortar problems as quietly and uncontroversially as possible.

And in practice, this means that they’re looking for single, campus-wide solutions locked in for several years to create the impression that online learning represents stability, durability and consistency with the traditional vision of higher education.

So while I agree strongly that the new elements to the LMS market that Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill are tracking are going to be crucial, I think their analysis is a little optimistic about the turning circles of the typical higher education client.  We move really slowly, and we’re very risk averse, especially where our own market sensitivities are concerned.  And there is simply too much friction and fear in the higher education community about online anything at the moment for institutions to behave impulsively in ways that might risk their student satisfaction ratings, not to mention a mass walk-out by their staff.

So the thing that needs to change if higher education is going to take advantage of the kinds of developments that the new cashed up, cloud-seeking LMS vendor culture can offer, is higher education.  We’re going to need to become much more open to the idea of diverse solutions being in different stages of evaluation and use across the institution simultaneously. We’re going to have to incorporate multiple social media streams into the way we plan, research and teach, which will mean asking the marketing department to learn to share.  And we’re going to have to stop saying that the generation that hops from Facebook to YouTube and Twitter can’t work across multiple systems at once.

And I think if we want a revelatory politics of higher education—which we do—rather than simply a series of uncomfortable revelations about the business plans of major publishers, we’re going to need to start acting as leaders in this field, not simply as clients.

* My apologies to both Michael and Phil, an early version of this had the post credited to Michael

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Author: Kate Bowles

Education technology, shared governance and casualisation in Australian higher education

9 thoughts on “Competitive advantage?

  1. The starting point must not be the technology. Technology serves an end. The starting point must be a mindset that places students at the centre of our activities- cliched? Maybe. But the problem, as I see it with any discussion about VLE’s, Web 2.0 technologies, etc is that the conversation revolves around the technology and not what we are trying to use it for. Often, the response to a student group’s flexible learning needs may be to simply change the time table, not force a pile of technology down their throats to satisfy our needs as highered practitioners.

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  2. This is a very fair point, in my view. But I’m not sure our individual needs as practitioners really come into it all that much, even if we’re the ones desperately trying to keep our students front and centre in everyone’s thinking. The problem, I think, is that institutions choose campus wide systems so that institutional needs (whatever they are) can be met, and then the rest of us, including our students, have to bend into shape. It’s relatively rare for institutional LMS evaluation to include students in the evaluation team, for example–although we have done this, and it’s been a strength.
    Nice to see you out here, by the way. MfD

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  3. Nice post. For the record, the opinions of my guest bloggers are their own. I didn’t even read Phil’s post before he published it. I’m not saying that I disagree with him. I’m just saying that all credit for the ideas in the guest blog posts should go to those bloggers and not to me.

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  4. Thanks for the correction, Michael, I’ve fixed it up — I’d misread that one as yours!

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  5. Pingback: Performance Intervention Analysis | Education for the 21st Century

  6. Pingback: Michael feldstein | Esisolutions

  7. Pingback: Role of Educational Technology in Enabling Higher Ed Change | e-Literate

  8. “And we’re going to have to stop saying that the generation that hops from Facebook to YouTube and Twitter can’t work across multiple systems at once.”

    Could not agree more. I think there’s some anecdotal evidence that savvy users tend to “game” the software evaluation process by playing the user interface card. “Non-intuitive” and “inconsistent” are often just euphemisms for “I don’t like it”, “I couldn’t be bothered”, or “I have some other agenda”.

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    • This is a really fair point, but I’m not sure it’s at the level of conspiracy or other agenda, so much as that the evaluation is often rushed, and relies on strangely inauthentic imitation-of-learning scenarios. Given an hour to hurtle through the features of a big LMS many users do produce “non-intuitive” for “momentarily bewildered by the options but no time to catch up with the presenter.” Thanks for your comment, Jaime — sorry it took me a while to get back.

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