Music for Deckchairs

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


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Any colour you like, Australia

To the indomitable Australia, where the dynamics of change and choice cause individualism to be the force for doing, and freedom an urgent state of mind–

Art Linkletter, LinkLetter Down Under, 1968

So, there’s been a bit written about the Blackboard acquisition of NetSpot in Australia and Moodlerooms in the US, focused on the philosophical integrity of the open source project.  To a lesser extent it’s got people thinking about whether the LMS as we know it is going away, as Australia’s David Jones suggests.  Or not, which is the persuasive if discouraging argument from Tony Bates.

It’s been an exemplary demonstration of how quickly the North American edtech blogging community mobilises their expertise and their networks to provide fast, rolling specialist coverage of these kinds of events as they unfold. George Siemens has an excellent second post; and there’s serious, thorough background evaluation from K. C. Green at Inside Higher Ed here, and the second part of Michael Feldstein’s reflections here.  (Interesting that Instructure are coming out of this very well; they’re not just big in Utah.)

Australia: not always down under (image taken from Martin Dougiamas, presentation, 2010)

The problem is that all this is unfolding a bit differently in Australia, formerly a dot on the higher education world map; as it turns out, not only NetSpot but Moodle itself is an Australian thing.  So for anyone who’s booked their ticket to Austria to see what the fuss is about, here’s the map you need, with apologies to Martin Dougiamas, who was apparently thinking along the same helpful lines when he used it in a presentation in 2010.

Dougiamas has made very clear that Moodle itself wasn’t the object of the sale. This isn’t just a bit of purist fuss about who owns open.  It has additional resonance in Australia where the most iconic Australian brands (including Vegemite, Holden Cars and Tim Tam biscuits) are the property of US companies; and where there is active political debate about foreign ownership of Australian farms and major industries, not to mention the ongoing domination of Australian cultural life by foreign media producers. In 2011, for example, Australian films accounted for only 10% of the titles released in local movie theatres, and only 3.9% of local box office. So we know a thing or two about import dependence.

Our combined sensitivity to foreign ownership and monopoly can sometimes be hard to hold in a productive balance; the cruelty of market rationalisation being what it is, we end up providing government support to ensure that Australia is protected against the market failure of its local producers, who can’t leverage anything like the economies of scale of their global competitors.  So we fund the production of movies; and we create modest protective shelters in television broadcasting for local producers.  But we’re not wholly parochial in this; sometimes we also fund foreign companies to come here and make things like cars if this keeps Australians in work, and when we do this, there’s no end of PR about how gloriously Australian it all is.

And this is why it’s curious that there has been relatively little media coverage of this little fact, taken from the Australian Campus Review:

NetSpot managing director Allan Christie says there are now 17 universities using Moodle in Australia, 19 using Blackboard, two with Desire2Learn and one with Sakai.

There are 39 public universities in Australia.  This means that give or take a bit of juggling to accommodate a few other higher education players, the alternatives to Blackboard and Moodle are exceptionally few. And as Blackboard has just acquired the company predominantly associated with hosting Moodle on behalf of Australia’s universities, then it’s very hard not to see this as a situation in which modestly healthy competition (that does often come down to two dogs snarling over a bone, when the market is as small as this one) has been replaced by a kind of adroitly managed regime of choice in which a foreign company has acquired a dominant stake in shaping the future of Australian higher education: any colour you like, so long as it’s …

These are interesting challenges for Blackboard and NetSpot to negotiate, not least in relation to trust. How will they handle future LMS bake-offs?  Who will decide what it makes sense for each company to offer to the other’s clients by way of enhancements?  How will they communicate their combined or separate philosophies and roadmaps to the Australian market, and what role will our needs play in their decision about what makes business sense to them, particularly if Blackboard’s circumstances change again? Critically, how hard will it now be for a newcomer like Instructure to wedge its way into the Australian scene?  Given that higher education is so risk-averse in terms of enterprise-wide edtech, which institution will now want to break ranks with The Combine?*

Australia’s used to being managed by strategic negotiation: for years we were led by a political coalition of two conservative parties who often agreed not to run against one another in seats where the otherwise third placed candidate could slip past a divided conservative vote. But we’re also used to our own anti-monopoly investigators taking a keen interest in anything that looks like price-fixing or collusion.  Given all this, any foreign company that has acquired a controlling stake in a critical and politically sensitive Australian cultural sector like higher education would surely stay on its best party behaviour for some time; after the initial surprise, I’m not sure we’ll see any loud outbursts for a bit.

So the more interesting question is this one: what should Australia’s universities be doing about all this?  If the very large majority are now dealing with what is effectively one supplier for the campus LMS, even if it has different divisions offering marginally different products, what should be our combined approach to this interesting predicament?

There are a number of bad options, each of which will probably get a run. We could ignore the situation and its implications.  We could consider ourselves superior—after all, we’ve just discovered that it’s “our Moodle”, just like “our Nicole”, and “our Kylie”, and “our Cadel”, and all those other global celebrities who we call our own when it suits us. Or we could bet on special, and each continue to negotiate independently with our new best friends, because we’re Australian, and we do like to compete.

A much more sensible thing would be for one or other of Australia’s national higher education governing bodies to lead a new conversation about our serious, distinctive ed tech experience and our changing needs as we enter a period of considerable sector reform.  We have a deservedly good reputation for innovation and leadership in online learning, that we’ve acquired by knowing who and where we are: we’ve been overcoming the tyranny of distance in educational terms for a really long time, and we’re famously early adopters of everything that bleeps and sings.  We do have some legacy issues in relation to national infrastructure, including the cost of data, and a wide digital divide in relation to rural, remote and indigenous education, but we’re dealing with them.

What we need now is a coherent, national strategy for education for digital citizenship from K-2 right on up to grad school, that’s founded on our experience in this big country, and our educational mission—and, with respect, not just on what makes sense to the business plans of the latest north American investor to take an interest in our natural resources.

* In 1909, American theatrical entrepreneur J. D. Williams arrived in Sydney, prospecting for commercial opportunity.  As historian Jill Julius Mathews describes it, “J. D. Williams’ empire was built in a world of cutthroat competition, of constant manoeuvring to undermine rivals and to advance one’s own position. J. D. understood that the future belonged to the efficient and the consolidated: the whole film business should be in the hands of only a few well-conducted enterprises. … Emerging on top after an intricate play of mergers, takeovers and court cases, in 1913 he engineered an amalgamation with his chief competitors and became the dominant partner in what was called ‘the Combine’”—a content distribution-exhibition company that dominated the Australian cinema market for many years, with very unimpressive consequences for local producers.  Just sayin’.


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Stolen peaches

Sometimes you find out about things that are so compelling that you know you’re the last to hear about them, and so it is this week with System D. As Robert Neuwirth explains this in Foreign Policy, it’s the French term used to describe the global shadow economy of the débrouillardise: “the ingenuity economy, the economy of improvisation and self-reliance, the do-it-yourself, or DIY, economy”.

System D is the aggregated economic activity of every unlicensed, irregular, back-of-the-truck roadside trader, every lemonade stall, home hairdresser, and sex worker, but it’s also the way that essential services are provided in many developing economies, including garbage collection. Neuwirth cites convincing research that at $10trillion, it’s the second largest economy in the world, behind the US. In 2009, the OECD estimated that 1.8 billion people were working in System D, and they predict that two-thirds of the world’s working population will be working off the books in System D by 2020.

While these big numbers have been sinking in, I’ve been following Michael Feldstein’s latest thoughts on future directions for massively open education. His question, I think, is about whether models of massified openness driven by rhizomic thinking can scale educational opportunity in anything other than an idealistic sense. This is really practical: is entrenched social disadvantage best tackled using the theoretical vocabulary of still-elite educational practices? He argues that instead of focusing on the mass capacity of the new staggeringly large open online courses, we should shift our attention to what makes openness both radical and capable of raising expectations for learning experiences under any circumstances.

This gets to the heart of the awkward relationship between principles of radically open education, and the political economy of education as a service provided by the state or by for-profits, whose survival depends on continued public and political faith being placed in their conjoined roles as formal teaching and accrediting institutions.

The sustainability of this whole set up depends on it remaining unthinkable that the two roles could be separated. This is why traditional institutions have very little to gain from open and informal learning achieving real traction. We might allow a whole lot of self-managed, ad hoc, pop up learning to occur via the workplace, and we might even say that we’re now preparing graduates for that future, but only because that comes once the employee is already a locked-in member of the graduate debt economy.

But the warning sign that might require us to change our position, at last, is the diminishing consumer confidence in formal college credit as a means to career of choice. It’s a bit like one of those long and slowly widening cracks in the ice cap that must turn itself into a breakaway movement sometime soon. The underlying collusion between colleges and employers to monitor and manage this risk involves a deal that suits one a bit more than the other: so long as higher education keeps producing graduates, then employers will keep demanding college education as a minimum standard for careers and social advancement in the on-the-books economy.

The stakes here are highest for educational institutions. Until now, the deal has shielded us from the possibility that informal, self-managed, modularised learning could provide employers with the kind of graduate training that they’re looking for.  We’ve comforted ourselves with the fact that no one would want their teeth cleaned, let alone extracted, by a self-taught dentist. And as a result we’ve decided to take on both the teaching and the accreditation of the expansion of higher education all by ourselves, with minimum outsourcing except to the mass choir of adjuncts assembling in the cloud.

And this is exactly how higher education workers find themselves sliding into System D, by daily achieving the near-impossible. System D didn’t originally indicate the black economy of off-the-books labour, so much as the kinds of activities that characterised day-to-day survival within formal employment as conditions become untenable. Like “down in the weeds” it comes to us from restaurants. Here’s a much older description of le debrouillard in action, from Orwell in 1933:

A DEBROUILLARD is a man who, even when he is told to do the impossible, will SE DEBROUILLER— get it done somehow. One of the kitchen PLONGEURS at the Hotel X, a German, was well known as a DEBROUILLARD. One night an English lord came to the hotel, and the waiters were in despair, for the lord had asked for peaches, and there were none in stock; it was late at night, and the shops would be shut. ‘Leave it to me,’ said the German. He went out, and in ten minutes he was back with four peaches. He had gone into a neighbouring restaurant and stolen them. That is what is meant by a DEBROUILLARD. The English lord paid for the peaches at twenty francs each.

This passage was later taken up by auteur chef Anthony Bourdain, writing about “the razor’s edge of volume versus quality” in commercial kitchens.

It may feel wonderfully fulfilling, putting one’s best foot forward, sweating and fiddling and wiping and sculpting impeccable little spires of à-la-minute food for an adoring dining public, but there is another kind of satisfaction: the grim pride of the journeyman professional, the cook who’s got moves, who can kick ass on the line, who can do serious numbers, and “get through.” “How many’d we do?” is the question frequently asked at the end of the shift, when the cooks collapse onto flour sacks and milk crates and piles of dirty linen, smoking their cigarettes, drinking their shift cocktails, and contemplating what kind of felonious activity they will soon take part in during their afterwork leisure hours.

It’s familiar. At the hot, tough end of the Australian academic year, as grades are shovelled into data systems and last-minute miracles are pulled off by academics and professional staff to get every graduating student to the point that s/he can walk across the stage, just as the demands from research and governance simultaneously heat up, this is how System D feels.

It’s not the black economy, or even the precarious economy, and it’s certainly not the world of opportunity imagined by rhizomic thinking. It’s the economy of the stolen peaches: Thomas Docherty’s unseen, clandestine university, where everyone is regularly and secretively putting in the extra time needed to make things work better than they should.

How can we change this?


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The mosquito and the raindrop

From Lindsay Tanner’s “adapt to eLearning or die” speech to Australian higher education, to Adrian Sannier’s soothing evolutionary metaphors to spin Pearson’s arrival as a predator in the LMS ecosystem, all sorts of people are drawing on the history of everything-until-now to figure out where we might be going with edtech.

It’s evolutionary thinking, baby.

I’m now trying to figure out how to make sense of the latest move that joins up Pearson and Knewton to deliver content, platform and analytics. The slightly offputting company vision of jacked in kids learning through a secret sauce mix of tracking and psychometrics has quite a bit in common with Club Penguin’s new predictive text feature, that finishes and cleans up your children’s sentences for you so that even poor spellers and the potty mouthed can pay to play in Disney’s branded social network. (And thanks to Audrey Watters for both of these.)

But by adding reporting and analytics Knewton’s going a step further, presenting itself as a transformative horizon of accountability that will meet the needs of educators, parents and government (memo to Knewton: when talking to educators, remember that it’s not universally accepted that these are the same needs) and so it fits well with Pearson’s self-concept as the most benign big fish in the sea.

Worrying about where actual educators come in all this, especially since sitting through the Knewton video, I’ve become distracted by two metaphors for cooperative co-existence, and a fable. What they’ve helped me to think through is that not all partnerships are mutual, and that in the long term, not all partnerships arrive at the same destination, even when they set out to work together.  Sometimes, instinct is just too strong.

So this isn’t just cautionary thinking for Pearson and Knewton, but for the rest of the educational ecosystem, and particularly for educators, as our role in this kind of threesome is far from clear.

The first story involves the orchid and the wasp. Philosophers Deleuze and Guattari use this to try to explain how the apparently fixed identity of anything gives way to the more important business of what it is that thing is actually used to do. It’s attached to another part of their thinking, involving the rhizomatic way that meaning can get about with a central distribution point, a metaphor that Dave Cormier brought into the conversation about open education in 2008. The rhizome gets a lot of attention including from Michael Feldstein and his readers, but the story of the orchid and the wasp less so.

Its explanatory value involves the way that the wasp and the orchid evolve in cooperation. By producing a reasonable facsimile of the markings of a wasp, for example, the orchid persuades the wasp to come a little closer to take a look, and as a result this fragile species that likes to grow in out of the way places (presumably off the flightpath of regular bee traffic) lives on. The wasp is still a wasp, but is lured into collaborating with the reproductive needs of the orchid, so it’s also part of the orchid world. At the heart of the bargain is a bit of deception and possibly some waspish disappointment, but no real harm.

The second metaphor is the mosquito and the raindrop. Mosquitoes thrive in rain, but how exactly do they survive the impact of raindrops that are in general 50 times heavier than they are? Apparently, there’s been an urban myth that mosquitoes do this by thinking ahead and navigating around the rain, but this has now been disproved by researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology, to whom we all owe this immensely touching scrap of slow motion photography.

What they’ve found is that mosquito survival depends on their offering no resistance at all to the raindrops. As a result the raindrops, which really do have momentum and somewhere-to-be, simply push them aside:

High-speed videography of mosquitoes and custom- built mimics reveals a mosquito’s low inertia renders it impervious to falling drops. Drops do not splash on mosquitoes, but simply push past them allowing a mosquito to continue on its flight path undeterred.

In other words, the mosquito has evolved to survive in the rain by making itself very inconsequential as far as the raindrop is concerned. The raindrop isn’t really involved in the deal.

And then there’s a third metaphor, which isn’t a truly evolutionary story, but a fable: the scorpion and the frog.  In this well-known tale, the frog agrees to give a ride across a river to the scorpion on the grounds that—as the scorpion argues—it makes no sense for the scorpion to kill the frog as they will both drown.  The frog goes along with this, although its motives in doing so aren’t all that clear. When the scorpion stings the frog after all, the frog complains, to which the scorpion’s reply is simple: it stung the frog because that was its nature.

So I can see why it makes sense for powerful companies to promote competitive evolution in the market system as a form of coexistence that can pay off for everyone, but stories of species collaboration aren’t always so reassuring: there’s the orchid’s self-serving deception, the raindrop’s indifference born of superior size and power, and the helpless dishonesty of the scorpion. The wasp does well out of it, the mosquito makes the best of it, and the frog comes off very badly indeed.

The fact that each of these relationships is constructed in the awkward space between mutuality and sharing helps explain why external partnerships alarm risk-averse educational institutions looking to make be-all LMS contract decisions. It’s like going on holiday with a couple: so much could go wrong.

So if we’re also going to thrive as the combination of platforming and vendor concentration places extreme pressure on the smaller and more specialised edtech players, we’re going to need to do more than watch nature do its thing. Specifically, it makes sense to remember the power that lies in the fact that we’re the clients, we have relatively large budgets, and we have urgent reason to invest in protecting the health and diversity of the global edtech ecosystem—especially in Australia, where the goal of our startups is already to make it to America.

So one way we might do this is to create better opportunities for educators to become much more actively and routinely invested in supporting small edtech startups—but how to do this without becoming either the mosquito or the raindrop? That’s going to take some smart thinking.


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Edtech and the evolutionary arms race

In 1944, in response to a question about whether there could be a “purely American art”, Jackson Pollock said this:

The idea of an isolated American painting, so popular in this country during the thirties, seems absurd to me just as the idea of creating a purely American mathematics or physics would seem absurd …  the basic problems of contemporary painting are independent of any country.

It’s a famous move in the history of exnomination that plays differently, I think, outside America. By exnomination, I mean the straightforward work that language can do to make some features of any situation seem so obvious that they don’t need to be named. It’s a card trick of some subtlety.

The concept has often been used to think about exactly how cultural power makes itself both invisible and taken-for-granted in terms of gender or race.  But it transfers easily to edtech, where the exnominated term is “North American”, and it seems just as absurd to suggest that cultural context influences either the design of educational technology (surely all university systems are the same, aren’t they?) or the kind of content that will come down the pipes. But there you have it: I think it does.

And those of us working outside America run into the cultural paywall that’s erected around US-based edtech all the time.  Six months ago, my niggling reminder of global insignificance was the notification from Ning that the special deal co-sponsored by Pearson to relieve the pain of Ning’s transition to a user-pays business model was only available to educators working in the US.  This week, it came from edtech startup Educreations, whose sign-up process included a pull down menu to register my institutional location … but only as somewhere in the United States.

(I did get a very nice email from them about this, and apparently recognising the existence of the rest of the world is on their short to-do list, for which our heartfelt thanks.  And this puts them ahead of any major vendor still using US-focused promotional videos to sell to college systems outside the US.)

But my broader worry about the way in which we accept the proposition that the “basic problems of [educational technology] are independent of any country”, to misquote Pollock for a moment, has come from a different direction.  I was asked this week, by none other than Adrian Sannier, why I had reservations about “evolutionary arms race” as a metaphor for market-driven technology innovation.

Again, I think this is one that plays very differently in America than it does in smaller economies like Australia’s, for whom any mention of an arms race is a metaphor for gross defense dependency. To sort out my ambivalence about this, I’ve been reading up a bit about something called the Red Queen’s Hypothesis, because the “evolutionary arms race” is in fact a double handled metaphor, where the competitive nature of military development comes to stand in for the ways in which species co-evolve in response to the threats that they pose to one another.

The reason it’s called the Red Queen’s Hypothesis is lovely: it involves the passage in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass in which Alice spends a bit of time chasing the Red Queen around trying to make sense of a disturbing landscape of directional quirks, reversals, and paradoxical pathways. After a while, she complains that as much as they both run, neither of them is getting anywhere, at which point the Red Queen says something along these lines: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.”

The adoption of this hypothesis to explain co-evolution suggests that the result isn’t as bad as it seems, and this is precisely what makes the “evolutionary arms race” a benign metaphor to push one further step into the context of competitive edtech innovation.  But if we strip back to the original metaphor for a moment, the “arms race” is actually a reminder that the last time we really thought about equilibrium in arms development, we called it “Mutually Assured Destruction”, which does start to sound a bit less attractive.

So the question is whether what we’re seeing in educational technology is the capacity for mutually beneficial co-evolution, as Sannier argues, or superpower standoff, or a more troubling lurch towards monopoly, in which case it really will matter where the cultural headquarters are located. Michael Feldstein’s discussion of why OpenClass really is a big deal puts it this way:

What does Pearson get out of all this? They potentially get all the data on your students and an iron grip on the point of sale for all curricular content. Everything that worries you about what Facebook and Google know about you and everything that worries you about the control that Apple exerts over the iTunes and App stores should worry you about Pearson’s ambitions. If ClassConnect succeeds in massively disrupting the LMS market, then Pearson potentially controls the center of the chess board for ePortfolios, digital educational content, transcripts—possibly even schools themselves.

The harmonious co-evolutionary potential in this scenario is really hard to discern if you aren’t one of the other giant North American technology and platform innovators (although it’s obviously terrific if you are). Certainly, smaller edtech providers pitching in the same market as OpenClass are likely to find it hard to keep up with Pearson’s business capacity to turn the campus LMS into a loss leader.

But for those of us beyond the North American educational market, who are having to take seriously the promise that thanks to edtech we’ll no longer need our own chemistry professors because Harvard have got one whose superior content they’re prepared to share online, the health of the global education ecosystem is an even more serious concern. Ferdinand von Prondzynski is arguing for vigilance on this question, because the world’s regional universities are more than simply outlets for content generated elsewhere, piped in via systems developed elsewhere. We are contributors to our own local economies and cultural ecosystems because we’re able to generate both research and curriculum that are tailored to where we are.

So while we may be bystanders rather than key players in this particular evolutionary arms race, that doesn’t mean we can afford to be indifferent to the way it turns out, or even sanguine about the values on which it is built.


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Competitive advantage?

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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Extraordinary company

Higher ed tech writers are chewing the cud over the not very surprising news that Blackboard is partnering up with major content publishers Cengage, Macmillan, Pearson, John Wiley & Sons and (last year) McGraw-Hill, and that McGraw-Hill itself is now friending everyone in the LMS world.  The language of this new set of deals is that of the soothing murmur: students will now be able to transition seamlessly from Anywhere U via their LMS to centralised content repositories managed by Big Publishing, all without the pesky impediment of multiple passwords.

Here’s how it all looks to Jim Behnke, who is chief officer for learning at Pearson, quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week:

He described Blackboard’s course-management system as an “enterprise system” that helps professors do things like access course rosters and send official grades to the registrar. “Those are very important, but they’re not necessarily about the teaching and learning, and that’s our business distinction.”

Pearson’s business distinction is significant to those of us who thought teaching and learning might actually be our business distinction, whereas it turns out that we’re really here to take the roll and grade papers.  Can’t wait.

But seriously, this palming of teaching and learning from our hand to theirs is a particularly important bit of corporate prestidigitation that’s worth looking at again in slow motion.

Here’s one reason why: in the UK, Pearson are moving towards degree-awarding status in partnership with Royal Holloway.  The support of private providers offering low-cost degrees that can be taken in your lunchbreak, online, seems to be one of the goals of the UK Government’s proposed shake-up of higher education. A great deal has been written about this, but if you have a bit of time and a cup of tea, this is quality diatribe from The Plashing Vole, who evidently spends his time fencing so knows how to make a point.

There’s also quite a lot being written about the acquisition of Blackboard by Providence Equity, much of it on the question of motivation. Why is private equity interested in a company whose primary business involves public education, particularly if public education has got itself into some kind of bubble?  I’ve found two sources particularly helpful as I’m trying to fumble my way to some low-level understanding of all this.

First, Michael Feldstein maps out two possible reasons for the acquisition. He suggests that one is the soaring levels of LMS-dependency in the educational vertical, that makes the purchase of a big LMS market leader a safe bet, like buying up rental properties whose tenants can’t afford to move. His second thought is that there are two new waves of LMS expansion on the horizon: one into developing educational economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China), and one in response to the emerging demand from US institutions to provide superior reporting and analytics. So if there’s still room for growth, there’s room to turn a profit, although if the strategy is about gentrifying the neighbourhood, rent hikes can’t be far away, and the existing tenants might want to check their leases.

George Siemens has also looked closely at the Providence portfolio, and gives the third part of the explanation as to why we should take this acquisition (and its startling price tag) seriously, because it contains some very important clues as to the direction in which we’re travelling.

Providence Equity are not novices in the education market.  Since 1989, when they launched with a focus on acquisitions in communications, they have extended their interest and their mission now is “to build extraordinary companies that will shape the future of the media, communications, information and education industries.” To this end they’ve staked claims in several education services, including Archipelago Learning, who are themselves a collector of bits and pieces such the Australian-developed Reading Eggs program. Once you accept that the business distinction of education involves the quality of backstage mergers and acquisitions that make it all possible, this kind of statement seems much less out of place:

To achieve our goal, we create value by forging lasting partnerships with talented entrepreneurs and executives and providing them with the capital, industry expertise and broad network of relationships that they need to succeed. We invest in companies with compelling growth opportunities and partner with management teams looking for more than capital.

So Siemens is right, I think, to suggest that if Providence are prospecting in our sector, they are doing so because we’ve made this a smart move. If higher education in the US and the UK is in crisis, and LMS demand is about to experience a twin surge in both the US and emerging markets, then it makes sense for Big Publishing, private equity, and various other dealmakers to try to fix what we do next.  He puts it very clearly:

And, if you’re an entrepreneur trying to make a profit by offering a service to a troubled sector, Providence Equity has taken the right approach. In the US and UK in particular, higher education is at the early stages of a massive shift from public ownership to private ownership and entrepreneurial solutions. As the funds flow to innovators – or in Bb’s case, value hubs – tremendous wealth will be created for the risk-takers. In language and ideology that I’ve heard in numerous discussions over the past five years “education is the last industry to globalize”. Providence is one of the early companies out of the gate.

But here’s the good news. If education is becoming indivisible from media, communications and information, it’s not just because they’re all content-heavy, but because they’re all hostage to similar social forces.  Audiences, users and students are fairly unruly, and although it’s often unwise to predict what people will get up to next, the tea leaves indicate that we like free stuff, stuff that we can mess with, and stuff that we can share. So even the big publishers won’t have knowledge in lockdown, and the edupunks and DIYers will be highly active in lobbying for its more open use.

This means that the risks being taken on the future demand for premium services—formally managed and accredited teaching and learning, driven by a focus on content—are a bit more significant than we might think.  So perhaps this is also a nudge to universities to think ahead to how we want to engage with all of this, on our own terms, and not only on the basis of the values and priorities that matter to the extraordinary company we’re keeping these days.

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