Small is good

I’ve been thinking back over the initial response I (and many other educators) had to Jarrod Drysdale’s heartfelt outburst about the story of his web app, Knack. He designed this to help teachers generate learner analytics that they might in turn use to agitate for change or demonstrate their accomplishments, and I’ve been engaged in a brief exchange of views on his blog on the way he reacted to its failure.

First, I do think he’s right that in a culture that is currently wild for data, data building and visualisation apps scaled to the individual should make at least as much sense as the mania for LMS analytics at the institutional level. It was a rational mistake to make.

But things didn’t work out this way, and Jarrod speaks with conviction in his comments about education being a toxic environment for emerging innovators. While I think we still disagree on whether it’s educators or educational institutions that are the problem, this comment has really stayed with me:

Technologists hear the message “education needs better tech” and jump in, doomed from the start. Partnership and different solutions are not the answer. The answer is changing the toxic education environment and bureaucracy. Tech startups don’t stand a chance as it stands.

Tech startups can’t change that toxic climate. I was naive to think otherwise, and that’s one of the reasons Knack failed.

This painful analysis is hard to refute. Education is a vast, global, complex conglomeration of market potential with a soaring appetite for better tech. It’s attractive to technologists because it’s a stable part of public culture worldwide, like hospitals. Book publishers have known this for years: as traditional publishing declines and practices of reading change dramatically in the wider culture, it’s still possible to find predictable markets for print textbooks because at some level students and their families have budgeted for the cost of materials that support their learning, and are surprisingly tolerant of coercion through the syllabus that they should be propelled towards particular providers for particular content. To an outsider, this looks like the opposite of everything the market is supposed to be about.

For exactly this reason, all academics are still familiar with a strangely old-fashioned practice that ought to have gone the way of sherry with the tutorial (apologies to any of you for whom this is still a working reality, but really … ).  This is the moment when a smartly dressed educational publishing rep appears without warning at your office door asking if you have a moment to discuss your needs, as they’re just visiting campus and thought they would drop in, etc. etc. I do find these cold-calling moments socially odd, as I keep expecting a suitcase of brushes to appear between us, or perhaps some Avon cosmetics.

Both e-books and educational technologies in general have complicated this a bit, and a good deal of this cold-calling and customer relationship building has shifted to email. But as the neo-monopolistic practices of many of the well known global corporate LMS brands confirm, the apparent diversification in our educational technology needs isn’t exactly opening up a new wild frontier in the goldfields. In fact, it’s still tightly controlled by the substantial and increasing investment in stabilising the education market so that changes in teaching and learning philosophies march in lockstep with ed tech business planning.

Where does this leave small innovators, start-ups and app developers? Micro-innovation  should become increasingly important to universities, and not just because the standard model of big LMS is focused on getting everyone on the bus, rather than supporting the individual on her trapeze. At some level, higher education institutions understand this, which is why we’re seeing a sudden rush of conferences and workshops on social media in higher education. But this in itself is painful for start-up entrepreneurs, as another commenter on Jarrod’s blog explains: ‘Educators seem bent on playing with all the new social media tools out there and at the same time shun dedicated educational software.’

They’re both right. While the brass plaque at the front door of the typical educational institution might name a large, familiar LMS brand, the reality is that more and more individual educators are paying lip service to this while leaving the back door unlocked to all sorts of social media tools, only some of which they’re paying for. And this practice is entirely matched by what our students are doing when they use both free social media and online resources in surreptitious ways, an emerging learning culture described so persuasively by David White in a guest post in e-literate as ‘the learning black market’. Stuck in the middle are the entrepreneurs looking to make small, useful tools with a price tag to match.

The risks inherent in using public cloud social media for institutional use are important, particularly in terms of security and the standards of disaster recovery that an individual educator playing with matches can assure for her students, but risk isn’t entirely a bad thing.  So I think the one point on which I do still strongly disagree with Jarrod is that if we’re to take advantage of this real diversification of opportunities as a defense against the bigger risk of pedagogical lockdown by big tech and big publishing, we need to start to understand, track, value and support the micro-partnerships that have potential to spring up between educators, their students, and ed tech start-ups across the sociable web.

In practical terms this will mean that higher education institutions will need to develop more flexible, sensible industry-relevant ways of dealing with co-licensed apps.  App developers are fast and can do things quickly and relatively cheaply, but if they make something that works really well for a university project, say, they don’t want to sign a 20 page contract gifting their IP in perpetuity as a consequence.  But contracted app development is still too big a cost for individual educators to wear on their own behalf.

So the education bureacracy will have to figure out how to be less toxic about all this, and everyone else will have to remember that education changes very slowly, but it does change.

4 thoughts on “Small is good

  1. my short 1 month foray into edtech makes me realise we’re on the cusp of formal-informal education. It could go either way. Shiny suits anywhere like to control things, but the technology is liberating, so they get left out if they don’t adapt.

    PLEs seem to be the way for many students to develop their PLPs. You might want to do film at 16 and want to leave school to do it, get the hang of equipment – lighting, learn how to use a RED – develop high level editing skills – without doing a long course (which you won’t be able to afford anyway). Then feel you need some cultural studies including media psychology but not want to media studies as a formal subject. #openeducation will be your way to create the mix you need.

    Who is going to care about educational bureaucracies and toxicity in this Brave New World?

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    1. I think this is a really important set of ideas, and I’ve been brooding about them since you wrote. My sense is that anyone trying to operate in this brave new world will still immediately have to deal with what seems (to outsiders) toxic about educational bureacracies, even as those bureaucracies and their business models struggle to adapt to the really open educational model. The issue is that the current models of OER etc. are actually efforts to preserve some kind of business as usual (especially in terms of creating further brand prominence for some of the market leaders … hello, MIT) rather than embracing the much bigger potential of what I’m starting to think of as organic educational practices. I’d welcome your further thoughts.

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