One professor at a time

I’m still worried about the missed potential for edtech entrepreneurs large and small to engage in more substantial dialogue with educators at an earlier stage in their thinking.  At the moment, the pattern of bringing a mostly non-negotiable product to the RFP table involves both parties in an awkward clash of expectations that Joshua Kim has aptly described as a “bake-off”, and that certainly has reminded me of MasterChef more than once.

So the award for persistence in communicating with educators goes to the Instructure team who have been pursuing me from Sweden to Australia over the last month for a chat and a walkthrough of Canvas.

Instructure are the other company emphasising disruption to the standard LMS at the moment.  Anyone who has dealt with them seems to agree that this hard yards approach to consultation is their signature: they’ve been wearing out their shoes walking the hallways of higher education trying to figure out what educators actually want. To this, I can add that they’re really open to criticism of their product from someone with no technical background, and when they don’t have an answer to a question, they say: “We don’t know.”  This is actually a very good way to talk to people who teach, and it’s quite a bit less frustrating than the approach that’s been taken by several big edtech market announcements recently, where a curiously warped vision of education driven by content, analytics and automated workflow has been sculpted in haste by marketing communications.

The problem facing edtech marketing is that this vision might sell in the university boardroom or the engine room of strategic planning and quality assurance, but it’s one that most individual educators end up pinning to their mental dartboard.  So it’s just as hard for major corporates as it is for bootstrappers to figure out, I think, whether their intended audience sits at the institutional level, with the CIO, the CFO, and CEO and the hand that signs the paper, or whether their appeal should be pitched at users–teachers and their students.  What seems to happen is an awkward amalgam of the two, and this is never more offputting than in the corporate video spruiking the vision of the imaginary college experience.  We’ve all seen them.

So this brings me to Adrian Sannier’s response to Joshua Kim’s invitation to Pearson to do better at communicating with both their potential customers and those who are more sceptical about whether or not OpenClass is really aiming to change anything.

I’ve been genuinely impressed by Sannier’s willingness to front up to the criticism that OpenClass has been premature in its marketing announcements.  The OpenClass webpage has come in for sustained criticism from the education community, which is hard on Sannier as he is the only substantial piece of content on it.  And the unfortunate “see you at EDUCAUSE” answer to most questions hasn’t really worked for those of us not within a hemisphere of the northern American trade fairs, although I agree with Phil Hill that EDUCAUSE itself probably prompted the jumpy timing of the premiere.

Still, when I’m not seeing Sannier herding cats in a cowboy hat, I’m uncomfortably reminded of Quade Cooper; it’s the flipside of both corporate and sporting celebrity that there are times when the camera holds its tight close-up for what must feel like a very long time.

So, to be clear, I think his approach to taking these questions wherever they pop up is helpful, and I just want to follow up on one comment that has caught my eye.  In response to a question about the positioning of OpenClass in relation to other Pearson products, Sannier writes:

Pearson LearningStudio and OpenClass serve different markets. Pearson LearningStudio is the de-factor standard for fully online programs at scale, allowing programs a great deal of control over the academic experience. By contrast, OpenClass is designed for the campus market, where curriculum decisions are made one professor at a time. We understand the needs of these markets are quite distinct and have made OpenClass with that in mind.

We recognize that there is more than one set of institutional requirements around the world for a LMS. OpenClass complements Pearson’s other platform offerings very effectively.

This fleeting attention to the “one professor at a time” model of what actually happens in the classroom is rather lost in the subsequent strong focus on institutional buy-in that infuses the rest of Sannier’s answers, but the flicker of recognition is nevertheless there.

What this brings into the conversation is the most important shift in educational technology, that pre-dates the current potential for modes of managed promiscuity at the institutional level.  Individual educators have been quietly sneaking over the back fence like teenagers for some time, searching for the tools and applications in social media that will enable them to compensate for the limitations of big LMS solutions focused on analytics, workflow and content management (and frankly, we could sum all this up as educational CRM).

Most of us have found our tools through word of mouth—I know I came to Ning and Voicethread via Jane Hart’s excellent annual list of Top 100 Tools recommended by other educators; I started using Flickr memory maps as a learning tool after a bit of searching for something else entirely.  Diigo for Education is a list that provides me with a daily hint to think of something new that might work.  But sometimes the ideas come over coffee with colleagues: what really works for me is when someone who has tried something can tell me what I should avoid.

Educators are naturally good at this kind of crowdsourcing for social learning, and this seems to be the wave that OpenClass is trying to catch.  This is precisely why they’ve garnered so much attention without showing so much as a screenshot: the desire for change is really there.  So even if it’s not clear that OpenClass have the answer, or that anyone actually wants the future of education managed by big publishing, the passionate level of frustration with OpenClass should be giving other edtech entrepreneurs claiming to be disruptive something to think about in terms of their audience: the keenest advocates for disruption are also those who really don’t respond well to a conventional sales pitch.

6 thoughts on “One professor at a time

  1. I find that long Sannier quote absolutely fascinating. Wouldn’t one of those systems cancel out the other one over the long haul? Pearson seems to have no preference as long as they can make money from both sides. Talk about hedging your bets.

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  2. But I wonder if this hedging of bets isn’t a response to something that is genuinely structurally odd about education, especially higher education, where the educator is a kind of freelancer within an organisation? We can see the effects of this in all sorts of ways, but the tension seems acute at the moment. My other area of worry at the moment, as you know, is student communication — this also happens “one professor at a time”, but in ways that seem mysteriously well below the radar of the student communications departments of our own universities.

    So I’m not sure that Pearson are confused here; they seem to know they can’t make money from individual educators, but they also recognise that educators, like teenagers, are the “hidden persuaders” in the higher education household budget.

    The issue for us is how best to respond to this.

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