Analyse this

Like Jonathan Rees, I’m really trying not to arc up in response to each inflated claim about technology’s power to save education from its own dismal, maladjusted, unimaginative future. Maybe it’s the EDUCAUSE effect, but it’s a whole keg party of edtech Kool Aid out there at the moment, and I’m feeling like someone’s disapproving mother.

The problem is the tsunami of corporate PR from edtech large and small that goes well beyond spruiking individual products, and extends to a generalised Mexican wave of enthusiasm for the whole techno-enterprise, often couched in such evangelical terms that it’s hard to imagine an educational problem for which edtech doesn’t already have the answer, in triplicate.

Take, for example, the startling announcement that “The future of education lies in technology”, that was dropped into the conversation this week by none other than Adrian Sannier. Compelled by this understated claim I wandered off to have a look, and found this article by Drew Olanoff, that introduced me to the now familiar figure of “a for-profit enterprise looking to invest time, experience, energy and resources in entrepreneurs who have a passion for education and the technical know-how to create their vision. Over a three-month period, we will draw on our extensive entrepreneurial experience, understanding of the Silicon Valley ecosystem, and knowledge of the education industry to help bring your idea to life, get your company funded, and to get your company on the road to success.”

Thrilling stuff, unless of course you’re a micro-entrepreneur who’s already been bruised by goldfield promises.  Jarrod Drysdale’s latest post on what’s wrong with “simple-minded, one-sided business advice” is really terrific, and Philippe Monnet in the comments introduced me to the lovely term “entreporn”.  I think Jarrod’s exactly right to argue to his fellow developers that they should start to work together to resist the sale of cheap prospecting maps and kits, particularly when so much of the terrain is in reality fenced in by large corporate interests.

But the second problem isn’t to do with the power of the big tech competition, so much as the problems that are internal to education. Joanna de Franco in Campus Technology makes the point clearly: too many large institutions are carrying around three-year old be-all LMS solutions for which there is insufficient, and insufficiently effective, take-up by their staff.  To this I’d add that their design doesn’t naturally build demand among students raised on very sticky social media.  So it’s hard to persuade CFOs to spend on really imaginative new technology when the old technology is still underutilised, or is even the subject of substantial internal backlash.

Low internal take-up is a problem edtech can’t solve on its own, because it relates to the ways in which education is itself subject to resourcing constraint and political pressure. Across traditional higher education institutions, for example, increasing student enrolments mean less and less time that can be spent by individual teachers in learning thoroughly how to use a new LMS, or on the front-loading required to curate or develop high quality resources for online teaching.  Skilled and forward-looking institutions will find ways of planning to support teacher innovation, but many won’t have the luxury of doing this, as more time and resources are diverted to the endless raking of the parade ground of our research.

Low take-up is also the reason why the core promise at the heart of the “technology will save us all” claim is still a hollow one:

Educational institutions have a huge flow of data, some not even digitized, and have no way to pour through it to make smart decisions for their schools or more importantly for their students. Some of the companies have come up with ways to use data to incentive students with behavioral issues, make better use of a Principal’s time by giving them a dashboard of student and financial data in real-time, as well as share lesson plans all over the world.

As ever, we’re back to analytics. As ever, the capacity of schools, colleges and universities to make use of the additional data generated by online learning practices, as well as the rest of the huge flow of data they’re already trying to manage—some of which is indeed not even digitized—is going to be limited by the extent to which individual educators are able to use new learning tools easily, quickly and thoroughly, particularly assessment tools.

But at the moment, I suspect many institutions aren’t sure what kinds of learning practices we want to analyse, and some of us are starting to wonder about the risks of imposing further data-driven behavioural stereotypes on our students as the consequence of our new fascination with countable things.


One of the reasons I’ve been trying to take a more positive approach is Kim Thanos’ beautiful post on open education at e-Literate.  Kim makes this very important point:

When we choose not to engage with the commercial players, we lose the chance to shape their investments and contributions. We also lose access to great minds and genuinely good people who choose to contribute to improved education through a .com rather than a .edu affiliation.

I think she’s right, but I think this also means being really clear with commercial players about why we’re not engaged by their claims of overestimated uniqueness.  That’s not the conversation we’re trying to have, at all.

And this is what matters about the impression that had been created that Pearson entered into an exclusive embrace with Google in developing OpenClass, a scenario that has been adjusted by Google (and several other commentators) this week.  As someone from CourseDirector whispered among the deckchairs a few days ago, they are also “an existing LMS in the Google Apps Marketplace”.  Google is certainly the bride here, but there’s more than one bachelor.  And we’re not going to improve education by being casual with details like this.

UPDATE: I can’t recommend too highly Michael Feldstein’s excellent just-minted post on OpenClass.  It seems we’re all trying to figure out how to solve the “open, free, amazing” puzzle, but this post helped me understand how and we should all be invested in working constructively with commercial developers to ensure that education doesn’t inadvertently become the hapless mark to an irreversible (even if well-intentioned) long con.  As Michael writes, the issue continues to be one of “general trust”.

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.