Learning from failure

The problem with edtech evangelism is that it assumes the most valuable lessons are learned from other people’s success. This is why our lives fill up with stories of exciting tools that have transformed this that or the other thing. Exhausting, really.

Given the importance of failure to innovation, it’s interestingly rare to find blogs, lists, journals, or conferences focused on failure, in any field. The Ten Most Awful Mistakes in Online Course Design.  Ten Tools I’ll Never Try Again.  Seriously, I’d find those useful. But we don’t do it this way.  We don’t fly keynote speakers around the world to tell us what they did wrong, from the cartwheeling Prezi that nauseated the audience to the webinars doomed by lag, and the drop box assignments that were impossible to return—or the MOOC in which experienced and highly engaged learners left class early and set up an alternate public discussion of the misalignment of course purpose to course environment, for all to see.

But perhaps we should promote these experiences, because failure is how most of us learn. The only way to test whether or not a new tool does what it promises to do, for example, is to try it in a populated course. This doesn’t always produce splendid results, as Curt Bonk and his Blackboard partners are currently finding out.  Lisa M. Lane’s original blog on her decision to quit their experiment is worth reading, but it’s the appreciative discussion in the comments between the MOOC’s course leaders and the unconvinced that’s really gripping.

Could this awkward experience have been predicted?  Should either Blackboard or Bonk have given some thought to the possibility that an all night party with an open bar might attract a bigger crowd than would comfortably fit the venue?  Was the suck-it-and-see communication strategy really the way to go, given the sensitivity and confusion around openness (and Blackboard’s investment in open) right at the moment? Were expectations driven too high by the opportunity to interact directly with such a well-known eLearning pioneer?

It seems that for some, the problems were embedded in the environment itself—the unchanging assumptions behind the design of online forum tools (“very 1999”, as Lisa Lane puts it). This is the tiny, familiar failure that’s difficult to avoid. Most LMS discussion tools pass the test of course planning simply by being there.  Blog? Wiki? Forum? Yup, we’re good.  It’s only when you try to use them with 50, 100, 1000 students or more, that you start to see how awful they are.

And this isn’t a trivial limitation.  Just as in the face to face classroom, presence is the hinge on which the online gate swings: it’s the simple, human claim that learners make on one another’s time, that enables us all to feel that we’re exchanging ideas with people, not just testing ourselves against prescribed content. If this is important with a small class, imagine how much more vital it is once enrolment cranks up to the thousands. Without it, really, what differentiates a massive online class from a difficult day at the mall?

The comments on Lisa Lane’s blog will ring bell after bell with anyone who has tried to use the communication tools of a standard LMS to engage students in discussion. Somehow, the leading vendors have managed to miss the fact that users want to tailor their online presence, just as they choose how to present their physical appearance. The capacity to craft a personality that works for you is really critical to anyone’s sense of composure in a community of strangers. Users expect to control how their name appears, to use a thumbnail of their choice as their visual avatar, to share images, videos, feeds and links, and to be given some kind of personal site in which they customise, organise and publish what’s meaningful to them, in order to show not only what they think, but to share information about the public online networks through which they move.

This dominos into the second critical issue. Anyone trying to engage with an online class needs to keep up with a snowballing volume of input from others.  Messages need to bundle intuitively, to thread and scroll and quote properly. Users expect to be able to flag, sort and prioritise, to use powerful search tools, and to send quick notes of appreciation with likes, favourites and reposts. Some will save and print, because that’s the way they like to work; and others will need it all to be readable on a mobile screen half the size of a postcard. Everyone will need to skim for new messages, and some will want push notification.  The singular, standout value of learning through online discussion is that it’s a self-transcribing conversation that fosters review and reflection—but none of this works if you can’t find what you’re looking for.

When we undertook an institutional RFP for a new LMS last year, we expected that big companies whose R&D focus must be on the ways in which people use technology and networks to communicate, learn and manage their lives would develop social learning tools that would synchronise with these trends. Any campus LMS has to sit open on a student laptop where the next tab is Facebook (or Tumblr, Twitter and so on).  Students multitask their online learning against a background of rapid, pervasive interaction with friends they genuinely care about; if we’re going to ask them to concentrate instead on staying in the class space, couldn’t LMS designers at least help us out with a social design that’s halfway engaging?

They could—of course they could—so the fact that they don’t is revealing.  My guess is that LMS designers who don’t develop their social tools have made a rational calculation that it’s better for them if we handle this bit. The institutional shift to learning platforms, described so well by Phil Hill in a recent post for e-Literate has really been driven by desperate teachers looking for ways to compensate for awful LMS design. So platforming is a strategy of accommodation that works reasonably well for institutions and exceptionally well for LMS vendors; it’s the admission that L is rapidly uncoupling from M. The inclusion of a few engaging social options like WordPress or Google Apps doesn’t expose the big vendors to much risk providing everything’s bolted to the platform: in fact, it perpetuates dependency on whoever provides the core tools for managing the platform itself.

But as more institutions embrace the platform model, there’s going to be much more churn in social features, tools and options, because this is a wide open space for edupreneurs. Academics will come under increasing pressure to try new things, pushed by articulate, informed student demand. Negative feedback won’t wait for teacher evaluations—it’ll be on Facebook.  This is why it’s so helpful that Lisa Lane, Curtis Bonk and their colleagues are modelling their failure-to-communicate debate in the open, in the truer sense.

Because there’s a whole world of learning through failure up ahead, and we’re going to appreciate these pointers from our peers that show us both how to give feedback constructively, and how to respond to it openly.


Michael Feldstein’s fresh post that touches on the distinction between edupreneurs and teacherpreneurs (besides a number of other excellent points) really helped me think through some ways forward.  As ever, Instructure  come off well — but will they be able to sustain their personal approach as they grow? Time will tell.

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’.

Going underground

It’s Deleuze week here among the deckchairs, a problem I’m keen to sheet home to Michael Feldstein. I’m not normally a Deleuze reader—even in the brief moments of my life when I’m not thinking about what’s wrong with the OpenClass marketing strategy (see below)*—but the coincidences are piling up, including that a colleague has just pointed me to the 1990 conversation between Deleuze and Antonio Negri, on “Control and Becoming“.

And in a genuinely rhizomatic sort of way, I’ve been following links between other people’s conversations, particularly the rolling edupunk houseparty that seems to involve something called “DS106”.  For the uninitiated, this is all a bit “Area 51”, but I’m getting the hang of it—I think.

Listening to Dave Cormier talk on Livestream yesterday about the principles of rhizomatic educational practice, I started to wonder whether the rhizome is a popular metaphor at the moment precisely because so many educators are bored and annoyed with the command and control principles of our institutional lives.  Everyone loves the surreptitious, subtle, self-perpetuating rhizome under these circumstances. It imagines the recuperation of education from its bureaucratic life, offering self-authorising, disintermediated, straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth learning opportunities, and it makes us feel good on the days in which filling out the forms, fighting with administration, and losing a sense of career traction are making us feel bad.

That is, until the point that we get to grading. And at this point, all of us working in formal, accredited, standards-sensitive educational institutions have to figure out whether one person’s rhizomatic experience was demonstrated with more grace, more facility, more all round goodness than the next person’s.

Student readers, look away now.

The secret conversation among educators is that the increasingly fervent application of quality assurance processes to protect grading consistency in any area involving the exercise of judgment has reached epidemic proportions of ridiculousness. We moderate and standardise and fuss, particularly over any deviation from last year’s results. With the rise in distributed learning, especially any involving offshore partnerships, we build complex data queries to ensure that there is no risk of locational advantage, no grading bias, no unexplainable bump in the smoothness of our statistical curves.

But despite the increasingly scientific efficiencies of our QA processes, we have all talked about throwing a pile of papers down the stairs and grading according to the step they land on, because we might as well.

Maybe because they suspect us of doing exactly this, our institutions are fanatically attracted to the twin weapons of grading rubrics and learner analytics. Working together they promise that there is no chance of irrational, autonomous, discretionary thinking, and now we’ve got that out of the way, we can centrally and neutrally identify students at risk of not achieving the standardised learning outcomes, so that we can target our resources towards preventing them from drifting further. Our investment in retention might not be as benign as we make it appear, but the language of quality makes it all sound like a particularly good thing to be doing.

(As an aside, my favourite risk analysis tool is the hilarious Skip Class Calculator, launched last year and the funniest thing to come out of student-driven analysis of higher education performance since Rate My Professor introduced its chili pepper hotness rating.)

Edtech vendors didn’t invent this mania for quality assured grading; they’re simply providing the tools that will service our belief in its efficiency. This is why companies like Instructure are going out of their way to promise us that the first and only waymarker on the 2012 horizon, is their shiny analytics tool. But the idealised vision in which any teacher, using the same rubric, would come to the same conclusion as any other teacher about a piece of work, is ours. To aim for anything less would surely be unfair, we say, ignoring for a moment that the logical consequence is the infinite substitutability of all teachers for each other.

But wait, there’s more. If the rubric is sufficiently grainy, then left alone in a room with it the student ought to be able to grade her own work.  So it’s only logical that your be-all LMS will take on this task for you, and shoot the result on to the analytics department.

This is where find myself clinging to Deleuze while not really embracing the rhizome. I don’t disagree at all that the rhizome is a powerful metaphor for a certain kind of educational freedom, and I’m moving closer and closer to the view that we need to find better ways to champion informal and community-based learning, things being as they are in higher education. But while we’re still drawing a salary to provide a service, we can’t simply sidestep the calculation that students have to make every day as they decide whether to go on acquiring debt in pursuit of a qualification accredited on the basis of our grading systems.

So I’m more convinced by what Deleuze had to say in 1990 about the rise of the control society and the peril of life seeming to become more open while in the same process becoming more amenable to surveillance:

One can envisage education becoming less and less a closed site differentiated from the workspace as anoth­er closed site, but both disappearing and giving way to frightful con­tinual training, to continual monitoring of worker-schoolkids or bureaucrat-students. They try to present this as a reform of the school system, but it’s really its dismantling. In a control-based system noth­ing’s left alone for long.

And in the end that’s why I’m unconvinced that automation of the grading process addresses the real problem of grading.  Like the firing squad and the general, one of Deleuze’s less celebrated rhizomatic metaphors, just because the firing squad can now take aim without the general’s specific authority, this doesn’t make the process good. Fixing this is going to take some much tougher and more imaginative institutional reforms, and some really visionary and creative edtech.

* OpenClass: like everyone else who clicked on the link on the Free. Open. Easy. Amazing (Not) website a few weeks back and then wondered, Alice-like, what actually might happen, this morning I’ve had a marketing email inviting me to join a webinar where all my “burning questions” about OpenClass will be answered—providing I can join them at 6am Sydney time. Never mind, Australia. “This is just the beginning”, they’re assuring us, in bold. And in case you’re wondering, it’s all going terrifically well for them. 1000 institutions have signed up—given that they’re offering a free LMS to a global market bristling with frustration at their competition, this seems a surprising total.

What is it that makes today’s North American edtech marketing announcements so familiar, so unappealing?

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.

Waiting for disruption

This week’s excitement has been the announcement by Pearson of their shakeup of the LMS experience.  On the OpenClass website, where we’re told in very big letters that this is all Open, Free, Easy and Amazing, the promotional video starts with Adrian Sannier, Senior VP, making the big claim that the LMS “as you know it” is dead. Sannier brings serious university research and administrative experience to Pearson’s push into the edtech market, and I’m confident that he knows what he’s talking about when he says that the standard LMS has “only ever been an ineffective administrative tool … it’s closed, it’s clunky to use, it’s costly.”

But his claim is a bit of a heartstopper for all the institutions who’ve woken up contractually handcuffed to the corpse of one or other dead LMS, for several years to come. It’s such a bold prediction that I’ve been distracted by visions of Sannier delicately blowing the powder residue from the barrel of his Colt 45 as he enters the darkened saloon where the frightened townsfolk have been cowering.  Yup, the LMS as we knew it won’t be bothering us no more, no sir.

OK. But before we start lining up the shots at the bar, there’s one thing that seems strangely familiar about our new situation: the things that are promised in the brochure are going to take a while to arrive.  So although the promotional video tells us that we can join OpenClass today, in fact most of us can’t.

If the product really is free and open, surely the hustle isn’t necessary, given the way things are across the LMS market. A genuinely free, open, amazing and scalable social LMS with strong integration with Google Apps has a good chance of selling itself. But over eager marketing is creating a problem that wasn’t there before: if you announce that something is now thrillingly and game-changingly available, and this turns out not quite to be the case, this is actually going to remind people very much of their experience in the game you’re proposing to change. As Joshua Kim puts it in his thoughtful summary of the things that could limit the disruptive potential of OpenClass:

There is no need to “sell” the LMS, only a need to get as many people as possible in the EDU community full access to the platform, and to share every detail about the technical specifications, cloud infrastructure, and product roadmap. … Where is the screencast walking me through OpenClass? If it is cloud based, why can’t I make an account now and play like I can on Blackboard’s CourseSites? Where is all the technical documentation and all the other information I’d need to start my research?

In other words, if we can’t take a look at it, there’s no need to tell us that we can.  Far better just to say that beta testing continues with the pilot institutions that were under the original non-disclosure conditions, and then the first round of others that will be allowed into the lab now that the secret’s out. The original launch of Gmail and more recently Google+ have shown that users are prepared to wait in line until invited in, and understand that there are benefits to robust testing as things scale up. So why not be clearer that whatever OpenClass might be in the future, you cannot join it today? Why not say straightforwardly when the door might open?  Even Disneyland tells you how long you’ll be standing in line from this point.

And the second familiar aspect is that it’s not exactly clear what the real cost of the gunslinger’s favour will prove to be. Audrey Watters has written this up very well, and says that we should be looking much more closely at the small print.  Jonathan Rees is more blunt, when he says that we should beware giant publishers bearing gifts.  Certainly, we’re all wary of the free lunch.

This is why I found it so helpful to read George Siemens’ explanation of the business context for “free, open, easy, amazing”, with his analysis of the rise of platforming as a way of simplifying and streamlining the need for individuals (or institutions) to pull together different tools for different little tasks. The way that platforming seems to make life easier for the consumer helps explain the pattern of competitive acquisition that has been the hallmark of edtech for a while. As Siemens says, “educators don’t want to think about the platform. They want something easy to use – simple, effective, and extensible – so they can get on with teaching and research.”  Justin Bathon points out that this isn’t exclusive to OpenClass, given the way in which other LMS designers like Instructure are integrating with existing public cloud social media rather than wasting design time on their own poor copies, particularly in terms of communication and collaboration tools.

The attraction of platforming over original product development makes sense, especially in a market crowded with solutions in which institutional decision-making is still slow. This slowness means that anyone’s enterprise level opportunities to change the game are limited by the number of times an education enterprise is actually interested in changing anything at all, a point I’ve been debating recently with Phil Hill.  Platforming is a good strategy in response to this sluggishness.

But the platforming model does mean that conservative educational institutions are going to need to get used to contractual LMS arrangements that might best be described as organised promiscuity.  This is the really big disruption on our side, given the fact that all our planning is based on the model of serial monogamy.

Meanwhile, speaking of open, those of us who are genuinely curious to know whether the “open” of OpenClass signals anything more than an opportunistic nod in the direction of open education, will just have to wait in line.

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