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.

Open is as open does

Openness: everyone’s at it.  All of a sudden higher education is a hive of managed promiscuity, and it’s only a matter of time before we’re all throwing our keys into the fruitbowl.

First Pearson announce (and, at last, demonstrate) their new “free, open, easy, amazing” OpenClass. Now Blackboard have announced a more open approach to content developed by academics and hosted on Blackboard sites.  As Audrey Watters points out quietly, the game-changing technology here is … a ‘share’ button.  What this seems to mean is that it will be easier to push content outwards from an otherwise closed site into public cloud social media, and there are obvious attractions here for universities (and celebrity academics) looking to enhance their ranking at the epicentre of global intellectual capital. All this, plus the feelgood counter-cultural hum of the Creative Commons.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a bit less clear how this educational trade liberalisation agenda will benefit smaller cultural economies like Australia’s, but we are certainly being sold the vision of a leveled playing field for content producers. Now anyone can lay out their wares in the same marketplace of ideas as MIT—even if the institution most likely to do this in a way that attracts the punters will still be MIT, reputation being the currency that it is.

As a secondary benefit, all this openness might make it slightly easier than it has been to teach classes and courses across institutional and even national boundaries. This isn’t quite the same as pushing content, and there are actually already plenty of ways to do it.  I’ve done it with Blackboard and I’ve done it with Ning, and I’m right at the moment looking for the best ideas for a free, easy, simple, and socially engaging bundle of things that I can pull together to enable an American and an Australian class to work together for ten weeks early in 2012.  (On this one, please do write in.)

Working across borders to open up curriculum owned by one institution to students enrolled at another has taught me that the technical impediments to openness are set at the institutional level, and are driven by internal policies in relation to risk and security.  They’re not inherent in any of the platforms, all of which offer guest access, even if there have been licensing constraints on some.  The critical issue is the security protocols established by the internal business owners of the LMS, and these are straightforwardly aligned to the overall business plan that calibrates resourcing costs to income generation via student enrolment.

For traditional universities, teaching other people’s students online is a bit like feeding someone else’s cat: it’s a practice of hospitality that depends largely on goodwill, collegiality, curiosity, and some prospect of reciprocity.  Where it works, it can be genuinely exhilarating precisely because it allows academics to remember what it feels like to do something for good reasons, and internationalising the learning experience of students who lack the resources to participate in overseas exchange programs or study tours is still way up there on the list of socially transformative initiatives available to higher education.

But after a while the hospitality can become strained as universities place themselves under increasing pressure to undertake only the tasks that relate to their primary resourcing. The standard model for access to educational resources is that of the university library or the campus email system: we undertake to provide facilities only to those who have undertaken in return to engage in a formal relationship with us, which we can sometimes extend via the considerable complexity of co-badged degrees, articulated pathways and formal partnerships whereby other people’s students show up on our systems, in a kind of corporeal double dipping that’s administratively intensive and works best for relatively small numbers.  It’s not a starting point for the curious edupunk who’s simply interested in the short-term educational gain that international collaboration represents, sometimes in a one off “hey, why don’t we try this?”

(And for me, the best model for this is still this startlingly early collaboration in philosophy taught by Mark Taylor and Esa Saarinen using only email between Finland and the US, written up in their edupunk manifesto Imagologies in 1994.  Even taking this book down from the bookshelf makes me feel good.)

But we’re not in 1994 any more, Toto, and we’re now only likely to support open education if we can tally it to one or other of our performance indicators. The strongest potential here is within institutions that have some metric for valuing community engagement, and that are interested in supporting informal education in the communities that matter to them. But as the pressure is piled on individual academics to do more with less time, it’s realistic and important to say that participating in open and community-facing educational projects will often be a career-limiting move.

This means that the new technical affordances of openness that Blackboard and Pearson are spruiking will need to be matched by much stronger, smarter articulation to institutional strategic planning, if they’re to result in sustainable practices of open education. So, as ever, this is why we need to work more closely with edtech to ensure that we’re developing the capacity and political will in our sector to take align their new openness with the educational values that define our true business.

Otherwise, we’ll be forever on the hop in response to the latest free, easy, amazing thing that’s been driven by the internal competition in theirs.

In the education space?

“The education space” is an imprecise sort of street address that’s beginning to bother me.  It seems to mean something more than itself: not the precise space within which teaching or learning actually occurs, but the larger territory of business operations that brings together all those with an eye on the profits to be had from the future of education as a peculiar hybrid of market and service.

And this week, there’s been some agitation in the education space.

Firstly, I’ve been compelled by a spirited bit of back-and-forth involving Audrey Watters of Hack Education, writing as a guest on Michael Feldstein’s blog, and Jarrod Drysdale, the developer of a short-lived analytics app, Knack for Teachers. The essence of this fairly average tale from the entrepreneural trenches is that despite close family connection to individual teachers Drysdale found himself smarting when he couldn’t persuade teachers as a profession to take up his innovation.

So he’s been letting off steam on his blog about teachers failing to get with the program of educational reform. I probably do share Audrey Watters’ general irritation with his tone, as do about half of his readers.  She describes him as underprepared and bitter; he defends himself as merely wanting to enable teachers to generate data about their teaching effectiveness, that they could use to change the educational system. He could have left it at that, but unfortunately went on to describe a market he may want to court again one day in terms that can most generously be described as whiny, and in response to Watters he’s come back for a second go.  Oh dear.

Above all, and despite tactful nudges from his readers that he try to get his head around the facts of life for employees on fixed grade salaries, Drysdale seems not to have understood that the main reason teachers invest time or their own money in anything is that they’re trying to make things better for their students, not because they’re trying to freshen up their careers.  And for many teachers, analytics still seem a little indirect, especially if the tools aren’t easy to use.

The question of paying for teaching tools is close to home for me as I was one of many caught out when Ning replaced its free social networking service for a pricing model that meant I ended up paying for the site I use to teach.  And a colleague of mine who uses clickers in his classroom in well-thought out and interesting ways that students really find helpful is currently wrestling with a request that he make a business case in writing in order to get reimbursed for the batteries that these need.

It seems to me that if bricks and mortar teachers were reduced to renting the conference room at a local motel in order to run their classes, we’d be hearing about it. But this sort of demand is entirely familiar to anyone using educational technology to teach: even when we’re not paying our own money for some kind of app or hosted service, we’re setting up our own private accounts in the clouds to help our students access things that we think are more interesting, useable and engaging than the features of the standard campus LMS we’re wrestling with.

About half of Drysdale’s readers seem to be trying to point this out.  But the other half are far more important. These are the app store entrepreneurs who have an eye on both K-12 and higher education as emerging markets for novel little technologies of all kinds, and it’s worth quoting the most recent comment on Drysdale’s blog in full:

Hi Jarrod,

Looking forward to another post, this time focusing on why the product didn’t really take off. It would be great if you can get into details, other than “lousy customers” and “some people didn’t want their problem solved”, etc. Something more specific could be more helpful for other people trying to venture to this space.

Of course people are still going to ask the same question again (did you solve the wrong problem? was the solution is really practical? would it worth in terms of the value that you giving that they use the systems? why do they choose not to use the app? etc). If you can address that, it would be much more interesting and can lead to better discussions.

Then again you had spent a year on this, and even though I really don’t agree with you on principle, you have tried more than I do in this education space, so kudos.

It’s pretty clear from this that “space” is the new “market”, and that we’re going to need to think very carefully about the grounds on which we might like to offer a counter-explanation. If the education space is more (or less) than the sum of its hundreds of thousands of employees who can be harried into buying tech stuff, what is it instead?

This brings me to the second bit of agitation that caught my eye. George Siemens has been provoked by a generalised attack on the value of education institutions in actually sustaining learning. While at the moment I’d be as happy as anyone to see the DIYers and edupunks storming the citadels of higher learning, I can’t dismiss the clear and sensible point that some of most radical initiatives are currently being made possible by the fact that security of employment is still the enabling condition of both critique and innovation:

At this point, I cannot imagine a scenario or situation that will be more damaging to humanities, social sciences, and, to a lessor degree, media scholars, than the large scale breakdown of traditional universities. What system (certainly not patronage) has given philosophers and scholars better support? Sure, artists will produce art even if they are not eating. And have throughout history. However, artists, thinkers, philosophers – people who shape our view of ourselves and enable us to shape our future – are pushed to the margins of influence if they are not connected to a system that amplifies their influence and preserves their freedom to work.

So, you know, kudos to that.

UPDATE: Hello and thanks to Audrey Watters who has popped by in the comments and sparked a memory that the other phrase that has bothered me this year is “education vertical“.