Punctuate this

Here’s how timezones work.  Australia perpetually wakes up a) ahead of everyone else and b) the last to know what happened overnight.  And so it is with today’s discovery that while we were sleeping, Blackboard executives were tearing off their business suits and putting their underpants on over their tights in order to jump out of the phone box as crusaders for openness in education.

Specifically, in the flurry of press releases about the acquisition of MoodleRooms and Australia’s own NetSpot, Blackboard has announced that it will work to “eliminate vendor lock-in for all LMS options, commercial and open source.”

The irony of this doesn’t need much discussion, surely; and in any case, ed tech writers are all over it, which is a big help for those of us whose day job is something else altogether. I found everything I read today—on both sides—informative and reasonable. For me, the key to unlocking the whole puzzle came from an unconvinced Audrey Watters, pointing out the political gain from openwashing, both in her Hack Education post and in this lovely tweet:

Openwashing: n., having an appearance of open-source and open-licensing for marketing purposes, while continuing proprietary practices.

For sure, it’s early days, and we don’t yet know exactly how things will turn out. We can certainly respect the reputation and track record of the colleagues they’ve brought in from other companies. (Australians are forgiven a self-congratulatory cheer here, as Adelaide and Perth are stamped on the map of global edtech influence. Just think, only yesterday we were a backwater from which startup entrepreneurs were desperate to escape, and now America’s corporate hot shots come all the way to Perth—Perth!—for top secret business meetings.  Maybe we’ll get a space program after all.)

But once we get over ourselves, I think we’ll see that Audrey’s right: for the ordinary educational user there are some uncomfortable parallels with the promotional fuss that surrounded Pearson’s Open Class* last year.  And just as greenwashing reveals something about what consumers want to hear, so openwashing tells us that in the market for educational technology “open” has moved beyond being geeky, cool and insiderish. Now it speaks to the technologically uninitiated—to people like me, who don’t expect to see a piece of code in their lifetime—and it comes bundled with appealing ideas like independence, integrity, collaboration and community. These are things that educators really care about, and we want to hear that our educational technology partners share our commitment to these principles.

So, you know, be careful what you wish for.

But while it makes sense for Blackboard to appear to us as the new open, their more complex communications problem involves providing a convincing account to their market as to how this came to pass.

Ray Henderson has chosen to present this as an evolutionary jump, for which the technical term is a “punctuated evolution”—that moment when the appearance of stasis gives way to sudden change. Biologists who study the fossil record argue a bit about whether there is a separate mechanism that causes these jumps, or whether they’re speeded up versions of business as usual, but the issue that Henderson is tackling head on here is the important one of perception. The thing about punctuated evolution is that it creates the impression of a decisive response to the situation that you’re in.

Rightly or wrongly, Blackboard has acquired a reputation for not doing much with its LMS; stasis doesn’t seem too strong a term. And the strategy of shifting to a “student lifecycle end to end” (or vice versa) focus on campus services, so thrillingly presented in its corporate videos last year, hasn’t really changed the popular view that Blackboard is the universal shorthand term for everything that’s wrong with online learning, including the flaws that are common to most LMS. Perhaps unfairly, this means that over the past few years Blackboard has presented the largest target to a significant anti-LMS backlash.

To erase this deeply scored impression, Blackboard has to stage a dramatic and public change of heart, both mea culpa and brave new world. I think this is why the press releases and public communication have talked up the potential for market resistance, misgiving and scepticism, rather than played them down; and it’s perhaps also why the news wasn’t leaked or launched at a trade fair or conference where there was too much risk of the key messages becoming confused or diluted.  This is a very carefully controlled strategic move. But in the end, Ray Henderson seems to me to be pulling out evolutionary metaphors for much the same reason that Adrian Sannier did when Pearson launched OpenClass: to emphasise the inevitability of change. In IT, things simply turn out as they should.

As educators, we’re supposed to be sceptical of exactly these sorts of claims: it’s our job and our skill to know that whenever something that consists entirely of human design is presented as a force of nature, we should look twice. We’ve heard a lot today about exciting new business partnerships between large and small edtech companies—those with deep pockets, and those who now presumably fit into those pockets—and it’s easy for us to forget that our role in this is to set the agenda that aligns technology to educational principles. To build strong partnerships with global companies that meet our peculiar local needs requires considerable self-belief—not so easy in higher education at the moment.  But that’s the expertise we bring to the partnership.

So in that spirit, I’m highlighting the passage in Ray Henderson’s open letter that seems to me to spell out a far more important principle than Blackboard’s mission to save us all from the scourge of vendor lock-in. Here’s what he wrote:

I think it’s important to consider what the market gets from this evolution at Blackboard. Rather than another LMS-oriented company, it gets a firm focused on helping institutions to solve the hardest problems in education, comprehensively. The range of technologies that must be pulled together to create a solution for institutions today is both more comprehensive and more complex than ever before. Rather than presenting obstacles by imposing a limitation on which products we support, we’re showing our commitment to institutional partnership by broadening our coverage, expanding options and reducing the requirements to change that show we’ve listened to our constituency about what they need from their partners.

Proposing to help us address the hardest problems in education, comprehensively; now that’s a bold offer.

We should hold them to it.

*OpenClass: Free, Open, Easy, Amazing, and Apparently Vanished Like Amelia Earhart going fabulously, according to excited marketing communication just received:

OpenClass is brand new: Pilots in several schools began only in the 2011-2012 academic year. OpenClass is gaining rapid momentum – since launching in October, there have been more than 3,000 installations of OpenClass!

!!

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.

PS

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”.

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.

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.

Related articles