Clinical strength solutions

How do you gain consumers’ trust? By listening to them and knowing exactly what they want. And by turning this knowledge into innovative and compelling products.

(Beiersdorf, brands overview)

The thing about jetlag in America is that it leaves you stranded in the middle of the night with nothing to do but watch middle-of-the-night American TV. And so last night I learned about “stress sweat”, which is apparently a much worse kind of sweat than the regular kind. To protect yourself (and others, as it turns out) you need a very special deodorant. Keen to know more, I hopped on line and found that research shows it’s also called “emotional sweat” and women are 30 times more prone to producing this when we’re upset or doing mental arithmetic. But happily, research also shows that clinical strength deodorant has got us covered, to the tune of being exactly 4 x more effective than regular deodorant at saving us from ourselves.

So, you know, that’s all right then.

By now crazy with jet-lag and not a little sweat anxiety, I wanted to know who had done the research that showed all the things. And of course, the answer is what you’d expect: research in this exciting new field is done by the companies who make the products that fix the problems that their research discovers. Neat.

Cheeringly, there are quite a few sceptics out there. Take a look at Creativity Online’s “Stress Sweat and Other Problems You Never Knew Existed“, for example, for a trawl through claims made about products that will solve the problems of aging hair, ugly armpits and invisible laundry stains that hadn’t really troubled us until we were told about them. Yup, read that carefully again: there’s a laundry detergent that will remove the stains you cannot see—which surely means they fall below the commonsense standard for a stain.

The manipulation of anxiety about intangible problems is a sign of hard times in the cosmetics industry. With consumers turning more and more to supermarket cosmetics or bulk online ordering of everyday items, companies have to work harder to find new niche problems that new niche brands can fix. As beauty-industry consultant Suzanne Grayson spells it out in the article: “”Everyone is looking to consumer research for ideas. It’s desperation time. Even companies that never were heavy into research like the upscale department-store brands, are using it, looking for kernels of disappointment [they] can latch onto.”

It’s marketing that escalates this disappointment into panic. The social crisis caused by stress sweating can’t be avoided, so there’s only one solution: the product that research has shown is four times more likely to save you from being sluiced right off the bus (or out of the boardroom, or wherever you are when disaster strikes) in a torrent of your own emotional sweat.

Nuts as this sounds, it’s not a world away from the overheated language in recent higher education reports. In Australia we had the Ernst & Young report that promised to outline our prospects as a “thousand year industry on the cusp of profound change” despite the fact that most of us in Australian higher education work in buildings that were thrown up in the 1970s. This week a UK think tank with uncomfortably close ties to Pearson suggested that we’re up for an avalanche and a revolution, all in one terrorising (if confusing) title: An Avalanche is Coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski points out calmly that the report advocates very little real change, and its recommendations effectively endorse many of higher education’s standing inequities in resourcing and rank.  David Kernohan describes it more bluntly as paid advertorial for Pearson. Michael Barber, lead author and Pearson’s Chief Education Advisor, certainly takes a starring role in the report itself, popping up throughout in the third person, a bit like Shane Warne talking about himself:

One evening recently, Michael and his wife were trying to recall the names of the three Karamazov brothers. Needless to say, within minutes they had resorted to Google – much easier than getting the book itself from the next-door room.

It’s all very chatty, and in the end comes across as op-ed based on the narrow personal experience of the three authors: “Whenever Katelyn inserted an example from Duke, Saad responded with one from Yale. ”  Hooray!  But does anyone really think this amounts to coverage of the diversity and volatility of higher education’s global business activity, let alone its core functions in teaching, research and community engagement?

Very little in the rest of the report contradicts the awful impression this comment creates. The report’s main function seems to be to alarm elite institutions who haven’t cottoned on to stress sweat (“Yale, at any rate, does not appear to see an avalanche coming. Or if it does, it does not feel threatened by it”) and then console them with the promise that in the unbundled future, the signal strength of globally strong brands will still be important. So they’ll be OK, because in the end their “best professors” will be safely broadcasting MOOC TV from the ski lodge while the rest of us are swept away.

What kind of opportunity would such a purging of higher education represent to companies like Pearson, or any of the other edtech vendors and venture capitalists who have already invested heavily in the education market? The IPPR’s report recommends that after avalanche has reshaped the mountain, we will have reorganised ourselves into four university types—elite, the mass, the local, and the niche—and something called the “lifelong learning mechanism”.

At the heart of this two-tier system of elite university providers and mass university markets will be unbundled digital delivery of content, online platforms, locally supported tutoring and proctored testing.  And Pearson are standing by with the clinical strength solutions to all the problems. So at the very least, this report is a strong case for higher ethical standards in research and analysis of educational markets by vendor stakeholders. Pearson have an extraordinary conflict of interest here, which is a very weak basis on which to try to gain our trust.

And it’s not a radical proposition: it’s a reheat of every argument being had everywhere about MOOCs, college tuition, university branding, ranking and funding, graduate employability, the emerging Asian markets (which is truly an awful way to think about individual students), young people and technology, the campus experience, the global superstars. The whole minestrone.

What’s missing is a vision for change that any of us would be proud to be part of.

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!


The mosquito and the raindrop

From Lindsay Tanner’s “adapt to eLearning or die” speech to Australian higher education, to Adrian Sannier’s soothing evolutionary metaphors to spin Pearson’s arrival as a predator in the LMS ecosystem, all sorts of people are drawing on the history of everything-until-now to figure out where we might be going with edtech.

It’s evolutionary thinking, baby.

I’m now trying to figure out how to make sense of the latest move that joins up Pearson and Knewton to deliver content, platform and analytics. The slightly offputting company vision of jacked in kids learning through a secret sauce mix of tracking and psychometrics has quite a bit in common with Club Penguin’s new predictive text feature, that finishes and cleans up your children’s sentences for you so that even poor spellers and the potty mouthed can pay to play in Disney’s branded social network. (And thanks to Audrey Watters for both of these.)

But by adding reporting and analytics Knewton’s going a step further, presenting itself as a transformative horizon of accountability that will meet the needs of educators, parents and government (memo to Knewton: when talking to educators, remember that it’s not universally accepted that these are the same needs) and so it fits well with Pearson’s self-concept as the most benign big fish in the sea.

Worrying about where actual educators come in all this, especially since sitting through the Knewton video, I’ve become distracted by two metaphors for cooperative co-existence, and a fable. What they’ve helped me to think through is that not all partnerships are mutual, and that in the long term, not all partnerships arrive at the same destination, even when they set out to work together.  Sometimes, instinct is just too strong.

So this isn’t just cautionary thinking for Pearson and Knewton, but for the rest of the educational ecosystem, and particularly for educators, as our role in this kind of threesome is far from clear.

The first story involves the orchid and the wasp. Philosophers Deleuze and Guattari use this to try to explain how the apparently fixed identity of anything gives way to the more important business of what it is that thing is actually used to do. It’s attached to another part of their thinking, involving the rhizomatic way that meaning can get about with a central distribution point, a metaphor that Dave Cormier brought into the conversation about open education in 2008. The rhizome gets a lot of attention including from Michael Feldstein and his readers, but the story of the orchid and the wasp less so.

Its explanatory value involves the way that the wasp and the orchid evolve in cooperation. By producing a reasonable facsimile of the markings of a wasp, for example, the orchid persuades the wasp to come a little closer to take a look, and as a result this fragile species that likes to grow in out of the way places (presumably off the flightpath of regular bee traffic) lives on. The wasp is still a wasp, but is lured into collaborating with the reproductive needs of the orchid, so it’s also part of the orchid world. At the heart of the bargain is a bit of deception and possibly some waspish disappointment, but no real harm.

The second metaphor is the mosquito and the raindrop. Mosquitoes thrive in rain, but how exactly do they survive the impact of raindrops that are in general 50 times heavier than they are? Apparently, there’s been an urban myth that mosquitoes do this by thinking ahead and navigating around the rain, but this has now been disproved by researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology, to whom we all owe this immensely touching scrap of slow motion photography.

What they’ve found is that mosquito survival depends on their offering no resistance at all to the raindrops. As a result the raindrops, which really do have momentum and somewhere-to-be, simply push them aside:

High-speed videography of mosquitoes and custom- built mimics reveals a mosquito’s low inertia renders it impervious to falling drops. Drops do not splash on mosquitoes, but simply push past them allowing a mosquito to continue on its flight path undeterred.

In other words, the mosquito has evolved to survive in the rain by making itself very inconsequential as far as the raindrop is concerned. The raindrop isn’t really involved in the deal.

And then there’s a third metaphor, which isn’t a truly evolutionary story, but a fable: the scorpion and the frog.  In this well-known tale, the frog agrees to give a ride across a river to the scorpion on the grounds that—as the scorpion argues—it makes no sense for the scorpion to kill the frog as they will both drown.  The frog goes along with this, although its motives in doing so aren’t all that clear. When the scorpion stings the frog after all, the frog complains, to which the scorpion’s reply is simple: it stung the frog because that was its nature.

So I can see why it makes sense for powerful companies to promote competitive evolution in the market system as a form of coexistence that can pay off for everyone, but stories of species collaboration aren’t always so reassuring: there’s the orchid’s self-serving deception, the raindrop’s indifference born of superior size and power, and the helpless dishonesty of the scorpion. The wasp does well out of it, the mosquito makes the best of it, and the frog comes off very badly indeed.

The fact that each of these relationships is constructed in the awkward space between mutuality and sharing helps explain why external partnerships alarm risk-averse educational institutions looking to make be-all LMS contract decisions. It’s like going on holiday with a couple: so much could go wrong.

So if we’re also going to thrive as the combination of platforming and vendor concentration places extreme pressure on the smaller and more specialised edtech players, we’re going to need to do more than watch nature do its thing. Specifically, it makes sense to remember the power that lies in the fact that we’re the clients, we have relatively large budgets, and we have urgent reason to invest in protecting the health and diversity of the global edtech ecosystem—especially in Australia, where the goal of our startups is already to make it to America.

So one way we might do this is to create better opportunities for educators to become much more actively and routinely invested in supporting small edtech startups—but how to do this without becoming either the mosquito or the raindrop? That’s going to take some smart thinking.

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.