The title of this post is slightly tongue-in-cheek because I have my doubts about whether there is such a thing as PLEs that are distinct from existing software product categories. If there were, then after years of people talking about them, one would think there would have been an example by now that everybody could point to and say, "Yes, we all agree that is a Personal Learning Environment and not a Learning Management System, a Virtual Learning Environment, an ePortfolio, an RSS reader, a personal portal, or whatever." Then again, maybe the PLE is an idea whose time has finally come. I believe that learning environment developers are embracing many of the articulated values behind the PLE and experimenting with different ways to embody those values. Xplana.com, which launched this week, is one example.
I'm going to start with a not-so-quick detour into economics, because there are specific economic forces at work that lead me to be somewhat less skeptical about the future of the PLE (as a concept, if not as a product category) than I have in the past. Long-time readers know that I am a fan of Clayton Christensen's much misunderstood theory of disruptive innovation. In a nutshell, Christensen believes that product features in any given product category tend to evolve faster than user needs, and that this creates an opportunity for otherwise invincible market leaders to be overtaken from challengers that seemingly come from nowhere. Basically, as a product category matures, the market leader keeps adding features that make it attractive to lucrative niche markets. Companies tend to want to sell their products at high prices so that they can make bigger profit margins. If, for example, I sell a web content management system, I'll probably make a lot more profit selling my software for Dell or The New York Times or the IRS to use as the technology behind their public web sites than I will selling software that is used by Jane's Cake Shop down the street. So I load up my software with capabilities that Dell needs but Jane doesn't, and I start selling for prices that Dell can afford to pay but Jane really can't. Then along comes a small technology startup. The CEO figures there are a lot more Janes than there are Dells, and at his size, the profit he makes from supporting Jane is just fine, thank you very much. So he builds something for Jane. It isn't as full-featured for my software, but it's cheaper and it's less complex and it does what Jane needs it to do. Maybe he even releases the software as an open source package like WordPress or Drupal and just sells setup and customization services to Jane.
I see what the new guy is doing, but I don't care. I didn't really want Jane's business anyway. So this guy finds a lot of Janes, and he starts making some money, and he starts re-investing some of that money into improving his software. Because, although he's happy to work with Jane, he'd also like to work with Ann, who owns a chain of five restaurants. Ann has slightly more demanding needs than Jane, but she can pay more to meet those needs. So that software developer begins to move up market. At first, I don't care. Ann was slightly more profitable for me than Jane, but she's still nowhere near as profitable as Dell. So I ignore his little Pac Man act as he slowly gobbles up the bottom end of the market. Years go by. At some point, it dawns on my medium sized customers that the last time I added a feature that they cared about was a long time ago, and meanwhile my software has gotten more expensive and harder to use. So they look around, and they see that software by the start-up that looked like a toy just a few years ago looks pretty good now. And that is how software like Drupal ends up running the White House web site.
It turns out that we may be on the verge of no less than three overlapping disruptions in the education market. The one that is furthest along is in LMSs. More and more, we're seeing schools doing LMS evaluations concluding that the various LMS platforms are functionally equivalent. Now, it's not literally true that these systems are functionally equivalent. There are differences. What these schools are saying, though, is that most of the differences are ones that don't matter. If you look at usage patterns for most LMSs at most schools, the vast majority of teachers only ever use the file sharing, announcements, homework drop box, and grade book. At the next tier down, a significant minority use discussion boards and the test engine. After that, adoption of various capabilities drops off a cliff. So colleges are increasingly making LMS adoption decisions based on cost, quality of service, and ease of use. This is exactly the sort of situation that is ripe for market disruption. In Blackboard's most recent quarterly earnings conference call, Michael Chasen characterized one open source competitor (he was obviously talking about Moodle, although he declined to mention it by name) as software that could be installed and run by individual faculty members or departments. This was highlighted as a negative; the implication was that any system that's simple enough to be installed and run by individuals can't possibly be robust enough to use system-wide. But disruptive innovation always starts at the low end of the market and scales up. Moodle has been scoring a string of wins to become the primary LMS on Cal State campuses, for example. And while the open source entrants are the first potential market disruptors, they are by no means the last. We are increasingly seeing new entrants like Instructure and NIXTY offer simple SaaS alternatives that are cheap, and even free in some cases. And while it's true that free isn't always a bargain, it is often disruptive.
The second opportunity for disruption is the textbook industry. For a long time now, textbook prices have continued to rise as publishers added teachers' guides, study guides, supplemental CDs, online resources, test banks, commemorative plates, and so on. And yet, very little of that, which the students are paying for, gets used in the typical class. Here's an interview that Xplana did with a student that illustrates the point:
The average student spends $900 a year on textbooks that barely get used. Textbook publishers have been able to get away with this, in part, because textbooks are physical assets that wear out over time. So they issue new editions every year and, like it or not, faculty members have to upgrade to the newest edition sooner or later if they expect their students to continue to be able to get copies. But the twin forces on electronic distribution and affordable print-on-demand technologies promise to break this business model. New entrants will be able to come in with cheaper, simpler, no-frills alternatives to what the textbook publishers have on offer. Some of these will be Open Educational Resources, and some will not. With textbooks being a $10 billion industry (about ten times the size of the LMS industry), there will be lots of entrants trying different things.
The third opportunity for disruption is college itself. Edupunk and PLE proponents have been advocating for more extra-institutional learning paths for some time now. It's worth asking why, after all this time, a book like DIY U can suddenly ignite such a large fire. As much as I like Anya Kamenetz, I don't think it's solely or even mainly because she's the one who is writing it. The steadily rising tuition rates and concomitant student loan debt levels have finally brought us close to a tipping point. People are looking for simpler, more affordable alternatives to college and are willing to give up the football team and other aspects of campus life to get it. Of the three potential market disruptions, this one is the earliest and least certain. But given that the size of the market---over $250 billion---dwarfs the other two, I have to believe that there will be serious for-profit as well as not-for-profit runs at it in the coming years.
Did I mention that this post is actually about Xplana?
Xplana lives at an interesting crossroads of these three potential disruptions. As a wholly owned subsidiary of textbook distributor MBS Direct, they are connected with all three areas but not quite direct participants in any of them. They can be partners or disruptors (or both) in any or all of the markets. While they make money selling textbooks, they don't have a strong stake in whose textbooks (or textbook alternatives) win out. What they do recognize is that, as textbooks and other learning resources move to electronic format, and particularly as some of those resources become free and community created/edited, the definition of what it means to be a distributor changes dramatically. They move away from warehouses and toward electronic platforms where people can aggregate, annotate, share, and discuss educational content. They also begin to shift away from satisfying the needs of the professor, who chooses the textbook for the class (and then, often, barely uses it), and toward the students who actually pay for both the textbook and the class as well as do the learning (or not, as the case may be). Is this starting to sound a little familiar?
Xplana.com turns out to be a little like del.icio.us, a little like Google Reader, a little like Ning, a little like PBWiki, and a little like Elgg. It's got all the buzzwords: social, personal, read/write, mash-up, and open:
I particularly like the automatic reference generator that helps teach students the academic value of attribution in the context of a mashup world.
Does Xplana.com fit the definition of a PLE? I think it might. Will PLE advocates think so? I don't know. Is it a good PLE? I haven't seen enough to have a strong opinion about that yet. Is this maybe what a next-generation LMS will look like? It's missing some pieces, but those pieces could definitely be added on. It's pretty clear from the web site that they have ambitions to market (and possibly sell) to institutions as well as individuals.
But the most interesting long-term possibility, to me, is potential disruption of school itself. While Xplana.com could arguably be considered a Personal Learning Environment, it really aspires to be a Personal Learning Network. And while I don't know what Xplana's long-term commercial goals may be, it's important to remember that the term "PLN" was originally created to describe an alternative to formal educational institutions. What's the path for something like Xplana.com to compete with and displace a university? I don't know, anymore than anybody knows how, for example, TED could disrupt the university system. But the thing about disruptions is that it can hard to see in advance where they're going to come from. What Christensen does say is that a good place for disruptive innovators to start is by competing with non-consumption. That means meeting some need that is going completely unfulfilled at the moment. TED doesn't have any competitors, really. If you want that kind of forum, there's only one place you can go right now. Harvard isn't trying to be the next TED; it's not even on their radar. Likewise, Xplana has picked out an underserved niche by going after students' self-study efforts as a supplement for college. (This by the way, is exactly the strategy that Christensen and his co-authors recommend for tackling radical K12 school reform in their book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.) Neither LMS vendors nor textbook vendors nor even colleges themselves do a good job of going after informal learning for college students.
I don't know where any of this is going, but I think it's going somewhere, and I think Xplana is going to be an interesting player to watch.1