Actually, make those plural: billions, holes…
In my last post I began to frame a multi-part discussion about the state of play of #edtech and how response to the global pandemic will result in a significant acceleration of what has been a relatively long and drawn out adoption of technology-enabled teaching and learning. And, while it seems an obvious statement – in light of the extraordinary increase in, say, use of technology-enabled grocery delivery – my point is that many of the specific objections and barriers that persisted are moot in the face of the alternative (insolvency of the institution). As those issues are reconciled, it is clear that a key driver is the (re?)realization that organizing around the needs of learners is job one.
Let’s start with a quick historical take on the various players in the education ecosystem and their assertions about how technology, platforms and data would transform the education landscape. I will speak in broad brush generalities and to protect the innocent and guilty I will not use names of companies, institutions or individuals.
Some quick, level-setting definitions for purposes of this post (obviously leaving some categories out at this point of the series):
Publishers – large and small purveyors of products including textbooks and online courseware systems that are based on a specific author’s (or team of authors’) content, pedagogy and reputation.
Institutions – including higher education state systems, for-profits and consortia
LMS providers – commercial and not-for-profit providers of learning management systems (LMS) / virtual learning environments (VLEs) and course management systems (CMS)
Point Solution providers – defined as offerings typically designed to solve on specific business problem. Due to this specialization and focus, point solutions are champions in their specific area of functionality.
Going back more than twenty years, we saw the first portals and LMS companies enter the market. Most of the positioning related to efficiencies like “get out of line and get on line” – for example, providing online access to registrar and bursar functions, anytime access to course materials like syllabi and handouts, and even rudimentary online office hours. For the institutions, the LMS promised to give students an anytime, anywhere access point to their courses and ideally for the institution to have another vehicle for collecting data. But it was hard work! The teaching faculty were mostly left to their own devices to set these courses up; it took well more than a decade for 50% of US college courses to have an instance in their local LMS that presented much more than a file download of their syllabus.
Publishers, on the other hand, used technology to create marketing splash and develop bundles intended to preserve the demand and value of the underlying print product. What started as CD-ROMS in the back of books became online access to supplemental course content and eventually to auto-graded online homework systems (a huge time-savings benefit to teaching faculty, especially in quantitative disciplines). As I mentioned in my last post, these systems typically comprise a fraction of the overall course experience. It is also evident that not all disciplines could be supported effectively by the auto-graded homework systems.
Point solutions providers invariably entered the market chasing whatever cycle of buzzword-worthy solution development was in vogue: e-portfolios, lecture capture, e-books (42 at the peak, including “fit for learning” tablets), and adaptive learning platforms to name a few. As my definition indicates, these typically solved for a specific value proposition and many championed big ideas for the market broadly. Many failed along the way, a smaller number operate independently today as small companies, while a surprising number were acquired and bundled into the LMS and Publisher portfolios.
Meanwhile, Institutions have been developing their own technologies as well. Partnering with other institutions to build LMS as well as creating point solutions like clickers, e-book readers and adaptive systems.
And along the way, each of these organizations staked their claims to the nature of the market:
- “the cable television network of education”
- “the EBay of education”
- “the consortium that will flip the textbook market on its head”
- “the Amazon of education”
You get the idea.
It’s in that incomplete, but sufficient context, that I want to make my case. It takes millions of dollars, in some cases hundreds of millions of dollars, to build, maintain and evolve education technology platforms. Across the landscape there are dozens and dozens of organizations that have made investments at that order of magnitude. In some instances, organizations built and acquired more than one. That adds up to billions of dollars.
And yet, the learner journey and experience remains very disjointed in today’s reality. In the spirit of academic freedom, an overwhelming majority of individual teaching faculty curate the materials and tools for their courses. And since it is the very rare case for a single provider to deliver an end-to-end experience – it is rather common for students to be required to navigate multiple, disparate systems, jump through multiple authentication sequences, and experience jarring differences in user experience and content fidelity. Beyond the challenges of the interactive experience, this form of curation can also complicate topics like affordability and equity of access for diverse student audiences.
In the background, industry technology interoperability standards have evolved tremendously but are implemented in asymmetrical, unpredictable and sometimes proprietary ways. The use of instructional designers by institutions is growing, but there are still only 10,000 or so individual practitioners or roughly 1 per 100 teaching faculty members. These and other efforts can help, but are really band-aids covering bigger issues.
Billions of dollars spent to develop products that are still hard to use because of massive market inefficiencies, competitive dynamics and other challenges in the broader education ecosystem.
And here we are, the great acceleration. Yes, adoption of technology-enabled teaching and learning is and will accelerate further. But the question is how higher education institutions and the companies that serve them will react to preserve (or not) academic freedom. Certainly, there is a bi-furcation within the market and even within institutions for more top-down course design and development – but a significant percentage of the overall enrolments are based in institutions with far more complex academic freedom cultures and governance models.
I think this bi-furcation will widen. More and more courses will be built to “scale” with super clean instructional design, careful consideration of student engagement models, insightful use of data to drive outcomes, and “hands on” training for instructors who will deliver using best practices, their own skills and experiences, but little academic freedom.
On the other hand, institutions for which academic freedom is a key tenet in their institutional mission will strive to build the capacities necessary to preserve their brands and the uniqueness of their teaching culture, while delivering high quality, differentiated learner experiences in technology-enabled environments. For these institutions, two things will become paramount: 1) changes to tenure and promotion incentives and 2) providing the time and resources (including outsourced services) to help faculty develop great courses.
And those are not the only big changes looming: those institutions will become far more demanding of the companies seeking to provide them with content, technologies and services to ensure those offerings are not locked into proprietary platforms and business models. As they don’t say in politics, it’s about the learner experience, stupid!
Next Up: The Netflix of Education, part ad nauseum
Fred M Beshears says
Here are two questions for you:
1. Should the United States create a national online university patterned after the British Open University?
2. If the US created a US Open University, should we extend its mandate to include the development and maintenance of “free” online textbooks and courses?
I address both of these questions in the following blog post.
How to Create a Tuition Free, Public, Online University to Produce Free Online Textbooks and Courses
Many support the idea of having “free” online textbooks and courses, but there are many ways to go about achieving these objectives. But, before getting into the how, let’s first look at the why. In other words, is there some problem with the commercial textbook and online course market? And, even if so, why shouldn’t we just let existing institutions finance the development of online textbooks and courses? Why create a brand new institution (e.g. a US Open University patterned after the British Open University) that would be dedicated to the creation of “free” online textbooks and courses?
I’ll begin by looking at the high cost of textbooks and the presentation I made on this subject back in 2007.
Curtiss, thanks for a great post. not easy to bring clarity to a very complex situation. I particularly appreciate 3 things you raise. 1. The Great Acceleration – this isn’t new, there are many examples of individual innovation by faculty, but Institutional innovation was seen as homogenization and ran afoul of academic freedom, and the desire for faculty differentiation. 2. Bifurcation – Pathway institutions have very different cultures than Prestige institutions. 3. Focus on Learner Experience. This spring put a bright light on the importance of Experience. Families revealed they were paying a premium not (only?) for prestigious academics, but rather for the personal development that occurs in myriad ways outside the classroom
Curtiss Barnes says
Thanks Fred for your question. My view is that such efforts might lead to yet another very expensive “hole” because they do not solve for the same underlying structural and competitive realities. I will continue to explore in upcoming posts!
Curtiss Barnes says
Thanks for your comments (Rob?) – appreciate the encouragement! It seems so obvious (trite event) to say this comes down to the intersection of supply and demand. It’s up to the learner-consumer to decide what they want and to the institution-supplier to decide what their value proposition (core mission) will be. Both sides of that equation are changing rapidly!
Fred M Beshears says
I look forward to your upcoming posts. In particular, it would be interesting to know your views the British Open University. They’ve been in business since 1969 and some view them as the “Gold Standard of Distance Education” (e.g. Professor David Kirp at UC Berkeley).
But, perhaps their business model is a thing of the past; so, there’s no need to consider doing something quite like it here in the USA. Instead, we should continue to look for new solutions that will solve our problems.
(BTW: there are distance learning institutions in the US such as Western Governors University, but they differ from the UKOU – e.g. they don’t have the same scale or their own network of F2F learning centers.)
Finally, if there is a business model that does “solve for the same underlying structural and competitive realities” I would really like to know about it.
In the meantime, I’m going to go with the idea that we shouldn’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
Eric Galis says
Hi Curtis, thank you for a great write-up. Do you believe there has to be a bifurcation of streamlined, but dictated learning paths and academic freedom? It seems to me this varies by course (streamlined favoring the lower level course), and further by learning objectives within courses. I hope to see a world where an instructor can tap into proven techniques (often even designed for different learning modalities) for clear-cut learning objectives, but also have the freedom to merge in their own materials and knowledge for the more abstract, subjective, or difficult to master topics. Am I naive and overly optimistic?
Lauren Manfuso says
Hi Curtiss. I’m the managing editor of EdTech magazine, and we were hoping to quote an excerpt of your blog in our upcoming print issue. Could you please contact me at [email protected]? Thanks so much!