Thursday, December 5, 2013

Disconnect between business and academia?

Say it's not so.

The fact that businesses and higher education don't see eye to eye is nothing new, but there is one area in which they really ought to agree... the general value of a bachelor's degree. They don't. The Chronicle of Higher Education has demonstrated it in this gorgeous (and copyrighted) graphic, comparing how college presidents view a bachelor's degree to how employers view it.

The full report can be be had for free here, from the Chronicle. It's called "What Presidents Think: A 2013 Survey of Four-Year College Presidents." It was written by Jeffrey J. Selingo, editor-at-large at the Chronicle, and was underwritten by Pearson.

And I leave you with this data from PewResarch:

57% of Americans say higher education does not provide good value for the money.
75% say college is too expensive, period.
86% of actual college graduates say it's been a good investment.

So, as one headline writer put it: "Overpriced, unaffordable, and worth it." 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Controlling the uncontrollable, and increasing retention

The title of the presentation was "Retention and Me," and it was delivered at the InnovateEDU conference in Kansas City. The gist of it is this: Unify your messaging to your target students, at every touch point, and you will increase enrollment and retention. The way to do that is to create what I call mantras, and use them. There's also a good bit about the collaboration that helps you to accomplish all that.

The good folks at Plattform, who hosted the conference, were gracious enough to record it and provide me with a link, so here it is. The presentation slides can be downloaded here. (Fair warning, they're pretty cool).

Friday, June 21, 2013

MOOCs: Megatrend or Shiny Object?

The history of technology-mediated learning is filled with shiny objects. Higher education has chased its fair share, only to find that the glitter was not all gold. Some were not the whole answer, but only a part of an answer, sometimes (Second Life! mobile learning!). Some created major paradigm shifts, but still didn't have all the answers (webcams! video streaming!). And some were just destined to go away entirely (video discs! CD-ROMs!). So the question on the table is, just what lies beneath the glitter of today's shiniest technology-mediated learning object of the moment, the MOOC. Is it a megatrend? Or is it not?
Ooh! Shiny!
As previously posted, Babson and the College Board have surveyed university Chief Academic Officers and found clear trends in what they believe about the MOOC: it's a marketing tool to get students interested in your program and your school, and it's a way for students and universities to fool around with online learning on the cheap, figuring things out as they go. Makes sense, right? How can a cast of thousands online learn as effectively as a cast of tens in a classroom? And yet, the buzz is, This Is Big. The buzz is, The Future Is Upon Us.

How do we assess it? My answer is simple... drop it into the context of known societal and technical pressures not likely to abate anytime soon, and see how it measures up. Trends are one thing (and the MOOC is certainly one) but pressures are another. A trend may be part push and part pull. Or it may be all pull. Trends, even megatrends, come from opportunities and ideas and technologies, and are borne along by novelty, then excitement, and then finally by the fear of being left behind. But some trends also have a push behind them, a deep and prolonged social shift that is not likely to abate in the next five to ten years, and may never go away. That's what I mean by a pressure. There are only a handful of them at any one time. Some of them are primarily technological (mobile computing). Some are mostly societal (the demand for proof of outcomes). Some are a little bit of both.

I think the MOOC is being driven by a pressure that's a little bit of both. The pressure is, social computing. MOOCs are a part of the same push that put all our faces on Facebook, and the same push that drives our interest in Pinterest. The MOOC is driven by our technically-produced ability to connect with many, many people on some meaningful if temporary basis.

Facebooking in the real world?
It is a human need to make human contact, to share and be shared with, and this expanding ability to widen our sphere, to be known in new ways, to make impressions, to have a say, and to be thought of as someone having something to say... That's big. Social computing has turned the world into one enormous cocktail party, in which we can mingle and glad-hand with an ever-expanding circle of friends.

MOOCs are an attempt to answer the question, why can't this work for learning? It's a very good question. And the answer is, there's no reason it can't. Whether the current technologies, Coursera and such, can manage it well enough is yet to be seen. But I think we've proven the notion that meaningful relationships can be established or continued online, and in large numbers. If that's not the case, certainly hasn't gotten the memo ("1 in 5 relationships start online!"). And educational relationships, real as they are, are not nearly so complex as romance. Or even friendship. There's only one relationship status in online learning: It's Not Complicated.   

There is much to be done, and MOOCs have much left to prove, because ten thousand friends expect nothing much more of you than that you show up now and again and do something genuine that reminds them of you. Ten thousand fellow learners are going to expect a little more. And whoever or whatever is leading the learning--the guide, the mentor, the instructor--will also generate some expectations. But we all have learned enough about living online that the idea of aiming all our arrows in the same general direction does not seem a difficult proposition. Certainly we can do it with news events, as the Twitterverse has proven. Why not with learning events?

So my conclusion about MOOCs: They are certainly very shiny, but they are also on the megatrend side of the equation.

Recommendation: Buy in.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Online higher education at a glance

Babson and the College Board have released their annual survey results about how university leaders are viewing online learning. Among the eye-popping trends is this one, showing how online has grown as core to long-term strategy:
Copyright ©2013 by Babson Survey Research Group, Pearson and Quahog Research Group, LLC
The full infographic can be accessed here. Other notable trends as reported by academic leaders:
  • 37% have a MOOC and 50% plan to add one.
  • MOOCs are for learning about online and for attracting students
  • MOOCs are going to cause confusion
  • Online learning keeps growing as a percent of total enrollments
  • 77% of leaders now believe learning outcomes are the same or better online
And perhaps one minor fly in the online ointment:
  • Faculty acceptance of online learning hasn't budged from around 25% in the last decade.
The full report can be downloaded here.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Educational technology market map

New Schools Venture Fund has released this market map of the educational technology space. Many thanks to them... enjoy!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Is education a data-intensive science? Should it be?

Can collecting and sorting through massive amounts of learner data improve education? It's par for the course in some other fields. If you still think of astronomers scanning the skies, peering through enormous telescopes on mountaintop observatories, or studying digital pictures coming back from the Hubble telescope, think again.

"People now do not actually look through telescopes. Instead, they are "looking" through large-scale, complex instruments which relay data to datacenters, and only then do they look at the information on their computers." Tony Hey et al, The Fourth Paradigm

Astronomy is a data-intensive science. Defined loosely, that means that there's just way too much data even for scientists to manage. Used to be, scientists had to carefully craft an experiment in order to generate data. Their job was to create precise, specific data that would then be carefully added to someone else's precise, specific data, and that would go on in an additive fashion for a while, and eventually, hey! A conclusion could be drawn.

Not anymore. In many fields today, scientists are simply awash with the stuff. It's a tsunami of data, it's... more data than any one metaphor can hold. It's downloaded from instruments, from automated inputs, millions of nodes, devices, all connected to computer databases, or even generated by computer networks themselves.

Once it's set up and put in motion, all this information is collected automatically, sometimes at terabytes per second. CERN's supercollider generates over 1,000 terabytes of data per second, a petabyte of data. To give you an idea how much that is, it takes more than 400 high-definition movies to add up to 1 terabyte, and we're taking a thousand times that much... Imagine 400,000 HD movies generated out of thin air every second. Store that on your DVR.

What do they do with all the data? Well, they dump it. Boatloads of perfectly good data are erased every day, by really good scientists, too, because they just can't keep it. They can only keep the final tallies, the results, the reports. There's a whole science now developing across these fields that is just about how to manage data, called "e-science." Microsoft gives an award for advancing it. Alexander Szalay of Johns Hopkins won it last year.

To try to get a feel for the magnitude of this, imagine so many Major League Baseball teams, and so many games being played every day, that you couldn't keep all the recordings of them anywhere. The evening sportscast would go like this: "And in baseball, there were ten trillion National League games played today, and here are the scores: the winners trended toward the home teams once again, by a 54 percent margin. Congratulations, home teams!" Want to watch some highlights? Sorry, they're gone forever... the recording was erased the instant the last out was made.

Is education a data intensive science? No. But it could be. The amount of data generated by educational activities every day is stunning. But not a large percentage is captured. How much communications data is generated every day? Just think about the phone minutes alone, being tracked and logged and billed globally. And education as an industry is about three times the size of both the entertainment and communications industries. It's bigger than both combined. Those industries have gotten very good at collecting up data, all kinds of it, and using it. They use it for billing, marketing, product improvement, service improvement, competitive analysis, pricing, investment...

Education and training? We're not so good at collecting data. But we are getting better. The data being generated by learning is more and more being collected digitally and used for similar purposes--which may be good or bad, but is likely inevitable. But it's also being mined for loftier reasons. Arizona State University now uses data mining techniques to create student profiles that help guide students through their college careers. Check out this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

But ASU is just scratching the surface. A larger and larger percentage of the learning being done in schools, universities, and the workplace is being done using digital tools... online courses, digital learning objects, digital textbooks, simulations. Final grades are a tiny percentage of the data that is already being collected. Learner data that can be and is being collected during the trial and error of the actual learning experience, the clicks and drags and searches and reviews and posts and responses and ratings and submissions.

The global push toward measuring learning outcomes, toward judging the quality of education by what students can or can't do, what they do and do not achieve... that cannot now be disconnected, never again will be disconnected, from tracking and progress data. The era of a final, a mid-term, six quizzes and a paper adding up to the sum total of a student data? That's over. Collecting and using data to measure actual learning success, or lack of it, is exactly what makes high-profile efforts like Khan Academy work.

Should education be a data-intensive science? Moot question. It almost certainly will be. Better question: how do we make it as good as it can possibly be?

Monday, March 26, 2012

How eLearning became Educational Publishing. And vice versa.

I recently had a conversation with the highly accomplished head of a highly respected global education organization that you would recognize if I named it. I'm not going to name it, though, because I'm going to tell this story. And even though it's not a negative story, it does illustrate a gap that has yet to close, and I don't want to single out any entity or person. We were discussing that organization's online learning division, and I mentioned that it might make sense if he merged it with their publishing division. He looked genuinely bewildered, and I got the feeling he rarely looked, or felt, genuinely bewildered. "Why would we do that?"

Now it was my turn to look bewildered. I really didn't know where to begin, because it seemed so completely logical to me. I knew I needed a thirty-second elevator speech as a response, and I also knew that in order to provide one, I would have to condense about twenty years of my own hard-won experience into the answer.

What I managed was something like "Online courses are digital products. So are books and other materials, even if they are printed before they're sold. At the root, they're really the same thing... digital products that have to be designed and developed using pretty much the same set of capabilities and processes. Uniting them in the same organization makes both more efficient." I'm very sure my answer didn't make quite so much sense as what I just wrote out from memory, but that's the nice thing about blogging... you get to be the reporter, the subject, the editor, and publisher at the same time.

What I couldn't do then is what I want to do now... lay out a considered case for the idea that digital publishing and the development of online learning courses are essentially the same thing and ought to be considered together from now on going forward forever. Here's another way to state my thesis...

Twenty years ago when I first ventured into "distance learning," I wasn't in the publishing business. Now, I can look back and say with complete accuracy that I've been in educational publishing for twenty years. That's because the definition of publishing has changed, and will continue to change, metamorphing these two pursuits into one.

Just for fun, let's take a look at the dictionary definitions of publishing, as they have evolved.

Merriam-Webster, 1976: "The business or profession of the commercial production and issuance of literature, esp. in book form for public distribution or sale.", 2012: "The business or profession of the commercial production and issuance of literature, information, musical scores or sometimes recordings.", 2012: "To issue (printed or otherwise reproduced textual or graphic material, computer software, etc.) for sale or distribution to the public."

Wikipedia, 2012: "The process of production and dissemination of literature or the activity of making information available to the general public."

Notice that even though the last 3 definitions are from the current year, there is an obvious progression of sources, from a staid, pre-web company now online ( to one of the original dot-coms ( to a true Web 2.0 entity (Wikipedia). And the progression is unmistakeable... each definition is broader than the previous, until finally Wikipedia just says that publishing is taking "information" (as broad a noun as you could choose) and "making [it] available" (as broad a verb as you could choose) to the "general public" (as broad an object as you could find). But that's where we are.

But to make my case, I won't rest on definitions. I want to take a peek into what's been happening with textbook publishers, and compare it to what's been happening with the developers of online courses. Let's pick higher education for our example, but you could pick K-12, corporate training, continuing professional education, anything you like and the same point could be made.
What's been happening with textbook publishers is that they've been moving online. Earlier in this millennium, every textbook had to have a CD-ROM to go with it, so that students could plug something into their computers and interact with the content. But those quickly gave way to the now-ubiquitous user codes that allow textbook purchasers to simply log on to the textbook website, the one designed specifically for this particular edition of this textbook, and get... an online learning experience. Here's the list that is actually published in the front matter of a well-known college Calculus textbook... the things that come along with the price of this book:
  • Online homework practice
  • Testing
  • Tutoring
  • Graded homework
  • Classroom management
  • Online course
  • Interactive resources
Pretty much everything that defines online learning, including... the online course!

This is not unusual. Publishers are under pressure to provide an online course to go along with their textbook, and most develop one. Sometimes these come in the form of a "course cartridge" that professors can plug into Blackboard or Moodle or whatever LMS they have, but often it's just... the course that goes along with the textbook. It's there online, in the publisher's own learning management system. If your professor wants to teach the whole course online, there's nothing stopping her.

Pearson is the biggest, most successful textbook publisher on earth, and a few years back they bought one of the leading LMS companies, eCollege. They have known about this merger for years that the definition of publishing looks more like Wikipedia's than like's.

Now let's look at it from the eLearning side. In higher ed, online learning started out in the late 90's with a single professor signing into a Blackboard account, learning how to upload documents and write out class lectures so he could teach his own students. This was the Web 1.0 variation of what faculty always have done. Just doing it online instead of in a classroom. Now, the most successful online programs are universally acknowledged to come from the for-profit universities: Phoenix, Walden, Capella, Kaplan. It's true, they are the most successful. They are also the best. They have the best online programs because they figured out early that courses are products. When they go about creating a course, they invest in all the same things that publishers do. They hire designers, writers, editors. They have people in the traditional publishing roles, even if they don't call them that, and probably didn't hire them out of a publishing background. Here are the publishing roles, and every successful eLearning entity does them:

Acquisition -- deciding what to publish, and who the subject matter experts are
Development -- the equivalent of writing the course
Editing -- making the rough draft into a polished product
Design -- deciding on, and sticking to, a certain look-and-feel, and a user interface, and a standard progression through the content
Production -- pulling it all together, with video and interactivities, assessments, and quality control.

The most successful textbook publishers are eLearning producers. The most successful eLearning producers follow publishing processes. The gap between the two is vanishing. And that's why it made such obvious sense to me that the publishing division and the eLearning division ought to be connected.

I have one more proof for my thesis, which I'm not going to put directly into this blog post, but I'll link to it. I went back through my own twenty-year career and laid it out as if I had always been in the field of Digital Educational Publishing. Very eye-opening. Take a look here, and let me know if you disagree.