Friday, October 30, 2009

Free the textbook!

I've had some great comments both here and on LinkedIn, where I started a couple of discussions. One of them came from Gordon Apple, who said, "there will be a need for books and readers for a long time because that has historically been used, and much of yesterday's and today's classic publications are in the format of book."

My response (slightly edited here):

Gordon, I agree that books will be around a long time because of novels and straight nonfiction, all that stuff that is read cover to cover--what most of us think of when we think 'book.' eBook readers like Kindle will have a healthy life because of it. I just don't think the specific requirements of textbooks lend themselves to that linear, cover-to-cover format. I don't think a textbook, by nature, is actually a book at all. It is in essence a wholly different creature condemned to the confines of a book because that's the only sort of container that there's been.

When you deconstruct its uses, almost nothing a textbook does is book-like. Homework? Discussion questions? Lesson planning? Even the most straightforward content delivery is done much better with a little interactive demonstration, or with video, or at least with moving graphics. A textbook is not a written art form, like fiction and non-fiction. It's trying to accomplish something entirely different. It's trying to teach. Heck, even a live lecture frequently beats a page of textbook material for its ability to instruct and inspire, and live lectures can't beat much!

So my point is that the textbook will ultimately be freed from its cramped prison, deconstructed and reconstructed into other more suitable technologies that work better for the purpose. Books will be books. What we call a textbook will undergo a metamorphosis, flee the cocoon, and fly.

Thanks, Gordon!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The End of Book Learning.

I'm getting ready to lead a session at Elliott Masie's "Learning2009" event in Orlando. My topic is the future of the textbook, and my session is provocatively titled, "The End of Book Learning: Why the Next Textbook... Isn't One." Here are a few of my more heartfelt points, laid out for your consideration and comment. (I put that word in bold because this is where you can really help me out by giving me a foretaste of the reaction I might get in a closed room of real people who care about this stuff... so I can be prepared for either fight or flight!)

Here we go:

1. The fact that textbooks are even books at all is a pure historical artifact, left over from an era when there wasn't any other choice. A ream of glued papers sandwiched with cardboard is a terrible medium to achieve the purposes for which a textbook is designed, namely: Delivering the latest, best content; organizing a lesson; distributing homework; generating discussions; and offering assessments (practice and otherwise). Which of those can actually be done best with a linear, line-by-line book? Even one with pictures? On the other hand, how much better can each of them be done online?

2. eBooks as a whole (think .PDF, with or without a lot markup and collaborative capabilities) are a giant step in the wrong direction. Flat digital-image pages are hard to read online, impossible to mark up, and difficult to bookmark, dog-ear, lay out on your desk or floor or bed. Plus they're easy to copy and hard to protect. They are, when used for textbooks anyway, the most inconvenient and unruly stepchild of the entire digital era. Let's not go there anymore.

3. The Kindle and other "ebook readers" are the best-designed Web 1.0 platforms ever. And yes, that compliment is back-handed. Think about it... what these devices do is to take what works in the physical world and make it work almost just as well digitally. Is that not the definition of Web 1.0? Yes, it is. Web 2.0 is looking for ways that digital products can take advantage of the interconnectedness of humans and computers, where 1,000 people bring more value than 10, and 1,000,000 more value than 1,000. I'm sorry, but making a handheld computer that's almost as good as a real book does not promise a rosy future. (But they're so good, I may unilaterally grant them the first Web 1.5 categorization.)

4. The textbook publishers, with few exceptions, are out of touch with their markets. I can give you personal experiences from both sides of this. As a parent who provides textbooks for a high-schooler and a college man (actually, my wife does the hard work of actual provisioning), I can tell you these books are way over-priced. $200 for a book? Not if you can get a used one on eBay. But the prices keep going up, and I actually had a publisher look at me with astonishment (big name company, you've heard of it), and tell me he couldn't lower the price of textbooks because then they'd make less money. You see, they sell to faculty. Faculty don't buy, they just require students to buy. The publishers are literally one step removed from their own users (students), and two steps removed from their actual buyers (parents). Parents are crazy angry at these prices. And there you have the textbook definition of "out of touch with your market."

5. Solution! The next generation of textbooks won't be books at all. They won't look or act like books. They will be online, or on a device, and they will do the things that textbooks do. Some will deliver content. Others will do homework (well, not do it--sorry kids--but rather create the context and content for doing it). Others will provide discussion. Others assessment. The best ones will do all the above. But they won't remind you of a printed page unless you hit a print button. These are already sneaking into the market. Your kids may be using them now. You may be using them, if you're in school. They come with names like "MyMathLab" and "CDX." Watch this segment grow. Or better yet, help it grow.

There are five points worthy, I hope, of some reaction. Please let me have yours, and your ideas, rants, agreements, disagreements, likes, dislikes, products you've seen, whatever you've got. Anything and everything will help prepare me for the real world. Which in this case, oddly enough, is Disney World.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A mashup on a grand, gray scale

Recently I posted about how many new, relatively small ventures and efforts seem to be bypassing the big Learning Management Systems and building something that exactly suits the need at hand. (My previous post). Now comes some very interesting news about one of these on a much larger scale... an arrangement that will allow users of a particular LMS to search, and use, New York Times archival content going back to 1851. That's over 150 years of quality subject matter that could relate to history, arts, science, technology, and political science--not to mention English and journalism. The Gray Lady has been mashed up with an LMS.

The project and associated relationships were announced by Sun Gard Higher Ed just today (here's their press release). The Times is a part-owner of Epsilen, the LMS in question, so this is a natural, but still surprising, step. Sun Gard's role, apparently, is to do the mashing.

The Chronicle of Higher Education's article today reports that Michael Chasen of Blackboard has already said he's not worried about this being directly competitive with his vast suite of capabilities. I guess as the head of a company that crested a wave at 80% market share, and is now riding down the other side at 56%, there's not much else he could say.

But I'll say something. I think this is the future. The NYT has been paying attention to Pearson and its eCollege acquisition, and learned that an LMS can be a channel for content. But this is different. This is a big consumer content company that has discovered a path to consumers that requires no textbook publisher to play middle-man. Just graft a digital database into an LMS. How will it make money? I'm guessing the Gray Lady will not be hiring herself out for pocket change in digital rights, but will be using her exclusivity to bring dollars in through the Epsilen Environment. Or maybe with a blanket license add-on. We'll see.

But the thing Mr. Chasen needs to be worried about is not this one upstart, but the whole crumbling edifice of the one-stop shop, the mammoth enterprise for learning services. The field is being fragmented even while it is being regenerated with new fusions, from cool little apps to major efforts like this one. Big or small, such efforts will, I think, continue to pop up everywhere, asking to be used for unique purposes--and they'll get traction because they'll be better than anything that wasn't designed for that unique purpose or audience. The fact that right now it takes a Sun Gard to manage a project of this scale only speaks to the scale. Moms and Pops can do the same or similar with mashups on smaller scales, delivering high value at relatively low cost, and with much more open technologies.

The ride, I believe, is just beginning.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mix and match technologies... here to stay.

This post is about something I've been watching, experiencing, that I believe is true, but for which I have no real data. But because I think it's worthy of note, I'm going to take the blogger's prerogative and write about it anyway.

The subject is the opportunity at hand right now to mix and match technologies for learning, and the trend toward creating unique environments for unique audiences rather than choosing an existing platform and going with it. My belief is that this is happening a lot, a lot more than it ever has before. It may even be the standard starting point for new initiatives. And it's a big change.

My own experience is that I started doing "distance learning" with a stable platform in the late 80's and early 90's. That platform was satellite television. The trick was to use this platform to create engaging learning experiences, and we did. But technology moved on, and when the Internet began to bloom, my focus shifted to building platforms. In the mid to late 90's, I was a key player in building two different platforms, one a hybrid and one fully online. We were all over this, because there was nothing out there that everyone could use for learning in any environment for any purpose. Those efforts had all the allure and excitement of the dot-com boom. And most of the pain of the dot-com bust.

By the early 2000's, though, a handful of platforms had survived, maybe not the best ones, but they were there and relatively stable. So I moved back to a product focus. I created scads of programs and courses on Blackboard and eCollege. Then the Web 2.0 technologies rolled in. Time for the pendulum to swing back to building new platforms, right?

Well, sort of. What I see happening is a fragmentation of platforms, and a combining of platforms, resulting in a plethora of new mini-platforms. A lot of organizations seem to be taking a mix-and-match approach by combining existing stable technologies with new technologies, or existing new technologies with newer ones.

You know how they say one story is an anecdote, two are data? By that standard, I'm golden. Let me run through a handful of my own consulting gigs over the last 10 months from a purely platform point of view. I've worked with and for companies and entities who want to... 1) Design and build a social network with YouTube capabilities for continuing professional ed, 2) Combine an LMS with a private 3D environment for training, 3) Create new software for a live, synchronous learning experience using existing hand-held devices, 4) Design a learning portal that combines a personal start page and custom content widgets, 5) Use existing web social networks for low-cost course delivery...

You can see why I think that the era of one ubiquitous learning platform, an LMS with a CMS attached, or even one platform for a single industry like higher education, is nearing an end. Unless that platform is designed to plug anything in... and I mean anything anyone wants to code, without paying extra or jumping through the vendor's hoops... it just can't outperform the results of a focused effort for a particular purpose.

Why is this happening? Because software development in the learning arena is no longer mysterious or expensive. Lots of companies do it, and do it well. Open source code and APIs are abundant. Audiences know what they like. In this new way, the focus has shifted back to platform. And this time its hallmark is what it really should have been all along... understanding the learning needs and habits of the target population.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

About Me

PolivkaVox is the outlet for two decades worth of creating technology-based learning products, in just about every platform conceivable and for every audience imaginable, whether formal, informal, professional, or academic. I've created learning technologies, and used many off-the-shelf platforms. My teams have re-imagined digital publishing, built online bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees, and created learning experiences using social networking, user-generated media, 3D virtual worlds, ebooks, and lots and lots of video. I'm also the inventor on a US patent for community-based course development. I have been awarded the USDLA's award for Outstanding Achievement by an Individual, and was awarded a national Emmy for my efforts in television media (a documentary). I believe technology can and will improve the learning experience, and I work to support everything that moves it in that direction. And I comment about it all...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Half a billion in government sponsored online courses? This could be good.

We're talking about the White House proposal for an "Online Skills Laboratory." Just to get the political thing out of the way, unless you consider a consistent dose of skepticism to be such, you won't find political axe-grinding here. I do not make a habit of trusting politicians, and recommend the same to others. Whether they butcher the King's English or make it spill shafts of golden light from on high, they are still politicians and need to be held accountable to the electorate. I care about what they say they stand for, but I care a whole lot more about what they actually do. So I'm looking at this in a very pragmatic, and as I hope you'll see, a very non-partisan light.

Okay, now I can say it. I think this thing could be a good idea. One of the key roles of government when it does spend, as it will and it must, is to incentivize the right things. If you're actually sparking real economic growth, then the spending is in fact an investment. I can't really speak to the gazillion borrowed dollars this administration has so far committed to various and sundry, but here in this little corner of the world, a corner that I know something about, if the current federal gunslingers stick to the guns they've already drawn, they could very well shoot a bulls eye.

So what are they talking about? They're pushing something of a "public option" for online education, but let's break it down and see if it competes with an already healthy sector, or if it in fact sparks growth. First, let's look at how the thing is actually being described. Here's the wording from the proposal,* with bold added where I will make my comments below:

Create a New Online Skills Laboratory:

Online educational software has the potential to help students learn more in less time than they would with traditional classroom instruction alone. Interactive software can tailor instruction to individual students like human tutors do, while simulations and multimedia software offer experiential learning. Online instruction can also be a powerful tool for extending learning opportunities to rural areas or working adults who need to fit their coursework around families and jobs. New open online courses will create new routes for students to gain knowledge, skills and credentials. They will be developed by teams of experts in content knowledge, pedagogy, and technology and made available for modification, adaptation and sharing. The Departments of Defense, Education, and Labor will work together to make the courses freely available through one or more community colleges and the Defense Department's distributed learning network, explore ways to award academic credit based upon achievement rather than class hours, and rigorously evaluate the results.

Now let's take a look at how this all could work for good and not for evil. Admittedly, it will take a little imagination and a lot of work to flesh this out, but stay with me.

Skills. This is not primarily formal education, but a way to build up specific skills. These skills are not defined. But let's assume that we're talking about marketable skills. In fact, the President talks a lot about the need to "prepare our people with the skills they need to compete in this global economy."** Re-skilling the workforce is one of the most critical needs we have as a nation, and as an economy. The ability to move motivated, intelligent workers from one field that is shrinking (say, real estate) to another that is growing (say, healthcare) is huge. Finding those with the potential and the proclivity but without the pathway, and getting them into these real jobs, is also huge. We aren't doing any of this fast enough. Every tax dollar spent actually getting this done would very easily turn into ten or a hundred tax dollars later. Not to mention putting more real money into the economy. So how would it work?

Interactive software.
Not faculty-based. The software contemplated here, as I read it and then envision it, is your standard self-paced software, where the technology does the interacting. This just makes sense, because self-paced means it costs almost nothing to put lots of people through it, once a system is built. Universities don't work this way. MyMathLab from Pearson does work this way, and is a great product, but it's not designed to re-skill the workforce; it's a textbook supplement, and a homework engine. So what type of interactive software will work? Show me a system that fits what I'm describing below, and I'll help write a proposal to get it front and center. Somebody gets a good government contract. Maybe more than one somebody.

Tailored instruction. This is not cohort based. These are not the usual sort of courses. The opportunity is to build a system that can teach and measure the skills of individuals. So, imagine a process in which these "free" courses actually double as aptitude tests, so that students who excel can earn a credential of some sort, even a certificate, that shows that they're good at a particular skill. It helps them get jobs, or get scholarships, or get accepted into a program, or get a school loan. Imagine these courses bridging the college-readiness gap. Imagine a non-human-being-intensive system that creates the thoughtful movement of people with untapped abilities into fields where they can make a living, and make a difference. I can imagine it. I'm having a little trouble imagining the government running it, but if it's based on grant money, it needn't be government run. The content isn't defined, which worries me some. But it is targeting...

Working adults. The whole "rural areas" part makes little sense to me, as most rural areas are at least as well connected to the Internet these days as are inner cities. But the point is, if the effort can reach rural areas, it can reach any areas. The working adult target is the key. In fact, it ought to target any American who wants to learn marketable skills that can make an economic difference for them, and provide them...

New routes. This is telling. Community colleges and universities are old routes. The vision is, or should be, for a new way to get people started making a change, or get started on a career, or get started proving they have the ability to go to college. It's a route to take whether they can afford to go back to school or not, whether they are currently employed or not. The key, again, is the aptitude-test nature of the courses. If I can prove to myself and others that I can be, I ought to be, an IT professional or a nurse or an accountant, then I've got that start.

Available for modification. There's a whole set of assumptions embedded here, if this is a system and content that pretty much anyone can pick up and use. Some of these assumptions, maybe the most obvious ones, are anti-competitive. But it seems to me the most important assumption is that the Skills Lab is not now being seen as an entity that competes with universities or businesses. If the skills being developed, tested, and approved are the right ones, the important ones for the future, no one loses much by incorporating the product piecemeal, or making it work for them. The fact is, few companies and institutions really know how to build such things well, and those who do get paid to do it anyway. This Skills Lab proposes to pay them.

Defense, Education, and Labor. Could anything be more unwieldy than asking these departments to work together? Yes, actually, it could be. Add Health, Education, and Welfare. That's a notable absence--and a clue that it's not designed as an entitlement. The seed being sown here seems to be about, once again, marketable skills. Certainly defense drives a lot of jobs and is critical to our national future. Labor, if it doesn't get bogged down in too many union issues, could actually point people toward marketable skills as well. Education should care about measuring outcomes, and making sure it's all valid educationally.

Freely available. If this thing turns into a new entitlement like the old entitlements, then half a billion dollars will never cover the cost. But if it sticks to the budget and the apparent mission, it would not become an entitlement in the usual sense, nor would it in any large way undercut the vast majority of online products and courses already out there. People would be entitled to make the effort and take the course, in a software system that is not reliant on human grading, etc., but they would not be entitled to jobs, nor money, nor especially to...

Academic credit. Note that the language is about "exploring ways" to award credit. Not a credit giveaway. If the system described in the preceding paragraphs were a reality, then one option would be for community colleges or other institutions to accept those students who excel, perhaps on a probationary basis, and award them credit retroactively for their Skills Lab work, as long as they prove themselves on an ongoing basis. Regardless, it will need to be real academic credit, won by proving that skills have been gained. Because this is...

Based on achievement. Here is the part that makes the most sense to me, and gives me the most hope. If such a system is actually results-based, it will reward those who succeed and show promise, to the degree of their abilities, and leave those who can't achieve no worse off than they were before. Of course, the big temptation of a big government is try to keep anyone from failing to achieve. That would doom the whole project to mediocrity and make it ultimately worthless. But the language of this thing does not point in that direction. If it's really about results, this is huge. This is big. This could feed industries, help educational institutions, and energize the whole economic infrastructure.

Over ten years. I hate to be guilty of downplaying huge, huge dollars, as seems to be the norm with just about everyone these days who throws around trillion-dollar figures as though they were anywhere near everyday sort of numbers. But we're not talking about that kind of money. If I've done my math right, five hundred million dollars over ten years is fifty million a year. That's really pocket change for an effort of this scope. By way of comparison, the eleven Initial Public Offerings on the NYSE in the first half of this year raised an average of two hundred million each.***

So my view is that this effort has huge potential. If it's done right, and done well, and sticks to its guns (and its budget), it could be the best investment a government has proposed in a long, long time.

* Quoted from US Department of Education, Office of Legislation and Congressional Affairs, Recess Packet document.


Monday, October 5, 2009

Surf or drown... the social media deluge is here.

The video is titled "Social Media Revolution," but it's really about all the web 2.0 technologies. Keep your mouse hovering over the pause button. You'll need it.

There's a lot of fact checking that could be done. One graphic in the video says that Wikipedia has been shown to be more accurate than Encyclopedia Britannica... but Google can't seem to find these studies. One study does say it's nearly as accurate.

But the reality is, even if there are some errors in the video, it doesn't change the scope of the deluge. For example, there is a page in Wikipedia that lists errors in Encyclopedia Britannica. Tell me how Britiannica can possibly reclaim the high ground regarding accuracy when Wikipedia users can instantly correct not only Wikipedia's errors, but Britannica's? This is a new order, a new arrangement, a change that cannot be changed back. The effect on education will be far-reaching.

The one direct mention of education is accurate... the US Department of Education study that studied other studies and found that online students do better than traditional classroom students. I blogged on that a while back.

Here's the bottom line: Education that does not change dramatically when the world around it does is no longer education. It is an artifact of history.

So grab your surfboard.

Comments welcome.