Friday, November 13, 2009

The radical little quiz

There's got to be a ton of research on this, right? When it comes right down to it, most of the Pearson MyLab products, which I have spun out a good number of electrons praising in this space, is learning by testing. And then remediating. After all, when is a person's mind more focused than when trying to get the answers right?

I posited an interest in the question of learning by quiz during my session on the End of Book Learning at Elliott Masie's Learning 2009 conference, and I got a follow-up from an energetic attendee who wanted me to discover SpacedEd. Which I have now done, and about which I can now say... okay, cool.

Here's what it does. You sign up for a course, and you get one quiz question a day. Or, every other day if that's too much for your hectic lifestyle. They email you the question. You answer it. They tell you if you're right or wrong. They provide some feedback, reasons, material that further explains the correct answer. Then they tell you when they're going to send you the same question again. Which you can opt out of. In addition, there is a place to make comments and read comments, so that the wisdom of the crowd can add context and application, not to mention some occasional humor.

That's it. Ho hum. Except that this little thing is based on two very well-researched principles: The Spacing Effect, and the Testing Effect. Both are well-explained at Here's something about the former, lifted from the SpacedEd website:

"Since its discovery in the late 19th century by the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, the spacing effect has been extensively studied. Even though this research has repeatedly demonstrated the spacing effect’s potent ability to improve learning retention, these findings have only had limited translation into formal educational practice. Recently, the spacing effect was found to have a distinct neurophysiological basis: Sisti et al (2007) showed that spaced learning in rats improved neuronal longevity in the hippocampus (a region of the brain which is important for long-term memory). "

I love this. Not just because of the reference to a rat's hippocampus, which you rarely get in educational literature these days, but also because I think this is important. I think it's innovative. And it has some very Web 2.0 implications. There's a reason no one has paid attention to this research, and that is because it doesn't fit the process of education. But now, because of Web 2.0, the traditional process of education is all set up to be deconstructed and reconstructed based on research and practice just like this.

Think about it; the entire structure of the education edifice up through and including Web 1.0 was based on the Learning Herd Effect. I just made that term up, but what I mean is that most of the peculiarities of education spring directly out of the need to run large numbers of students through a gamut of some sort and have them come out the other side educated. The Industrial Revolution required, or at least inspired, educators to create grade levels, classes, semesters, credit hours, letter grades, grade-point averages... all for what purpose? To organize the great Herd of Learners. The problems solved by our now-rarely-questioned infrastructure were similar in nature to the problems solved by Disney in the Magic Kingdom, or EPCOT. How do we get huge numbers of people in limited physical space to have the same or similar experience day after day, year after year, at an acceptable level of quality?

Now let's think about the problems that this solution created. It required all learning to take place inside the boxed walls of some room. The boxes may be labs, or simple classrooms, and there may be an occasional field trip, but the point stands. It assumed, by necessity, that all learning, ALL learning mind you, could be divided up into equal parts and be delivered in regular, timed intervals within those boxes. It further assumed that everyone could be made to learn at the same pace, at least everyone who was within the same box at the same time. The teacher was required to do the herding, and to whatever extent possible, leveling of material. So what we got from all that is what we still have, a process-based education that really has little bearing on what the outcome of the process may be. Some students may have learned a lot, some only a little. Some will have been just-shoot-me bored, others just-shoot-me challenged. Doesn't matter, we're solving a people-moving problem, so sit back down and listen up.

Enter Web 1.0. What did we do? We created little boxes online. We even called them classrooms. We boxed the same couple of dozen learners together, following along the same process, dividing the learning up into the same weekly, semester-long schedule. We brought the people-moving solution into a world where there was no people-moving problem.

Now we've got a Web 2.0 world. That means that we can think about what the web can do that can't be done in the physical world. We finally understand that an online environment is not "virtual reality," it is reality using technology, just as we grew up knowing that a phone call is not "virtual conversation," but real conversation using technology. We're no longer stuck with mimicking the physical world and its people-moving problems. And yet we still do it. Most of the Web 2.0 solutions being brought into online Learning Management Systems and Course Management Systems are tacked on, preserving the classes, class sizes, semesters, schedules, all of it. We still artificially divide all the learning up into equal-sized chunks, and we still require learners to group up and let some be bored while others drown.

Which brings us back to this little SpacedEd community. What I like is that it breaks most if not all those structures. It is designed from the learner back, from the research back, and it doesn't give a hoot and a half about any of the Learning Herd Effect solutions. It's about what you can learn when you aren't tethered.

Now you could argue that this device has its own artificial structures, built into the one-question-a-day method. What if I want two questions a day? Or three? And I wouldn't have much with which to argue back. But the point is not whether this structure is better than that one. The point is that here is a radical little quiz that is making an enormously good case for the power of Web 2.0 to upend the mammoth Learning Herd structure of education, and replace it, or even just parts of it, with real, provable, outcomes-based learning that fits no other mold. The box is entirely gone, vanished, beside the point. Learning is the point.

And I like that.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Everyone knows something.

It wasn't one of the most crowded sessions at Learning 2009, but it was well attended, and it impressed everyone who was there. I overheard several people talking it up later, even the next day, and in fact I did some of that myself. Not that it was an enormous breakthrough in terms of technology; it wasn't. But it had everyone's head spinning up questions like, "Why couldn't that work for all sorts of learning?" And with that thought, the light of a fundamental, far-reaching shift in the creation of learning experiences seemed to dawn.

You may not know of Cash America, but it's an enormous national chain of pawn shops. Don't snicker, they have a billion dollars in annual revenue and are publicly traded on the NYSE. So what have they done with learning? Their tiny corporate training department created a very simple system that allows store employees to create short, YouTube style videos and post them to train others. The content can be anything, but it started with tips and training on product. As you might imagine when the inventory walks in the front door all day, Cash America has something like 10 times the number of different items to sell that a Best Buy or a Wal-Mart has. Anyone can pawn anything, and employees need to know how to assess an item's value on the way in, and discuss its features on the way out.

Theirs was a simple concept. Those employees who know something about a product, whether it's Fender guitars or video game consoles or designer purses can make a video, using Flip cameras supplied by the home office, if needed (not always needed--they tend to have a lot of cameras in inventory!), and post it to the site created by corporate. And then everyone else can watch it, comment, provide other details. We were shown a video in which an associate ran through a list of differences between a particular designer purse and a well-made knock-off. The company saves over $200 every time an employee can spot the fake on the way in. It was YouTube quality video, but it was highly effective, even with a few errors.

Yes, there were errors. But like its big brother YouTube, Cash America's version is self-correcting. Within days, other employees posted comments that pointed out a couple of minor errors and omissions. And so far, there has been no need to actually reshoot the video. Associates who watch the video also read the comments.

Now, think about this in the context of the statement, "No one knows everything, but everyone knows something." Imagine if this was the primary mode of creating training in corporate America, not some off-the-wall idea way out at the fringes. What if sales training was created this way? What would that do to the level of authenticity, of reality, in the training? Take it to an extreme, what if college faculty didn't create courses based on the fullest extent of their own limited knowledge, but built these course assets up year after year by managing content created by themselves, by other faculty, by invited experts, graduates, even current students? What kind of rich environment would that be for a student, who could now gain knowledge from a wide range of perspectives, with the faculty as content mediator (yes, it still has to be managed) so that the doors and windows of knowledge stay wide open?

They call it harnessing "the wisdom of the crowd," or when used to create a product, "crowdsourcing." And for online learning, I think there's a lot of future packed in there.

Still the best learning conference

What have I seen and done at Learning2009? I've interacted with organizations engaged in using social media for learning. User-generated video for training. 3D virtual worlds for leadership development. Twitter for business. I've seen an iPhone application for new employee orientation developed in three days by a cadre of college kids, invited for the purpose. I've heard captain Sully Sullenberger and Malcolm Gladwell talk about learning and training and growing. I've watched Second City not only deliver but develop their comedy. And I went to a concert by a Beatle cover band, Fab Faux, that was so good, I found myself thinking... if the Beatles in their 60's were actually playing here, they would not sound as much like the Beatles of the 60's as these guys do.

Elliot Masie's conferences border on the goofy or the giddy at times. I didn't need to see him do the salsa with a talented Latina, while he stayed on his ubiquitous Segway. But what Elliott has never forgotten, what he never lost, apparently, is the joy of learning. I'm talking about the native, intense fun that is bound up in discovery, what most of us remember about learning from kindergarten or first grade, when it was all still exciting and the world was nothing but possibilities. I'm talking about that sense of wonder that was then systematically dredged from us by the ninth or tenth grade until "learning," "education," and "drudgery" were pretty much synonymous.

I am pleased to have been able to present in this context, glad to have offered some value. More on the specifics later, and there's more to do here today, but I wanted to share these overall impressions.

And the overriding overall impression is this: Elliott Masie still puts on the best elearning conference.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Learning 2009, blog topics, and you

This is an unusual post for me; I generally stay away from the true "web log" roots of the blog, preferring not to give personal updates on what I'm doing at the moment ("I... am... sitting... on... the porch..."). But since I now have in hand my Southwest boarding pass for Learning2009 in Orlando (A-39, thank you, and feeling just a little smug), and since three days of diving deep into what's happening on the approaching horizons of eLearning are now upon me, this post is just to say... I'm pumped, and I hope to see you there.

I am always on the lookout for good blog topics. If you are attending, and you've got an interesting or innovative project related to any of my posts, look me up. Or if you're working on concepts or ideas or programs you'd like to talk about off the record, I can do that, too. (Have NDA. Will travel.)

Just send an email to gbpolivka (at), and let's have a cup of coffee!


Monday, November 2, 2009

What technologies will regenerate the textbook?

If my thesis is accurate, and the textbook is a creature with an interactive multimedia soul that has been doomed for over a century to live in bondage to paper and ink, then the question arises... what technologies are most likely to free it from its prison? From reader Allan Jacobs:

"[I hope] we’ll soon be blessed with technology that will totally revolutionize content delivery and learning. How far off do we really think something like the much-rumored, much-anticipated Apple Tablet really is? Could we, in perhaps the next 3 – 6 months, be looking at a multifunctional (3G network phone, MP3 player, laptop computer with ubiquitous connectivity, digital camera/webcam), 8 – 12 inch touch-screen tablet with 5-6 times the resolution of an iPod Touch or iPhone screen and a new 'e-book' section of iTunes?"

I think Allan is onto something, particularly with that last phrase. I've been thinking about the iTunes of textbook publishing for quite some time, as have at least one or two others. Brian Chen at Wired has considered the possibility. "Apple," he says, "can give iTunes users the ability to download individual chapters, priced between a few cents to a few bucks each...It might even have the same earthshaking potential to transform an entire industry by refocusing it on the content people actually want instead of the bundles that publishers want them to buy." Obviously, he's comparing the publishing industry to the music industry. I think that's valid. (Here's his whole article.)

But are there other, less obvious ways to transform the textbook industry? I think so. I think there is a stealth operation already underway. Ever heard of MyMathLab from Pearson? MyEconLab? MyStatLab? The Pearson "MyLab" series has already torn open a frayed seam of the textbook industry's collective pocket, and through that tear I believe many a coin will fall. In 2008 there were over 3.8 million students using one of these MyLab products, a 47% jump over the previous year. And don't miss this fact: Pearson boasts of independent proof of improved learning outcomes.*

What is a MyLab product? I posted on this earlier [check it out], but it is functionally a textbook, disguised as a homework product. There are 5 things a textbook must do to be a textbook, and it does them all. It... 1) provides content; 2) organizes lessons; 3) offers homework, 4) provides assessment, both practice and graded, and 5) sets content standards. But it doesn't look or feel like a textbook. It doesn't talk or walk like one, either (at least not if you consider the voice of a textbook to be an instructor saying, "Turn to page two hundred thirty-eight," and the gait of a textbook to be the bumping of a bulging backpack, bruising some poor student's backside).

Pearson is not alone. Jones & Bartlett, one of the giant's smaller competitors, has a thing called CDX. It doesn't work like MyLab, but it performs all the same functions, it's all online, and none of it is ever promoted or presented as a textbook. But Pearson and J&B are textbook publishing companies. And these are hot products that they sell without paper and cardboard.

So, in my estimation that wretched, trapped thing that has looked and felt like a book for so long is already shedding its fetters, smoothing its feathers, and stretching its wings in pursuit of its rightful place in the great digital and interactive world.


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.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ten revelations re: the 3D instructor

It's early, and I'm new at it, and we're just in beta. But still, teaching in a 3D virtual world has provided me with a few revelations, some large, some small. Here are ten of them, in no particular order.

1. Social norms make the cut. Not all of them, maybe, but polite introductions, the usual patterns of respect in dialog, even adjusting stance and position for personal space... all things that are so ingrained they come very naturally. It is hard, in fact, to imagine that you are not in the room with these people.

2. Self-consciousness is limited. This is a pleasant surprise. The usual level of anticipation before speaking to a crowd is lessened by a few significant factors, namely: any concerns whatever about appearance, dress, posture. My zipper will never be down, my nose will never run. I can concentrate on content and presentation.

3. The back row is back. I feared this would be so, and it seems to be. In an online, asynchronous environment no one can hide. Everyone is equal. In 3D, people can hide in the back, not speak up, avoid participation. The introduction of an interactive notebook in our world has made it possible to check everyone's work, but still, it's not easy to get everyone involved equally in discussion. Oh yes, and it's also possible for someone to try to dominate (muting them is possible, but see revelation 1 above).

4. Nonverbal is nonexistent. Yes, it's possible to nod, shake your head, raise your hand. You can even jump up and down. But the mood of the room comes through audio only, much like a conference call. I'm still concerned that impressions may even be misleading. A group of people looking at you intently, appearing engrossed... ah, all must be well.

5. Small groups that know each other work best. Anyone who has spent time in a 3D world with a few pals knows this, but it's true in a classroom. It's quite easy, quite fun, when you're all in it together.

6. Many souls in one body is weird, on a sci-fi scale. Okay, this is likely quite rare, but I had the experience of doing a demo when a group of people were participating through one avatar, projected on a screen in a conference room. I could hear them all speak. Because the environment generally feels real otherwise, this was actually somewhat unnerving. Threw off my groove. Not recommended.

7. Live is live. In spite of the fact that some of the pressure is off (see revelation 2 above), it's still a live environment. When something goes wrong, it goes wrong for all to see. Technology has to work for everyone, all at the same time. Given the nature of technology, there's always going to be something.

8. Instructions must be clear, but not as clear. One of the cardinal rules of online learning has been, make your instructions painfully clear. In fact, most written online directions get revised and revised and revised, so that eventually the most complex of instructions are written so well no one even notices they are complex. In a live environment, there's opportunity for backing up, starting over. Plus...

9. Help is at hand. People respond to their fellow classmates, helping them adjust audio or figure out how to change their point of view. This is a very good thing.

10. Skills transfer. This is true almost any way you want to define a skill or its transfer, whether it's the platform skills of presenters that work in-world and out, or whether it's learning something new in-world and using it out.

Try it when you can. I think you'll like it.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Confessions of a Twitter Prof

Further to the Twitterization of Higher Education... Terri Main is one of the 10% of faculty who use Twitter for instruction. She is an 8-year veteran of online teaching, and teaches about online technologies. I asked her a few questions, and found her answers thought-provoking. Among other things, she believes social networking is on a track to change the culture of education....

BP: What differences have you seen in the 8 years you've been teaching online, with regard to student readiness and acceptance of online technologies?

TM: When I started nearly all students were first time students. They usually needed extensive orientation on the use of BlackBoard (our course management software). Now, the majority of my students have taken online classes before or at least attempted them. They rarely need help with the basics of the technology. I wish our software was more accessible from mobile devices like smart phones. I suspect that if it was, many of our students would be accessing from their phones.

BP: You're preparing to teach a class on Computer Mediated Communication, which focuses on communication in relationships. What sort of technologies will you explore?

TM: The primary focus will be the Web 2.0 technologies. We will emphasize social networking in it's various forms. We will also make excursions into the worlds of the 3-D web like Second Life and World of Warcraft as well. But much of the course will focus on how computer mediated communication is shaping all of our relationships. For instance, I was out sick a week earlier this year. Nevertheless, even though my dean and coworkers knew I was sick, they still included me in work related email discussions. Being instantly accessible shifts the concept of “time off.” We will look at such phenomenon as online dating. Two women I know in my age bracket who recently married, both met their husbands through E-harmony. Email and IM has replaced much of my face time with students. I have a daily office hour, yet I probably don't have over 10 actual visits a year. All these are changing the nature of our relationships.

BP: You use web 2.0 technologies yourself in teaching. How, and how do they help?

TM: Right now, I use them as an auxiliary to my regular contact with students through email and BlackBoard. I use Twitter mostly for my online classes. I post reminders of due dates and on campus meeting dates. I also post study tips, research and writing suggestions. I occasionally post an inspirational quote or joke. It's a quick way to post a link from the web.

With online students, I find fewer have Twitter than I expected. Many sign up just to get my updates. But then online students tend to be older. They take online classes because they have work and family commitments. They are still more email oriented than Twitter or text oriented. But a couple of years ago, I had to explain what a blog was and the words social networking would draw blank stares.

Things move so fast in cyberspace by the time anything gets printed in a traditional way, it's out of date.

BP: You're a content expert and an experienced online instructor. Where do you see technologies like Twitter and Social Networking taking online learning?

TM: Well, just to give you a hint our college is using various instant messaging and social networking technologies for emergency alerts. Following the Virginia Tech experience, authorities discovered that students were finding out more about the shootings from their Facebook pages than from the school.

Beyond that, though, I believe we will see the emergence of new ways to use these venues of communication. Right now, many instructors use them for announcements. Some are developing Facebook pages for their courses where they can post course information and get feedback from students. I can see a growing use of specialized social networks being used for educational purposes. For instance, a literature professor might require her students to keep a reading and critique list on Goodreads or a Writing instructor encourage students to network using Writer's Den.

Social networks can also change the culture of education. The interactive and informal nature of these social networks can blur the line between teacher and student. Online education already does that to a great extent. The online instructor is not the sage on the stage, but the guide by the side. Online education is primarily student driven instruction. A social network filled with “friends” does have a leveling effect.

One of the dangers of this blurring occurs when students and faculty become friends on personal networks. This is considered to be something to be avoided with current students. However, some argue it makes the instructor more accessible. Whether there is such a thing as being too accessible is the question.

BP: Can you comment on the overall effect of these technologies on relationships? Do they help or hurt, and why?

TM: I think it is a bit overly simplistic to say do they help or hurt. The answer is both. It's like saying did the telephone help or hurt relationships. Well, it eliminated the need for face to face communication and as such encouraged fewer face to face visits. However, it made it possible to sustain long distance relationships with friends and family. Many people today are reconnecting through social networks. There are several people I hadn't talked to in years that I now have as friends on Facebook and honestly know more about them now than when I knew them in a face to face setting.

Here's a good example. The advent of the automobile changed life as much as that of the internet if not more. Church is an example. Before the car, you basically went to the closest church of your denomination. That meant you went to church with your neighbors. You didn't only see them at church, but in the store, the post office and at the community events. With the car, neighborhoods became less important and “third places” like churches, clubs, bars, etc become more important. Called “Third Places” by sociologists designating a place other than work or home. You now drove to church which likely was not in your own neighborhood. You saw people on Sunday morning, maybe Sunday night or at a church function. However, that daily contact had been lost. Now, with Facebook, Twitter, Shoutlife and other social networking sites, I stay in touch with fellow church members daily. Facebook has become the General Store of the 21st century where people meet and chat.

On the other hand, relationships can develop very rapidly online. This is called hyperpersonal communication. We often find ourselves revealing quite significant personal material to people we only “met” a few days or weeks ago. We can feel a close personal connection with people on the basis of very little information. Lonely people, the elderly and teenagers are especially vulnerable to those who would take advantage of such fast track intimacy. Many people use the anonymity of the internet to become bullies saying things online they would never say in a face to face setting.

So, yes, I'd say it's a mixed bag, but on balance we have gained more than we have lost.

BP: How can someone sign up for your upcoming class?

TM: If anyone lives in California and is interested in taking my Computer Mediated Communication course (probably the only one of its kind offered by a community college), they can apply through . Applications for spring semester are being taken now with general registration commencing in late October. Those outside of California can also apply, but the cost is significantly higher. This will be a fully online class. No on campus meetings will be required.

BP: Thanks, Terri!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Almost 10% of faculty use Twitter for instruction

That's a huge number. The source is a good one, Campus Technology, although (perhaps predictably) they spin it in the negative. The headline points out that "most faculty don't use" the service. But one in ten? Quick, tell me the obvious instructional uses.

Can't come up a good one? Neither could I. That's what makes the number so fascinating to me. Here's the article:

On further reflection, here's a very short list of possibilities...
  • Announcements and reminders
  • Heads-up for current events
  • Posting links to new/different content
  • Praise and commendations
  • Improving class cohesiveness
I could see how an engaged instructor could help keep students thinking about his or her course, and keep the momentum of a good class session going by simply plinking away with little comments and asides of interest, particularly using the last two ideas on my list. Just keeping their head in the game could pay off in big way.

But it's hard for me to imagine it as a serious part of instructional design. What am I missing? I'm very interested to learn what's really going on, and to hear any other ideas for uses.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Autopsy results of Illinois Global Campus: It wasn't all three?

If there was a coroner's office for the deceased of the elearning world, a medical examiner could pore through file after file and find only three main causes of death: Poor academics, poor business model, or bad technology. The post-mortem on the University of Illinois' "Global Campus," one of the largest online efforts by a major state university, continues. I'm not that medical examiner, and I have yet to absorb all the details, but the following link below provides a good, fairly short description from one insider:

To risk being overly simplistic, the effort seems to have run aground on the rocks of distrust... faculty vs. business, bricks-and-mortar vs. online, even campus vs. campus. In the end, it may be safe to say that the Illinois Global Campus wasn't Global, it wasn't a Campus, and it wasn't really even Illinois. The three major university campuses could not agree, and some may have worked actively against it.

I played a role in the development and growth of another major online effort, building the product development engine of a for-profit online university that went from 2,500 students at acquisition to 25,000 students in less than seven years. I clearly understand all the pitfalls mentioned by Mr. Kantz, and can commiserate. But I had a warning fresh in mind when we started back in 2001... I had seen the recent demise of the California Virtual University, along with many startups in the online learning space, and so I brought to that effort my own heartfelt conviction: to be successful, an online entity needs to attach equal importance to three things: Education, Business, and Technology. The key to success then, is that everyone involved must understand that all three have a moral equivalency in determining the ultimate success of the project. Until this is fully understood, and those involved have insight into one another's areas of expertise, the foundation is shaky.

California Virtual University crashed because of poor business planning. "With no money for its operations, [CVU] folded up its tent, leaving only the directory," was the summation of Stephen Downs in 1999.* The IGC is not so cut and dried, but were I a CSI officer on the case, I would take a very close look at the business model here as well. I think I can eliminate education as the culprit. According to Lee Kantz, "Our programs were developed with faculty, and their admissions requirements were set by our academic partners on the campuses." It also does not seem to have been the technology. I would have to take a hard look at the product to be sure it wasn't just really, really bad, but I assume it was probably as good as many. There are standards out there now, albeit fairly low (in the future, growth will demand raising this bar).

And then there's this statement from Mr. Kantz: "I think the first challenge is to get the politics straight, and set up an environment where the entire university is on-board with the initiative. That clearly didn’t happen at U of I." Is politics business? In this case, I would say yes. Part of the business model is the structure of the entity. It must be set up in such a way as to guarantee it the authority, and freedom, and the charge to do what is required. If the enterprise is by definition beholden to other interests (like, say, faculty?), those key interests must be lined up and eager--not just acquiescent--in order to make it work. In this case, a serious misstep seems to have made in the initial decision to set up a separate company, without clear buy-in from the academic community.

Again, without full access to the all the details, it's impossible to know the whole truth. But based on what I've gleaned so far, it seems to be another case of an educational enterprise falling down on the business front. This is not a predestined outcome, as many successful online ventures in the non-profit, traditional university world prove. Business, after all, really just means assuring that the income matches or exceeds the expenditures, and that the path has been cleared for this to happen for the foreseeable future.

When I was a kid, my mother used to express her opinion of drivers who sped past her by saying, "He's in a hurry to get to his own funeral." Elearning entities that can't or won't put equal weight on their business, education, and technology underpinnings are in the fast lane on that same trajectory.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Welcome to the era of the "Interchange Environment"

So where does one begin when one wants to to pilot some high quality, high powered learning experiences and products using the wide array of new technologies now at our fingertips? eLearning as an industry (and here I mean to encompass formal education, informal learning, and training), has in the past used a strategy that I would call 'run and gun.' Grab something new, try it, then if it doesn't work, drop it like a rock. And if it does work, use it until it wears out. And maybe beyond. We have not been very inventive, when it comes down to it. But the times they are a' changin.'

Let me explain how. When online learning first made its debut in the late 80's and early 90's, it was confined to the corporate training space, and it was all self-paced. We just moved CD's online. But what we were really doing was taking one portion of the learning process, the absorption of new knowledge, pulling it out of context, and putting it on the web for learners to consume. It worked pretty well for some concrete subjects, notably IT training. But sadly, many thought it was the whole answer, and a lot of complex soft skills went that way, too. I remember even Harvard launched an MBA in a box, full of high-dollar video-based simulations for complex business situations. (It failed, though multimedia cases and simulations continue.)

In the mid to late 1990's, Blackboard, eCollege, and other CMS's roiled through the higher education space like a tsunami. They had a very different model, all about communication. There wasn't a self-paced "next" button to be found. But again, we pulled one aspect of the learning process out, this time dialog and discussion, and assumed it was the whole thing. This model also worked very well for some subjects (business, psychology), but suffered greatly when applied to education (that is, teaching teachers to teach), and nursing, and other areas that required high-touch, highly visual content.

So where are we now, one tenth of the way through a new century? The technology landscape is literally littered with cheap, easy technologies that provide both communication and content. Some examples in communication: social networks, blogs, micro-blogs, virtual worlds, wikis, chat, video chat. Some examples of self-paced content: podcasts (audio and video), user-generated media, high-def video, streaming audio and video, downloading almost anything, screen-capture with audio, serious games, personal homepages, and all the associated information widgets and gadgets.

And now the edges are becoming seriously blurred. Is video chat a communication tool or a content generation tool? Is it one thing when it's happening, and another when it's recorded and played back? Is an online textbook still content when it connects learners to other learners in a social network? Is a 3D virtual classroom a communication option, or is it another way to house content? Or is it something new entirely?

Personally, I think it's something new. In fact, I think it's new enough that I'm going to coin a term for it (because there has been a noticeable dearth of obscure new terms in our field lately): the "Interchange Environment," defined as an online space that allows both free exchange of content and high levels of communication, and is controlled by individual users and leaders of groups. The typical LMS or CMS, like Blackboard or Moodle, is an Interchange Environment. But so are a lot of other spaces. We need this term because when a technology fits that definition... you can teach a class there.

Second Life is an Interchange Environment. So is Facebook, and so is any private social network built on So is PageFlakes, by virtue of its PageCast function. So is Google Groups. If a group leader can limit access, if members can exchange content (think assignments and papers as well as lectures or articles or videos), and if all members can communicate with all group members while limiting access so non-members can be kept out, then you have everything you need to conduct a class.

What don't you have with one of these web 2.0 Interchange Environments that you do have with a typical CMS? You don't have all the back-end authentication and security functions that can integrate with an SIS or HR system, for scale, and for ease of use (don't laugh). You don't have a gradebook, or a quiz function. But some of these technologies are so API-friendly that you can use your own security, or a third party single-sign-on service. And gradebooks? Those are easy and cheap, sometimes free, online.

What else is missing from these non-LMS Interchange Environments? Hosting and maintenance costs. Oh yes, and license fees. You don't have those.

It's almost 2010. Come January, we will have put our 10% deposit down on the 21st century. When those of us in elearning actually take possession of it, I believe we'll be moving into one of these highly effective, highly cost-effective Interchange Environments. And I don't think we'll be moving back out again.

Why Gen Y learners won't demand better educational technology

A lot of us in online higher education have been talking for years now about the coming of the Gen Y student, and how we better get into web 2.0, or we'll lose these people. Conventional wisdom says those who grew up on X-Box and Facebook won't stand for the flat, 1990's learning systems that are so deeply entrenched in education. But I've lately come to realize that there's something odd going on. The Gen Y students are not clamoring for the Twitterization of education. They aren't wondering why their online courses are so deadly boring. They are going along with whatever we hand them. Why?

I fear I know the answer. You probably do too, if you think about it. We've taught them too well. Along with Bio and Chem and Spanish and Algebra II, we've taught them that they aren't to make demands like that. Their appointed role is to roll their eyes, let the heavy wave of dull duty sweep over them, and do what they're told.

For years their classroom teachers have been telling them to turn off their phones, put away their laptops, unplug their iPods, sit down, open their books to page 226, and listen to me while I talk. We have driven a wedge between their real world, which is online, plugged in, constantly in contact, moving, changing, interacting... and their education. We have sent the same strong message class after class, year after year, and their academic success has depended on them hearing that message, understanding it, and accepting it. We have demanded they learn this one truth:

Education = Out of Touch

You can't be plugged in and be a good student. It's what all our actions are telling them. Education does not play by the rules of the rest of the world. So why would they even blink when they find our educational technologies gray and drab? The answer is, they won't.

Is this acceptable? I suspect that many educators' response to such news might actually be relief. "Whew. So now we don't have to use all those tricky technologies after all." But that is a self-defeating, self-destructive attitude. That is the attitude of Lemming Number 289 as it follows Lemming Number 288 off the cliff. Because the wedge we have driven between our students' world and their education is actually a wedge between education and learning.

Learning, that's not boring. That's the excitement of something new that can be put to use. That's the kid coming home talking endlessly about a "good teacher," one who makes history come alive. One who makes history seem like what it actually is, useful and applicable to what's happening around us right now. Learning, that's the physics teacher who makes projectile behaviors and the characteristics of light appear to be what they actually are, truths that give us control of our world, that open doors to what is possible on earth. Good teachers take hold of anything and everything that makes learning exciting.

But that's not the right phrasing. The very vocabulary of "making learning exciting" reveals the assumption that learning is a dull, lifeless thing that has to be jazzed up, or candy-coated, to appear to be anything other than boring. In fact, learning is just the opposite of boring. Learning is a natural stimulant. We need to get out of its way, rather than shoving it into, or shoveling it onto, learners. Good teachers understand this in their bones. Good instructional designers, too. And good learning technologists.

And that's exactly why this current generation of Web 2.0 technologies is so powerful. There are thousands of ways to make use of them, to get in the flow, to keep students engaged with the truths that will change them, that will open doors for them, that will give them control of their lives and the ability to affect their world for good. Innovations are just waiting, begging, for the light of day.

Take text messaging. Why has texting not replaced hand-raising in class? Why is it not the standard approach to question and answer sessions? Set up a website to receive text messages, list them on a page, compile them for the teacher, and block out the name of the sender so it's anonymous. Suddenly, every cell phone becomes a clicker, a polling device, a way to get at what students are really thinking. Students will communicate in their preferred manner. They won't shut down when they enter class, they will power up. And their teachers will get the real deal, the actual thoughts and ideas of students. The back row will vanish. Is this a good idea? I think so. And so do these people:

The technology is already available. And guess what... for a class of up to 30 people, it's free. And that's just one example. There are hundreds of these. There are hundreds of creative ways to make use of technologies, big and small. But if we wait for Gen Y to clamor for them, it will be too late. That wedge we've been driving all these years will turn into a coffin nail. And that coffin will be buried under a headstone bearing the name of Lemming Number 289.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Innovation in educational technology. Why not?

The size of the global education industry, defined as all the money spent by governments, individuals, and corporations on education and training, is almost three times the size of the global entertainment industry, and double the size of the global telecommunications industry.* Education is bigger, in fact, than entertainment and telecom combined.

So why do education's technical innovations feel like hand-me-downs? If a college professor uses some video clips and regularly podcasts, he's way up near the top of the technical scale. A new technology on the order of the iPod or Twitter? We don't expect that from education. What is it about education, or educators, that makes this industry so relatively sparse of innovation? There are obvious answers, like, it's hard to sell new technologies when they're being bought by non-profits and government entities. Or, educators' grip on traditional methods is too tight. Or, investors don't like the education market because they don't understand it. But I've never bought into those arguments. I think the answers lie elsewhere.

Like, here:

1. Innovative geeks are in the habit of avoiding education, not contributing to it. Shawn Fanning didn't build Napster as a class project at Northeastern University. He "rarely attended class... pushing himself to get the Napster system finished" (according to his authoritative bio on Wikipedia). It doesn't seem logical to expect innovators of his ilk to skip class in order to create cool ways to attend class.

2. Educators tend to focus on educational outcomes to the exclusion of customer satisfaction. Something about the master-apprentice relationship that implies, to a greater or lesser degree, that an instructor can order learning (use any definition of 'order' you choose) and all that matters is whether the apprentice obeyed. Why not order up the most comfortable approach for the master?

3. Historically slow adoption rates of new technologies in education discourage innovation. Even the early adopters are a ponderously thoughtful bunch. (Hey, I'm teaching my class with PowerPoint slides; I'm digital, leave me alone.) If it takes years to saturate a market with even a really obvious product, why waste your time on something exotic? Go somewhere people will be a little quicker on the uptake.

But I think the final, all-encompassing reason there's so little technical innovation in education is that education is more complex than either entertainment or communications. If you're educating well, you are both communicating and entertaining as you go. So it follows that education would borrow from those two heavily.

It also follows that new educational technologies would essentially be an integration of components that communicate and entertain. You can go back to the mid-90's and look at the original CourseInfo and Real Education software (which became Blackboard and eCollege, respectively). They were novel, exciting environments made up of what? Web pages, threaded discussion boards, and file transfer. Entertainment and communications technologies stitched together. That's still the approach for LMS companies: sew together as many other technologies as you can, and harness them for learning. The only really educationally-focused new software is the test engine. (Yeehah.)

And that leads to my final point. Even sewing together other technologies requires the seamstress (or seamster) to understand the learning process and the teaching process inside out. Why have Blackboard and eCollege and even Moodle done so little with web 2.0 tools like blogs, wikis, podcasts, social networking, micro-blogging, user-generated content, video, gaming, 3D virtual worlds? They're still stuck on 1990's technologies, relatively speaking.

I'll tell you why. Education as an industry is full of people who are content experts, and severely lacking people who are learning experts. Or more specifically, learner experts. I don't mean people who know and adhere to theories about learning. I mean people who really get the whole process, and are passionate about it, from the learner's perspective. People who love the thrill of learning, the way kids in kindergarten love it, and want everyone to have that sort of joy again. People who want to learn, and want others to learn, and want everyone to apply that learning, with the same exuberance that hobbyists do. What makes learning work and why? What makes learning exciting, interesting, rewarding? We need more people who are experts in those things, because whatever products they create will reflect it.

The sad thing is, the Shawn Fannings of the world are a whole lot like that. They do love learning. They love discovery. They love finding out about things they don't know, and putting that knowledge to use. They just don't like the education process. And you know what? That makes them the best people on earth to come up with cool stuff for teaching and learning.

But I think we may be on the verge now of a serious revolution. The set of technologies now available for stitching together is incredibly rich. The potential for truly jaw-dropping new learning experiences is here. It's at our fingertips. It's just awaiting the right seamstress. Or seamster.

* Sources: PriceWatershouse Coopers, Gartner Newsroom, UNESCO, World Bank Grp, European Training & Dev.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Penn elearning retreats from the crowd-sourcing frontier

It appears that those pioneering souls at the University of Pennsylvania who did some amazing work with crowdsourcing the online learning experience last fall have circled the wagons, and are back to keeping savages like you and me at bay. If you haven't seen the experiment they pulled off a year ago, you should take a look. Here's the description from their course website back then:

"The Penn LPS Commons is a new social learning platform dedicated to supporting online learning at the College of Liberal and Professional Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Its design sets new benchmarks at the intersection of online learning and the social web, allowing participants from both inside and outside of the classroom to interact in engaged communities of inquiry."

Check it out... it's a very cool attempt to get a global dialogue going for the benefit of the enrolled participants. They picked a good subject, one with lots of energy around it. And they clearly spent time and energy combining a true LMS with a true social network. They then devised an instructional design whereby the input and interests and passions of anyone online could be harnessed for the benefit of the paid course-takers. Crowd-sourced learning.

And now here's the retreat, as evidenced in their FAQ for their fall 2009 course offering:

Q: What aspects of the course are only available to those enrolled (vs. the general public)?
A: All blogs, discussions, lectures, and live Q&A's will only be available to enrolled students.

Well, it was a noble effort, and I applaud it loud and long. Perhaps it was just a bit too far out there. Perhaps it trusted a little too much in its ability to draw an interested, intelligent crowd to play the game from home. Even if it didn't work in this instance, though, I think the idea is a powerful one and will return.

Global dialogs, as we know from Twitter (#iranelections, #nomaschavez), can be messy. Harnessing them for the intellectual and academic benefit of a course may be a bit like trying ride the wind. Either you don't have enough to fill a kite, or you're hammering plywood over the windows.

But learning to harness the wind is a worthy end. Eventually, we'll figure out how to sail the seven seas and fill the skies with airplanes.

Good backgrounder on crowdsourcing:

Friday, September 4, 2009

Online learning works better because...?

"Study finds that Online Learning Beats the Classroom." That's the headline, and if the New York Times says it, then it's got to be so. And especially if it's coming from one of the Gray Lady's bloggers. We're talking credibility to spare here.

All right, stop laughing and read on.

There's the link, so you can take a look for yourself. The study in question was conducted for the US Department of Education by an independent firm. That firm studied a whole lot of other studies, and drew the conclusion that students who study in online classes do better, to a small but statistically significant degree, than students in traditional classrooms. That's where the Gray Lady's facts end, and the opinions begin. The rest of the article is conjecture as to how this could be so. The arguments are sound, but they are just opinions.

So in the spirit of blogging, I'll add my own. Online learning gives you the room you need to pay attention. The way standard online classes are currently run, you have the time to digest before you ask, to ask before you answer, to interact as much or as little as you want, to look up what you need. Even in the most standard of online formats, where 20 students are asked on Monday to read a bunch by Wednesday, then are told on Wednesday to post to a discussion board three times by Friday, then are asked on Friday to write and submit a paper by Sunday... it's still completely okay that Mark takes a lot longer to ponder the discussion postings or write his own thoughts than Mary takes. Not the case in a standard classroom, where if you don't keep up with the main body of the group (or in the worst case, with the professor's chosen pace), sorry, you just don't keep up.

There are other factors. There's motivation. People who choose online learning may be leaning into the work just a little more heavily, willing to work a little bit harder. If I'm the sort who doesn't require social approval for my new hair style or my sharp new shoes, maybe I'm also the sort who would just as soon dive into the meat of the content. No offense meant to Elle Woods wannabe's, but online, a whole lot of the superficial social gets stripped away, and those who like it like pared down may be those who are also just a tad more focused on their work.

And while we're speculating, let me add one more. And this, to me, is the big one most people miss. Online learning is a product. Classroom learning is a service. There is a huge difference between the two, and those of us who have labored long and hard in this field have had to come to grips with it early and often. In the classroom, about the only thing that could be called a product is the textbook. The rest is a service offered by the instructor to teach the students. (Or the servitude demanded of students by the instructor, depending on the particular academician in question).

Online, though, everything's a product, and it feels that way to students. There are layouts and font sizes. There are graphics and profile pictures and videos. There's even a voice, in the literary sense, that comes across as product. Because of this, those who create and provide online courses spend more time thinking about them. They worry over the order of instruction, about what goes where, about how exactly to pose the questions or write the assignment instructions for maximum clarity, about whether this diagram is better than that one. Even an off-the-cuff video lecture, once it's recorded, is no longer off-the-cuff. It gets edited. And sometimes it gets replaced by a better one.

Does the product nature of an online course make it better? Think of it this way.... Are you more likely or less likely to have a good dining experience when the chefs and waiters and the maitre'd are all focused on things like how the tables are arranged, and what the lighting and the linens look like, and how best to arrange the chicken on the china, and the china on the cotton cloth--rather than a single cook showing up for work and figuring he can wing it? Just so, are you more or less likely to have a quality learning experience when an instructor and an instructional designer and maybe a graphic designer or media developer are paying close attention to the product details of layout, visuals, and wordsmithing, rather than one faculty member scanning last semester's notes on the way to the lecture hall while balancing a latte?

I'd bet on the paying-close-attention scenario.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Is 3D 1.0 or 2.0?

Is learning in a 3D virtual world a web 1.0 experience, or a web 2.0 experience? Or is it something new and different altogether?

I'll always remember the first time I ventured into one of these environments... it felt like a waking dream. It was a place called, which is still around but has long been overshadowed by Second Life. This was 2005, maybe, and I had no preconceived notions. I found the experience almost mind-altering. I could see, hear, walk, run, travel wherever I wanted in a place where everything was pristine and peaceful and artfully displayed, all very real in an unreal way. Or very unreal in a real way. Very much like a dream. Everyone there looked great. Heck, I looked great. I wasn't pushing 50; I was 28. I could walk without growing weary, run and not faint. It was fun. Exhilarating. Then when I moved to Second Life, I discovered I could also fly. Fly! Now that's a waking dream.

But the rush wore off as I discovered that there are only so many things to do in a manufactured alternate universe. I didn't really know anyone there, and when I did it was sort of embarrassing. Because it wasn't really them, it was their avatar, and it was all a little like playing with puppets. Very cool puppets. And while that's fun, it's not nearly so rich as Real Life (RL), where you know everyone's Real Names, and everything Really Matters.

Then I discovered that IBM was all over Second Life. And so were major, mainstream, prestigious universities. They still are. They want to use this technology for learning. This was a bit of a shock, since I have deep experience in convincing big corporations and high-profile universities that technology is the future of learning. I started struggling on that path in about 1992. I remember the Executive Education Network, EXEN, which delivered Wharton & Harvard to Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson. We had to do a lot of selling, and offer a lot of free trials, before they would admit that it worked.

These were the same organizations (some of them) who had barely dipped a toe in the waters of web 1.0 elearning. They put their CD's online, sure. They bought a license to Blackboard and let the more reckless professors fill it up with class schedules and assigned readings, use the grade book feature. And they watched long and hard as the true pioneers ventured out, took the arrows, and somehow didn't fail. And these are organizations (some of them) who have barely felt a breeze from the web 2.0 winds. Facebook? Twitter? There must be a punchline coming. Podcasting? Well, okay, maybe. If it gets my lectures listened to.

But as organizations, they have not wholly embraced any learning technology before, and certainly not the core validity of a whole different learning paradigm. They have not readily accepted the fact that online, all students have equal opportunity. That no one is judged for their looks, or by their physical limitations. That no one gets to dominate class time. Or gets to hide in the back row. Everyone learns. Everyone expresses the truth as they see it, and everyone else comments. Graciously, generously, because there is no 'cool factor' (or the educational equivalent, gravitas) that must be maintained. Community grows... educational community. People of a thousand interests gathered around just one, and sharing it until it gets honed to a passion.

So why the virtual land-grab by the big boys with the big guns? I eventually figured it out. The reason was, it didn't seem like such a big leap to them. It was as though a 3D earthquake somehow reduced the chasm between the traditional classroom and the digital classroom to one little step. One small step, a tiny download, and you're there. Look, there's our administration building! I can walk there. And there's Munger Hall, where my class is meeting in 10 minutes. I can run to it. And look over there, it's a training room with video screens and yes, interactive keypads! I can talk to everyone. It's live. It's what I already know.

And that's a good thing. And yet... does something get lost in this digital dreamland? Or rather, are we in danger of losing ground we've already gained, inch by inch, in web 1.0 elearning? We can talk there, and hear one another, sure. Thats excellent. But how do we ensure that nobody gets to dominate the virtual discussion? That no one can sit in the back and not participate? How do we make sure that when we take that step across the chasm we are not taking an important step backward?

The answer is... we apply what we know. We hang on to what works. We develop the technologies that keep the playing field even. It will take some design work, and some coding, and it will need to be done by those who know what works. But when we get it working, we'll have something more powerful than web 1.0 or 2.0. When we can take all that makes elearning so effective and add to it the color, depth, dimension, sound, and semi-chaos of people side by side, face to face, learning something new together, not puppets but people with real names and histories, people who are themselves (but better looking!) then we won't be dipping our toes into elearning waters any more. We'll be riding the tsunami.

Or rather, we'll be flying.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The right way to do eTextbooks. Partly.

So school's in, almost, and the bi-annual textbook rush is coming to its painful conclusion. If other households are like mine, the primary driver is to avoid buying a full-price textbook by any and all means possible. This is not good news for textbook publishers.

But here's how to do it right, at least partly. One faculty member sent out a two page missive to students about how to buy a textbook (that's not the good part), and how he'd arranged for students to get the best deal "directly from the publisher." The bottom line was, students had no choice but to buy MyEconLab access for $40, and if that's all they could afford that's all they actually needed (that's the good part). $40 is a third or less the price of any textbook these days. MyEconLab is part of Pearson's "MyLab" series, which offers students online homework exercises. (Which, when push comes to shove, actually teach the students the concepts. But more on that some other post.)

The rest of this instructor's document was a smorgasbord of ways to get a hard copy... everything from paying full price for a textbook (well over $100), to paying for a 3-hole punched set of papers that equaled a textbook ($35 with purchase of MyEconLab), to buying their own used textbook any way they could, to buying rights to a PDF file for a few months for way too much.

Pearson is the Goliath of textbook publishers. And Goliath is not only bigger than everyone else, in this case he may be smarter. Pearson is focusing on the one thing that requires 100% sell-through. Everyone has to buy it. An email like the one this instructor sent will pretty much guarantee Pearson as much revenue as they would have gotten by trying to sell new textbooks. Why is that? Because if 1/3 of the class bought the full, new textbook for 3 times the price (questionable it would be that high), it would equal 3/3 of the class buying just the online homework for 1/3 the price. That's my math lab. And there's no printing or shipping costs.

But a lot of publishers are not following this math. Why not? Because the product that's making the money isn't a textbook. And they're textbook publishers. Pearson seems to have figured out that they're actually in the teaching and learning business, not the textbook business. Any competitors unwilling to awaken from their paper-and-cardboard-sandwich dreams will find themselves selling buggy whips and running railroads as the interstates fill with trucks and the skies fill with cargo planes.

Now, Pearson just needs to figure out how to keep the hard copy/PDF options from overwhelming students, and their mothers, who are trying to survive the back-to-school rush.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Video on a printed page?

Not sure where this will go, but it certainly has some interesting possibilities. CBS is putting a paper-thin video player on the printed page of Entertainment Weekly. Patented technology, up to 70 minutes of video played by a battery. Price tag is not disclosed, but since it's a joint venture of CBS and Pepsi, it's not likely cheap. At the moment.

My initial reaction? This will interest textbook publishers. Assuming it's cheap enough and durable enough, they could embed their video elements into the book pages. It feels almost anachronistic, the ancient analog with the latest digital. But it has appeal. When the battery dies? Well, there's another reason to buy new books, not used. Not much of a strategy compared to creating an affordable product that everyone wants, though, and likely most publishers will see that (we hope).

The real value of this kind of player is mobility... getting an important message out uniquely. It definitely makes sense for advertising. May make sense for corporate communications. Just In Time training to the shop floor, the field salesforce... See, but my mind just keeps going back to sales and marketing. The sales guy opening the pamphlet, saying, "Let me show you, Mr. Prospect, how this works..."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The State of eLearning

First post, seems reasonable to address the broad scope of this industry. So here's my assessment...

1. There are more good technologies available to be used for learning than I have ever seen before.
2. Hardly anyone is using them really well.
3. Almost everyone is trying something.
4. The next couple of years are going to be massively exciting.

In the short term, social networks are going to see the most use (and perhaps abuse) as elearning operatives tire of Facebook and start looking at private networks. Use of video is also going to increase, though in spite of what would seem the more obvious lessons of YouTube, I fear we will continue to see lots flapping lips. People want pictures with their stories, but the webcam-as-mirror is just too seductive for those with a narcissistic bent. (There's a modern-day treatment of the ancient mythology just waiting to be posted!). Regardless, the power of video is clearly emerging from a long hibernation, as bandwidth, compression, and "home-made" video capabilities begin to multiply and be fruitful.

In the medium term, look for big moves on the eBook, textbook front. No one is happy with the current hardcopy/PDF dichotomy, including publishers. Kindle may be the best web 1.0 tool ever, but it's still little more than a PDF in a bucket. This is a big industry with a lot of money at stake, and there are a lot of Davids aiming at the Goliaths. The iTunes of the textbook world may well be approaching from within this rowdy crowd, wanting to take textbook publishing down the road music publishing has already trod. Someone will win big.

In the long term, 3D virtual worlds will gain power and prestige. This technology, potentially, really does have the bloodlines to claim the throne. Will there be a lot of web 1.0 pretenders poking around the castle grounds before the true heir can draw the sword (hint: learning objective) from the stone (hint: quest)? Undoubtedly. But the sword is there for the taking.

So there you have the major sources of my ramblings, rantings, and ravings (mostly ramblings). I'll keep you posted!