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A 2014 (Personal) Blogging Retrospective

Mon, 2014-12-22 09:50

Unlike many of the bloggers who I enjoy reading the most, I don’t often let my blogging wander into the personal except as a route to making a larger point. For some reason, e-Literate never felt like the right outlet for that. But with the holidays upon us, with some life cycle events in my family causing me to be a bit more introspective than usual, and with the luxury of having discovered Phil’s top 20 posts of the year post showing up in my inbox, I’m in the mood to ruminate about my personal journey in blogging, where it’s taken me so far, and what it means to me. In the process, I’ll also reflect a bit on what we try to do at e-Literate.

When I started the blog 10 years ago, I honestly didn’t know what I was doing. OK, I guess that’s still true in some ways. What I mean is that I was looking for a purpose in my life. I had been a middle school and high school teacher for five years. It was the by far the best job I had ever had, and in some ways is still the best job I ever had. I left for a few different reasons. One was financial. I had fallen in love with a woman who had two teenaged daughters and suddenly found myself having to support a family. Another was frustration with a lack of professional growth opportunities. I taught in a wonderful, tiny little private school that operated out of eight rooms in the back of the Hoboken public library. It was amazing. But I wanted to do more and there was really no place for me to grow at the small school. I was young and feeling my oats. Lacking teacher’s certification and having been spoiled by teaching in such an amazing environment, I despaired of finding the right opportunity that would be professionally exciting while also allowing me to support my family. Part of it, too, was that I was beginning to get drawn to larger, systemic and cultural questions. For example, in the United States we have strong local control over our school systems, and my experience was that the overwhelming majority of parents care deeply for their children and want what’s best for them. Theoretically, it should be simple for parents to demand and get better schools. But that rarely happens. Why not? Why was the wonderful place that I was working at so rare? So I went wandering. I tried a few different things, but none of them made me happy. I am a teacher from a family of teachers. I needed to be close to education. But I also needed to support my family. And I needed to spread my wings, intellectually. I kept getting drawn to the bigger, systemic issues.

I started e-Literate just before I got a job at the SUNY Learning Network, having wandered in the wilderness first of graduate school and then of corporate e-Learning and knowledge management for a number of years. I had hoped that writing in public would help me clarify for myself what I wanted to do next in education as well as find some fellow travelers who might help me identify some sort of a career path that made sense. Meanwhile, I made a few good friends at SUNY, but mostly I grew quickly frustrated with the many barriers to doing good educational work that, once again, just shouldn’t exist if we lived in any kind of a rational world. Blogging was an oasis for me. It was a place where I found the kind of community that I should have had in academia but mostly didn’t. As I learned from early ed tech bloggers like Stephen Downes, Alan Levine, D’Arcy Norman, Scott Leslie, Beth Harris, Steven Zucker, Joe Ugoretz, George Siemens, and Dave Cormier (who co-hosted a wonderful internet radio show in those pre-podcasting days), I felt like I had found a home. It’s hard to describe what those early times of edublogging felt like if you weren’t around then. It was much friendlier. Much cozier. Everybody was just trying to figure stuff out together. I was just another shmoe working in the coal mines at a public university system, but in the blogosphere, there were really smart, articulate, accomplished people who took what I had to say seriously and encouraged me to say more. We argued sometimes, but mostly it was the good kind of argument. Arguments over what matters and what is true, rather than over who matters and what is the correct thing to say. It was…magical. I owe a great debt of gratitude to the bloggers I have mentioned here as well as others. I am ashamed to realize that I probably haven’t expressed that publicly before now. Without the folks who were already here when I arrived, I wouldn’t be where I am and who I am.

That said, finding a community is not the same thing as finding a purpose. The blogging wasn’t part of a satisfying career doing good in education so much as it was an escape from an unsatisfying career of failing to do good in education.

Then Blackboard sued Desire2Learn over a patent.

Such a strange thing to change a person’s life. Like most people, I really didn’t know what to make of it at first. I have never been dogmatically anti-corporate, anti-patent, or even anti-Blackboard. That said, Blackboard had proven itself to be a nasty, hyper-competitive company in those days, and this sounded like more of the same at first blush. But really, what did it mean to assert a patent in ed tech? I decided to figure it out. I read up on patent law and studied the court documents from the case (which Desire2Learn was publishing). I got a lot of help from Jim Farmer and some folks in the law community. And what I learned horrified me. Blackboard’s patent, if it had been upheld, would have applied to every LMS on the market, both proprietary and open source. Much worse, though, was the precedent it would have set. The basic argument that Blackboard made in their patent application process was that their invention was novel because it applied specifically to education. It was a little bit like arguing that one could patent a car that was designed only to be driven to the grocery store. Even if you didn’t care about the LMS, a successful assertion of that patent would have opened up Pandora’s box for any educational software. And if companies perceived that they could gain competitive advantages over their rivals by asserting patents, it would be the end of creative experimentation in educational technology. The U.S. patent system is heavily tilted toward large companies with deep pockets. Blackboard was already in the process of assembling a patent portfolio that would have enabled them to engage in what’s known as “stacking.” This is when a company files a flurry of lawsuits over a bunch of patents against a rival. Even if most of those assertions are bogus, it doesn’t matter, because the vast majority of organizations simply can’t afford the protracted legal battle. It’s less expensive for them to fold and just pay the extortion money patent license fees, or to sell out to the patent holder (which is probably what Blackboard really wanted from Desire2Learn). All that’s left in the market is for the big companies to cut cross-licensing deals with each other. Whatever you may think about the current innovation or lack thereof in educational technology, whatever we have now would have been crushed had Blackboard succeeded. That includes open source innovation. If a college president was told by her legal counsel that running a campus installation of WordPress with some education-specific modifications might violate a patent, what do you think the institutional decision about running WordPress would be?

So I went to war. I may have been just some shmoe working in the coal mines of a public university system, but dammit, I was going to organize. I translated the legalese of the patent into plain English so that everybody could see how ridiculous it was. I started a Wikipedia page on the History of Virtual Learning Environments so that people could record potential prior art against the patent. Mostly, I wrote about what I was learning about patents in general and Blackboard’s patents in particular. I wrote a lot. If you look down at the tag cloud at the bottom of the blog page, you’ll see that “Blackboard-Inc.” and “edupatents” are, to this day, two of the most frequently used tags on e-Literate.

And then an amazing thing happened. People listened. Not just the handful of edubloggers who were my new community, but all kinds of people. The entries on the Wikipedia page exploded in a matter of days. Every time Blackboard’s Matt Small gave a statement to some news outlet, I was asked to respond. I began getting invited to speak at conferences and association meetings for organizations that I never even knew existed before. Before I knew it, my picture was in freakin’ USA Today. e-Literate‘s readership suddenly went off the charts. In a weird way, I owe the popularity of the blog and the trajectory of my career to Blackboard and Matt Small.

And with that, I finally found my purpose. I won’t pretend that the community outrage and eventual outcome of the patent fight were mostly due to me—there were many, many people fighting hard, not the least of which were John Baker and Desire2Learn—but I could tell that I was having an impact, in part because of the ferocity with which Matt Small attempted to get me into trouble with my employers. With the blog, I could make things happen. I could address systemic issues. It isn’t a good vehicle for everything, but it works for some things. That’s why, more often than not, the best question to ask yourself when reading one of my blog posts is not “What is Michael really trying to say?” but “What is Michael really trying to do?” A lot of the time, I write to try to influence people to take (or not take) a particular course of action. Sometimes it’s just one or a couple of particular people who I have in mind. Other times it may be several disparate groups. For me, the blog is a tool for improving education, first and foremost. Improvement only happens when people take action. Therefore, saying the right things isn’t enough. If my writing is to be worth anything, it has to catalyze people to do the right things.

Of course, it doesn’t always work. Once Blackboard gave up on their patent assertion, I tried to rally colleges and universities to take steps to protect against educational patent assertion in the future. There was very little interest. Why? For starters, it was easier for them to vilify Blackboard than it was to confront the much more complex reality that our patent system itself is deeply flawed. But also, the universities that were in the best position to take affirmative steps harbored fantasies of being Stanford and owning a piece of the next Google. Addressing the edupatent problem in a meaningful way would have been deeply inconvenient for those ambitions and forced them to think hard about their intellectual property transfer policies. With the immediate threat over, there was no appetite for introspection on college campuses. The patent suit was dropped, Michael Chasen eventually left the company, Matt Small was moved into another role, and life has gone on. I suspect that somewhere in some university startup incubator is a student who was still in middle school when the edupatent war was going on and is filing patent applications for a “disruptive” education app today. Cue the teaser for the sequel, “Lawyers for the Planet of the Apes.”

Meanwhile, my blogging had raised my profile enough to get me out of SUNY and land me a couple of other jobs, both of which taught me a great deal about the larger systemic context and challenges of ed tech but neither of which turned out to be a long-term home for me (which I knew was likely to be the case at the time that I took them). But at the second job in particular, I got too busy with work to blog as regularly as I wanted to. It really bothered me that I had built up a platform that could make a difference and was largely unable to do anything with it. So I decided to try to turn it into a group blog. The blogosphere had changed by then. The power law had really taken hold. There were a handful of bloggers who got most of the attention, and it was getting harder for new voices to break in. So I decided to invite people who maybe didn’t (yet) have the same platform that they deserved but who regularly taught me important things through their writing to come and blog on e-Literate, writing whatever they liked, whenever they liked, however often they liked. No strings attached. I’m proud to have posts here from people like Audrey Watters, Bill Jerome, David White, Kim Thanos, and Laura Czerniewicz, among others. Most of the people I invited wrote one or a few posts and then moved on to other things. Which was fine. I wasn’t inviting them because I wanted to build up e-Literate. I was inviting them because I wanted to expose more people to their good work. That’s something that we still try to do when we can. For example, the analysis that Mike Caulfield did raising doubts about some of the Purdue Course Signals research was hugely important to the field of learning analytics. I’m proud to have had the opportunity to draw attention to it.

Like I said, most of the bloggers wrote a few pieces and then moved on. Most. One of them just kept hanging around, like a relative you invite to dinner who never gets the hint when it’s time to leave. As with many of the others, I had not really met Phil Hill before and mainly knew him through his writing. Before long, he was writing more blog posts on e-Literate than I was. And—please don’t tell him I told you this—I love his writing. Phil is more of a natural analyst than I am. He has a head for details that may seem terribly boring in and of themselves but often turn out to have important implications. Whether he is digging through discrepancies on employee numbers to call BS on D2L’s claims of hypergrowth (and therefore their rationale for all the investment money and debt they are taking on) or collaborating with WCET’s Russ Poulin on an analysis of how the Federal government’s IPEDs figures are massively misreporting the size of online learning programs, he consistently goes dumpster diving and comes back with gold. At the same time, he shares my constitutional inability to restrain myself from saying something when I see something that I think is wrong. This is what, for example, led him to file a public records request for information that definitively showed how few students Cal State Online was reaching for all the money that was spent on the program. For the record, Cal State is a former consulting client of Phil’s. As consultants in our particular niche, any critical post that we write of just about anyone runs the risk of alienating a potential client. Anyway, Phil is now co-publisher of e-Literate. The blog is every bit as much his as it is mine.

And so e-Literate continues to evolve. When I look at Phil’s list of our top 20 posts from 2014, it strikes me that there are a few things we are trying to do with our writing that I think are fairly unusual in ed tech reporting and analysis at the moment:

  • We provide critical analysis and long-form reporting on ed tech companies. There are lots of good pieces written by academic bloggers on ed tech products or the behavior of ed tech companies, but many of them are essentially cultural studies-style critiques of either widely reported news items or personal experiences. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t give us the whole picture without some supplementation. On the other hand, the education news outlets break stories but don’t do as much in-depth analysis as one would hope for. Because Phil and I have eclectic backgrounds, we have some insight into how these companies work that academics or even reporters often don’t. We’ve been doing this long enough that we have a lot of contacts who are willing to talk to us so, even though we’re not in the business of breaking stories, we sometimes get important details that others don’t. Also, as you can tell from this blog post (if you’ve made it this far), we’re not afraid of writing long pieces.
  • We provide critical analysis and long-form reporting on colleges’ and universities’ (mis)adventures in ed tech. One of things that really bugs me about the whole ed tech blogging and reporting world is that some of the most ferocious critics of corporate misbehavior are often strangely muted on the dysfunction of colleges and universities and completely silent on the dysfunction of faculty. I’m as proud of our work digging into the back room deals of school administrators that circumvent faculty governance or the ways in which faculty behavior impedes progress in areas like better learning platforms or OER as I am of our analysis of corporate misbehavior.
  • We demystify. I was particularly honored to be invited to write a piece on adaptive learning for the American Federation of Teachers. The AFT tends to take a skeptical view of ed tech, so I took their invitation as validation that at least some of the writing we do here is of as much value to the skeptics as to the enthusiasts. When I write a piece about a vendor and I get compliments on it from both people inside the company and people who despise the company, I know that I’ve managed to explain something in a way that clarifies while letting readers make their own judgments. A lot of the coverage of ed tech tends to be either reflexively positive or reflexively negative, and in neither case do we get a lot of details about what the product is, how it actually works, and how people are using it in practice.

One other thing that I feel good about on e-Literate and that I am completely amazed by is our community of commenters. We frequently get 5 or 10 comments on a given post (either in the WordPress comments thread or on Google+), and it’s not terribly uncommon for us to get 50 or even 100 comments on a post. And yet, I can count on one hand the number of times that we’ve ever had personalized attacks or unproductive behaviors from our commenters. I have no idea why this is so and take no credit for it. Even after ten years, I can’t predict which blog posts will generate a lot of discussion and which ones will not. It’s just a magic thing that happens sometimes. I’m still surprised and grateful every time that it does.

But of all the astonishing, wonderful things that have happened to me because of the blog, one of the most astonishing and wonderful is the way that it turned into a fulfilling job. When Phil asked me to join him as a consultant two years ago, I frankly didn’t give high odds that we would be be in business a for very long. I thought the most likely scenario was that we would fail, hopefully in an interesting way, and have some fun in the process. (Please don’t tell Phil I said that either.) But we have been not only pretty consistently busy with work but also growing the business about as fast as we would want it to grow, despite an almost complete lack of sales or marketing effort on our part. The overwhelming majority of our work comes to us through people who read our blog, find something helpful in what we wrote, and contacts us to see if we can help more. We’ve made it a policy to mostly not blog about our consulting except where we need to make conflict-of-interest disclosures, but sometimes I wonder if that’s the right thing to do. The tag line of e-Literate is “What We Are Learning About Online Learning…Online”, and a lot of what we are learning comes from our jobs. If anything, that is more true now than ever, given that so much of our work springs directly from our blogging. Our clients tend to hire us to help them with problems related to issues that we have cared about enough to write about. We also seem to gain more clients than we lose by writing honestly and critically, and our relationships with our clients are better because of it. People who come to us for help expect us to be blunt and are not surprised or offended when we offer them advice which is critical of the way they have been doing things.

Honestly, this is the most fulfilled that I have felt, professionally, since I left the classroom. I will go back to teaching at some point before I retire, but in the meantime I feel really good about what I’m doing for the first time in a long time. I get to work with schools, foundations, and companies on interesting and consequential education problems—and increasingly on systemic and cultural problems. I get to do a lot of it in an open way, with people who I like and respect. I get to speak my mind about the things I care about without fear that it will get me in (excessive) trouble. And I even get paid.

Who knew that such a thing is possible?

The post A 2014 (Personal) Blogging Retrospective appeared first on e-Literate.

e-Literate Top 20 Posts For 2014

Sat, 2014-12-20 12:17

I typically don’t write year-end reviews or top 10 (or 20) lists, but I need to work on our consulting company finances. At this point, any distraction seems more enjoyable than working in QuickBooks.

We’ve had a fun year at e-Literate, and one recent change is that we are now more willing break stories when appropriate. We typically comment on ed tech stories a few days after the release, providing analysis and commentary, but there are several cases where we felt a story needed to go public. In such cases (e.g. Unizin creation, Cal State Online demise, management changes at Instructure and Blackboard) we tend to break the news objectively, providing mostly descriptions and explanations, allowing others to provide commentary.

The following list is based on Jetpack stats on WordPress, which does not capture people who read posts through RSS feeds (we send out full articles through the feed). So the stats have a bias towards people who come to e-Literate for specific articles rather than our regular readers. We also tend to get longer-term readership of articles over many months, so this list also has a bias for articles posted a while ago.

With that in mind, here are the top 20 most read articles on e-Literate in terms of page views for the past 12 months along with publication date.

  1. Can Pearson Solve the Rubric’s Cube? (Dec 2013) – This article proves that people are willing to read a 7,000 word post published on New Year’s Eve.
  2. A response to USA Today article on Flipped Classroom research (Oct 2013) – This article is our most steady one, consistently getting around 100 views per day.
  3. Unizin: Indiana University’s Secret New “Learning Ecosystem” Coalition (May 2014) – This is the article where we broke the story about Unizin, based largely on a presentation at Colorado State University.
  4. Blackboard’s Big News that Nobody Noticed (Jul 2014) – This post commented on the Blackboard users’ conference and some significant changes that got buried in the keynote and much of the press coverage.
  5. Early Review of Google Classroom (Jul 2014) – Meg Tufano got pilot access to the new system and allowed me to join the testing; this article mostly shares Meg’s findings.
  6. Why Google Classroom won’t affect institutional LMS market … yet (Jun 2014) – Before we had pilot access to the system, this article described the likely market affects from Google’s new system.
  7. Competency-Based Education: An (Updated) Primer for Today’s Online Market (Dec 2013) – Given the sudden rise in interest in CBE, this article updated a 2012 post explaining the concept.
  8. The Resilient Higher Ed LMS: Canvas is the only fully-established recent market entry (Feb 2014) – Despite all the investment in ed tech and market entries, this article noted how stable the LMS market is.
  9. Why VCs Usually Get Ed Tech Wrong (Mar 2014) – This post combined references to “selling Timex knockoffs in Times Square” with a challenge to the application of disruptive innovation.
  10. New data available for higher education LMS market (Nov 2013) – This article called out the Edutechnica and ListEdTech sites with their use of straight data (not just sampling surveys) to clarify the LMS market.
  11. InstructureCon: Canvas LMS has different competition now (Jun 2014) – This was based on the Instructure users’ conference and the very different attitude from past years.
  12. Dammit, the LMS (Nov 2014) – This rant called out how the LMS market is largely following consumer demand from faculty and institutions.
  13. Why Unizin is a Threat to edX (May 2014) – This follow-on commentary tried to look at what market effects would result from Unizin introduction.
  14. State of the Anglosphere’s Higher Education LMS Market: 2013 Edition (Nov 2013) – This was last year’s update of the LMS squid graphic.
  15. Google Classroom: Early videos of their closest attempt at an LMS (Jun 2014) – This article shared early YouTube videos showing people what the new system actually looked like.
  16. State of the US Higher Education LMS Market: 2014 Edition (Oct 2014) – This was this year’s update of the LMS squid graphic.
  17. About Michael – How big is Michael’s fan club?
  18. What is a Learning Platform? (May 2012) – The old post called out and helped explain the general move from monolithic systems to platforms.
  19. What Faculty Should Know About Adaptive Learning (Dec 2013) – This was a reprint of invited article for American Federation of Teachers.
  20. Instructure’s CTO Joel Dehlin Abruptly Resigns (Jul 2014) – Shortly after the Instructure users’ conference, Joel resigned from the company.

Well that was more fun that financial reporting!

The post e-Literate Top 20 Posts For 2014 appeared first on e-Literate.

Helix Education puts their competency-based LMS up for sale

Thu, 2014-12-18 17:05

Back in September I wrote about the Helix LMS providing an excellent view into competency-based education and how learning platforms would need to be designed differently for this mode. The traditional LMS – based on a traditional model using grades, seat time and synchronous cohort of students – is not easily adapted to serve CBE needs such as the following:

  1. Explicit learning outcomes with respect to the required skills and concomitant proficiency (standards for assessment)
  2. A flexible time frame to master these skills
  3. A variety of instructional activities to facilitate learning
  4. Criterion-referenced testing of the required outcomes
  5. Certification based on demonstrated learning outcomes
  6. Adaptable programs to ensure optimum learner guidance

In a surprise move, Helix Education is putting the LMS up for sale.  Helix Education provided e-Literate the following statement to explain the changes, at least from a press release perspective.

With a goal of delivering World Class technologies and services, a change we are making is with Helix LMS. After thoughtful analysis and discussion, we have decided to divest (sell) Helix LMS. We believe that the best way for Helix to have a positive impact on Higher Education is to:

  • Be fully committed and invest properly in core “upstream” technologies and services that help institutions aggregate, analyze and act upon data to improve their ability to find, enroll and retain students and ensure their success
  • Continue to build and share our thought leadership around TEACH – program selection, instructional design and faculty engagement for CBE, on-campus, online and hybrid delivery modes.
  • Be LMS neutral and support whichever platform our clients prefer. In fact, we already have experience in building CBE courses in the top three LMS solutions.

There are three aspects of this announcement that are quite interesting to me.

Reversal of Rebranding

Part of the surprise is that Helix rebranded the company based on their acquisition of the LMS – this was not just a simple acquisition of a learning platform – and just over a year after this event Helix Education is reversing course, selling the Helix LMS and going LMS-neutral. From the earlier blog post [emphasis added]:

In 2008 Altius Education, started by Paul Freedman, worked with Tiffin University to create a new entity called Ivy Bridge College. The goal of Ivy Bridge was to help students get associate degrees and then transfer to a four-year program. Altius developed the Helix LMS specifically for this mission. All was fine until the regional accrediting agency shut down Ivy Bridge with only three months notice.

The end result was that Altius sold the LMS and much of the engineering team to Datamark in 2013. Datamark is an educational services firm with a focus on leveraging data. With the acquisition of the Helix technology, Datamark could expand into the teaching and learning process, leading them to rebrand as Helix Education – a sign of the centrality of the LMS to the company’s strategy. Think of Helix Education now as an OSP (a la carte services that don’t require tuition revenue sharing) with an emphasis on CBE programs.

Something must have changed in their perception of the market to cause this change in direction. My guess is that they are getting pushback from schools who insist on keeping their institutional LMS, even with the new CBE programs. Helix states they have worked with “top three LMS solutions”, but as seen in the demo (read the first post for more details), capabilities such as embedding learning outcomes throughout a course and providing a flexible time frame work well outside the core design assumptions of a traditional LMS. I have yet to see an elegant design for CBE with a traditional LMS. I’m open to being convinced otherwise, but count me as skeptical.

Upstream is Profitable

The general move sounds like the main component is the moving “upstream” element. To be more accurate, it’s more a matter of staying “upstream” and choosing to not move downstream. It’s difficult, and not always profitable, to deal with implementing academic programs. Elements built on enrollment and retention are quite honestly much more profitable. Witness the recent sale of the enrollment consulting firm Royall & Company for $850 million.

The Helix statement describes their TEACH focus as one of thought leadership. To me this sounds like the core business will be on enrollment, retention and data analysis while they focus academic efforts not on direct implementation products and services, but on white papers and presentations.

Meaning for Market

Helix Education was not the only company building CBE-specific learning platforms to replace the traditional LMS. FlatWorld Knowledge built a platform that is being used at Brandman University. LoudCloud Systems built a new CBE platform FASTrak – and they already have a traditional LMS (albeit one designed with a modern architecture). Perhaps most significantly, the CBE pioneers Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America (CfA) built custom platforms based on CRM technology (i.e. Salesforce) based on their determination that the traditional LMS market did not suit their specific needs. CfA even spun off their learning platform as a new company – Motivis Learning.

If Helix Education is feeling the pressure to be LMS-neutral, does that mean that these other companies are or will be facing the same? Or, is Helix Education’s decision really based on company profitability and capabilities that are unique to their specific situation?

The other side of the market effect will be determined by which company buys the Helix LMS. Will a financial buyer (e.g. private equity) choose to create a standalone CBE platform company? Will a traditional LMS company buy the Helix LMS to broaden their reach in the quickly-growing CBE space (350 programs in development in the US)? Or will an online service provider and partial competitor of Helix Education buy the LMS? It will be interesting to see which companies bid on this product line and who wins.


If I find out more about what this change in direction means for Helix Education or for competency-based programs in general, I’ll share in future posts.

The post Helix Education puts their competency-based LMS up for sale appeared first on e-Literate.

Blackboard’s SVP of Product Development Gary Lang Resigns

Tue, 2014-12-16 12:46

Gary Lang, Blackboard’s senior vice president in charge of product development and cloud operations, has announced his resignation and plans to join Amazon. Gary took the job with Blackboard in June 2013 and, along with CEO Jay Bhatt and SVP of Product Management Mark Strassman, formed the core management team that had worked together previously at AutoDesk. Gary led the reorganization effort to bring all product development under one organization, a core component of Blackboard’s recent strategy.

Michael described Blackboard’s new product moves toward cloud computing and an entirely new user experience (UX) for the Learn LMS, and Gary was the executive in charge of these efforts. These significant changes have yet to fully roll out to customers (public cloud in pilot, new UX about to enter pilot). Gary was also added to the IMS Global board of directors in July 2014 – I would expect this role to change as well given the move to Amazon.

At the same time, VP Product Management / VP Market Development Brad Koch has also resigned from Blackboard.[1] Brad came to Blackboard from the ANGEL acquisition. Given his long-term central role leading product definition and being part of Ray Henderson’s team[2], Brad’s departure will also have a big impact. Brad’s LinkedIn page shows that he has left Blackboard, but it does not yet show his new company. I’m holding off reporting until I can get public confirmation.

Blackboard provided the following statement from CEO Jay Bhatt.

The decision to leave Blackboard for an opportunity with Amazon was a personal one for Gary that allows him to return home to the West Coast. During his time here, Gary has made significant contributions to the strategic direction of Blackboard and the technology we deliver to customers. The foundation he has laid, along with other leaders on our product development team, will allow us to continue to drive technical excellence for years to come. We thank him for his leadership and wish him luck as he embarks on this new endeavor.

  1. The two resignations are unrelated as far as I can tell.
  2. Starting at Pearson, then at ANGEL, finally at Blackboard

The post Blackboard’s SVP of Product Development Gary Lang Resigns appeared first on e-Literate.

Vendors as Traditional Revolutionaries

Sun, 2014-12-14 09:40

In a post titled “The LMS for Traditional Revolutionaries,” Instructure’s VP of Research and Education for Canvas Jared Stein responded to my LMS rant with some numbers and some thoughts about the role of the vendor in encouraging progressive teaching practices. First, the numbers on the use of open education features in Canvas:

  • 3.8% of courses are “public”; you don’t need a login to see them.
  • 0.6% of courses are Creative Commons-licensed.
  • 4.0% of assignments are URL submissions (suggesting that students are completing their assignments on their blogs or elsewhere on the open web).

On the one hand, as Jared acknowledges, these percentages are very low. On the other hand, as he points out, 4% of assignments is close to 250,000 assignments, which is non-trivial as an absolute number. And all of this raises the question: What is the role of the vendor in promoting progressive educational practices?

Let’s take the best-case scenario. Suppose you’re a good person and a thoughtful educator who happens to work for a vendor at the moment. (For those of you who don’t know him, Jared enjoys just such a reputation, having spent a number of years as an excellent academic ed tech blogger and practitioner before joining Instructure.) What can you do? What is your role? On the one hand, you will get criticized by educators who want more and faster change for being too conventional. I certainly have leveled that sort of criticism at vendors before. And maybe those criticisms will sting particularly hard if you were one of those educators yourself before you joined the company (and maybe still are, in your heart of hearts). On the other hand, you are likely to be criticized as arrogant, high-handed, and unwilling to listen to your customers if you put yourself in the position of lecturing to educators (or, at worst, bullying them) about what you, as a vendor, define as best teaching practices. I certainly have leveled this sort of criticism as well.

So what’s a vendor to do? Jared writes,

These [open education features] are just a few examples of capabilities in Canvas that we believe add flexibility and encourage different approaches to teaching and learning. I recognize that sharing this data is a little risky; some may use it to argue that Canvas shouldn’t worry so much about the small percentage of educators who may take advantage of these fringe capabilities. After all, won’t teachers who are actually invested in open educational practices just eschew the LMS for their own platforms anyway?

Focusing only on “users like us” and ignoring the others may work in the short-term, but for long-term success you have to build bridges, not walls.

To help education improve itself for all teachers and learners we have to try to connect with those teachers who aren’t comfortable with radical shifts in pedagogy or technology. We believe that the best way to encourage positive change in educational practices across the broad landscape of content areas, learning objectives, and teaching philosophies is by providing tools that are easy-to-use, flexible, and comfortable to the majority of teachers and learners. The door to change must be open and the doorkeeper must be deposed.

Some of the ways we do this is by having an open community, engaging with people who disagree with us, and investing in the open platform aspect of Canvas. We need both traditionalists, critical pedagogues, progressive researchers, and open educators to contribute to Canvas.That doesn’t have to be done through pull requests or by building LTI apps or integrations, though that’s a brilliant way to build solutions that are right for your context. But by dialoging what works in teaching and learning and what doesn’t. By debating what technology is best for, and when it leads us away from our shared goals of teaching and learning better in an open and connected world.

Shorter Jared: We put capabilities to support progressive practices in our product in the hopes that our users will discover, adopt, and promote them, but it’s not our place to push our preferred educational practices on our customers.

In many cases—particularly with a platform that serves a large and heterogeneous swath of the campus community—that’s the best attitude you can get from your vendor. That’s the most they can do without rightly pissing off (more) people.

All of which brings me back to a single point: If you want better educational technology, then work to make sure that your colleagues in your campus community are asking for the things that you think would make educational technology better. If 40% rather than 4% of assignments created by your colleagues were on the open web, then learning platforms like LMSs would look and work differently. I guarantee it. Likewise, as long as most educators tend to use the technology to reproduce existing classroom practices, LMSs will look the same. I guarantee that too. And that’s not a vendor thing. That’s a software development thing. Community-developed open source learning platforms generally haven’t broken the mold, and the few that have tend to be the ones that you probably have never heard of because they don’t get adopted. They build what their community members ask for and what they think will attract other community members. So if you want better tech, then the best thing you can do to get it is to create demand for it among your colleagues.

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The Battle for Open and MOOC Completion Rates

Wed, 2014-12-10 23:21

Yesterday I wrote a post on the 20 Million Minds blog about Martin Weller’s new book The Battle for Open: How openness won and why it doesn’t feel like victory. Exploring different aspects of open in higher education – open access, MOOCs, open education resources and open scholarship – Weller shows how far the concept of openness has come, to the point where “openness is now such a part of everyday life that it seems unworthy of comment”. If you’re interested in OER, open courses, open journals, or open research in higher education – get the book (it’s free and available in a variety of formats).

Building on the 20MM post about the ability to reuse or repurpose the book itself, I would like to expand on a story from early 2013 where I happen to play a role. I’ll mix in Weller’s description (MW) from the book with Katy Jordan’s data (KJ) and my own description (PH) from this blog post.

(MW) I will end with one small example, which pulls together many of the strands of openness. Katy Jordan is a PhD student at the OU focusing on academic networks on sites such as Academia. edu. She has studied a number of MOOCs on her own initiative to supplement the formal research training offered at the University. One of these was an infographics MOOC offered by the University of Texas. For her final visualisation project on this open course she decided to plot MOOC completion rates on an interactive graph, and blogged her results (Jordan 2013).


(MW) This was picked up by a prominent blogger, who wrote about it being the first real attempt to collect and compile completion data for MOOCs (Hill 2013), and he also tweeted it.

(PH) How many times have you heard the statement that ‘MOOCs have a completion rate of 10%’ or ‘MOOCs have a completion rate of less than 10%’? The meme seems to have developed a life of its own, but try to research the original claim and you might find a bunch of circular references or anecdotes of one or two courses. Will the 10% meme hold up once we get more data?

While researching this question for an upcoming post, I found an excellent resource put together by Katy Jordan, a graduate student at The Open University of the UK. In a blog post from Feb 13, 2013, Katy described a new effort of hers to synthesize MOOC completion rate data – from xMOOCs in particular and mostly from Coursera.

(MW) MOOC completion rates are a subject of much interest, and so Katy’s post went viral, and became the de-facto piece to link to on completion rates, which almost every MOOC piece references. It led to further funding through the MOOC Research Initiative and publications. All on the back of a blog post.

This small example illustrates how openness in different forms spreads out and has unexpected impact. The course needed to be open for Katy to take it; she was at liberty to share her results and did so as part of her general, open practice. The infographic and blog relies on open software and draws on openly available data that people have shared about MOOC completions, and the format of her work means others can interrogate that data and suggest new data points. The open network then spreads the message because it is open access and can be linked to and read by all.

(PH) Once I had and shared Katy’s blog post, it seemed the natural move was to build on this data. What was interesting to me was that there seemed to be different student patterns of behavior within MOOCs, leading to this initial post and culminating (for now) in a graphical view of MOOC student patterns.


(PH) With a bit of luck or serendipity, this graphical view of patterns nicely fit together with research data from Stanford.

(MW) It’s hard to predict or trigger these events, but a closed approach anywhere along the chain would have prevented it. It is in the replication of small examples like this across higher education that the real value of openness lies.

Weller has a great point on the value of openness, and I appreciate the mention in the book.

Source: Weller, M. 2014. The Battle for Open: How openness won and why it doesn’t feel like victory. London: Ubiquity Press. DOI:

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