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LMS Is The Minivan of Education (and other thoughts from #LILI15)

Thu, 2015-05-07 07:38

By Phil HillMore Posts (320)

During yesterday’s K-20 learning platform panel at IMS Global’s Learning Impact Leadership Institute (the panel that replaced the LMS Smackdown of year’s past), Scott Jaschik started the discussion off by asking “what is the LMS?”. As I have recently complained about our Saturn Vue that replaced a Chrysler Town & Country, the answer I provided was that the LMS is the minivan of education. Everyone has them and needs them, but there’s a certain shame having one in the driveway.

The Car Committee

It’s popular to gripe about minivans, but in reality they reflect what we (the family set with kids still at home) actually are and what we do. Sure, the minivan encourages us to throw everything in the car and continue soccer mom lives, but they do offer great seating, storage, smooth rides (on boring roads at least). Likewise, the typical LMS is in actuality still a Course Management System (CMS), which reflects how courses are organized and managed in large part.

We’re done with the boring minivan and have moved on to SUVs, but the SUV has morphed into a minivan with bad gas mileage and poor seating. It feels so nice to call it a different name, but it’s still a CMS minivan at its core.

There are new innovations in the car market, like the Tesla. The risk we face in education is falling back on our RFP-driven habits. Great car demo, but the committee is using a family-driven process.  Item #142 includes having more than 5 seats, with a place for little Kenny’s sippy cup in each. You know what, let’s just make it taller and add a hatch in the back. Item #275 requires ethanol percentages (and we read an article that batteries are risky), so  could you add in an standard engine? Two years later . . . “dammit, the LMS”.

Put it together, and the LMS is important and ubiquitous, but we all know we need better options. Despite this, take away the LMS and see if students like a different method to submit assignments or check grades for every class.

Pork Belly Futures?

The metaphor has limitations, of course, as the LMS market has matured over the past few years with new options, better usability and reliability, and the beginnings of true interoperability (largely thanks to LTI).

I also do not think that the LMS is a commodity.

Is the LMS a commodity? Do you have NO opinion which you use and is price your ONLY decision criteria? That’s defines a commodity. #LILI15

— Jeremy Auger (@JeremyAuger) May 6, 2015

My reaction to the observation of the 80/20 rule (LMS has too many features, with most getting little usage) is that we need a system that does fewer things but does them very well. Then take advantage of LTI and Caliper (more on that later) to allow multiple learning tools to be used but with a way to still offer consistent user experience in system access, navigation, and provision of course administration.

I answered another question by saying that the LMS, with multiple billions invested over 17+ years, has not “moved the needle” on improving educational results. I see the value in providing a necessary academic infrastructure that can enable real gains in select programs or with new tools (e.g. adaptive software for remedial math, competency-based education for working adults), but the best the LMS itself can do is get out of the way – do its job quietly, freeing up faculty time, giving students anytime access to course materials and feedback. In aggregate, I have not seen real academic improvements directly tied to the LMS.

Two caveats:

  • The LMS has enabled blended and fully online courses, where you can see real improvements in access, etc.
  • John Baker from D2L disagreed on this subject, and he listed off internal data of 25% or more (I can’t remember detail) improved retention when clients “pick the right LMS”. John clarified after the panel the whole correlation / causation issue, but I’d love to see that data backing up this and other claims.
Caliper Update

The biggest news out of the conference is the surprisingly fast movement on Caliper. From the press release:

Caliper has progressed through successful alpha and beta specification and software releases, providing code to enable data collection, known as Sensors (or the Sensor API) and data models (known as metric profiles). A developer community web site has been set up for IMS Members while the Caliper v1 work is offered as a candidate final release.

Michael has written about the importance of Caliper here.

We live in an appy world now. The LMS is not going away, but neither is it going to be the whole of the online learning experience anymore. It is one learning space among many now. What we need is a way to tie those spaces together into a coherent learning experience. Just because you have your Tuesday class session in the lecture hall and your Friday class session in the lab doesn’t mean that what happens in one is disjointed from what happens in the other. However diverse our learning spaces may be, we need a more unified learning experience. Caliper has the potential to provide that.

The agile approach that the Caliper team, led by Intellify Learning, is using involves the creation code first, multiple iterations, and documentation in parallel. There were several proofs of concept shown at the conference of companies implementing Caliper sensors and applications.

For now, Caliper appeals to the engineer in me, where I see the novel architecture and possibilities. But that will need to change, as the community needs to see real-world applications and descriptions in educational terms. But this should not diminish the real progress being made, including proofs of concept by vendors and institutions.

And Finally

Can someone tell me why Freeman Hrabowski is not running for state or national office? Great work as president of UMBC, but he would make a great politician with national impact.

The post LMS Is The Minivan of Education (and other thoughts from #LILI15) appeared first on e-Literate.

The ETV Personalized Learning Series: What We Hope It Contributes

Tue, 2015-05-05 15:54

By Michael FeldsteinMore Posts (1026)

It seems like there has been an avalanche of high-profile books about the future of education lately—Kevin Carey’s The End of College, Jeff Selingo’s College Unbound, Anya Kamenetz’s The Test, Michael Crow’s Designing the New American University, and Fareed Zacharia’s In Defense of a Liberal Education, to name a few. The fact that so many of these books are being written now by high-profile authors and are getting so much attention indicates that there is a sense in the public consciousness that we may be at some sort of inflection point. But it’s possible to read a bunch of these books—whatever their virtues may be—and still have only a cloudy notion of what is actually happening on the ground in classrooms right now, for several reasons. First, many of these books are written by non-educators. Second, it’s hard to paint a complete picture while also marshalling examples to support a thesis about tectonic cultural change. But maybe most importantly, it’s just hard to convey a visceral sense of what’s going on in the day-to-day educational lives of teachers and students with the written word.

Which is one reason why we’re pretty excited about the release of the first two case studies in our new e-Literate TV series on the trend of so-called “personalized learning.” We see the series as primarily an exercise in journalism. We tried not to hold onto any hypothesis too tightly going in, and we committed to reporting on whatever we found, good or bad. We did look for schools that were being thoughtful about what they were trying to do and worked with them cooperatively, so it was not the kind of journalism that was likely to result in an exposé. We went in search of the current state of the art as practiced in real classrooms, whatever that turned out to be and however well it is working.

These first case studies set the tone for the series. One is on Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, and the other is on Essex County College in Newark, New Jersey. The wide differences between these two schools is indicative of the kind of breadth that we have aspired to achieve for the whole series. Each case study is 30 minutes of video, broken into 10- to 15-minute segments, very little of which is us talking. (We will be releasing some analysis episodes that bookend the series, but those were filmed last and will come out after all the case studies.) And as we had hoped, each case study yielded some lessons and surprises for us.

Middlebury College, the first school we went to when we started filming, was not taking part in any cross-institutional (or even institutional) effort to pilot personalized learning technologies and not the kind of school that is typically associated the “personalized learning” software craze. Which is exactly why we wanted to start there. When most Americans think of the best example of a personalized college education, they probably think of an elite New England liberal arts college with a student/teacher ratio of under nine to one. We wanted to go to Middlebury because we wanted a baseline for comparison. We were also curious about just what such schools are thinking about and doing with educational technologies. Like it or not, the elites have an enormous influence on public consciousness and therefore on creating possibilities for improvement. For example, MIT’s announcement of OpenCourseWare was by far the reputation and credibility boost that Open Education Resources has gotten, at least in the United States. So we wanted to see what Middlebury is thinking and what they were up to. We actually knew very little about it going in. It turned out that one of our friends and partners at IN THE TELLING was a Middlebury College alumnus, and that the company was already in the process of working on a course with them. So it was convenient for us to go there. We did a little bit of vetting up front, but for the most part, we really didn’t know what we were going to find when we arrived on campus. We certainly didn’t expect to find a Middlebury professor who, on his own initiative, had rediscovered the flipped classroom approach without even knowing the term and is on a path to creating something like personalized learning courseware:

Click here to view the embedded video.

“Personalized learning” is a marketing term. A more accurate term of art would be “technology-assisted differentiated instruction.” It turns out that, in cases where students in a class come in with wildly different starting knowledge and skill levels, just teaching to the group doesn’t work, even if the group is pretty small. In Jeff’s course, he is really teaching spatial reasoning. Most people never actually get taught that skill in a meaningful way (or even taught that this is something that they could learn), which means that students enter Jeff’s class with whatever they were able to learn on their own based on their natural abilities. And as he points out in the full episode, the difference among these students is more than just how much knowledge they picked up. Domain experts think differently than novices. Experts—including untrained experts whose natural talent accelerates their understanding—tend to start from general principles and apply them to particular problems. Novices have to start by solving problems case-by-case until they can build their own mental models of the general principles. These two types of learners learn in fundamentally different ways. If you have both types in your classroom, then you need a differentiated instruction strategy to deal with that problem. And yes, this challenge can come up even in top-ranked schools.You can see the full episode with Jeff here.

Of course, the place where you really expect to see a wide range of incoming skills and quality of previous education is in public colleges and universities, and at community colleges in particular. At Essex County College, 85% of incoming students start in the lowest level developmental math course. But that statistic glosses over a critical factor, which is there is a huge range of skills and abilities within that 85%. Some students enter almost ready for the next level, just needing to brush up on a few skills, while others come in with math skills at the fourth grade level. On top of that, students come in with a wide range of metacognitive skills. Some of them have not yet learned how to learn, at least this subject in this context. When we talked to students and teachers about their “personalized learning” math classes, this was the problem that they talked about solving. Providing students with differentiated instruction, teaching them from where they are, and empowering them to take control over their educational success. Not software. Not adaptive learning algorithms. Not products. The school identified a set of educational challenges their students face and some pedagogical strategies to help the students meet those challenges. The fact that technology is an enabler is really incidental:

Click here to view the embedded video.

There’s a lot more to this story, even just in this one clip. For example, both the students and the teachers are taking on different roles in Essex County College classrooms. But nobody is being replaced or marginalized by a robot. If anything, the role of the teacher becomes more crucial as faculty get to focus on high-value one-on-one coaching and mentoring.

Even with their richness, we want to be careful not to claim that these two case studies tell anything like the whole story on personalized learning. To the contrary, we believe that one thing all the “big picture” narratives about change in education tend to lose is how heterogeneous education really is. There is no silver bullet, in part because students’ needs and goals vary so much. That’s one reason why, in the case studies we’ll be releasing over the next month, we’ll also be visiting Empire State College, Arizona State University, and University of California, Davis. Each of these school communities as substantially different student needs and substantially different approaches for meeting those needs.

Is “personalized learning” the “future of education”? We think that’s the wrong question, and it’s not one we try to answer. In fact, anyone who asks that question either doesn’t understand education or is just trying to sell you something. We’re more interested in what thoughtful teachers and students are trying and learning about within the family of approaches that has been lumped under the marketing term “personalized learning” as they try to help the students in their local contexts improve their lives.

You can see the full first two case studies here, which is also where we will be releasing the future case studies and our bookend analysis episodes over the coming weeks. We welcome your feedback, either in comments or on Twitter using the hashtag #eLiterateTV.


The post The ETV Personalized Learning Series: What We Hope It Contributes appeared first on e-Literate.

Release of e-Literate TV Series on Personalized Learning

Tue, 2015-05-05 15:52

By Phil HillMore Posts (318)

Today we are thrilled to release the initial episodes in our new e-Literate TV series on “personalized learning”. In this series, we examine how that term, which is heavily marketed but poorly defined, is implemented on the ground at a variety of colleges and universities. What does it really mean in practice? What problem is intended to solve? And how well is it working?


We have initially released case studies of approximately 30 minutes each from two very different schools – Middlebury College and Essex County College. You can see all the episodes (either 2 or 3 per case study) at the series link, and you can access individual episodes below.

e-Literate TV, owned and run by MindWires Consulting, is funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. When we first talked about the series with the Gates Foundation, they agreed to give us the editorial independence to report what we find, whether it is good, bad, or indifferent.

As with the previous series, we are working in collaboration with In the Telling, our partners providing the platform and video production. Their Telling Story platform allows people to choose their level of engagement, from just watching the video to accessing synchronized transcripts and accessing transmedia. We have added content directly to the timeline of each video, bringing up further references, like e-Literate blog posts or relevant scholarly articles, in context. With In The Telling’s help, we are crafting episodes that we hope will be appealing and informative to those faculty, presidents, provosts, and other important college and university stakeholders who are not ed tech junkies.

We will release three more case studies over the next month or two, and we also have two episodes discussing the common themes we observed on the campuses. We welcome your feedback, either in comments or on Twitter using the hashtag #eLiterateTV.


The post Release of e-Literate TV Series on Personalized Learning appeared first on e-Literate.

Pitchbook Lists Most Valuable Ed Tech Companies

Tue, 2015-04-28 18:16

By Phil HillMore Posts (317)

Update: Jeez – sorry about the multiple typos (mistakenly showed in thousands instead of millions). Fixed now.

Pitchbook – a database service for M&A, private equity and venture capital – listed in Hot Topics what they saw as the top ten most valuable ed tech companies based on public valuations[1]. The definition of startup is a little loose, as one company (D2L) was founded in 1999 and public companies are excluded.

Below are the market valuation estimates, to which I have added the year each company was founded along with the total funding by each company in parentheses, according to Crunchbase data.

Company (year founded, funding total)  Market Valuation

  1. Pluralsight (2004, $169m)            $1.0 billion
  2. Instructure (2008, $79m)               $554 million
  3. (1995, $289m)             $456 million
  4. Coursera (2012, $85m)                   $367 million
  5. Open English (2006, $120m)        $350 million
  6. Craftsy (2010, $106m)                   $339 million
  7. D2L (1999, $165m)                        $330 million
  8. Lumos Labs (2005, $68m)           $265 million
  9. Clever (2012, $44m)                      $247 million
  10. Edmodo (2008, $88m)                 $236 million

Some notes to consider:

  • 2U, not listed as they are public (I assume), is worth approximately $1.1 billion.
  • Chegg, also not listed as they are public, is worth approximately $674 million.
  • was purchased by LinkedIn this month for $1.5 billion – obviously a premium – but take the data with a grain of salt due to market variations.
  • Pitchbook listed Sympoz, but I listed them as Craftsy, the company name.
  • Pitchbook noted how US-centric their own list is, but this is partially due to their own data collection methods.
  1. Note that estimates are as of the end of 2014.

The post Pitchbook Lists Most Valuable Ed Tech Companies appeared first on e-Literate.

ASU, edX and The Black Knight: MOOCs are not dead yet

Wed, 2015-04-22 18:24

By Phil HillMore Posts (316)

In 2012 I wrote a post during the emergence of MOOC mania, pointing out some barriers that must be overcome for the new model to survive.

So what are the barriers that must be overcome for the MOOC concept (in future generations) to become self-sustaining? To me the most obvious barriers are:

  • Developing revenue models to make the concept self-sustaining;
  • Delivering valuable signifiers of completion such as credentials, badges or acceptance into accredited programs;
  • Providing an experience and perceived value that enables higher course completion rates (most today have less than 10% of registered students actually completing the course); and
  • Authenticating students in a manner to satisfy accrediting institutions or hiring companies that the student identify is actually known.

Fig 3 EvolutionCombine20120927

Since that time, of course, the MOOC hype has faded away, partially based on the above barriers not being overcome.

Today, Arizona State University (ASU) and edX announced a new program, Global Freshman Academy, that takes direct aim at all four barriers and could be the most significant MOOC program yet. From the New York Times story:

Arizona State University, one of the nation’s largest universities, is joining with edX, a nonprofit online venture founded by M.I.T. and Harvard, to offer an online freshman year that will be available worldwide with no admissions process and full university credit.

In the new Global Freshman Academy, each credit will cost $200, but students will not have to pay until they pass the courses, which will be offered on the edX platform as MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses.

Later in the article we find out more details on pricing and number of courses.

The new program will offer 12 courses — eight make up a freshman year — created by Arizona State professors. It will take an unlimited number of students. Neither Mr. Agarwal nor Mr. Crow would predict how many might enroll this year.

The only upfront cost will be $45 a course for an identity-verified certificate. Altogether, eight courses and a year of credit will cost less than $6,000.

ASU will pay for the course development and edX will pay for the platform. They eventually hope to get foundation funding, but ASU president Michael Crow promised that “we’re going ahead no matter what”.

This is a big commitment, and it will be interesting to see the results of program that addresses revenue models, identity verification, completion rates and awarding actual credit. As Crow described:

“We were not big believers in MOOCs without credit, courses without a connection to degrees, so we focused our attention on building degree programs,” Mr. Crow said.

Pay attention to this one, whether you’re a MOOC fan or not.


The post ASU, edX and The Black Knight: MOOCs are not dead yet appeared first on e-Literate.

Cisco’s Collaborative Knowledge: Further blurring of higher ed & professional dev lines

Tue, 2015-04-21 17:31

By Phil HillMore Posts (315)

Cisco, which at one time was the most valuable in the world, made an announcement that apparently got no one’s attention (outside of the venerable e-Literate). Cisco[1] released a new product, Collaborative Knowledge (CK), that is designed to allow companies to access real-time expertise and enable collaborative work based on employees’ expertise, or in another word, competencies. From the press release (because I cannot find an independent news article to reference):

To be positioned for growth, performance and productivity, organizations must transform into digital workplaces where knowledge sharing, learning and talent innovation are able to occur in real-time, anytime, anywhere.

Cisco Collaborative Knowledge integrates best-in-class consumer and business technologies to enable capabilities such as highly secure knowledge sharing, expert identification, continuous learning, social networking and analytics into one complete and end-to-end enterprise knowledge exchange. With Cisco Collaborative Knowledge, workers are able to benefit from these continuous learning features, helping organizations innovate and solve real-world business challenges.

Beyond the Buzzwords, What Is It?

The key description here is “knowledge sharing, expert identification, continuous learning, social networking and analytics”. The best way to conceptualize this product is by *not* viewing it as an LMS, which in corporate circles tends to be designed around formal learning programs and learning administrators needs. Like Instructure’s Bridge product, the new new Cisco offering is designed around end user needs, and it seems to be a very different approach – not knowledge management, but employee access to knowledge, learning and networking based on expertise.


Unlike an LMS, Cisco CK attempts to leverage informal, or tacit, knowledge by building up profiles of employees that include endorsed knowledge maps.


In aggregate, a company builds up a knowledge map that allows employees to browse and search.


One of the core use cases is for an employee to do a context-sensitive universal search across employees, communities, libraries and training catalogs. Once there are users identified with the endorsed skills matching a search, there is built-in capability to contact that employee by phone, email, or WebEx virtual discussion.


In another tab of results, you can find communities – which include discussions, blogs & wikis.



This product seems to hit the right notes in terms of helping end users – employees – get their jobs done; contrary to historical learning or knowledge systems that feel like forcing employees to make some learning department’s job easier. What is probably the most interesting aspect to me, in terms of corporate knowledge & collaboration, is how a full implementation of Cisco CK would reorganize a company more along personal knowledge, networking and experience and away from hierarchies and linear control.

Use in Higher Ed

During the demo, the group mostly described usage of Cisco CK within companies, or perhaps as a nod to me being in the call, “also in higher ed”. To be honest, I don’t see that the straight-forward implementation of the product suite makes sense within a college or university. While the concept makes sense on paper, universities (especially faculty) are organized into semi-autonomous departments, divisions or colleges where cross-campus collaboration is not encouraged unless for a defined academic program. I could see faculty seeing this as a time sink, not wanting to be “catalogued” and not wanting people to be able to access them with one click. I could be wrong here, but it seems like a cultural mismatch.

I could see Cisco CK applied across a discipline-specific group, but in many cases it would be difficult to know who is the purchasing entity and who is administering the system. Cisco’s example video released along with the product announcement was based on the New York Academy of Sciences, a scientific society, which somewhat backs up this supposition. There might be other direct uses in education, but likely not in higher education institutions. Let me know if I’m missing something in the comments.

What is relevant to higher ed in my mind, however, is not the idea of institutional implementations but rather the set of uses that could be enabled by connecting to external data sources. During the demo the team described that the system does allow access to multiple sites, but some integrations are not there, yet. If a user searches for a particular skill or competency, one of the search results will include relevant sections of the training catalog. I believe the system is designed for the primary source to be the corporate LMS here. But what if the “catalog” includes continuing education courses offered by partner institutions? What about MOOCs targeted at professional development – particularly following the concept of the Open Education Alliance or Coursera’s Specializations?

This track seems to be a real opening for educational providers – whether institutions in a continuing education role or alternative providers – to more directly connect to employers and their money. The service might not just be for courses but also for external experts as shown in the video above. This move could further blur the line between higher education and professional development.


Furthermore, let’s look at the knowledge map of each employee’s profile. Right now it seems set up to be an internal database, with Cisco providing an internal LinkedIn service for their customers. I asked if Cisco had plans to allow external definitions of the knowledge map, such as directly integrating to LinkedIn. They indicated ‘it is on the roadmap’. If that does happen, now you can see a direct mapping of actual competencies from someone’s education into company-endorsed expertise. You could be known within a company not just as ‘Sarah with an accounting degree working in corporate finance’, but as ‘Sarah with expertise on amortization and competitive analysis’.

I do not know enough about the corporate knowledge / training market to judge whether Cisco CK will be a success, but the product is intriguing. If they go down the path of integrating external data sources of training or education opportunities, and if they go down the path of acknowledging a LinkedIn definition of skills (or perhaps competencies coming from a CBE degree), then this announcement can be quite significant. This announcement would accelerate the move towards companies defining more from the demand-side on what educational opportunities they want for their employees and what skills or competencies they want from college graduates.

There is a growing movement among companies, especially technology companies, to value skills and competencies. What Cisco CK gives a view of is that this valuation is not just a matter of hiring college graduates. This valuation is moving into how a company operates and how employees are valued over time based on their acquired knowledge. Cisco CK also has the potential to offer a valuable marketplace for post-degree or alternative-to-degree education providers.

From a long-term perspective, count Cisco CK as a view towards a redefinition of what institutions and alternative educational providers produce as outputs – not just degrees and grades, but also skills and competencies and lifelong learning opportunities.

  1. Disclosure: Cisco, through a different division, is a client of MindWires Consulting.

The post Cisco’s Collaborative Knowledge: Further blurring of higher ed & professional dev lines appeared first on e-Literate.

2U Learning Platform Update: Removal of Moodle, addition of accessibility options

Mon, 2015-04-20 06:25

By Phil HillMore Posts (314)

2U has now been a public company for over a year, and that had what is easily the most successful education IPO in recent history. Shares have almost doubled from $13.00 at IPO to $25.50 last week. At the same time, there is a swirl of news around their new partner Yale and the Physician Assistant’s program – first the announcement of program from one of the elite of elite schools, second the news that accreditation approval for the new program is not going to be as easy as hoped.

While both aspects are newsworthy, I’d like to dive deeper into their infrastructure and learning platforms. The company is far from complacent, as they continue to make significant changes.

One emerging trend that both Michael and I have been covering is the growing idea that there are real benefits to be gained when pedagogy and platform are developed in parallel. From Michael’s intro to the Post-LMS series:

Reading Phil’s multiple reviews of Competency-Based Education (CBE) “LMSs”, one of the implications that jumps out at me is that we see a much more rapid and coherent progression of learning platform designs if you start with a particular pedagogical approach in mind. CBE is loosely tied to family of pedagogical methods, perhaps the most important of which at the moment is mastery learning. In contrast, questions about why general LMSs aren’t “better” beg the question, “Better for what?” Since conversations of LMS design are usually divorced from conversations of learning design, we end up pretending that the foundational design assumptions in an LMS are pedagogically neutral when they are actually assumptions based on traditional lecture/test pedagogy. I don’t know what a “better” LMS looks like, but I am starting to get a sense of what an LMS that is better for CBE looks like. In some ways, the relationship between platform and pedagogy is similar to the relationship former Apple luminary Alan Kay claimed between software and hardware: “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.” It’s hard to separate serious digital learning design from digital learning platform design (or, for that matter, from physical classroom design). The advances in CBE platforms are a case in point.

2U is following the same concept. Their pedagogy is based on small discussion sections (they boast an average class size of ~11 students) within masters level programs, combining synchronous discussions using a Brady Bunch approach.

Live Courses

They also use a Bi-directional Learning Tool (BLT). The following video references the ill-fated Semester Online program, but the tool applies to all their customers.

2U’s approach also adds in custom-developed video segments that act as case studies.

Learning Platform Keeps Connect, Removes Moodle

Initially 2U patched together Moodle as an LMS and Adobe Connect as web conferencing for the video sessions, developing custom tools and applications to tie it all together. In additional to the learning platforms used within the courses, 2U also developed custom enrollment projections, marketing, support and application services, but in this post I’m going to focus on the learning components.

In an interview with James Kenigsberg, CTO, and Rob Cohen, President & COO, they described the rationale for the recent changes as architectural in nature – moving to a more modular approach and improving reliability. James and Rob said that their learning platforms are absolutely a pairing of technology and pedagogy. In their term, agnostic platforms don’t accomplish much.

James described their origins of using Moodle with belief that it’s “OK to start with a bowl of spaghetti code if you understand what you want”, and that this is their second refactoring of code in the past six years. They had already heavily customized the Moodle code, but now 2U will have all Moodle components out of the platform by the end of CY 2015. In their description Moodle was great to start with as the base, but now they need a different approach.

2U relies heavily on Adobe Connect, with access to video tools and rooms available throughout the overall learning platform. The rationale for Adobe Connect (vs. Blackboard Collaborate, for example) in that Connect provides a persistent “room” for each faculty member, allowing them to customize, add their own content & quizzes, setup of polls, and general configuration[1]. This room is then available to them through their courses. Other tools tend to have separate meeting instances, such that the content and configuration and setup but no longer available after the meeting. For general configuration of the room, faculty members using 2U’s platform can make choices such as only allowing students to speak in virtual room as they raise their hand vs. initiating everyone to talk on unmute.

For the technology stack, 2U is based on Amazon Web Services (AWS) with files saved to Amazon’s S3 file system. The BLT is built on Angular JS.


2U has also taken advantage of the combined platform + pedagogy approach to make some improvements in accessibility as well. For this area, the benefit is more from combining platform and content than pure pedagogy, however.

For sight-impaired students, there is already compatibility with screen readers such as JAWS, but there is a new audio-overlay feature that is interesting. For the case study videos, 2U enables an option for students to hear a narrated audio track in parallel to the recorded video’s playback. For example, in this video from the social work program at USC, the Abby character is talking to a social worker. The audio track option adds descriptions to give the video context for sight-impaired, such as:

Later, Abby rushes into Carol’s office. [dialogue] Abby sits down. [dialogue]

Abby pre flashback

During one transition, Abby describes her memories from childhood, and the audio overlay describes.

In a flashback, ten year old Abby lies across her bed doing homework. Fran looks in. [dialogue] Abby sits up and gathers her books. [dialogue]

Abby flashback

This tight integration works because the same people working on the platform are also working on the course material.

For hearing-impaired students, 2U has added two different transcript capabilities. One choice is having full transcript below video[2].


Another choice is to overlay the transcript as in closed-caption style.


As there are more efforts to create online courses and programs, the topic of accessibility is becoming more important. Just this month, edX settled with the Department of Justice while there are lawsuits against Harvard and MIT for their usage of the platform.

EdX, an online learning platform that Harvard co-founded with MIT in 2012, entered into a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice on Thursday and will address alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. That settlement could come to bear on a separate but similar lawsuit against Harvard that revolves around issues of accessibility online.

Namely, the edX settlement will require the platform to become accessible for people with disabilities—including those who are deaf or visually impaired. [snip]

The settlement comes as the National Association of the Deaf sues Harvard and MIT for allegedly discriminating against the deaf and hard of hearing by not providing online captioning both for the courses they offer through edX and the rest of their online content. The private lawsuit, filed in February, accuses the University of violating both the American with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, which requires that educational institutions that receive federal funding provide equal access to disabled individuals. Legal experts have said that the suits against Harvard and MIT has merit.

This challenge of supporting students with disabilities within online courses has been a difficult one to solve, particularly as real solutions require both the platform to have generic capabilities, the content (often created by individual faculty on their own prerogative) to follow appropriate guidelines, and for the addition of transcripts / captions and audio.

2U has the benefit of being directly involved in all three areas and by having their learning platforms designed and customized for their specific pedagogical approach.

Standing Apart in Crowded Market

2U’s approach is unique in the crowded market of Online Service Providers, or “enablers”. 2U is vertically integrated and focused on niche programs – high-tuition masters programs at elite institutions. Most of the competition – Pearson EmbaNet, Wiley Deltak, LearningHouse, Academic Partnerships, etc – are going in different directions that include broad offerings (masters, bachelors, broad range of pedagogy).

I was a little late in covering 2U, largely because of my discomfort with two interdependent aspects of their business:

Furthermore, this vertically-integrated company goes against much of the movement towards interoperability and breaking down walled gardens. But the company is growing and seems to be quite successful, and I do like the strong focus on academic quality and student support. It is worth understanding how this tight combination of platform and pedagogy within the company plays out.

  1. Note: I believe that Bb Collaborate has an option for persistent faculty sessions, but the core design is based on events.
  2. In both cases I’m showing the mouse hover to also show the platform selection tool.

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Interesting Comment on Pearson’s LMS Plans From Customer

Thu, 2015-04-16 06:20

By Phil HillMore Posts (313)

On April 1, long-time eCollege (aka Pearson’s LearningStudio) customer Texas Christian University (TCU) gave an update on their LMS selection process to the student newspaper TCU360. In this article there was an interesting statement[1] worth exploring [emphasis added].

“eCollege” will soon be a thing of the past.

TCU has narrowed its search for a Learning Management System to two platforms, Blackboard and Desire2Learn (D2L).

“We’ve had feedback, from faculty specifically, that it’s time for change,” Assistant Provost of Educational Technology and Faculty Development Romy Hughes said.

TCU has used Pearson’s Learning Studio system since 1999.

“Pearson is out of the learning management system game,” Hughes said. “We need something to evolve with the Academy of Tomorrow and where we’re moving to at TCU.”

That last comment got my attention. The eCollege / LearningStudio platform has been around for a long time, and there have been questions about where Pearson was going in the LMS market based on 2011’s introduction of OpenClass. Would OpenClass replace LearningStudio over time, and would it strongly change the LMS market? Would both OpenClass and LearningStudio continue as standalone LMS products? It is quite clear by now that OpenClass itself has not changed the market, but LearningStudio has a long-time customer base of fully online programs – many in the for-profit sector.

Furthermore, with Pearson’s reorganization around efficacy, their core document states (p. 14):

The overarching idea was that our investments should be driven towards those products which deliver the highest impact for learners while sustaining us financially so we can continue to invest in new models and improvements.

There is a question of whether Pearson’s internal reviews around LearningStudio and OpenClass are leading to strategic changes around their position in the LMS market.

I asked for Pearson to provide official comment, and David Daniels, president of Pearson Education, responded with the following clarification.

Pearson has not left the LMS space and will continue to invest in our current generation MyLabs and support our many customers on LearningStudio into the future. Pearson’s Learning Studio still powers over 3 Million enrollments annually in the fully remote, online learning space. Our commitment to servicing these students and their institutions is unwavering. Our focus has been and will be on how we support these students within the learning environment. Our range of support services includes learning design and assessment support, integration, data and analytics , student retention, tutoring, and technical support.

This statement is quite clear that there is no imminent end-of-life for LearningStudio, and it is also quite clear about their focus on the “fully remote, online learning space”. This system is primarily used by fully online programs, but there have been a handful of campus-wide clients such as TCU still using the system from the early days. That Pearson LearningStudio would not be appropriate for TCU’s future is partially explained by this focus on full online.

The statement does make an interesting distinction, however, between investing in MyLabs and supporting LearningStudio. My read is that Pearson is not investing in LearningStudio in terms of major product advances and next generation plans but is continuing to fully support current customers. My read is also that Pearson would add new customers to LearningStudio if part of a broader deal tied to content or online “enabling” services (such as Embanet), but that there is no plan for the company to compete in pure LMS competitions.

To help back up this reading, I discovered that the TCU360 article was updated as follows:

“Pearson is out of the learning management system game,” Hughes said. “We need something to evolve with the Academy of Tomorrow and where we’re moving to at TCU.”Hughes said Pearson withdrew from the LMS search process for TCU but remains an LMS provider.

At TCU, at least, the competition is down to Blackboard and D2L, with D2L in the driver’s seat. This competition is also notable by Canvas not being one of the finalists (haven’t seen this situation lately).

One final note on TCU’s selection process described in the article.

These percentages were based on a 214-item questionnaire called the Review Request for Information (RFI) document. These questions were used to assess whether or not a system had the features that TCU was looking for.

“Most LMS vendors told us it took them exactly three months to complete [the questionnaire] because there were so many specific details we were looking for,” Hughes said.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – making a strategic platform selection by a laundry list of hundreds of detailed feature requirements is not a healthy process. I would not brag that it took vendors three full months to complete a questionnaire. But we have one more example to clarify Michael’s classic “Dammit, the LMS” post.

Do you want to know why the LMS has barely evolved at all over the last twenty years and will probably barely evolve at all over the next twenty years? It’s not because the terrible, horrible, no-good LMS vendors are trying to suck the blood out of the poor universities. It’s not because the terrible, horrible, no-good university administrators are trying to build a panopticon in which they can oppress the faculty. The reason that we get more of the same year after year is that, year after year, when faculty are given an opportunity to ask for what they want, they ask for more of the same.

I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of those 214 items in the RFI are detailed features or direct derivatives of what TCU already has. Even if I’m wrong, it makes little sense for a school to specify the future with detailed requirements; they’re selecting a vendor, not specifying a new design. I wish TCU the best in their LMS selection process, but I would recommend that they put more emphasis on strategic analysis and less on counting check-boxes.

  1. Statement from the original article before it was updated.

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Ellucian Buys Helix LMS, But Will It Matter?

Wed, 2015-04-15 09:14

By Phil HillMore Posts (312)

At this year’s Ellucian users’ conference #elive15, one of the two big stories has been that Ellucian acquired the Helix LMS, including taking on the development team. I have previously described the Helix LMS in “Helix: View of an LMS designed for competency-based education” as well as the subsequent offer for sale in “Helix Education puts their competency-based LMS up for sale”. The emerging market for CBE-based learning platforms is quickly growing, at least in terms of pilot programs and long-term potential, and Helix is one of the most full-featured, well-designed systems out there.

The Announcement

From the announcement:

Ellucian has acquired Helix Education’s competency-based education LMS and introduced a 2015 development partner program to collaborate with customers on the next-generation, cloud-only solution.

As the non-traditional student stands to make up a significant majority of learners by 2019, Ellucian is investing in technologies that align with priorities of colleges and universities it serves. CBE programs offer a promising new way for institutions to reduce the cost and time of obtaining a high-quality degree that aligns with the skills required by today’s employers.

I had been surprised at the announcement of intent-to-sell in December, noting:

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.

And I am surprised at the answer – a private equity owned ERP vendor. Throughout the mid 2000s there was talk about the ERP vendors like SunGard Higher Education (SGHE) (which combined with Datatel in 2011 and renamed as Ellucian in 2012) and Oracle entering the LMS market by acquisition, yet this did not materialize beyond the dreaded strategic partnership . . . until perhaps this week. But the Helix LMS was designed specifically for CBE programs, not general usage, so is this really a move into the broader LMS market?

When I interviewed Helix Education about the LMS last summer, they stated several times that the system could be used for non-CBE programs, but there is no evidence that this has actually occurred. I’ll admit that it is more likely to expand a CBE system into general usage than it is to convert a course-based traditional LMS into a CBE system, but it is not clear that the end result of such an expansion would remain a compelling product with user experience appreciated by faculty and students. The path is not risk-free.

Based on briefings yesterday at #elive15, there is evidence that:

  • Ellucian plans to expand the Helix LMS (which will be renamed) beyond CBE; and
  • Ellucian understands that there is development still remaining for this broader usage[1].

Ellucian LMS

Courtesy Ryan Schwiebert:

Support for broad set of delivery models: CBE, Online, Hybrid, Blended, Traditional, CE/WFD

One Challenge: Strategy

But there are already signs that Ellucian is not committed to deliver an LMS with “support for broad set of delivery models”. As described at Inside Higher Ed:

At its user conference in New Orleans, Ellucian announced the acquisition of Helix Education’s learning management system. The company will “blend” the software, which supports nontraditional methods of tracking student progress, into its student information system, said Mark Jones, chief product officer at Ellucian. While he stressed that the company is not planning to become a major learning management system provider, Ellucian will make the system available to departments interested in offering competency-based education.

“The initial goal and focus is on enabling competency-based education programs to flourish,” Jones said. “In terms of being a broader L.M.S. solution, if our customers find value… we will certainly have that conversation.”

I asked Jim Ritchey, president of Delta Initiative and who is attending the conference, for his reaction to Ellucian’s strategy. Jim noted the reaction at the conference to the news “seemed to be more of a curiosity than interest”, and then added:

To me, one of the key questions is how Ellucian will “blend” the software. Do they mean that schools will be able to post the results of the competency based courses to the SIS, or are they talking about leveraging other products within the LMS? For example, some of the capabilities of Pilot could be leveraged to deliver additional capabilities to the LMS. The concern I would have is that tying the LMS to other products will cause the LMS development to be dependent on the roadmaps of the other products. Ellucian will need to find the right level of independence for the LMS so it can grow as a solution while using other products to enhance capabilities. Will the LMS get lost?

In addition there the differing nature of the products to consider. The Helix LMS is centered on the learner and the learner’s schedule, while Banner, Colleague, and PowerCampus are centered on academic terms and courses. These differing design concepts could cause the blending process to remove some of the unique value of the LMS.

Another Challenge: Execution

On paper, this deal seems significant. The company with arguably the greatest number of US higher ed clients now owns an LMS that not only has a modern design but also is targeted at the new wave of CBE programs. The real question, however, is whether Ellucian can pull this off based on their own track record.

Since the 2011 acquisition of SGHE by the private equity firm Hellman & Friedman, Ellucian has endured wave after wave of layoffs and cost cutting measures. I described in 2011 how the SGHE acquisition could pay for itself.

If Hellman & Friedman can achieve reasonable efficiencies by combing SGHE with Datatel, this investment could potentially justify itself in 5 – 7 years by focusing on cash flow operating income, even without SGHE finding a way to reverse its decline in revenue.

Add to this Ellucian’s poor track record of delivering on major product upgrades. The transition from Banner 8 to Banner 9, or later to Banner XE, was described in 2008, promised in 2010, re-promised in 2011, and updated in 2012 / 2013. Banner XE is actually a strategy and not a product. To a degree, this is more a statement of the administrative systems / ERP market in general than just on Ellucian, but the point is that this is a company in a slow-moving market. Workday’s entry into the higher education ERP market has shaken up the current vendors – primarily Ellucian and Oracle / Peoplesoft – and I suspect that many of Ellucian’s changes are in direct response to Workday’s new market power.

Ellucian has bought itself a very good LMS and a solid development team. But will Ellucian have the management discipline to finish the product development and integration that hits the sweet spot for at least some customers? Furthermore, will the Ellucian sales staff sell effectively into the academic systems market?

A related question is why Ellucian is trying to expand into this adjacent market. It seems that Ellucian is suffering from having too many products, and the LMS addition that from the outset requires a new set of development could be a distraction. As Ritchey described after the 2012 conference (paraphrasing what he heard from other attendees):

The approach makes sense, but the hard decisions have not been made. Supporting every product is easy to say and not easy to deliver. At some point in time, they will finalize the strategy and that is when we will begin to learn the future.

In The End . . .

The best argument I have read for this acquisition was provided by Education Dive.

Ellucian is already one of the largest providers of cloud-based software and this latest shift with Banner and Colleague will allow its higher education clients to do even more remotely. Enterprise resource planning systems help colleges and universities increase efficiency with technology. Ellucian touts its ERPs as solutions for automating admissions, creating a student portal for services as well as a faculty portal for grades and institutional information, simplifying records management, managing records, and tracking institutional metrics. The LMS acquisition is expected to take the data analytics piece even further, giving clients more information about students to aid in retention and other initiatives.

But these benefits will matter if and only if Ellucian can overcome its history and deliver focused product improvements. The signals I’m getting so far are that Ellucian has not figured out its strategy and has not demonstrated its ability to execute in this area. Color me watchful but skeptical.

  1. See the “development partner program” part of the announcement.

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GSV 2015 Review

Sun, 2015-04-12 11:06

By Michael FeldsteinMore Posts (1026)

The basic underlying theme of the 2015 GSV Ed Innovation conference is “more is more.” There were more people, more presentations, more deal-making, more celebrities…more of everything, really. If you previously thought that the conference and the deal-making behind it was awesome, you would probably find this year to be awesomer. If you thought it was gross, you would probably think this year was grosser. Overall, it has gotten so big that there is just too much to wrap your head around. I really don’t know how to summarize the conference.

But I can give some observations and impressions.

More dumb money: Let’s start with a basic fact: There is more money coming into the market.

If there is more total money coming in, then it stands to reason that there is also more dumb money coming in. I definitely saw plenty of stupid products that were funded, acquired, and/or breathlessly covered. While it wasn’t directly conference-related, I found it apropos that Boundless was acquired right around the time of the conference. I have made my opinions about Boundless clear before. I have no opinion about Valore’s decision to acquire them, in large part because I don’t know the important details. It might make sense for a company like Valore to acquire Boundless for their platform—if the price is right. But this doesn’t appear to be a triumph for Boundless or their investors. To the contrary, it smells like a bailout of Boundless’ investors to me, although I admit that have no evidence to prove that. If the company were doing so awesomely, then I don’t think the investors would have sold at this point. (Boundless, in typical Boundless fashion, characterizes the transaction as a “merger” rather than an “acquisition.” #Winning.) Of course, you wouldn’t know that this is anything less than the total takeover of education from the breathless press coverage. Xconomy asks whether the combined company will be the “Netflix of educational publishing.”


So yeah, there’s plenty of dumb money funding dumb companies, aided and abetted by dumb press coverage. But is there proportionally more dumb money, or is there just more dumb money in absolute terms as part of the overall increase in investment? This is an important question, because it is a strong indicator of whether the idiocy is just part of what comes when an immature industry grows or whether we are in a bubble. This particular kind of market analysis is somewhat outside my wheelhouse, but my sense, based on my fragmented experience of the conference added to other recent experiences and observations, is that it’s a bit of both. Parts of the market have clearly gotten ahead of themselves, but there also are some real businesses emerging. Unsurprisingly, some of the biggest successes are not the ones that are out to “disrupt” education. Apparently the ed tech company that got the most money last year was which, in addition to being a good bet, doesn’t really compete head-on with colleges (and, in fact, sells to schools). Phil has written a fair bit about 2U; that company only exists because they have been able to get high-end schools to trust them with their prestige brands. This brings me to my next observation:

More smart money: 2U is a good example of a company that, if you had described it to me in advance, I probably would have told you that it never could work. The companies that do well are likely to be the ones that either figure out an angle that few people see coming or execute extremely well (or, in 2U’s case, both).[1] 2U is also one of very few ed tech that have made it to a successful IPO (although there are more that have been successfully sold to a textbook publisher, LMS vendor, or other large company). I am seeing more genuinely interesting companies getting funding and recognition. Three recent examples: Lumen Learning getting angel funding, Acrobatiq winning the ASU-GSV Return on Education Award, and Civitas closing Series C funding a couple of months ago. I also had more interesting and fewer eye-rolling conversations at the conference this year than in past years. Part of that is because my filters are getting better, but I also think that the median educational IQ of the conference attendees has risen a bit as at least some of the players learn from experience.

Textbooks are dead, dead, dead: McGraw Hill Education CEO David Levin was compelled to start his talk by saying, essentially, “Yeah yeah yeah, everybody hates textbooks and they are dying as a viable business. We get it. We’re going to have all digital products for much less money than the paper textbooks very soon, and students will be able to order the paper books for a nominal fee.” He then went on to announce a new platform where educators can develop their own content.

Pay heed, OER advocates.

I saw Mark Cuban: He has noticeably impressive pecs. Also,

Arizona is nicer than Massachusetts in early April.

  1. Corollary: Companies trying to be the “Netflix of education” or the “Uber of education” or the “Facebook of education” will usually turn out to be as ridiculous—meaning “worthy of ridicule”—as they sound.

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Why LinkedIn Matters

Sat, 2015-04-11 12:54

By Michael FeldsteinMore Posts (1026)

A few folks have asked me to elaborate on why I think LinkedIn is the most interesting—and possibly the most consequential—company in ed tech.

Imagine that you wanted to do a longitudinal study of how students from a particular college do in their careers. In other words, you want to study long-term outcomes. How did going to that college affect their careers? Do some majors do better than others? And how do alumni fare when compared to their peers who went to other schools? Think about how you would get the data. The college could ask alumni, but it would be very hard to get a good response rate, and even then, the data would go stale pretty quickly. There are governmental data sources you could look at, but there are all kinds of thorny privacy and regulatory issues.

There is only one place in the world I know of where bazillions of people voluntarily enter their longitudinal college and career information, keep it up-to-date, and actually want it to be public.


LinkedIn is the only organization I know of, public or private, that has the data to study long-term career outcomes of education in a broad and meaningful way. Nobody else comes close. Not even the government. Their data set is enormous, fairly comprehensive, and probably reasonably accurate. Which also means that they are increasingly in a position to recommend colleges, majors, and individual courses and competencies. An acquisition like gives them an ability to sell an add-on service—“People who are in your career track advanced faster when they took a course like this one, which is available to you for only X dollars”—but it also feeds their data set. Right now, schools are not reporting individual courses to the company, and it’s really too much to expect individuals to fill out comprehensive lists of courses that they took. The more that LinkedIn can capture that information automatically, the more the company can start searching for evidence that enables them to reliably make more fine-grained recommendations to job seekers (like which skills or competencies they should acquire) as well as to employers (like what kinds of credentials to look for in a job candidate). Will the data actually provide credible evidence to make such recommendations? I don’t know. But if it does, LinkedIn is really the only organization that’s in a position to find that evidence right now. This is the enormous implication of the acquisition that the press has mostly missed, and it’s also one reason of many why Pando Daily’s angle on the acquisition—“Did LinkedIn’s acquisition of Lynda just kill the ed tech space?“—is a laughable piece of link bait garbage. The primary value of the acquisition wasn’t content. It was data. It was providing additional, fine-grained nodes on the career graphs of their users. Which means that LinkedIn is likely to do more acquisitions and more partnerships that help accomplish the same end, including providing access of that data for companies and schools to do their own longitudinal outcomes research. Far from “killing ed tech,” this is the first step toward building an ecosystem.

Credit: Social Media Delivered


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