PEARSONalized Learning

I have been pretty relentless in mocking Knewton CEO Jose Ferriera for his “robot tutor in the sky” description of the company’s adaptive learning product. And I pledge to continue this proud tradition. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

But the truth is that most of the vendors in this space, both startups and traditional textbook vendors, are not doing a whole lot better than Knewton. The reason the “robot tutors” quote remains so useful is that it is a beautifully compact and self-explanatory illustration of the same symptom that shows up throughout the industry. Vendors struggle find ways to pitch their products that educators won’t find both offensive and ridiculous. In today’s episode of the evergreen marketing sitcom, we’ll see examples of Pearson making analogies or prominent references to Netflix, Google Ads, and one other surprise tech hype guest. (You don’t expect me to give you all the spoilers up front, do you?)

For the most part, it’s not that these companies are conspiring against educators (although we do get periodic outbreaks of “disrupting education” talk driven by Silicon Valley bros who are want to make a virtue out of the fact that they don’t know how to sell to schools). Nor is it that the people in these companies are stupid, or that they don’t understand their own products. Rather, it’s a manifestation of a larger problem of our culture. Most people who are not teachers, whether they work for education vendors or not, don’t understand what teaching is. They have a very rough Gradgrindian sense of it. Learning, in this view, is not an activity undertaken by learners but something that is done to them. You screw off the tops of the students heads, pour the knowledge in, and voila! They have been learned! Learning can be done to students equally well by a person or a machine, since it is not “personal” in any way that relates to normal understanding of the word, and it certainly is not interpersonal.

The people inside education companies that work with customers closely in designing the products often (though not always) have a more sophisticated understanding of teaching than this. But the further away the employees are from product development, the less likely they are to understand how teaching really works. The inner workings of the classroom are just not part of their daily lives. As I wrote in my review of InstructureCon, it’s very hard and rare for any company of over, say, 100 employees to be strongly aligned and consistent across its culture. This is doubly (or even trebly) true when the alignment you’re trying to get cuts against the grain of strongly held cultural notions like the ones we have of teaching. So there are a lot of employees inside most of these companies that don’t get it. Some of them are decision-makers. Some of them are allowed to speak in public. Some of them are both. The result is generally…not good.

It’s probably worth providing a more detailed version of the full disclosure thing than usual for this particular post. Pearson is a client of MindWires, the consulting company that Phil and I run together. When we do consult for vendors (as opposed to universities, which is the other half of our main business), our focus is on helping them understand the needs of students, educators, and schools. We don’t take money to advise them on marketing except in the narrow sense that we try to help them understand the kinds of educational problems that their customers want to hear (and talk) about how to solve. One of the reasons we try to be meticulous about drawing this line is that it leaves our hands clean to write the kind of public critique that I am about to offer here. We always tell this to our corporate clients and let them know that we could write a critical piece about them at any time without warning or editorial review, as long as we are not writing about proprietary information that is part of our consulting work with them.

So here goes….

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Posted in Tools, Toys, and Technology (Oh my!) | 15 Comments

Educational Software Patents: A Call to Vendors

A number of people responding to the Chronicle’s article on the Elsevier patent asked me to write something about it. For those of you who haven’t been following ed tech for at least a decade or just haven’t been following e-Literate for that long, the main reason that people who weren’t my mom started reading this blog in significant numbers was the work I did explaining the patent that Blackboard was asserting against D2L, the mechanics and progress of the lawsuit and, more generally, how software patents work and why they are bad for ed tech. So I felt obliged to respond to requests for my thoughts regarding the Elsevier patent. I published them in my reaction in our column at the Chronicle. Since it’s behind their pay wall, I’ll briefly summarize the points here:

  • For a variety of reasons related to the legal complexities of software patents, we can’t really know the legal scope of Elsevier’s patent unless and until it goes to trial.
  • Trying to figure out what the patent means before is not only hard but could put you and your employer at increased legal risk, so read it at your own peril. Seriously.
  • Elsevier’s public statements indicate that they might be willing to assert it (i.e., sue somebody for infringement of it).
  • Whatever your general opinion of software patents may be, offensive use of them in education is really bad because the companies are too small and the profit margins too thin to support that kind of legal activity (in contrast to, say, the mobile phone and pharmaceutical industries). Offensive use of software patents could destroy progress and innovation in educational software.
  • Inevitably, more and more leaders of education-related companies—including Elsevier’s current CEO—were not around during the Blackboard patent suit and have not seen the massive brand damage that Blackboard did to itself in the process. The danger of patent assertion is increasing because the deterrent is fading.
  • There are few legal tools available to deter patent assertion. The best tool universities have is economic.

I ended by calling for leaders of educational institutions to gather together and sign a pledge that they would not procure products from companies that assert education-related software patents. But I don’t have a lot of hope that it will happen. After all, if they weren’t sufficiently motivated to take collective action during and immediately after the Blackboard suit, why would they be now? This doesn’t mean that they will fail to act in the face of an actual patent suit. Schools voted with their feet in response to Blackboard. In fact, the brand damage was so profound that I believe it is impacting the company’s sales to this day, even though the CEO during the suit left a long time ago and the legal architect of the suit has left the company as well. There will be consequences for companies that assert educational software patents. But there is no visible deterrent for companies that do not remember Blackboard v. Desire2Learn. Blackboard spent a lot of money and retarded the LMS market for a long time before they finally admitted defeat.

This is an area where vendors could show leadership. As I mentioned in the piece, the fact that educational software patents exist means that there is strong motivation for companies to file for patents that they can use in defensive counter-suits, even if they have no plans to ever use them offensively. D2L didn’t have any patents at the time of the lawsuit, but I would be shocked if they didn’t have any today for exactly this reason.

The right thing for vendors to do here is to create what’s known as a patent pool. Any patent owner who contributes to the pool pledges to only use that patent for defensive counter-suits. In return, the owner also gets to use any other patents in the pool for defensive purposes. The rules would be a little more complex to work out than a typical patent pool because there is no single well-defined software category or product that they are protecting (like Linux or video streaming technologies, for example). But it could be done. And it would only take two or three players to get it rolling. The most obvious candidate to lead this is Blackboard. They have a strong need to define themselves as “not your father’s Blackboard” and probably still have patents. If they could get Pearson, McGraw Hill Education, or D2L at the table and hammer out the structure for a patent pool, then they could begin to invite other players in.

In an era where algorithms are increasingly important differentiators in educational software, we can expect patents to proliferate and the temptation to assert them to grow accordingly. We really need corporate leaders to step up and demonstrate their moral commitment to protecting education from this growing threat. I’d love to see this happen and would love to help make it happen.

Any takers?

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Explainer Video on Flipped Class, Learning Analytics, and Adaptive Learning

We now have the second of our personalized learning explainer videos out. As a reminder, here’s the first one, which reframes personalized learning as a set of approaches for addressing the teaching problems of reaching hard-to-reach students:


The new one starts to talk about the how, giving flipped class, learning analytics, and adaptive learning as examples of tools or approaches that can help teachers reach those hard-to-reach students:


Some folks continue to be confused about just how these things are supposed to help. We described some of our thinking in our original post on the first explainer and our recent piece in Inside Higher Ed. We are well aware of a number of hard limits on what we can accomplish, including but not limited to the following:

  • A couple of 3-minute videos are not going to change the world all by themselves.
  • The levers and barriers for change are different at different institutions.
  • Vendors are going to be out selling, the press is going to be out hyping, and institutional stakeholders are going to be looking for silver bullets no matter what.

But we also find ourselves in the fortunate position of having some credibility with academic administrators, ed tech advocates, and vendors. If we can help our readers to nudge the inevitable and already ongoing conversations about courseware products in a more healthy direction, away from robot tutors in the sky and toward enabling teaching practices that reach more students, that would be a good thing. We’re creating these explainers as tools that can be used by any of the parties to those conversations to reframe the discussion. If we’re lucky, we’ll influence the ways in which the vendors pitch these products in the first place while also preparing educators to take advantage of the different pitch to ask more educationally relevant questions and nudge the procurement process in a healthier direction. We won’t always be so lucky. But we won’t always be unlucky either. A lot comes down to each of you and what you can accomplish in your respective contexts. We’re just trying to give you a few more tools to work with. You’re the change agents.

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OSU Panel Discussion: Faculty experience with adaptive learning for Intro to Psychology course

In Spring 2016, faculty, support staff and administrators at Oregon State University met to candidly share their experiences with adaptive learning technology. I shared two different videos from the event at EdSurge in this article and highlighted comments on vendors over-promising here at e-Literate. This time I’d like to highlight part of a panel discussion where a faculty member relates her experiences – what worked and what didn’t work – when using adaptive learning tools.

Kathryn Becker-Blease has taught Intro to Psychology, a large lower-division lecture course, using both traditional quizzing and with adaptive quizzing with the help of Macmillan’s LearningCurve. In this part of the panel discussion Susana Rivera-Mills, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Studies, asks Becker-Blease about her experiences based on research and teaching.

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Online Program Management: An updated view of the market landscape

Earlier this summer I wrote a blog post giving a high-level view of the OPM market landscape, including a call for feedback. Thanks to some blog post comments and some private messages and even company presentations, I am updating the graphic.

OPM providers are organizations (mostly for-profit companies, but with at least one non-profit variation) that help non-profit schools develop online programs, most often for Master’s level programs. These providers provide various services for which traditional institutions historically have not had the experience or culture to support. Some examples of the services include marketing & recruitment, enrollment management, curriculum development, online course design, student retention support, technology hosting, and student and faculty support.

It would be useful to go beyond the label and get a broader view. Continue reading

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