Thursday, April 18, 2013

Universities - Get Your Ed Schools Involved Quickly!!!

One of the most striking things to me about the higher education side of online learning is how poor these classes are.  It's really not that incredible that a tiny percentage of students ever finish a class.  Now at this point, university people are saying, "Hey, this is no worse than our classes have ever been!"  Exactly!

The big change here is that universities previously were built on the research reputations of their faculty.  The fact that they actually had to teach was a burden.  Believe me, my wife was a professor for many years.  She actually loved teaching, but she was far from the norm.  Think back to your college experience, how many professors would you give an "A" to?  It was probably strikingly small.  Going through engineering school, I would give an "A" to many more of my TA's than the professors and many more of my peers than my TA's.  So what the universities have put online is literally their worst work - the work of professors who often know nothing about teaching.

I was on a panel a few weeks ago with a couple of MOOCs.  I got tired of hearing about how millions of students were taking these classes.  It's nice to have this much low hanging fruit, but your product can still suck.   So I finally asked my other panelists what they did about students in their classes that were struggling.  The most honest one actually said, "That's the student's problem, our job is to make sure we explain the content clearly."  This insight into what higher ed thinks teaching and learning encompasses is incredibly illustrative.  For the other 99% of students (not the ones the elite universities are used to "teaching"), every student in your class will have large gaps in their knowledge that keeps them from understanding what you are presenting, no matter how clearly you present.  They won't be able to scurry around and fill all of those gaps quickly enough on their own to finish your course.  Filling those gaps is actually what you do for a living.

I strongly encourage everyone in the higher ed space who has a broad mission to educate the students of the world (and not to just educate the ones they already educate, but do it online) to go out into the real world and figure out how to teach the other 99%.  Udacity's work with San Jose State will be the greatest asset they develop for that company if they make it out alive.  It is extremely likely that if they really get it, they will end up completely redesigning the process of teaching and learning in their system.  I really hope others and the universities themselves do the same.

Here is the ironic part of the whole situation.  The education schools at universities, often the ugly stepchild of higher ed, actually have people who spend their time understanding how the other 99% need to learn.  It would be really great for people to walk over to the ed department and ask for help.  I'm not saying ed departments are founts of knowledge, but they at least understand that the type of teaching happening for kids in k-12 gets much closer to what it takes for students to actually learn.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Who's your customer?

One of the things I have been struck by the past few edtech gatherings is that the traditional education technology industry doesn't seem to know a lot of teachers or students.  Coming from the world of teaching, this struck me as pretty bizzare.

But I realized, because the person with the checkbook is the superintendent and to a lesser extent the school principal, these companies know the superintendent in general and only know other people if that's what it takes to make a sale.  The likelihood that they are going to get to know teachers or students well is unlikely (other than their support team on occasion).  That's pretty broken!

It seems to me that one of the only ways we are going to get software into classrooms that actually does things which are useful to students and teachers is if we change the customer.  I don't want to be too simplistic here, but why don't we make the student (and their parent) the customer and the teacher our partner (i.e. the one that let's us acquire customers).  Now the only problem with that is that it completely screws up the revenue streams of the existing companies, because superintendents aren't paying, school leaders aren't paying, and teachers aren't paying.  But really, other than the people running those companies, who cares?  Once students are your customers and teachers are your partners, you are going to build things they like.

Just to make one last argument to the people actually trying to change the outcomes for kids through the software they build (and I'm going to be optimistic here and say that is why most people in this industry build software for education rather than just to make money).  Let's look at this industry for a moment.  It's about a $4 trillion industry globally.  It spends between 1-2% of that on technology.  Anyone who thinks that number is going to get larger needs to learn more about the politics of public education.  So if we do the math, institutions spend $80B or so a year on technology (hardware, software, and services).  That's not too bad.  Unfortunately Pearson, HMH and News are going to get well over half of that.  So everyone else is battling it out for $40B.  Compare that to making students your customer (i.e. focusing on the consumer side of the learning market).  Just to start, tutoring and test prep is $100-$150B per year globally, children's books, apps, etc. are all large markets.  So the consumer side is probably 4-5x larger today (before the shift to more direct learning by students has really happened) with much less friction than the institutional market.

So I will say it again.  Other than the fact that this is not what we do today, why not make the student your customer?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Digital video editing

A friend of a friend told me a great story about being with avid when they brought digital editing to the film industry. The first time he showed the system, the editors said, "you don't understand, if the director comes in and we aren't cutting film and taping it together, he will think we aren't working". It took him two years to convince them that they were experts in composing scenes and not cutting film. Remind you of any other industry? Except 20 years later?