Sunday, April 22, 2012

Remaking Education in the Image of Our Desires

The current generation of students will witness the remaking of our education system. Change is happening on many fronts: economic, technological, paradigmatic, social, and the natural cycles of change that occur in complex social/technical systems.

.People have attempted to define change principles: Christensen’s disruptive innovation, Schumpeter’s creative destruction, Kuhn’s revolution structures, Paul A. David’s model of long systemic change, and (my personal favorite) Carlota Perez’ techno-economic revolutions. Each of these are a different lens for viewing big, dramatic, change.


The internet has already transformed music, news, entertainment, and business. Education is trailing those sectors, but not for long. Online learning has grown consistently over the last decade (see Sloan-C image below). Judging from current hype and interest, blended/online learning is about to explode.

We’re not talking routine change here

This isn’t small micro-change. It’s not about adding a new technology into a classroom. It’s much, much bigger. It is part of the big shift: new rules, global market, capital shifts, emerging markets, new economies, and dying economies.


One of the most significant points of innovation in education is in the increase in startups, venture capital, and general corporate interest in filling gaps or correcting inefficiencies.

Enter ASU Skysong and Education Innovation Summit

Over the past few days, I spent time in a hub of corporate-driven educational change: The ASU Skysong Education Innovation Summit. The summit was sold out at 800 participants, but conference leaders say that they could have doubled attendance. It is a three year old summit, and experienced almost 50% increase in sponsors and attendees from last year.


Athabasca University is one of four research universities in Alberta (the others being U of Calgary, U of Alberta, and U of Lethbridge). About 1 1/2 years ago, we started looking at options to increase the impact of our research. As an online university, AU has developed significant expertise in distributed learning and interaction. Many of AU researchers have developed tools and techniques that have strong market potential. Instead of licensing that technology, AU has started to experiment with startups models: partnering with companies in bringing innovations to market. [snip]


ASU Skysong is one of the best models I’ve encountered for innovation in education through startups. And that’s why I ended up at the Education Innovation Summit.


Your ideas are starting to scare me


The conference officially opened with a talk from ASU president Michael Crow about massive change in education ... . Michael Moe followed Crow’s presentation with an overview of the EI Summit and an analysis of change in society and education. [snip]

The presentations and panels that followed the opening keynote ranged from interesting to quite disconcerting. [snip]


The final keynote of the conference, Reed Hastings, was excellent. He recognized that the role of innovation in education needs to centre on students and teachers. This was a departure from many of the panels where innovation and change were the general target.

Language games were evident at the summit. Instead of “for-profit”, “private education” was used. Instead of “charter schools”, “choice schools” was used. The language drew heavily on terms with positive connotations: democracy, markets, freedom, choice, and innovation.

Entrepreneurship is a good thing in education


I have colleagues and friends in education who have a disdainful view of business. I don’t.

I’m quite hopeful that startups will change education.


I’ve been in higher education since the late 1990′s. I love what I do. I love the freedom of academia – the time to think deeply, to explore ideas and concepts that most people don’t have the time to explore. I still see myself as an entreprenuer and it is a path that I frequently consider exploring.

I mention this because I don’t what these comments to be seen as a rant against entrepreneurship in education. Many parts of the education system are in horrible shape. The system itself is not adaptive or flexible. It is not responsive to change. Many parts of the world have more favorable views of private / for-profit education than what is found in US, Canada, and Europe. [snip]

Random advice

For startups:

Create your startup around a compelling social or educational challenge. Companies such as Presence Learning address a real problem that goes beyond making money.

Include educators in your thinking. Many (most?) of the startups I saw at the Summit were not grounded in education – they were trying to innovate in a space where they didn’t have expertise.

Education is a complex landscape, fusing social, research, and knowledge domains. Change produces unintended ripples. When you mess up in business, you might destroy some shareholder wealth. When you mess up in education, you are striking at the foundation of society. Errors can ripple decades into the future. Entrepreneurs in education require a broad, society-conscious, vision of their activities. More than any other sector, corporate activity in education must focus on more than a financial bottom line.

For educators:

The future is arriving rapidly. I was shocked at how unaware I was about the scope of startup and corporate activity in education. The EI Summit was an eye opener. I’ve long been aware of startups and even launched a (failed) site to track entrepreneurial activity in education. I was not prepared for the developed and well-connected the idea-capital-policy networks that I saw at the summit.

I really only have one point of advice for educators: become informed about the startup and the corporate activity in education. [snip]


Where does this leave us?

There are a few integrated players in the market, notably Pearson. Blackboard is attempting a similar play, but serving the existing education market requires a slower pace of innovation than what is noticeable in companies that operate outside of the education system.


What is happening in education?

The education marketplace is being remade in a lego-block style model. Startups are targeting different aspects of education and a few large corporations (such as Pearson) are buying these lego pieces to build at new model of education. The major sectors are listed below. The list isn’t exhaustive, but it does provide an overview of corporate activity in education. Some companies (Pearson) play in most of the sectors. Others, like Blackboard, are attempting to transition from platform to services. Organizations that focus on learner and learner support are missing. This sector is still under-developed.

Wrapping up

The EI Summit is one that I will attend again.



I’m unsettled.

The concepts that I use to orient myself and validate my actions were non-existent on summit panels: research, learner-focus, teacher skills, social pedagogy, learner-autonomy, creativity, integration of social and technical system, and complexity and network theory. Summit attendees are building something that will impact education. I’m worried that this something may be damaging to learners and society while rewarding for investors and entrepreneurs.

Pedagogy, policy, profits

Educators are attempting to remake education according to their pedagogical vision. Politicians are driving their vision through policy. Corporations are driving their vision through profits.

The conference was mono-voiced. During the cocktail reception, someone asked me what I thought of the summit so far. I replied “very interesting, some great ideas, but there was a lot of crap that I need to call out and bitch about”. [snip]

On reflection, that exchange sums up much of my unease with the summit.

In a knowledge economy, we play with ideas constantly. We don’t really know which ones are bad or just suck. We play, experiment and debate. I didn’t see enough of that at EI Summit. I saw strong agreement in the vision forward. People on panels would say really odd things (i.e. “get rid of more teachers and spend it on technology”). The problem with idiotic ideas is that they become foundational in a conversation if they are not interrogated when they arise.

I get worried when everyone agrees on, well, anything.

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