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Making Lab Sections Interactive: More evidence on potential of course redesign

Mon, 2016-02-08 19:51

By Phil HillMore Posts (385)

Two weeks ago Michael and I posted an third article on EdSurge that described an encouraging course redesign for STEM gateway courses.

In our e-Literate TV series on personalized learning, we heard several first-hand stories about the power of simple and timely feedback. As described in the New York Times, administrators at the University of California, Davis, became interested in redesigning introductory biology and chemistry courses, because most of the 45 percent of students who dropped out of STEM programs did so by the middle of their second year. These students are the ones who typically take large lecture courses.

The team involved in the course-redesign projects wanted students to both receive more individual attention and to take more responsibility for their learning. To accomplish these goals, the team employed personalized learning practices as a way of making room for more active learning in the classroom. Students used software-based homework to experience much of the content that had previously been delivered in lectures. Faculty redesigned their lecture periods to become interactive discussions.

The UC Davis team focused first on redesigning the lab sections to move away from content delivery (TAs lecturing) to interactive sessions where students came to class prepared and then engaged in the material through group discussions (read the full EdSurge article for more context). In the UC Davis case, this interactive approach was based on three feedback loops:

  • Immediate Feedback: The software provides tutoring and “immediate response to whether I push a button” as students work through problems, prior to class.
  • Targeted Lecture and Discussion: The basic analytics showing how students have done on the pre-lab questions allows the TA to target lecture and discussion in a more personal manner—based on what the specific students in that particular section need. “I see the questions that most of my class had a difficulty with, and then I cover that in the next discussion,” Fox says.
  • Guidance: The TA “would go over the answers in discussion.” This occurs both as she leads an interactive discussion with all students in the discussion section and as she provides individual guidance to students who need that help.

Formative Feedback Loops UCD

The opportunity to make the lab sections truly interactive, and not just one-way content delivery through lectures, is not unique to the UC Davis example. Shortly after publishing the article, I found another course redesign that plays on some of the same themes. This effort at Cal State Long Beach (CSULB) was described in the Press-Telegram article:

Sitting near a skeleton in a Cal State Long Beach classroom last week, Professor Kelly Young dissected a course redesign that transformed a class from a notorious stumbling block to a stepping stone toward graduation.

Young has reduced the number of students failing, withdrawing or performing below average in Bio 208: Human Anatomy from 50 percent to fewer than 20 percent in about four years, and poorly performing students have watched their grades climb, with continued improvement on the horizon.

That statistic is worth exploring, especially when considering that 500-600 students take this class each year at CSULB.

Thanks to the CSULB Course Redesign work, this work in Bio 208 has some very useful documentation available on the MERLOT repository. Like the UC Davis team, the CSULB team first redesigned the lab sections, “flipping them” to enable a more personalized approach within the small sections. Unlike UC Davis, CSULB centered the content on videos and podcasts.

While we have been working on refining the lecture over the past several years, the Redesign Project has allowed us to get serious about redesigning the laboratory (the source of low grades for most of the students). During the semester, students learn over 1,500 structures just in the laboratory portion of the course. Despite asking them to look at the material before class, students would routinely come to the laboratory session totally unprepared. Flipping the class was an enticing solution to increase preparedness- and therefore success.


After trial and error over a few years, the team has created a series of “Anatomy on Demand” annotated videos. But as the team pointed out, this is not the actual important factor.

While the videos often get attention in a flipped classroom proposal, the true focus of our project is what we do with the newly-created class time in the laboratory provided by flipping the lectures. The most important aspect of this project is our new interactive laboratory sessions that serve to deepen understanding of the material. The idea is that a student will watch the relevant short videos (usually 5-7 per week) prior to coming to the laboratory, arrive prepared to their laboratory, take a short quiz that is reduced in rigor but assures readiness, and then spend at least two hours in the laboratory exploring the structures in detail at interactive small group stations.

The effect has been that students are moving from receiving introductions to material and now participating in critical thinking in the lab.

This new method allows prepared students to deeply interact with the material, as opposed to merely being introduced to it. In previous years, we hoped to have students leave the laboratory with some rote memorization of the structures complete. In contrast, when students arrive with a basic understanding of the structures, we are able to use laboratory time to ask application and critical thinking questions.

After applying multiple redesign elements and interventions, the CSULB team started seeing impressive results, especially starting in Spring 2014. This is where they are tracking the reduction in percentage of students getting D, F, or Withdraw from almost 50% to approximately 20%.


Both of these course redesigns were led by university faculty and staff and are showing impressive results. Not just in grades but in deeper student learning. Kudos to both the UC Davis team and the CSULB team.

The post Making Lab Sections Interactive: More evidence on potential of course redesign appeared first on e-Literate.

College Scorecard: ED quietly adds in 700 missing colleges

Sat, 2016-02-06 19:23

By Phil HillMore Posts (385)

It’s worth giving credit where credit is due, and the US Department of Education (ED) has fixed a problem that Russ Poulin and I pointed out where they had previously left ~700 colleges out of the College Scorecard.

When the College Scorecard was announced, Russ noticed a handful of missing schools. When I did the whole data OCD thing, I discovered that more than 700 2-year institutions were missing, including nearly 1-in-4 community colleges. Eventually we published an article in the Washington Post describing this (and other) problems.

The missing community colleges were excluded on purely statistical grounds. If the college granted more certificates (official awards of less than a degree) than degrees in a year, then they were excluded as they were not “primarily degree-granting” institutions. We label this the “Brian Criterion” after the person authoring two discussion board posts that explained this undocumented filter.

This was a statistical decision because it affects graduation rates, but leaves the student wondering why so many colleges cannot be found. Consider Front Range Community College in Colorado with 1,673 associate’s degrees granted in 2012-13. Because they also awarded 1,771 certificates, the Scorecard filters them out from the consumer website.

Largely due to their community-serving mission, community colleges and other two-year institutions were primarily affected. By our calculations, approximately one in three two-year colleges were excluded (more than 700), including approximately one in four community colleges (more than 250).

It is ironic that the most-penalized institutions were community colleges and those innovating with interim certificates and stackable credentials in particular; indeed, the White House has been explicitly promoting both of these groups.

We never heard from the ED officially but had some backchannel communications from others that there were some fixes being considered.

On Wednesday I got a message from the infamous Brian on a Stack Exchange thread letting me know that ED had changed their approach.

The Department recently added institutions to the consumer site such that institutions that predominantly award certificates (PREDDEG=1) are included IF the highest degree is at least an Associate’s (HIGHDEG>=2 ) AND the institution offers an associate’s or bachelor’s degree (CIPxxASSOC>0 OR CIPxxBACHL>0)

In English, this means that the ED took out their artificial criterion and fixed this issue. Colleges that award degrees no longer get excluded from the College Scorecard because they award even more certificates.

Poulin Hill College Scorecard Graphic Updated

It was a little tricky verifying the fix, as they have also changed how the College Scorecard classifies schools. Previously they let the user filter on associate’s programs, leading to institutions that predominantly award associate’s degrees. Now the scorecard will show you all institutions that award associate’s degrees. So the checksum activity must be done at a higher level. Low and behold, the count of public institutions in the Scorecard approximately matches the count from IPEDS. I also did spot checks on a dozen institutions that had previously been missing, and they are now in the Scorecard.

The other issues in the Washington Post article remain, but this headline problem has been fixed, but very quietly. I cannot find any announcement or release notes from ED, just this one line in their release notes:

Update national statistics to include certificate schools

So consider this blog post as the official ED press release, I guess. Thanks for fixing.

The post College Scorecard: ED quietly adds in 700 missing colleges appeared first on e-Literate.

Empowering Students in Open Research

Tue, 2016-02-02 12:51

By Michael FeldsteinMore Posts (1052)

Phil and I will be writing a twice-monthly column for the Chronicle’s new Re:Learning section. In my inaugural column, “Muy Loco Parentis,” I write about how schools make data privacy decisions on behalf of the students that the students wouldn’t make for themselves, and that may even be net harmful for the students. In contrast to the ways in which other campus policies have evolved, there is still very much a default paternalistic position regarding data.

But the one example that I didn’t cover in my piece happens to be the one that inspired it in the first place. A few months back at the OpenEd conference, I heard a presentation from CMU’s Norm Bier about that challenges of getting different schools to submit OLI student data to a common database for academic research. Basically, every school that wants to do this has to go through its own IRB process, and every IRB is different. Since the faculty using the OLI products usually aren’t engaged in the research themselves, it generally isn’t worth the hassle to go through this process, so the data doesn’t get submitted and the research doesn’t get done. Note that Pearson and McGraw Hill do not have this problem; if they want to look at student performance in a learning application across various schools, they can. Easily. Something is wrong with this picture. I proposed in Norm’s session that maybe students could be given an option to openly publish their data. Maybe that would get around the restrictions. David Wiley, who does a lot more academic research than I do, seemed to think this wasn’t a crazy idea, so I’ve been gnawing on the problem since then.

I have talked to a bunch of researchers about the idea. The first reaction is often skepticism. IRB is not so easy to circumvent (for good reason). What generally changed their minds was the following thought experiment:

  • Suppose that, in some educational software program, there was a button labeled “Export.” Students could click the button and export their data in some suitably anonymized format. (Yes, yes, it is impossible to fully de-identify data, but let’s posit “reasonably anonymized” as assessed by a community of data scientists.) Would giving students the option to export their data to any server of their choosing trigger the requirement for IRB review? [Answer: No.]
  • Suppose the export button offered a choice to export to CMU’s research server. Would giving students that option trigger the requirement for IRB review? [Answer: Probably not.]

There are two shades of gray here that are complications. First, researchers worry about the data bias that comes from opt in. And the further you lead students down the path toward encouraging them to share their data, such as making sharing the default, the more the uneasiness sets in. Second and relatedly, there is the issue of informed consent. There was a general feeling that, even if you get around IRB review, there is still a strong ethical obligation to do more than just pay lip service to informed consent. You need to really educate students on the potential consequences of sharing their data.

That’s all fair. I don’t claim that there is a silver bullet. But the thought experiment is revealing. Our intuitions, and therefore our policies, about student data privacy are strongly paternalistic in an academic context but shift pretty quickly once the institutional role fades and the student’s individual choice is foregrounded. I think this is an idea worth exploring further.

The post Empowering Students in Open Research appeared first on e-Literate.

LearningStudio and OpenClass End-Of-Life: Pearson is getting out of LMS market

Mon, 2016-02-01 08:20

By Phil HillMore Posts (385)

Pearson has notified customers that LearningStudio will be shut down as a standalone LMS over the next 2-3 years. Created from the Pearson acquisition of both eCollege and Fronter, LearningStudio has been targeted primarily at fully-online programs and associated hybrid programs – not for simple augmentation of face-to-face classes. The customer base has mostly included for-profit institutions as well as not-for-profit programs that are often packaged with an online service prover model (e.g. Embanet customers). As of this year, LearningStudio has approximately 110 customers with 1.2 million unique student enrollments.

This decision is not one isolated to LearningStudio, as the end-of-life notification caps a series of moves by Pearson to get out of the LMS market in general.

Less than a year ago I wrote a post about Texas Christian University claiming that Pearson was “getting out of the LMS market”, although during research for that story the administrator requested a change in the campus newspaper.

“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.

From 2007 through 2012, Pearson aggressively moved into the LMS market. In 2007 the company acquired eCollege for $477 million, taking it private. In 2008 Pearson acquired the European LMS provider Fronter. In 2009 Pearson announced LearningStudio as the rebranded combination of eCollege and Fronter, predominantly from eCollege. Then the big PR move came in 2011 with the splashy announcement of OpenClass, an “completely free” and “amazing” LMS that dominated the discussion at EDUCAUSE that year, partially due to “misleading headlines” implying a partnership with Google.

In the past year, however, Pearson has reversed all of these strategic moves. Announced last September, OpenClass will no longer be available as of January 2018. In November Pearson sold Fronter to itsLearning. And now LearningStudio (and in effect eCollege) is being retired. To be more precise, LearningStudio is being retired as a standalone LMS. What is not publicized it that LearningStudio internally provides the infrastructure and platform support for Pearson’s MyLabs & Mastering courseware. That internal platform will remain, but the external product will go away.

For this story Michael and I interviewed Curtiss Barnes, Managing Director of Technology Products for Pearson Global Higher Education[1] Barnes confirmed the story and said that all LearningStudio customers have been notified, and that there are no plans for a public announcement or press release. Barnes said the decision to get out of the LMS category was based on Pearson’s continuing efforts to reorganize and streamline the diversified company, and being competitive in the LMS market just doesn’t help meet corporate goals.

So what platforms and technology products do meet corporate goals? Barnes said that Pearson does courseware really well, with over 12 million students on these platforms overall and approximately 2 million per day. He sees large distinctions between content-agnostic LMS solutions and courseware. Courseware might require certain features that overlap LMS features, but the fundamentals of what’s being delivered goes well beyond content management store, calendaring, and other LMS basics to include instrumentation of content and science-based learning design. Barnes said that learning design is the key element they’re looking for as a company.

The front page for OpenClass now describes Pearson’s view on LMS and courseware markets.

On January 1, 2018, OpenClass will no longer be available to faculty, students, or administrators, and as of today, no new accounts will be created. You will be able to sign in and access OpenClass and we will maintain SLAs until January 1, 2018. We will also continue to provide Community Forum support and OpenClass Knowledge Base until this date.

At Pearson, we are relentlessly committed to driving learner outcomes and we see a bigger opportunity to provide value to our customers via programs such as MyLab & Mastering and REVEL, and through our professional services, such as curriculum design and online program management.

While the LMS will endure as an important piece of academic infrastructure, we believe our learning applications and services are truly “where the learning happens.” In short, withdrawing from the crowded LMS market allows us to concentrate on areas where we can make the biggest measurable impact on student learning outcomes.

Pearson has told customers that they still have engineers and operations teams to fully support continuing operations and mitigate bugs or issues affecting LearningStudio, but they are not developing new features. LearningStudio will remain available for customers through their existing contracts, but the earliest loss of support for any customer will be December 31, 2017 to allow customers whose contracts expire before then more time to select a different LMS and migrate their courses.

Michael and I pressed during the interview to see if Pearson is favoring one solution over another in their discussions with customers, but Barnes said that Pearson has decided to remain neutral. Customers are not being given recommendations on alternate solutions.

This move out of the LMS market by Pearson has a parallel with last year’s sale of PowerSchool, a Student Information System for the K-12 market. Pearson acquired PowerSchool from Apple in 2006, but it no longer made sense to try and be competitive in the SIS market.

Like the forced migration caused by WebCT and ANGEL end-of-life notices, there will now be more than 100 LMS changes triggered by this announcement. While the for-profit sector has taken big hits in enrollments over the past 3-4 years, there are still some very large online programs that now have to select a new LMS.

This has been an eventful year for the LMS market already, and it’s only one month old. Expect to see more movement and changes.

  1. Disclosure: Pearson is a client of MindWires Consulting on an separate project.

The post LearningStudio and OpenClass End-Of-Life: Pearson is getting out of LMS market appeared first on e-Literate.

Blackboard Did What It Said It Would Do. Eventually.

Fri, 2016-01-22 10:21

By Michael FeldsteinMore Posts (1052)

Today we have a prime example of how Blackboard has been failing by not succeeding fast enough. The company issued a press release announcing “availability of new SaaS offerings.” After last year’s BbWorld, I wrote a post about how badly the company was communicating with its customers about important issues. One of the examples I cited was the confusion around their new SaaS offerings versus managed hosting:

What is “Premium SaaS”? Is it managed hosting? Is it private cloud? What does it mean for current managed hosting customers? What we have found is that there doesn’t seem to be complete shared understanding even among the Blackboard management team about what the answers to these questions are.

A week later, (as I wrote at the time), the company acted to clarify the situation. We got some documentation on what the forthcoming SaaS tiers would look like and how they related to existing managed hosting options. Good on them for responding quickly and appropriately to criticism.

Now, half a year after the announcement, the company has released said SaaS offerings. Along with it, they put out an FAQ and a comparison of the tiers. So they said what they were going to do, they did it, and they said what they did. All good. But half a year later?

In my recent post about Blackboard’s new CEO, I wrote,

Ballhaus inherits a company with a number of problems. Their customers are increasingly unhappy with the support they are getting on the current platform, unclear about how they will be affected by future development plans, and unconvinced that Blackboard will deliver a next-generation product in the near future that will be a compelling alternative to the competitors in the market. Schools going out to market for an LMS seem less and less likely to take Blackboard serious as a contender, which is particularly bad news since a significant proportion of those schools are currently Blackboard schools. The losses have been incremental so far, but it feels like we are at an inflection point. The dam is leaking, and it could burst.

Tick-tock tick-tock.

The post Blackboard Did What It Said It Would Do. Eventually. appeared first on e-Literate.

Launch Of Moodle Users Association: 44 members sign up, mostly as individuals

Thu, 2016-01-21 22:00

By Phil HillMore Posts (385)

The Moodle Users Association (MUA), a crowd-funding group for additional Moodle core development, announced today that it is open for members to join. Technically the site was internally announced on its web site last Friday, but the press release came out today. As of this writing (Thurs evening PST), 44 members have signed up: 37 at the individual level, 1 at the bronze level, 3 at the silver level, 2 not sharing details, and Moodle Pty as the trademark holder. This equates to $8,680 – $22,580 of annual dues, depending on what level the two anonymous members chose.

Update (1/25): As of Monday morning, the numbers are 51 members: 44 at the individual level, 1 bronze, 3 silver, 2 not sharing details, and Moodle Pty as trademark holder; leading to $8,960 – $22,860 of annual dues.

Moodle News was the first outlet to describe the new organization (originally called Moodle Association but changed to Moodle Users Association when the organization was formalized), and in early December they summarized the motivation:

As mentioned recently in an article on e-Literate, it’s possible that a majority of all funding to originates from Blackboard. While this may be ironic, knowing the history of Blackboard, it is appropriate since the LMS company has quietly become the largest Moodle Partner by number of clients through acquisitions and growth over the last few years.

The Moodle Partner network is the lifeblood of Moodle HQ/ and funds all of the full-time staff at Moodle HQ. Ten percent of all profit from Moodle partners is contributed back to fund the HQ’s staff, who then in turn organize developers around the world, coordinate QA cycles, keep releases on schedule, provide training and a free trial option for individual Moodle users.

In early 2015, Martin Dougiamas unveiled a plan to diversify Moodle funding by garnering support from non-Moodle Partners: organizations, users, and schools who were interested in contributing to, but were not providing Moodle related services, and perhaps wanted to get a little more out of contributions than a strict donation might give. The MUA is scheduled to kick off this December with it’s inaugural committee and funding which will be used to drive, in part, the development of the Moodle project through a democratic mechanism.

At e-Literate we have covered the inflection point faced by what is likely the the world’s most-used LMS since this past June. The inflection point comes from a variety of triggers:

  • Blackboard acquisition of several Moodle Partners causing Moodle HQ, other Moodle Partners, and some subset of users’ concerns about commercialization;
  • Creation of the Moodle Users Association as well as Moodle Cloud services as alternate paths to Moodle Partners for revenue and hosting; and
  • Several Moodle-derivative efforts in 2015 such as Remote-Learner leaving the Moodle Partner program, Totara forking its Moodle code, and creation of the POET working group hosted by Apereo.

To be fair, Martin does not agree with my characterization of such an inflection point as described in this interview from September 2015:

Martin: Sorry, I don’t really agree with your characterization. Unlike nearly all other LMS companies, Moodle is not profit-focussed (all our revenue goes into salaries). We are an organisation that is completely focussed on supplying a true open source alternative for the world without resorting to venture capital and the profit-driven thinking that comes with that. [snip]

Phil: My note on “inflection point” is not based on a profit-driven assumption. The idea is that significant changes are underway that could change the future direction of Moodle. A lot depends on Blackboard’s acquisition strategy (assuming it goes beyond Remote-Learner UK and Nivel Siete), whether other Moodle Partners follow Remote-Learner’s decision, and whether Moodle Association shows signs of producing similar or larger revenues than the Moodle Partner program. What I don’t see happening is extension of the status quo.

Martin: Moodle’s mission is not changing at all, we are just expanding and improving how we do things in response to a shifting edtech world. We are starting the Moodle Association to fill a gap that our users have often expressed to us – they wanted a way to have some more direct input over major changes in core Moodle. There is no overlap between this and the Moodle Partners – in fact we are also doing a great deal to improve and grow the Moodle Partner program and as well as the user experience for those who need Moodle services from them.

I maintain my belief that there are big changes afoot in the Moodle community. The two primary drivers of how these changes might impact product development of Moodle core are whether and how Blackboard and Moodle HQ “mend fences” in their business relationship and whether the Moodle Users Association shows signs of producing significant revenue and significant influence on product development within the next 1 – 2 years. With the formal announcement today, let’s look at more details on MUA and its prospects.

There are four levels of MUA membership, ranging from 100AUD to 10,000AUD annual dues (roughly $70 to $7,000 in US dollars).


When Moodle News surveyed their readers about plans for membership (results in early December post), they found 70% planning to join at individual level, 23 % at bronze, 4% at silver, and 2% at gold. Thus far the actuals from the public members (excluding Moodle Pty and the two anonymous members) are 90% individual, 2% bronze, 7% silver, and 0% gold. It is quite possible, however, that organizations choosing bronze, silver, and gold levels will take longer to decide than individuals. Nevertheless, it initially appears that the majority of members will be at the individual level. Given the disparity in dues, however, the actual public revenue commitments are 30% individual, 7% bronze, 63% silver, and 0% gold. If either or both of the two anonymous members are organizations, this would tilt the numbers even further.

What would it take to generate “significant revenue”? As of a year ago, Moodle HQ had 34 employees which would require $3 – $5m of revenue to continue support[1] For MUA to have significant impact, I would say that it needs minimum revenues of $500k – $1m within a couple of years. Without this level, the revenue itself is just in the noise and revenue has not been diversified. This minimum level would require 200+ organizational memberships in rough numbers.

Moving forward, it will be important to track organizational memberships primarily, seeing if there is a clear path for MUA to reach at least 200 in a year or two.

What would it take to generate “significant influence on product development”? Well first it is worth understanding how this works. Twice a year the MUA will “work through a cycle of project proposal development and project voting in three phases”.


The number of votes in the process are determined by membership levels. The pot of money to allocate to the specific development projects is based on the revenue. What this means is that MUA is not voting, per current rules, on overall Moodle Core development – they are voting on how to allocate MUA funds within Moodle Core development. Again, if there is not some reasonable level of revenue ($500k +), then the impact of this development will be minor.

I’m not suggesting that $500k is a hard delimiter of significant or not; it is just a rough number to help us understand MUA’s future importance.

We should not forget the introduction of MoodleCloud:

MoodleCloud is our own hosting platform, designed and run by us, the people who make Moodle.

The revenue to cover the costs of this services are provided by ads or by 5AUD / month payment to avoid ads. The service is limited to sites with 50 users or less. As currently designed, MoodleCloud would primarily pay for itself – scale does not necessarily create funds to pay for product development. But this service does provide a potential pathway for additional revenue with just a policy change[2]

A strategic inflection point is a time in the life of business when its fundamentals are about to change. That change can mean an opportunity to rise to new heights. But it may just as likely signal the beginning of the end.

– Andy Grove, Only the Paranoid Survive

More broadly, the issue is whether MUA and even MoodleCloud will change the dynamics to allow Moodle to modernize and compete more effectively against within the overall LMS market. The fundamentals are changing for Moodle.

  1. Note: I do not have actual numbers on revenue amounts and am just using rough industry metrics of $90k – $150k per employee, fully loaded with office and equipment.
  2. I am not aware if Moodle Partners have any limitations on MoodleCloud terms in their contracts.

The post Launch Of Moodle Users Association: 44 members sign up, mostly as individuals appeared first on e-Literate.

Inside Higher Ed: One year after selling majority stake in company

Tue, 2016-01-19 13:01

By Phil HillMore Posts (385)

One year ago I wrote a post critical of Inside Higher Ed for not doing a blanket disclosure about the sale of a majority stake to a private equity firm with other education holdings (most notably Ruffalo Noel Levitz).

Subsequent to the disclosure from the Huffington Post, IHE put up an ownership statement disclosing the ownership change and calling out that only editors are involved in editorial policies. The About Us page prominently links to this ownership statement.

In an interview with Education Dive, Scott Jaschik (an Inside Higher Ed founder and editor) noted his regret for not disclosing the sale up front while concluding:

“I guess I would just say to anyone who has questions, read us and read our coverage and call me if you think we’re doing anything that we shouldn’t,” [Jaschik] said.

In the past year I have done exactly that – watching carefully for editorial shifts, complaining publicly about one article, and privately emailing Jaschik on another issue.

My conclusion? Inside Higher Ed has shown no bias and no change in editorial policies based on the new ownership – they are living up to their word. IHE [Jaschik in particular] has also been quite good in discussing any questions or issues based on their coverage. IHE should be commended for their quality coverage of higher education news.


The post Inside Higher Ed: One year after selling majority stake in company appeared first on e-Literate.

It’s Called Data Analysis And Not Data Synthesis For A Reason

Mon, 2016-01-18 18:31

By Phil HillMore Posts (385)

I’ve never been a big TEDtalks fan, but recently I’ve been exploring some of the episodes, partially based on peer pressure.

@PhilOnEdTech @mfeldstein67 y'all should do a weekly PTI style podcast rundown of the issues raised each week in edtech.

— Glenda Morgan (@morganmundum) January 15, 2016

In the process I ran across a talk from Sebastian Wernicke, who has a bioinformatics background but now seems to specialize in giving talks. The talk in question is “How to use data to make a hit TV show”, which starts by looking at two data approaches to binge TV production – Amazon’s use of data analysis to choose a new show concept, leading to Alpha House, and Netflix’s use of data to look at lots of show components but then to let humans make conclusions and “take a leap of faith”, leading to House of Cards. The anecdotes set up his description of where data fits and where it doesn’t, and this mirrors what Michael and I are seeing in the use the broad application of personalized learning.

We have described in our most recent EdSurge article:

Bottom Line: Personalized learning is not a product you can buy. It is a strategy that good teachers can implement.

While Wernicke is not addressing education, he describes the same underlying issue in memorable way (starting at 8:18 in particular).

Now, personally I’ve seen a lot of this struggle with data myself, because I work in computational genetics, which is also a field where lots of very smart people are using unimaginable amounts of data to make pretty serious decisions like deciding on a cancer therapy or developing a drug. And over the years, I’ve noticed a sort of pattern or kind of rule, if you will, about the difference between successful decision-making with data and unsuccessful decision-making, and I find this a pattern worth sharing, and it goes something like this.

So whenever you’re solving a complex problem, you’re doing essentially two things. The first one is, you take that problem apart into its bits and pieces so that you can deeply analyze those bits and pieces, and then of course you do the second part. You put all of these bits and pieces back together again to come to your conclusion. And sometimes you have to do it over again, but it’s always those two things: taking apart and putting back together again.

And now the crucial thing is that data and data analysis is only good for the first part. Data and data analysis, no matter how powerful, can only help you taking a problem apart and understanding its pieces. It’s not suited to put those pieces back together again and then to come to a conclusion. There’s another tool that can do that, and we all have it, and that tool is the brain. If there’s one thing a brain is good at, it’s taking bits and pieces back together again, even when you have incomplete information, and coming to a good conclusion, especially if it’s the brain of an expert.

And that’s why I believe that Netflix was so successful, because they used data and brains where they belong in the process. They use data to first understand lots of pieces about their audience that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to understand at that depth, but then the decision to take all these bits and pieces and put them back together again and make a show like “House of Cards,” that was nowhere in the data. Ted Sarandos and his team made that decision to license that show, which also meant, by the way, that they were taking a pretty big personal risk with that decision. And Amazon, on the other hand, they did it the wrong way around. They used data all the way to drive their decision-making, first when they held their competition of TV ideas, then when they selected “Alpha House” to make as a show. Which of course was a very safe decision for them, because they could always point at the data, saying, “This is what the data tells us.” But it didn’t lead to the exceptional results that they were hoping for.

So data is of course a massively useful tool to make better decisions, but I believe that things go wrong when data is starting to drive those decisions. No matter how powerful, data is just a tool . . .

We are not the only people to describe this distinction. Tony Bates’ latest blog post describes a crossroads we face in automation vs. empowerment:

The key question we face is whether online learning should aim to replace teachers and instructors through automation, or whether technology should be used to empower not only teachers but also learners. Of course, the answer will always be a mix of both, but getting the balance right is critical.

What I particularly like about the Wernicke description is that he gets to the difference between analysis (detailed examination of the elements or structure of something, typically as a basis for discussion or interpretation) and synthesis (combination or composition, in particular)[1]. Data is uniquely suited to the former, the human mind is uniquely suited to the latter.

This is not to say that the use of data and analytics can never be used to put information back together, but it is crucial to understand there is a world of difference in data for analysis and data for synthesis. In the world of education, the difference shows up in whether data is used to empower learners and teachers or whether it is used to attempt automation of the learning experience.

  1. Using Google’s definitions.

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Patents Rethought: Khan Academy Did the Right Thing

Fri, 2016-01-15 10:49

By Michael FeldsteinMore Posts (1052)

To recap what’s happened so far:

Since then, I had a little more time to look at the actual legal language of the agreement and reflect on the larger edupatent problem. And I’ve come to the conclusion that Khan Academy did the right thing by adopting the agreement. We should feel good about what they’ve done. And given the realities that software patents exist and defensive patents are therefore a necessary evil, we should encourage other educational patent holders to do as Khan has done and adopt the same agreement.

The Innovator’s Agreement is actually quite clever. To recap the basic idea, companies that adopt the agreement give the inventors who are named on the patent application veto power over the patent’s assertion, except in cases where the company is acting in self-defense in response to legal action against it. More than just a pledge, it is a legally binding document. (Text of the agreement is here.)

The agreement travels with the patent, so if the company sells it then the new owner will still be bound by the agreement:

Assignee acknowledges and agrees that the above promises are intended to run with the Patents and are binding on any future owner, assignee or exclusive licensee who has been given the right to enforce any claims of the Patents against third parties. Assignee covenants with Inventors that any assignment or transfer of its right, title, or interest herein will be conveyed with the promises herein as an encumbrance.

The inventors do get to pass along assertion veto rights to their heirs:

[T]he license shall pass to the heirs of an inventor in the case that the inventor is deceased[…]

But if I’m reading the whole passage on those rights correctly, they can’t pass it along in a way that would damage the original intent (like selling it to a patent troll, for example), and there is a poison pill that basically says any protection from patent assertion that the inventor has a right to confer is invalid if it is granted under duress (for example, as a settlement payment in a threatened lawsuit):

Any sublicense granted by the Inventors under this section must be without threat or additional consideration; otherwise, the sublicense will be considered void ab initio. This license to the Inventors is not assignable, although the license shall pass to the heirs of an inventor in the case that the inventor is deceased, and the inventors, individually or jointly, may appoint a representative who may act on their behalf in granting sublicenses under this section. Assignee acknowledges and agrees that the promises in section 2 and 4 are intended to benefit third parties, except in the case of an assertion of claims of the Patents authorized under section 2.

There’s even a provision that says the company that holds the patent can assert in defense of third parties that are getting sued for patent infringement:

[The Company can assert the patent] against an Entity that has filed, maintained, or voluntarily participated in a patent infringement lawsuit against another in the past ten years, so long as the Entity has not instituted the patent infringement lawsuit defensively in response to a patent litigation threat against the Entity.

Overall, the Innovator’s Agreement is a pretty potent tool for deterring patent assertion. And while I would prefer that the power granted by the agreement be in the hands of a trusted third party, the protection of this agreement is still a big step forward, particularly if it is adopted widely enough that there are many parties holding such rights to different patents. The biggest thing that is missing is a strong motivation for the patent holders to assert their patents in the defense of a third party. For example, would Big LMS Company Patent Holder assert a patent in defense of Little Ed Tech Startup if the latter were being sued by Big Textbook Company that happened to also be a major business partner of Big LMS Company Patent Holder? I doubt it. In fact, I doubt that the third-party defense is likely to ever be invoked, for a variety of reasons. Secondarily, I’m not sure that the engineers named on the patents are always the best appointed defenders of education against patent assertion.

On the other hand, the Innovator’s Agreement has several virtues that my proposal does not. First, it already exists and has been vetted by Twitter’s undoubtedly super-expensive lawyers. Second, nobody would have to create a trust, fund it, and convince various patent holders to put their faith in it.

Under the circumstances, I think Khan Academy did the right thing by adopting the Innovator’s Agreement, and I think we should all encourage other holders of education-relevant patents to do the same. And by “encourage,” I mean both praise those that do adopt it and pressure those that don’t. Schools could even go so far as to make institution of the agreement a contractual requirement. Creation of a trust is always a possibility later down the line, using the Innovator’s Agreement as a template. (Twitter was kind enough to release the text of the agreement under a Creative Commons license.)

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Ed Tech Patent Update: The Innovator’s Agreement

Fri, 2016-01-15 07:09

By Michael FeldsteinMore Posts (1052)

Carl Straumsheim has a good piece out on the Khan Academy patent Inside Higher Ed today. Much of it is a primer on the uses and limitations of defensive patents, but there is a piece on the specific nature of the patent pledge that Khan Academy has signed that I missed. The pledge, originally created by Twitter, is quite similar to my own proposal in a number of ways. It turns the decision-making regarding offensive use of the patent over to another party and, importantly, the agreement travels with the patent, even if it changes hands:

The IPA is a new way to do patent assignment that keeps control in the hands of engineers and designers. It is a commitment from Twitter to our employees that patents can only be used for defensive purposes. We will not use the patents from employees’ inventions in offensive litigation without their permission. What’s more, this control flows with the patents, so if we sold them to others, they could only use them as the inventor intended.

Shame on me for not doing my homework.

The big difference between this pledge and the one I propose is that I am suggesting that the third party be a trust rather than the inventing engineer. This has several virtues. First, engineers die, and not all of them are going to be equally vigilant in protecting education. Can the engineer sell this right to somebody else? Can the right be inherited? If it isn’t inherited, is the patent then unencumbered? Giving the rights to a trust lays this concern to rest. It also creates a proactive deterrent because the trust could sue anybody that is asserting an ed tech patent.

What I take from the details of Twitter’s pledge is that my proposal is probably legally viable. The original pledge just needs to be adapted to serve the specific needs of education.

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The Massive Decline In Larger Education Company Market Caps

Thu, 2016-01-14 16:36

By Phil HillMore Posts (384)

After our coverage of Blackboard’s CEO change last week, we were both interviewed by the Washington Business Journal, with the following lede:

Analysts and sources I spoke with Monday, both on and off the record, said the decision to bring on Bill Ballhaus as CEO was a combination of Bhatt failing to make progress building the company’s business and lacking the experience needed to successfully run a company of that scale. And that means at least several years before Providence Equity Partners, which owns a majority of the company after paying $1.64 billion for it in July 2011, begins actively marketing the company for sale, according to industry experts.

Earlier this week I wrote about Apollo Education Group, parent of the University of Phoenix, putting itself up for sale due to its weakening financial position. I also noted that I doubt that McGraw-Hill Education is going to be able to go public in the near-term. Part of the reason for this latter observation is the dramatic fall of Pearson in the stock market, triggered by its warnings that it would miss earnings estimates. In Audrey’s excellent year-end post on the business of ed tech, she noted:

Private equity firms sure love buying ed-tech companies. Perhaps because the stock market’s sorta “meh” about them.

Despite the talk of record investments in ed tech and digital content, the reality of the business of big education companies is not so robust. In fact, there is a massive decline in market caps for many of these large companies, as investors are seeing real weakness. The weakness can be felt in private equity acquisitions as well as public market valuations. To get a sense of the latter on how dramatic the decline has been in just the past year, I combined the market capitalization of four publicly-traded companies – Pearson, Wiley, Apollo Group, and BridgePoint (Ashford University) – over the past two years.

Composite Market Value

Admittedly, this is a somewhat arbitrary combination of companies based on public markets, but I wanted to get a broader sense of market valuation than just one company at a time. Just between these four companies, they have lost $13.5 billion in market value in the past 10 months, more than half of that drop from Pearson alone. To put this in perspective, the record private investment in learning technology, as described by Ambient this month, was less than half this amount for 2015.

Ambient 2015 Summary Table

At e-Literate we seldom talk about stock prices, as we are not focused on investments. But this aggregate view is worth considering to understand that all is not rosy for technology-based companies serving the education sector.

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Solving the Ed Tech Patent Problem

Thu, 2016-01-14 13:04

By Michael FeldsteinMore Posts (1052)

You may have heard that Khan Academy has filed for several patents. Audrey Watters has written a really strong piece providing the details of the filings in the context of the history of ed tech patents and showing why some academics feel that the patent system clashes with the values upon which academia was built. In the process, she excavates some of my personal history in the Blackboard patent war. While I am sympathetic to arguments against ed tech or software patents on principle, my own personal reasons for getting involved with that fight were more utilitarian. I believed then, as I do now, that patents threaten to kill innovation in educational technology due to the specific characteristics of the market. The outcome of Blackboard v. Desire2Learn did not end that threat, although it did temporarily reduce it. The conversation being provoked by Khan Academy’s filings offers a new opportunity to come up with a more permanent solution.

Understanding the Threat

The Blackboard patent fight provides us with a good case study to understand the nature of the problem. Blackboard was granted a patent related to roles and permissions in an LMS. Specifically, they patented the ability of a system to have a single user set up simultaneously as a teacher in one course and a student in another. When academics hear the patent boiled down this simply, several objections usually come up. The first is obviousness. It doesn’t seem like such a simple function should be patentable. The second is prior art. It seems like other, earlier systems probably went down this path. This latter argument took on particular resonance, since many of these systems were developed by and for academics. There was a sense at the time that Blackboard effectively stole a basic concept behind the LMS from its customers and was using it to limit their alternatives. But neither of these problems were at the heart of what made the Blackboard patent so dangerous. Rather, it was the patent’s breadth of applicability. If it stood, there probably wasn’t a mainstream LMS in existence at the time that wouldn’t infringe. When Blackboard sued Desire2Learn for infringement (or “asserted” their patent, in legal parlance), they were attempting to affirm the validity of the patent. Had they won in court, or had Desire2Learn settled out of court, then Blackboard could have sued any LMS developer and, in principle, any LMS adopter.

But it was worse than that. Blackboard had other patent filings, some of which were also quite broad. It was reasonable to worry that the company was preparing to pursue a strategy known as “royalty stacking,” in which they could charge competitors multiple royalties for multiple patents. What would this do to the LMS market? In a big enough industry like, say, mobile phones, companies like Apple and Samsung can sue the pants off each other for patent infringement and still stay happily in business. The LMS business is nothing like that. Instructure, the only new entrant that has gained substantial traction in North American higher ed in the last decade, did so by spending twice as much money as they made, with most of that going to sales and marketing. If Instructure had to pay multiple royalties to Blackboard, there probably would be no Instructure today, and there almost certainly would be no publicly traded company. A successful royalty stacking strategy would have killed the possibility of new competition and given Blackboard a permanent choke hold on the market. I didn’t care to fight about which LMS company should gain or lose market share or whether software patents are good or bad in principle, but I sure did care about whether there would be long-term competition and innovation in educational technology.

Fighting Back

Once the danger became apparent, different parties took different strategies to fight the threat, depending on their resources and legal standing. Desire2Learn fought back both in court and by challenging the validity of the patent through US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The Sakai, Moodle, and ATutor open source communities enlisted the help of the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) to file separate patent challenges on their behalf. Having no lawyers and no legal standing myself, I took a different tack. I sought to make the patent strategy a loser economically. I believed that Blackboard’s customers and prospects would reject the company if only they fully understood the patent, the strategy, and the broader implications. So I did my best to provide the necessary education. I wrote a plain English translation of the patent claim. I started a Wikipedia page to document the history of LMS development, to identify potential prior art for the legal case but also, and perhaps more importantly, to place Blackboard’s assertions of innovation in an historic context. I interviewed legal experts and explained court proceedings. Ultimately, it was up to the university decision-makers, and not me, to decide how Blackboard’s actions should affect their purchasing decisions. But I did everything I could to make sure that they had the knowledge that they needed to make informed decisions. As did other bloggers at the time.

In one important way, the strategy was far more effective than I ever imagined it could be (or than I frankly intended it to be). Blackboard’s reputation was already shaky, for a variety of reasons ranging from product bugs to poor customer service to high-pressure sales tactics to a proclivity for buying up popular alternatives and then killing them off. The patent issue crystalized their brand image, in much the same way that we sometimes see a single gaffe or incident crystalize nascent opinions of a politician—like John Kerry’s “for it before I was against it” or George Bush’s “Heckuva job, Brownie.” There is no doubt in my mind—none—that Blackboard would have substantially better share today had they done nothing different other than refraining from filing that law suit. I always argued that the goal should be to incentivize better market behaviors, and that treatment of companies should change when their behaviors change. And yet to this day, there are institutions that will not even consider evaluating Blackboard because the stakeholders think it’s a bad company, even when they can’t fully articulate why they think that. Even a decade after the patent fight started, and five years and two CEOs after it ended.

And that’s the problem. Yes, we established the principle that a company that asserts an ed tech patent would be punished in the marketplace. Some ed tech leaders learned that lesson and will remember it. Others will not. Even inside Blackboard, even among employees who were there at the time, the institutional memory is fading. Meanwhile, none of the entrepreneurs who entered the space since 2010 have any reason to have even heard of the dispute. And customers don’t remember the details either. The deterrent lesson of Blackboard v. Desire2Learn is time-limited, it is poorly targeted, and it is fading.

We need a better, more permanent solution.

A Complex Problem

So that was Blackboard, circa 2006. What about Khan Academy now? What does it mean that they are filing for patents? What does it mean that they have signed a pledge not to assert their patents except against other parties that have asserted patents? What is the motivation here? What is the effect?

I believe that Khan Academy has good reason to file for patents even if their intentions are entirely noble. Perhaps especially then. Online learning in general and code academies in particular are large and growing markets. Typically, corporate entities only get targeted by patent suits when they are rich enough to produce a big payout. But Khan Academy is a potential target for the opposite reason; they have the ability to reduce the total size of the market by satisfying demand with free offerings. Why pay for a course at Acme Code Academy when you can get it for free from Khan Academy?

Are there actors out there who are morally bankrupt enough to sue a non-profit foundation for giving away free education? If there aren’t now, there will be. Sooner or later, ed tech will get its Martin Shkreli. As long as software patents are legal, Khan Academy is vulnerable to infringement suits. And while owning patents offers far from perfect protection against this danger, it is still better than no protection at all.

I don’t worry about what Khan Academy is likely to do with its software patents. But I do worry about whoever the next owner of the patents might be. I have heard Sal Khan muse that his tutorial videos might still be around and useful to somebody 100 years from now. Unfortunately, that same possibility exists for his software patents. Patent pledges are nice, but they only survive as long as the good will of the current patent owner lasts. Sal Khan may keep his guns locked up safely in a cabinet, but the fact remains that there are now a few more guns in the world that could get out onto the streets and in the wrong hands.

We need a better solution.

A Better Solution?

Needless to say, I have thought about this problem for a long time. There may be a way for good actors in educational technology to get the defensive protection that they need from patent ownership while still reducing the long-term risk to the people that they serve, but they will have to go further than a patent pledge. What I have in mind is a legal structure that combines characteristics of a patent pool and a land conservation easement.

It would work something like this:

  • A legal trust would be formed by a third party with moral credibility, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation or the Berkman Center.
  • Patent holders would cede their right to assert their patents to the trust, except under specific conditions of self-defense, in perpetuity.
  • In return, they would gain the right to assert other patents in the pool in specified self-defense circumstances, as overseen by the trust.
  • The trust would also be empowered to assert the patents in the pool against third parties that are asserting educational technology patents, as a general deterrent against ed tech patent assertion.

I am not a lawyer and am not sure that this would work. But it seems plausible.

If there are any patent holders out there who are potentially interested in this approach, please know that I want to do anything I can to help. I may be able to help coax other patent holders to the table, and I certainly would be happy to promote the good efforts of any company willing to make such a commitment.


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Parent Company of University of Phoenix Could Be Sold to Owner of McGraw-Hill Education

Mon, 2016-01-11 16:45

By Phil HillMore Posts (383)

Apollo Education Group, parent company of the University of Phoenix as well as Apollo Global, is in “advanced talks” to be purchased by Apollo Global Management, owner of McGraw-Hill Education and of Cengage debt. Got that?

To clarify, the Apollo Education Group is the parent company of the University of Phoenix, and they have a subsidiary called Apollo Global, which is a joint venture with the Carlyle Group, another private equity firm. While the confusion is understandable, Apollo Global Management previously shared nothing in common with the Apollo Education Group other than their admiration for the choir-directing sun-god.

With that in mind, here is the news from the Wall Street Journal today:

A deal between Phoenix-based Apollo Education and Apollo Global Management, a New York private-equity firm, could be worth about $1 billion, some of the people said, with one of them adding an agreement could be reached in the next few weeks. Apollo Education had been in discussions with a number of private-equity firms since late last year, but Apollo Global Management is the only one still in the running now, this person said.

It is possible, as always, in such situations that there will be no deal, and another buyout firm could re-emerge.

This news coincided with Apollo Education Group’s announcement of its Q1 2016 earnings. To get a sense of just how far the company has declined, consider that in the earnings they stated their “cash and marketable securities were approximately $756 million and our outstanding debt was $43 million”. AGM is talking about paying $1 billion to get just over $700 million in cash and marketable securities and less than $300 million for the actual assets. The following chart shows the historical Apollo Education Group combined enrollment.

Update: The markets are taking this news well, as shares of Apollo Education Group are up 23% in after-hours trading. At the close today, the publicly-traded market cap of Apollo was just $692 million.

Later in the WSJ article:

Apollo Global Management, founded by veterans of junk-bond pioneer Drexel Burnham Lambert, is known for a willingness to invest in struggling industries and companies. For example, last year it pursued—though never closed—a deal for property mogul Nicholas Schorsch’s troubled real-estate empire.

Connections In Higher Ed

Unstated in the article, but quite important to understand, is that AGM purchased McGraw-Hill Education for $2.5 billion in late 2012 and is trying to take that company public (which I personally doubt will happen in the near term). According to the NY Post, AGM also owns debt from Cengage Learning.

There is one other aspect to consider: the University of Phoenix is in the middle of migrating from their homegrown learning platform that cost several hundreds of millions of dollars to develop to Blackboard’s Learn Ultra. While no one has said that this agreement will change, if AGM does buy the Apollo Education Group, then there would be additional risk on this Learn Ultra migration. University of Phoenix instructors have been told about the changes, but the actual implementation with students and classes is scheduled for Summer 2016. It is quite common for acquisitions of distressed companies to lead to major strategic initiatives being put on hold until the new owners figure out what they plan to do with the company.

There is a lot of moves happening in education this year, and this potential sale will likely have bigger ramifications than just for the for-profit sector.

Update: Sorry for multiple updates, but this observation by Audrey is too good to not include.

Future of edu irony: news that U of Phoenix may be for sale, same day college football championship to be played in U of Phoenix stadium

— Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) January 11, 2016

Future of edu irony: news that U of Phoenix may be for sale, same day college football championship to be played in U of Phoenix stadium

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What Blackboard’s New CEO Needs to Do Now (and how you can tell if he’s doing it)

Mon, 2016-01-04 12:11

By Michael FeldsteinMore Posts (1052)

As Phil noted in his post, Blackboard has hired a new CEO, a guy by the name of Bill Ballhaus. We don’t know much about him yet, other than that he came from outside education. (That shouldn’t be considered a disqualifier, by the way. Instructure CEO Josh Coates also came from outside education, for example, and he has kept most of his customers very happy so far.) We’ll learn more about him over the next days, weeks, and months. In the meantime, it’s worth taking some time to consider the challenge he has in front of him.

Still Under Private Equity, But Different Conditions

Before we get into the steps that management has to make, it’s worth taking a moment to remind and update ourselves regarding the conditions under which they operate. Blackboard is owned by Providence Equity Partners, a private equity (PE) company. As I wrote back when they were acquired, there are two basic business strategies for PE—landlords (usually slumlords) or house flippers. Sometimes PE buys a property that generates a lot of cash and just does the minimum to keep the money coming in. Product generally doesn’t improve much and, in fact, often slowly deteriorates. This is the landlord scenario. Other times, PE buys a property that they think has obvious problems that can be fixed in a few years. They make very careful, targeted investments with the goal of selling the property for a lot more than they paid for it a few years down the road. This is the house flipper scenario. There is a third model that I didn’t mention in the original post, which is junkyard. In this model, PE thinks that the parts of the company are worth more than the whole. They buy it cheap, fleece it for parts, and junk the pieces that don’t sell.

One important consideration for all of these models is that the purchase of the company is almost always made with a lot of debt financing. Debt financing means interest payments. And those interest payments go to the bottom line of the companies being purchased. So, for example, even if Providence was interested in flipping Blackboard, any investments they make into fixing up the house will be bounded by those interest payments. Basically, the CEO of the company is given the equivalent of a second mortgage and told to use the money to get the property into selling shape. In retrospect, it is clear that Providence tried and failed to use the house flipping strategy with Blackboard in a three-year time frame. (More accurately, Jay Bhatt tried and failed on Providence’s behalf.)

So what now?

We don’t know much about the new guy yet, but one thing we do know is that he has successfully flipped a company for Providence before. That suggests that the company may not have given up on the flipping strategy yet. Also, Ballhaus’ title as listed on the web site is “chairman, president, and chief executive officer.” I may be mistaken, but I believe that having Blackboard’s CEO also be Chairman of the Board is new. It is also relatively unusual (though not unheard of) with PE-owned companies. It suggests that they are giving the new guy more control and independence than Bhatt had. It also suggests that Providence is in a relatively weak negotiating position with the new guy. Chances are good that he has been given another three to five years of runway to turn the company around for a flip. Chances are also good that he is in a position to loosen the purse strings a little more than his successor was.

But that doesn’t mean that his job will be easy.

An Uphill Climb

Ballhaus inherits a company with a number of problems. Their customers are increasingly unhappy with the support they are getting on the current platform, unclear about how they will be affected by future development plans, and unconvinced that Blackboard will deliver a next-generation product in the near future that will be a compelling alternative to the competitors in the market. Schools going out to market for an LMS seem less and less likely to take Blackboard serious as a contender, which is particularly bad news since a significant proportion of those schools are currently Blackboard schools. The losses have been incremental so far, but it feels like we are at an inflection point. The dam is leaking, and it could burst. Meanwhile, tensions are growing between Blackboard and Moodle HQ in an environment where Moodle is core to Blackboard’s international strategy and international is the main area where Blackboard is seeing growth. The first six months of Ballhaus’ tenure will be particularly important if the company is going to manage a turnaround without going through a period of freefall.

Here are some of the things that the new adminstration will need to accomplish in the next six months to reduce the changes of a disaster:

  • Visibly improve support for 9.x: Phil and I have been hearing a growing chorus of complaints that bugs in 9.x are not getting fixed and development of new features has been slow. Nothing sends customers running faster than a sense that the company just isn’t responsive to current needs. Blackboard needs to not only improve its support numbers but make sure customers know that it is doing so and making it a top priority for the foreseeable future.
  • Clarify messages around the future of 9.x and of managed hosting: Customers have been getting conflicting messages out of the company. We spoke to one who had been told outright that 9.x is no longer a priority by one VP and that 9.x is going to be strongly supported going forward by another VP. After I complained about their confused messaging on the future of managed hosting in the world of Ultra, Blackboard did take some steps to clarify. But I don’t believe that message got out broadly to the customers and, in any case, it is swamped by the overall confusion around 9.x versus Ultra.
  • Prove that Ultra is real: While there are customers who will not be quick to move off of 9.x (for a variety of reasons), nobody believes that the current platform represents a compelling future for digital learning environments. It is long in the tooth. But schools evaluating LMSs have largely discounted Ultra because they don’t think it’s real and they’re not convinced that it ever will be. Now that the product is a year late, they have increased reason to be skeptical. We have heard that there are schools piloting Ultra, but I am not aware of any public information about how these pilots are going or even which schools are participating. Blackboard needs to ship Ultra and trot out some customers who are willing to speak publicly about their experiences with it. If they fail, they will not get a do-over.
  • Keep the pedal to the metal internationally: Blackboard’s one bright spot at the moment is international growth. The new guy may (or may not) get a little more financial slack, but it will still be far from getting a blank check. International sales need to keep growing.
  • Resolve the tensions with Moodle HQ (one way or another): As Phil and I have written about before, Moodle is critical to Blackboard’s international growth, but there are growing signs of tension between Blackboard and Moodle HQ, the company that shepherds Moodle’s open source development. While this item is less of a “must do” than it is a “probably gonna happen,” I think it likely that Blackboard will either mend fences or go its separate ways in the next six months. Unresolved tensions are not good for either organization.
What to Watch For

If you’re a North American Blackboard customer, here are some signs to watch for over the next six months to help you get a sense of whether the new guy is going to work out:

  • Ballhaus gets out of the building: The first thing the new CEO will need to do is listen very loudly. Customers were feeling a lot of anxiety and confusion even before the announcement. If word doesn’t get out broadly that the CEO is visiting schools, asking good questions, taking notes, and following up, he will already be losing.
  • Clarity around 9.x support and development: This will probably take a little longer, but it needs to start happening before BbWorld. Customers need to start seeing support tickets closed faster. They need to hear what’s going to happen to their platform, how long they can stay on it and what will happen if they do. Upgrade path announcements will likely have to wait for BbWorld, but even if customers have to wait a little to hear about the future, they need to be reassured about the present.
  • A return of the annual report card: The last time Blackboard was trying to rebuild its relationships with customers, leadership instituted an annual report card, showing metrics that customers cared about and providing updates on the company’s progress (or lackthereof) toward meeting those metrics. It worked. Customers felt the company understood what was important to them and was holding itself accountable. Unfortunately, the tradition left with Ray Henderson. If you start seeing metrics again on stage at BbWorld, you will know that Ballhaus understands his customer confidence challenge.
  • Ultra customers on stage at BbWorld: At this point, Ultra customers are rarer than an ivory-billed woodpecker.[1] If there are customers willing to speak publicly about a positive experience with the product, then you can start hoping that it’s real.
  • Jon Kolko and John Whitmer on stage at BbWorld: First, any time Blackboard has the opportunity to show that it is capable of retaining a senior employee who has ear grommets and multiple tatts, it should. But beyond that, Kolko and Whitmer are the two people in the company who can clearly, credibly, and persuasively talk about a compelling, educationally richer future for the Blackboard platforms. If these two guys appear on stage, it will suggest that Ballhaus has figured out how to separate baby from bathwater.

Blackboard VP of Design Jon Kolko

A few weeks ago, during an ELI end-of-the-year webinar, I predicted that 2016 would be an eventful year for the LMS. We’re four days in so far.

Four days, people.

  1. Look it up.

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Blackboard Replaces CEO Jay Bhatt: What happened

Mon, 2016-01-04 10:55

By Phil HillMore Posts (382)

Just over four years since Providence Equity Partners acquired Blackboard and three years after they brought in Jay Bhatt to replace co-founder Michael Chasen, the company announced another change in CEO. Blackboard has removed Jay Bhatt and replaced him with Bill Ballhaus. The official reason from the announcement:

Today, we are fortunate to be joined by a great leader – our new CEO Bill Ballhaus. Bill’s philosophy is directly in line with ours and his skill set is going to help us reach new heights. While this is certainly a change for Blackboard, rest assured that the heart of our mission and strategy will remain the same. [snip]

So we have defined our strategy and now, with Bill joining the company, we’ll continue to execute against it. Bill has accomplished much over his career and his operational expertise has led various businesses to great success. He and I share a fundamental belief that if you make your first priority taking care of your customers, the business results will follow. So, under his leadership Blackboard will continue our focus on doing just that. We will deliver next generation teaching and learning capabilities to the market, continue our international growth, and improve even further the way we serve our customers and strive to exceed their expectations. Bill is uniquely positioned to help us execute against these priorities, and with him we’ll achieve significant advances for our customers and for Blackboard.

While the official messaging is ‘full steam ahead’, to me this is a straightforward story that we have already been covering at e-Literate. In a nutshell, the attempted sale of Blackboard this year has failed, and the company has stalled in its turnaround attempts.

In Summer 2015 we learned from Reuters that Providence was actively putting Blackboard up for sale, a story we confirmed in August. At December’s meeting with journalists (somehow the e-Literate invitation was lost somewhere), Jay Bhatt seemed unprepared for a question about this sale as covered by Inside Higher Ed.

“Look, we’re private equity owned,” Bhatt said, adding that Blackboard’s current owners, Providence Equity Partners, are “really sympathetic” to the company’s cause. “But they are a private-equity investor, and they are looking for a return. Are we up for sale? Not necessarily. Are we always up for sale? Probably. Just like every other company in the public market is up for sale. Every time somebody buys a share of stock, they’re up for sale.” [snip]

“We will be sold at some point,” Bhatt said. “We’ll either be sold to the public market and be a public company like we were for 10 years, or we’ll be sold to another private investor. Something will happen so our investors can monetize, but it won’t change the strategy or the focus of our company.”

Beyond the muddled messaging, Bhatt’s answer strongly indicates that no buyer is really interested and that the attempted sale is not happening. The change in CEO is an additional confirmation to me, at least, that the attempts to sell Blackboard were unsuccessful and have been withdrawn.

The new management team brought on three years ago understood the need to make some major fixes to Blackboard, including re-architecting the core Learn product line, removing the company silos, cutting costs, and finding organic growth opportunities.

Based on private equity ownership and its current market position, however, Blackboard is caught between the need to invest and complete a product re-architecture that is highly complex and aggressive, and the financial requirements of highly-leveraged private equity ownership. The need to invest and the need to cut costs.

The results to date have been mixed.

  • We have described the efforts to redesign Learn Ultra – moving the core product line into a multitenant cloud architecture and rethinking (not just tweaking) the user experience. Blackboard is now at least a year late bringing this product redesign to market while putting out confusing messaging on what Ultra is and when it will be ready. The company is implementing new user experience designs for Collaborate and other products, but none of these matter that much without the core LMS, Learn. Recently the University of Phoenix parent company confirmed through e-Literate that they are replacing their homegrown learning platform with Blackboard Learn Ultra, scheduled for Summer 2016. This represents the biggest win for the Learn LMS in several years.
  • Blackboard has been quite active in removing company silos. Product development and support in particular have been reorganized to centralized teams, and sales of products have been grouped into bundles. In the fall, however, Blackboard reversed some of these changes and moved partially back into more independent product lines.
  • The company has held a wave of layoffs – several per year – since the Providence acquisition, and they have moved hundreds of product development jobs overseas to their Shanghai office. The cuts have led Blackboard to move its headquarters back to the early 2000s location, Blackboard recently signed a lease that will trim its corporate headquarters by 37%. Beyond layoffs, many key management and staff have been leaving Blackboard over the past year.
  • The only area seeing significant organic growth – not just as direct result of corporate acquisition – has been Blackboard’s international operations for both Learn and their Moodle Solutions. K-12 revenues have even dropped, and higher ed revenues are stagnant.

When Moody’s updated their ratings of Blackboard’s $1.3 billion in publicly-held debt in Spring 2015, we got confirmation of the financial status of the company. Revenues are stagnating, K-12 is even dropping, earnings have marginally increased, and debt ratios (debt-to-earnings in particular) are too high and could trigger a ratings downgrade. Blackboard is just not hitting their numbers.

We will look more deeply at the new CEO, Bill Ballhaus, and what his background might indicated for Blackboard’s future. For now, I’ll just note that Ballhaus was CEO of SRA International, a government IT services and solutions company acquired by Providence Equity Partners in 2011. After a corporate turnaround leading to increased revenue for the first time in 2014, SRA filed to go public in Summer 2015 but subsequently sold to CRC. Clearly Providence knows Ballhaus and has specifically brought him into Blackboard for a new attempt at turning around the ed tech company. Also, note that Ballhaus was also appointed Chairman of the Board.

Keep watching e-Literate for more coverage on this developing story.

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Unizin RFP For LMS: An offering to appease the procurement gods?

Wed, 2015-12-30 18:06

By Phil HillMore Posts (381)

Well this was interesting:

Unizin issues an RFP for "Enterprise and Multitentant LMS" & I owe my wife an engagement ring soon

— Phil Hill (@PhilOnEdTech) December 30, 2015

In a blog post from Monday, Unizin announced a public Request For Proposals (RFP) to solicit bids for an enterprise and multitenant LMS. The RFP states its purpose:

We seek to identify a qualified vendor (“vendor”) to make available an enterprise and multitenant learning management system and related services (collectively, the “LMS”) to Member Institutions.

Say what?

From the beginning, Unizin has chosen and contracted with Instructure to have Canvas as the central LMS platform for its member institutions. In our e-Literate post breaking the news of Unizin (from May 2014), we shared this slide that was used to help get the founding members to formally sign up to create Unizin:

Unizin Status

Every member institution of Unizin has already chosen to adopt Canvas or is actively piloting Canvas with the goal of making it the campus LMS. Carl Straumsheim at Inside Higher Ed wrote about the Unizin / Canvas decision right after the public announcement in mid 2014.

Unizin is “the Internet2 for digital education,” its founders say. It’s about “creating common gauge rails.” It will be a “goldmine for researchers.” And it begins with Canvas, Instructure’s learning management system.

Procurement Rules

So why would Unizin issue a public RFP for an LMS? Neither Unizin nor Instructure would agree to provide commentary on the subject due to the RFP rules, but I am quite certain that this move is all about the procurement processes at public universities and not about Unizin looking to change their common usage of Canvas as the LMS.

The first reason is that if Unizin changed away from Canvas at this stage, they might as well admit they are starting over. If a member institution thought that they would have to reverse course and not go to their active Canvas system (e.g. at Indiana University) or their planned system pending pilot results (e.g. Colorado State University), this would create chaos and could jeopardize the founding members’ funding (each pays $350k annually for the first three years). I cannot see this happening unless Unizin had discovered a show stopper flaw in Canvas and could not resolve the issue even with custom development. There have been no indications of such problems. The biggest challenge I have heard of is access to data, but even there Unizin has been actively working to with Instructure to make improvements.

The second reason is that there have been strong indications that some schools are having trouble justifying their Unizin membership and implied selection of Canvas based on procurement rules. Most states require public universities (and every member of Unizin is a public university) to have a formal procurement process, typically through an RFP, to use a vendor for enterprise services. Unizin is an organization within Internet2, where the latter has a Net+ program for cloud services that has allowed member institutions to use without the schools doing their own RFP. In other words, part of the value of Internet2 and Unizin is for schools to bypass their expensive and cumbersome RFP processes and rely on these non-profit organizations – based on the assumption that Internet2 did the procurement work of evaluating multiple proposals.

The problem is that Unizin was announced having already selected Canvas with no official procurement process of their own. I know of at least two campuses that have delayed their decision to join Unizin as their state or campus procurement rules will not allow them to contract for Canvas without some documentation of a public procurement process.

That is what I believe is happening. Somewhat after the fact (hence the engagement ring reference), Unizin is going through a formal and public RFP process to help current member institutions and to make it easier for future institutions to join.

Holding Instructure’s Feet To The Fire

There is an additional benefit to consider. When Unizin selected Canvas, there were no detailed requirements other than referencing those from Indiana University’s process. Go back to the data access challenges referenced in November, where I quoted Unizin CEO Amin Qazi:

Yes, Unizin had an agreement which allowed access to the daily Canvas Data files without our members paying any additional fees. My understanding of the new pricing model is all Instructure Canvas customers now have a similar arrangement.

Unizin is only beginning to explore the benefits of Live Events from Canvas. We are transporting the data from Instructure to our members via cloud-based infrastructure Unizin is building and maintaining, at no cost to our members. We have started developing some prototypes to take advantage of this data to meet our objective of increasing learner success.

Unizin has had, and plans to have, discussions with Instructure regarding the breadth of the data available (current:, the continued conformity of that data to the IMS Global standards, and certain aspects of privacy and security. Unizin believes these topics are of interest to all Instructure Canvas customers.

We understand this is a beta product from Instructure and we appreciate their willingness to engage in these discussions, and potentially dedicate time and resources. We look forward to working with Instructure to mature Live Events.

Now look at the Data Warehouse section of the Functional requirements in the current RFP:


That reads to me like Unizin is putting the free access to data and daily feeds from Canvas Data and the upcoming API access and live feeds from Live Events into formal requirements. I suspect that Unizin is trying to make vendor management lemonade out of RFP lemons.

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Three Views of Top 10 e-Literate Posts in 2015

Wed, 2015-12-30 00:04

By Phil HillMore Posts (380)

It’s the year end, and I have writer’s block. Like many people, I would much prefer to play with numbers than get work done. Instead of just sharing the Top 10 or Top 20 blog posts in terms of 2015 page views, however, I thought it would be interesting to take three different views this time.

Top 10 most-viewed blog posts on e-Literate for 2015

This one is straightforward and ranked by page views, but note that several posts from prior years continue to get a lot of views.

  1. How Much Do College Students Actually Pay For Textbooks? (2015)
  2. What is a Learning Platform? (2012)
  3. A response to USA Today article on Flipped Classroom research (2013)
  4. Reuters: Blackboard up for sale, seeking up to $3 billion in auction (2015)
  5. First View of Bridge: The new corporate LMS from Instructure (2015)
  6. State of the US Higher Education LMS Market: 2014 Edition (2014)
  7. Why Google Classroom won’t affect institutional LMS market … yet (2014)
  8. Blackboard Ultra and Other Product and Company Updates (2015)
  9. No Discernible Growth in US Higher Ed Online Learning (2015)
  10. State of the US Higher Education LMS Market: 2015 Edition (2015)
Top 10 most-mentioned blog posts in social media

This one took the most effort. It turns out that Twitter changed how they provide sharing data in May 2015 – essentially they no longer provide it unless you go through their channels and pay them. Our social media sharing plugin for WordPress, wpSocialStats, has not been updated in two years, and it is hard to find a good substitute. What it provides is Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and StumbleUpon data. Google Analytics has new capabilities to measure mentions for their “Data Hub” – primarily Diigo, Google+, and Google Groups. What I did was to combine wpSocialStats with Google’s Data Hub minus Twitter results. For what it’s worth, LinkedIn sharing was on the same order as Twitter, but it now dominates this group for e-Literate blog posts.

These are the Top 10 posts in terms of social media mentions created in 2015.

  1. McGraw Hill’s New Personalized Learning Authoring Product (2015)
  2. Instructure Is Truly Anomalous (2015)
  3. How Much Do College Students Actually Pay For Textbooks? (2015)
  4. The Starling: Pre-K Ed Tech (2015)
  5. Exclusive: University of Phoenix moving from homegrown platform to Blackboard Learn Ultra (2015)
  6. No Discernible Growth in US Higher Ed Online Learning (2015)
  7. Instructure: Accelerating growth in 3 parallel markets (2015)
  8. Reuters: Blackboard up for sale, seeking up to $3 billion in auction (2015)
  9. Why LinkedIn Matters (2015)
  10. Bad Data Can Lead To Bad Policy: College students don’t spend $1,200+ on textbooks (2015)
Top 10 pages views originating from social media mentions

If we combine these two concepts, the next view is the find the greatest number of pages views in 2015 originating from social media mentions. We only get ~13% of our traffic from social media sources, but this is the first time we’ve analyzed the data from this source.

These are the top 10 most-viewed blog posts in 2015 that originated from social media mentions.

  1. State of the US Higher Education LMS Market: 2015 Edition (2015)
  2. Reuters: Blackboard up for sale, seeking up to $3 billion in auction (2015)
  3. Harmonizing Learning and Education (2015)
  4. Cracks In The Foundation Of Disruptive Innovation (2015)
  5. Back To The Future: Looking at LMS forecasts from 2011 – 2014 (2015)
  6. Why LinkedIn Matters (2015)
  7. How Much Do College Students Actually Pay For Textbooks? (2015)
  8. Blueprint for a Post-LMS, Part 1 (2015)
  9. U of Phoenix: Losing hundreds of millions of dollars on adaptive-learning LMS bet (2015)
  10. Bad Data Can Lead To Bad Policy: College students don’t spend $1,200+ on textbooks (2015)

I’m not sure why these views are so different. I would note, however, that all of the posts in the second and third lists are from 2015, indicating that social media mentions are shorter-lasting than search rankings and direct views.

Another issue to consider is time lag. The post on McGraw-Hill’s new product has more than double the social media mentions as any other post, yet these mentions have not (yet) driven high page views (at least to the level of becoming top 10).

What do you notice?

Whatever the reasons, there they are – three quite different top 10 lists. Here’s to the new year and a lot more blogging to come.

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McGraw Hill’s New Personalized Learning Authoring Product

Sat, 2015-12-19 13:10

By Michael FeldsteinMore Posts (1052)

In what has to be the softest launch ever, McGraw Hill has been quietly talking about their new personalized learning authoring system. If you ask them when it will be available to all customers, they will tell you “right now.” But since it doesn’t even have a name yet, I’m not sure how customers would ask for it. They occasionally refer to it as their “learning science platform,” but that’s not really its name.

Here’s a dirty little secret: The “new” authoring platform is essentially a publishing front end for their SmartBooks platform. Not only is it interesting in and of itself; it also gives us some indication of one direction that the textbook publishing industry could go. (By the way, they don’t like to be called “textbook publishers” anymore. I guess the industry needs to come up with a new name for that too.)

I was able to get a quick overview of the platform from McGraw Hill’s Chief Digital Officer Stephen Laster and SVP Zach Posner.

SmartBooks are…uh…smart books

SmartBooks are based on a technology developed by a company called Area9, which was acquired by McGraw Hill in 2014 (although the company used the technology in products for several years before then and purchased a twenty percent equity stake in 2013). The heart of the platform is a set of algorithms designed to optimize the commitment of knowledge to long-term memory. It turns out that you can boost memorization with tricks like reminder quizzes at carefully timed intervals. If you combine this with algorithms designed to test for understanding by weighing the degree of difficulty of the question (like Item Response Theory), you can come up with a very good “drill and kill” platform that can help students learn and remember just about any term, fact, or concept that a computer can test for. The first product that McGraw Hill built with Area9 technology, LearnSmart, is just that. It’s a good drill and kill tool.

The next thing that the company did was integrate the LearnSmart technology into an eBook platform. With SmartBooks, students can see the important content highlighted, get targeted practice questions designed to test their knowledge of the content, and then get feedback what they’ve learned and what they still have yet to master. The way these pieces get integrated is nicely done. Here’s an overview of the student experience:

On one level, SmartBooks don’t enable students to do anything that a textbook doesn’t. It just enables them to do the same things better. You probably wouldn’t expect a textbook to impart deep and nuanced understanding of…well…anything. SmartBooks won’t either. But they should do the workhorse job of getting students to learn basic terms and concepts.


It turns out that, from a corporate change management perspective, SmartBooks were a stroke of genius. Textbook publishers share a common problem that most of their editors don’t know how to design digital products. And why would they? Most of them spent their careers learning the craft of designing paper books. This is one major reason why digital products from textbook publishers are often simultaneously very bad and slow to come out in volume.[1] It turns out that SmartBooks are a great solution to this problem because they don’t demand a lot from editors that they don’t already know. They already know about content (or “learning resources”) tied to assessment items (or “probes”). They know about linking these to learning objectives and tying them to larger units in a table of contents. That’s all they need to know in order to author a SmartBook.


McGraw Hill editors could plan their titles more or less the way they always have, with some minor format modifications to make sure that they have the right structure. Those books could then be “wired up” to become SmartBooks without really having to redesign the product. The authoring platform does what you would expect it to do; allow authors to highlight sections of text and link them to assessment questions and learning objectives. There’s more functionality—for example, you can tag questions with difficulty level and Bloom’s Taxonomy level—but that’s the heart of authoring. Then there is what amounts to a validation and tuning loop, where authors can see how students are doing with the content in order to improve it.


This authoring platform is essentially what McGraw Hill is releasing as its yet-to-be-named product. You can now buy a SmartBook without the book.


It’s not the size of the data, but the magic in it


It may not seem like it, but by making this move, McGraw Hill is also making a bet on one possible future for personalized learning products. Specifically, they are making a bet against the software as a replacement for the teacher and against big data. As long as the content in SmartBooks is locked down, then it is possible to run machine learning algorithms against the clicks of millions of students using that content. To the degree that the platform is opened up for custom, newly created books, the controlled experiment goes away and the possibility of big data analysis goes with it.

The company is clearly not stumbling into this position blindly but rather taking it consciously. Last year at the Campus Technology conference, Laster told the attendees, “Here’s my thinking about big data—I don’t know what to do with it in education. I’d like to get us away from the term ‘big data.'” He talked instead about the value of “small data.” This is essentially the same position that Mike Caulfield advocated two years ago in his post on the absence of theory in big data talk. Laster underscored this position in his recent conversation with me, claiming that Phil’s and my position that personalized learning requires skilled teachers is basically McGraw Hill’s position and taking a swipe at Knewton by saying, “We don’t believe in mechanical Turks in the sky.” He made a point of calling out that all analytics information from content in the new platform will be available via Caliper and said, “You own your data.” (I will investigate the details on this, including the relevant contractual clauses, when I get the chance.) Support for Creative Commons licenses is planned for a future release. All content, including the metadata links created in the authoring platform, is exportable into an XML manifest.

There’s a lot here that I still don’t know, but what I’ve seen and heard so far is intriguing. And it definitely begins to clarify the battle lines for the next generation of personalized learning products.


  1. I could write a book on this subject alone.

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Georgia Tech and Udacity MOOC Degree: Missing targets but still worth watching

Mon, 2015-12-14 13:14

By Phil HillMore Posts (379)

Melissa Korn wrote an article yesterday in the Wall Street Journal giving a progress report on that Georgia Tech / Udacity MOOC degree (the master’s in computer science).

The Georgia Tech online computer-science program is relatively massive: It has 2,789 students enrolled this semester, compared with 312 in the campus-based version. It’s on track to turn a profit by May, according to Charles Isbell Jr., senior associate dean at the College of Computing. It has a steady stream of more than 1,300 applicants for each new term. [snip]

At Georgia Tech, Mr. Isbell is still thinking on a grand scale: “It wouldn’t surprise me if three years from now we’re talking about 10,000 students instead of 3,000 students,” he said. “This is sustainable and this is scalable.”

Enrollment WSJ

The article takes a generally positive tone describing the program, although it does call out that students are taking just 1.4 courses per term, “below the school’s initial projection”. In addition:

And the low price point for the online master’s degree—just under $7,000, compared with more than $38,000 for the bricks-and-mortar version—has proven almost too much of a draw. Students who may have just dabbled in a few classes, without seeking to earn credit, are instead signing up for the full-degree program and may be dragging down retention rates.

Projections and Reality

I have long considered this Ga Tech / Udacity program to be one of the few meaningful MOOC-based initiatives with potential to have a meaningful impact on for-credit higher education, so it’s worth comparing this WSJ update with the program projections from 2013. The issue is not just whether they have almost 3,000 students, it’s is also whether the reality is matching original forecasts and taking appropriate lessons from the update.

Ry Rivard, then at Inside Higher Ed, had by far the best reporting on this program. In addition to his initial coverage of the announcement, he also obtained the Georgia Tech / Udacity contract and shared it in this article. Some key projections and assumptions from the contract:

  • AT&T’s initial sponsorship was planned to be $2 million to cover the first-year startup costs, allowing the program to be self-sustaining (i.e. profitable, with net revenue) starting in year 2 (AY 2014/15). In reality, AT&T ended up sponsoring $3.5 million and the program is “on track to turn a profit by May, according to Charles Isbell Jr., senior associate dean at the College of Computing”.
  • The contract assumed degree-seeking students would take 2 courses (6 credits) per term and that other paying students (seeking a certificate) would take 1 course per term. As noted in the WSJ, paying students are taking 1.4 courses per term, although the article does not break out degree-seeking and certificate-seeking categories.
  • For Fall 2015, the contract assumed 4,787 degree-seeking students and 1,500 certificate-seeking students (total of 6,287). As noted in the WSJ, they current have 2,789 paying students, 56% fewer than planned.
  • The contract assumed drop-out rates of a combined ~15% per cohort. As noted in the WSJ, 273 of the original 380 students have graduated or are still enrolled, indicating a drop-out rate of 28% for this cohort.

Despite missing most enrollment and revenue projections, I still consider this program to be important and worthy of analysis. Whether or not Georgia Tech gets to 10,000 students, it does appear they have significantly expanded their reach in computer science by offering remote students a dramatically cheaper master’s degree in computer science.

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Personalized Learning and the Teacher

Mon, 2015-12-14 11:46

By Michael FeldsteinMore Posts (1050)

A few weeks ago, Jonathan Rees wrote a post calling out that, no matter what potential of so-called “personalized learning” for improving student outcomes, there is a potential—and a temptation—for it to be abused as a method of lowering (labor) costs in a way that also lowers educational quality and effectiveness. This is a serious and realistic concern, particularly as long as personalized learning is framed as a product rather than a set of teaching strategies.

Phil and I have addressed this concern head-on in our latest piece on EdSurge. I suppose a battle over the meaning of the term was inevitable; why should this one be any different from all the others? There is an enormous disconnect between the way the term is used in product marketing and ed tech circles and the way it is actually applied in the real world in cases places it actually works. I have seen a number of cases in which personalized learning, as an educational strategy, produces good results for students. But every single one of those cases has had one or more good educators leading the charge, thinking hard about how to better serve the students. At its best, personalized learning is an effort to identify those classroom and institutional practices that are depersonalizing, and use technology as an aid to teaching strategies and support processes that can replace those practices with something more humane. Perhaps we should call it “undepersonalized learning.”

As such, true personalized learning should be labor-friendly in important ways. It should put a premium on skilled educators and make a strong case for increased investment in professional development and teaching-friendly tenure and promotion practices. That doesn’t mean it will always be job-preserving. The focus should be on students and agnostic with respect to student/teacher ratios. It is possible to achieve a more humane and personal education at scale. Sometimes. With a lot of thought and iteration. But I have seen no evidence to suggest that personalized learning technologies improve outcomes significantly without good teachers at the helm, and plenty of evidence suggesting that they don’t.

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