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The History of the Future of Education Technology

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    Every week, Steve Hargadon and I sit down (virtually) to talk about the latest ed-tech news. I always find our conversation to be one of the most thought-provoking exchanges I have all week. And I have to admit, after writing three posts last week about the business and politics of ed-tech (ALEC, investors, profit motives, and innovation), I was really eager to have our weekly conversation.

    Hopefully you'll find it as thought-provoking a discussion as I did.

    The link to the MP3 of the show is below, and/or you can subscribe to the podcast feed. You can also find the podcast in iTunes, as part of Steve's EdTechLive series.

    October 13, 2012

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    Late last week, Gawker’s Adrian Chen followed through on a promise to “out” a prominent, but anonymous member of the Reddit community — “Violentacrez,” the creator or moderator of many racist and misogynist subreddits including “Creepshots” and “Rapebait.” Chen’s article “Unmasking Reddit’s Violentacrez, The Biggest Troll on the Web” is an important story, one that highlights the complexities of free speech; the beliefs and practices of the Reddit community and how these shape and reflectsthe Internet-culture-at-large — and how they decidedly do not; and the necessities and the limitations of privacy and anonymity, on- and offline.

    It’s an important story, and it’s a difficult one. It’s a difficult one to read as a woman (and as a woman in tech) who’s been the object of the sorts of misogynist derision and harassment — again, on- and offline. It’s a difficult one too as “outing” of people against their will — even creeps like Violentacrez — gives me great pause. There are repercussions for all of this. (Michael Brutsch a.k.a. Violentacrez has purportedly lost his job since the Gawker article was published.)

    But I am glad Chen wrote the story. I am glad he exposed some of the inner workings of Reddit, an incredibly popular and influential website with over 40 million unique visitors a month. Reddit wraps itself (Redditers wrap themelves) in the rhetoric of free speech and democracy. (But it’s worth noting that since Chen first said he was going to publish the article, the community has banned from the site all links to Gawker or any of its associated Web properties).

    Read the rest of the story (and some thoughts on academic "trolls") over on Inside Higher Ed...

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    I wish that I could have sat and listened to Gardner Campbell talk this morning and then spend the rest of the day thinking and talking with him and with others at #opened12 about his keynote. Well, I suppose I sort of did that. I think we have all been walking around in a daze since this morning, wishing we had more time to spend on his provocations and less obligations to do the session-to-session thing that conferences demand.

    I started to write this post, and then found myself spending the evening at a musical jam session with Campbell and others. So there's that. And that's actually a wonderful ending to a wonderful beginning of the day. Because jamming is sharing. Jamming is collaborative creation. Jamming is learning. Jamming is process. "Make art dammit," as DS106 commands us, with the emphasis, I think, on the “make” more than than the “art.” And at the end of the evening with the music ringing in my ears, Campbell's keynote makes perfect sense, and there's nothing much to say.

    It’s process, not product after all. It’s not so much the what we learn but the how and the who with and the why we do so. As Campbell suggested in his keynote this morning, it’s not so much about “open” as an adjective to describe education; rather it’s “opening” as a verb to describe what we must do. What we want students, learners, all of us, to do.

    Discover. Play. Build. Create.

    Jam. (And that requires others -- a community, a network -- in turn.)

    You can, of course, slip up and bleed out your eyeballs, as Campbell warned us as he began his talk with a nod to the recent 120,000 foot free-fall of Felix Baumgartner. At these great heights — literal, metaphorical — it does feel as though higher education (or education at any level or Austrian skydivers... whatever) might easily slip into a death spiral. It’s all on YouTube these days too, everyone watching as you break records or break your neck.

    And it’s sponsored by Red Bull, or at least Baumgartner’s jump was. And that’s a piece that Campbell never really fleshed out in his talk today. I do like that we should focus on the yearning — yearning-to-learn and learning-to-learn — and I do agree that that’s a particularly fruitful way for us to (re)frame education — again as process and not product. But the product — or at least the corporate branding thereof — seems inescapable, particularly in a world where "exploration” might be something that we leave now to the corporations rather than governments. I’m thinking less about Red Bull here than I am about SpaceX, but who knows what the future of space travel looks like or how we brand it. 

    And “how we brand it” seems to be precisely the thing that so many universities, so quick to jump on the MOOC bandwagon, want to protect. "How we brand it" seems to be at the heart of a rush of private dollars flowing into education corporations. It's all about the product, not the process.

    And as Campbell repeated in his refrain today when he spoke of the ways in which these products describe themselves as "open education," “That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.”

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    Law and Politics

    British Columbia announced its support for open textbooks at the Open Education 2012 conference this week, becoming the first Canadian province to do so. BC will create openly licensed textbooks for the 40 most popular first- and second-year courses in its university system.

    Washington voters have rejected ballot measures to allow charter schools in the state twice now, but supporters are back again this year with another attempt. They’ve raised almost $8.9 million for their campaign, with just 10 donors (including Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos) responsible for 91% of that money.

    Parents in Adelanto California have become the first to utilize California’s new “Parent Trigger” law to close down their local elementary school and turn it over to a charter school. The parents voted 50 to 3 to have LaVerne Elementary Preparatory Academy take over the Desert Trails Elementary School. Some 600 students and 286 parents signed a petititon last year to convert the school to a charter. Only those parents who signed the petititon were eligible to decide what happened to the school next, which strikes me as profoundly undemocratic and anti-public, but there ya go — I’m pretty sure that’s the point.

    It’s back to court for the Los Angeles Unified School District and The LA Times. The latter is accusing the district of violating public records laws by refusing to hand over records of teachers’ performances based on student test scores. The newspaper published its own study and stories last year naming and ranking teachers based on “value-added” measurements.

    A parents group in New York City has written a letter to the state’s attorney general asking the state to stop its participation in the Shared Learning Collaborative, a Gates Foundation-funded effort to build a technology infrastructure to facilitate schools’ handling of student data. The parents are concerned, they say, about student privacy and worry that information will be handed over to third parties, particularly for-profit vendors like News Corp-owned Wireless Generation which is helping develop the project.

    Updates and Upgrades

    Random House says that libraries own their e-books. That’s the headline of a LibraryJournal article, and it’s a pretty big deal considering that many of the other Big 6 Publishers have been acting as though libraries license rather than own e-books when they purchase them.

    The University of Texas system announced this week that it’s joining edX, the non-profit MOOC initiative started by MIT and Harvard. It will begin offering classes on the platform next fall., a crowdfunding site to help “unglue” e-books and release them freely (DRM-free and openly licensed), has relaunched, having been forced to close down when Amazon cut off the startup’s access to its payment system. will now use the online payment system Stripe and has started campaigns to unglue 5 new books.

    Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger has launched his new startup,, a free website that teaches reading through phonics.

    I predicted that Amazon wouldn’t make any major moves in education this year, and if you ignore the millions that Bezos has invested into ed-tech startups and into pro-charter schools initiative, I almost got it right — until this week when the company announced Kindle Whispercast, a new tool that lets schools and libraries better manage their Kindles via the Web. An Amazon subsidiary also launched a couple of kid- and parent-oriented websites, reports Techcrunch: and

    Google released an update to its Ngram Viewer this week, its tool for letting you look at word and phrase-frequencies throughout literary history (or at least throughout the history of materials that Google has digitized as part of its book-scanning efforts). Google has added new materials to the Ngram dataset and also lets you specify the parts of speech you’re looking for.

    Google unveiled a new Chromebook model this week that’s somewhat akin to the Macbook Air in so far as it’s lighter and thinner. The new device costs $249.

    2tor, a company that helps colleges and universities offer online classes, has changed its name to 2U, a smart re-branding I think as 2tor doesn’t “tutor.”

    Departures and Closures

    Michael Chasen, the co-founder and CEO of Blackboard, will step down at the end of the year. Ray Henderson has a nice retrospective on Chasen’s tenure and the history of the company. I like this line: “Michael’s legacy is to leave us mildly paranoid but battle tested.”

    The University of Phoenix will be closing 115 locations, its parent company the Apollo Group announced, following a fall by 60% in its fourth quarter net income. Some 13,000 students will be affected.

    Lane Merrifield, the co-founder of the popular kids’ website Club Penguin, is leaving the company (which was sold to Disney in 2007 for $700 million), reports AllThingsD. Merrifield will join FreshGrade, an education startup focused on “capturing learning” according to its website.

    Pearson filed a DMCA notice against a teacher’s 2007 blog post (which shared a copy of Beck’s Hopelessness Scale — a list of 20 questions published in 1974), reports Techdirt, resulting in Edublogs’ hosting company ServerBeach yanking the servers for all 1.4 million-plus blogs hosted there. IP is broken.

    Funding and Acquisitions

    Pearson acquired EmbanetCompass, a company that provides services related to online courses to colleges and universities, for a meager $650 million. More details in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

    Goalbook (one of my favorite education startups of 2011) announced that it has raised $915,000 in seed funding from NewSchools Venture Fund.

    The digital transcript service Parchment (founded by Blackboard co-founder Matthew Pittinsky) has raised $23.5 million in its Series D round of funding.

    Inigral, a startup that offers a Facebook app to help colleges manage student recruitment, has raised $3.25 million in investment from the Gates Foundation and Retro Ventures.

    According to the Institute for College Access and Success’s Project on Student Debt, the average student loan debt for those who borrowed money for college is up by 5% from last year — to $26,500.

    The Gates Foundation announced the grant recipients for the third and final wave of its Next Generation Learning Challenges. The 13 winners focus on blended learning models and will each receive $150,000 in grants.

    Techcrunch’s Sarah Perez reports that the iPad “edu-tainment” company Kidaptive has raised a “large seed round” of funding from Menlo Ventures, Crunchfund and others.

    A new Bay Area-based non-profit announced the creation of the Silicon Schools Fund, a $25 million fund to help create blended learning schools. On the board sit Innosight Institute’s Michael Horn and Khan Academy’s Salman Khan.

    Classes and Competitions

    Udacity announced several new classes this week that point to a possible business model and curriculum trajectory for the startup. The new classes are a collaboration with corporations — Google, NVIDIA, Microsoft, Autodesk, Cadence, and Wolfram to start — and teach skills and systems pertaining to those companies’ products.

    YouTube held a contest in partnership with Sal Khan and Khan Academy to find the “next 10 gurus of education” (on YouTube). Some 1000 people submitted entries, and the guru-winners are here.

    Image credits: Audrey Watters

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    Below are the notes from my workshop at this weekend's THATCamp Hybrid Pedagogy, along with a Storify of notes and tweets from the entire unconference.

    Publishing Outside the Academy

    Created for: THATCamp Hybrid Pedagogy, October 2012
    Google Doc:

    Workshop Description: Although many traditional academic presses are struggling to stay afloat, it’s actually easier than ever for academics themselves to publish their work — outside the academy, that is. This workshop will address how and why scholars should write for publications outside “traditional” academic ones. This can include both writing about one’s scholarly research as well as writing about the academy itself. We’ll discuss some of the practicalities of doing so — blogging versus freelancing versus self-publishing, for example — and the technical, financial, rhetorical, political and licensing questions these raise. The workshop will also talk about promoting your work through various social networks (again, academic and otherwise).

    The workshop will cover (what participants want to cover, most likely... but that could include):

    The How:
    Blog / Personal Website
    Social Media Self-Promotion

    The Why/What:
    The case for (and against) academics speaking publicly -- about their scholarship (open access), peer review, about academia
    Public digital humanities (outreach)
    Politics of Publishing: Higher Education
    Politics of Publishing: K-12

    Some resources:

    Why / Why not publish outside the academy:

    How / Where (Platforms):

    How (Form):

    Syndication and Social Media





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    I wasn’t planning to write anything about Apple’s media event yesterday. I tuned in to the livestream, but when all the announcements were made, it seemed clear to me that nothing that was revealed on stage in San Jose was that significant to education.

    That hasn’t stopped the technology press from chiming in about the revolution that Apple has unleashed, about the company’s strong commitment to education, about the “radical” potential of iTextbooks, and about the newest device — the iPad Mini — as an amazing piece of hardware for our children and our schools.

    Why doubt the media’s take on Apple and education?

    "A Garden of Pure Ideology"

    If you watched the livestream and listened to the cheering and clapping from those assembled there — “journalists” — it should be clear that the events that Apple puts on are more akin to marketing than media and that those who’ve been invited are not there to ask questions but rather to foment consumer desire.

    The technology blogs do this quite willingly, knowing that desire doesn’t just sell iPads but generates pageviews (and subsequently ad revenue). A snapshot from yesterday’s tech news aggregation site Techmeme shows the hundreds of stories that were churned out, regurgitating all the details offered in Tim Cook and Phil Schiller’s presentations and in the Apple press releases and now featured on the Apple website.

    New iMacs — so slim! The iPad Mini — shipping soon! The Fusion Drive! The Retina Display!

    CEO Cook did tout Apple’s success in getting schools to buy iPads, and no doubt education has become an important market and marketing narrative for the company. That's not news.

    Cook also revealed that iTextbooks, announced in January at the one Apple event I will ever be allowed to attend I’m sure, now cover 80% of the high school “core curriculum” and have made their way into some 2500 classrooms. That’s what happens when you partner with the publishing giants like Pearson and McGraw-Hill who control 90% of the textbook market, of course — you cover the “core curriculum.” These iTextbooks are so great, Cook quipped, they are “enough to make you want to be a kid again.”

    Obsolescence and the Manufacture of Desire

    If there is a want and a yearning associated with Apple, we all know that isn’t it. But the want is there — you could hear it in the “ooooo’s” of the crowd, you could see it in the real-time responses via Twitter as well. And as Apple is ever shortening the planned obsolescence cycle for its devices, it wants us to want and to buy with increasing frequency.

    Schools have traditionally worked with a much longer replacement cycle. For better or worse, textbooks and computer hardware both are expected to last for years. The iPad 3 was announced in March and discontinued yesterday. How will schools adapt? How will they reconcile technology budgets with a throw-away culture techno-consumerism (softened supposedly by Schiller's repetition of the company's environmental record) and with this incredible manufactured technology desire?

    There’s the new iPad Mini now too that the press suggest might “hit the EDU sweet spot.” At $329, it is cheaper than other available models — a whole $70 cheaper than the educational discount given for those ancient (18-month old) but full-size iPad 2s.

    The iPad Mini is lighter-weight and easier to hold in one hand. But the smaller size will also make it very difficult to compose notes or essays and annotate those amazing iTextbooks. And as Scott McLeod pointed out, the iPad Mini does not meet the minimum hardware specifications for the new computer-based Common Core assessments.

    The PR Machine

    Nobody in the technology press caught that detail — and it’s an important one, even though, sure, those specifications may well change and even though (good grief) assessments shouldn’t be the sole driving force behind tech procurement. But no one asked either why schools should be excited about the potential for creating their own iTextbooks with iBooks Author since that software still requires Macs.

    And following the news that one of Apple’s major competitors, Amazon, had shut down a customer’s account and stripped her of all the Kindle books she’d purchased, no one asked why we’d want to step uncritically into a relationship with any technology maker who embraces DRM, who controls the app and e-book ecosystem, and who locks down both the operating system and the hardware.

    The technology press doesn’t see it as its role to ask these questions. If it did, it wouldn’t be invited to the Apple events, and wouldn’t get to touch the iPad Mini first, well before consumers have the opportunity to even place their orders. Its job, it appears, is to serve as PR for the richest company in the world and to help fuel the desire for Apple products.

    Where does education — and where do tech savvy educators — fit into this, we should ask? Where do we fit in in terms of technology, desire, product cycles, feel-good stories, and marketing? If the press has become PR, what will our responses be — as readers, thinkers, and yes, as consumers?

    Image credits: Apple

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    Coursera found itself in the middle of a Terms of Service-related firestorm last week when The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the startup had recently changed its TOS to prevent Minnesota citizens from participating in its online courses.

    Notice for Minnesota Users Coursera has been informed by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education that under Minnesota Statutes (136A.61 to 136A.71), a university cannot offer online courses to Minnesota residents unless the university has received authorization from the State of Minnesota to do so. If you are a resident of Minnesota, you agree that either (1) you will not take courses on Coursera, or (2) for each class that you take, the majority of work you do for the class will be done from outside the State of Minnesota.

    The story was picked up by Slate and by other publications, and after the story went viral, Larry Pogemiller, Director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, quickly clarified that "Obviously, our office encourages lifelong learning and wants Minnesotans to take advantage of educational materials available on the Internet, particularly if they’re free. No Minnesotan should hesitate to take advantage of free, online offerings from Coursera."


    Except it’s not obvious at all — not simply because of some 20-year-old piece of legislation that may or may not pertain to MOOCs, but because these sorts of stipulations appeared in a Terms of Service agreement which nobody reads.

    “‘I have read and agree to the Terms’” is the biggest lie on the web,” insists a new project Terms of Service; Didn’t Read. “We aim to fix that.”

    A play on the Internet lingo “tl;dr” (too long; didn’t read), the site reviews the Terms of Service agreements for major websites and applications. TOS;DR then rates the terms from good to bad, A to F, based on things like data portability, anonymity, cookies, data ownership, copyright, censorship, and transparency about law enforcement requests.

    The project has only been underway for a few months, and it recently completed a successful crowdfunding campaign. That means that most of the entries, along with the list of applications and sites it plans to review, are incomplete. But the potential and the importance of the project are significant.

    They’re particularly significant for education, I’d argue, where we have many sites built around user-generated content and personal (learner) data, often with unclear plans for monetization.

    And so I’d add to the long list of sites that Terms of Service; Didn’t Read is already planning to review, a guide to the terms for:

    Teachers Pay Teachers
    Khan Academy 
    Google (specifically Apps for Education) 
    Microsoft 360 (formerly Live@edu) 
    anything Pearson-related 

    What else should we add to the list?

    And what should we be on the lookout for in the TOS for educational apps and websites? Specifically, how do we make sure that learners and not just schools are protected here?

    For more information, you can join the working group and access the source code and issues on GitHub.

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  • 10/25/12--21:27: The Obstacles to OER
  • As part of the research I’ve been doing on open educational resources — their creation and adoption — I’ve been talking to a wide variety of educators about their own OER usage. It’s hardly been a formal survey, but rather a Google survey and a handful of casual conversations. But the results are interesting nonetheless, particularly in highlighting why people do not use OER when — so the argument goes — free and openly licensed content is better.

    What stands in the way of using OER? Several things stand out:


    (I have written about this before but) Despite there being a great number of repositories and portals for openly licensed educational content, finding the right content is still a challenge, say almost every educator I talked to. (Note: I will follow up with students' responses to OER in a separate post although I think their concerns are similar in many interesting ways.)

    But having looked at what's available, I do wonder how much of discoverability is a problem and how much there is the perception of a problem. In other words, how much of "I can't find what I'm looking for" is code "proprietary content is right in front of me."

    Supplementary Materials

    This wasn’t the most popular or frequent response to my “survey” of educators, but I think it may well be the most important. When I asked about OER usage, many responded with an emphasis on textbooks — or some sort of openly licensed would-be-sorta-like-a-textbook material. So there’s clearly a perception that OER equals open textbooks.

    But the problem, according to many teachers, isn’t just the reading assignments they give their students (open or not), but all the other pieces that go along with that: the handouts, worksheets, lesson plans, videos, assignments, and tests. And while there is a growing bank of these sorts of supplementary materials (again, see: Discoverability), the proprietary publishers have done a much more skillful job of packaging all the pieces that teachers (feel like they) need.

    Oh, and it doesn’t hurt either that these publishers help dictate the standardized tests . “I worry that if I use OER it won’t have the materials my students need for their exams.”

    Licensing Confusion

    This is the great irony, I think, of OER. Again and again, I heard from educators that the copyright is confusing (yes it is) and that Creative Commons licenses are little better (they’re still confusing, that is) — and so they found it easier to use proprietary content (that could be linked to the two factors above, of course) because they knew “the rules” and the risks of violating them.

    Whither the Remix?

    I went into this research with some biases against the PDF (seriously, don't get me started) and the ways in which that file format makes it difficult to copy, paste, and remix. But problems with the technology and the ways in which it prevented remixing just weren't an issue for that many people I talked to. Yes, they wanted resources to be accessible across platforms and not stuck in a file format that made it impossible to share between, say, Apple or Windows operating systems. But the reasoning for turning to OER was access and cost (i.e. free0 and not what else you can do with openly licensed material. (I do wonder how much this is connected to confusion over licensing, as well as to a sense that educational content -- readings, lessons, tests -- come pre-packaged in unchangeable ways.)

    Disclosure: This research is being sponsored by FunnyMonkey, a Drupal-based education development shop in Portland, Oregon.

    Image credits: Ivy Dawned

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    Papua Penguin I / Pingüino Papua I

    Law and Politics

    Following a story in The Chronicle of Higher Education noting that Coursera’s Terms of Service ban those in Minnesota from taking classes from the online education startup, the state has clarified its law. "No Minnesotan should hesitate to take advantage of free, online offerings from Coursera," says Lawrence Pogemiller from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. The 20-year-old law was originally designed to protect Minnesotas for wasting their money on substandard courses, but since Coursera is free… well… there you go. A revision to the law will be proposed in the next legislative session, says Pogemiller.

    The Department of Justice is suing several schools in Mississippi saying that they are running a “school-to-prison pipeline” with policies that allow students to be arrested and shipped to a juvenile detention center 80 miles away without probable cause or legal representation. Reasons for incarceration include flatulence and wearing the wrong color socks. Seriously. Oh and from 2006 through the 2010 school year, all those students who were referred to law enforcement were Black.

    The Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General issued a damning audit of states’ oversight of charter schools and of the Department’s management of charter school grant money. According to the report, “The main target of the audit was the Office of Innovation, which investigators said ‘did not effectively oversee and monitor’ targeted states and ‘did not have an adequate process to ensure’ states ‘conducted effective oversight and monitoring’ of local charter schools.” As Diane Ravitch points out, the head of that office is Jim Shelton, “formerly of Edison Schools, McKinsey, the NewSchools Venture Fund and the Gates Foundation. He is an avid proponent of charter schools.”

    In news I missed last week, SETDA (the State Educational Technology Directors Association) has released a database of state policies related to ed-tech. The site includes information about broadband policies and online student assessments.

    And in other news I missed last week, French President François Hollande has proposed banning homework, something he argues will help bring about more equality in education. The WSJ calls the move “out of step" (because what would happen to News Corp's plans for education technology if we optimized for equality, eh?) As for myself, along with thousands of French children I’m sure, I call it “magnifique!”

    Updates and Upgrades

    Something something Apple something something. Blah blah blah. “Amazing.”

    Microsoft unveiled its latest hardware and software — a new operating system and its Surface tablet. (Here’s Joshua Topolsky’s review.)

    Two great initiatives are teaming upGeneration YES and ObaWorld. The former helps empower students to be leaders in their schools’ technology efforts; the latter, a project by the University of Oregon’s Yong Zhao, is a global online learning platform. The partnership between the two organizations will help students will learn how to lead online learning efforts at their schools.

    Downgrades and Closures

    A not-so-good 48 hours for Diigo this week as the social bookmarking tool had its DNS hijacked. Everything appears to be back-to-normal now and the company says there was no data lost.

    A story out of Norway that is pertinent to all of us who think we own the digital materials we’ve purchased. Not so, Amazon reminds us, as without warning or explanation, it closed down the account of a Norwegian woman and wiped her Kindle of all the e-books she’d purchased. Remember kids, “if you can’t open it, you don’t own it.”

    Research and Data

    The Pew Research Center has released another study, this time about “Younger Americans’ Reading and Library Habits.” Among the findings, 83% of Americans between the ages of 16 and 29 read a book in the past year. And of those young Americans who read e-books, they’re far more likely to do so on their computer (55%) or on their cell phone (41%) than on a dedicated e-reader or a tablet.

    Money and Mergers

    Udacity announced that it has raised $15 million (bringing the company’s total investment to $22.1 million), with the round led by Andreessen Horowitz.

    Language learning company busuu has raised €3.5 million investment and is moving its offices from Madrid to London.

    Clever, an education startup that’s built an API to help move student data from SISes and other silos into other third-party apps, has raised $3 million, reports Techcrunch. Investors include actor Ashton Kutcher [Make up your own punchline. Insert here.]

    Pearson-owned Financial Times reported this week that Pearson and Bertelsmann, the parent companies of Penguin and Random House respectively, are in talks to merge. The Big 6 becoming the Big 5 might not be great news for readers, libraries, or writers, although it does make for some fun speculation about a company’s new name: I like “Random Penguin” personally.

    Image credits: Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero

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    It's been a couple of weeks since Steve Hargadon and I sat down (virtually) to talk about the latest ed-tech news and record our podcast. That means that this episode is pretty lengthy as we had two weeks' worth of news and analysis to discuss. Topics include opening versus open education, Apple marketing versus journalism, and the school-to-prison pipeline.

    The link to the MP3 of the show is below, and/or you can subscribe to the podcast feed. You can also find the podcast in iTunes, as part of Steve's EdTechLive series.

    October 26, 2012

    Bonus content: I was a guest recently on "The Core of Education Podcast," talking with Rod Berger and education, technology, and "disruption."

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    This post is part of an ongoing series in which I try to explain the tech industry to educators. Today’s lesson: Define “Bubble.” Discuss.



    Frank Catalano recently suggested in his GeekWire column that we could be on the cusp of another tech bubble, this time in education. “There are early warning signs that the hype could be outpacing the reality,” he wrote, pointing to the increasing investment, attention, and startups in ed-tech.

    BostInno’s Lauren Landry dismissed the artile as “the hipster’s case against ed-tech” (which made me smirk because with great fondness I think of Frank Catalano as a “veteran” of ed-tech’s case). She argued that innovation in the space is great and should be encouraged — fears of bubbles be-damned, I guess.

    I don’t dispute either argument.


    We are certainly seeing a flood of investment in a lot of new education companies. And much of what’s being developed and funded does feel decidedly overhyped. (Just count the number of blog posts this year that have “revolution” and “education” in their headlines.) That’s not to say there aren’t some interesting education startups, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not that hard to believe that the amount of money being invested in some of them outstrips their value, now and in the future.

    That’s a pretty basic definition of a financial bubble right there: when investment outweighs value. And it’s not just education-oriented high growth high tech startups we’re speculating and fretting about. Lots of bubbles are bursting lately as we question our investments in residential property, college tuition, and stock in Zynga.

    There’s been plenty of debate over the last year or so within the tech industry writ large about whether it’s in the midst of its own bubble. As such, it’s hardly surprising to see the same questions be raised about what’s clearly the latest hot area for tech investment and entrepreneurship: education.

    If there’s boom, then there’s bust – or at least, that’s the fear.


    And in ed-tech specifically, there’s a fear that the recent flurry of interest and investment in the space might result in disaster, that it might reaffirm VCs’ reluctance to invest in the education sector -- they'll cite once again education's reluctance to embrace new technologies, the institutional inertia preventing change.

    Of course, things are different now than in the last tech boom, and many industry observers insist there won’t be another meltdown of proportions. Startup investment is different now (smaller amounts spread more widely across more companies, for example); startup costs are different (thanks to open source software and the cloud, it’s cheaper than ever to start a tech company); and particularly in education, the business models are different. Teachers, parents, and students are targeted as the consumers of ed-tech tools, and not simply schools and districts. Of course, schools and districts have paid for technology; that’s not necessarily the case with this new “grassroots,” direct-to-teachers approach. It's free. It's freemium.

    And hence, concern that the investment in education startups far outpaces their revenue, their value and once again, we've got murmurs of a bubble.


    But I think asking “is there a bubble in ed-tech?” is the wrong question. Or at least, it’s not a question I’m going to worry about right now — despite all the hype and hullaballoo about education startups.

    In part, I think the question “is there a bubble in ed-tech?” asks us to assess the wrong metrics of “value” in response. Is the “value” only what matters to investors and entrepreneurs in terms of financial return? What then is the value of ed-tech to schools? What value does ed-tech offer learners? Is the purpose of education connected to this “value”? These definitions matter, I’d argue, as they shape the way we think about the space.

    Concerns about bubbles are connected to a financial framing. I fear that feeds the rather self-congratulatory notion that without the hype and the financial lure we’d pique neither entrepreneurs’ nor investors’ interest in education entrepreneurship. And that in turn just reaffirms the wrongheaded notion that it takes the profit motive to have innovation in education. 

    I worry too that handwringing over a looming ed-tech bubble frames education as an investment that individuals make (whether they’re investors, entrepreneurs, or students). Education in this frame isn’t about civics or society or public responsibility, nor is it about intellectual curiosity, reciprocity or the joy of learning something that has no (job) market value. In this frame, education delivers returns. Financial returns.


    That’s not how I frame education. It’s not how I frame ed-tech.

    When we do frame it this way — and I do think that this is probably Catalano’s fear too and it's not just a fear about bubbles but about markets in general — we find ourselves dragging schools and students and teachers into a maelstrom. It's one where we frame technology and success in terms of startups’ financial value but not their suckitude, or we shrug when startups suck because they'll just fail fast regardless of the repercussions to users (teachers, learners, schools). It's one where users' learning data, experiences, actions must be monetized. It's one where we wring our hands about user acquisition and business models and then neglect to wrestle with questions about learning, agency, inquiry, or curiosity; one where where we track the growth and viability of startups and not the growth of public knowledge or human capacity.

    If we worry now "is there an ed-tech bubble?", I fear we’ve already lost the argument for "why ed-tech?" in the first place.

    Photo credits: Jeff Kubina

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    In May, I decided to re-institute a new monthly feature here, something that I used to write for MindShift: a post highlighting some of the new and updated educational apps that have been released over the past 30 days or so. I’m not sure if it’s worth continuing, frankly, as each month that goes by, I seem to choose fewer and fewer apps to feature. Clearly this isn’t an exhaustive list of all the new educational apps. Clearly. It’s just the one that I thought was the most exciting.

    Go Go Games

    Go Go Games was among my favorites when I first saw Stanford grad students and startup founders Joy Wong Daniels, Alexis Hiniker, and Heidi Williamson demo it at the LDT Expo back in August. The iPad app made its official debut in the iTunes Store this month, and so let me echo what I wrote back then: “Wow. This is a project to keep an eye on, and when Go Go Games comes to the iTunes Store (soon, say the team), I’d heartily recommend this app to all families, not just those with autistic children.” So here you have it: my hearty recommendation.

    Go Go Games is designed to support elementary and preschool age children with autism, as I noted back in August: “Incredibly thoughtful game design.” The app offers a series of games — Build-A-Train, Wheels & Roads, and Out of this World — that all utilize Pivotal Response Theory to help children build up the perception skills necessary to play a matching game. That perceptual capability is something essential to learning but incredibly challenging to children with Autism, and helping develop that unlocks many other learning possibilities.

    “We designed the game to feel more like play but work like therapy,” says co-founder Alexis Hiniker — that is, reinforcing and enhancing the behavioral therapy that many Autistic children already receive through the way in which many of them also tend to spend their free time: playing video games. And the app’s game mechanics are both thoughtful and fun, with a wonderfully designed UI and wonderfully drawn characters to boot.

    The app has already received rave reviews during its development from parents and teachers and has also earned a 5-star rating from Common Sense Media.

    iOS, $0.99 (iTunes link)

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    Not content with being the young upstart in the LMS industry taking on the aging giants of Blackboard and Desire2Learn, Instructure has now decided to enter another market and take on some of the upstarts there, namely Coursera and edX. That is, tonight it launches the Canvas Network, which in the words of CEO Josh Coates, is “our answer to the whole MOOC hype.”

    It’s an answer that Instructure’s current clients have helped devise, too, Coates says, noting that many of the schools that run its LMS Canvas are pondering that hype and weighing whether they should join the Coursera or edX platform (or fear being left out of the MOOC race entirely). In many cases, these schools already offer online classes to their own students, but simply don’t have the reach — the marketing reach or the instructional reach — that the xMOOCs promise.

    The Canvas Network

    So with the new Canvas Network, Instructure has compiled a catalog of free, open online classes run on the Canvas LMS by Canvas customers. The network launches with participation from a dozen institutions, including Brown, the University of Washington, and the University of Central Florida. There are 2 dozen courses, including “Introduction to Openness in Education” taught by BYU’s David Wiley and “Gender Through Comic Books” with lectures voiced by Stan Lee. (Yes, that Stan Lee.)

    Registration opens now, with the first classes beginning in January.

    Outsourcing Online Education

    “Coursera is one size fits all model,” Coates contends, and he insists that schools and professors should be able to decide themselves how to teach their online classes. In other words, what appears on the Canvas Network isn’t just video lectures, multiple choice quizzes, and robo-graders. Importantly here, instructional design, the course content, and the technical support for running the online classes occur on the institutional level and are not outsourced or licensed to Instructure.

    But Instructure does have some experience on the MOOC front, having been the platform used for the MOOC MOOC run by the Hybrid Pedagogy folks back in August. Coates said that the company was able to learn a lot during this week-long MOOC about how it would have to tweak the LMS features to account for open participation at a massive scale.

    But some things needn’t be tweaked. “We don’t have to make up a weird business model” to offer these open online classes, Coates quips, as the schools who offer them via the Canvas Network are already paying Instructure clients. Not surprisingly considering the sales approach that LMSes have traditionally taken, this new network is aimed at “institutional buy-in” and it seems clear that — much as with its competitors Coursera and edX — this is about marketing the school to prospective students, all that lip service to “democratizing education” aside, of course.

    “MOOCs are a feature of, but they’re not the only future of education,” says Coates. That might be quite a reassuring message to universities worried about how they should respond to this latest MOOC craze. With Canvas Network, they’ll be able to respond using tools they’re familiar with — tools they’ve paid for. That places them in a very different relationship with their open online course offerings than does the agreements schools are signing with Coursera.

    And yet in both these cases (as with edX and Udacity, and with its LMS competitors that are also hosting open courses) we still find open online courses contained and "managed" within the LMS.

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    Sal Khan’s History of Education

    Sal Khan recently sat down with Forbes’ Michael Noer to record a mini-lecture, Khan Academy style, about the history of education. It’s the history of education “from 1680 to 2050” in 11 minutes, so needless to say it’s a rather abbreviated version of events.

    Of course, history isn’t simply a collection of events strung together on a timeline, such as the one that Khan draws for viewers here. History is explanation, description, and narration. It is framing and reframing. History is always partial, and it is always told from a particular vantage point — now — by a particular subjective storyteller — in this case, Sal Khan and Michael Noer.

    Our current model of education, says Khan, originated at the turn of the nineteenth century: “age-based cohorts” that move through an “assembly line” with “information being delivered at every point.”

    “This is the Prussian model,” Noer adds, “and it’s about as inflexible as a Prussian can be.” But Khan notes that there were benefits to this as “it was the first time people said, ‘No, we want everyone to get an education for free.”

    Then “Horace Mann comes along about 1840” and introduces this concept to the United States. By 1870, says Khan, public education is pretty common “but even at that point it wasn’t uniform” with different standards and curriculum in different states and cities. So in 1892, “something that tends to get lost in history,” a committee of ten — “somewhat Orwellian” adds Noer — meet to determine what the twelve years of compulsory education should look like.

    “It was forward looking for 120 years ago,” says Noer, “but what’s interesting is that we’ve basically been stuck there for 120 years.” Education has been "static to the present day,” agrees Khan.

    And from 1892, this history they tell jumps ahead, straight to the Internet. “But the big thing here,” says Noer as the two skip over one hundred-plus years, “is what you’ve done” with Khan Academy. “One person with one computer can reach millions.” This revolutionizes lectures, Noer argues; it revolutionized homework. “Class time is liberated,” says Khan. This changes everything that was stagnant and static since those darn Prussians.

    Lest We Forget

    To argue that education has not changed in this country in 120 years overlooks the Civil Rights movement, Brown v Board of Education (1954) and the desegregation (and lately re-segregation) of schools.

    To say that “nothing has changed in education” ignores the passing in 1975 of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). It ignores the changes that we have made to public schools to make them accessible to all children, regardless of physical and developmental disabilities.

    To say that “nothing has changed in education” ignores Title IX (1972) and that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance…”

    To say that “nothing has changed” ignores the always-ongoing culture wars and curriculum battles. It ignores the rise of the standardized testing regimes of the College Board (the SAT was first offered in 1926) and No Child Left Behind (2002).

    To say that “nothing has changed” in K–12 education ignores the sweeping changes experienced by this country’s university system: the formation of land grand colleges and passing of the GI Bill (1944). Public schools’ responsibility for “college readiness” is a very recent one since, until the 20th century, most people did not attend college. (Still today, just 58% of Americans have attended “some” college.)

    And to jump from 1892 to 2000 — from the “Committee of Ten” to Khan Academy — ignores the vocal opposition to that so-called factory model and the construction of alternatives by educators themselves. It ignores the entire progressive education movement. It ignores the work of John Dewey and Maria Montessori. Conveniently.

    To jump from 1892 to 2000 — from the “Committee of Ten” to Khan Academy — ignores the work done by numerous educators and technologists to think about how computers and networks will reshape how we teach and learn. It overlooks the work of Seymour Papert and all his students. It ignores the decades of research on cognitive tutoring and the notion that a computer should be able to respond on an individualized level to each student — something that Khan’s history of education credits to Khan himself.

    The Stories We Tell

    This idea that the U.S. public education system is based on a “factory model” and remains unchanged since the Industrial Revolution is a history that you’ll often hear from Silicon Valley-types and education reformers alike. That this is the version of history they offer is quite telling, as it reflects how they perceive the past, how they want the rest of us to perceive the past, as well as how they hope we’ll move into the future (Khan’s “History of Education” does extend to 2050 after all).

    This is a narrative that paints the U.S. public education system as utterly unchanged in over a century. The U.S. public education system is not just out-moded, in this formulation, but stubbornly resistant to change.

    But some things have changed, clearly. Some things, less so. Change -- and history -- is always messier than the straight line someone would draw to depict a timeline of important education-related events. But there is always change nonetheless, even at an institutional level. These systems do not just whir forward unceasingly like machinery. These institutions are populated by people, who are influenced in turn by circumstance and, of course, by politics -- as are the histories of institutions that people try to tell us.

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    I Love..

    Hurricane, Law, and Politics

    Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc across the Northeast this week. Public school was canceled (and remains so in some places), with many schools turning into shelters. (Are charters required to do this the same way public schools are?) On the tech front, many people credited open data and social media tools for being able to spread the word quickly and effectively about Sandy's dangers and about relief efforts. But while Twitter gave its “promoted Tweets” functionality to relief agencies for free, Facebook still required users of its “Pages” to pay if they want their messages to reach beyond 5% of "fans" — food for thought for schools that use Facebook for sharing messages even in non-emergency situations.

    Former Penn State President Graham Spanier now faces numerous charges, including perjury and obstruction of justice, for his role in failing to report the sexual assaults being perpetrated by the school’s assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

    The U.S. holds an election on Tuesday, and like this little girl, I am damn relieved the presidential campaigning will be over. The HechingerEd blog has a good round-up of all the important education initiatives on ballots across the country.

    MOOC Madness

    Coursera and Antioch University have struck a deal — the first of its kind, says Inside Higher Ed — in which the university would license courses from Coursera and offer them for credit. “Antioch will pay Coursera an undisclosed amount for permission to use several courses, including ones from Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania. The company will share that revenue with the universities, which own intellectual property rights for their courses as part of their contracts with Coursera.”

    Udacity signed a partnership deal with the University of Alberta this week — “a research partnership for the collaborative development of systems for delivery, measurement and assessment of online learning courses and experiences.” Hooray for Canada being involved in this, but weird that there’s this other university in Alberta where one of the fellows who actually launched this whole MOOC madness works — both with immense expertise here and both left out of this announcement.

    Instructure wants in on the MOOC action too, launching the Canvas Network this week — a catalog of open enrollment classes available from its LMS customers. See my write-up here.

    Launches and Updates

    A cool tool from Boone Gorges: Participad, an Etherpad install for WordPress. The tool makes it easier to work collaboratively on writing and note-taking, without having to rely on Google Docs, which as Gorges notes “is alternatively benificent and malevolent, depending on the swings of the market.”

    Imagine K12 held its Demo Day last week — the official unveiling of the startups in its latest (third) cohort. The 11 startups that graduated from the program: StudyRoom, NoRedInk, EdCanvas, Securly, CodeHS, Chalk, DSK, Raise, Smartercookie, DigitWhiz, and Tioki.

    Research and Data

    The latest study released by the Pew Internet and American Life Project involves how students conduct their research online — or at least, it addresses how teachers think students are conducting their research for AP classes (that’s an important distinction, I think). Among the results, 65% agreed with the statement “the Internet makes today’s students more self-sufficient researchers.”

    The NCAA says that the graduation rates for college football and men’s basketball players has reached an all time high, with 74% of Division I men’s basketball players and 70% of football players completing their degrees within 5 years.

    Fast Company’s Anya Kamenetz reports on a study by researchers at the University of Toronto and Yale that found that Internet-based sex education was effective for teens in Colombia. “While the lack of personal contact is often seen as a drawback in online education,” writes Kamenetz “in the case of awkward topics like sex ed, it could actually be a benefit. The researchers noted teens can experience the computer as an anonymous, private, and nonjudgmental place to get information.”

    Money and Mergers

    George Lucas sold LucasFilm to Disney this week for (only) $4.05 billion. He owns 100% of that company and his publicist has said Lucas plans to donate much of the money to education philanthopy. No word if that means a windfall for Edutopia. But if I could make one request, it be that he attone for the terrible IP practices of both Disney and Lucas himself by funding open educational resources.

    According to Business Insider, Google’s biggest advertiser is the University of Phoenix, which spent $155,000 a day on ads in the third quarter of 2012. Wow, the Web is totally revolutionizing education, huh.

    CBInsights, which researches and tracks angel and venture capital investment in startups, has released a couple of interesting reports regarding education-related funding. First, a list of the universities whose alumni have the highest deal flow (Number one on the list, not surprisingly, is Stanford). Second, a report on the amount of funding that education startups have received in the last year: $1.37 billion.

    Techcrunch reports that the NYC-based General Assembly (one of my favorite edu startups of 2011) has raised $10 million in funding.

    GoodSemester (which I covered here) is rebranding to Squareknot and has also raised its first round of angel funding.

    The Penguin-Random House merger is a done deal, it appears, despite a last minute effort by News Corp to make a bid (so thankfully, there will be no "Fox in the Penguin House" publishing company. Yet.)

    Photo credits: Kristina Alexanderson

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    Every week, Steve Hargadon and I sit down (virtually) to talk about the latest ed-tech news. I always find our conversation to be one of the most thought-provoking exchanges I have all week. Unfortunately it seems like lately our conversations aren't just thought-provoking but they're plagued with technical difficulties. Grr.

    This week, we discuss ed-tech bubbles, Sal Khan's history of education, Instructure's new MOOC network, and George Lucas's plans to donate his $4 billion windfall from the sale of Lucasfilm to education (but probably not to Steve or me).

    The link to the MP3 of the show is below, and/or you can subscribe to the podcast feed. You can also find the podcast in iTunes, as part of Steve's EdTechLive series.

    November 2, 2012

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  • 11/05/12--10:50: An #Eduhistory Book Club
  • Lanesfield School

    This is still a germ of an idea, but it’s a germ of an idea that’s already spawned a collaborative Google Doc and a blog post, and with that we are officially off and running…

    “So Let’s Start An #eduhistory Book Club, Then?” writes Bud Hunt, observing that “We don’t know our history. And it’s killing us.”

    I agree. And I’m troubled. “I worry about the lack of historical knowledge about education technology, and not just in a George Santayana ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ sort of way,” I wrote in my newsletter this weekend.

    “The stories we tell about the past aren’t simply about the past. These stories reflect the present and shape the future. History is, after all, not simply a record of all that has happened; it is both a narrative and an argument. History can be wielded in powerful ways.”

    We see history wielded more and more in discussions about education and education technology. Take Sal Khan’s History of Education, for example, that leaves out the entire twentieth century and the contributions of progressive education. Or the histories of MOOCs that leave out their pioneers, the connectivists. "Why all this revisionist history?" I wondered aloud last week. (I bet we know the answer, don't we.)

    So Bud suggests we start a book club, beginning with a text that Khan maligned in his history video: The Committee of Ten Report. Issued in 1892, this report helped establish the curriculum of the American public education system.

    I’ll be joining Bud to run some Google Hangouts to discuss this and the other texts we tackle. More details on the schedule to come. And more information over on Bud's blog.

    Photo credits: David Reber

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    Boheken Heart, Bologna

    Cross-posted at Inside Higher Ed

    The End of Free at Flat World Knowledge

    News broke on Friday (via The Chronicle of Higher Education, reporting on a blurb from the National Association of College Stores’s newsletter) that the open textbook publisher Flat World Knowledge would be ending access to free versions of its textbook as of the new year.

    The publishing company was founded in 2007 as the first commercial provider of open textbooks. These textbooks were available — for a fee — in print, digital (ePUB and PDF), and audio formats. But (up ’til now) students could always access the entire Flat World Knowledge catalog for free via the Web. According to figures cited by David Wiley at SXSWedu last year, about 35% of Flat World Knowledge’s users did opt to buy a printed version. But CEO and co-founder Jeff Shelstad told Inside Higher Ed that ““we don’t convert [from free to paid] as much as we used to.”

    It’s not surprising that there’s already been a lot of ink spilled (tweets tweeted, what have you) since this story broke. (See: David Wiley, Stephen Downes, Geoff Cain, Pando Daily.) Flat World Knowledge has long been hailed as a darling in open education and in ed-tech circles by taking on the powerful incumbants of the textbook industry with a new licensing and new business model.

    Flat World Knowledge also took on some $26.2 million in venture capital, according to Crunchbase, from investors including Bessemer Venture Partners, GSA Venture Partners, and Random House.

    As David Wiley suggests, it seems that the company’s board of directors (which is comprised in part of its VCs) “didn’t have the patience to stay the course,” opting to axe the free textbooks rather than — Wiley’s suggestion — adjust the Creative Commons licensing so that the FWK books were amenable to the new open textbook initiatives in California and British Columbia. The latter are CC-BY while Flat World Knowledge’s books have been — up ’til now at least — CC-BY-NC-SA. Of course it’s not clear if they will or can remain openly licensed at all.

    2012: The Year of the Open Textbook MOOC

    All told, it’s been a pretty interesting year for digital textbooks, openly licensed or not. I’m on the cusp of kicking off my “Year in Ed-Tech” series in the next few weeks, and digital textbooks will certainly be one of the trends I examine. A quick recap: 2012 has seen a digital textbook announcement by Apple, open textbook initiatives in California and British Columbia, a lawsuit against the open textbook startup Boundless, and plenty of proclamations by federal and state government officials alike that it’s time to ditch the old paper copies.

    But even with all the supposed changes to textbook publishing — from established companies, by startups, through government proclamations, via hackathons — it doesn’t appear that things have changed fast enough. Not fast enough for a company like Flat World Knowledge to maintain its old business model having raised some $26 million in investment. And not fast enough to keep up with the changing ways in which the Internet can deliver educational content, and deliver it free and openly.

    After all The New York Times just crowned 2012 the year of the MOOC, not the year of the digital textbook.

    It’s worth noting here that the “open” in many of these new MOOCs simply means “open enrollment” and doesn’t mean “open educational resources,” something that prompted Creative Commons’ Timothy Vollmer to pen a call to “keep MOOCs open” — freely accessibly and openly licensed.

    Open Education and Venture Capital

    Much like Flat World Knowledge, two of these new MOOC startups have raised substantial venture capital: some $22 million for Coursera and $15 million for Udacity. The funding’s still fresh, and so it’s too early to tell not only what these companies’ business models will be or if their VCs will have to step in at some point down the road and insist that, in order to increase revenue, that “free and open” become “commercialized and closed.”

    But I think we should ask nonetheless: what role do we want VCs to have in financing open access to education?

    What can we -- teachers and learners -- expect in return?

    Can these projects — free and openly licensed — be reconciled with VCs’ need for a return on investment? Maybe.

    A better model to follow for these efforts — better than the investment or business models of traditional publishers or for-profit universities — might be open source technologies. (See Stephen Downes’ formulation of “predatation versus production.” See also Tim O’Reilly’s “The Clothesline Paradox and the Sharing Economy.”) Many companies that offer open source technologies (including Automattic’s WordPress and Cloudera’s Hadoop) charge for premium services. But the code remains free and open, entrusted to the community. There it cannot be sealed back up behind closed doors like we’re about to see happen with Flat World Knowledge’s textbooks and like I fear we may eventually see with some of these MOOCs.

    Photo credits: H. Matthew Howarth

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  • 10/23/12--19:58: Hacking the Textbook (Open)
  • Colouring Pencils

    Cross-posted at Inside Higher Ed

    Opening Educational Resources

    The "killer apps" for education, argued Stanford University professor John Willinsky at last week’s Open Education Conference, will be built when we apply our lessons to our communities “so that the learning I do in school contributes to the public library and to the public knowledge of my community” — in other words, so that learning and research remain open.

    Willinsky’s keynote, along with Gardner Campbell’s keynote at the same event, have resonated with me since because these are the fundamental questions we must ask: How do we keep open education open, and to what end?

    Now more than ever, it feels like an incredibly important time to be making a clear argument for what we mean by open education. “That is not what I meant at all,” as Campbell, echoing Eliot, argued pointing to the proliferation of MOOCs and such, “That is not it, at all.”

    Nor do open textbooks seem like “what I meant at all,” even though British Columbia’s minister of advanced education John Yap opened the event with an important announcement about the province’s commitment to that very thing. In other words, open education is much, much more than open textbooks. It is, as Campbell argued in his keynote, about yearning and opening. And it is, as Willinsky argued in his, about a commitment to the local and the commons.

    Hacking Textbooks Open

    And yet, despite my reluctance to place textbooks at the core of “what matters” to open education, one of my favorite presentations was about that very thing — a presentation by Megan Beckett from the South African non-profit Siyavula and its workshops to help develop textbooks. Of course, it’s worth noting that, just as Campbell’s keynote called for more attention to the verb “opening” rather than the adjective “open,” the word “Siyavula” is Nguni for “we are opening.”

    Siyavula has gathered teachers and university-level students in South Africa to write openly licensed textbooks in math and science. Over the course of two to three weekend-long workshops per book, volunteers come together and collaboratively author a textbook.

    The workshops include an introduction to copyright, Beckett says. And they must deal with a variety of practical and technical issues (including which authoring platform to utilize). But by bringing together a diverse group of people, the textbooks include more ideas than you’d find if you’d just commissioned a single author to write the copy.

    In her presentation at Open Ed, Beckett pointed to some of the “lessons learned” from the Siyavula textbook workshops: peer review is necessary sooner and more often than they’d originally anticipated. And that process of both writing and editing can be intimidating for participants as they weren’t trained as writers.

    But whether they're already trained as textbook writers or not, it’s clear that the knowledge that community members — teachers and otherwise — possess is worth gathering and collecting and sharing. 

    Siyavula covers math and science, and other organizations have been working on similar efforts. There have been textbook hackathons in Finland and in Boston, for example, compiling math and computer science textbook materials.

    How else can we expand these sorts of events to create textbooks for other disciplines — and, of course, to create materials that extend beyond textbooks as well. Why couldn’t we build annotated versions of the fiction found on Project Gutenburg, for example?

    Wikipedia has made efforts recently to convince professors to make editing the collaborative encyclopedia a class assignment. It seems as though there are many more opportunities for us to do this sort of work — as researchers, as educators, and as students — to contribute to open education, to build educational materials together, license them openly, make them easily and freely accessible to learners, and as Willinsky argued, to give back to our local libraries, to the community, and to the public domain.

    Photo credits: Phillip Taylor

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