Blueprint for a Post-LMS, Part 2

In the first post of this series, I identified four design goals for a learning platform that would be well suited for discussion-based courses:

  1. Kill the grade book in order to get faculty away from concocting arcane and artificial grading schemes and more focused on direct measures of student progress.
  2. Use scale appropriately in order to gain pedagogical and cost/access benefits while still preserving the value of the local cohort guided by an expert faculty member, as well as to propagate exemplary course designs and pedagogical practices more quickly.
  3. Assess authentically through authentic conversations in order to give credit for the higher order competencies that students display in authentic problem-solving conversations.
  4. Leverage the socially constructed nature of expertise (and therefore competence) in order to develop new assessment measures based on the students’ abilities to join, facilitate, and get the full benefits from trust networks.

I also argued that platform design and learning design are intertwined. One implication of this is that there is no platform that will magically make education dramatically better if it works against the grain of the teaching practices in which it is embedded. The two need to co-evolve.

This last bit is an exceedingly tough nut to crack. If we were to design a great platform for conversation-based courses but it got adopted for typical lecture/test courses, the odds are that faculty would judge the platform to be “bad.” And indeed it would be, for them, because it wouldn’t have been designed to meet their particular teaching needs. At the same time, one of our goals is to use the platform to propagate exemplary pedagogical practices. We have a chicken and egg problem. On top of that, our goals suggest assessment solutions that differ radically from traditional ones, but we only have a vague idea so far of what they will be or how they will work. We don’t know what it will take to get them to the point where faculty and students generally agree that they are “fair,” and that they measure something meaningful. This is not a problem we can afford to take lightly. And finally, while one of our goals is to get teachers to share exemplary designs and practices, we will have to overcome significant cultural inhibitions to make this happen. Sometimes systems do improve sharing behavior simply by making sharing trivially easy—we see that with social platforms like Twitter and Facebook, for example—but it is not at all clear that just making it easy to share will improve the kind of sharing we want to encourage among faculty. We need to experiment in order to find out what it takes to help faculty become comfortable or even enthusiastic about sharing their course designs. Any one of these challenges could kill the platform if we fail to take them seriously.

When faced with a hard problem, it’s a good idea to find a simpler one you can solve that will get you partway to your goal. That’s what the use case I’m about to describe is designed to do. The first iteration of any truly new system should be designed as an experiment that can test hypotheses and assumptions. And the first rule of experimental design is to control the variables.

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Blueprint for a Post-LMS, Part 1

Reading Phil’s multiple reviews of Competency-Based Education (CBE) “LMSs”, one of the implications that jumps out at me is that we see a much more rapid and coherent progression of learning platform designs if you start with a particular pedagogical approach in mind. CBE is loosely tied to family of pedagogical methods, perhaps the most important of which at the moment is mastery learning. In contrast, questions about why general LMSs aren’t “better” beg the question, “Better for what?” Since conversations of LMS design are usually divorced from conversations of learning design, we end up pretending that the foundational design assumptions in an LMS are pedagogically neutral when they are actually assumptions based on traditional lecture/test pedagogy. I don’t know what a “better” LMS looks like, but I am starting to get a sense of what an LMS that is better for CBE looks like. In some ways, the relationship between platform and pedagogy is similar to the relationship former Apple luminary Alan Kay claimed between software and hardware: “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.” It’s hard to separate serious digital learning design from digital learning platform design (or, for that matter, from physical classroom design). The advances in CBE platforms are a case in point.

But CBE doesn’t work well for all content and all subjects. In a series of posts starting with this one, I’m going to conduct a thought experiment of designing a learning platform—I don’t really see it as an LMS, although I’m also not allergic to that term as some are—that would be useful for conversation-based courses or conversation-based elements of courses. Because I like thought experiments that lead to actual experiments, I’m going to propose a model that could realistically be built with named (and mostly open source) software and talk a bit about implementation details like use of interoperability standards. But all of the ideas here are separable from the suggested software implementations. The primary point of the series is to address the underlying design principles.

In this first post, I’m going to try to articulate the design goals for the thought experiment.

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Alternate Ledes for CUNY Study on Raising Graduation Rates

Last week MDRC released a study on the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) with near breathless terms.

Title page

  • ASAP was well implemented. The program provided students with a wide array of services over a three-year period, and effectively communicated requirements and other messages.
  • ASAP substantially improved students’ academic outcomes over three years, almost doubling graduation rates. ASAP increased enrollment in college and had especially large effects during the winter and summer intersessions. On average, program group students earned 48 credits in three years, 9 credits more than did control group students. By the end of the study period, 40 percent of the program group had received a degree, compared with 22 percent of the control group. At that point, 25 percent of the program group was enrolled in a four-year school, compared with 17 percent of the control group.
  • At the three-year point, the cost per degree was lower in ASAP than in the control condition. Because the program generated so many more graduates than the usual college services, the cost per degree was lower despite the substantial investment required to operate the program.

Accordingly the media followed suit with breathless coverage[1]. Consider this from Inside Higher Ed and their article titled “Living Up to the Hype”: Continue reading

  1. And this article comes from a reporter for whom I have tremendous respect. []
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A little while back, e-Literate suddenly got hit by a spammer who was registering for email subscriptions to the site at a rate of dozens of new email addresses every hour. After trying a number of less extreme measures, I ended up removing the subscription widget from the site. Unfortunately, as a few of you have since pointed out to me, by removing the option to subscribe by email, I also inadvertently removed the option to unsubscribe. Once I realized there was a problem (and cleared some time to figure out what to do about it), I investigated a number of other email subscription plugins, hoping that I could find one that is more secure. After some significant research, I came to the conclusion, that there is no alternate solution that I can trust more than the one we already have.

The good news is that I discovered the plugin we have been using has an option to disable the subscribe feature while leaving on the unsubscribe feature. I have done so. You can now find the unsubscribe capability back near the top of the right-hand sidebar. Please go ahead and unsubscribe yourself if that’s what you’re looking to do. If any of you need help unsubscribing, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me.

Sorry for the trouble. On a related note, I hope to reactivate the email subscription feature for new subscribers once I can find the right combination of spam plugins to block the spam registrations without getting in the way of actual humans trying to use the site.

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Greg Mankiw Thinks Greg Mankiw’s Textbook Is Fairly Priced

This is kind of hilarious.

Greg Mankiw has written a blog post expressing his perplexity[1] with The New York Times’ position that textbooks are overpriced:

To me, this reaction seems strange. After all, the Times is a for-profit company in the business of providing information. If it really thought that some type of information (that is, textbooks) was vastly overpriced, wouldn’t the Times view this as a great business opportunity? Instead of merely editorializing, why not enter the market and offer a better product at a lower price? The Times knows how to hire writers, editors, printers, etc. There are no barriers to entry in the textbook market, and the Times starts with a pretty good brand name.

My guess is that the Times business managers would not view starting a new textbook publisher as an exceptionally profitable business opportunity, which if true only goes to undermine the premise of its editorial writers.

It’s worth noting that Mankiw received a $1.4 million advance for his economics textbook from his original publisher Harcourt Southwestern, which was later acquired by the company now known as Cengage Learning. That was in 1997. Now in its seventh edition, Mankiw has five different versions of his book published by Cengage (not counting the five versions of the previous edition, which is still on the market). That said, he is probably right that NYT would not view the textbook industry as a profitable business opportunity. But think about that. A newspaper finds the textbook industry unattractive economically. The textbook industry is imploding. Mankiw’s publisher just emerged from bankruptcy, and textbook sales are down and still dropping across the board.

One reason that textbook prices have not been responsive to market forces is that most faculty do not have strong incentives to search for less expensive textbooks and, to the contrary, have high switching costs. They have to both find an alternative that fits their curriculum and teaching approach—a non-trivial investment in itself—and then rejigger their course design to fit with the new book. A second part of the problem is that the publishers really can’t afford to lower the textbook prices at this point without speeding up their slow-motion train crash because their unit sales keep dropping as students find more creative ways to avoid buying the book. Their way of dealing with falling sales is to raise the price on each book that they sell. It’s a vicious cycle—one that could potentially be broken by the market forces that Mankiw seems so sure are providing fair pricing if only the people making the adoption decisions had motivations that were aligned with the people making the purchasing decisions. The high cost of switching for faculty, coupled with their relative personal immunity to pricing increases, translate into a barrier to entry for potential competitors looking to underbid the established players. Which brings me to the third reason. There are plenty of faculty who would like to believe that they could make money writing a textbook someday and that doing so would generate enough income to make a difference in their lives. Not all, not most, and probably not even the majority, but enough to matter. As long as faculty can potentially get compensated for sales, there will be motivation for them to see high textbook prices that they don’t have to pay themselves as “fair” or, at least, tolerable. It’s a conflict of interest. And Greg Mankiw, as a guy who’s made the big score, has the biggest conflict of interest of all and the least motivation of anyone to admit that textbook prices are out of hand, and that the textbook “market” he wants to believe in probably doesn’t even properly qualify as a market, never mind an efficient one.

  1. Hat tip to Stephen Downes for the link. []
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