It’s been a wild year-and-a-half working at Cengage Learning. I got to work on a project that I believe is one of the best educational technology ideas that I’ve seen in the last decade. I got to manage a product team and budget for the go-forward, mission-critical digital product of a company with a billion dollars in annual revenue. I got to see the stresses and turmoil of the digital transition of the textbook industry from the inside. And I got to work with some incredible people. But ultimately, it turned out not to be the long-term professional home I was hoping it would be. So, with much excitement and some trepidation, I have decided to go independent and launch a consulting practice. November 9th will be my last day at Cengage. Then, after a week’s vacation, I will be off to Europe for a little while, where I will be working with a textbook publisher that I will be helping to think through their digital transformation. But beyond that, I’m not sure. There are a number of possibilities.
When I started this blog eight years ago, I was in the midst of a similar transition. I had just shut down a startup that I had put together with some friends. I had some ideas about what I might want to do next, but I wasn’t sure which were the best and, equally importantly, I wasn’t sure which ones I could actually get somebody to pay me for. I figured that if I blogged about what I was thinking about, then the responses from my readers might teach me something about which ideas were actually valuable to other people. At the risk of being self-indulgent (or self-promotional), I’m going to use this post to lay out some types of problems that I’d like to be working on going forward. I’m just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks at this point, and I’d love to hear what you think. I’ll also lay out how this change of direction will influence e-Literate.
For Fun…and Profit?
I love working with people on hard but important educational problems that I don’t know how to solve yet. Luckily, we have a lot of those right now. The bigger challenge is figuring out how to work on these problems while earning enough to put food on the table. Here are a few that I think might fall into the intersection:
Quality at Scale
I am terrified by the announcement that the University of Texas is already talking about granting degree credit for EdX classes. While I think the whole MOOC phenomenon is fascinating and excited, I don’t think we know what kinds of things that it’s good for yet, and I certainly don’t think that we know how well xMOOCs do at delivering F2F-equivalent course value (however you evaluate that value). I don’t understand the logic of, “Well, we don’t do a good job of teaching students in classes of 150, but what the heck, let’s go for classes of 15,000. It’ll be fine.” I haven’t yet seen evidence that any of the xMOOCs have come up with better ways to teach effectively at scale (although, to be fair, I know the least about what EdX is up to in this regard).
And yet, I believe that we can crack the quality at scale problem. There are promising approaches that just haven’t seemed to make it into MOOC designs yet—approaches like learning design in the sense that folks like James Dalziel and Diana Laurillard mean it, and cognitive task analysis, and creative use of machine learning for textual evaluation. I also believe that the judicious use of learning analytics can be enormously helpful, even though I’m skeptical of the “mine everything” and “make everything adaptive” approaches that are now in vogue.
Quality at Any Scale
MOOCs aren’t the only area where we have some thinking to do about effective course design. One of the interesting aspects about both the MOOC movement and the changes going on in the publishing industry is that we’re starting to move up the value chain from thinking about what to teach to thinking about how to teach. This is a huge transition in thinking for both textbook editors and many faculty members. Such a change entails a lot more than just applying some of the techniques that I listed above. For starters, we don’t have many people who are trained in those techniques. Classic instructional design is poorly suited for the challenges we are facing now, and we don’t have many alternative training programs. So just assembling the expertise is a challenge. Situating that expertise in a productive partnership with the traditional players is even more of a challenge. How do faculty members, authors, and editors work with designers. How do you forge a productive and non-threatening relationship? And how can bring together the skills you need in ways that are not hideously expensive and time-consuming? The answers to these questions can be very different depending on the kind of organization you’re working with, but I do believe some common approaches can be developed.
The Intersection of Content and Functionality
I have long argued that designing digital content and educational software separately from each other has severe limitations. I often like to tell the story of how (Khan Academy deans and e-Literate contributors) Beth Harris and Steven Zucker invited me to look at an image annotation tool that was being developed at Columbia University. They were excited at first, but they quickly realized that it wasn’t the right tool for them. It had been developed for a histology professor, and it turns out that teaching with images in histology is done very differently than teaching with images in art history. And yet, they definitely needed some kind of annotation tool. As they were fond of saying, on the web, you can’t point. And it’s hard to teach art history well without being able to point.
As we move up the value chain from what to teach to how to teach, we are going to need better tools for teaching and assessing specific disciplines. We’re already seeing that with, for example, the proliferation of environments that evaluate students’ software code. The need for these specialized capabilities is going to explode, especially if we want to reach quality at scale. But content people are generally not particularly good at software design and development, and software folks are not always good at understanding content people and their needs. There are process approaches that can help these two groups understand each other and work together better.
Business and Sustainability Models
From an economic perspective, education is a bizarre and, in many ways, unhealthy ecosystem. It’s hard to match needs with resources. Ed tech startups often have trouble understanding the market, and schools have trouble carving out sensible sustainability models for their non-profit and for-profit ventures. I have been lucky to have an eclectic set of experiences in this regard. I’ve worked for two very different but large and acquisitive corporations in the educational technology space (Oracle and Cengage). I’ve been on the Board of Directors for a non-profit educational software foundation (Sakai). I’ve worked in a university. I’ve even been a consultant and CEO of a startup in the corporate training space. I’ve seen the challenges from a number of angles. To me, making sustainability models work is actually one of the most important and interesting challenges to tackle in this space.
One of the aspects that I’ve liked least about my last two jobs is a move further away from the day-to-day struggles of schools. Sure, I had to think about them from a product development perspective, but it was always a narrow slice of the pie. I’d like to get back to helping schools think broadly about their mission and strategic goals and how those should shape their online learning program goals, educational technology choices, their procurement processes, their faculty training, and so on. I see a lot of schools struggling with fragmented approaches driven by tactical imperatives. Often, the pieces end up working against each other. I would like to help bring the discussion back to the big picture, the long term, and the mission.
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Those are some of the challenges I would enjoy working on. We’ll see what people think I can help them with, or if they think I can help them with anything at all. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up pumping gas for a living. If you see me adding “ethanol” and “diesel” tags to my posts, then you’ll know that things didn’t go the way I had hoped.
Of course, most of you probably don’t have much of an interest in my consulting activities. You’re here because of the writing. As I always do when I make a job transition, I’d like to tell you about how I think the change may affect the blog.
Most of it will be good, I think. While I am going to need some time at first to get ramped up with my new client, I expect to have more time to devote to blogging overall. And since I will likely have more eclectic work, my range of post topics should expand. The work at Cengage has been so focused and so all-consuming that I have developed a little tunnel vision. I hope and expect to have more time and more stimulation for thinking broadly about education and technology. I also want to put some time into improving the site itself and maybe doing some other projects. Perhaps something MOOCish.
As always, there will be ethical and editorial considerations to balance, but they will change somewhat. On the one hand, while I haven’t yet decided what I’m going to do about the web presence for my consulting practice, I am definitely not going to make e-Literate into my company web site. I want it to remain independent. On the other hand, since I blog about what I’m learning about and I do most of my learning through my work, there will inevitably be some posts like this one, in which I am talking about my practice. I will try to think very carefully about the line between productive sharing and self-promotion, and I will count on you to tell me if you think I ever cross it. There is also always the possibility of a conflict of interest between my clients or prospects and my blogging. This has been true when I have worked at companies, and it will continue to be true. I do have a number of the standard strategies to deal with this, including full disclosure regarding the conflicts and choosing not to write about topics that I think I can’t address fairly and objectively. One of the smartest things I have done with the blog is to bring on good writers and let them do what they want. So, for example, I was able to let Phil write about the Sakai OAE turmoil in a way that would have been hard for me to do as a member of the Sakai Foundation Board. The truth of the matter is that I have very rarely had a blogging-related ethical conflict that I couldn’t resolve with a little common sense. But I want you to know that I am aware that issues may come up and I intend to remain vigilant about them.
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So that’s it! I’m off to a new adventure. I’m not sure where it will go, or how well. But however it goes, I’m glad to have you along for the ride.