Online Learning, Startups, and Detective Fiction

It’s always fun to remember those moments when a magic trick of some sort is explained to us. This happened to me several decades ago in, of all places, a course on Literary Theory, in which revealed the basic conceit of classic detective fiction. It seems that, for years, I had willingly been paying attention to the author’s elaborate patter and ignoring the obvious simplicity of the genre’s trick.

In classic detective fiction there are only a few basic pieces that any author is allowed to use, and fair play dictates that an author may not introduce any new structural elements. The real difference between the masters and pretenders of the genre can be found in the way they employ, rearrange and manipulate these few essential narrative elements.1

Over the years, I have been reminded of that lesson while observing different narrative forms played out across a variety of media. I have watched literary, film, and TV projects succeed because they understood the need to put the essential elements of their products together coherently, with the right and unique emphasis on each one. I have also watched many projects disappoint and fail utterly because too much attention was paid to only one element — special effects, characterization, or even story — without the proper treatment of other components.

The same general narrative principles hold, I believe, for online learning. Done properly, online courses/teaching/learning forms a successful narrative comprised of a few core elements — students, learning content, course structure, and instructional mediation — all woven together cohesively with a common goal. Done masterfully, online learning is designed with a unique deployment and manipulation of those essential elements (and a heightened experience for the learners).

The important questions we ask ourselves when creating online learning experiences are ultimately the same ones good storytellers asks. What is the best way to weave together the different threads of my plot? Which narrative element should play a dominant role? How can I combine the different pieces I have into the most effective experience possible for the reader/learner?

All of this is a long introduction to my general thoughts related to the many different startups being funded in education these days. Quite naturally, due to the general popularity of their memes and the market perceptions for VC and private equity analysts, much of the investment money is being directed toward educational technology ventures.

Yesterday, we received word that Coursera had received $16 million in funding from Kleiner Perkins and NEA, but and this is only a drop in the proverbial bucket that also includes funding for cloud-based LMS platforms, automated grading technology, social learning tools, learning analytics solutions, and e-textbook alternatives. Reading the news and blogosphere headlines we see hype/angst (take your pick) about everything from educational reform through classroom technology to the promise of reducing or eliminating the high costs associated with education and learning content.

Because these startups are generally for-profit endeavors and have angel, VC, or private equity backing, their approach to product definition and vision is remarkably similar. They must define a narrow yet compelling problem in the education sector, provide a marketable solution for that problem, outline their platform technology and team, and identify a clear marketing and sales strategy (i.e. show how they can make money).

The people reviewing these proposals are not normally education experts or even particularly well-versed in learning markets and their potential. Often, initial pitches are evaluated by analysts who are simply measuring opportunity only in terms of basic risk and performance metrics. In the end, companies are evaluated and receive funding for one primary reason — they have to potential to earn significant revenue and establish important marketshare.

This is important to keep in mind as we wade through the hoopla about new educational technology companies and their cutting-edge initiatives. While they may indeed be fine learning solutions, that is not at the heart of why they received funding, and not likely the core of how they must measure success going forward.

To be clear, I am not saying that there is anything wrong with what I have described above. I have benefitted personally from investment in educational technology and will also be the first to admit that outside funding can help drive innovation and give us important products.

What concerns me is this — the process of pitching ideas for funding, by definition, tends to force companies to focus on a single piece of the educational tapestry rather than on the larger learning narrative. And, while it may make economic sense to build learning solutions around the latest assessment technology because it is in fashion with consumers, such product visions generally ignore or downplay other critical components of what really defines successful teaching and learning.

From a trends and market impact viewpoint, I ave no doubt that commercial MOOC solutions like Coursera and Udacity are important. From the perspective of successful learning, however, we should likely be paying much more attention to the real innovative learning narrators like Groom, Downes, Siemens, Gibbs, and their ilk.

1 For other interesting reading on the structure of detective fiction (and other popular generes), I highly recommend John G. Cawelti’s  Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture.

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About Rob Reynolds

Rob Reynolds is the author of The Future of Learning Content and the Director of MBS Direct Digital. His circuitous professional path has taken him through the ranks of faculty member, university administrator, publishing executive, and co-founder of a successful educational technology startup.
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