Opportunities and Predictions, 2014 A.D.

I make fun of predictions all the time (see, for example, Education Analysts Have Predicted 7 of the last 0 Mobile Revolutions). But heck, why not jump in?

Here’s how I see the world. Mostly, being in a field doesn’t give you predictive powers — it just makes you aware of where the real opportunities are.

But opportunities, even great ones, aren’t always seized upon. There’s good opportunities that people will take. There’s good opportunities people will ignore. And then there are the dead-ends everyone else is in love with. Here’s my take on what will have more prominence in a year’s time, more or less in those categories.


Good Opportunities That Will Be Taken Seriously by the Powers That Be


Synchronous Online

Image from US+ project

Synchronous online is largely dismissed — the sexy stuff is all in programmed, individuated learning these days, and individuated is culturally identified with asynchronous. That’s a mistake. First, tens of thousands of students (hundreds of thousands?) are still suffering through traditional multi-campus distance learning sessions where they wait patiently in largely empty classrooms for the classroom camera to grind over to them so they can ask a question to a teacher teaching on some other satellite campus 150 miles away. These sessions have no flow, no life, and take up valuable room assignments. And they aren’t cost-neutral — the associated equipment either needs to be updated and replaced, or we need to find new ways of doing this. My sense is if better online options were provided, a lot of campuses would ditch the traditional equipment and go with something more fluid.

Second, and more importantly, *millions* of students suffer through lousy Adobe Connect and Bb Collaborate sessions every semester. I’ve talked about this before — but the problem with these sessions is they ditch the affordances that physical space provides to structure classroom discussion without taking advantage of the unique affordances of the Net. Something as simple as pairing off students and walking around to “eavesdrop” remains extremely clunky in these systems (yes, I know about “breakout rooms”, but the fluidity is not there), and more advanced techniques such as “speed-dating reviews”, fishbowl discussions, and peer instruction are just plain impossible. And there’s no reason for that — it’d be trivial to model any number of research-tested approaches to classroom discussion using things like timed-turns, auto-pairing, random prompts and the like.

In other words, synchronous online is where asynchronous online was a number of years back, when the LMS was a glorified content management system. With the LMS, suddenly the long-commodified LMS market realized that if they focused on student learning and success rather than treating student and content management as a corporate function they’d have a different pitch. Here’s my take on that LMS shift from back in 2011, as Canvas entered to redefine the market:

But, as it turns out, the real discussion had hardly begun. The LMS wars had all been on Blackboard’s turf —  as David Wiley has pointed out, they exhibited the classic attributes of “Hat Fail”. Instead of managing the interaction piece of learning — the individual path of students through the course — they conceptualized themselves as content repositories, and became irrelevant as both quality content and quality content publishing approached zero cost.

Adobe Connect and Blackboard Collaborate are, I think, in a similar place. They are perfect tools for sales presentations, but they remain education-illiterate products. They don’t help structure interaction in helpful ways. I sincerely doubt that either product has ever asked for the input of experts on classroom discussion on how net affordances might be used to produce better educational interaction, and I doubt there’s all that much more teacher input into the products either. The first people to bother to talk to experts like Stephen Brookfield on what makes good discussion work *pedagogically* and implement net-based features based on that input are going to have a different pitch, a redefined market, and the potential to make a lot of money. For this reason, I suspect we’ll see increasing entrants into this space and increasing prominence of their offerings.

Suggested tag line: “We built research-driven video conferencing built for educators, and that is sadly revolutionary.”



Small Data Products


Big Data is data so big you can’t fit it in a commercial database. Small Data is the amount of data so small you can fit it in a spreadsheet. Big Data may indeed be the future. But Small Data is the revolution in progress.

Why? Because the the two people most able to affect education in any given scenario are the student and the teacher. And the information they need to make decisions has to be grokable to them, and fit with their understanding of the universe.

Want to know a great example of Small Data? A local school district here runs a “one-F” analysis on student grades. It’s just what it sounds like — it pulls a list of students that have A’s and B’s in all their classes, but an F in one. And then they sit down with the teacher and the student and ask what’s going on.

There’s no complex correlations here, because complex correlations that aren’t understood by end users don’t result in meaningful action, a fact that even Big Data darling Netflix learned the hard way. One-F analysis works because both people involved with the situation can think meaningfully about the pattern and alter their behavior to affect it. If I sit a student or a professor down and explain the one-F situation, they can immediately theorize how their behavior, competency, or history might be contributing to the situation.

That’s not to say that complex math doesn’t have a place. Point biserial correlations run on multiple choice tests can identify questions where success doesn’t tend to correlate with success on other questions. The math is not hard, but it’d freak your average professor out. The point, however, is that I can run a correlation on a professor’s test with a fairly small sample size and identify potentially bad questions, and explain the problem to the professor as “Your ‘A’ students did no better on this question than your ‘F’ students — I think there might be a problem with it.’ And they’ll get that.

What will the Small Data products look like? It’s likely to be dashboard style stuff; visualizations, metrics, alerts. But the key will be removing the “secret sauce” mentality that most vendors have about the scoring of their analytics. If schemes like Course Signals persist (and they will) they will have to be made meaningful. Netflix tells me that it suggested Dodgeball because I liked Zoolander, and does that in the pretty low stakes arena of weekend movie selection. And as that linked article above demonstrates, Netflix is moving more and more in this direction, creating tens of thousands of “micro-genres” to help customers better understand the meaning behind the math. (And yes, you really need to read that article).

In higher education the stakes are somewhat greater, yet many analytics are stuck where Netflix was four years ago, telling you that there was a 95% chance you would give Movie X a 3.5 rating, and watching you not care in the least. That was a Big Data way of thinking. For the moment, however, small is beautiful, and future analytics products will have to identify to students and professors whether a poor prognosis is due to prior GPA, class attendance, or LMS logins.

Potential hurdle: Vendors love them some secret sauce, and hate you to know that 95% of their “complex” prediction is just prior GPA. It kills the mystery. So this one’s less certain.



Local Online

This is an old prediction of mine, going back a couple years now, and you might argue that it’s already happened — at any given university with an online arm you’ll find that 25-40% of the online classes are taken by students who are already on campus. So the trend is here. It’s arrived.

That said, there’s been surprisingly few concerted attempts to restructure online to serve this incredibly important population. At many universities students who take online classes are actually treated as if they are enrolled in a separate “campus”, despite the fact they are being taught by the same people who teach their face-to-face courses and are taking the courses for a degree program in which they are enrolled locally.

In a way, this is related to the Synchronous Online prediction. For a long time the assumption has been that people take “inferior” online courses primarily because these people are

  • Distant
  • Schedule-constrained

For an increasing audience of students this just isn’t true anymore. People take online due to course scarcity, or because they like an online experience “in the mix”. Or maybe it has their favorite professor, or a really cool experience. Maybe they *could* get up at 8 a.m. if they had to, but they don’t trust themselves to do that religiously. Maybe they have time for the synchronous experience, but the scheduling gods have deigned to put the two courses they need to graduate at the same time on the same day.

Schools have been shipping these students the same product as their more traditional distant, time-constrained brethren. Why? Why take such huge local advantages and opportunities and throw away just because the course is “online”?

There’s been a lot of scattered experimentation on this front, but I think this is the year a college or two really cracks the code on this, weaving local online into their global curriculum intentionally, and (and this part’s the big part) making their unique approach to local online part of the marketing campaign of the college. And on the trailing edge, this may push schools who have put their online and face-to-face efforts in completely different units to move towards integration and realignment.

I’m sure a couple schools will show up in the comments and say they’ve started that already. That’s good, because these sort of realignments take time, and if this prediction is going to turn out well, you’ll have to be chugging into the marketing campaign in about eight months…


Good Opportunities that Will Likely Not Be Taken Seriously by the Powers That Be.



Return of Education 2.0


Hey, I hated the term too. I wrote a screed on it. But term aside, the use of social media — blogs, wikis, social bookmarking — was treated over the last couple of years a bit like a phase we went through on our way to MOOCdom. Now that the dust has cleared, I’m seeing institutions that have made huge strides in the past three years while everyone was looking elsewhere. While the University of British Columbia was getting into MOOC production on one end of the organization, smart people on the other end were plugging away at the UBC Wiki. While UMW’s excellent ds106 garnered much attention, UMWBlogs continued to grow.

The social climate has changed as well. “Hashtag” became a term so well known that it jumped the shark. Social bookmarking returned in the form of Pinterest, a site so popular that one out of every three American women on the internet use it. Teens left the suburbia of Facebook for the selfie-foodie kingdom of Instagram and the, um — something — that is Tumblr. The “teens don’t tweet” conversation of a couple years ago has morphed into “Teens love them some pubsub architecture.”

Able critiques of the like/retweet web aside, part of what is happening is the architecture of the web is moving into areas that do not require writing or video production for participation. And that’s good. Because when I can get in front of faculty and explain the same Pinterest architecture that showed them how to cook a better turkey last Thanksgiving can show them how to build a better class, that’s an unqualified win for everyone. We can work on the writing part later.

Professionally, what I’ve noticed is this — in the communities I’m in we’ve moved from evangelism (You need to get your students onto blogs, and all your problems are illusions!) to a much more reflective state. There are people around now that have been working with student blogging and student wikis for more than a decade now, and that changes things in a profound way. I think we are getting closer to the point where the service-wrapped free-software model that is being used by David Wiley and Kim Thanos at Lumen could be profitably applied to some of these blurred-boundary classroom efforts, because the body of knowledge exists, it’s just not equally distributed.

So why the dismal forecast for this year? History, I guess. Ultimately this is not a story about a product, but a story about a way of working with one another. It’s about thinking like the web. That remains a tough sell.

Almost everyone I know that has really advanced “learning 2.0” has got into it because tapping into web communities changed their professional, personal, or political life and they wondered why the heck student experiences couldn’t be like that. The people that excel at putting these sorts of educational experiences together don’t teach this as a skill, but as a lifestyle. And to do that, you must live it.

We’re getting there in our personal lives, via Pinterest, via Tumblr, via Twitter. But most people still do not have the experience of building and tapping into strong online networks of expertise for their job, and in fact are actively dissuaded from doing so. Most administrators still see Twitter as a productivity suck or a toy. Until this changes, the learning 2.0 community will keep on truckin’, building ways of teaching that might have a chance for broad adoption in 2015 or 2016. But not this year. For this year expect the actual people in power to engage in more dumb discussions about “net civility”, “social media safety”, and FERPA while the rest of us build the education you will use a decade from now.



Privacy Products


I’d like to see last year’s revelations about NSA spying as a watershed moment where people move to more distributed, client-managed solutions. I really would.  But I just don’t see it.

The problem with consumer privacy is it isn’t a consumer problem, like a preference for products with rich APIs. If you want to know why, read Unsafe at Any Speed and replace “car industry” with “Silicon Valley” and “safety” with “privacy”. You can’t buy your way out of a lousy car industry, and you won’t be able to boycott Silicon Valley into truly respecting your privacy.

The way we will get privacy, if we get it at all, is public pressure followed by legislation that sets up systems of oversight and accountability. But given that we can’t even pass minor gun legislation passed after Newtown, that’s not happening this year. Not with this administration, not with this Congress.


That said, the platform dreams of Facebook, Google+, and Twitter will begin a death spiral this year as the services integration point moves back into the operating system. As you increasingly use apps to log into Facebook, Gmail, and Twitter, these companies won’t be able to use the web’s horrible broken cookie-based persistence system to track your behavior across other parts of the web. That means the global view of your behavior is going to have be at the OS level, and people may react differently to a phone that they paid for (and pay for) tracking them than a free service where “that was just the deal.”

But probably not. Just pray for Congress to get better so we can get on with the legislative efforts. Until then, expect more of the same.


Dead-ends that everyone else will be talking about


Mobile learning will continue to be a meaningless term that means both everything and nothing.

Gamification will continue to be a bizarre term denoting principles derived from 70 years of educational research on motivation and competency, as told to us by the people who created Farmville.

For-profit Bundled Service Providers like 2U, Academic Partnerships, and others will continue to find non-profit institutions willing to auction off their name for a cut of online action, and Thomas Friedman will be there to cover it as some gosh-darn American private sector ingenuity.

Competency certification efforts will speed up, which is *not* a dead end. But along with this, the GED for Higher Education will begin take shape, although no one will call it that, since the GED was a policy disaster that did horrible damage to our educational system. Not like this new thing, right?


Image Credits

“You’ve been automuted because you’re talking too much”: US+ project, via FastCo.labs

“Movies featuring an Epic Nicolas Cage meltdown”: Netflix’s April Fool’s Joke, via Salon

“I will be part of the last generation to get Seinfeld”: Anonymous, via Quickmeme

“I tried to deactivate my Facebook profile”: Arrested Development, Season 4, via the Online Privacy Blog

“Bills Enacted Into Law, 1947 to 2013”: Boston Globe

“Dial M for Moustache”: This Modern World

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7 Responses to Opportunities and Predictions, 2014 A.D.

  1. Pingback: Top Higher Ed Trends of 2013 Round-Up | Acrobatiq

  2. mellgrim says:

    Thank you so much for this post. You’ve clarified a range of issues I’ve been trying to articulate to the academic management structure I work with at the moment and your points about Bb Collaborate are on the money for me and will be something I raise this week coming. Quick question, do you have any experience with SKYPE or similar products for synchronous delivery or do they have the same issue with students waiting in turn? I can’t see a technological solution without making students wait….but I’m still learning about all this! Thanks again.

  3. Skype has the same issues. I think this is an area where we need new products. There are a couple products people have pointed me to because of this post (and other posts on the subject). As soon as semester startup is past, maybe I can do a roundup.

  4. Well done, ‘literally,’ Mike!

    It’s refreshing to see an industry reviewer/maven/sage with the right mixture of savvy, cynicism and sarcasm!

    Shakespeare would have been proud of you…

  5. mellgrim says:

    Thanks heaps Mike – I’ll keep an eye out. (Or maybe I could start looking for myself and stop being a free rider!)

  6. home improvement industry in Germany says:

    When I initially commented I appear to have clicked on the -Notify me when
    new comments are added- checkbox and now whenever a comment is added I get 4 emails
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  7. Thanks for notifying us about your problem. (I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt that this is legit despite the spammy name and link in your by-line, the latter of which I have removed.) I changed a configuration that *may* have been causing duplicates to be sent, but in any case, every one of the emails you get has a “manage my subscriptions” link at the bottom. You can follow that link to change or remove your email subscriptions.

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