Instructure Dodges A Data Bullet

Last week’s EDUCAUSE conference was relatively news free, which is actually a good thing as overall ed tech hype levels have come down. Near the end of the conference, however, I heard from three different sources about a growing backlash against Instructure for their developing plans for Canvas Data and real-time events. “They’re Blackboarding us”, “the honeymoon is over”, “we’re upset and that is on the record”. By all appearances, this frustration mostly by R1 institutions was likely to become the biggest PR challenge for Instructure since their 2012 outage, especially considering their impending IPO.

The first complaint centered on Instructure plans to charge for daily data exports as part of Canvas Data, which Instructure announced at InstructureCon in June as:

a hosted data solution providing fully optimized data to K-12 and higher education institutions capturing online teaching and learning activity. As a fundamental tool for education improvement, the basic version of the service will be made available to Canvas clients at no additional cost, with premium versions available for purchase.

What that last phrase meant was that monthly data access was free, but institutions had to pay for daily access. By the EDUCAUSE conference, institutions that are part of the self-organized  “Canvas R1 Peers” group were quite upset that Instructure was essentially selling their own data back to them, and arguments of additional infrastructure costs were falling flat. Continue reading

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EDUCAUSE and Robot Tutors In The Sky: When investors are your main customers

Yippie i ohhh ohh ohh
Yippie i aye ye ye
Robot tutors in the sky

Before I head out to Indianapolis for the EDUCAUSE conference, I keep thinking back to a comment someone made in response to Michael’s description of Knewton marketing as “selling snake oil”. I can’t find the exact quote, but the gist was:

This is what happens when you start to see VCs as your main customers.

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The Starling: Pre-K Ed Tech

The product I am going to tell you about here was created by two of my former seventh and eighth grade students. I love these guys. So yes, I am biased. But that knowledge also presents an opportunity. I am 100% confident that they have only the best of intentions. With that in mind, I can look at the genesis of an idea for pre-K ed tech—a particularly fraught corner of a fraught field—knowing that there is no scam or hidden agenda here and see some of the challenges that arise when trying to go from best of intentions to implemented product.

I think Starling is a great idea that has the potential to do a lot of good in the world. But I also think it will raise some eyebrows.

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Why Is Blackboard Laying Off Staff Despite Improved Market Share Position?

Over the past two weeks Blackboard had another round of layoffs, likely due to the company missing financial targets. While one estimate places the number at roughly 200, from what I have heard the number is closer to 90 – 100 people let go. I asked the company for commentary on the layoffs and associated reorganization. By email they declined to comment on the number of employees let go but added this comment:

These changes included the elimination of select positions across the company. We deeply appreciate the contributions made by the affected employees and are supporting them in their transition.

This is not the first layoff at Blackboard since they were taken private in 2011; rather this is the latest in a series of cuts that have gone well beyond “trimming the fat”. Posts on and glassdoor paint a picture of high attrition due to routine layoffs and many staff leaving by their own choice. We have written on several of these events here at e-Literate. 90 here, 100 there, 74 . . . it adds up, especially when combined with staff departures.

To get another view into the company downsizing, consider that Blackboard recently signed a lease that will trim its corporate headquarters by 37%:

Founded in a Dupont Circle row house in 1997, Blackboard, which has occupied 111,895 square feet at 650 Massachusetts Ave. since 2008, will move into Ogilvy Public Relations Wordwide’s former space on the eighth through 10th floors [70,482 square feet] beginning in December 2015.

This follows a recent move in its Reston, Virginia facility that cuts its office space there by over 50%.

In an ironic turn of events, the new headquarters move will put the company into the same building it occupied before 2008, and their neighbors in the building will include former CEO Michael Chasen’s SocialRadar and CBE provider FlatWorld.

Why More Layoffs When US Market Share Finally Stabilizes?

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The Rise of Antisocial Deconstructivism

Phil and I gave our first ever joint keynote at the OLC conference this week. We didn’t want to just do dueling PowerPoints, so instead we tried a format that I have been calling a social constructivist keynote. Each of us would present on a topic for a few minutes, and then the two of us would talk about it for a few minutes. We planned the arc of the topics we would cover in advance, but we didn’t rehearse the talks for each other or script the conversation. The discussions came pretty close to the kind of bull shooting conversations that we have all the time. We set a time limit of eight minutes for each segment so that we could get through our presentation with enough time to bring the audience into the conversation at the end. It seemed to work pretty well.

In the course of the conversation, we spontaneously came up with a term that we both like and that seemed to resonate with the audience: antisocial deconstructivism.[1] It’s the approach of breaking learning down into teeny, tiny bits, tied to fine-grained competencies and micro-assessments, that students learn on their own by following a prescription that is created for them, possibly with the help of a robot. To be clear, the term isn’t entirely meant to mock. There are times when antisocial deconstructivism is an appropriate pedagogical technique. For example, it’s pretty good for helping nursing students memorize medical terminology or IT students learn the basic components of a network. It can be good for learning some math kinds of skills, depending on your philosophy of math education. Any situation in which you are working fairly low on Bloom’s Taxonomy might be OK for it as an approach. Procedural knowledge that either doesn’t require higher order problem solving skills or where problem solving skills are best built incrementally by slowing increasing problem complexity is a particularly appropriate type of candidate for antisocial deconstructivism.

But we do mock it when it is presented not as a pedagogical technique but as a pedagogical ideology. It’s the idea that anything worth learning can be learned best, most cheaply, and “at scale” this way. It’s the fetishization of one tool in the teaching toolbox as the technological society’s Great Leap Forward. The worst, crudest examples of MOOCs, Competency-Based Education, and personalized learning software hype are all manifestations of this stunted (and self-interested) view of education. Antisocial deconstructivism is like botulism. A little bit injected in just the right spot by a trained expert can smooth out some wrinkles that bother you, treat a chronic headache, or refocus a lazy eye. A little more injected in the wrong places and you can quickly start to look like a parody of the thing that you are trying to be. Any more that, and what you have is not a tool but a toxin.

You might be suffering from antisocial deconstructivist toxicity if you find yourself believing any of the following:

  • Short videos of lectures by Ivy League professors, coupled with little quizzes at the end, will almost always provide a better education than a class taught by a live, human, non-Ivy League professor.
  • Short vendor-produced articles or animations, coupled with little quizzes at the end, will almost always provide a better education than a class taught by a live, human, non-Ivy League professor.
  • We think of our product like a robot tutor in the sky that can semi-read your mind and figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are, down to the percentile.

If you exhibit any of these symptoms, then get yourself to a great teacher immediately and have them demonstrate for you what it is that videos, quizzes and robots cannot do.

  1. “Antisocial deconstructivism” should not be confused with “antisocial deconstructionism,” the latter of which is redundant. Anyone who writes like Derrida did clearly is actively hostile to the idea of shared meaning making as something that provides net positive value, or even the desire to communicate with other humans. []
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