By Phil Hill
Cisco Networking Academy, which bills itself as the “world’s largest classroom” with over 1 million students in 165 countries, announced that the program has selected Instructure’s Canvas as its new LMS, replacing a homegrown system in use for over 15 years. The initial announcement was made at Instructure’s user conference, and a more formal announcement [was] made Monday [June 18] at the Cisco Networking Academy conference in California.
This news appears to have generated some interest in technology circles (TechCrunch had the best article so far), but I have been surprised how little coverage the US education media has given this news. It almost feels like there is a concerted opinion that this news is mostly irrelevant to educational institutions, particularly to the higher education community. All I can find so far in national education media is one perfunctory quick take in Inside Higher Ed, one short piece cross-posted at T.H.E. Journal and Campus Technology, and absolutely nothing in the Chronicle.
Really? Their silence speaks volumes, and I think this lack of interest in the announcement is a mistake. This Cisco / Instructure partnership is important for education for at least three reasons.
Last week I had the chance to interview Amy Christen, Cisco’s VP of Corporate Affairs and leader of the Networking Academy project. This interview was invaluable for my analysis below.
Reason 1: Cisco’s Networking Academy is already applying several important education concepts at scale
Cisco Networking Academy is the company’s “largest and longest running corporate social responsibility program”, meaning that there is no charge for public and non-profit institutions. Despite the program’s size, the nature of the Networking Academy is often misunderstood – is not a corporate training program, but rather an hardware-neutral educational program in partnership with over 10,000 High Schools and Higher Education institutions worldwide.
US education faces many challenges and a clear call for change. The central challenge is how to cost-effectively provide education to all qualified students, given the dramatically changing budget crisis and need for more tangible value to come out of the educational experience. The budgets of public and private institutions have changed to the point of creating an existential crisis for many of them. One of the biggest barriers to institutional consideration of new models – questions of the potential value of online education – is rapidly breaking apart thanks to implied legitimacy deriving from online initiatives by Stanford, MIT, Harvard and other elite institutions. With this barrier effectively removed, there are new possibilities to explore partnerships between educational institutions and external organizations.
Cisco Networking Academy represents a interesting model where an external organization provides courses and communities of practice (webinars, discussion groups to train and help local instructors). The educational institution offers the courses within their curriculum, allowing students to pursue industry-relevant certifications and even to use the courses as part of their degree programs. The schools must have lab equipment – whether based on Cisco equipment or other networking vendors – but otherwise, they benefit from Cisco’s decade-plus investment in curriculum, technology platforms, and growing experience with games and assessments.
According to my interview with Amy, Cisco is not trying to fix education, but they would like to see education transformed, and there is a great opportunity to support change through a combination of technology and 21st century skills of problem solving and collaboration.
There are other examples of external organization-based curriculum or content working in conjunction with existing educational institutions for localization and delivery. Khan Academy is one of the more popular examples, providing a wealth of free, open multi-media content. I would argue that Cisco’s Networking Academy is at least as significant as Khan Academy, especially given they have already shown how to support certificate and degree-granting programs at scale.
Unlike Khan Academy, Cisco does not actively promote the Networking Academy – part of the reason so few people in education circles know about the program. The adoption is pull, not push, and appears to be driven by passionate faculty.
The point here is that the specific program by Cisco already supports 170,000 students in the US and over 1 million worldwide, and the model of external organization partnerships with existing institutions can play an important role in transforming education.
Reason 2: This partnership will help give US-focused educational technology more of a global perspective
The Networking Academy is global in focus, serving students in 165 countries through 10,000 educational institutions. They have already helped to break down an international barrier, and with the partnership Cisco will actually help give US-focused educational technology more of an international perspective. Cisco’s goal is to be “globally consistent and locally relevant”. The educational institutions that deliver the courses provide the local customization and relevance. This approach of not only serving worldwide student populations while working with local educational institutions is powerful, and one that many educational institutions and technology companies would do well to emulate.
In the US, the majority of academy students are in high school (45%) or in two-year postsecondary programs (45%). Outside of the US, however, almost half of all students are in four-year postsecondary programs.
Reason 3: This is a major boost for Instructure, both in terms of scale and in terms of Cisco acceptance
The Cisco Networking Academy team decided three years ago that they needed to replace their homegrown system, which was falling behind the LMS market, with a commercial or open source LMS. Since the academy is a cost center without real revenues, the team must choose where to invest its limited resources, and their priorities are on developing games and assessments rather than the LMS components which can be purchased. Cisco has been working with Instructure for almost a year in development and integration.
Once the Cisco Networking Academy roll-out is complete, Instructure will add more than 1 million new students to their current total of 2.9 million registered students on the Canvas LMS. The Cisco Networking Academy deal is one of the largest deals for educational LMS vendors in terms of number of students, larger even than Moodle’s support of Open University with roughly 250,000 students. I believe there are one or two larger deals with LMS vendors providing a delivery platform for educational publishers.
Perhaps more significant for Instructure is simply the evaluation and acceptance by Cisco. I asked Amy Christen how Cisco decided to take such a risk with this small company. At the time of Cisco’s actual selection in summer 2011, Instructure had approximately 50 customers in higher ed and K12 markets and approximately 50 employees, according to the keynote at Instructure’s user conference. Amy answered that Cisco did their due diligence and that they understand the role of small companies in technology innovation. In other words, evaluation of small technology companies is one of Cisco’s core competencies – they know what they are doing.
The real importance in this announcement is about much more than a big win for Instructure, it’s about Cisco Networking Academy and their experience in taking 21st century interactive, collaborative learning models and already deploying globally at scale. This model of external organization partnerships with existing educational institutions is important, and the tighter integration of Cisco into the educational community through their partnership with Instructure is important.