How Preferred and Trusted Digital Platforms Will Reshape Education

Anyone denying the shift toward preferred and trusted digital platforms might want to look at the numbers as seen here, and we are wise to consider the fact that this has implications for education as well.

Digital platforms are here and they are reshaping market share across industries. They are reshaping personal habits. They are reshaping how families and communities function. This is not new. We’ve been living in and experiencing these changes for decades, but the statistics above give us a glimpse into what can happen in education as well.

I realize this provokes mixed reactions. Some might not like it. Others might not want it to happen. Still others might be deeply concerned about it. Even others remain skeptics. I’ve experienced all of those at one point our another. However, we are in denial in if we think this shift is not reshaping education as well.

Others will look at the statistics above and point out that, while Amazon grew in shares, it is not the most profitable. In fact, it didn’t even turn a profit until 2016. Yet, I will point out that it did impact both market share and profit for some of the others in the chart as well as countless others. It actually generated more profit for storefronts who found a powerful platform in Amazon. It established its market influence. In addition, regardless of profits at the moment, it is reshaping the modern retail marketplace in ways that are noteworthy.

This trusted platform / storefront element is one of the more profitable parts of the Amazon enterprise. I wrote about this recently in an article entitled, “A Likely Storefront Future of Continuing Education.” I tried to stay modest in my speculations in the article, but the truth of the matter is that an Amazon approach to education at large is likely to emerge. We are not sure who or which organizations will take the lead, but it can and likely will happen. It may be underway and I just haven’t noticed the emerging dominance of certain platforms.

By the way, this doesn’t mean the end of face-to-face education anymore than Amazon’s success meant the need of all face-to-face storefronts, but it will have an impact, one that is potentially larger but certainly different from what most people expect. This is not a doomsday article for traditional education. It is a recognition that education and learning as we know it will be transformed by the trusted and extended services platform model.

This is about building a preferred and trusted platform. I stopped by a Best Buy recently in search of a last-minute addition to Christmas presents. When I asked about a niche product, you can probably guess what the person told me at the store. We don’t have that in this store, but you can go to our website and order it. The people at the store are constantly reinforcing that the place to really get what you want is online, and it was a fragmented customer experience. You are just taking your chances if you go to the store. My wife had a related experience when she went online to order something from Walmart that she could pick up in the store. When she arrived, they didn’t have it, even though the website indicated that all she had to do was go to the store to pick it up.

Amazon went a different direction. Order it from us (or one of our partners) and we will tell you when it will arrive. Before you order it, check out our community of customer reviews, compare prices across our products and those of other vendors who we welcome in our storefront, choose when and how you want it shipped…

Some K-12 and higher education leaders might look at that last number in the opening image and note that the answer is that we need to add an online element. Yet, while that might be important, this is not just about going online. Each of the companies in the list are online. It is just that Amazon, an almost entirely online storefront, had a 1910% growth while all but Walmart saw significant declines, and Amazon made itself a one-stop shop and destination point that extends from consumer goods to entertainment, photo storage to books in every modern format, cloud servers and storage to tracking digital subscriptions. There is something more significant at play here, and that something has enormous implications for education also. It is about the trusted and one-stop platform. People seem to like and want that.

In education, consider the examples of Coursera and Edx as MOOC providers. Both of these went the route of partnering with large, flagship, or elite institutions. You don’t find many small or niche higher education institutions even welcomed on their platform. Contrast that with Amazon who partners with even the smallest niche boutiques who can meet their standards, follow their policies, and deliver quality products on time. Notice the community built around Amazon that extends across providers and services, anticipating questions and needs, and then expanding the platform to address them.

The future is unclear but the impact is apparent to anyone who will take the took to study the trends. Some of the MOOC providers might pivot and try this. LinkedIn seems to be trying to do it. Blackboard is trying to do it through a B2B strategy as a provider of ever-expanding services for educational institutions, but it still does not prove to be a true and easy-to-work-with partner for many vendors (at least not from several direct personal experiences on that front). Plenty of others opted for more niche approaches that will likely be sustaining over the upcoming years. Those who are growing online are often doing so with incredibly narrow ways of thinking about education or training. Yet, I’m still waiting for those two or three preferred and trusted platforms to emerge. Perhaps they are already here and will show themselves as such. Maybe they will be an expanded aspects of an existing and widely trusted and used social platform. They could come from new startups. There is even a chance that they will come from the non-profit education space through a single leader or a strong consortium (but I’m skeptical at the moment). This might take a few years. This might take a decade or more. Regardless, it will happen.

Etale Year in Review – 185 Countries, 185 Articles, Top Articles, Top Searches, and More

At the end of each year, I like to look back over the last twelve months to see what I can learn from my writing and the readership at Etale. What resonated the most with readers? What articles received the most unique visitors and what were people inclined to share the most? Who was interested and why? Which search terms result in the most visitors? How did people learn about the site or article? What countries are represented in my readership? This year included more than a few surprises and interesting insights. As such, here is the 2016 summary by the statistics.

How many articles did you publish?

From January 1, 2016 to December 28, 2016 I published 185 articles on (although I deleted 6 of them), averaging 3.5 articles a week. I published 3 articles a week steadily throughout the year, but there were a few weeks where I clearly had a bit more to say, publishing 8 articles in one week. Then there were the week when I only published a couple articles.

People ask me about how I manage to write so much, and I often explain that this is not a forum for polished articles. These are rough draft thoughts, a way for me to process and make sense of new and old ideas while also connecting with people around the world about those ideas. Most of my writing happens on the weekend, but instead of publishing 3 or 4 articles on a  Saturday, I schedule them to release throughout the week. In fact, I’ve been known to write 6 or 7 articles on a weekend, setting them up to release over the next two or three weeks.

Etale is just one of many forums for my writing. I guest blog on occasion, write for popular and academic publications, write white papers on occasion for organizations, and then there is the book writing that keeps me occupied most days. As the quote says at the top of my blog and I like to repeat, I’m fond of Isaac Asimov’s quote that, “Writing is just thinking with your fingers.”

What did you write about?

Scanning the articles from 2016, much of my writing focused on some aspect of nurturing agency and self-education. The future of education, education reform, education policy, the need for and role of educational innovation, and alternative credentials were also frequent themes. I don’t plan out themes in advance. What I write is what I’m thinking about at the moment. In fact, readers may notice patterns in my thinking before I see them (and I’m grateful when readers point them out to me).

What were the most popular articles?

I like to break this up into two categories. The first includes articles that are all-time top picks for readers, ut they also continue to garner the most traffic on the site in the current year. The second category represents articles that I published in 2016 that garnered the most readers.

For the all-time top picks that also topped the list in 2016, we have four.

Interestingly, each of these also connect to projects on the docket in 2016. I hope to have a new book published early in 2016 about self-directed learning. I also have a finished manuscript about grading and assessment, and I’m going to explain more about a new experimental form of inquiry for me in 2017 that will look at the letter grade system in education. In addition, I published a book in 2016 that was inspired by the last article, What Really Matters? Ten Critical Issues in Education.

The top ten articles published in 2016 are:

I have plans to expand on some of these in 2017 in a variety of forms, new articles, new books, and more. You are welcome to sign up for the Etale Newlsetter if you want to be the first to learn about these projects.

One thing that became evident this year more than any other was that list articles consistently get the most readers. 6 of the top 10 new articles and all the all-time most read articles include a numbered list. This says more to me about what captures readers attention online than it does anything else. As a writer who focuses much of his work on theory, philosophy, and think pieces, I confess that this is a little disheartening, but it does prompt me to think about how to best communicate my ideas in a way that is true to myself but also digestible for readers. I don’t ever anticipate Etale becoming a concrete “how to” site, but it is good to acknowledge the practical focus of many readers.

How did people discover Etale articles?

Google searches continue to be the most common way that people end up on the site or a specific article. Producing 180 articles in a year with a little SEO doesn’t hurt. Bing and Yahoo also direct a modest number of people to the site (but less than 5% of what Google did in 2016). After the search engines, Twitter and Facebook were even for the second most frequent referrers. After those two, we have Scoop.It, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Google+.

I also a few 2016 referrers coming from email servers, often school or University ones. I’m delighted to see that as it seems like these usually happen when someone reads an article, finds it useful or provocative, and sends it to colleagues as a resource or a discussion starter. I love to see this, as I often like to think of my writing as a form of kindling to fuel the fire of rich and substantive discourse about what matters in education today. Like all good kindling, it burns up in the fire, and I’m fine when my writing plays that role.

What keywords brought people to Etale?

It is always intriguing to see what people were seeking and how that led them to the site. What did they type into the search engine to get here? Part of this has to do with search engine optimization and ranking of certain articles. Then there is how much “competition” is out there on the same topic. Nonetheless, here are ten themes that show up consistently in the top searches that lead people to the site.

  1. self-directed learning lesson examples (and a dozen other derivations of searches about self-directed learning)
  2. critical issues in education (problems in education and many other related searches)
  3. educational documentaries
  4. letter grades (and many derivations)
  5. microcredentialing
  6. digital badges
  7. types of educational technology (I wrote an article which those exact words a few years back)
  8. teacher-centered versus learner-centered
  9. educational innovation
  10. the future in education

People end up at Etale when they want to explore self-directed learning, critical issues in education, and the role of credentials and assessment in education, education reform, and the future of education. This is consistent from 2015, with the exception that Etale is a growing destination point for people who want to explore critical issues and problems in modern education.

What countries are represented in the readership?

I counted twice on this one because I didn’t believe the results at first. Out of the 196 countries in the world, people from 185 of those countries read one or more articles on Etale in 2016. English-speaking countries are obviously at the top of the list. The largest number of readers in 2016 came from the United States. After that, there was a close second between Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and India. Then there is a third grouping that included the European Union, the Philippines, New Zealand, Hong Kong, South Africa, Malaysia, and Singapore. The fourth group included Pakistan along with individual naming of most of the countries in the European Union (I’m not quite sure about the rhyme or reason behind some visitors showing up by a specific country and others simply by the broader “European Union” label).

It is still amazing to me that an academic from Wisconsin can write and self-publish articles from his living room (home library, or the local coffee shop down the street) that reach people in that many countries around the world. Of course, now I need to figure out which 11 countries are not on that list and how to invite those people to join the Etale reading excitement.

How many people visited Etale this year?

Etale is still a niche site. Up to this point, I don’t get millions of readers each month or year. This year we had just under 140,000 visitors. There continues to be a slow but steady growth in readers from year to year. Etale was never about becoming a major news source, but I do aspire to expand the conversation about ideas that matter in education. As such, I look forward to finding new ways to connect with even more people in 2017, and I welcome your help in that effort by sharing articles that resonate with you.

Quick Reflection

I’ve been blogging for over a decade, but it is only in the last few years that I started writing over a hundred articles a year. During these last few years especially, I connected with people around the world and discovered countless new ways to invest my time and energy in sparking thought, conversation, and action around critical issues in education. Readers of Etale are the ones who encouraged me to put more of my ideas in writing, being the impetus for three books published in 2016 and much more to come. More than ever, I see education as one of the most powerful forms of social entrepreneurship in existence, and my resolve in promoting this way of thinking is stronger than ever. This brief year in review is yet another source of insight and inspiration on this lifelong calling to challenge people to consider the significance and relevance of ideas that matter in education and society. Ultimately, my work is and will remain an ongoing exploration of truth, beauty, and goodness in this world and beyond.

Why Art Matters in Education, Public Life, and Democracy

Art, in is broadest sense, matters in education. Art is too powerful of a force to be excluded from learning because it is everywhere in culture and public life. Art is influencing, moving, conjuring, provoking, inspiring, challenging, and shaping. The question is whether art will be an authoritarian or democratizing force in society. Will art be limited to a few influential people? Will its secrets be hidden from the majority? Or, will we nurture of people who are informed about its power, how it works, its role in our lives and communities?

Art reflects culture and shapes culture. As such, artists, those who partner with artists, and those who learn to use the tools of the artist wield an incredible power in a modern republic like the United States. Their words, images, music, stories, metaphors, and themes flow into the imaginations of people with whom they encounter. Sometimes this solidifies what is already present. In other cases it is redirects minds and hearts.

T.S. Eliot wrote, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Even when one lacks a nuanced understanding of the art or medium, it already starts working on us. It awakens emotions about topics that were previously paired with completely different emotions. It provides lenses that give us new perspectives on an issue or even ourselves. Depending upon the lens, it might give us a macro view, zoom in on a nuanced detail, or change our perspective with a new shade or color.

Consider how art and its countless manifestations play a role in public and political life. These are not small matters. Art does not shy away from the provocative, candid, volatile, vile, or virtuous. It doesn’t play by cocktail party rules of no talk about politics and religion. It goes where it wills, says what it wills, and invites anyone listening, reading, viewing, or watching to join in the conversation.

This is why art belongs in education. If what I write about art is true, then learning to be a creator of art is a means of engaging in public life. It is part of engaged citizenship in a modern democracy. Avoiding it risks leaving people as consumers of art but not as creators. They are shaped by art but do not understand how or why. Art can, too easily, be turned into manipulation or propaganda, leading people where they do not want to go, but convincing them that the journey is their destiny.

In contemporary conversations about the role of the liberal arts in education, this is an important point for our consideration. Education (informal and formal) is opportunity to prepare for jobs, but it is also a chance to cultivate aesthetic and intellectual habits and ways of thinking that have relevance to engaged citizenry. If we ignore or dismiss such arguments, I fear that we will be incredibly successful at producing highly employable sheep who can and will be led by any self-proclaimed shepherd.

That is a dangerous prospect for individual agency but also for a democratic republic. If we are to empower people to think for themselves and believe that their voices and actions matter, then art matters. If we believe that a free nation consists of a people where every voice and life matters and is worthy of influence in the public sphere, then art matters.

I’m not convinced that most liberal arts curricula in formal education necessarily do a good job addressing this fact, but the topic remains important. We can teach poetry, art, creative writing, film-making, music theory, photography, and graphic design to people but still fail to prepare them for a world filled with such things. We must improve at exploring why these matter, how they are infused in our culture, how they work on us, the many ethical considerations related to them, and how we can refine our ability to communicate, create, and express in these ways. We can examine the role of art in the public life and its incredible power. In doing so, we can equip people to speak and understand the many languages of art that shape and reflect ourselves, our communities, and our society.


Teaching Metaphor and Questions for Civic Life and Beyond

Can metaphors and questions lead us in a more civil and fruitful public discourse? It would seem that we’ve arrived at a political and social climate where first reactions are to vilify, demean, label, stereotype, or downplay the side, person, or position that differs from our own. When a person disagrees with me on fundamental issues, is my first response to give them a derogatory label that makes it easier to dismiss or vilify, or might there be wisdom in listening, understanding, learning, and intentionally humanizing the various people? Should power plays play a larger role than gaining perspective and cultivating understanding?

There are real and important differences represented in the modern landscape, and those demand our attention and best civil, reasonable, albeit sometimes impassioned attention; but what happens when multiple groups refuse to consider the ideas and perspectives of the other as worthy of discourse? Without a commitment to persistent, deep discourse and understanding; our remaining options are minimal. We can vilify the other view and then get those people literally or metaphorically locked up. We can seek ways to silence or muzzle their voice. We can engage in a massive propaganda campaign to subversively change people’s minds without them even realizing it. We can split up.

Yet, there is a simple skill that we can begin to develop in ourselves and future generations that can help. It is the skill of asking questions, not to put people in their place, but to both understand and challenge. We challenge our own viewpoints and those of others. We learn to be curious. In the words of the famous prayer of St. Francis, “grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand.” We understand by asking, listening, observing, and being open to learn from others. We don’t have to abandon our convictions to do this, but we do have to let go of our ego, which is not essentially connected to convictions. One can be deeply committed to a set of tenets while embracing a spirit of humility and a genuine desire to understand and learn from others.

The battle metaphor is not the only one at our disposal. The metaphor of war is not one that drives us to understand those with whom we believe that we are at war. Or, if it does, it is only so that we can find their weaknesses and defeat them. It might lead us to use questions but only to weaken or defeat.

There are other metaphors. What would happen if we sought to move toward and exploration metaphor? Then our use of questions would be about understanding, discovering, finding success on our journey. Imagine how such a shift would alter the nature of discourse, debates, disagreements and deep differences among one another in society. These will still exist as long as we respect and protect differences, but this shift in metaphor would lead us to use questions in new ways. They change from being weapons to being tools or resources on our journey. We use them to discover, understand, navigate, and make progress. Imagine how that would change a heated exchange between people.

We don’t see much of this in the media today or in many other forums for that matter. In the United States, our political campaigns or our top leaders on the state and federal level seem to cling to the battle metaphor, seemingly using questions only as weapons. Yet, if we provide alternative metaphors and ways of using questioning in our learning organizations, imagine how that could, over time, change the tone of public discourse.

To do this, however, we must make space for questions. We can nurture the art of asking questions. We can invite students to experiment with the use of metaphors for their learning that extend beyond metaphors of war and competition (both of which have their place, I am not arguing against abandoning them). We can invite students to consider learning, debate, discourse, and conflict by using questioning as a tool for understanding. We can create learning communities that embrace the power of the journey metaphor, among others. In doing so, we will be providing them with a greater range of options for how them look at and approach public life.