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.

Five Possibilities for the Future of Online Learning

Where is the future of online learning? Which providers will grow and which will diminish? In a regulated industry like education, it is often hard to predict. Yet, there are certain potentials futures that are far more likely than others. As I review the landscape and the developments over the last twenty years, I suspect that there are four especially strong potential futures. There may well be a blend of these four, but each represents a strong trend that is likely to traction.

Also, before I get started, I should explain that referencing these five is not necessarily a claim that all other forms of online learning will cease to exist in the future. Rather, I’m referring to futures where certain forms dominate over others. This is a matter of emphasis more than existence. You might even find it helpful to think in terms of market share. With that important caveat, here are for strong potential futures for online learning.

Regional Influencers

One possibility that seems to have gained significant attention in the last few years is the idea of the online learning regional influencer. In contrast to the national and international brands in online learning, many regional non-profit state Universities and private higher education institutions have captured market share. People resonate with and trust these schools, and that is extending to online learning. These may be online programs of hundreds or thousands, but they are often not the massive populations that we see with some of the past online programs. Some of these schools are also marketing their online programs nationally and internationally, but they get the majority of students in their own backyard and through a robust alumni network that extends beyond the region.

This is a promising future because regional online programs can find far less expensive ways to recruit students. They don’t necessarily need to spend the countless millions on digital campaigns across the country to get traction. More people already know them in the region, so a small but focused mixed channel marketing effort can be all that is needed to connect degree seeking student with their online programs.

A Few Massive Providers

At the same time, there are some for-profit and non-profit providers who might have started with a regional focus, but they have definitely extended their influence nationally and internationally. These programs have awareness, large marketing budgets, impressive and sizable teams (on the recruitment/marketing and academic side), and they are striving to set the bar for innovative programming.

There is the possibility that these will continue to grow and gain market share, pushing out many of the others who dabble with online learning. This could happen with some of the known and established online Universities today. It could also happen with elite Universities that choose to leverage their brand to establish a low-cost portfolio of online programs. While distinguishing these programs from their face-to-face counterparts, these schools could potentially pass by existing groups, using their longstanding brand reputation to become online program providers of choice. Granted that such schools establish cutting edge research to inform their design and practice, this would be a powerful force in the online space, allowing them to recruit large numbers with a limited marketing budget, simply because of the strong brand awareness.

Storefront & Partnerships

Then we have the large MOOC providers like Coursera and EdX. While they are not moving quickly into offering degree programs, the way in which they are set up could be preparing them to eventually becoming providers for small and massive online courses and programs. Universities could partner to offer courses that contribute to a shared degree, or one could take individual courses with a single University.

The MOOC providers have a compelling storefront model that has interesting possibilities. Instead of people simply conducting broad searches to find the right online degree, imagine a future where there are a few massive storefronts. Now imagine corporate and other partners playing some sort of role in this, providing pathways to certain jobs, aligning professional programs more closely with the needs of specific employers, and much more.

This approach is a strong possibility amid the unbundling experiments that we are seeing in education. Challenges with accreditation and inconsistency across organizations prevents a more such shared programs today, not to mention competitive element. Yet, if a storefront provider were to establish some sort of cross-organization standard, it is not hard to imagine a situation where there is greater transferability from one organization to the next. We could see programs created out of courses or even smaller curricular units from a few or even a dozen organizations. This future downplays the differentiation and distinctions from one organization to the next. It is a stronger possibility in ares of study where there is already a great deal of standardization due to external regulatory bodies. For example, this could work in a healthcare field where you have pretty much the same outcomes and courses regardless of where you study.

This future requires a type of partnership that is less common today in the degree-seeking world, but if an organization is successful in creating a well-known storefront, we could see a future of online learning that is not unlike the grocery store experience, only with courses and degrees. This leads me to a distinct but related idea, the competitive marketplace approach.

Competitive Marketplace

Another potential future is the Amazon model of online higher education. Imagine a future where you could go to a marketplace not unlike to search for online programs. We certainly see sites that collect and present many online options today, but those are largely simple sites with inquiry forms. These companies make money by charging schools to advertise their programs on the site. It is a basic business model.

We’ve not yet seen the growth of more advanced versions of this concept in education, truly bringing to reality a marketplace approach to searching for degree and non-degree training. Yet, there are some influential voices and organizations interested in creating something like this. It could begin with a regional partnership among 5-10 large state Universities, for example. Unlike the last example, where it might include more collaboration among course providers, this is mainly a storefront. It certainly could include collaboration, but it doesn’t need to. People can shop for courses and degrees across organizations.

The Free & Open Online University

We see open universities outside of the United States, but there are emerging financial innovations and political moves that may well drive a new type of online degree program, namely a free and open one. This could be government funded, but there are other possibilities for funding a completely or almost free online degree provider. Given the growth of the open learning movement combined with some political interests pushing for tuition-free college, this type of massive and online degree option has a possibility of coming into existing in the next decade.

Again, futures in education are influenced by a myriad of factors, and regulatory changes make it a challenge to see too far ahead. Yet, these four possible futures are rooted in some clear, persistent, and growing trends in the online learning space. I am confident that we will see one or more of them gain significant traction in the upcoming decade and beyond.

Should We Stop Expanding K-12 Blended & Virtual Schools?

April, 2016 – The National Education Policy Center released a report on the performance of existing k-12 blended and virtual schools in the United States. When looking at adequate yearly progress (or an alternative standard) for these blended and online schools as a group, the researchers found that the group consistently performed well below their brick-and-mortar counterparts. They found a higher teacher to student ratio as well. Based upon these and a few other analyses, they made the following recommendations. I’ve included them with a bit of commentary. You can review the entire report here but following are their recommendations and my thoughts.

Policymakers slow or stop the growth in the number of virtual schools and blended schools and the size of their enrollments until the reasons for their relatively poor outcomes have been identified and addressed.

First, the report itself recognizes the limitations of how they are measuring the performance of students in these blended and virtual schools, and the limited data. Second, allow me to give a little insight into how some of this testing works for virtual schools. These test numbers for virtual schools are typically coming from a single day event where they make virtual school students travel to a site for this exam. Anecdotally, I know one instance where technical glitches with the computer lab were such that students were supposed to start their test at 9:00 AM and they didn’t actually get started until 1:00 PM. The students are not used to these sorts of tests. These virtual schools do not teach to the test (something that I consider a strength). And again, this is a single day in the school year in a context and format that is completely unfamiliar to the students. If anything, this just says that the virtual schools are not playing hoop jumping game of school as well as others, but I am suspect about assuming that it says too much of substance  about student performance for the entire virtual school ecosystem.

With that said, I agree that we need better measures, but we need to be flexible and open about how we assess student growth and development. Virtual schools should not be penalized because they do not fit the narrow boxes set up for traditional brick and mortar schools.

Additional, we need to consider more holistic affordances and limitations in schools. This might seem like an extreme example but, are we calling for limiting traditional brick and mortar school enrollment until they fully address the incredibly troubling issues with school violence, expansive bullying or related issues? If schools are doing well with AYP, are we okay with all this other stuff? While there are many reasons why families choose virtual schools, you might be surprised how many were related to justifiable concerns about such issues. I’ve met countless parents who were at their wits end trying to find a solution in the school or an alternative that did little more than address some of the most basic and fundamental physical, emotional and social needs of their kids; and people in the brick and mortar schools were not helping. These are real and important issues, and we don’t want to exacerbate the problem. So, do we really want to limit access to one of the only reasonable options for some of these kids to have a physically and emotionally safe learning environment? Of course, there are many other solid and viable reasons for virtual schooling, but I contend that we need to consider these issues with the larger context and situation in mind.

We don’t pay enough attention to how policy sets individuals and schools up for failure. I contend that we need to completely revisit how we go about measuring the quality of schools and student learning and that we create an approach that recognizes different curricular goals and standards for different schools, virtual and otherwise.

Oversight authorities specify and enforce sanctions for virtual schools and blended schools if they fail to demonstrate that they are doing a good job with their students.

Again, before we start throwing out sanctions that usually make it even harder for schools to improve quality, how about revisiting the way the measure success in the first place? This is good cause to pause and reflect about the entire AYP enterprise and how we do it now. And in an online course, there are an incredible number of data points that they didn’t even consider for this review of the health of virtual schools. Some of the lessons can give 20x the detail that we have of student behaviors and learning than in almost any brick and mortar school, yet none of that data was mined (because it wasn’t available to the researchers).

This is a classic problem with innovations. People try to measure them with old methods or standards. That often doesn’t work. We need new methods for new models.

Policymakers require virtual schools and blended schools to devote more resources to instruction, particularly by specifying a maximum ratio of students to teachers.

We don’t have the data to mandate this. This is largely driven by the student to teacher ratio, but it doesn’t consider other ratios. Should we also require a certain ration of adaptive learning software to students in brick and mortar classes? There are things done online for virtual students that are not done for the brick and mortar students. Besides, we have research to indicate that student to teacher ratio needs vary by context and the type of learning activity. This is too premature, especially until we find better ways to more broadly monitor learning and engagement for learners in any type of school.

State agencies ensure that virtual schools and blended schools fully report data related to the population of students they serve and the teachers they employ.

“Mom, can you tell Billy to share his candy with me?!” Okay. I get it. The researchers want access to more data. They want to policymakers to make it easier for them to write these sorts of reports and conduct additional research. This will, in their view, allow for greater accountability and better schools for all. They want everyone to play by the rules that benefit them the most in this pursuit. Perhaps this is valuable. Perhaps not.

State and federal policymakers promote efforts to design new outcome measures appropriate to the unique characteristics of full-time virtual schools and blended schools. Passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) represents an opportunity for those states with a growing virtual and blended school sector to improve upon their accountability systems for reporting data on school performance measures.

Yes. Now this is where I think that they have hit on the most important point. It might not even take the research and report that they wrote to get at this one. The entire system needs better ways to measure outcomes, and we need to do it in a way that blends accountability and an encouragement of educational innovation. People do not tend to think that way. We have a tendency to give the benefit of the doubt to familiar systems even if they have massive problems while having a far higher standard for innovations. I’m all for careful review and scrutiny. Let’s just do it equally for all and in a way that doesn’t unnecessarily inhibit innovation.

In the end, what we need the most are solid, data-driven and research-informed online teaching and learning practices. We do indeed need more research in this area, and we need to do it in a way that brackets our assumptions about what school should look like, how it should take place, and an openness to a much broader range of outcomes, potential benefits, and potential limitations.  Right now we reward schools that play the policy and regulation games the best or that have the best zip codes and that isn’t going to be adequate for our progress in education.


Have MOOC Surfaced a New Breed of Learner?

Early research findings about MOOCs point to who actually benefits from these courses. What some of the early findings seem to indicate is that these are people who already have a traditional credential or two under their belt.  Of course, there are plenty of well-credentialed people who never take or complete MOOCs, so it is about more than just being formally educated. In fact, this leads me to wonder (since I don’t have the data at this point) if MOOCs are not surfacing a certain breed of learner. Consider the following:

  • While there are exceptions, MOOCs are rarely required learning activities for the participants as part of a larger formal education program or an employer requirement.
  • People who complete MOOCs do not earn a highly sought after or valued credential.
  • There are no traditional letter grades associated in most MOOCs.
  • People take MOOCs based upon individual goals, interests and aspirations.
  • One study indicated that many MOOC completers tend to be taking the MOOC for career advancement, developing new and valued knowledge or skill.
  • People tend to work on MOOCs during evenings and weekends.

Look at these different features, and we start to see that people who complete MOOCs are learners. As much it is might be a cliché to some, these are lifelong learners. They value learning, not just earning grades or credentials. They value enough of it that they are willing to replace other leisure activities with the work that it takes to complete a MOOC. They are self-motivated, self-starters, even self-directed learners.

In other words, if you are browsing the digital landscape in search of great learners, MOOCs are not a bad place to look. They are havens for people with a genuine love of learning and curiosity, or people with a drive for personal growth and development. Where else do you find people who want to study big data, ancient history, American history, design thinking, or international law for fun, personal interest, and professional gain (apart from getting a new degree)? We might find them in libraries, public lectures, online communities of practice and by browsing the comments of social media; but MOOCs as online learning communities represent a concentration of people who understand several important aspects of life and learning in a connected world.

  • Learning is about more than earning credits, grades and credentials.
  • The digital world is a new frontier for the willing and self-directed learner.
  • Learning apart from formal credentials has practical and professional benefits.
  • There is power is taking ownership for one’s learning, designing personal pathways based upon interests, professional aspirations, and personal goals.
  • Valuable learning experiences are freely available to those who are willing to seek them out and take advantage of them.

Not everyone approaches life and learning with such insights and perspectives, but the development of MOOCs over the past years puts a spotlight on these learners. Of course, MOOCs are not the only way to embrace the joys of open and connected learning, but they are a noteworthy congregating place for such people.

This leads me to muse about the implications for education. While some have touted MOOCs as a replacement for traditional higher education, I’m increasingly to what MOOCs tell us about self-directed learning. There is a treasure trove of insights to be gleaned from studying the people who congregate in and benefit from these massive online learning communities.

Too often we look to the technology and its capacity for changing education. I’m the first to argue that technology amplifies and muffles different values. As such, what values are amplified by MOOCs? One is clearly self-directed, uncaged learning. Not everyone is thriving in MOOC learning contexts, but those who are have the capacity to motivate themselves, manage their time, set their own learning goals or at least act upon their learning interests, and follow through on commitments to learning goals. This doesn’t sound too different from some of our most successful learners in traditional learning environments, does it?

This also points to what I consistently refer to as the new digital divide. The divide is between those who have the confidence and capacity to take initiative for their learning in the connected world and those who remain largely passive and dependent upon others to direct their learning. As such, learning from MOOC participants is something that reminds about one of the more imporant aspects of a quality educational experience, developing the agency and skill to take cotrol of one’s personal learning journey.