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The race to platform education

Across the full spectrum of education – primary, secondary, and higher – we are witnessing a race to develop platforms for content, learning, teaching, and evaluation. As liberating as the web is, tremendous centralization of control is occurring in numerous spaces: Google in search/advertising/Android, Amazon in books/cloud computing, Facebook in social networks, etc. I use a smaller range of tools today than I did five years ago. And the reason is simple: companies are in a landrush to create platforms that will tie together previously disconnected activities and tools. Numerous companies are eager to platform the educational sector, with Pearson being the lead runner to date. More on that in a bit.

This post/rant on life at Amazon and Google, from the perspective of an employee (programmer?) with experiences in both systems, is worth a read. It is not, however, an exercise in logic. The rant is a bit confusing as it starts off criticizing Amazon as doing everything wrong and Google as doing everything right. Then the author shifts to a discussion of how Amazon got platform and accessibility right (which he acknowledges as being the most important elements). So that kind of doesn’t add up. But a critical concept is expressed about mid-way through the post:

Google+ is a knee-jerk reaction, a study in short-term thinking, predicated on the incorrect notion that Facebook is successful because they built a great product. But that’s not why they are successful. Facebook is successful because they built an entire constellation of products by allowing other people to do the work. So Facebook is different for everyone. Some people spend all their time on Mafia Wars. Some spend all their time on Farmville. There are hundreds or maybe thousands of different high-quality time sinks available, so there’s something there for everyone.

In education, we don’t yet have that platform that enables/allows “other people to do the work”. Learning management systems, authoring tools, and personal learning environments don’t quite get the “it’s the platform, stupid” aspect of the internet. Most of the tools we have available today in education allow us to create content within a system. What a platform enables is very different; it enables the extension of a system. Amazon is brilliant at this – they’ve essentially vanquished main components in the book space. They’re basically a monopoly, one that will only increase with the Amazon Fire. For an author, all roads lead to Amazon. Facebook has mastered this in the social network space as well. Facebook is now well past being a social network. Billboards and magazine/newspaper ads for companies list “facebook.com/whatever” instead of an actual open web URL. I guess that’s why Facebook is now bigger than the web was in 2004.

When I was at the Strata conference in February, I was surprised at who wasn’t there in any substantial way – Yahoo, Google, Microsoft (they did present on Azure, but their presence was minimal). Who ruled? Amazon. AWS. Every single session. Because Amazon gets the platform concept – as they did with book selling: entrepreneurs need a platform. They have ideas, but they don’t have huge dollars for technical infrastructure. So, AWS. Plug and play. An entrepreneur doesn’t want to think about the platform. For entrepreneurs in need of big, scalable computing, all roads lead to Amazon.

Similarly, educators don’t want to think about the platform. They want something easy to use – simple, effective, and extensible – so they can get on with teaching and research.

Knewton gets this with their platform, hence their massive $33 million funding round. (note Pearson as a partner).

Pearson and Google appear to be making in-roads in this space with Open Class:

Today Pearson, the publishing and learning technology group, has joined the software giant Google to launch OpenClass, a free LMS that combines standard course-management tools with advanced social networking and community-building, and an open architecture that allows instructors to import whatever material they want, from e-books to YouTube videos.

I posted on this last year after Blackboard acquired Elluminate and Wimba:

To be effective in the long term, large LMS companies will need to pull more and more of the education experience under their umbrella. Why? Well, technology is getting complex. Very complex. Which means that decisions makers are motivated (partly out of fear of appearing ill-informed, partly out of not wanting to take risks) to adopt approaches that integrate fairly seamlessly across the education spectrum. Why buy an LMS when you can buy the educational process?

I would not be surprised, if in the next several years, educational institutions – especially those who are cash strapped – end up using a content/delivery platform the same way we use Facebook today “Visit us at Pearson.com”. Blackboard’s acquisition binge was about building an integrated infrastructure to offer one-point value for universities (and now, schools with the Edline affiliation). Pearson has been aggressively moving in this direction for over a decade. Startups like Knewton want to be your testing/adaptive content platform (either they get big fast or they will be acquired by Pearson or similar platform-aspirational company). Sure, we’ll still have edupunks and other deviant educators playing at the corners or outer edges of these platforms and systems. Whoever has the platform sets the rules and controls the game. Diversity will be pushed to the margins and Ellul’s fears will be realized in education as they have been realized in much of society.

4 Comments

  1. Stu Harris wrote:

    All of this speaks as much to the commodification of education. The race by companies like Pearson to package and deliver. The platform, when it becomes a true extension of the system, will have been monopolized by the producers of packaged content. So the question is…does open learning, personalized learning, connected learning, elf-directed learning, have enough traction to bring balance.

    Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Permalink
  2. These platforms are organizing to meet the needs of education as a system–the delivery of specified knowledge by teachers to students within classrooms and schools. Schools, classrooms, a teacher for age-grouped students, and then mechanized assessment is inefficient and archaic. For too many children it’s downright inhumane. Pearson is focusing on the big system. The breakthrough technology will bypass the need for all that and address the needs of learners everywhere–the need to discover what to learn and different ways to learn, list what they’ve learned, and give evidence that they’ve learned it. I’m working on that right now. The web app’s in closed beta and a complete redesign right now–the landing pages will very soon be upgraded– but it’s coming together nicely.

    Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  3. Howard Davis wrote:

    I agree with your observations about the seductive appeal of new products which offer both platform and content “delivery” mechanisms, but I don’t think they’ll suffice, ultimately,

    Blackboard and most LMSs fail because they reaffirm the paradigm of teacher at the center of the classroom. Until we can figure out a tool which aggregates social media/networking tools, allows for student-generated content and enables student design of courses, etc. we’re just putting lipstick on that pig.

    Thursday, October 20, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink
  4. As a learner you don’t have to swallow the package as it is delivered to you. If the big end of town wishes to perpetuate industrial models of education then so be it. The web will win, as it enables the democratisation of learning. I disagree that we need to find the next big thing that does everything for us, we have the technology at our disposal, we just need flip our perceptual switches so we are using it rather than being used by it.

    Monday, October 24, 2011 at 2:40 am | Permalink