To my mind, Nelson’s last point is the big cultural shift in education. Focus not on delivering a product, but on cultivating a culture and a market for a service. In my experience, this requires much more communication and much more disruption than just building a better mousetrap and shipping it to the area with the most mice. Take a look at his five points and leave your comments in the comments section. Is he on to something?

Authoring Platforms

To an extent never before possible, content authors can skip creating their material in partnership with a traditional publishing organization by using a growing array of free online authoring systems. To understand this, let’s begin in the world of trade books, the kind you’d find in a Borders or Barnes & Noble store, with a look at Author Solutions. With their free online tools, “Individual authors can self-publish, promote, and sell their books.” From the firm’s numbers, it appears they’re getting considerable traction: their product development and distribution services have helped more than 85,000 authors to self-publish nearly 120,000 titles over the past 13 years. The site adds, “With our unique brands, including AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Trafford Publishing, Xlibris, and Wordclay, and our photo book maker Inkubook, your book stays yours.” Another service, by another firm, SmashWords, “provides a full array of online authoring, publishing, and distribution services” for ebook publishing. Their tag line, “your ebook, your way.” SmashWords reports having helped clients publish over 900 million words to date. Other similar publishing platforms include ePub Bud for children’s books (“Publish Yourself“) and Scribd (“the largest social publishing and reading site in the world“).

Lesson Plans

The Internet has long provided a vehicle for educators to share lesson plans and collaborate. Free lesson plan authoring and sharing platforms abound, such as those of Discovery Educator Network , Promethean Planet , and SMART Technologies . BetterLesson is one of a number of sites seeing this as a business opportunity. Founded by a group of teachers from Atlanta and Boston public schools to connect educators and help them create, organize, and share their curricula, it uses a freemium business model. “We are focused on aggregating and scaling the most innovative content and practices from high-performing teachers across the country.” Another is TeachersPayTeachers , “an empowering place where teachers buy and sell original and used teaching materials and make teaching an even more rewarding experience.”

With digital content usage in the ascendency, some districts have gone so far as to support local development of digital instructional materials. Resources for doing this continue to improve. Beyond Textbooks is an example at the high end of the spectrum of 2.0 authoring platforms for educational materials. This Vail, Arizona, school district home-brew is a full-function, standards-based authoring and delivery platform for digital curricula. Largely developed by local IT staff with content authoring by teachers collaborating in professional learning communities (PLCs), it’s so successful, they claim, 16 other Arizona school districts are licensing both platform and content by subscription. In the commercial space, Emantras, an Indian educational content development shop, offers MOBL21, an authoring and distribution platform built to author once, then publish to a wide array of digital delivery platforms including multiple “mobile” environments–through an iPhone/iTunes app, desktop/laptop widget, or as a Facebook or Google widget or Android app (coming soon). For Emantras, MOBL21 is a way to expand beyond contract work into platform development and licensing.

Digital Content Brokering

Seeing international opportunity in this space,Cambridge University Press offers the Global Grid for Learning , a digital content service for markets worldwide. Calling itself “a trusted broker,” this library comprises over one million digital learning resources from more than 40 providers. Its offerings include interactive learning objects, video clips, audio files, images, animations, documents, and ebooks.

Apple ‘s iTunes U for K-12 is another platform delivering a mix of free and paid learning materials. Usage includes formal involvement by nine state DOEs (Arizona, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Utah) as well as SETDA.

Recognizing that school districts will want to deploy digital services from multiple publishers, each with their own access and delivery protocols, EduTone Corporation ‘s EduTone Xchange™ Platform delivers content-agnostic application integration and end-user management with secure single sign-on to third-party hosted or internally deployed applications. In a significant first, it‘s been deployed as a
“Statewide Application Gateway,” funded by a grant through the Pennsylvania Department of Education and described as an “effort to save schools millions of dollars each year.”

Content Interoperability

U.S. Government agencies, concerned about facilitating wider educational use of their public domain content, have recently announced the Learning Registry. Non-uniform data formats and meta-tagging among collections held by NASA, Library of Congress, NOAA, The National Archives, Smithsonian, and others illustrate a serious content interoperability problem extending well beyond government content. As detailed in a recent Heller Report column, this initiative aims to overcome the prohibitive cost of developing a common indexing standard and tagging all the items by making content interoperability a social process that crowd sources the meta-tagging. The hope is that the process will reach critical mass, thus drawing in commercial, non-profit, and OER publishers to the evolving standard and unifying this aspect of digital content usage across the board.

Another approach to the same problem, but with broader scope, is being taken by the Global Learning Resource Center , an international initiative involving the U.S., UK, Australia, and countries in Europe and elsewhere. It aims to develop a universal Resource Description Framework (RDF) capable of tagging any learning object in such a way that, using the evolving symantic web, it’ll support local standards alignment. In other words, an object contributed from Australia, for example, could be instantly aligned to state standards for, say, Texas, vastly expanding the instructional resources available for local needs.

At least one major educational publisher, Pearson, is testing the prospect of harnessing educators’ growing inclination to create and share instructional content with itsIdeaSHARE project, which is crowd-sourcing a math textbook.

Moving From Product to Service

Pasco Scientific is one of a number of firms seeing the evolving Social Web as a game-changing opportunity for the way they do business. A few years ago they introduced the Spark, a smart probeware device built on the premise that many K-12 teachers are seriously challenged when having to teach science. With a built-in cpu and screen, the machine offers sensor-based data collection and analysis capabilities and includes more than 60 pre-installed SPARKlabs. Think of this as a “smart product” strategy. A few months ago, Pasco introduced SPARKvue, an “integrated science learning environment,” which takes the firm beyond product to platform and service provider. SPARKvue runs on Windows, Mac, the iPad, and other operating systems, offering not just SPARKlabs but curriculum materials in physics, biology, and other scientific disciplines. Content partners include Carolina Biological, ministries of education (providing national science curricula) and others. Pasco’s substantial existing customer base, gradually upgrading to SPARKvue, offers other publishers a strong incentive to make their materials available on SPARKvue. Thus Pasco is becoming a service company, a strategy Wayne Grant, Chief Education Officer, calls a “global home run” already in use in 11 languages.

1 COMMENT

  1. Doug, all intriguing stuff. And of course I’m with you on the service over product view, and creating a market. Save that…

    I’m of a mind that the trans-formative bridges will be of this form:
    1) Load web page
    2) click not more than twice and start learning.

    This is twitter, this is facebook, this is wikipedia. This is the model that’s doing in newpapers and so too will do in textbooks.

    I have my own thoughts about seed projects, simple platforms for getting there; others will have theirs. We’ll need a bunch of experiments and they’ll compete, merge, and grow. Curriki is the best simple platform example, but it’s not done right.

    The brokering and interoperability approaches above seem great in theory. In delivery they remind me too much of LydiaLearns, a long abandoned learning object repository/marketplace project from WhiteHat Management.

    I wrote positively of LydiaLearns back in ’05, but even then I knew in my heart that it smacked too much of top-down, government-like, late-industrial-age approaches. (And indeed, the founder came out of DoD.) The above, albeit with flashier splash pages, don’t appear to have that simple “start playing” feel we need to see in this space.

    • I’ll mull over what you write, and respond later. But, I do think instantly that we have to do a better job of building a conversation that peels away the bureaucratic layer that is in place in education. With the exception of some pretty great federal people we have highlighted here, I often have conversations that seem to reflexively lean towards bureaucracy, because that’s just how the system works. I think Caprice Young, who we have interviewed here before, is right about there being a new generation soon to be in place that just “gets” technology and will not at all want to mess with taking something social, interactive, and easy to use (SaaS and more) and then wait around until the gears of government decide its what kids and teachers want. No. We know what they want. No. THEY know what they want. Education can be self led and such can be even more successful than we imagine.

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