John Katzman: CEO, 2Tor.com
Can you refresh with me: why 2Tor got started, and what’s the strategy, and is that strategy evolving into something else?
Our current strategy is to build high quality, large online degree programs, in conjunction with great research universities. Each program should be a category-killer from the point of view of both quality and scale; for us to do well, it should be acknowledged as the highest quality program out there.
What happens next with the Series B funding?
To launch a program that’s really good and hits scale you need ten and fifteen million dollars. The USC program has gone very well, and the board felt we could speed up our timetable and launch programs 2,3,4,5. We expect to help launch the USC Masters in Social Work this fall and two more programs this coming winter.
Why reboot the education system, and not just add on? Why shouldn’t we be focusing on just layering tech on top of an existing infrastructure?
Everybody has played with tech knows you can’t simply port things. When TV was invented some people just took radio and added pictures. The first electronic books were simply pdfs. But the best stuff explores the medium: the iPhone was transformative because it fundamentally rethought the notion of a cell phone. We would like to design the program from a clean sheet of paper with the school. What are the possibilities of not having all students and faculty in the same place at the same time? Certainly there are limitations to online instruction, but there some tremendous opportunities.
It’s been said that the online curriculum play that needs to be made is the one that offers a seamless experience for everything a student needs and wants, and to document school admin and teachers need to chart. Can that happen now?
I’d like to think we are designing these programs, including the curricular materials and internal processes, towards the perfect, knowing we’ll continue to improve it.
Let’s design what is really good, figure out what we can build for v.1 and where we are likely to benefit from the continued use of technology and our own learning about which parts of the curriculum are working and which are not.
That reminds me of what many are saying about the iPhone and the iPad. It’s not that the iPad really lets you do anything you want to do, but it’s like it lets you find out what you can do, and something new will spring forth from that. Do you subscribe to that thinking?
Well, that’s right. The app store is a perfect metaphor for finding the disruptive tech or company. Apple built the iPhone to be locked down; like other phones of the time, it would have only Apple applications. But coders kept hacking it and adding cool apps; finally, Apple relented and created the App Store for those Apps. Two years later, of course, the App Store is the major differentiating factor of the iPhone—a simple, safe, inexpensive way users access 200,000 applications.
And then there is ChatRoulette; isn’t that a fundamentally new way of seeing media?
It might be too early to say. But it would certainly be pointless to think of Chat Roulette as like TV but tweaked.
What we want to do is look across what is being done in other parts of the Internet, and other parts of the world and pick and choose interesting technologies and interesting hybrid solutions and experiment.
The 2Tor interface is more like a Facebook than a Blackboard. What do you mean by this? How does that work? Are you saying it’s more of a social network or a transparent way to manage content?
Blackboard is a great company, but Blackboard was fundamentally designed to flank classroom instruction with technology, not for stand-alone online programs. Obviously, we need robust functionality, but we needed a user interface that encouraged the sort of social networks that make great universities great. Facebook gave us some metaphors and some familiar ways for students to interact.
What about aligning K12 with higher ed? How is that going to happen and what tools will be used?
The first thing is, it’s clear that we handle the high school to college transition terribly, for middle class students it’s unnecessarily stressful and opaque, and for disadvantaged students, it’s just impossible. It’s much worse than opaque, it’s impenetrable.
Lots of people have tried to solve that problem, with very limited results so far. I am funding a new effort that could be a part of the puzzle.
A lot of teachers online are sharing information with each other through social networks, blogs, etc. What’s the magic sauce for them?
In software, there used to be a big gap between code and data. Some years ago, people started using object-oriented code, where the data comes with the code to manipulate the data. It changed things a lot.
In the same way, we have separate teams and companies handling textbooks, professional development, lesson plans, assessment, and supplemental educational material. No tools have broken through in terms of utility because they are aimed at one of those silos. The infrastructure that would enable a level of entrepreneurship and collaboration will be object-oriented instruction. This is the civil war module for American history; it includes materials the student should use before class, lessons plans, professional development around this material, assessment, both formative and summative, and follow-up materials and plans for kids who didn’t get it.
The facilitating software will allow schools or teachers or curriculum providers to build courses out of those objects, like a spine with various discs, and evaluate those courses against state or national standards. In other words, the molecular unit is not a year of PD; it’s the complete package necessary to teach how to add fractions.
The right facilitating software would allow companies and orgs to create and market objects. It would help them to create courses made out of those objects, but more importantly, it would allow a teacher to swap in and out objects and reconfigure the year as she learned about the interests and needs of her students.
In that environment, software groups could sell better assessment engines, learning management systems, or content management systems. Or add a better accounting module that allowed the producers of those objects to charge or not to charge for their use. You want the Ken Burns American History module from Pearson? It’s $0.99 per student.
To reinforce: an iPhone is organized around the user experience, not the expression of underlying technology. The key to this approach is that it’s aligned around the classroom experience, not around the disciplines.
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