Why Aren’t There Any Next Gen Learning Platforms?

The education sector is in the early stages of transitioning from learning management systems (LMS) to learning platform ecosystems. In fact, a lot of U.S. schools will skip the LMS phase and go straight from print to platform.
As noted last month, learning platforms will include these six core elements:

  1. Standards-aligned libraries of open and proprietary content with search and content management tools
  2. Social, collaborative, and productivity tools
  3. Assessment tools and achievement analytics
  4. Learner profiles and portfolios
  5. Recommendation engines smart enough to build custom playlists
  6. Assignment, matriculation, management, and motivational tools (e.g. achievement recognition systems, badges or other data visualization strategies)

Platforms will become ecosystems with a constellation of four aligned services:

  1. Student services: tutoring, guidance, health, youth & family services
  2. Teacher services: professional development, lesson & tool sharing
  3. School services: implementation support, new school development, and school improvement; and
  4. Back-office service: enrollment, finance, personnel, and facilities.

I’m going to keep repeating this 10 Element blueprint until there are several good examples of robust platforms with aligned services.  But what’s taking so long?  Why is it taking so long to develop comprehensive platforms that blend the best of online and onsite learning and support personalized competency-based learning?  There are a handful of reasons the K-12 sector is a decade behind:

  • Investment. There was a lack of post Internet-bubble edtech investment from 2001 to 2009 (see my review of a recent GSV report on capital flows).
  • Unbundling. Good content is expensive and there are big sunk costs in proprietary courseware that have delayed unbundling into objects and units that can be mixed and matched.
  • Tagging. The Common Core is helping to resolve the lack of unifying standards but we still need micro-standards for common tagging of assessment and content objects.
  • Business models. Content revenues are being compressed and it’s not entirely clear what new business models will support ecosystems investments likely to cost hundreds of millions.
  • Procurement. Many K-12 school and system heads don’t yet have a clear picture of the platform capabilities they want or the school models they will power.  Slow adoption exacerbates the lack of business model clarity.
  • Access. Student access to Internet devices is still spotty and that hurdle delays the shift to digital instructional materials.
  • Invention. And, finally, we’re still inventing the tool set and answering new Bid Data questions. What belongs in a comprehensive student profile? What variables should guide recommendation engines? How should students demonstrate competency?

But signs of progress are everywhere you look, particularly (as Clayton Christensen suggested) around the edges.  There are five evolving pathways of innovation leading to the development of learning platforms that will power personalized and competency-based environments.
Massive federal and private grants are attempting to accelerate progress toward the ecosystem vision.  Race to the Top funded states have issues RFPs for comprehensive Instructional Improvement Systems. The envisioned capabilities of the North Carolina IIS are impressive.  In a few weeks we’ll see what kind of responses they get.  The Shared Learning Collaborative is an ambitious effort to build an “integrated and scalable shared technology infrastructure that is sustainable, cost-effective, and highly responsive to teachers and learners”.   Frank Catalano provided a great update on the SLC on MindShift on Wednesday. Watch Guilford County Schools in 2013–they’ll get a dose of NC IIS and SLC.
Learning management systems are being updated and new blended user interfaces are being created.  Pearson launched GradPoint in April and featured it at ISTE last week. “GradPoint exemplifies one of the many ways that Pearson is delivering on the promise to leverage technology to transform learning and ensure that all students graduate prepared for success in college and career,” said Peter Cohen, CEO, Pearson School. “Our new online learning platform will allow districts to affordably provide students with multiple options for personalized learning that will accelerate achievement — all from one user-friendly interface.”
The GradPoint announcement was interesting for several reasons.  First, it’s a mixture of Pearson content like NovaNet and licensed content from Florida Virtual and eDynamic.  It targets blended settings and is designed to re-engage under-credited students.  GradPoint, other BrainHoney powered platforms, and new comers like EdElements will be adopted.  A Pearson exec said, “We believe that the BrainHoney LMS is ideally suited for the K-12 market with its rich features and ease-of-use.”
When I met Agilix CEO Curt Allen in 2008, he was obviously mission-driven and learning-focused. He described the predecessor to Buzz, a mobile app that enables online and offline access to learning resources to be used Detroit this fall by the Education Achievement Authority.  Having built Ancestry.com, he understands big data.  BrainHoney has quietly become a blended learning platform of choice powering a growing number of platforms and apps–what Curt calls “the Intel inside” strategy of personalized learning.  Key is the Agilix distributed learning access protocol (an API) that makes system integration and custom learning-application development relatively straightforward.  As Curt says, it gets solutions developers “out of the plumbing business” and let’s them “go to market in short amount of time.”
GradPoint, other BrainHoney powered platforms, and new comers like EdElements will be adopted by a lot of districts, networks, and schools but a there’s another actor in the equation–teachers. About a million teachers will go back to school next month using Edmodo, the free social learning platform that makes it easy to flip the classroom, share engaging content, and manage assignments.  Viral adoption, network effects, and a team listening hard to teachers are building a big powerful blended learning platform.
National online learning and curriculum providers are powering thousands of district blends with their comprehensive school management systems and content libraries (and we’ll see another one announced next month).
Adaptive instructional systems are another important development. Their smart engines are powering customized learning pathways and some have the potential to become comprehensive platforms–particularly K-8.
There you have it, five very different pathways toward the learning platform ecosystem vision: 1) grant powered and state led, 2) entrepreneurial solution developers, 3) viral teacher adoption, 4) online learning providers, and 5) adaptive instructional systems.  All five will take a couple years to mature.  In the meantime, schools can choose from comprehensive platforms that are easy to manage and monitor and individual components that are engaging and effective.
Disclosure: Edmodo is a portfolio company of Learn Capital where Tom is a partner and Pearson is a limited partner.  
This blog first appeared on EdWeek.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Donna Murdoch

Hi Tom,
My thought, after being on the inside of both K12 and Higher Ed admin and technology? It is much easier to get a one trick pony approved by all (think "committees") than it is to get a fully integrated ecosystem approved. The sales cycle? I would give it 2 - 3 years in a very innovative environment, assuming many champions of the platform. I think Edmodo has been doing so well because it has many of the components you mention (I don't work for them :)) but it doesn't attempt to run the back as well. And so there is no fear of it, and schools can feel the innovation without the threat. It's an add on, not an "instead of." I think Piazza has the same advantage. AND individual instructors can use it, without needing group approval as they would for something of a grander scale.
But to switch from Pearson My Labs to Knewton? Can't imagine how long that would take. Pearson is safe, they make books. Knewton? (personally I love Knewton, and have since day one)
Then you have the cloud fear. Yes, I believe it's still there. And you have many people working in IT departments who really like their jobs - and admins really listen to them, because they understand technology and admins often don't - and of course we could say it's the 21st century, they need to maintain relevancy, just retrain and repurpose. But they like everything on site, enterprise, FERPA regulations and all of that. Add to that ADA compliance, which is an elephant in the room when it comes to online anything and nobody's talking about it. You can sing from the rooftop about the benefits of the cloud for a bigger purpose but it will fall on many deaf ears. Many who will not say "we'll think about it," they will just be "nobots" about it without further thought.
Many more thoughts on this. I am absolutely in agreement with and want what you describe, to champion it, to sing it from the rooftops. But seeing the inside and decision making processes in these environments reminds me of how things really happen in EDU. Would I want to invest my own money in a product that would have a multi-year sales cycle, if that? I wonder about the history of Blackboard, which I don't know (I mean how they started at the very beginning and got first customers.) There might be some wisdom there, as they faced very different but similar challenges.
I love you idea. But I continue to think that the way to make inroads (and successful products) is to work WITH existing environments - like Edmodo or Piazza - gain the trust and show the value that way - and not fight battles against people who have been doing things the same way for a long long time, often in union environments. It is difficult. Just one person's opinion :)

Crissy Cochran

Great post and idea! We at Lightspeed Systems agree the K-12 sector should be making its way to learning platform ecosystems and that it will take some time.
However, you've overlooked a big player in the field of social learning platforms. My Big Campus possesses #1-4 of your 6 elements of a learning platform, along with several security features--creating the ultimate safe online environment more than any other platform. Come this summer and later this year, our schoolwork enhancements will bring other tools that you discuss in #5 & #6. (However, today our bundle feature is being used to create custom collections.)
Educators prefer MBC because of its added security and Educational Resource Library. And we’ve heard time and time again how much teachers appreciate our open ears. My Big Campus has evolved into the award-winning product it is today because of customer feedback and requests. And as I have mentioned above, it still continues to change to meet the needs of today’s teachers and students. I’m sure an ecosystem you describe will be down the road, as well. Just goes to show My Big Campus is the next gen learning platform.
Ok, commercial over. Just surprised MBC wasn’t mentioned here. You can learn more here: www.mybigcampus.com .

Rob Abel

Well, I guess you could go with a proprietary Agilix platform to "put you out of the plumbing business" or you could go with an open set of standards from the W3C of Learning - IMS Global. If you are a supplier and use IMS LTI your tools/components are plug and play into any LMS - see LMS's and tools here: http://developers.imsglobal.org/catalog.html - and if you are a buyer that buys an LTI compliant platform you have the freedom to pug in anything you want now and in the future - including replacing the LMS altogether. Of course I'm biased but I think the IMS LTI route really takes everyone out of the plumbing business and lifts up the whole industry - versus going with an Agilix and/or Pearson only approach. Happy to debate this with issue with any one at any place at any time. It's pretty much a complete no brainer honey. :-)

Don Keeler

Hello. At Lumen Touch we provide today the only comprehensive all all-in-one NextGen district wide solution, SAM. SAM is not only a comprehensive Student Administrative System, but foremost is a Student Achievement System featuring true measurable 1:1, flipped classroom, inherent long term retention methods, many methods of increasing student trajectory of learning, student directed learning and much more. Lumen's solution is completely integrated so all Curr areas are measured and reported from a single source. This system is built with all aspects fully integrated and not cobbled together so that reporting \ data access is at the users fingertips requiring no merging of data or custom report generation eliminating errors, The system provides a 15% district wide increase in instructional time just by using the system. Common Assessments maybe almost completely eliminated. Textbook purchases maybe almost or completely eliminated. Lumen provides solutions currently in fourteen states.

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