Faith in Algorithms

A fast-growing start-up in Canada has generated a great deal of attention by applying the two-sided market model to the field of recruitment. They bring together graduates seeking employment (sellers) and employers seeking graduate (buyers). The company aims to displace the traditional student job fairs, in which a limited number of employers visit campuses to conduct preliminary evaluations of graduates.

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the rise of a canadian ed-tech industry?

WebCT was one of the first education technology companies to serve higher education's teaching and learning functions. Murray Goldberg, a professor of computer science at the University of British Columbia, launched the system in 1996. But like so many Canadian inventions, WebCT was swallowed up by a US entity - in this case, "Universal Learning Technology" in 1999, led by Carol Vallone. WebCT was later sold to BlackBoard in 2006. Note: Blackboard tried also to acquire Canadian company, D2L (now BrightSpace), according to the grapevine.

Despite its early start and great potential (as discussed in the accompanying article), Canada doesn't currently have a substantial tech industry serving higher education. But there are signs of progress.

The four ventures listed below are especially promising: 


Riipen is an experiential learning platform that enables students, educators, and organisations to connect through real-world industry project experiences. Students acquire skills valuable in the workplace and get to build their employer network, organisations get to improve their talent pipelines and interact with students.  



Essay Jack is a platform designed to help students author essays and to make the process of organising and evaluating essays easier for educators. Students can plan and structure their essays within the platform, drawing on context-specific guides. Once submitted (through an API to the institution's LMS, educators can identify and flag common errors, and evaluate using using customisable, embedded rubrics. 



A set of well organised instructional materials for medical students and educators.

Medskl is the work of Dr. Sanjay Sharma, a professor of ophthalmology at Queens’ University in Kingston. The platform has been designed for medical school students and practicing physicians to learn and review the fundamentals of clinical medicine.'s library of content comes from a collaboration of nearly 200 medical school professors from around the world. All modules undergo an editorial peer-review process. All materials are free to use.  



Varafy addresses two challenges STEM learning: the lack of good quality practice problems to learn from and a lack of detailed solutions to guide student learning.

Varafy offers a content-generation platform is designed to simplify the process for educators of creating practice problems and their detailed solutions, complete with dimensionally updated images, for online or print homework assignments and tests. 

Is That All There Is? (2017)

“What would become of such a child of the 17th and 18th centuries, when he should wake up to find himself required to play the game of the 20th century?"
Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, what we might now think of as “the early days” of online higher education, advocates of technology-mediated learning imagined themselves as outsiders, rebels working on the margins of higher education. Their goal, broadly, was to bring the transformative power of Internet technology to a change-adverse, centuries-old institution. Keenly aware of the presence of naysayers among them in the institution who believed that technology was an anathema to “real education”, our rebels adopted an us-against-them stance, the technology evangelists against the Luddites; the cutting edge against those that simply “didn't get it."


It would be difficult for these rebels to maintain the posture of an outsider in 2017. During the last two decades, and particularly the last few years, instructional technology has become thoroughly mainstream across much of education, a major influence on corporate, K12, and higher education. In higher education, online learning has become synonymous with all that is thought to be forward-thinking and innovative in the sector, fairly or not. Digital learning has shifted from a little understood, and marginal activity carried out by a handful of restless academics and dishevelled tech staff working out of the university’s basement, to the single greatest hope for an institution facing unsustainable increases in operating costs, shifting student demographics, and increasingly strident calls for improved and demonstrable learning outcomes.

Even major news sources began to pay attention. The Atlantic, New York Times, Huffington Post and others have helped promote the idea that higher education is being transformed by technology. One after another, university Presidents, not typically revolutionaries, proudly proclaimed that their universities and colleges were part of this transformation. Others in and outside of the academy were less enthusiastic - envisioning Internet technology and its demands would serve as the trojan horse to upset all that was good and holy about this centuries-old institution. Public intellectuals argued that technology would disrupt higher education, just as it did the music recording industry, newspapers, and bookstores. We’re next, they warned.

The Potential . . .

I've been working in the digital higher education space since the late-1990s, first as a member of a university faculty, followed by an eight-year stint as the Director of a large online learning unit. I now serve as an analyst and consultant. Over the years, my views on digital higher education have evolved. But through it all, I count myself among the growing number of the allegiant. I'm convinced that thoughtfully designed instructional technology and media can play an important, even transformative role, in teaching and learning in higher education. I’ve seen enough evidence to state confidently that it has the potential to dramatically reduce the cost of learning, meet the needs of a wider range of people, and improve the overall quality of learning. In short, I’m a believer.

The potential is truly extraordinary. Given the unique economics of the Internet, it’s possible to produce and share instructional media with production value that rivals the best of Madison Avenue advertising. Storytelling and other creative arts can engage students in new ways. The rapidly expanding field of data analytics can help us understand how well students are learning and, when done properly, be used to modify curriculum in real-time to meet the unique needs of each learner. Dashboards can help students understand how they learn most effectively and where and when they need help. Simulations can be built that allow students to “learn-by-doing” in a realistic, risk-free environment. Games can increase the time students spend on tasks, thereby increasing their chances at mastery.

. . . And the Reality

I'm confident then about the potential of technology-enabled learning. However, I’ve grown increasingly less confident that the institution of higher education can play a major role in realising this potential. Evidence is mounting that the institution of higher education, as it is currently designed, is largely ill-suited to developing and leveraging more advanced uses of technology for teaching and learning. And given the institution’s near monopoly on widely recognised adult education in much of the West - higher education is likely inhibiting the development of more advanced forms of instructional technology and media, as well as new ways to bring these new forms to people at lower costs.

Since the spread of Internet access in the latter half of the 1990s, colleges and universities have demonstrated a remarkable inability to leverage these networks and related technologies to improve the quality and cost-efficiency of learning. This is the state of affairs despite the fact that universities were quick to turn to the Internet - and before that, various other technologies (e.g. CDs) - for teaching purposes. The situation exists despite the level of attention and investment directed at online learning during the past two decades, and despite the extraordinary advancements in technology that we have witnessed in other sectors over the same period of time.

In the late 90s and early 00’s, a handful of pundits concluded that higher education would have no choice but to be reconfigured by the extraordinary capacity of the Internet. They put two and two together and predicted that students all over the world - once connected - would have access to the very best educators, practitioners, intellectuals. Economies of scale would drive down costs dramatically, ensuring access to high-quality learning opportunities for even under-represented student populations. A new crop of talented professionals from education, design, and software would quickly start building digital-born instructional models that would stimulate learning in ways simply not possible in classrooms, lecture halls, and labs. Education is too important, demand growing too quickly, and costs declining too rapidly for us not to take full advantage of the opportunities the technology could obviously enable.

But for the past two decades, the institution of higher education has made few substantive changes to how it operates. While virtually every institution across the OECD has invested in digital learning, and university presidents now routinely pepper their speeches with the appropriate keywords signalling their commitment to digital education, the actual steps made to leverage the dramatic changes in technology in higher education have remained tentative, unimaginative, marred by self-interest, and ultimately lacking in ambition. Despite endless talk of "transformation", "revolution", and, of course, "disruption", initiatives with the potential to improve learning and reduce costs through technology have either failed to gain sufficient traction, or were rejected out-of-hand because they challenged the culture, interests, and processes of the institution and its’ deeply ingrained conventions.

Tuition for online students has not dropped; indeed, online programs frequently have higher fees than on-campus versions. Students are regularly presented with digital course materials that are nothing more than repurposed classroom materials, reflecting the fact that the bulk of the responsibility for the design and development of course content falls largely on the shoulders of individual academics without the incentives, time, or skills required to do more ambitious work. The dominant technology in online education - the learning management system - serves primarily as a course management tool; an expensive and over-complicated filing cabinet for repurposed classroom materials. The LMS was quickly adopted across higher education not because of its capacity to transform learning, but because the technology fit so easily into the traditional practices, roles, and responsibilities of classroom education.

More troubling still is the mounting evidence that a common understanding has already begun to solidify in higher education about “how we do online learning”. For a surprisingly large number of professionals in higher education, simply “putting courses online” - shorthand for uploading static classroom instructional content into an LMS - is taken as evidence that an institution is a bonafide member of the digital age. After twenty years of online learning, the use of high-quality educational media, simulations, adaptivity, game-based learning, and other experiences made possible by advances in technology and the economics of the Internet constitute a mere fraction of the total higher education experience in North America. Can it be that the value higher education is able to extract from the Internet already reaching its peak? Has the proverbial S-curve of innovation already flat-lined? Is that all there is? (In the immortal words of Peggy Lee. Here's a much darker version of the song from the post-punk era: Christina: Is That All There Is?)

By no means am I tech evangelist. I don’t believe that digital learning is the silver bullet for all that ails higher education. Despite the great attention it currently receives, digital learning is just one piece of the very large and very complex puzzle of how we improve student learning outcomes. And learning takes many forms. Conversation, reading, writing, travel; all are important. I certainly don’t want my daughters to learn online exclusively. But if we’re going to make digital learning part of the education mix, and I think we should, we need to take it seriously; we need to actually to begin to leverage the possibilities it affords us, which we are currently failing to do.

In a series of upcoming posts, I set out to decipher what stands in the way of significant improvements for the use of instructional technologies and digital media to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of learning in traditional colleges and universities. This effort takes the form of a series of essays (see "Notes" below); each a vehicle for the author - and hopefully the reader - to understand why higher education has yet to take substantial steps toward leveraging the new possibilities and why, in certain cases, it may not.

MOOCs: The Prestige Factor (2012)

Buried in the public responses to the news about MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) and OER initiatives from Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Penn, Princeton and others is a deceptively important assumption. The assumption goes something like this: the open digital educational materials made available through these initiatives are of value because they are the product of these prestigious, highly selective institutions.


On the surface, this seems perfectly logical. It’s an interpretation of value based on the deeply engrained, long-used logic and criteria used to rank different institutions. According to this logic, the “best” institutions, like Harvard and Stanford, provide students (those with the money and grades) with access to the most respected academics, and in turn, to the latest and best thinking on academic subjects. The excitement about MOOCs from Princeton and others is that it gives the public access to materials that are otherwise available to a privileged few.

However, in this case the traditional criteria for evaluating value in higher education may be misleading. Prestigious institutions may, in fact, be the least well prepared and least well-suited of all types of institutions to lead the MOOC expansion. The orientation, interests, and market focus of these institutions could limit their capacity to meet the needs that MOOCs typically seek to fulfill.

Prestigious University = High Quality Digital Instructional Materials?

Consider the specific “output” of these initiatives. Harvard and others are producing digital education content, wrapped with some form of assessment. This work will flow out of the institution’s teaching capacity and operations. But these elite institutions earn their high ranking by placing their emphasis on research, not on teaching. This is true on an institutional as well as faculty level. Faculty members hired by these institutions know that their labour market value is based primarily on their research productivity;  the ability to garner research funds, conduct research, and publish (Some research suggests that the gulf between rewards for teaching and research is actually increasing, despite the rhetoric). When it comes to teaching, there is remarkably little commitment, as Derek Bok - former President of Harvard - writes of American colleges:

“A remarkable feature of American colleges is the lack of attention that most faculties pay to the growing body of research about how much students are learning and how they could be taught to learn more. . . .  One would think faculties would receive these findings eagerly. Yet one investigator has found that fewer than 10 percent of college professors pay any attention to such work when they prepare for their classes. Most faculties seem equally uninterested in research when they review the curriculum.” Derek Bok. 

We have, then, a general misalignment of institutional strengths and incentives with the project's output (i.e. digital learning materials). The ability and motivation to produce high quality educational media, particularly the type that requires considerable independent learning, is not the same as deep subject matter expertise that comes from a research focus. Yet, it is the research productivity that is at the foundation of the excitement behind these initiatives.

This is not to suggest that there aren’t a number of great educators within these institutions. There are, of course. But the ability of an organization to deliver the best possible value - whatever the type - is always dependent on the focus of the organization; what kinds of work it incentivizes, the criteria used in hiring, how it defines excellence, etc. Whether we are analyzing the politics of global trade or higher education, it’s always important to “follow the money”.

I suppose one could counter this argument by pointing out that these elite institutions have the resources to invest more heavily in teaching materials. Which is true, but it is also irrelevant. Yes, more money can produce better results and compensate for the lack of focus on teaching and learning. But what we are seeking is “value”, and value is always a balance between costs and quality, and superior value is less likely to come from institutions whose focus lies in research.

Learners and Content, A Misalignment

Again, the excitement generated about these materials and courses is based largely on the fact that they come to us from well-known, elite institutions. It then follows that the more similar these courses are to those traditionally offered from the elite institutions (for the “real” students), the better.  However, the “authenticity” of MOOC’s may actually conflict with the broader social and educational objectives that MOOCs serve.

The majority of people that don’t have access to higher education and who would most benefit from MOOCs are generally speaking not the same people for whom MIT-level material is appropriate. If a student is able learn MIT material via edX, then it is highly likely that they are more than capable of obtaining access to a college education, if they haven’t already. Moreover, to benefit from these initiatives, the learner must be relatively self-motivated and disciplined. The ideal learner for such initiatives, then, is someone that is at the top of the academic ladder and self-motivated; in other words, the cream of the crop.

If these initiatives, on the other hand, plan to pitch the material at a much lower academic level; a level well below what is normally taught at their institutions in order to serve the needs of students that are more likely to need access to free courseware, then the fact that they these initiatives come from elite institutions becomes of little significance, if not misleading.

Do Intentions Matter? 

MIT, Harvard and others are not launching these initiatives in order to grow their markets, expand revenue, or reduce costs. They are not doing this in order to survive a period of budget austerity, as might be the case at other, less well-established and financially solvent institutions. In fact, growth is generally not an objective for these schools; maintaining exclusivity remains their prime concern. In order for these institutions to maintain their relative standing in the higher education hierarchy, there must be exclusivity, lack of access and scarcity.

Rather, the motivation for Harvard and others is primarily social and reputational. While the initiatives may generate some benefits for their own students (going “digital” has a tendency to impose more discipline on course design, for example), they are “giving away” their wares because they can afford to, and because philanthropic acts such as these support their brands.

If the objectives of the education community is to find new strategies that will improve the quality and cost of higher education, betting on institutions whose success is based on exclusivity and who have the most to lose if the current model of higher education is disrupted may not be ideal.

I applaud the efforts of these prestigious institutions. Their participation has generated considerable publicity for new models of higher education. And their initiative creates more movement, more flux in the higher education space which likely will be the impetus for more new ideas, which is exactly what's needed. Nevertheless, our excitement about their participation in MOOC and OER; excitement based on the traditional logic for evaluating excellence in higher education, has little bearing and relevance in this case. If our objective is to find and support new models of higher education that are likely to address the most needy students, increase quality and reduce costs, I’m not sure that this philanthropic model, coming from institutions with little need to truly innovate, and that have a deeply vested interest in the status quo, will produce the best outcomes.

Thank you to Dr. Lloyd Armstrong whose post edX: A Step Forward or Step Backward stimulated my interest in this issue.