Bryan Polivka has worked with a number of online education providers, including Laureate Education and Caliber Learning Network. He now serves as a consultant to other organizations in the e-learning market at G. Bryan Polivka.
Q. Bryan, you’ve suggested that the limited innovation in higher education technology stems, in part, from the fact that “[Education] as an industry is full of people who are content experts, and severely lacking people who are learning experts.” I agree. But isn’t the lack of attention paid to education, itself, a by-product of the bigger issue that educational quality still plays a limited role in determining the success (as it is currently measured) of our colleges?
BP: Oh goodness yes. Quality, what is that? Most colleges and universities have traditionally measure it by the grades and accomplishments of students they accept. Think about that a minute. It’s like GM saying they can prove they make the best cars, and then showing you the stacks of steel moving into their plants on railroad cars. Can’t argue with that, right?
But even if you have more output-based measures, it’s hard to pin down quality in education. I do a talk on this in which I end up (after starting by mentioning it was the definition of quality that drove the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance mad) pretty much proving to everyone in the room that quality is what people perceive it to be–and people really do know quality when they experience it. It is ultimately judged by students. The quality of the students is then in turn judged by employers and peers and even subordinates in the workplace.
So I tend to focus on the quality of the experience of learning itself, the aha, the excitement of finding out and applying something new, important, big. And how do you measure that? I’m not sure… but I know that the quality of learning defined that way is very, very similar to the joy of discovery, of invention, and of innovation. If our schools were really as brimming with young people hooked on learning, who were as excited about exploring and building and changing the world as those PSA’s they run at halftime of college football games would lead us to believe, we’d have plenty of innovation in educational technology. But our universities for the most part make sure that learning is boring, or they try to jazz it up with bells and whistles, which is further proof they believe it is boring. And students continue to balance out the boring by making their extra curricular activities anything but. And consequently they don’t spend their time innovating their own (or anyone else’s) education.
Q. The textbook industry appears on the verge of a significant adjustment. You recently spoke at a conference on the topic of the future of textbooks. How do you see this industry unfolding?
BP: Unfolding, or unraveling? I’m not sure which it will be at this point. Probably some of both. But If Pearson, the giant of textbook publishers, is any indication then it’s likely to unfold more than it unravels. But there are lots of traps and pitfalls. Many textbook publishers are completely hung up on digital rights management (DRM), convinced that the only way to preserve the future of education, and perhaps the civilized world (one executive actually used those very terms with me), then we must find a way to lock down flat digital content (PDFs) and only allow it in the hands of the person who paid for it. But if that’s the requirement, they’re all going to drown in the digital flood.
No, wait, not all. The Ark has been identified. The textbook of the future isn’t a book at all, which was my point at Learning 2009. It’s an interactive product that can be used as homework, or a study guide, a digital product that provides the same end results as a textbook but without all those annoying little pages, digital or otherwise. The publishers who realize they are in the homework/content delivery/lesson plan business will find digital alternatives. The publishers who try to preserve the textbook, in my estimation, will go down clutching their waterlogged chunks of lumber to the last. Pearson gets it. But I’m not sure how many others do.
Q. I’ve noticed that the more experienced and/or ambitious college instructors are starting to complement their use of learning management systems (e.g. Angel) with other, external applications such as Facebook. In the coming years, we will see courses using a patchwork of applications or is the central LMS safe?
BP: The central LMS is not safe at all. It’s only value in the future will be authentication and record-keeping. The patchwork, as you call it, is actually the cloud. Mashups, I believe, are here to stay.
Think about Facebook for a moment as I list out the things that an LMS does: It authenticates users. It puts them in groups. It fosters discussion. It allows access to shared content. It offers assessment tools (quizzes). It organizes lesson plans and tracks grades. All right, those last two things it doesn’t do, but everything up that point is done either better or easier on Facebook than in Blackboard… and can be done without an enormous centralized system. And (not a small factor) it can be done for free. What would it take to do the whole thing using just Facebook, so faculty could just say, “Here’s your Facebook group, see you there”? Actually nothing, if they used SurveyMonkey for quizzes (it’s free) and Engrade for a gradebook (it’s free). That’s a patchwork, not even a mashup. Don’t like the open access of Facebook, use Ning.com to create a private social network. No one gets in who the teacher, or the school administrator, doesn’t allow. None of this is hard any more.
In my estimation Blackboard and Angel and WebCT (wait, that’s all the same thing!) should be very anxious. To put it in the starkest terms, they seem to be counting on their customers to be too scared, too lazy, or too shortsighted to attempt to run a class in the cloud. They figure if they mash up with Facebook themselves, or offer a Twitter feature, no one will notice that the whole game has changed. Not a good forward-looking strategy. What they need to do is to lead the mashup revolution. But that requires cannibalizing their own customer base for a product that sells a lot cheaper. That’s what Blockbuster couldn’t do, and Netflix ate their lunch. It’s what Sony couldn’t do, and iTunes ate their lunch. It’s what Continental and USAir and TWA couldn’t do, and Southwest ate their lunch. There’s a free lunch coming for someone, courtesy of the LMS powerhouses of old.
Q. You held a number of leadership positions in the educational technology industry during the “early days” (1990s). Did you expect the industry to evolve as it has? What were the big surprises?
BP: It has not evolved as I expected in one big regard. And actually, not to age myself overly, but I’ve been doing this since the mid-1980’s. That’s when I saw an enormous new field being born at the intersection of digital technology and education. Back then the predictions of a coming “digital convergence” of all technology still sounded like some bizarre crossover between sci-fi and New Age philosophy (Everyone sing now, “When the moon is in the seventh house, and VHS aligns with DOS…”). I bought in completely, and left an Emmy-award-winning career in television to take my first full-time job in technology-delivered education in 1989. That’s a story for another time. But what has constantly surprised me, and still does, is how slow it all has moved. Of course I couldn’t foresee social media or any other web 2.0 technologies back then, but the adoption rate has been molasses in my estimation.
Look how far education lags when you compare it to Entertainment or Communications. Communications as an industry is actually called “Telecommunications,” and is defined by technology. If it’s not delivered by technology, it’s not communications. The penetration of technology is 100%. Entertainment is not 100%, but I’d guess more than nine out of every ten dollars spent goes to some sort of technology, counting movies, music, TV, video games, online gambling–really everything except maybe theater, sporting events, amusement parks, and casinos. Where does the technical penetration into Education stand? Fifteen percent? If that. The last good numbers I saw put even corporate training budgets in the US at only 30 – 35% going toward some sort of technology delivery.
But Education got a slow start. Telecom started in the 1800’s with the telegraph. Entertainment started with films in the early 20th century. With the exception of training and educational films (anyone else remember “Our Mr. Sun” from grade school?) educational technology didn’t really begin in earnest until the 70’s, with “closed circuit” television. And both of those other fields are a lot simpler than education, which by definition must be tailored to every individual to be of value.
That’s why I’m so excited about web 2.0 for learning. Social media, 3D virtual worlds, mobile devices… these are technologies that suit the complexities of education, and that, particularly when combined, create a sophisticated enough environment to do almost anything required in education, and (finally!) to truly improve on the limitations of the classroom experience. It’s a brave new world… but it’s been a long time coming!
An interview from the Higher Education Management Group.