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Cesar A. Brea bio at Force Five Partners

     

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9 posts categorized "Education"

May 19, 2013

@nathanheller #MOOCs in The New Yorker: You Don't Need A Weatherman

The May 20th 2013 edition of The New Yorker has an article by Vogue writer Nathan Heller on Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) titled "Laptop U: Has the future of college moved online?"  The author explores, or at least raises, a number of related questions.  How (well) does the traditional offline learning experience transfer online?  Is the online learning experience more or less effective than the traditional one? (By what standard? For what material?  What is gained and lost?)  What will MOOCs mean for different colleges and universities, and their faculties?  How will the MOOC revolution be funded?  (In particular, what revenue model will emerge?)

Having worked a lot in the sector, for both public and private university clients, developing everything from technology, to online-enabled programs themselves, to analytic approaches, and even on marketing and promotion, the article was a good prompt for me to try to boil out some ways to think about answering these questions.

The article focuses almost exclusively on Harvard and EdX, the 12-school joint venture through which it's pursuing MOOCs.  Obviously this skews the evaluation.  Heller writes:

Education is a curiously alchemical process. Its vicissitudes are hard to isolate.  Why do some students retain what they learned in a course for years, while others lose it through the other ear over their summer breaks?  Is the fact that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard to revolutionize the tech industry a sign that their Harvard educations worked, or that they failed?  The answer matters, because the mechanism by which conveyed knowledge blooms into an education is the standard by which MOOCs will either enrich teaching in this country or deplete it.

For me, the first step to boiling things out is to define what we mean by -- and want from -- an "education".  So, let's try to unpack why people go to college.  In most cases, Reason One is that you need a degree to get any sort of decent job.  Reason Two is to plug into a network of people -- fellow students, alumni, faculty -- that provide you a life-long community.  Of course you need a professional community for that Job thing, but also because in an otherwise anomic society you need an archipelago to seed friendships, companionships, and self-definition (or at least, as scaffolding for your personal brand: as one junior I heard on a recent college visit put it memorably, "Being here is part of the personal narrative I'm building.")  Reason Three -- firmly third -- is to get an "education" in the sense that Heller describes.  (Apropos: check this recording of David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College.) 

Next, this hierarchy of needs then gives us a way to evaluate the prospects for MOOCs.

If organization X can produce graduates demonstrably better qualified (through objective testing, portfolios of work, and experience) to do job Y, at a lower cost, then it will thrive.  If organization X can do this better and cheaper by offering and/or curating/ aggregating MOOCs, then MOOCs will thrive.  If a MOOC can demonstrate an adequately superior result / contribution to the end outcome, and do it inexpensively enough to hold its place in the curriculum, and do it often enough that its edge becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy -- a brand, in other words -- then it will crowd out its competitors, as surely as one plant shuts out the sunlight to another.  Anyone care to bet against Georgia Tech's new $7K Master's in Computer Science?

If a MOOC-mediated social experience can connect you to a Club You Want To Be A Member Of, you will pay for that.  And if a Club That Would Have You As A Member can attract you to its clubhouse with MOOCs, then MOOCs will line the shelves of its bar.  The winning MOOC cocktails will be the ones that best produce the desired social outcomes, with the greatest number of satisfying connections.

Finally, learning is as much about the frame of mind of the student as it is about the quality of the teacher.  If through the MOOC the student is able to choose a better time to engage, and can manage better the pace of the delivery of the subject matter, then the MOOC wins.

Beyond general prospects, as you consider these principles, it becomes clear that it's less about whether MOOCs win, but which ones, for what and for whom, and how.  

The more objective and standardized -- and thus measurable and comparable -- the learning outcome and the standard of achievement, the greater the potential for a MOOC to dominate. My program either works, or it doesn't.  

If a MOOC facilitates the kinds of content exchanges that seed and stimulate offline social gatherings -- pitches to VCs, or mock interviewing, or poetry, or dance routines, or photography, or music, or historical tours, or bird-watching trips, or snowblower-maintenance workshops -- then it has a better chance of fulfilling the longings of its students for connection and belonging.  

And, the more well-developed the surrounding Internet ecosystem (Wikipedia, discussion groups, Quora forums, and beyond) is around a topic, the less I need a Harvard professor, or even a Harvard grad student, to help me, however nuanced and alchemical the experience I miss might otherwise have been.  The prospect of schlepping to class or office hours on a cold, rainy November night has a way of diluting the urge to be there live in case something serendipitous happens.

Understanding how MOOCs win then also becomes a clue to understanding potential revenue models.  

If you can get accredited to offer a degree based in part or whole on MOOCs, you can charge for that degree, and gets students or the government to pay for it (Exhibit A: University of Phoenix).  That's hard, but as a variant of this, you can get hired by an organization, or a syndicate of organizations you organize, to produce tailored degree programs -- think corporate training programs on steroids -- that use MOOCs to filter and train students.  (Think "You, Student, pay for the 101-level stuff; if you pass you get a certificate and an invitation to attend the 201-level stuff that we fund; if you pass that we give you a job.")  

Funding can come directly, or be subsidized by sponsors and advertisers, or both.  

You can try to charge for content: if you produce a MOOC that someone else wants to include in a degree-based program, you can try to license it, in part or in whole.  

You can make money via the service angle, the way self-publishing firms support authors, with a variety of best-practice based production services.  Delivery might be offered via a freemium model -- the content might be free, but access to premium groups, with teaching assistant support, might come at a price.  You can also promote MOOCs -- build awareness, drive distribution, even simply brand  -- for a cut of the action, the way publishers and event promoters do.  

Perhaps in the not-too-distant future we'll get the Academic Upfront, in which Universities front a semester's worth of classes in a MOOC, then pitch the class to sponsors, the way TV networks do today. Or, maybe the retail industry also offers a window into how MOOCs will be monetized.  Today's retail environment is dominated by global brands (think professors as fashion designers) and big-box (plus Amazon) firms that dominate supply chains and distrubution networks.  Together, Brands and Retailers effectively act as filters: we make assumptions that the products on their shelves are safe, effective, reasonably priced, acceptably stylish, well-supported.  In exchange, we'll pay their markup.  This logic sounds a cautionary note for many schools: boutiques can survive as part of or at the edges of the mega-retailers' ecosystems, but small-to-mid-size firms reselling commodities get crushed.

Of course, these are all generic, unoriginal (see Ecclesiastes 1:9) speculations.  Successful revenue models will blend careful attention to segmenting target markets and working back from their needs, resources, and processes (certain models might be friendlier to budgets and purchasing mechanisms than others) with thoughtful in-the-wild testing of the ideas.  Monolithic executions with Neolithic measurement plans ("Gee, the focus group loved it, I can't understand why no one's signing up for the paid version!") are unlikely to get very far.  Instead, be sure to design with testability in mind (make content modular enough to package or offer a la carte, for example).  Maybe even use Kickstarter as a lab for different models!

PS Heller's brilliant sendup of automated essay grading

Postscript:

The MOOC professor perspective, via the Chronicle, March 2013


April 10, 2013

Fooling Around With Google App Engine @googlecloud

A simple experiment: the "Influence Reach Factor" Calculator. (Um, it just multiplies two numbers together.  But that's beside the point, which was to sort out what it's like to build and deploy an app to Google's App Engine, their cloud computing service.)

Answer: pretty easy.  Download the App Engine SDK.  Write your program (mine's in Python, code here, be kind, props and thanks to Bukhantsov.org for a good model to work from).  Deploy to GAE with a single click.

By contrast, let's go back to 1999.  As part of getting up to speed at ArsDigita, I wanted to install the ArsDigita Community System (ACS), an open-source application toolkit and collection of modules for online communities.  So I dredged up an old PC from my basement, installed Linux, then Postgres, then AOLServer, then configured all of them so they'd welcome ACS when I spooled it up (oh so many hours RTFM-ing to get various drivers to work).  Then once I had it at "Hello World!" on localhost, I had to get it networked to the Web so I could show it to friends elsewhere (this being back in the days before the cable company shut down home-served websites).  

At which point, cue the Dawn Of Man.

Later, I rented servers from co-los. But I still had to worry about whether they were up, whether I had configured the stack properly, whether I was virus-free or enrolled as a bot in some army of darkness, or whether demand from the adoring masses was going to blow the capacity I'd signed up for. (Real Soon Now, surely!)

Now, Real Engineers will say that all of this served to educate me about how it all works, and they'd be right.  But unfortunately it also crowded out the time I had to learn about how to program at the top of the stack, to make things that people would actually use.  Now Google's given me that time back.

Why should you care?  Well, isn't it the case that you read everywhere about how you, or at least certainly your kids, need to learn to program to be literate and effective in the Digital Age?  And yet, like Kubrick's monolith, it all seems so opaque and impenetrable.  Where do you start?  One of the great gifts I received in the last 15 years was to work with engineers who taught me to peel it back one layer at a time.  My weak effort to pay it forward is this small, unoriginal advice: start by learning to program using a high-level interpreted language like Python, and by letting Google take care of the underlying "stack" of technology needed to show your work to your friends via the Web.  Then, as your functional or performance needs demand (which for most of us will be rarely), you can push to lower-level "more powerful" (flexible but harder to learn) languages, and deeper into the stack.

March 12, 2012

#SXSW Trip Report Part 2: Being There

(See here for Part 1)

Here's one summary of the experience that's making the rounds:

 

Missing sxsw

 

I wasn't able to be there all that long, but my impression was different.  Men of all colors (especially if you count tattoos), and lots more women (many tattooed also, and extensively).   I had a chance to talk with Doc Searls (I'm a huge Cluetrain fan) briefly at the Digital Harvard reception at The Parish; he suggested (my words) the increased ratio of women is a good barometer for the evolution of the festival from narcissistic nerdiness toward more sensible substance.  Nonetheless, on the surface, it does remain a sweaty mosh pit of digital love and frenzied networking.  Picture Dumbo on spring break on 6th and San Jacinto.  With light sabers:

 

SXSW light sabers

 

Sight that will haunt my dreams for a while: VC-looking guy, blazer and dress shirt, in a pedicab piloted by skinny grungy student (?) Dude, learn Linux, and your next tip from The Man at SXSW might just be a term sheet.

So whom did I meet, and what did I learn:

I had a great time listening to PRX.org's John Barth.  The Public Radio Exchange aggregates independent content suitable for radio (think The Moth), adds valuable services like consistent content metadata and rights management, and then acts as a distribution hub for stations that want to use it.  We talked about how they're planning to analyze listenership patterns with that metadata and other stuff (maybe gleaning audience demographics via Quantcast) for shaping content and targeting listeners.  He related for example that stations seem to prefer either 1 hour programs they can use to fill standard-sized holes, or two- to seven- minute segments they can weave into pre-existing programs.  Documentary-style shows that weave music and informed commentary together are especially popular.  We explored whether production templates ("structured collaboration": think "Mad Libs" for digital media) might make sense.  Maybe later.

Paul Payack explained his Global Language Monitor service to me, and we explored its potential application as a complement if not a replacement for episodic brand trackers.  Think of it as a more sophisticated and source-ecumenical version of Google Insights for Search.

Kara Oehler's presentation on her Mapping Main Street project was great, and it made me want to try her Zeega.org service (a Harvard metaLAB project) as soon as it's available, to see how close I can get to replicating The Yellow Submarine for my son, with other family members spliced in for The Beatles.  Add it to my list of other cool projects I like, such as mrpicassohead.

Peter Boyce and Zach Hamed from Hack Harvard, nice to meet you. Here's a book that grew out of the class at MIT I mentioned -- maybe you guys could cobble together an O'Reilly deal out of your work!

Finally,  congrats to Perry Hewitt (here with Anne Cushing) and all her Harvard colleagues on a great evening!

 

Perry hewitt anne cushing

 

 

September 15, 2009

Adobe + Omniture: Pragmalytically Perfect Sense

Big news (via, in my case, Eric Peterson's "Web Analytics Forum" on Yahoo!): Adobe's buying Omniture

Simple logic:

  • Adobe makes great tools for developing custom dashboards and other data visualization apps.  I know because in one engagement this summer, we've worked with a terrific client and another (also terrific) engineering firm to build a Flex-based prototype of an advanced predictive analytics application.  But prototyping is easy, tying a front end to a working, real-world analytics data model is much harder.
  • Omniture leads the pack of web analytics platform vendors, who all have more features and capabilities in their left pinkies than many of us could dream of in six lifetimes.  But exposing mere mortals to the interfaces these leading firms provide is like showing kryptonite to  Joe / Jane Superexecutive.  As analytics get more complex, it's even more important to focus on key questions and expose only the data / views on that data that illuminate those key questions.
  • So if you believe that that this web / digital / multichannel analytics thing has legs, then putting these two firms together and working both ends to the middle faster than might otherwise have happened is a smart thing to do.
  • The other reason to do this is to anticipate the trend in "custom reporting" and "advanced segmentation" capabilities in the "lower-end" analytics offerings (e.g., GA) from folks like Google.  I've been using these capabilities recently, and they get you a meaningful way, eroding the value of higher-end offerings on both the front (Adobe) and middle-back (Omniture) ends.

October 10, 2007

Carmun.com Re-Launches

via Lori Cohen, this news of the re-launch of Carmun.com, an education-focused "social search" service which I wrote about a while back:

Congratulations Lori and Jonathan!

Bionic Leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School

This morning I was a guest lecturer in Jerry Mechling's class at Harvard's Kennedy School, "Leadership in a Networked World:  The Challenge of IT-Enabled Change".  Jerry had asked me to speak about "personal information management".   In a moment of weakness I suggested we call the session "Bionic Leadership", since I had planned to talk about how new tools can help people running organizations "sense, synthesize, and socialize" more effectively.

Bill Ives joined me, and together with the class we discussed not only tools themselves, like Google Reader,  Marketspace's "tribal bookmarking" version of Del.icio.us, and Twitter, but also more exotic combination possibilities with real-world applications to the kinds of problems K-School students might care about.

It's always interesting to survey groups like this on adoption of technologies.  This group of ~40-50 was pretty diverse:  estimated age range 25-55, from all over the world, from a number of different sectors (business, government, non-profit, military, etc.).

  • Roughly 40% are on Facebook, with a handful on other social networks
  • Maybe 10-15% use feed readers (skewing younger, at a glance)
  • 10-15% read blogs regularly (evenly distributed)
  • one class member publishes a blog

These numbers track with my experience recently in other settings.  Facebook is becoming a de facto "bridge into the future" for many people, making a Facebook app an essential part of any new web venture's promotion strategy.   

April 24, 2007

Think Viral, Act Tribal, Part II: What, Why, and How Memes Propagate

A while back I wrote down some ideas about viral marketing prompted by a meeting with an entrepreneur who was having some trouble executing a campaign.  Today, I came across a really interesting research paper, "Memes and affinities:  cultural replication and literacy education", by Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear, presented in November 2005 at the National Reading Conference annual meeting.  The paper is here: http://www.geocities.com/c.lankshear/memes2.pdf.

Continue reading "Think Viral, Act Tribal, Part II: What, Why, and How Memes Propagate" »

February 21, 2007

The "Edutainment" Future Is Now

With the help of several friends, I've written a wiki page on OpenACS.org that explains the "what" and the "why" surrounding the recent announcement that OpenACS/.LRN is the first to support the IMS LD specification for designing open-ended, collaborative learning experiences online.  It may seem arcane, and the examples may not be much to look at today, but this is a very big deal if you think that online games, communities, and learning have any synergistic future at all.

Yet another reminder (among others) about why I continue to believe in this project and the community that contributes to it.

June 17, 2005

June 20: Harvard KSG 3E Panel on Current Practices In Public Sector IT Program Management

On Monday, June 20, I'm moderating a panel at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.  The panel, entitled "Current Practices In Public Sector IT Program Management", is part of a three-day workshop run by Professor Jerry Mechling, who directs the E-Government Executive Education Project (3E) at the Kennedy School. 

Panelists include

  • Phil Bertolini, CIO,Oakland County, Michigan
  • Scott Campbell, Chief eHealth Strategist, Government of Ontario
  • Gopal Kapur, President, Center for Project Management
  • Marty Wagner, Associate Administrator for Government-wide Policy, US General Services Administration

(Jerry recently won a Lifetime Achievement award from the National Association of State CIO's, and recently conducted an extended interview with Bill Gates you might find interesting.  Further, with IBM's support Jerry has been pioneering new e-learning techniques in the 3E Project's programs, using .LRN as his platform.)