Monday, January 21, 2013

Key Trends in Educational Technology -- Preliminary View

The image below is a visual representation of my recent thinking about educational technology and the important trends that I see emerging, particularly within the world of Higher Education. I will put up a complete post with explanations later in the week, but wanted to share this today.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Shift to Touch Will Introduce Major Changes in Education

In spring 2010, when the first iPad was released and Steve Jobs announced that the device would not provide support for Flash, a senior product manager at a major educational publisher asked me how long I felt his company had until it would need to replace its Flash-based animations and interactivities.

"Fall 2012," I said. "My guess is 25% of students in the Higher Education market will be using tablets by that time so you'd better aim to fix the Flash problem by then."

In the ensuing two years, I have tracked the growth of tablet devices in Higher Education and have consistently predicted that 25% of incoming first-year students would own tablet devices. That number seems to be corroborated, at least indirectly by the latest Pew report showing 25% of American adults own tablets, and a survey of college and university students by my employer that showed 24% tablet ownership across all student types.

Of course, the popularity of tablet devices in only just now beginning to hit its full stride. NPD's Display Research is reporting that tablet sales will surpass PC sales for the first time in 2013. According to Gartner, we have already seen the market shift, with worldwide PC shipments dropping 4.9% in the fourth quarter of 2012.

In presentations, I'm always quick to point out tablets for a variety of reasons. Adoption/market penetration trends for tablets are much higher than those we witnessed for laptops and smartphones  In addition, primarily because they are personal lifestyle devices, we are seeing a higher and more rapid refresh rate for tablets than we did for laptops and smartphones.

The biggest disruption introduced by tablets, however, is that they are touch devices and are fundamentally altering the way we interact with content and information. The ability to touch, move, and interact with information without the use of an artificial intermediary device (such as a keyboard) may prove to be the most radical shift in learning in the last century -- bigger than modern schools and universities and bigger than computers.

Touch devices will not only cause us to redesign and redefine educational technology solutions, but also our curricula and our learning content. How should we design and package content so that it can be touched and connected, and so that it offers up interactivity? How do we change our courses so that they address the kinesthetic interaction with and synthesis of information?

By the way, if you find yourself skeptical about the real popularity and impact of tablets with regards to the adoption of touch technology, keep in mind that tablets are only part of the force shaping this shift. As this CNET News article points out, laptops are also moving to touch whether we think we need it or not. By next fall, in fact, it will be difficult to find a newer Windows 8 laptop or ultrabook without touch capabilities.1

At first, I believe we will see a fairly even split between using the touch screen for navigation, Web browsing, music, and reading applications, while the physical keyboard will remain the primary method for entering formal data and working with productivity applications. That status quo isn't likely to persist, however, as voice commands added to touch capabilities will continue to expand the quantity of activity that users engage in directly and without a keyboard.

1It's easy to scoff at the impact of Windows 8, but we should keep in mind that the operating system has already tallied 60 million licenses, which puts it on par with Windows 7 adoption.

Monday, January 14, 2013

New Trends in Information Search Portend Changes in Education

The latest stats from comScore show that mobile search continues to grow rapidly and is eroding the traditional desktop search business. Mobile and vertical search — retail, travel, social — are killing the traditional desktop search business. According to Ben Schachter, of Macquaire:
"We estimate that as much as 25-30% of all Internet search traffic could be coming from mobile devices as of year-end. Moreover, in certain categories, such as restaurants, we believe that well more than 30% of queries are already coming from mobile devices (other key categories such as Consumer Electronics, Beauty & Personal, Finance/Insurance, and Autos also have a meaningful share of mobile queries)."
This latest data reflects the continuing evolution of consumer information habits, which are mutating rapidly as our lifestyles and professions become increasingly integrated with mobile devices. In terms of the broader implications of this change, here are a number of trends to watch.
  1.  Desktop-->mobile -- Mobile is just getting started. Smartphones already outsell PCs and tablets will likely follow suit this year. With desktop search our pursuit and discovery of information is limited to specific locations and specific temporal boundaries. For mobile users information research is ubiquitous.
  2. Linear-->organic -- In the desktop era information searches have been associated with a specific project or personal need and have been mostly unidirectional. We search for one thing at a time, review the results, filter those results, and search again if necessary. It's focused and linear, and we stay with the process until we manage to find what we're looking for. In the new information era, our queries are like our real life -- they are messy and organic. We look for multiple, often disparate, pieces of information at the same time and follow a crooked, serendipitous path to discovery.
  3. Discovery-->connected -- When I first began working with information in a formal manner, I used analog methods like browsing through a card catalog or printed periodical index, or simply wandering through the stacks in a library. As search technology was introduced into the process, I became focused on information discovery. In both of these phases I navigated to specific locations and and executed targeted and linear investigations. When I found what I was looking for I was left to figure out how the information was related to my overall research goals and how it might be connected to other information or areas of interest. In the new information era, however, we have come to expect consumer services that deliver increasingly connected results -- a piece of information is connected to other personal activity or research interests, or it is connected to communities of interest or related topics that lie beyond my initial inquiry.
  4. Type-->touch/voice -- Over the next five years we will witness a majority of children in elementary and middle school for whom the primary method of information research is entirely through touch or voice. Within ten years, this same phenomenon will rule information interactions of university students and the general adult population. This radical change in modalities means big changes in the way information itself is designed and distributed.
  5. Text-->graphic visualization -- Most people think of information in terms of text. That's because, historically, we have retrieved and processed information in amounts that can be rendered  feasibly as text. Moving forward, however, the amounts of information/data are becoming so large that text cannot always communicate information results adequately. This means a greater occurrence of data visualization and other new forms of presorting information.
Few would likely deny that this shift in information technologies and user behaviors portends big changes in education and learning. At the very least, I believe it means that:
  • We will need to help students develop new information literacy skills, curricular strategies for new modalities such as touch. This may well be one of the biggest challenges we face as educators since we have only known a world in which information has always been accessed indirectly through the use of intermediary devices such as keyboards.
  • We will need to adopt new methodologies for course/learning delivery. The current pedagogical model based on the linear presentation and evaluation of information will necessarily expand to embrace new information types and skills.
  • We will need to create and adopt new information/library technologies to take advantage of the incredible evolutions of information and, just as importantly, to meet the expectations of students and faculty who are also technology consumers and accustomed to the information services offered by innovative technology giants.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Flat World Remains the Strongest Option for Textbook Affordability in U.S. Higher Education

Flat World Knowledge Shifts from Free Model

Two weeks ago, Flat World Knowledge announced that it would discontinue offering free versions of its textbooks as of January 1. This strategy shift, according to CEO Jeff Shelstadt, is being driven by a need to increase revenue and to manage the the company's existing capital prudently. In short, the company needs to increase its per-student revenue in order to continue expanding and marketing its catalog.

In retrospect, the shift away from free e-textbooks was likely inevitable. Indeed, it is easy to argue that Flat World's mission was always a tenuous balance between commercial goals -- affordability, quality and flexibility -- and a vision for open content -- free and open. For the first years of its corporate life, Flat World managed to strike a peace between these oft conflicting paths. In the end, however, the company had to narrow its mission and focus on a strategy that would ensure its survival and growth.

Naturally, Flat World's announcement has elicited a mixture of "I told you so" comments as well as criticism from the open content crowd. Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, used the announcement as a chance to underpin the AAP's defense of the high cost of traditional textbooks. "Producing top-quality textbooks that include all of the technologies demanded today is an incredibly costly, sophisticated process, and it appears that Flat World's business model was not sustainable."

On the open content side, Stephen Downes' post reflects the justified concern of the academic community when it comes to the long-term commitments of commercial entities to free and open offerings. Historically, the best intentions of companies to maintain a free product option are inevitably overruled by investors and/or survival instincts. I have experienced this all-too-common reality as both consumer and entrepreneur, and it is equally distasteful on both ends.

Free Is Good but Still Not Entirely Viable in Higher Education

What has been lost in the media reaction to the Flat World announcement is the fact that, while hyped and promoted, free textbooks and open content in general still face an uphill climb in Higher Education. Indeed, much of the dismay about Flat World's decision is related, I believe, to the fact that many had seen the company as the best hope for a free and open solution that could actually offer a meaningful alternative to commercial textbooks.

Back in May, I wrote a post in which I listed a number of obstacles to the widespread adoption of open content (including textbooks). In that article, I argued that open textbooks and other open content are only valuable if they are/can be adopted widely across Higher Education. To date, the primary barriers to such adoption have been:

  • Difficulty of discovery
  • Difficulty of use and lack of differentiated learning experiences
  • Lack of effective marketing

Earlier this year,  David Wiley pointed out that free and open is good, but price and flexibility alone do not necessarily make these materials competitive in the marketplace.

No one outside the open education movement is impressed by books that are “open.” They don’t even know what it means, let alone care about it. What they’re excited by is a book that offers a better quality to price ratio than whatever they’re currently using.

Wiley goes on to argue:

For too long the OER discourse has suffered from thinking that the pitch line “you can get the same quality for less!” is sufficient. While this claim may still be true today, it will not be true for long. Most OER projects have been so busy doing “as good as” commercial publishers that (1) there is little indigenous innovation in the OER world and (2) as publishers raise the curtain on a new generation of diagnostic and adaptive products, the OER community will be years away from a reasonable response. This failure of foresight will change the OER pitch to “lower quality for less!” unless someone starts paying attention.

Making open content widely discoverable, competitive, and usable for individual courses and institutional curricula is certainly doble, but it will require a stronger vision, more money, better coordination, and time. I applaud the work of the foundations and institutions that have served as pioneers in the OER movement but, to date, open remains a viable option only for the individual choice (IC) market (meaning it is not yet a significant factor for departmental or institutional adoptions), which counts for less than 25% of total textbook sales.

Flat World Remains the Strongest Option  for Textbook Affordability in the U.S. 

Which brings me back to Flat World. Many saw Flat World as a vehicle for bringing to market a free and open model that could actually compete with commercial publishers. Flat World textbooks are certainly as good as other publishers'  products, the custom publishing options are superior in some ways, and the company offers ancillary study materials that are absent in other open textbook offerings. 

Of course, it's important to remember that the product components that have elevated Flat World into a broader market segment  -- ancillary study materials and format distribution options -- have never been free. These options have always been offered for a price. Indeed, it is with these "extras," and a staff that can market its products successfully at the departmental adoption level, that Flat World has made noticeable inroads into the traditional textbook world with its more affordable alternatives.

And this, for me, is the point. While free and open may eventually reach a level of product sophistication that leads to significant departmental and institutional adoption in the U.S., it is not there yet. In all honesty, free and open is probably at least 3-5 years from reaching such a milestone. 

Meanwhile the affordability of learning materials is still the primary issue for many students and we need companies like Flat World that can provide competitive product alternatives to traditional textbook publishers today. Specifically, this means providing learning products that feature ancillary study materials, instructor materials, custom publishing options, mobile access, integration into LMS platforms, and learning analytics. It also means sales and marketing teams, customer support, and a broad catalog of content.

Until free and open content reaches competitive maturity, we need companies like Flat World that are willing to develop and provide all of the above items at an affordable price today -- not the $104 retail price of an average new print textbook but at prices ranging from $20-$40. Such an offering is not only affordable but has the potential to reshape the textbook industry.

All of these components will certainly come with costs, to be sure, but that resulting product price can be an affordable one. So, while I admire Flat World for wanting to offer free and open content, I believe that the most important role the company can play in today's Higher Education landscape is that of a leader in affordable and scalable learning materials. It may not be as glamorous as free and open, and it may not be as lucrative as the current commercial textbook model, but it is what students desperately need and what departments and institutions will adopt. And, with those adoptions, the amount of money students pay for learning materials will fall dramatically.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Digital Devices Mean New Content Strategies

I'm delivering a presentation at Lausanne Laptop Institute today, and am focusing on the need to have digital content strategies that match our strategies for devices and classroom pedagogy. Here are the slides.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Will Tablets Continue To Shake Things Up In Education?

Google's Nexus 7 Tablet
Google released its new Nexus 7 tablet last week, and many have already opined on the tablet's value and how it is a strong challenger to both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. This is a natural comparison because of the price point ($199), the size (7"), and the fact that they all run some flavor of Android. In addition, all three companies position their products as media consumption devices.

With regards to the education market, the Nexus 7 may have some big advantages over the Kindle Fire and the current Nook tablet (it is impossible to say, at this point, what the B&N/Microsoft venture will bring). First, the Nexus 7 runs a less customized version of Android, which means users will have access to a much wider variety of apps. In addition, Google's tablet is optimized for using Google apps such as Gmail, Docs, and Chrome, which gives it a big leg up on other Android devices in terms of productivity. Finally, as this reviewer points out, the Nexus 7 is faster than other tablets in its category.

All this reminds me of a publisher who asked me back in 2010, when the first iPad was released, how long I thought his company had to convert animations and other interactivities from Flash to another format. I answered that they should have this completed by August 2012 to ensure competitiveness. And, right on schedule, Adobe announced last week that is would not be supporting Flash for Android 4.1 (Jellybean), the latest version of the OS (and  running on Google's Nexus 7).  At last, Steve Jobs pronouncement is fully realized. Now, if we can only get everyone to transform all of their legacy video.

Naturally, this talk about tablets brings me back to the bigger picture of educational technology. As Brian Kuhn asked after attending this years ISTE event, is technology revolutionizing education yet? The answer, of course, depends on how you define education; but with regards to traditional classroom instruction, my experience over the past year jives with Brian's answer.
I think the answer to the question I pose in the title for this post is yes, to some degree. But I don't think education has fundamentally changed in a critical mass of classrooms for most students. I think my answer will be very different in three or four years.
 At the same time, the use of tablets is increasing rapidly and the devices will change the ways we teach and learn. A good example of how these devices can change our interaction with students can be seen in Doug Ward's use of iAnnotate to grade papers and communicate effectively with his students.

Speaking of evolutions in education, I really enjoyed this video for Glenn Reynolds book, The Higher Education Bubble.

And, finally, Will Richardson makes a compelling argument for moving away from the notion of competition in our education system, and shifting instead toward cooperation.

But we need a different lens on a national level these days. At a moment where so much knowledge is at our fingertips, and when we’re facing so many seemingly insurmountable problems, we need to spend more of our time figuring out how to work together instead of work against each other. And this is especially true in education.

Suggested Reading

In Which we Review the Nexus 7 Tablet After Actually Using it
Steve Would Be Proud -- How Apple Won The War Against Flash | TechCrunch
Shift to the Future: Is Technology Revolutionizing Education Yet?
It's the Pedagogy, Stupid: Lessons from an iPad Lending Program ~ Stephen's Web
Grading with Voice on an iPad - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education
Community College Spotlight | The higher ed bubble
Co-operation vs. Competition (vs. Collaboration) 
Your E-book Is Reading You | WSJ

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Don't Have a Mobile Strategy? You're Behind

Gone Mobile

According to the latest study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, "17% of cell phone owners do most of their online browsing on their phone, rather than a computer or other device."

This number shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, considering that smartphone owners now comprise the majority of mobile phone users in the U.S., and that we are a society that is increasingly hooked on connectivity.

Of course, statistics related to "mobile" Internet access go much higher when we bring in tablet devices. The tablet market continues to explode and my research continues to track numbers showing that 25% of incoming first-year students in Higher Education will own a tablet device in 2012. Apple continues to dominate the market to date, but student usage will also be fueled this summer by the upcoming Nexus tablet from Google (reportedly priced at $199), and an updated Kindle Fire. In addition, Microsoft's Windows 8 tablets, released in October, will have a strong impact on the education market as a whole.

It's also important to remember that tablets as a product type have a much higher propensity for disruption than laptops and smartphones. Tablets are personal lifestyle devices as opposed to productivity necessities. This means several things. First, users are purchasing tablets in addition to their other technology instead of as a replacement. Second, because of the lower price points and rapid development-release cycles, users are refreshing tablet technology at a faster rate than any previous technology devices. This translates to a sizable used tablet market and a product segment that is expanding more rapidly than any before it.

The Impact

This shift toward smartphones and tablets is a trend that portends significant change across the education sector -- for institutions, instructors, students, and vendors. Specific implications include:

  • Everyone is connected -- I remember my days as an IT Director and fighting the battle of connectivity. Smartphones and tablets are eliminating all concerns on that front. Everyone is already connected, with more than one device, and can gain access to information from multiple locations outside a main educational campus.

  • Everyone is touching and talking -- Smartphones and tablets have also introduced the most important and transformative changes in educational technology -- touch and voice. Within five years we will have students entering Higher Education who are completely unaccustomed to using an intermediary device (e.g., a keyboard) for data or creative input. Touch technology means that, for the first time, students can interact with and manipulate information directly. Just as importantly, voice technology is creating an incoming class for whom the primary method of information retrieval and inquiry will be spoken natural language.

  • Everything is smaller -- This is true in a real sense, as tablet and smartphone screens are reducing the visual playing field from 17" to 10", 7", and 4", but it is also a metaphorical touch. The amount of content we place on a screen is shrinking (changing consumption habits), and the amount of dedicated time users spend on single applications is diminishing as well.

  • Content is coming apart -- The rise of new consumption devices will prove to be the "final straw" in the textbook transformation process over the next 3-4 years. These devices are pushing rapidly toward the digital horizon, but are also forcing everyone -- publishers, institutions and instructors -- to rethink how learning materials are being used and what is actually required for students to be successful. The end result will be smaller, more granular learning packages, an increased use of OER, and new business models such as content subscription offers.

  • Centrifugal learning -- Perhaps the most important change brought on by the adotpion of smartphones and tablets is the rapid evolution toward centrifugal learning. This means experiential learning, education beyond the classroom walls, and the move to greater amounts of disintermediated learning activity. This holds true for traditional as well as online classes.
The Basics of a Mobile Strategy

Make no mistake, these changes are already occurring, and the immediate task at hand is to develop a comprehensive strategy for mobile learning before real chaos ensues over the next 12-18 months.

At the very least, every institution should have:
  • A content strategy -- Learning content and content options are changing rapidly. Content formats, devices, user patterns, and cost must all be considered. In addition, institutions should create best-practice models for content usage that departments and instructors can follow.

  • An app strategy/platform -- Just as institutions created programs and policies around LMS and SIS platforms, they need to address mobile learning with the same comprehensive focus. In particular, they need to determine how they can best support faculty and students in their activities using mobile devices. From a teaching and learning perspective, this means apps. What apps do you recommend for faculty? How are you helping faculty and students manage the proliferation of available apps? How are you harnessing institutional data via teaching and learning through mobile apps? How does the usage of various apps affect your overall wireless infrastructure?

  • A pedagogy strategy -- The time has come to stop thinking about mobile teaching and learning as something that affects only a small percentage of institutional participants. Within 12-18 months it will become a mainstay and centerpiece of how education is delivered and/or consumed. As a result, institutions need to have a clear vision regarding how they want to harness this technology trend. Will you emphasize a flipped classroom model? Are you focused on creating experiential learning exercises throughout your curriculum? How are you addressing new digital literacies that affect the overall success of your students?

There can be no doubt that the mobile revolution has arrived at the doorstep (if not the foyer) of educational institutions, and over the next 12-18 months it will continue to take over the way learning is delivered and consumed. Institutional leaders throughout the different market sectors in education need to act now to address this change and to harness the productive learning power it brings with it.