10 min read
Education has a software problem.
98% of higher educational institutions have a Learning Management System: a software platform designed to support the administration of courses. Larger institutions often spend over a million dollars a year on them, once all costs have been factored in, but the majority of people who use them - from educators through to students - hate the experience. In fact, when we did our initial user research for Known, we couldn't find a single person in either of those groups who had anything nice to say about them.
That's because the LMS has been designed to support administration, not teaching and learning. Administrators like the way they can keep track of student accounts and course activity, as well as the ability to retain certain data for years, should they need it in the event of a lawsuit. Meanwhile, we were appalled to discover that students are most often locked out of their LMS course spaces as soon as the course is over, meaning they can't refer back to their previous discussions and feedback as they continue their journey towards graduation.
The simple reason is that educators aren't the customers, whereas administrators have buying power. From a vendor's perspective, it makes sense to aim software products at the latter group. However, it's a tough market: institutions have a very long sales cycle. They might hear about a product six months before they run a pilot, and then deploy a product the next year. And they'll all do it at the same time, to fit in with the academic calendar. At the time of writing, institutions are looking at software that they might consider for a pilot in Spring 2016. Very few products will make it to campus deployment.
There are only a few kinds of software vendors that can withstand these long cycles for such a narrow market. By necessity, they must have "runway" - the length of time a company can survive without additional revenue - to last this cycle for multiple institutions. It follows that these products must have high sticker prices; once they've made a sale, vendors cling to their customers for dear life, which leads to outrageous lock-in strategies and occasionally vicious intra-vendor infighting.
Why can't educators buy software?
If it would lower costs and prevent lock-in, why don't institutions typically allow on-demand educator purchasing? One reason is what I call the Microsoft Access effect. Until the advent of cloud technologies, it was common for any medium to large organization to have hundreds, or even thousands, of Access databases dotted around their network, supporting various micro-activities. (I saw this first-hand early in my career, as IT staff at the University of Oxford's Saïd Business School.) While it's great that any member of staff can create a database, the IT department is then expected to maintain and repair it. The avalanche of applications can quickly become overwhelming - and sometimes they can overlap significantly, leading to inefficient overspending and further maintenance nightmares. For these and a hundred other reasons, purchasing needs to be planned.
A second reason is that, in the Internet age, applications do interesting things with user data. A professor of behavioral economics, for example, isn't necessarily also going to be an expert in privacy policies and data ownership. Institutions need to be very careful with student data, because of legislation like FERPA and other factors that could leave them exposed to being sued or prosecuted. Therefore, for very real legal reasons, software and services need to be approved.
The higher education bubble?
Some startups have decided to overcome these barriers by declaring that they will disrupt universities themselves. These companies provide Massively Open Online Courses directly, most often without accreditation or any real oversight. I don't believe they mean badly: in theory an open market for education is a great idea. However, institutions provide innumerable protections and opportunities for students that for-profit, independent MOOCs cannot provide. MOOCs definitely have a place in the educational landscape, but they cannot replace schools and universities, as much as it is financially convenient to say that they will. Similarly, some talk of a "higher education bubble" out of frustration that they can't efficiently make a profit from institutions. If it's a bubble, it's one that's been around for well over a thousand years. Universities, in general, work.
However, as much as startups aren't universities, universities are also not startups. Some institutions have decided to overcome their software problem by trying to write software themselves. Sometimes it even works. The trouble is that effective software design does not adhere to the same principles as academic discussion or planning; you can't do it by committee. Institutions will often try and create standards, forgetting that a technology is only a standard if people are using it by bottom-up convention (otherwise it's just bureaucracy). Discussions about features can sometimes take years. User experience design falls somewhere towards the bottom of the priority list. The software often emerges, but it's rarely world class.
Open source to the rescue.
Open source software like WordPress has been a godsend in this environment, not least because educators don't need to have a budget to deploy it. With a little help, they can modify it to support their teaching. The problem is that most of these platforms aren't designed for them, because there's no way for revenue to flow to the developers. (Even when educators use specialist hosting providers like Reclaim Hosting - which I am a huge fan of - no revenue makes its way to the application developers in an open source model.) Instead, they take platforms like WordPress, modify them, and are saddled with the maintenance burden for the modifications, minus the budget. While this may support teaching in the short-term, there's little room for long-term strategy. The result, once again, can be poor user experience and security risks. Most importantly, educators run the risk of fitting their teaching around available technology, rather than using technology to support their pedagogy. Teaching and learning should be paramount.
As Audrey Watters recently pointed out, education has nowhere near enough criticism about the impact of technology on teaching.
So where does this leave us?
We have a tangle of problems, including but not limited to:
- Educators can't acquire software to support their teaching
- Startups and developers can't make money by selling software that supports teaching
- Institutions aren't good at making software
- Existing educational software costs a fortune, has bad user experience and doesn't support teaching
I am the co-founder and CEO of a startup that sells its product to higher education institutions. I have skin in this game. Nonetheless, let's remove "startups" from the equation. There is no obligation for educational institutions to support new businesses (although they certainly have a role in, for example, spinning research projects into ventures). Instead, we should think about the inability of developers to make a living building software that supports teaching. Just as educators need a salary, so do the developers who make tools to help them.
When we remove startups, we also remove an interest in "disrupting" institutions, and locking institutions into particular kinds of technologies or contracts. We also remove a need to produce cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all software in order to scale revenue independently of production costs. In teaching, one size never fits all.
We also know that institutions don't have a lot of budget, and certainly can't support the kind of market-leading salaries you might expect to see at a company like Google or Facebook. The best developers, unless they're particularly mission-driven, are not likely to look at universities first when they're looking for an employer. The kinds of infrastructure that institutions use probably also don't support the continuous deployment, fail forward model of software development that has made Silicon Valley so innovative.
So here's my big "what if".
What if institutions pooled their resources into a consortium, similar to the Open Education Consortium (or, perhaps, Apereo), specifically for supporting educators with software tools?
Such an organization might have the following rules:
LMS and committee-free. The organization itself decides which software it will work on, based on the declared needs of member educators. Rather than a few large products, the organization builds lots of small, single-serving tools that do one thing well. Rather than trying to build standards ahead of time, compatibility between projects emerges over time by convention, with actual working code taking priority over bureaucracy.
Design driven. Educators are not software designers, but they need to be deeply involved in the process. Here, software is created through a design thinking process, with iterative user research and testing performed with both educators and students. The result is likely to be software that better meets their needs, released with an understanding that it is never finished, and instead will be rapidly improved during its use.
Fast. Release early, release often.
Open source. All software is maintained in a public repository and released under a very liberal license. (After all, the aim here is not to receive a return on investment in the form of revenue.) One can easily imagine students being encouraged to contribute to these projects as part of their courses.
A startup - but in the open. The organization is structured like a software company, with the same kinds of responsibilities. However, most communications take place on open channels, so that they can at least be read by students, educators and other organizations that want to learn from the model. The organization has autonomy from its member institutions, but reports to them. In some ways, these institutions are the VC investors of the organization (except there can never be a true "exit").
A mandate to experiment. The aim of the organization is not just to experiment with software, but also the models through which software can be created in an academic context. Ideally, the organization would also help institutions understand design thinking and iterative design.
There is no doubt that institutions have a lot to gain from innovative software that supports teaching on a deep level. I also think that well-made open source software that follows academic values rather than a pure profit motive could be broadly beneficial, in the same way that the Internet itself has turned out to pretty good thing for human civilization. As we know from public media, when products exist in the marketplace for reasons other than profit, it affects the whole market for the better. In other words, this kind of organization would be a public good as well as an academic one.
How would it be funded? Initially, through member institutions, perhaps on a sliding scale based on the institution's size and public / private status. I would hope that over time it would be considered worthy of federal government grants, or even international support. However, just as there's no point arguing about academic software standards on a mailing list for years, it's counter-productive to stall waiting for the perfect funding model. It's much more interesting to just get it moving and, finally, start building software that help teachers and students learn.