Author Archives: Damian Saccocio

Reading Assignment: The Future of (MIT) Education

If you have completed all your summer reading books, or even if you haven’t, an important addition to your list is the final report from MIT’s Task Force on the Future of Education.  As with many committee reports the news is not so much in the newness of the ideas but in who is saying it.  In this case the report presents 16 specific recommendations for consideration.  Many are internally focused and fairly specific to MIT.   However most could be applied or at least usefully considered at any institution of advanced training — whether a traditional university, a corporate training campus, or perhaps an industry association.

Modularity is an important theme through much of the report.  In terms of pedagogy, the authors noted new digital technologies make possible an unbundling of the traditional model of providing higher education with key benefits in the areas of flexibility, connectedness, contextualization, and assessment.  A hybrid or blended model of online and traditional learning models they felt could offer many promising avenues worthy of exploration and experimentation.    Importantly, however, the report stresses that technology should follow and support the values and principles of the institution —  good advice for all of us.

I particularly liked the important role community played throughout the report.  Online learning can be isolating if taken out of context and done without the benefit of peers looking to solve the same or similar problems.  Thoughtful strategies include forming student cohorts that progress through online learning experience roughly synchronously.  Setting context within social, global, science, and technology frameworks leads naturally to identifying communities of interest which, of course, have long been a fundamental motivation for individuals getting online.

There is much to consider in the report but one last item to which I would draw your attention would be a pragmatic issue repeated several times in the report:

To achieve this kind of fluidity and malleability in learning, the Task Force recommends exploring options for establishing a module repository. To support student selection of  modules, there must be some mechanism for storing and curating the content. Whether  through tags or filters, a simple but effective repository would allow students and  educators to identify and utilize the modules that best meet their needs. (p. 14)

As much as digital tools and services are increasingly recognized as likely to change the face of education across the board, there are  basic foundational digital building blocks that need to be established in a thoughtful manner — among the most important and readily started are curated repositories of learning modules.  I would only add based on my decades of experience with online media, that such repositories should be tightly and integrated with appropriate learning and teaching interactive communities so as to become truly dynamic, timely, and constantly renewed source of content and data.



Content Management Goes to School

By now Content Management Systems (CMS) are well established in most corporate environments — especially those heavily regulated such as transportation, energy, and legal verticals.  Firms whose product is content have also invested heavily in CMS though typically these systems are optimized for rich media management which brings with it special challenges associated with video and image files.

Today another major content industry, higher education, is on the road to widespread adoption of media management systems.  The benefits of being able to quickly find, view, and understand usage rights to large archives of digital media optimized for integration into courses is increasingly being recognized — not by CIO’s but by course instructors who increasingly rely upon digital material in-class and out-of-class.  As a professor myself, I know I greatly prefer re-use of existing high quality content as opposed to trying to create everything from scratch.  Content management systems can help greatly in easing the discovery, access, and re-use of such content.

Of course existing Learning Management Systems already do incorporate content management to some extent.  However the paradigm has been courses and the major feature driver is automation and administration not rich media management.  Also major publishers are now extending their extensive investments in content management outside their corporate boundaries as learning platforms onto which professors and students can pull and push content.

The important new development however is that today faculty are creating a much stronger pull for sophisticated content management systems.  Software vendors and publishers efforts are now part of increasingly broad content management ecosystem that also includes robust and sophisticated digital media management systems from the open-source communities such as DSpace, Fedora, and Hydra.

To be clear content management systems are just part of the equation. Learning is not just about consuming well managed content (as the IBM White Paper highlighted in our “Noteworthy” section to the right speaks to very well).  It’s always been about students creating, sharing, and discussing content — that today much of this can be done increasingly online provides many more options for students, professors, and learning stakeholders like companies and governments.  As such if your institution has not already invested in a shared platform for content and media management, now is a terrific time to get started.

Nanodegrees: A Better Bridge Between Education and Jobs?

There has been a rapid increase in the number and diversity of high quality skills training courses and programs available from new generation online providers.  While their business models vary, the rapidly improving polish and quality of the user experiences of many of these offerings attest, at least in part, to their ability attract impressive financial support (e.g., Udemy raised $32M in May and Lynda landed over $100M in 2013).

This segment of the education sector continues to attract a great deal of attention from early stage capital sources (see, for example, this terrific interactive graphic the folks at Marketplace put together to help convey the amount and areas of recent financial investments in the sector).

Udacity has also entered this segment of the education sector with a newly launched initiative dubbed “Nanodegrees.”   Udacity has teamed with companies to develop programs of online study to suit two groups of customers: individuals looking for training to get a job, and companies looking for talented workers with specific skill sets.     Initial reaction has been generally positive as seen in this glowing assessment published by the NYT.

I took the opportunity of a two-week no-risk trial offer from Udacity to take a test ride on one of their partner company offerings.  The specific course I surveyed was on Hadoop (a popular open source software framework developed specifically for distributed computing environments).  The content production values were high but the content itself seemed to still be a work in progress (there were, in fact, a large number of comments complaining about the cost of the course compared to similar offerings).  I suspect the partner company and Udacity will readily address these issues as the overall platform and surrounding services are impressive.

These new generation enterprises compete with — and are pushing — a host of traditional occupational training providers such as training institutes, community colleges, professional societies, and trade associations.   Traditional occupational educational enterprises have been offering short-form job-oriented educational programs and credentials for decades and may soon be re-branding these as nanodegrees.

Regardless of who wins, this digital gold rush in occupational and professional education seems certain to build more and better bridges between education and jobs.   I am hopeful that the innovation inherent in a next generation approach to a long-standing challenge will result in rapid improvement in the coming years.


Arizona State and Starbucks in Pathbreaking Educational Benefits Deal

Arizona State University (ASU) is taking a page from the playbook of University of Maryland University College (UMUC). While there seems to be a Starbucks coffee shop on every corner, the U.S. military services are still larger employers of young Americans without a college education. UMUC has grown to be the largest online educational enterprise in the world (261,000 online course enrollments in 2013) providing degrees and transferable credits to U.S. active duty personnel, many of whom earn credit for courses while posted overseas.

Many private employers offer undergraduate tuition support programs but the trend has been to support education which is related to improving job performance.  The approach that Starbucks is taking stands out because any of Starbucks 135,000 U.S. employees working at least 20 hours per week can get generous tuition support to take courses and earn degrees in any of ASU’s 40 online degree areas.  Having said that, the Starbucks program has important qualifiers — in particular, reimbursements are provided in increments of 21 credit hours such that a student must pay ASU and complete those credits before receiving the reimbursement (see Starbuck’s own material for more details).

The collaboration between Starbucks and ASU Online will not reach the numbers of young people that UMUC does (ASU estimates 15,000 to 20,000 students per year) but this could presage a fundamental and important shift in access to higher education. 
While it’s too early to claim success, Starbucks deserves credit for being innovative. Before today young Americans who needed a job with deep and broad educational benefits to afford a college education had only a few choices, the U.S. military first among them.  UMUC has shown that online delivery of low-cost-per-credit-hour higher education to working adults is a sustainable business model for a university. If other large private employers join Starbucks, and other universities join ASU and UMUC, we may see higher education benefits rivaling health care benefits as a deal closer for the best young employees.

Global Online Higher Ed: Matching Content with Demand

Outside the United States the demand for post-secondary education is at an all-time high. Rapid population growth in Asia, coupled with the need for a increasingly skilled workforce throughout the developing world, has created tremendous demand for high quality technical training and education.   Major vendors  such as Cisco, Microsoft, and SAP have long targeted global communities with their online training and certificate programs.  More recently, much of the growth at online video skills and training providers such as Udemy and Lynda has been from abroad.  And the major MOOC platforms, edX and Coursera, have reported that more than half their registrants are from outside the United States.

Taken together these courses and content create, to be sure, a wholly new level of interactive training available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.  However the developing world also needs is not commodity content, even high quality content, but customized curricula — specifically scalable, consistently produced online courses that target and complement local universities in the developing world. MOOCs as delivered today, are generally not credit-bearing and, for the time being, fairly arbitrary in their offerings. There is no obligation to offer either a particular course or set of courses on a regular basis. Thus, despite the rich offering of courses, it is difficult to build a curriculum for certificates or degrees.

Custom Course Development and Supply: A Viable Business Model Still Needed

The supplying institutions for the most popular of the online offerings today — those that are free — all are top tier vendors and institutions with healthy balance sheets.  Vendors do so because a large pool of talent familiar with their platforms is strategically important.  Universities that can afford to produce top tier MOOCs are mostly doing so from a marketing angle.

Courses and programs that address region specific problems and opportunities are few and far between. The main reason is that to date there is still no widely accepted business model that supports the development of such custom content at scale.

Unfortunately we believe that truly achieving the revolution in higher education scalable online courses enable will not happen until such a business model is established.  Institutions, departments, and subject matter experts supplying courses must benefit financially on the one side while acquiring institutions must receive access to very high quality targeted curricula on the other.

A Budding Marketplace for Courses and Curricula

The essential economics of the model should be based on matching the supply of courses with large-, but not necessarily massive-, scale demand. Clearly, by serving a larger number of students, course providers can benefit from economic efficiencies and lower per-student costs, which in turn allows for lower tuition per student enrolled—interestingly, these efficiencies begin not at 50,000 or 100,000 students, but instead at 500 and 1,000.

Such a business model is predicated on the basic notion that the entity producing the course need not be the same entity that delivers or certifies the course — known as “unbundling” of higher education. Accepting this basic notion will allow an institution to focus on producing scalable online courses, while a different university acquires and uses these courses as part of their curriculum. The latter might certify or credential the students, or a third party or employer might provide the credentialing. This approach goes a long way to addressing reputational and brand concerns that will almost certainly be among the largest early roadblocks raised within potential partner content-providing educational institutions.

Emerging Now: A Business Model for Scalable Online Course

All successful marketplaces need a clear and sustainable business model. That is the case here. Scalable online courses have the potential to support real and substantial revenues and, in doing so, create a foundation for long-term success benefitting not just providers but acquiring institutions as well.

Damian Saccocio