Monthly Archives: June 2014

Health Professions Post-Degree Education Moves Deeper Online

The Khan Academy, which dominates K-12 test prep education with high-quality free content, is moving into professional test preparation with the launch of a set of lessons for future nurses.   In this case the Khan Academy’s signature video tutorials (voice over hand drawn graphics) were produced in collaboration with the Jonas Center and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. The material available online includes 158 sample questions from the national licensing exam for nurses.

In many professions and occupations, there are three major segments of the post-degree education industry: 1) preparing for registration or certification exam; 2) continuing education required to maintain certification or registration; and 3) learning to augment or expand professional competence.

Sometimes the learning even overlaps, serving multiple purposes.

Online educational technologies — fielded by professional associations, non-profit colleges and universities, and for-profit companies — already have made significant inroads in all three segments.   For example, you can get online test prep for the architect registration exam from the Funkaar Institute, earn required continuing medical education credits online from Radiology Society of North American, or turn to Udacity for an online nanodegree if you want to develop the iOs application designer skills to get a job with AT&T.

Online post-degree education is particularly important in the health fields as professionals are increasingly shifting away from participation in conferences and seminars and toward online programs.  A 2012 survey found that 97% of clinicians were planning to either increase or maintain their participation in online continuing education programs during the next year.

This is much needed.  According to an Institute of Medicine study, a disorganized and fragmented system of continuing education providing offerings of varying quality plays a big role in the fact that the professional health workforce in the United States is not consistently prepared to provide high quality health care or assure patient safety.  Today, health professions continuing education is delivered by a patchwork of providers in many different formats, sponsored by hospitals, medical and other health professions schools, managed care organizations and professional societies, and often funded by the pharmaceutical industry.

New technologies and forms of knowledge organization provide a unique opportunity to improve post-degree education, to reach new users, and to allow providers to develop content-based brand and visibility.  A wealth of content already exists in not-for-profit health universities, professional societies, and for-profit training companies.   The online challenge in health professional education is to augment and convert content into new formats to draw users and enhance outcomes such that the health care workforce is consistently prepared to provide high quality health care and assure patient safety.

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.

Authoring and Delivery of Online Lessons Becomes Easy

This summer Microsoft is rolling out an authoring and delivery tool, called Office Mix, that seems likely to drive down the cost of preparing online lessons and tutorials, and of building digital collections for education, decision support and knowledge management.  Office Mix extends Powerpoint 2013 (with the addition of a web camera) to enable users to create online course content in a process not unlike creating a Powerpoint presentation.   MS Office already runs on tens of millions of desktops, laptops and tablets worldwide.  If Mix succeeds, the dominant role of MS Office in word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations will likely extend into the preparation of tagged digital tutorial objects (online lessons).

Distribution is via a web-based viewer and does not require an Office installation.  Microsoft is providing a cloud repository and site for access, viewing, and analytics.  You can read more about the offering here:  and here:

The importance of Office Mix is that it will allow a much wider set of participants  to create online course content.  A module is essentially an online accessible Powerpoint file, that includes video commentary, inline quiz assessments, screen capture demonstrations as well as all existing Powerpoint animation and presentation options.  The ease of creation and distribution will make it much easier to create sets of digital learning objects for a wide range of topics, without the need to partner with a platform provider or invest in expensive video capture and presentation integration infrastructure.  We see huge potential applications in vocational education and on-demand decision support instruction.  Content creation can be by faculty or instructors, but can also extended to professional practitioners and other user-generated content sources.

We will be following the development and rollout of Office Mix closely, especially as regards cross-platform support and business models. Microsoft is providing the add-in and hosting for free at this time, but that may not last.

The Digital Gold Rush in Occupational Education and Services

The relatively low cost of developing and deploying occupation-specific digital collections, and related communities and services, has created a digital gold rush.  Content-rich enterprises such universities, professional societies, and publishers of reference works, manuals, and textbooks are moving to convert content to new platforms even as technology companies are rushing to generate and secure content that will draw users to their platforms and approaches.

The heart of occupational and professional education, and related information services, is that they provide carefully curated content and engage a dense community of users (students, members, users/readers) around occupation-specific knowledge.  Both traditional professional and occupational enterprises and new entrants see the mission and economic values of:

  • increasing the number of users, especially international users;
  • increasing the value delivered to users and thereby increasing the stickiness of their services;
  • creating new revenue streams both through the delivery of new services and by taking market share from competitor enterprises, many of which did not exist or directly compete in traditional markets for professional and occupational attention and dollars.

The opportunity for companies, educational enterprises, and professional societies is to use this new form of knowledge organization to aggressively develop markets with direct revenue and margin consequences and to develop content-based brand and visibility.   While every enterprise’s entry point will be different there are three main challenges in execution of an effective global strategy:

  • Establishing dynamic and growing occupation-specific communities in target occupations or professions;
  • Developing or acquiring and capturing occupation-specific knowledge management structures and digital collections; and
  • Establishing relationships with local, often face-to-face, providers of occupation-specific decision support and education in target markets.

The stakes in this gold rush are high.  Enterprises that establish effective global communities and collections can become a welcomed operational partner for national governments as well as for companies operating around the world.   The successful global community and collection can be the vehicle that brings high quality, interactive digital resources and materials to support regional educational institutions and individual learners in workforce-relevant tertiary education, as well as providing support for professionals in the field.

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

The New Architecture for Usable and Useful Knowledge

The emerging architecture of digitally published reference works, manuals, and textbooks changes the form, and what we expect, in accessing and using professional and occupational knowledge. New generation online knowledge sources are searchable and can present useful and usable knowledge in accessible tutorial format for education or decision support.

Because of the explosion of important occupational knowledge, in fields ranging from medicine to aircraft engine repair to designing a clinical drug trial, new architectures put a premium on technologies that a) help a user navigate the knowledge; and b) create a learning community and/or a community of practice around the knowledge.

The new architecture also allows a single digital collection of tutorial objects — linked to information sources outside the collection — to serve educational, decision support and knowledge management functions in a defined domain.

A Common Resource Can Serve Professional Education and Decision Support




Making Sense of Technology Strategy Choices for Online Education

The leadership of universities, companies, and government agencies know that online courses, digital course materials, and e-learning are the wave of the future.  For some institutions this wave of the future is a tsunami as the pace of innovation, and the resulting shifts in traditional organizational roles and boundaries, are breathtaking.  Common and important choices include:

Responding to changing expectations of learners. New technologies, particularly mobile internet access and search, are changing the way students and others learn. Learners increasingly expect digital, 24-7, just-in-time, and peer-to-peer enabled systems that present information tailored to their individual learning needs. Make sure your technology strategy choices address the needs and expectations of the individual learner as a priority.

Investing to increase the scope and effectiveness of educators. New technologies and digital publications can simultaneously scale an educator’s impact to more learners and make them more effective, delivering content and teaching that meet learners changing needs. Make sure your technology strategy choices: 1) enable the increasingly aggressive use of modularized digital, multimedia content; 2) support long-lived and transient learning communities; and 3) incorporate new generation adaptive learning technologies.

Making the most of content knowledge and pedagogical expertise. Individual experts, formal data repositories, and accidental archives of valuable information exist at universities, companies, and government agencies. As digital educational publishing technology advances we are seeing steep drops in the difficulty and expense of making this information accessible in tutorial form. At a wide range of public and private institutions, technology strategy choices can enable critical mission-supporting learner-oriented digital publication. This opportunity can be challenging for educational institutions, and is even more so for companies, government agencies, or civic institutions such as foundations or professional societies.

The success-limiting factor in these areas is not simply making the right technology choices, but rather selecting or developing a strategy that recognizes and effectively articulates the value proposition in digital educational publishing.

Making it New: “Take the map as an example….”

Take the map as an example. The print map has largely gone away…online mapping has become the norm. And in the process, the form of what we expect from maps has completely changed.

They [online maps] tell you where to go. They include directions. They tell you where the nearest gas station is or, if you’re using a location-based product, they tell you there’s a merchant nearby that has deals for you.

So the question we need to be asking ourselves about e-books is, are there similar transformations that we can expect in what we think of as the book?…That’s where the really interesting game is going to be played—in making it new.

Tim O’Reilly, Founder, O’Reilly Media, Forbes interview, March 25, 2011

Knowledge management, education, and decision support for professionals have been entwined with publishing since the early days of writing.  When the Babylonian King, Hammurabi, distributed multiple copies of his code of laws in about 1750 BC he was using then-modern publishing technology: cuneiform script pressed into clay tablets or carved on stone columns.

Given the limited literacy of population at the time, the publication of Hammurabi’s 282 laws covering criminal actions and punishments, as well as contract law, seems intended to educate government officials in the realm and provide them with accessible and authoritative support for their day-to-day decisions.

Today, printed reference works, operating manuals and textbooks for professional education and practice are rapidly giving way to searchable digital collections that include text, video, audio, special purpose calculators, simulations, and interactive data displays.

This transition is being driven a) by the need to manage and access rapidly increasing volumes of professional and occupational knowledge; and b) by a cluster of important innovations in digital publishing.

Innovations Supporting Next Generation Publishing for Education and Decision Support
(i.e., reference works, manuals and textbooks)


New generation reference works, manuals, and textbooks can be community-linked and interactive, and can easily deliver adaptive learning and search-and-recommend intelligence.  As such they will change the landscape of just-in-time information access, digital interactive learning, and decision support.  As Tim O’Reilly said, “That’s where the really interesting game is going to be played–in making it new.”