Sunday, June 26, 2016

What does Brexit mean for EdTech?

I know of four successful EdTech entrepreneurs who voted for Brexit. Surprised? Maybe not! I was one of them. Steve Rayson, another, made the point that people in this position like to do detailed analysis, weigh up the risks and make their choice. We were not swayed by Boris and co, and tended to see this as a long-term play, not a proxy general Election. Steve's point was that we are not scared of risk. We rehearsed the arguments openly, online, over several months and made up our minds. For all of us, I suspect, it was marginal. There was also some reflection around what it means for our sector.
The Brexit vote has produced lots of angst around business. Die-hard anti-capitalists have suddenly found a new interest in the stock market and currency trading. They worry about tariffs and trade deals. But for those of us who have been travelling and trading abroad for many years, it’s not such a great problem.
1. Addressable markets
EdTech companies tend to look towards the English speaking market – the US, Australia etc, for the obvious reason that we speak the same language. The EU market is linguistically diverse, compared to the largest, single EdTech market in the world, the US. This is why investment money tends to look for UK companies with a US angle. Content, technology and services are always easier to deliver in one language. Indeed, if one were to look for new, hgh growth markets, it’s not Europe but the US, Middle and Far East that you would turn. So in terms of growth, it’s business as usual.
2. M&A
Most of the M&A business is not investments from Europe or in European entities but in the US, Australia and elsewhere. Similarly, a lot of investment is to and from the US. This has been true for decades and is unlikely to be much affected by Brexit. Every single deal I've been involved in over the last ten years has had nothing to do with Europe.
3. Services
There are no tariffs on services, so it will not make much difference. At present, few in EdTech experience any real differences between selling to EU and other countries. If anything, Ireland, which is in the EU, is the most difficult, as they subtract tax at source, which has to be reclaimed, with some difficulty. So no difference here.
4. Education is devolved
Education is a devolved responsibility in Europe. Pan-European attempts at integration and sharing, Bologna and many others, failed, as countries are, in reality, fiercely independent in education, with funding regimes that encourage institutions not to share students and qualifications. Being in or out, therefore, makes little or no difference.
5. Research
Little has emerged in EdTech from EU research funding. Many business people who have been involved in such projects complain about their bureaucratic and stifling nature and lack of impact. As they have had no significant impact, despite vast sums of money being spent, I don’t see this as something to worry about. Indeed, the country saves large sums if wasted research cash, rather than being spent on diffuse, collaborative, CityBreak research projects, get spent on closer working relationships between researchers and our own UK-based EdTech companies. The EdTech sector in the UK has not grown on the back of University research, it has grown through the efforts of investors, entrepreneurs and small businesses.
6. Outsourcing
Few outsource from the UK to EU countries, as Indian or other countries are cheaper, and often have higher level skills. Even if one does outsource to Eastern Europe, things are unlikely to change.
7. Data regulation
Benedict Evans thinks that the EU is moving towards heavyweight regulation around data (and AI) that will stifle technology company growth, leading to inaction by buyers. The UK has pushed back against this but have been outvoted Post-Brexit, the EU may get worse, while the UK remains relatively light in such over-bearing restrictions. Being out may be an advantage.
8. OER
Wikipedia, Duolingo, Khan Academy, MOOCs, and most successful OER projects, are largely international phenomena, not EU specific. Indeed, despite the huge spend in the EU, the most successful examples of OER seem to come from the US. One wonders whether the steady flow of annual grants has simply stifled innovation. I suspect so.
9. Currency
This is a swings and roundabouts issue. A weak pound makes things difficult if you’re buying from abroad but also makes you cheaper and more competitive to those abroad. As our EdTech industry is a net exporter, this is fine.
10. Education
I covered this in another post but some analysis of the effects of Brexit on the education market as a whole, shows no real, significant change. When it comes to the ededucaytion market, the effects are insignificant.

So not much change then. If anything, a few advantages. One clear advantage for me, is that we’ll rely less on the crutches of EU grants and focus on real businesses and projects that effect real change in terms of better efficiency and outcomes in the EdTech sector. We have the largest and most successful EdTech market in Europe, it is more likely to grow as a result of this vote.

 Subscribe to RSS

Saturday, June 25, 2016

What does Brexit mean for education?

Education is a devolved issue in the EU, so the impact, in my view, will be negligible. Sure there will be adjustments, but that may, in some cases, be healthy.
1. Schools
Brexiters argued that there will be less pressure on schools, as there will be less EU migration in the future. This was one of the reasons so many voted for Brexit. They have a point as it is hard to see how there will be more pressure on schools because of Brexit. With other countries about to join, the number of children coming to the UK was set to increase year on year. EU teachers working here may be affected but that depends on what rules emerge and it is unlikely that qualified professionals will be much affected. Here’s some good news, Nicky Morgan was a fierce remain campaigner, so her tenure may be short - but who knows who we'll get next.
2. Private schools
Patrick Durham, speaking at the Festival of Education, thought that a number of private schools would have to close. Again, it’s hard to see why this would be the case. I think his case is exaggerated. There are about 5000 EU boarders in such schools and a cheaper pound will make their fees lower, attracting even more foreign boarders. There’s far more other nationalities, and let’s face it, this about making money. I’m not exactly crying in my soup over this one.
3. Language schools
This is big business but there’s little sign that the thirst for learning English will change. It may be a little more difficult to come here but a cheaper pound will more than compensate. For me, this will be business as usual.
4. Student fees
Curiously, EU students in Scotland will no longer be classed as home students, and will have to pay fees, allowing the Universities to recruit without a cap. The same is true in Northern Ireland and Wales, which also offer student support. However, there may be fewer EU students in the future as our Borders tighten. So there's a real downside here as well.
5. Research
Complex one this. As part of the £350 million per week we pay (Gross figure before rebate - I know) to the EU, a large portion comes back to us as University research money. We will, in effect, simply be able to pay this direct. It will be under out control, not the agenda of a diffuse set of 28 states. This is generally true of all sources of EU research funding. It’s was never free money in the first place. It means, in effect, that we will have total control.
6. Research quality
One could argue that, free from the constraints of EU research criteria around collaborative participation, the quality of research will rise. I am in that camp. I have witnessed decades of wasted research in my field, in collaborative projects, with lots of meetings in nice European cities but little or no impact outcomes. EU quango have arisen with little of no real value. So we may see a reduction in wasted research, allowing us to focus on the stuff that matters.
7. Vocational learning
The one area that may suffer is vocational education. However, this may, like research money, simply be a case of money that we paid out coming back to us. Indeed, as we move towards a levy-funded apprenticeship model (April 2017), we will be funding this sensibly from employers. Nick Bowles did say that this may have to be delayed if we vote to leave and we did. However, these threats were ten-a-penny during the campaign. The EU was always skewed towards academic HE and not vocational. This has been catastrophic in southern Europe, with huge levels of youth and graduate unemployment. Vocational was always more of a national than international issue and as we rebalance the academic and vocation mixture, it is arguable that we will become more competitive in the long run.

Turns out to be not so bad after all. Win some, we lose some.

 Subscribe to RSS

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

10 amazing ways Blockchain could be used in education

Blockchain. What is it? Can it be used in education? In 2001 I designed and implemented a Napster-like system that distributed learning content across a network, for non-competing public sector bodies, with no central control. Everyone who created content could share it. It didn’t work because, despite being non-competitors, the public sector organisations just didn’t like innovation and stuck to their institutional silos. They stuck to their old ways – the massive duplication of content and no sharing, which is as true today as it was then. The same, I fear, could happen to Blockchain technology. But let's explore its potential.
What is it?
This is the tech that gave us Bitcoin. It is a distributed database, spread across many computers with no central control. Each ‘block’ is transparent but tamper-proof. Every ‘block has a timestamp for recording transactions and offers indelible proof of all transactions. Rather than relying on third parties, it's a frictionless method for transacting with others.
Who can use it?
Single institutions, groups of institutions, national bodies, international bodies… anyone who wants to securely store and make available to others, educational data that matters, could consider using blockchain technology.
Why does it matter?
As education becomes more diversified, democratised, decentralised and disintermediated, we still need to maintain reputation, trust in certification and proof of learning. The increased focus on relevance and employability may also push us in this direction, as we also need more transparency. Blockchain could provide just such a system. A massive open, online, secure database.
How can it be used?
1. Single institution
One school, Holburton School, in San Fransisco, a software school that offers project based education as an alternative to college courses, has already used blockchain to store and deliver issued certificates. It’s seen as a measure to stop fake certification. The encryption and 2 factor authentification, is used to create, sign-off and place the certificate into the blockchain database. They still give students paper copies but the DCN is a number that allows authentification by employers. I can see their point as it gives employers the idea that this school certainly knows its stuff on IT. MIT are doing similar things, as are the University of Nocosia.
2. Groups of institutions
As educational institutions cluster and co-operate, the need for shared repositories of certification and achievement become real. It may be a group of universities, such a Delft, EPFL, Boston, ANU and UBC, who recently formed a codeshare-like agreement on certification. It may be affiliated organisations that form a global alliance. It may be a global group of schools. Whatever the constellation of institutions or bodies, blockchain gives them a cheap, shared resource.
3. National blockchain database
Education is curiously nationalistic. Even in the EU it is a devolved issue. But within a nation, there is a great need for a shared approach to the range of credentials that are being produced at all levels in the system; schools, colleges, universities, institutes, examination boards, trade associations, employers and so on. There is a real need for something that sits above them all. That solution could be blockchain technology.
4. Global assessment
The current system of certification is not really fit for purpose. A paper system is subject to loss, even fraud. With an increasingly mobile population of students and workers, a centralised database of credentials and achievements makes sense, whether you’re moving to another educational institution, new job, new country, even a refugee who has no copy of their degree. Some sort of secure, online repository would be helpful. You can see, through this need, why assessment is the first thing that comes to mind for blockchain. At present, it’s a mess, waiting to be cleared up by a smart operator. One player is Sony Global Education, who have a platform, using blockchain, to house assessment scores. They want schools and universities to use the service, so that individuals can share such data with third parties, such as employers, LinkedIn etc. Their aim is to offer a global service.
5. Blockchain and badges
So let’s up the stakes, with a wider initiative around Open badges. Open Badges gather evidence for credentials. What better than a tamper-proof system for the storage of such credentials? If a blockchain system can offer a massive way to deal with authentic accreditation, then the problems of openness, scale and cost for badges disappears. See Doug Belshaw’s blog. To see how open badge chains can be converted to blockchain, see Serge Ravet’s blog. MIT have been using Bitcoin blockchain for certification and have open sourced their code.
6. Blockchain and MOOCs
Interestingly, there’s a MOOC on Bitcoin and blockchain, by Princeton University, on Coursera. Despite the carping, people keep on making and taking MOOCs. They are genuinely changing the way education is delivered and acting as a real catalyst for change, forcing Universities into a rethink. Yet the certification issue remains a little vague. Each separate MOOC provider issues certificates. With some imagination the real demand for MOOCs could be boosted by secure certification. This could be agreement among the major MOOC providers. It could even open up MOOC certification for actual degrees. MOOCs are about decentralisation and widening access, so there’s every reason to suppose that they will want to decentralise and increase access to their certification.
7. CPD
Always a problem, CPD is difficult to deliver, often fragmented and poorly tracked. Imagine a blockchain system that really does do this within a profession, taking issued CPD data from conference attendance, courses and other forms of learning. Teachers and other professionals could have inputs from trusted providers and be incentivised to do more CPD, if those experiences and learning opportunities were securely stored in a reputable system.
8. Corporate learning
Companies deliver huge amounts of training to their employees but storing achievement is not easy. Current Learning Management System and Talent management System technology, SCORM et al, is a bit old and tired. What is needed is a more open but secure system, for use not only internally but by the employee if they leave.
9. Apprenticeships
Vocational education is now big business as governments around the world recognise the folly of relying too heavily on purely academic institutions to deliver post-school education. In the UK, there will be 3 million apprenticeships, funded through a levy on payroll. It’s a complex business as employers will play a stronger role in their management and delivery. But how do we manage the process and certification? Blockchain is a real possibility, a centralised but neatly distributed national database for the authentification of process and certification.
10. Bodies of knowledge
This one’s more obscure, but imagine something like Wikipedia or Khan Academy, academic journals, OER, even research bodies, issuing proof of learning from their systems. Thanks to John Helmer for the idea of authenticating identity for access to subscription-controlled, academic content from libraries. Current systems (Open Athens, Shibboleth) use centralised ledgers and are seriously dysfunctional. Blockchain could be used here to provide a more robust authentication infrastructure.

Blockchain could be used for a myriad of learning experiences from different sources. This requires a small transaction model and could be where xAPI comes in handy. It stands for ‘eXperience API' and can be used to gather evidence from micro-learning experiences. It is open source, the natural successor to SCORM and stores data in Learning Record Stores. This seems like a natural route to the use of blockchain. There is also the easy use of micropayments in learning. Traditional financial transactions use expensive third parties, who charge fees. Blockchain allows free transactions between parties. This could open up micropayments for the use of educational resources, courses etc. All in all, it frees up the system, makes it more open and flexible. And who would argue that this is not a good thing?
Blockchain is a piece of technology. It clearly has applications in the world of learning, at the individual, institutional, group, national and international levels; in all sorts of contexts – schools, colleges, Universities, MOOCs, CPD, corporates, apprenticeships and knowledge bases.
Rather than the old hierarchical structures, the technlogy becomes the focus, with trust migrating towards the technology, not the institutions. This really is a disintermediation technology. TTraditionally institutions have been the source of trust, Universities, for example, are trusted brands. In finance, banks exist to enact the transaction, so blockchain really can disnitermediate. But in education there needs to be trust beyond the technology. We are looking, I think, at a hybrid model, not a wholescale takeover by blockchain. Reputation will still matter and that comes through professional teachers, research reputation and so on. This is not to say that this cannot be done with blockchain, as one could imagine a sort of web of teachers and learners that simply use blockchain to cut out institutions. This, in my view, is not impossible, but it is unlikely.
And blockchain is not without its problems. There’s data regulation issues and the fact that $500 million disappeared from one of Bitcoin’s exchanges. The US authorities also had to close down a drug dealing exchange, the Silk Road. But is does merit some serious consideration.

Yet the biggest obstacle to its use is cultural. Education is a slow learner and very slow adopter. Despite the obvious advantages, it will be slow to adapt this technology, as most of the funding and culture is centred around the individual institution. Bologna was dead on the day it was signed, as nobody wanted to lose their students and suffer financially. So the source for change will have to come from elsewhere. Then one thing I do know, is that students are doing it for themselves. Check out BEN, the Blockchain Educational Network, a grassroots student-organised movement. This will come from left of field, like Bitcoin.

 Subscribe to RSS

Data analytics in HE – 7 examples of why the real data is ignored

Everywhere I go these days there’s a Data Analytics’ initiative. They’re collecting data like kids at a wedding scatter; data at the organisational level, data at the course level, data at the student level. But it’s trainspotting and all very ‘groupthinky’. They’re gathering the wrong data on the wrong things, as the things that really matter are awkward and uncomfortable. Worse still, there’s perhaps a wilful avoidance of the prickly data, data that really could lead to decisions and change. So let’s look at seven serious areas where data should be gathered but is not.
1. University rankings data
These must go down as the most obvious example of the ‘misuse’ of data in HE.
There are many uncomfortable truths about the data con that is University rankings. It’s a case study in fraudulent data analytics. Universities play the game by being selective about what ranking table they choose, bait and switch by pretending the rankings reflect teaching quality (when they don’t), ignore the fact that they’re qualitative, self-fulfilling ratings that often compare apples with oranges. Even worse, they skew strategies, spending and agendas, while playing to crude marketing strategies.  Will HE stop playing fast and loose with this data. Not a chance.
2. Data on pay differentials
Want to be ethical on data collection? That’s fair. So let’s look at the salaries across the organisation and work out the differential between those at the top and the bottom? Now look at how that range has widened, not narrowed. Senior academic staff pay is rising three times faster than other academics, especially those of Vice-Chancellors (and that’s not counting the perks). Average pay for senior staff is £82,321. average pay for non-professorial staff is $43,327. We have this data – it’s damning. Are senior academics robbing other academics blind? Yes. Will any decisions be made? No.
3. Data on pensions
Forget the astonishing data point that cancer Researchers among others invested £211 million in British American Tobacco last year. The Universities Superannuation Scheme is the UKs largest private sector scheme with a whopping £57 billion of liabilities and an £8 billion deficit. At present, the pension payments are nowhere near filling in this hole. Why? It would wipe out the surpluses of many Universities across the land. It’s a badly run scheme and there is little chance that the hole will be filled. The consequences, however, are severe. It is likely that costs will rise and that student fees will rise. Not good news.
4. Data on researchers as teachers
You would like to know whether researchers make good teachers? But what if the data suggests this may not be true. Teaching skills demand social skills, communication skills, the ability to hold an audience, keep to the right level, avoid cognitive overload, good pedagogic skills and the ability to deliver constructive feedback. Some contend that the personality types necessary for teaching are very different and, statistically, do not largely match those of researchers. So what about the evidence? The major research and text is Astin, who studied longitudinal data on 24,847 students at 309 different institutions and the correlation between faculty orientation towards research and student/teaching orientation. The two were strongly negatively correlated. The student orientation was also negatively related to compensation. He concludes that “there is a significant institutional price to be paid, in terms of student development, for a very strong faculty emphasis on research” and recommends stronger leadership to rebalance the incentives and time spent on teaching v research. To be fair, academics are now largely judged on research not teaching. Too much effort in teaching can hamper your career. It rarely enhances your prospects. The dramatic swing away from teaching towards research was tracked by Boyer who identified year on year abandonment of teaching commitment towards research. However, it wouldn’t matter how much data we collected on this topic, the Red Sea has a greater chance of parting than this separation.
5. Data on Journals
More Journals, more papers, fewer readers. Good data on actual citation rates and readers are hard to come by. The famous Indiana figure of 90% remaining unread has been refuted but other sources show that, although it’s not that awful, it’s still pretty awful. This is a pretty good state of play paper, as it’s a complicated issue – but nevertheless worrying. We really should be concerned as the push towards research (data suggests lots of it is 2nd and 3rd rate as unread), away from teaching may be doing the real harm in HE. We simply don’t know, nor do we dare ask. 
6. Data on lecture attendance
Let’s start with a question. Do you record (accurately and consistently), the number if students who attend lectures? If the answer is NO, don’t even pretend that you’re off the block on data analytics on teaching. A recent study from Harvard, over ten courses, showed that only 60% of students on average even turned up. In any other area of human endeavour, when one has paid tens of thousands of dollars up front for high-quality teaching this came as a shock. Similar studies show similar results in other institutions. If you were running a restaurant, and 40% of your students were not turning up to lectures (often it’s a lot worse) you’d seriously question your ability, not only as a chef, but also a restaurant owner. Remember that students have paid for the meal, through the nose, and if they aren’t turning up, something’s wrong. So, I have the data that students are not turning up to lectures, what do I do with that data? Nothing – we’ll still call ourselves ‘lecturers’ and lecture on.
Suppose I also show you data that says students, especially those struggling, with English as a second language and so on, benefit from recorded lectures. You’d seriously consider recording your lectures. My point is that collecting data is unlikely to change anything other than dig deeper holes, if you’re not asking the right questions and taking action.
7. Data on assessment
Take assessment. What data do you have on this? The grades for the occasional essay? This is not big data, it’s not even little data, it’s back of an envelope data. Student submits essay, waits weeks for a grade and some light feedback – too late. Why bother? The problem is the method of assessment. Will this change – no. What you really need at this level is constant data from regular low stakes testing. Not only is this proven to increase retention and recall, you know where students are in terms of progress. Here’s a tougher question? Do you really know how many essays submitted by students are written by others? And by others, I mean parents, or essay mills? Look at the number of these companies and their accounts. That’s interesting data. Why will this not happen? Because there’s reputations at risk, pesky journalists to appease.

Henry Ford famously said that if he had gathered data from his customers, they’d have asked for faster horses. Actually, he said no such thing, but what do we care in education, a good quote is good data, and it captures exactly what is happening with data analytics in HE. Data is not the new oil in education. Data is the new slurry. Dead pools of lifeless, inert stuff that ends up in unread and unloved reports. By going for low relevance data, in areas that are less than critical, it’s wilful avoidance of the real issues. It gives the illusion of problem solving and neatly avoids the hard and often detailed decisions that have to be made around cultural and fiscal change.

 Subscribe to RSS