How to enter the Impenetrable Forest of Doom and live to tell about it

When it comes to education, every new year brings out the forecaster in us. In case you haven’t heard, this is the year of the massively open online course, the MOOC. It’s also the year of the iPad educational app. And it’s also the year of gamefication.

You almost have to envy the ancient Greek Erythraean Sibyl. All she had to do was decipher an acrostic in a set of oak leaves to predict the divine parentage of Alexander the Great. Education seers today are learning that their predictions increasingly depend on a more complex oracle known as “big data” — a collection of metrics so information-rich that it requires cognitive computing systems to analyze it. But if we prognosticators speak without understanding how students make decisions, memorize, pay attention and engage in many other individual and interactive learning behaviors, we will be hard-pressed to predict with any accuracy what pedagogies and technologies will bring about the desired result — whatever that may be.

Lest you throw your hands up at the hugeness of our prediction conundrum, we want to mention what we already know about the very near future of the education marketplace, or, as we call it, the Impenetrable Forest of Doom.

Like many of us, we grew up loving video games.  The Legend of Zelda was a big favorite. Like all the games we got obsessed with, winning meant entering into a fantastical world, overcoming obstacles and attacks, liberating an unfairly imprisoned royal and bringing order to a chaotic universe. This gaming paradigm is more or less the one we turn to whenever we talk about conquering the equally labyrinthine education “ecosystem” — a world every bit as formidable as Zelda’s.

As with Zelda’s world, the education ecosystem is made up of many disparate constituencies and topographies. The customers for our textbooks and learning systems are spread across the immense Impenetrable Forest of Doom — “IFOD” — in K-12, colleges and universities. Most of the ivies and quite a few state schools are “Level 1” in difficulty to reach. Meaning, textbook publishers know who they are. In fact, publishers see them as low-hanging fruit. But what about the schools in Paragould, Arkansas, and Victorville, California, “settlements” deep in the interior of IFOD? If you are a textbook publisher and you do not have a sales force in the hundreds, if not thousands, you are only circling the perimeter of IFOD — and leaving innumerable opportunities unseized.

So, the first problem the education entrepreneur encounters is distribution. Even if you have a pretty good idea of who constitutes your customer base — and that’s a big “if” — can you afford to send your sales force out to meet with everyone in it?

At least two problems can arise when you have this kind of spotty customer base:

+ You are reluctant to make intellectual and capital investments in a product with a profit margin that remains relatively small because you can’t actually sell enough of your product. Moreover, you can’t modify it to satisfy the unique requirements defined by fifty different state educational systems.

+ You produce products that do not address core education issues but opt instead to create generic training programs common to large organizations. Instead of developing content that teaches students how to write computer code, interpret “Huckleberry Finn,” and solve problems in English, history, math and physics, you sell programs that train employees to avoid sexual harassment or to use their 401K plans. At best you are able to sell productivity tools to school systems that automate the rote tasks associated with teaching math and science.

McGraw Hill has several popular products that fall into this latter category. For teachers a tool like Connect reduces the amount of unproductive time spent grading tests or worksheets. For students a tool like LearnSmart aids in memorizing mathematical formulas or foreign languages. For teachers and students, Tegrity records lectures and make them available online for curriculum enhancement and self-paced learning. All of these tools are built at great cost and address tactical issues. And they fall short of employing technology as we dream it might be used: To help students learn how to live and work in a world with an infinite number of urgent problems waiting to be solved. Producing an online learning curriculum involves bringing together good content, effective pedagogy and a seamless technology in a way that does not now exist at any scale.

As they say in Maine, “How do we get there from here?”

Part of the answer lies in offering content developers an open platform where they can create education applications that work with everything: Your iPad, iPhone, Android device, laptop and any other digital devices you own. An open software system, which would let developers write code that other developers could modify, would accomplish at least three things. It would:

+ Offer gifted developers a way to distribute their education apps into every corner of IFOD.

+ Give education publishers profitable channels whereby they could sell into IFOD.

+ Enable an education-focused technology that has the potential to reach students, teachers, administrators and standards boards virtually anywhere in the world.

We don’t want you to conclude that McGraw Hill alone has overcome the problems that are hampering the growth of this open platform. We have the same legacy systems and technology islands that bedevil just about every company whose name isn’t Facebook or Google. It’s going to be a financial and IT feat to build out this open platform, but without it, education entrepreneurs will never jump off of “Level 1.”

We’ve got to figure how to move up to Level 10 — by which time we will have grown our customer base and developed robust educational offerings supported by big data analysis.

That’s our prediction for 2013.

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