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Why Aren't There Any Next Gen Learning Platforms?

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The education sector is in the early stages of transitioning from learning management systems (LMS) to learning platform ecosystems. In fact, a lot of U.S. schools will skip the LMS phase and go straight from print to platform.

As noted last month, learning platforms will include these six core elements:

1. Standards-aligned libraries of open and proprietary content with search and content management tools

2. Social, collaborative, and productivity tools

3. Assessment tools and achievement analytics

4. Learner profiles and portfolios

5. Recommendation engines smart enough to build custom playlists

6. Assignment, matriculation, management, and motivational tools (e.g. achievement recognition systems, badges or other data visualization strategies)


Platforms will become ecosystems with a constellation of four aligned services:

1. Student services: tutoring, guidance, health, youth & family services

2. Teacher services: professional development, lesson & tool sharing

3. School services: implementation support, new school development, and school improvement; and

4. Back-office service: enrollment, finance, personnel, and facilities.


I'm going to keep repeating this 10 Element blueprint until there are several good examples of robust platforms with aligned services. But what's taking so long? Why is it taking so long to develop comprehensive platforms that blend the best of online and onsite learning and support personalized competency-based learning? There are a handful of reasons the K-12 sector is a decade behind:

  • Investment. There was a lack of post Internet-bubble edtech investment from 2001 to 2009 (see my review of a recent GSV report on capital flows ).
  • Unbundling. Good content is expensive and there are big costs in proprietary courseware that have delayed unbundling into objects and units that can be mixed and matched.
  • Tagging. The Common Core is helping to resolve the lack of unifying standards but we still need micro-standards for common tagging of assessment and content objects.
  • Business models. Content revenues are being compressed and it's not entirely clear what new business models will support ecosystems investments likely to cost hundreds of millions.
  • Procurement. Many K-12 school and system heads don't yet have a clear picture of the platform capabilities they want or the school models they will power. Slow adoption exacerbates the lack of business model clarity.
  • Access. Student access to Internet devices is still spotty and that hurdle delays the shift to digital instructional materials.
  • Invention. And, finally, we're still inventing the tool set and answering new Big Data questions. What belongs in a comprehensive student profile? What variables should guide recommendation engines? How should students demonstrate competency?


But signs of progress are everywhere you look, particularly (as Clayton Christensen suggested) around the edges. There are five evolving pathways of innovation leading to the development of learning platforms that will power personalized and competency-based environments.

Massive federal and private grants are attempting to accelerate progress toward the ecosystem vision. Race to the Top funded states have issued RFPs for comprehensive Instructional Improvement Systems. The envisioned capabilities of the North Carolina IIS are impressive. In a few weeks we'll see what kind of responses they get. The Shared Learning Collaborative is an ambitious effort to build an "integrated and scalable shared technology infrastructure that is sustainable, cost-effective, and highly responsive to teachers and learners". Frank Catalano provided a great update on the SLC on MindShift on Wednesday. Watch Guilford County Schools in 2013--they'll get a dose of NC IIS and SLC.

Learning management systems are being updated and new blended user interfaces are being created. Pearson launched GradPoint in April and featured it at ISTE last week. "GradPoint exemplifies one of the many ways that Pearson is delivering on the promise to leverage technology to transform learning and ensure that all students graduate prepared for success in college and career," said Peter Cohen, CEO, Pearson School. "Our new online learning platform will allow districts to affordably provide students with multiple options for personalized learning that will accelerate achievement -- all from one user-friendly interface."

The GradPoint announcement was interesting for several reasons. First, it's a mixture of Pearson content like NovaNet and licensed content from Florida Virtual and eDynamic. It targets blended settings and is designed to re-engage under-credited students. GradPoint, other BrainHoney powered platforms, and new comers like EdElements will be adopted. A Pearson exec said, "We believe that the BrainHoney LMS is ideally suited for the K-12 market with its rich features and ease-of-use."

When I met Agilix CEO Curt Allen in 2008, he was obviously mission-driven and learning-focused. He described the predecessor to Buzz, a mobile app that enables online and offline access to learning resources to be used Detroit this fall by the Education Achievement Authority. Having built Ancestry.com, he understands big data. BrainHoney has quietly become a blended learning platform of choice powering a growing number of platforms and apps--what Curt calls "the Intel inside" strategy of personalized learning. Key is the Agilix distributed learning access protocol (an API) that makes system integration and custom learning-application development relatively straightforward. As Curt says, it gets solutions developers "out of the plumbing business" and let's them "go to market in short amount of time."

GradPoint and other BrainHoney powered platforms like EdElements will be adopted by a lot of districts, networks, and schools but a there's another actor in the equation--teachers. About a million teachers will go back to school next month using Edmodo, the free social learning platform that makes it easy to flip the classroom, share engaging content, and manage assignments. Viral adoption, network effects, and a team listening hard to teachers, are building a big powerful blended learning platform.

National online learning and curriculum providers are powering thousands of district blends with their comprehensive school management systems and content libraries (and we'll see another one announced next month).

Adaptive instructional systems are another important development. Their smart engines are powering customized learning pathways and some have the potential to become comprehensive platforms--particularly K-8.

There you have it, five very different pathways toward the learning platform ecosystem vision: 1) grant powered and state led, 2) entrepreneurial solution developers, 3) viral teacher adoption, 4) online learning providers, and 5) adaptive instructional systems. All five will take a couple years to mature. In the meantime, schools can choose from comprehensive platforms that are easy to manage and monitor and individual components that are engaging and effective.


Disclosure: Edmodo is a portfolio company of Learn Capital where Tom is a partner and Pearson is a limited partner.

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