Being THE (not “a”) Technology Platform for an Education Program

In a previous post on unbundled apps, I promised a post on tools and platforms in Ed Tech. Tools often get defined as “not a platform”, and platforms get enough attention in blog posts, marcomm, and other channels to confuse the concept. Education is different, as we all know, and the demands of its programs alter and narrow the definition.

Briefly, let’s review a few perspectives on technology platforms and what K12 school authorities and Higher Ed institutions need from these solutions.

Here is a basic technical definition from Technopedia:

“A platform is a group of technologies that are used as a base upon which other applications, processes or technologies are developed.” 

Simple enough: a platform is a stage. Technologists see it as one for managing identify, access, assets, and services in support of an implementation’s business goals (e.g. learning, commerce, entertainment). People who use the platform see it as the place to work, play, interact, create, discover and/or learn.

That last verb is our focus. To learn on a platform, from the perspective of programs, is to engage learners, educators, support professionals, administrators, and others in support of learning and in search of evidence of learning. People with these roles bring instruction, content, policies, apps, collaborations, evaluations, and so on to articulate the program in the platform.

Gartner uses a term that represents this need to assemble and deliver these program experiences and pegs it to an emerging trend and market: the User Experience Platform or UXP. Functionally, what Gartner describes with the UXP is essentially a presentation layer that provides a cohesive experience for people as they interact with a variety of apps (i.e. tools or other platforms), data sources, and logic. These interactions need to be seamless from the user’s perspective, representing the program’s cohesion.

BlackBoard Learn’s evolution over recent years is an example of the UXP mindset, emphasizing mobile device support and attractive user experience design.   Luminis and Liferay, a portal provider, work in tandem to provide a UXP solution in support of Western Governors University. Publishers like McGraw-Hill enable UXPs delivering student experiences to any device while integrating with Learning Management Systems.

Again, education is different. To support learning with good and cohesive experiences is not enough to be THE platform for a program.   To gain evidence of learning and convert it into reports, predictions, and recommendations entails an integration with or possession of a roster database (generally known as a Student Information System or SIS), or the store of record for tracking students. BlackBoard and Luminis, obviously, clear this bar. McGraw-Hill’s Campus has the technical capacity to be THE platform, but that is not the publisher’s business model. However, McGraw-Hill recently acquired Engrade and its course administration features. So you just never know.

In fact, there are many platforms in Ed Tech that are not meant to be THE platform for a program. Solutions for authoring digital curriculum, ePortfolio offerings, and social networks are a few examples of products that are technology platforms without being program platforms.

Can Google Classroom be THE platform? Not yet at least, not if a program has a SIS and expects to keep using it.

There are several Pandora’s Boxes on the margins of this blog post. Options for integration and interoperability and their impact on programs, the ever increasing appetites of reporting and analytics providers for data on learning and learners, the future of the SIS and the nature of ERP in learning programs,…

I look forward to going deeper on these fronts as we keep digging into platforms, tools, and how programs make sense of all these choices.

Thanks for reading.

Learner Choice, Part 3, Interview with Bernard Bull #edtech #collablearning via @bdean1000

In this series on learner choice, recent posts have laid out our goal to identify and promote the practice of instilling learner choice and self direction within planned instruction. 

Today’s post is an interview with Dr. Bernard Bull, Assistant Vice President of Academics & Associate Professor of Education at Concordia University Wisconsin.  Many thanks to Bernard, who is an exceptional resource for bringing together strands of thought and research on blended learning, self-direction, and working with educators to promote these ideas. 

Check out his blog:  Etale – Life and Learning in the Digital World

Terry: Could you discuss the types of freedom that learners could have in an educational experience, the notion that learners could have freedom in relation to “time, pace, place, and pathway”?

Bernard:  That framework is a Michael Horn invention at the Clayton Christiensen Institute.  That’s how they define Blended Learning.  It relates to a concept that’s particularly important to me, the idea of Self-Blended Learning.  (Bernard elaborated on this in his contributions to Self-Determined Learning:  Huetagogy in Action, edited by Stewart Hase and Chris Kenyon.)  For me where it really started was taking this concept of Blended Learning, and then applying it to the research and writing I’ve been doing over the last three to four years on self-directed learning and human agency.  By meshing those together, that’s where I really come across this concept that I am calling Self-Blended Learning.  Some use self-blended to mean students taking a mix of online and face-to-face classes, but I’m using it differently.  What I’m talking about is something much more focused on empowering people with the capacity to learn on their own.

Bernard mentions this diagram, which can also be seen on his blog.

Bernard: On the left are common questions that an effective teacher asks, and then on the right side I show what it looks like when it becomes more student-directed. For example, one teacher-directed question is “How will I know the students have learned it?”.  On the right, students can say, “How will I know I’ve learned it?”.  So there’s this ownership on their part.

For me the process comes out of this philosophical mindset.  I align with the Transcendalists in terms of this idea of self-sufficiency, human agency and human capacity.  (An article from Steve Hargadon helped Bernard connect Transcendalism to Self-Blended Learning.) So, my idea is that education is most effective when it’s equipping people to not need it any longer, that our goal as good teachers is to become increasingly less important as the student becomes more confident and competent.  So when I heard about giving students some time/pace/place control over pathway, I thought that resonated well with this idea of Self-Blended Learning.

Terry: When talking about that kind of philosophy, it’s easy to understand in the framework of self-direction in lifelong learning, or something that exists outside of an educational program.  How much more complex is it to talk about these things with educators, administrators, and instructional designers?

Bernard: It’s critical.  Actually, this has been my niche.  Part of my preparations have been to consider ideas from sources like the Unschooling and UnCollege movements, the Informal Learning movement, Jay Cross’s work on learning in the workplace, and all the learning that happens out in the wild.  I then try to bring them back to more conventional schooling models.  I take bite size pieces and offer them up for conversation.  As long as I respect the fact that teachers and administrators have widely diverse views on education that are going to lead to different models of schooling, this is generally well received and everyone gets informed about the possibilities.

How do we know what the best direction is if we don’t know all the possible routes to get there?  Let’s just trace out this map a little bit and see.

Terry: Does this work get down to the level of lesson planning and discussing specific activities that involve this kind of learner freedom?

Bernard:  Yes.  I use the diagram we discussed as a sort of cheat sheet to answer important questions:  To what extent can I empower students to form their own goals? How will YOU know that you’ve learned this? How can we create an environment in which there are multiple pathways to learn?

Bernard lists several examples of this process in action in a blog post titled, “Beyond Blended Teaching to Self-Blended Learning.”

Terry: In that type of dialogue, students are being asked to engage metacognitively but not by reflecting after the fact.  You’re asking them to engage directly in advance of the learning, to actually consider the next step.

Bernard: Yes, invite them to become their own instructional designers for their learning environment, to become learning architects.  Let’s sit down and build out this map.

This is how people get really good at things. Research is clear on what makes many the best in the world at their craft.  It’s through deliberate practice.

Thank you, Bernard!

In our next post, we’ll start looking at Ed Tech products and implementations that get learner choice into learning programs. 

“Evidence of Learning” and Lifelong Attainment

How can an institution best represent the career readiness of its graduates?  Going forward along a graduate’s career path, how can an institution endorse and, in turn, learn from the experiences of its alumni?  Going back towards the start of this path, how can an institution incorporate an individual’s experiences in order to admit them in ways that recognize and take advantage of their accomplishments?  Finally, while an individual is in school, how can this person add experiences and demonstrate skills that are not gained in coursework?

These and other questions are addressed in a pair of publications released today.  These “Evidence of Learning” reports show how concurrent and complimentary efforts in Higher Education, workforce planning, and employee recruitment can be better integrated in service of learners.  It’s about lifelong learning, and it’s even more about lifelong attainment.

Congratulations to Tyton Partners (formerly Education Growth Advisors) and to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  It was a pleasure to serve on this project.

Getting Learner Choice into Learning Programs, Part 2

This post is the second in a series on how and why an instructional program could emphasize and benefit from learner self-direction, or the practice of planning instruction to include opportunities for learners to discover, collate, or create content as an integral part of that instructional event.

For a solution or implementation to support the kind of self-direction endorsed on this blog, it needs to meet the criteria below.  As we discuss solutions and implementations, we’ll use these as a lens:

  • Purpose:  Educators need to be able to contextualize learner self-direction.  “Context” is the instructional intent, the reasons why a learner should act and guidelines on what learners should do.
  • Feedback:  The learner must get feedback on the utility, relevancy, or general value of one’s choices in relation to planned instruction.  Feedback could come from a person, an algorithm, the crowd, or all of the above.  Especially useful are deliveries of immediate feedback that can impact instruction in real time.
  • Review:  The learner must be able to view the relationships between their choices and the contexts they were given.  Ideally, learners can interact with these associations: revise associations, create new contexts for self study, suggest new contexts for educators to use going forward, etc.
  • Analysis:  When the learner is self-directed, the technology environment must be able to capture meaningful usage and performance data so that it can report on the utility of learner choice in relation to the program (its administration and/or design), not just the learner.

Stay tuned.  Next week, you’ll see the first of several product reviews.  I take requests, by the way.  I’m hoping that readers will identify programs and solutions to ponder.

Thanks for reading.

Getting Learner Choice into Learning Programs, Part 1

This post is the first of a series on how and why an instructional program could emphasize and benefit from learner self-direction, or the practice of planning instruction to include opportunities for learners to discover, collate, or create content as an integral part of that instructional event.

The idea is to encourage people who design instruction, deliver it, or acquire technology solutions for programs to see the opportunities for learner choice to fit within the structures of these programs. The time is right in the Ed Tech and Human Capital Management sectors: useful solutions abound, and it’s getting easier to integrate multiple products in service of a program’s goals.  Learner choice within planned instruction works better when solutions can work together.

This series will run for a few months with one or two posts per month. We’ll look at examples of solutions and programs that can help install more learner choice. Sometimes, a post will be a simple product review with a use case or two. Sometimes, we’ll have an interview with a provider. We’ll also speak with people representing programs, particularly those responsible for technology, pedagogy, and professional development.

As a co-founder in an Ed Tech startup (Continuum Education), I work on a product that aims to promote learner choice. A “my stuff is awesome” post will happen, but this series is not about a single solution. It’s about bringing something to technology-enabled instruction that we intuitively know to be useful—learner choice—to programs in ways that have value to all stakeholders.

In terms of the craft of instructional design and the science of learning, there are lots of ways to affiliate and debate in this “learner choice” discussion. Over time, we’ll go into constructivist, cognitivist, and even behaviorist views of learning. Understanding the value of learner engagement, whether we are using Universal Design for Learning, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, or other relevant research, is in play, too.

Honestly, though, my experience is that debates about pedagogy can inhibit discussions about good instruction. I’ll be putting forth useful solutions, lessons, and design principles and then suggesting how the aforementioned principles and perspectives might relate. We’ll go bottom up, not top down.

Stay tuned. Tomorrow, you’ll see a second post that identifies a basic framework for finding the value of learner choice in the software solutions, programs, or lesson plans we’ll examine in subsequent posts.

Thanks for reading.

Unbundled Apps as a Lesson for Ed Tech Product Teams: Behold the Interaction Model

This post about “unbundling” apps is mostly for Ed Tech Product and Marketing professionals, but the discussion about setting bounds to the features supported in an app leads to an important point for those who design instruction and interfaces as well.

In 2014, Facebook unbundled its Groups and messaging features. Earlier that year, Google unbundled productivity apps. These events are well known, and the decisions to do so are rich with insights on product strategy, but I’ll cherry pick one item for today’s post. Have a look at this quote from an article on unbundling from The Next Web:

“Unbundling is completely untenable for smaller companies. The only reason that companies like Facebook, Google, and Foursquare are able to do it is because they’re giants in the space,” said Mark Burstiner, senior product manager at the mobile design agency Fueled told us in an interview.

Burstiner argues that app developers should figure out their minimum value proposition, find the data to support it, and then build the app feature-by-feature. This approach saves the developer from launching an app with multiple user experiences and having to unbundle sometime in the future.”

I agree with Mr. Burstiner. Unbundling is a choice for established providers with good market penetration and brand visibility. Furthermore, a “minimum value proposition” is a helpful concept for helping a provider avoid a complex solution that might compel it to unbundle.   In any case, smaller provider can risk ruin when their solutions offer too much for users to do: too many value propositions, too many features to build and maintain, probably too much happening on each screen as well.

My suggestion would be to go a bit deeper on behalf of teams that build and sell Ed Tech products.   Start with a minimum value proposition and then articulate your value with an interaction model, a diagram that represents the narrative of your users’ most frequent and important actions as a repeatable loop, line, or link in a chain. Maintain this interaction model so that the app continues to correspond with the problem/solution statement that the interaction model is supposed to support.

I’ve shared a very early and rough version of the interaction model we built for Apropos, our collaborative search app.

The circle at the center is the model, summarizing all main tasks our learners will perform in a collaborative search activity. Since we offer an activity that could be used in a variety of pedagogies, we put circles on the perimeter to show how a group search can relate to ontologies like 21st Century Skills.   Over a year later, those outer circles have changed a lot as we learn more about what users and clients value, but that interior circle, save a minor detail or two, is the same.

From our team and user communities, ideas to improve our experiences come all the time. However, these ideas don’t make it into Apropos unless they leverage this interaction model that sends groups of learners in motion against a common search prompt. In fact, a living interaction model, if used by the team, is a great way for a team to know when they are considering an enhancement to their product or a separate one.

Interaction models have some real detail and can still be approachable to anyone in your organization. People who work on partnerships or sales can know what learners do so that they can articulate a more precise value proposition and relate it to the ones they hear. Developers get a predictable pattern of screens, objects, and interactions. Designers get an opportunity to let the experience embody the value proposition. Product and Project Managers get an artifact that can govern scope and encourage extensibility within the right bounds.

What if your app’s interaction model has no clear end? What if your goal is to get the users to stick around, do other things, maybe bring their own content? If this is the case, you likely have a platform rather than a “tool”, or an app that supports a specific interaction rather than a more broadly defined virtual learning space.

In the next post, I’ll discuss platforms and tools in more detail in order to reveal how these two concepts can tell us a lot about how technology implementations, integrations, and partnerships happen in education.


It’s been a couple of years since I last posted.  It’s been a blur of consulting, founding a startup (Continuum Education), and life.

Along the way, I’ve learned a great deal about the strategy and tactics of technology products in Ed Tech and Human Capital Management.  I’ve seen a lot of good decisions and excellent work.  My New Year’s resolution is to share what I think can help my friends and peers do even better work and, in turn, help me find my next epiphany.

Posts are on the way, and I take requests in the fields of Ed Tech strategy, product management, Agile development processes, instructional design, and the St. Louis Cardinals.  Just beware if you get me started on that last one.

I Am Organized – Evolved Content Management

I Am Organized – Evolved Content Management

Apple recently announced the purchase of a patent for a user interface that, I believe, may become a very important move.  The value is in getting more information from users on why they discover and use content from the web.

I Am Organized turns the task of organization into curation, a particularly rich form of cognitive activity in that users will declare their intents and purposes.  The interface also facilitates targeted sharing, thus providing combinations of social, spatial, temporal, and geographic data in addition to intent.

The technology and Apple’s interest form a powerful combination.  If Apple can successfully incorporate this UI to their operating systems, we might see a new UI convention emerge:  one that collects greater cognitive data on users without pestering them.

Thinking in terms of instructional design, gaining insight on how people organize their instructional content would be fantastic.  This UI allows users to articulate their schema, which is an element of the work that Google’s Inside Search team is doing.

Thinkstitching the Facebook API, Part 1

This entry features a cognitive profile of data available in the Facebook Open Graph API.  In this first part of a series of “Thinkstitching” entries, I’m using the Dunn and Dunn Learning Styles Taxonomy as a means of measuring the range of cognition that may be measured with these data.

Dunn and Dunn are, for me at least, the easiest place to begin cognitive mapping of an app or an API because its taxonomy can be used to describe inputs or evidence of behaviors when analyzing interactions by data types rather than by learners or learning outcomes.  For details on the model, have a look at a PDF from the UK firm, seechange consulting:

The value of this type of mapping depends on the audience.  Primarily, the work is meant to enable better analytics on vast data sets by providing some clues on data types and combinations of them that can demonstrate learning or growth.  Even if an analytics initiative is not aimed at education or Human Capital Management, the structures in instructional activities are useful for mining interaction models and growth/development within them.  Also note that inputs to these initiatives assume that the data are meant to represent archetypes or aggregations rather than individuals.  Data mining to inform profiles of individuals is certainly possible, but it is out of scope for this particular blog entry and related effort.

Product development teams and educational program administrators might also see value.  Product folks might appreciate these maps as reviews on the cognitive/behavioral richness of the interactions they design.  Administrators, particularly those feeling the pressure to change assessments to something that more authentically captures and measures higher order thinking skills, can see how various apps or technologies can support real-world, “multi-app” assessment activities, both in terms of delivery to learners and capture via APIs or direct access to data stores.  Big picture, we don’t need to build vast new systems to support fully integrated authentic assessments.  The more authentic approach would be to stitch together technologies that exist and that people already use.

Anyway, the cognitive profile of the Facebook API is below.  It functions as a scorecard at this high-level, summary view.  The richness of Facebook data in terms of inputs to and circumstances of cognition is the value being measured here.  In the next couple of entries, I’ll provide another layer of detail by identifying specific data types from Facebook to support this entry’s summary view, and I’ll drill down further in terms of analyzing the value of this work.  Later on, I’ll add analysis of more apps or APIs.

A summary diagram of a cognitive profile of the Facebook API