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Deja Vu All Over Again – Blackboard Still Stuck in the Innovator’s Dilemma

July 24th, 2009 jonmott Comments

It’s been a week (or so) since BbWorld. I’ve had the chance now to ruminate about what I saw and heard there. I wanted to let things rattle around in my head a bit before passing judgment on Blackboard’s message this year because it was increasingly clear to me that my assessment of BbWorld 2009 would be virtually the same as my assessment from 2008–Blackboard is improving at the margins, but is not addressing the fundamental weaknesses of the CMS (I use this term generically, lumping Blackboard together with Moodle, Sakai, D2L, etc.).

Improvement at the Margins

Given that BbWorld was in Washington, D.C. this year, it seems appropriate to use a political analogy here. In 1990, George C. Edwards III published At the Margins: Presidential Leadership of Congress. In this now classic study of the president’s ability to lead Congress and enact significant policy change, Edwards concluded that the presidency is so hemmed in by countervailing pressures and influences (in the form of 535 members of Congress, cabinet members, bureaucrats, interest groups, voters, the media, etc.) that presidents should not be expected, save under dramatic and rare circumstances, to effect significant change. Rather, Edwards concludes, presidents have historically been most effective when they have sought to influence change “at the margins,” moving policy incrementally in their preferred direction.

Blackboard, much like the President of the United States, is hemmed in by a large client base (variously represented by university administrators, IT staff, faculty, and students), competing visions within the company, a board of directors and stockholders, etc. It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone, then, that Blackboard’s innovations and improvements are “at the margins.” It’s exceedingly rare for a company with Blackboard’s inertia to make dramatic, revolutionary changes in the products they offer.

BbWorld Announcements & Observations

So what kinds of innovations and improvements did Blackboard announce at BbWorld 2009? I catalogued and reacted to what I heard via Twitter during the conference. For what it’s worth, I begin with a selection of my tweets, first from the keynote (I’ve opted to keep these in reverse-chronological order, as is the convention for a Twitter feed):

Then from the Listening Session:

Deja vu All Over Again

While I’m very encouraged by Blackboard’s announcement (re-iteration) of it’s intent to fully support the Common Cartridge standard and to move toward opening up its database schema for administrators, I’m left wanting much, much more. All of the major announcements–the partnership with Echo360, the acquisition of Terribly Clever, the integration with Wimba (not really new news), the Kindle integration, the focus on closing tickets faster–had little to do with the core concerns about the CMS I have been blogging about for the last year. All of Blackboard’s announcements were about improvements at the margin.

As a checkpoint, I went back and re-read my post from one year ago, written just after BbWorld 2008. Forgive me for regurgitating large portions of it here, but it’s striking how similar my reactions to this year’s BbWorld are to those of last year:

As Clayton Christensen has famously observed, the producers of innovative products gradually lose their creative, innovative edge as they acquire and then seek to protect market share. When a company’s innovations result in significant profits, managers generally find themselves face to face with the innovator’s dilemma. To remain successful, Christensen argues that companies need to listen “responsively to their customers and [invest] aggressively in the technology, products, and manufacturing capabilities that [satisfy] their customers’ next-generation needs.” However, these very same behaviors can create blind spots for innovators. By simply providing incremental improvements to existing products, companies run the risk of missing major, paradigm-shifting innovations in their market spaces. Likewise, they’re in danger of focusing too much on their existing customer bases instead of new potential customers who currently don’t user their products (non-consumers). These twin dangers leave erstwhile market leaders susceptible to disruptive technologies, provided by firms who aren’t stuck in current paradigms or too narrowly focused on pre-defined customer segments.

Blackboard finds itself squarely in the midst of this classic problem. They have a large and fairly stable customer base. Incremental feature enhancements, improved customer service and product stability are likely to keep most of their customers satisfied for time being. But what of the disrupters in the market place? If one considers open source CMS alternatives like Sakai and Moodle to be the most-disruptive players in the market, Blackboard’s strategies appear to be on the right track.

Perhaps not surprisingly (I suppose I predicted this), Blackboard did this year exactly what they did last year and exactly what Christensen cites as the pattern of incumbent market leaders: they announced new feature enhancements and indicated continued attention to and investment in customer service and product stability. As I wrote one year ago:

While I applaud these innovations as good steps in the right direction, there remain fundamental flaws with Blackboard’s (and virtually every other CMS provider’s) underlying infrastructure. For all of the new window dressing, Blackboard remains first and foremost a semester-based, content-delivery oriented, course management system. The software is not (at least noticeably) evolving to become a student-centered learning management system. And while the addition of wikis and blogs inside the Blackboard system is as welcome improvement, there is still little or no integration between student learning tools “inside the moat” and outside of it “in the cloud.”

It is for these reasons that I don’t count Sakai, Moodle, D2L or Angel [which Bb acquired since BbWorld 2008] amongst the biggest, long-term threats to Blackboard. Disruption will, I believe, come from another direction.

From whence will disruption come? More from my post last year:

In Christensen’s newest book, Disrupting Class, he and his co-authors argue that the real disruption in educational technology will come (and is already coming) via learner-centered technologies and networking tools. A rapidly growing number of people are creating their own personal learning environments with tools freely available to them, without the benefit of a CMS. As Christensen would say, they have hired different technologies to do the job of a CMS for them. But the technologies they’re hiring are more flexible, accessible and learner-centered than today’s CMSs. This is not to say that CMSs are about to disappear. Students enrolled in institutions of higher learning will certainly continue to participate in CMS-delivered course sites, but since these do not generally persist over time, the really valuable learning technologies will increasily be in the cloud.

Open learning networks have the potential to bring together the world of the CMS (or better yet “institutional learning networks”) and the world of PLEs together. The next big challenge ahead of us is to figure out ways to create autonomous, institution-independent “learner spaces” that provide home bases for learners that can bridge the two worlds. In these spaces, learners would ideally aggregate relationships, artifacts, and content from ALL of their learning activities, be they digital or analog, online or offline, synchronous or asynchronous, from one institution or many.

I heard virtually nothing at BbWorld this year which would suggest that Blackboard is actively engaged in adapting and evolving to address this challenge. Rather, they continue to innovate at the margins, maintaining their status quo, market-leading position.

What’s the Broken?

@z_rose recently blogged that the problem with the “one-stop-shop” Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) (another frequently-used term for the CMS) is that it is aimed at both learning administration and learning facilitation. These are not, she astutely notes, the same things and VLEs end up doing both poorly.

Both administration and pedagogy are necessary in schools. They are also completely different in what infrastructure they require. This (in my opinion) has been the great failing of VLEs – they all try to squeeze the round pedagogy peg into the square administration hole.

It hasn’t worked very well. Trying to coax collaboration in what is effectively an administrative environment, without the porous walls that social media thrives on, hasn’t worked. The ‘walled garden’ of the VLE is just not as fertile as the juicy jungle outside, and not enough seeds blow in on the wind.

That’s why I’m always cautious of the ‘one-stop-shop’ approach in education – administration and pedagogy are very, very different shops. It’s like having a fishmongers and a haberdashers sharing the same store – no discernible upsides, but a LOT of downsides (stinky fabric springs to mind).

Blackboard and every other CMS / VLE have become exceedingly efficient course content and course administrivia management tools. If data from BYU’s Blackboard usage surveys can be taken as a reasonable guide, most faculty members use Blackboard for administrative, not teaching and learing, purposes, i.e., content dissemination, announcements, e-mail, and gradebooking (70% plus use Bb for these purposes). Dramatically smaller portions (less than 30%) use the teaching and learning tools provided Blackboard (e.g., quizzes, discussion boards, groups, etc.). Increasingly, they’re going to the cloud to use tools that are far better and more flexible than those provided natively inside the CMS.

In 2004, George Siemens wrote, “The real issue is that LMS vendors are attempting to position their tools as the center-point for elearning – removing control from the system’s end-users: instructors and learners.” This is still all-t0o-true five years later. In most CMS implementations, it is exceedingly difficult (if not impossible) for teachers and especially individual learners to take control of the learning environment and shape it to their particular needs. For example, by default, students are generally not able to start their own discussion threads in CMS-delivered courses. Siemens elaborated on these end-user roadblocks, noting that LMSs roundly fail in three significant ways:

  • The rigidity and underlying design of the tool “drives/dictates the nature of interaction (instructors-learner, learner-learner, learner-content).”
  • The interface is too focused on “What do the designers/administrators want/need to do?” rather than on “What does the end user want/need to do?”
  • “Large, centralized, mono-culture tools limit options. Diversity in tools and choices are vital to learners and learning ecology.”

Notably, the absence of LMS-integrated synchronous conferencing and collaboration tools has been largely remedied within the various CMSs. But these other three substantial shortcomings have yet to be addressed. And I would add a critically important fourth weakness–today’s CMSs do not support continuous, cumulative learning throughout a student’s career at an institution, let alone throughout their life after they exit our institutions. As I have written previously, students are completely at the mercy of the institution when it comes to their “presence” and participation in a CMS. They are placed in arbitrarily organized sections of courses for 15-week periods and then “deleted,” as if they never existed in the system. As David Wiley has pondered, how many of us would use Facebook if Facebook deleted our friend connections and pictures every four months?

The fundamental dilemma with the CMS as we know it today is that it is largely a course-centric, lecture-model reinforcing technology with its center of gravity in institutional efficiency and convenience. As such, it is a technology that inclines instructors and students to “automate the past,” replicating previous practice using new, more efficient and more expensive tools instead of innovating around what really matters–authentic teaching, learning, and assessment behaviors.

Blackboard’s Opportunity?

Lest I come across as a Blackboard/CMS naysayer or doomsayer, I should note that, in their early days, Blackboard and other CMSs were the disruptive technology. They were the source of innovation and new thinking about how we organize to teach and learn. However, roughly a decade after the inception of the CMS, the academic community finds itself again ripe for disruption, not only of the technology we use to “manage courses” but in the very system itself. While many will continue to innovate at the margins, there are large crowds of non-consumers out there clamoring for something that meets their needs. At BYU, for example, 25% of our faculty members opt to use a blog, a wiki, or a custom-built course website instead of Blackboard or another CMS. These are the non-consumers Christensen reminds us that we need to figure out how to serve. The same goes for the “non-traditional” students who either aren’t wired to learn the way we’re organized to teach them (in course-sized chunks, bundled in units of time we call semesters) or who, for a variety of reasons, don’t have access to our institutions.

Blackboard still has the opportunity to facilitate discussion and innovation around these critical issues. The company took an important step in this direction by organizing the “Pipeline Matters” session the day before BbWorld, bringing together educational leaders from K12, community colleges, traditional “higher ed” instituitons, and edudcational associations. As a fortunate participation in this conversation, I recognize and appreciate Blackboard’s unique position (with its roughly 3000 client institutions) in the educational space to bring together a broad and diverse set of educational players to address issues such as the one we did last week–how can we improve our efforts to keep students in school and to help them easily re-enter and succeed when they, despite our best efforts, leak out of the “pipeline”?

These sorts of questions are critically important not only to educators, but also to Blackboard’s immediate future and direction because they can compel the company to get outside its comfort zone and rethink how it does what it does and why it does it.

Blackboard can still play a leading role in education. But it needs to think more about end-users and about non-consumers, not just about the universtity administrators who purchase and implement their products. That’s an admittedly tall order for a publicly-traded corporation to take on. But, as Christensen argues, they have to figure out a way to do so if they’re to remain relevant. That’s precisely the innovator’s dilemma.

As I conclude last year, if Blackboard doesn’t innovate, someone else will.

And it won’t be long.

From “Pipeline” to “Learning Cycle”

July 13th, 2009 jonmott Comments

I’m attending the Blackboard sponsored “Pipeline Matters Council” on improving K20 education.

We started off with a “pipeline” model that was limited in three significant ways:

  1. It was too linear, implying one ideal sequence through which students should progress.
  2. It didn’t adequately account for the multiplicity of entry and exit points in the learning cycle as students “churn” or “swirl” in and out of formal education.
  3. It wasn’t clearly focused on the ultimate endgame, i.e., workforce / life productivity.

The new model is much more dynamic and reflective of reality.

Learning Life Cycle Visualization

Click to Enlarge

We’re still working on the model, but the big question now is this: If this is the real (ideal) model, what about the status quo do we need to jettison and what new ideas, technologies, and modalities do we need to introduce to get better results?

Here are some of the group’s brainstormed ideas about what the ideal system would look like.

  • Make curriculum dynamic rather than static
  • Allow learning practice to shape policy, not policy shaping practice
  • Flexible, individualized learning
  • Adjust for societal, cultural differences
  • Support multiple entry & (successful) exit points
  • Modular & competency based
  • Realigned incentives that emphasize authentic learning (aligned with career / job market requirements)

The bottom line is that we need to turn the current equation on its head. The status quo is satisfactory to the elites who created, run, and benefit from it, but not necessarily for the students. As @UrbanEducation pondered the other day, “How would education change, if kids had their very own well paid lobbyists?” How do we change the equation, focusing more on what value we add to our students lives and how we add it?

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Rethinking Failure, Learning, and Achievement

Failure is a fact of life.

Some of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my life have come as the result of my most painful failures.

If we don’t take risks, we can’t achieve greatness. We’re also likely to avoid spectacular, conspicuous failure; but, that’s what taking risks and learning are all about. We strive, we fail sometimes, we learn from our mistakes, we adjust our performance, and ultimately achieve our goals. Just ask anyone who has learned to play a musical instrument or to speak a new language how many mistakes they made before they achieved competence. Or ask anyone who has played a video game, “dying” hundreds of times before finally winning the game. Or ask Michael Jordan:
Jordan understands that failure is a fact of life when you take risks, when you strive for greatness: “I’ve failed over, and over, and over again in my life. And that is why . . . I succeed.”

The Failure Stigma in Higher Ed

I’ve long been perplexed by the higher ed culture that discourages (punishes) failure and shies away from introspective admission and discussion of our failures and what we’ve learned from them. Christopher Blake has summed up our irrational avoidance of the reality of failure in the learning process:

Rarely do we tell students that we do not know how much they will learn, that we cannot even be sure of the outcomes, that they will have to participate communally before they will learn, that learning may confront their status quo in an uncomfortable fashion or, even more important, that we all fail sometimes and so will they. Indeed, we do our best to exclude such shocking realities from our sanitized curricula and learning environments. . . . Any learning worth its name is troubling, engaging, shared, interdependent, and uncertain: It can be destabilizing to our present selves, individually and collectively.

Blake argues that we’ve abandoned legitimate opportunities for learning greatness because we’ve embraced (at least the perception of) safety and security afforded by nice and tidy summative assessments of student ability and performance. Instead, we should make our institutions “dangerous, risk-laden, and discomforting places for mental exploration, where we don’t have to be stellar individuals to justify our presence. Let’s cut the safety net from below our students but help them back on their feet when they fall. We might then begin to make the academy a more secure place for dangerous learning.” In other words, places where there’s lots and lots of formative assessment, consistently guiding and re-guiding learners as they fail, over and over again, iterating toward achievement.

Blake’s underlying premise is that we cannot learn without failure. Pretending otherwise is foolish and short-sighted. James Joyce observed that, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” Failure is a fact of life. It’s going to happen whether we like it or not. I’ve failed multiple times today. I haven’t kept track of all of my failures today (too many to count), but I just “failed” typing the word “haven’t” at the beginning of this sentence and had to backspace to correct my error. The backspace key is my indispensable friend. I’m constantly making mistakes while typing. But I keep typing because I get better and better the more I do it. The key is that I have a mechanism (the backspace key) for low-cost do overs. My typing behavior is what the folks at Slow Leadership call “conscious incompetence“:

Conscious Incompetence is the action of doing something that you know that you cannot do properly, competently, or at all, for the purpose of learning or practicing how to do it better. It’s consciously and deliberately going out of your depth to learn how to swim well. In the process, you also let go of your pride and allow yourself to appear awkward, foolish, and sometimes stupid.

Supportive Learning Environments

To help our students achieve great things, to do things that have never done before, we have to encourage and reward risk. We can’t punish all of the little errors along the way that novices are bound to make. We shouldn’t expect mastery the first time we ask a learner to perform a complicated task. We should instead encourage experimentation, learning through trial and error.

Honda seems to have figured this out. Failure is always one possible outcome when you try anything. If you’re not failing on a regular basis, you’re not striving for greatness:

Sarah Joy recently blogged that the problem isn’t so much that we fail, but how we fail and how we think about failure.

It seems to me that failure is inherent to dealing with any problem worth solving. That no effort, no matter how carefully planned, how painstakingly executed, will come off without hitches, without un-intended consequences. That we will probably (realistically…objectively) fail more than we succeed.

But, it also seems to me that failure is not a reason to stop striving. I’m not willing to throw up my hands and turn my back because I didn’t stop the spread of AIDS in Africa (or the gang activity in the middle school down the street) with my first attempt…or my fiftieth. But I would be equally foolish not to learn from those failures. If I am continually failing differently, those failures will become stepping stones, and eventually I will succeed.

Earlier this year, Business Week reminded corporate trainers and coaches that removing the consequences of mistakes and failure from employees is counterproductive:

Learning is accelerated when employees are taught to solve their own problems with instruction, direction, and demonstration and then allowed to practice until they learn to perform with excellence.

As we move into a new era of authentic assessment, driven largely by external accreditation requirements, we need to be careful not to leave behind the power of failure in the learning process.

Learning is About Possibility, Not Perfection

One final lesson about failure and learning comes in the unlikely form of a young man named D.J. Gregory who, despite his cerebral palsy, has embraced the game of golf. Readily admitting that his game isn’t perfect, he keeps playing, striving not for perfection for for “the possible,” being the best he can be. “If you have a dream,” he challenges us, “go after it. Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do something.”

The video below chronicles his walking journey through every PGA event this past season, walking more than 900 miles to accomplish a goal he set for himself for the simple purpose of achieving something he wanted to achieve, something others thought was impossible for him to do. Along the way, he fell more than two dozen times. He kept track of each fall, got up and kept going. “If I fall, I fall. It’s just another challenge. I’m gonna fall. It’s just the way it is. I’m gonna do it. So you know what? You get back up and you learn from your mistakes and you don’t do it again.”

“I’m not embarrassed for who I am or what I’ve been through. I’m very determined and I will never give up on anything. I’ll never let anybody tell me ‘No.’”D.J. reminds us that sometimes learning is painful. Sometimes we fall. Sometimes we “fail.” But the only real failure would be to quit trying, to quit striving, to quit learning from our mistakes.

Please Share

I’ve shared here some of the most powerful examples of learning through failure I’ve been able to find. If you know of others, or if you have a story to share, please post here and I’ll compile what you share into a “learning by failure” page.