The Reason THIS EDUdotcom May Not Be As Different From Last Time As You Think

If there was ever any doubt that we are in the midst of a new boom for education, that doubt was removed at last week’s SXSWEDU. The event brought entrepreneurs and educators to Austin, Texas for four days of panels and a competition for education start-ups. I had the great fun of participating in a panel discussion on “Are Courses a Commodity?” with Myk Garn, Mickey Revenaugh and Michael Horn. Vanessa Dennen and I helped Curt Bonk rehearse his “cage match” answers while sharing beers and ribs at one of the Cengage social events. I enjoyed hearing Bill Gates speak to the crowd about his vision for a transformed education system. It was definitely an interesting mix of energies.

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Ellen Wagner, Executive Director of WCET

Gotta say, not all of it felt all that good. The Chronicle of Higher Education covered the event with a headline that explicitly named the tensions between entrepreneurs and educators: “At South by Southwest Education Event, Tensions Divide Entrepreneurs and Educators.”

While I was there, I kept hearing that THIS is different because it’s about education, and because the tech is better and data will inform us and investors are smarter and the market is ready and there are business plans and people aren’t just throwing exuberant ideas at the wall and hoping that something sticks.


I have to say that the confident assurances that this educational technology boom is different just didn’t make me feel any less skeptical. Because in the same way that there are some who really DO believes that MOOCs are the birth of online learning, it is clear that there is an entire generation of investors and entrepreneurs who really DO seem to believe that the ideas thrown against the wall of the 1990s are somehow less legitimate than some of the ideas that are currently being thrown against the wall today.

So let me tell you why this particular new isn’t as different as visionaries and investors would have you believe.


It’s because no matter how new your tech is or how great the idea is, or how impressive the possibilities are, or the circumstances, or the bandwidth, or the platform, or the operating system we won’t figure out how to crack the code on transformation until we change the most important part of the equation. And that is the human factor. Eventually it comes down to people being ready to embrace the change. The ability to ride out the hype cycle and get oneself to a true plateau of productivity will all come down to the degree we can induce people to change their ways, completely rethink their practices, and help them figure out how to use new tools toys, apps, and the like to deliver on their promises.

The excitement around innovative technology futures for teaching and learning has energized educational researchers to think broadly and deeply about the possibilities they represent.  The venture capital communities’ recognition that education may be ready for its “Internet moment” has also generated massive interest in developing promising ideas for products with commercial consideration.

Between these two exciting arenas of exploration live equally important opportunities for transformation that come from practice-focused solutions contributing to demonstrable improvements in student engagement, faculty performance, and institutional accountability.

People. We’ve got to get ready, too.

Ellen Wagner
Executive Director, WCET

This is a version of a blog post that originally appeared on Ellen’s eLearning Roadtrip blog.

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Executive Director WCET (WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies)

11 thoughts on “The Reason THIS EDUdotcom May Not Be As Different From Last Time As You Think

  1. Ellen,

    Thanks for this clear-eyed post & call to arms. I appreciated your comments about needing to persuade people to change their assumptions and practices.

    I also appreciated Harry’s remark that institutional change–driven by the realities of the marketplace–will ultimately be the largest driver of changing roles for university faculty and staff.

  2. For what it’s worth, I just don’t see large scale sticky change in higher ed (gauged to some extent by acceptance by a broad audience) until what is being done in our K-12 schools, and in particular 9-12, changes rather seismically. This (K-12) is where future college students (and future teachers) cut their teeth on learning – including embedding _how_ they learn, establishing their comfort zone.
    Those habits are hard to change once they get to college and graduate school.
    Walk through the halls of most (though yes, not all) high schools in the country and you will see the same sad sight – teachers lecturing in front, students in rows of chairs, many checking their texts. As long as this is allowed to persist, we will have a disconnect.
    So yes, it is about people, and the habits they cling to in the face of evidence that suggests they should change.
    The pessimist in me whispers that the substantive change will be on a generational time scale (as old teachers move out and new ones move in), not short term disruption, that finally pulls us out of this tailspin. In that regard, I wish we were working with similar vigor (and financing?) to change how we do things in grades 9-12.

    1. Having been a university professor, I cannot concur WRT 9-12 causing college teaching patterns. Instead, it was my college experiences that influenced my approach to teaching.

      Finances are forcing change onto our post-secondary landscape. College degrees just cost too much in both money and time. MOOCs have the potential to fix that. Not the profs but the schools will force the change.

      Consider a well respected 4-year college somewhere whose enrollments are dropping. They can cut tuition by using existing MOOCs as the basis of courses and having profs run seminars to discuss each segment. Students get their lectures (wish it weren’t so) from the best lecturers and get the personal assistance from their local profs in a friendly seminar-like environment.

      Some profs may object to being turned into an experienced teaching assistant, but that’s where we’re heading. Don’t see it being cut off by any visible trend.

      Professor habits will have little to do with it.

      However, the 9-12 teaching is another matter entirely, and I have to agree that it must change.

      That’s why I’m raising money and recruiting talent to create STEMIC™ education that will change how we do 9-12 education. I’ll be posting more on my blog at soon.

  3. Ellen, I agree with your assessment. It’s like sitting in the middle of a huge room buzzing full of folks with all these “change the world ideas” and thinking…hummm…”Haven’t I heard this somewhere before?”. I agree the human resource factor is huge. I speak with folks at higher ed institutions across the country and I’m still amazed when I hear them talk about distance learning or new education technology as if it’s a “New Phenom”. Really, people? Where have you been? Of course I don’t say that out loud :). I must say the best part is being a working adult in the midst of it all. What an exciting thing to be a part of! As our company President says about himself..he is a conservative educational entrepreneur and he OPENLY CALLS it a true oxymoron!

  4. Excellent analysis, Ellen.

    As the 1990s showed us, most dot-coms are junk, all hype and no real revenues.

    The teachers are the gatekeepers. If you don’t get them, you lose. (MOOCs are an entirely different situation that may not have much to do with K-12 education until taking college-level courses.)

    The question of who leads the coming “revolution” in education is very important to understand. I see entrepreneurs leading (and taking the risks) but with educators as co-pilots but not being the risk-takers.

    For the decade that I’ve been in the ed-tech business (world’s only online hands-on science labs), I’ve seen way too many ed-tech software products that were either built by teachers with amateur software or built by tech people with poor pedagogy. I’ve seen some with both too.

    It takes a team. (A village is not really necessary here.) 😉

    The entrepreneur is in the driver’s seat, and the educator serves as navigator. In my case, I brought together a great group. We may be the only online science lab company with scientists on the payroll. Educators have informed all of our product decisions. We’re getting great reviews and testimonials.

    Now, comes the really hard part. We have to convince teachers to make changes, really minor ones relative to what some are promoting. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes not. It depends on the teachers and the administrators.

    At least we have customers of eight years standing and a continuing revenue stream in our effort to transform how science is taught and open a new era in science education.

    1. Harry, I agree with “almost” everything you had to say. I am an educator, consultant, and work for an educational, technology software company. I have personally taken a MOOC and love all the buzz about them. I disagree with the statement you make that MOOCS may not have a real connection with k12. We decided to homeschool my oldest son in his jr. yr after spending his yrs at a college prep school. Turns out he has taken a MOOC too but not for college credit or a “badge”…but to fulfill a high school course requirement. In our area (south) homeschooling is growing. IMO, MOOCs have a very bright future in k12!

      1. My concern was with the teachers and the schools being able to use MOOCs effectively. More sophisticated learners will be able to deal with MOOCs as will many in homeschool.

  5. This, indeed, may be the moment just because it doesn’t feel “new”. The innovators had their “day” 10-15 years ago. Many of the early adopters have crashed or struggled for a place (mostly bricks to clicks) So we are rising on the adoption curve rapidly- a position that investors like. It is also safe for university admins struggling to break away from adding bells and whistles that don’t seem to address the edu issues. Faculty, except at select universities, are treading water as hard as they can to just maintain a voice.

    And, in today’s IHE, Australia has become one of the first to point out that many who have post secondary degrees are working at jobs below their level of edu certification- one of the factors which figured in the youth revolt in the Arab Spring.

    Certification and degrees are now commodity priced (e.g. Straighterline, Smarthinking-Burks Smith’s brighter ideas) which creates a “business model” that investors understand. There are commodities at various price/value points as with the auto industry- Kia vs Rolls or SUV vs pickup trucks, basic vs leather seats, wood trim and surround sound. Mass produced or “hand crafted”.

    One can argue with the metaphor but what is the “market” saying?

    1. I’m not so sure about adoption curve rising rapidly in K-12 education. However, your comments on education becoming a commodity strike a resonant chord for post-secondary education.
      I’d like to see K-13 education fixed. (I add in 13 because for most students, it’s high school plus one — also because my market is 6-13. 🙂 )
      MOOCs are not the current solution because these do not have full certification without paying extra for someone to be involved. Your teacher must take on the responsibility of assigning which MOOC lesson to do, of reviewing your work, and of providing classroom discussion. (I am not discussing here the very small minority of homeschools.)
      How can we change our teachers and administrators? Only demonstrated success and lots of press can convince these people to change ancient policies.
      I apologize for bringing up my situation again, but it’s symptomatic, and I know it best.
      I have created online hands-on labs that many teachers say are BETTER than wet labs and far, far better than simulations. Yet, some states have rules that terrorize school administrators and make using these superior labs nearly impossible. Those rules were created in the 1980s. And, the states won’t change them or even take a look at new technological solutions.
      Ellen is so correct in saying, “Eventually it comes down to people being ready to embrace the change.” My old sales experience tells me that won’t happen unless they feel serious pain. With states, districts, schools, and teachers (not all but most) opposing any change, there’s only the federal government to turn discomfort into pain. Instead, they waste their time on silly competitions that tend to exclude the real innovators.

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