I’ve got an “Erie” feeling that we’re on the wrong track.

On a drizzly and cold night in late December 1853, the citizens of Erie, Pennsylvania, led by the mayor, went on a rampage. They set fire to railway bridges, tore up tracks and rioted – all in an effort to stop the standardization of the railway track gauge in an event known as the Erie Gauge War. The economy of Erie had been enjoying robust growth due its location at the hub of three incompatible track gauges (ranging from 4 foot 10 inches to 6 feet wide), which forced passengers to change trains and freight to be unloaded and reloaded. Hotel and restaurant owners, as well as freight transfer agents, were enjoying the profits they earned from Erie’s status as an “enforced stopping place”.  Sadly for the mayor and his cronies, the forces of economic progress prevailed, and both passenger and freight traffic found alternative, less disruptive routes, ultimately rendering Erie an economic also-ran.

In a somewhat perverse historical connection, the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie grew ever wealthier as his mills produced more and more rails for the expanding railway industry. He didn’t much care what width the tracks were, just as long as they kept laying more miles of them. Fast forward to the turn of the century by which time Carnegie had sold his company to U.S. Steel for an amount equivalent to over $13 Billion in today’s dollars. He turned his attention to philanthropy in the fields of education and the arts. The foundation that bears his name went on to create an educational standard that ironically lives on to this day – the Carnegie unit. The original intention of the Carnegie unit was simply to have a common benchmark for calculating the workload of faculty for tracking their pension funds. The standard Carnegie unit is defined as 120 hours of contact time with an instructor, but it has evolved over the past century into the default method of measuring competency and mastery of a subject. Clearly, not all students learn to master any given subject in exactly 120 hours, but no other standard has yet emerged to take its place. Yet it remains to this day as the “standard gauge” of all students’ learning.

In the meantime, corporations seeking hard to find skilled workers have found creative ways to bypass the credentialing quagmire that the higher-ed system is still bogged down in. Hiring managers in technical fields are routinely bypassing the conventional resume/college recruiting route and going directly to developer forums such as GitHub and StackOverflow to seek out the candidates for hard to fill positions. Corporate HR departments are increasingly borrowing from supply chain management practices, as they look to custom-engineer their “suppliers” of people. Some experts are even predicting that companies will gradually create their own education systems (“training & development departments” redux?)

An approach beginning to take hold is the pathway to customized degree programs. Think about the following job descriptions that global corporations are seeking to fill: “Cyber-security Intelligence Professional”, “Crop Data Analytics Specialist”, “Digital Media Strategist” and “Autonomous Driving Vehicle Technical Lead”.  And ask yourself how long it will be before the higher education accreditation cartel (as it’s been referred to by at least one presidential candidate) completes its due process of allowing degrees to be awarded for courses of study in these fields.

The accreditation agencies and their ilk are in danger of becoming the modern equivalent of the Erie, Pennsylvania freight workers. They both benefited by creating a choke point and using their position of authority to extract extreme economic rents. (Colleges spend millions obtaining and renewing their accreditations.) The underlying factor in this academic arms race is the link between accreditation and eligibility for federal student financial aid programs. Academic institutions will spend whatever is necessary to maintain eligibility for Title IV lending, since these administrative costs are simply passed on to students in the form of higher tuition fees. (Which, of course, the government continues to finance through its loan programs.) To draw from another sector of the economy which experienced some financial upheaval in the last few years, it’s as if the fees charged by home inspectors could be rolled into the mortgage on the property. Prospective home buyers seeking a mortgage would have no choice but to pay ever increasing inspection fees, but would tolerate the higher expenses since they’d be tax deductible.

Like the passengers and shippers who found alternatives to the inconvenience of the Erie hub, a similar trend is taking place in today’s fast-paced global economy. Rather than patiently wait while the academic world continues its navel-gazing exercises, companies and innovators are laying new tracks – in this case career and skill based paths – that get them where they need to go efficiently.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are now being “stacked” into “Nanodegrees” from Udacity and “Specializations” from Coursera, which demonstrate expertise in a given field. Coding bootcamps and vendor-specific certification bodies are beginning to issue a new breed of credential such as the “MicroDegree” and the “Double-Click Degree”. The former is a digital credential certifying that the holder has completed a minimum of 1,000 MicroCredits in a designated professional discipline. The latter, as Ryan Craig puts it in his book, “College Disrupted”, is “a way station on the road to the unbundling of the college degree”. As these forms of competency verification become more broadly recognized by hiring managers, those holding such alternative and emerging credentials will have a better chance of competing on a level playing field.

Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation recently quipped, “No one really likes accreditation, but no one knows what else to do”.  Perhaps the leaders of the accrediting bodies should discuss some alternatives during their next annual convention. They should hold it in the hotel in Erie, Pennsylvania, next door to the Railway Museum. There’s plenty of vacancies.

^B19th-century US steam locomotive.^b Railway station with a steam locomotive (left) and a crowd of people on the platform. The railway station is Hanover Junction, in Pennsylvania, USA. This scene was photographed in 1863, during the US Civil War. In November of that year, the US President Abraham Lincoln travelled on a train that changed railroads at this station on its way to Gettysburg for Lincoln's dedication of the new National Cemetery. The scene would have been similar to this one. The two railroads are seen at right and left. This photograph is from the collection of the US Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.

MOOCs vs Everest College: Kobe Beef vs Pink Slime

?????pink-slimeThere is real and tangible evidence that a seismic shift which will undermine the legacy system of higher education is taking shape. Case in point: roughly one in five working-age Americans attended college during the last two decades but left without earning a degree or certificate.  Yet enrollment at four-year degree granting institutions has been declining since it peaked in 2011, with the most drastic decline occurring in the for-profit sector, where it has dropped by 16% in just the last two years. The recent high-profile failures and investigations of several of the major players in this sector will most likely hasten their decline. These developments are forcing a growing proportion of the 31 million Americans who are seeking to upgrade their skills to look at new alternatives of earning degrees and certifications. Many are turning to MOOCS and similar channels that offer the bite-sized chunks of learning they need to plug the gaps in their resume. What’s more, they are able to achieve this outcome at price points resembling the monthly subscription rates at less than a cell phone bill, rather than being forced to make mortgage-sized monthly loan payments, as they have in the past.

The first initial in the term MOOC, M, stands for Massive, which is synonymous with the term accessible. Yet by this measure, MOOCS have yet to live up to the hyperbole.  In a somewhat perverse development, the majority of MOOC students  to date might be labelled the “educated elite” – gainfully employed professionals with one or more college degrees.  Over two thirds of people who enroll in MOOCs have one or more degrees already and nearly three quarters have full time jobs. Affordability is not the primary motivation for this group of early adopters, quality and variety is. Yet individuals at the other end of the economic spectrum, those with little or no formal education beyond a high school diploma, hourly shift workers who shuttle between two or more part time jobs, by and large have yet to take advantage of the world of free and open educational resources that MOOCs offer. If they have been enrolled in any post secondary programs, more than likely it has been in an academically substandard program that forced them to take out tens of thousands of dollars of loans to pay for. And so it has come to this: The best material goes for free to “dilettantes with degrees”, but the programs of questionable value and highest cost go to the underpaid and uninformed. It’s a bit like Whole Foods giving Kobe beef away to their best customers, while those who shop at the A&P in the strip mall use all their food stamps to buy a pound of pink slime.

To earn the description “disruptive”, a product or service will begin to take root in an under-served, or non-served segment of the market, and then move relentlessly upmarket, eventually displacing the established competitors. We are not there yet, but we must make the effort if education is ever going to be the path to greater prosperity for all.

“The End of College as We Know it”

Over the last couple of weeks since I became an “Edevator”, many people have asked me, “Why Edevate, and Why Now?” After spending the last decade being a mentor, adviser, investor, biz-plan judge, and general gadfly, why I am I jumping in with both feet to do a start-up now? The short answer is the timing was right, as well as somewhat fortuitous. Edevate was founded with the singular purpose of bridging the accreditation gap that currently exists in the Open Education community. The news in higher education has been dominated lately by the growth of MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) and their promise to dis-intermediate the existing post-secondary institutional hierarchy. The missing component from this euphoric vision is the lack of a straightforward path from course completion to transferable credit.  If you missed my post on this blog from February, I was commenting on how new approaches to accreditation and competency standards would affect the future of higher education as we know it now. Here’s an excerpt:

“The clear implication is that the higher education models that would be eligible for federal financial aid through the alternate accreditation system wouldn’t have to be colleges at all. They could be any providers of higher education that meet standards of “performance and results.”
If this prediction proves correct, the new accreditation model may well hasten the demise of the for-profit higher-ed business as well as small, regionally accredited colleges that exist on the margin of the post secondary sector. If the vast pool of motivated, but financially challenged students will be able to choose between taking out five figure student loans to attend a mediocre institution, or can cobble together a program of study from the top universities in the world for free, and get an equivalent accreditation which will lead to gainful employment, then the existence of such esteemed places of higher learning as South Harmon Institute of Technology is indeed in doubt.

About the time I was writing that post, a pair of innovative educators and college presidents named Gareth Genner and William Fahey were in the midst of developing a platform that would give the growing number of MOOC users a path to achieving transferable college credit for the courses they take online. On top of that, they were also building a skills database that would let online learners search for courses that would give them the skills and competencies they required for career advancement. (This is something I had been deeply involved with in the corporate market fifteen years ago, as the e-learning company I had founded offered a “skill-gap analysis” tool for Fortune 500 employers. )When Gareth approached me in September about coming on board with the company that by then was known as Edevate, I was immediately intrigued. It offered me the opportunity to continue the mission I was on during the early days of the internet and to take advantage of the tectonic shift in the emergence of free and open educational resources in the last few years. The chance to make a dent in the trillion dollar student debt crisis was an added incentive to join.

As if to underscore my decision,  an article in the New York TImes by Clay Christensen and Michael Horn contained this succinct argument: “But for MOOCs to really fulfill their disruptive potential, they must be built into low-cost programs with certification of skills of value to employers.” For MOOCs and Open Educational Resources to reach the proverbial tipping point, the link between course completion and gainful employment must be strengthened. Currently, we’re still in the early adopter phase – high-growth tech companies such as Google and Amazon are so hungry for highly qualified technical talent that they are quite willing to bypass the traditional recruiting model and siphon off the top performers in Udacity’s or Coursera’s Machine Learning and Python MOOCs. For them, demonstrated mastery of key skills is more important than a piece of paper with a gold seal and Latin scroll on it. For the long tail of other employers, such as the mid-western tool and die maker that needs to hire an assistant comptroller, the job description will continue to include the words “Bachelor’s degree required” for several years to come.  At present there are over 20 million unemployed or under-employed adults in the U.S. who lack the proper credentials to qualify for such entry level, but career-oriented jobs.  That is the market Edevate, and other alternative credentialing initiatives, aims to address.

I have a more personal motivation for undertaking this mission. I currently have five children enrolled in college, and two more who will most likely be headed there in the next few years. The ones that are there now will most likely complete their education the conventional way, by walking across a stage with a rolled up diploma in hand. But by the time my youngest finishes in about ten years time, the concept of a “degree” may seem as quaint as the term “sheepskin” is today.

Stay tuned…

The road to Common Core hell is paved with good intentions

A recent op-ed in Newsday “Implementation of Common Core is a recipe for disaster”   pinpoints two reasons why CCSS are unlikely to live up to their promised goals:

“If the Common Core standards – which are meant to define what knowledge and skills should be acquired by students during their K-12 education – are not integrated into the American education system with care, any positive attributes that they may have will be washed out by incoherence, misalignment and evaporation of political support.”

Recent developments are coalescing to form the perfect storm to put the promise of a national education curriculum into the equivalent of ISS (In school suspension). One is the recently announced costs of the tests – $30 per student, purportedly three times what Georgia, for one,  has typically spent for testing. This announcement triggered Georgia to immediately drop out of the testing consortium  “Georgia school chief explains Common Core test retreat: We couldn’t afford it.”

No doubt other states will be faced with budget pressure to withdraw from the testing consortium as well. Add to this the political heat many state superintendents are increasingly feeling from constituents who are resisting any further federal influence over states’ education policy and curriculum standards, and you have the recipe for the balkanization of testing and accountability. And if the predicted decline in test scores materializes, due to the more rigorous nature of the tests, (“Test Scores Sink as New York Adopts Tougher Benchmarks”)   we will more than likely witness a rerun of the No Child Left Behind shuffle – the feds granting waivers to states who “show progress” despite being unable to meet the proficiency standards of the law. As the saying goes, “Plus ca change…”

Watch this space: LearnSprout and inBloom Announce Strategic Partnership.


Expect to see more announcements such as this one in the coming months.  According to GigaOm:
“InBloom stores the data and provides integration tools and services to allow schools, districts, states and other vendors to aggregate student data from Student Information Systems, testing vendors and other sources. It also helps educators find instructional content aligned with certain standards so they can match it to their students’ needs.” Other Ed-tech companies, including Schoology, Wireless Generation, and Clever have indicated they will be developing applications that work with APIs developed by inBloom, formerly known as the Shared Learning Collaborative. No word about integration from the burgeoning social network for teachers Edmodo. Maybe there will be more announcements at next week’s big SXSW-Edu conference in Austin.

Rapidly growing K-12 edtech company to power connection between leading student information systems and nation’s first common education technology infrastructure. Full Press release:


“Accepted!” (President Obama’s Bold Plan to Reshape American Higher Education)


The key excerpt from this insightful post by education policy analyst Kevin Carey is the following: “The clear implication is that the higher education models that would eligible for federal financial aid through the alternate accreditation system wouldn’t have to be colleges at all. They could be any providers of higher education that meet standards of “performance and results.”
If this prediction proves correct, the new accreditation model may well hasten the demise of the for-profit higher-ed business as well as small, regionally accredited colleges that exist on the margin of the post secondary sector. If the vast pool of motivated, but financially challenged students will be able to choose between taking out five figure student loans to attend a mediocre institution, or can cobble together a program of study from the top universities in the world for free, and get an equivalent accreditation which will lead to gainful employment, then the existence of such esteemed places of higher learning as South Harmon Institute of Technology is indeed in doubt. Further, if the requirements to qualify for Pell Grants (the $40B federal voucher system for low-income students) are expanded to include these alternative models of a college education, it opens a barn door sized opportunity for purveyors of MOOC  offerings to build a sustainable revenue model. The VCs are already salivating at the possibilities. Stay tuned.
The rest of the blogpost is here:


Dear Edtech Entrepreneur


I came across this open letter from a teacher to ed-tech entrepreneurs, which I recommend to anyone planning to reshape the educational landscape.


The writer of this blog is a teacher and PD professional, who makes an impassioned plea to developers of innovative and disruptive ed-tech products to spend a little more time thinking, or talking to their customer, in this case, teachers. The essence of her post is that in order for her to recommend any new product or service to the teachers at her school, it must meet several criteria. These include many of the factors any new product or app should have, including an “instant-gratification” UX – no cumbersome set-up time or complicated data migration issues. Also, readily available support from the vendor, including, if need be, a site visit. (This one may pose a challenge for freemium-priced products, but clearly support is a major requirement). Fair enough, but I would argue that there is another factor that determines the success of any new technology in a school. That is, the adoption rate by teachers. Any single teacher may discover a new tool that makes her/his life easier, but if that teacher is the only user in the school, the product will have limited traction in the market. So the challenge for the entrepreneur is to create a solution that makes advocates, or better yet, evangelists, of those early adopters. The user experience should be so compelling that other teachers who look over the first teacher’s ask, “Hey, where do I get that?”. (This is known as the Instagram adoption model.) If it results in some measurable parameter improving by a standard deviation or more, then it is likely that it will get the attention of other teachers, and perhaps even the principal.  The adoption rate will increase geometrically if this achievement can be obtained while decreasing costs or time spent on a mind-numbing task. According to the teacher-blogger Ms. Estrella, the worst offenders apparently are grade-book and learning management systems.


Schoology bets $250k on open education data challenge

This is a very positive development for the ed-reform movement, but it strikes me as about as likely to succeed as a bank robber paying SunTrust to allow him to tunnel into the their safe. Sure they get $25K now, but they may find that down the road, people use the bank less often. SIS vendors have built nearly impenetrable walls around their systems, leveraging the fear and paranoia associated with issues such as student privacy and data security, because that allows them to continue extracting rents from their captive users, without having to innovate. Nimble start-ups like Clever, Learnsprout and others are creating ways to circumvent the stranglehold the SIS vendors have had on school districts, and it’s refreshing to learn that a Goliath like Pearson is willing to give a slingshot to a David, like Schoology. Fire away!