Want to know something cool?

One point of view, taking note of sundry "cool" things that affect-- or could affect-- the education business.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

How do you want it?

Recently I attended a state-wide meeting of educators and administrators, and during a small group session I was accosted by a tech admin who castigated the educational publishing indudstry for delivering our products on CD. He was convinced that our industry engenders last-generation delivery of products on plastic because we want to protect our intellectual property, and I was upbraided for "ignoring the example of the music industry's collapse" and for clinging desperately to the archaic pay-per-copy business model.

After some discussion, I think that I was able to convince this individual that our industry is, in fact, eager to deliver at least some of our content online, and that it is the vast spectrum of customer environments, rather than our relentless pursuit of filthy lucre, that forces us to deliver for the lowest common denominator.

The fact is, there are buildings and districts in the market who want us to deliver our content and software over the web. There are others who want us to deliver it to the district and let them host it on their own web servers, behind an intranet/VPN. But there are many other buildings, cities, and districts whose concerns about bandwidth, security, privacy, and accessability drive them to insist on CD-ROMs.

Educational publishers of a certain size would likely jump at the chance to eliminate inventory and unit manufacturing costs, to post and host our products-- and deliver new services-- over the Web. Many of those companies boast infrastructure that puts some ISPs to shame, and in fact, the higher ed space is rife with Web-served content. Servers, administrative systems, physical and virtual security, bandwidth, and reliability are all there, and scaling these capabilities into the School market would make a great deal of sense for many of our offerings.

Conversely, we must always consider the small rural district or impoverished urban school systems, whose requests for "online" product are in fact pleas for "electronic" content delivered on CD-ROM rather than over the Web. Some of the most technically advanced districts expect publishers to turn over the keys to their content so the district can post, host, and administer the products and services locally. Other school systems boast point-to-point fiber-optics with 1GB/100Mbps switches routing traffic through load-balancing server megafarms using autosensors to scale bandwidth on the fly based on client IP requests.

Publishers are increasingly becoming software developers, in addition to interactive engineers and instructional designers. But Business 101 tells us that we cannot effectively build a vehicle that is equally comfortable on local streets, major highways, canals, and rail lines. We have to develop our products to hit the most common delivery methodology available. Which brings us back to CDs.

Often, while technical administrators clamor for products and services that leverage Web 2.0, teachers and curriculum administrators are expressing concerns about privacy and security. Where a systems administrator would much rather see browser-based products (they're so simple to support), a teacher worries that Johnny or Maria have to use their e-mail address to access their online account. Buyers and financiers worry over per-seat or per-student subscriptions, versus a physical product with a static price point.

Until the lexicon of educational materials becomes more standardized, "online" products will continue to lack sufficient definition for publishers to hit every customer's mark. And until the various perspectives within the school systems agree on the delivery platform that best suits their students, publishers are left to identify and implement the most common, rather than the most effective, metaphor for the greatest range of customers.

Only when the educational publishing industry and the educational system at large come to a more common understanding of the risks, rewards, and realities of "online" products, we will be poised to take that evolutionary step away from plastic. But when we do reach that point, watch out-- new metaphors unlock new potential into what can be delivered. One-to-one solutions for students, personalized learning paths, data-rich administration, and integration between content, curriculum, and administrative systems will empower teachers like never before.

A thrid grade teacher will be able to see when an individual student is challenged by three-digit multiplication, or when the whole class seems to require a different tack. Alternative instructional materials will be presented to teachers and students as appropriate, and homework assignments, done at home or on the library workstations, will be automatically graded and flow performance data to the gradebook for the teacher and the parent, as well as rolling up to grade-wide reports for adminstrators. Anonymous performance data will loop back to the publishers, who will see that their textbook and homework for three-digit multiplication needs to be rewritten, and the content will be revised and available for the end-users in real time. Teacher-developed resources will be tied to curriculum and state objectives, just like the commercially-developed materials, so that a building administrator can run a report by teacher or by grade to see which objectives have been covered and which remain to be taught. Intervention and enrichment materials will be completely integrated with the rest of the curriculum materials based on individual student needs, and instructional materials and teacher prep materials will be delivered to the teacher and incorporated into lesson plans, with lessons being scheduled and incorporating individual teacher preferences, no-class days, and other schedule events.

All of this is possible. None of it is very far away. We haven't reached total integration of these various systems yet, but before the class of 2010 graduates, we'll be there. Provided our market is ready to implement these solutions, beginning with a reasonable standard of connectivity and bandwidth. Cool, huh?

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