An open operating system for education, the threat of Big Tech, and how progress might happen

In my twenty years of working in education technology around the world, I have become convinced of the compelling case for an “open operating system for education”. If digital tools of all sorts were able seamlessly to exchange data without human intervention, but according to clearly defined rules governing privacy and permissions, the potential would be hugely exciting. Public, not-for-profit and commercial players in the system could compete and collaborate on the basis of how well they improve teaching and learning, not their access to proprietary data. There would be room for many more experiments and innovations from large and small organisations, as an open source algorithm written in a back room could be compared to $100m interventions from mega-corporations. We would have a much better chance of knowing what worked, why, and in what context. Governments, administrators, teachers, learners and their parents could better control and analyse the data they create. The ecosystem could be fairer, more transparent and vibrant.

We’re certainly not at that point today. Such a system would rely on a set of comprehensive, widely adopted, open standards for how digital educational tools should interoperate. Vitally, these standards would have to be agnostic to commercial model or local cultural norms (for example, around privacy). They would necessarily support as many choices as can be thought of. Not because all choices are good choices in my or your opinion, but because decisions in the value-laden world of education are usually context-specific, culturally debatable, and often develop over time. Texas would make different choices to Turin or Tianjin, and these all need to be upheld.

There are a lot of standards out in the world, but they aren’t complete and they often focus on very specific American contexts. This isn’t the place to examine the alphabet soup of LTI, LRMI, SCORM, QTI, Caliper, OneRoster, ed-Fi and more, but suffice to say not all of the people developing all the standards talk to each other or have the resources to consider the world outside the USA. Additionally, the standards aren’t universally supported by tools and are sometimes resisted by vested interests. Indeed companies such as Clever are working to help sort out the spaghetti of proprietary systems by offering a (proprietary) interoperability layer. Plenty of data is being created by some fascinating organisations– from AltSchool to JISC to Zaya Learning – but their full potential is untapped.

For me, one issue now dominates whether or not we will make progress towards this open operating system. It is the role of the huge technology companies which are increasingly reaching into every part of our lives – Amazon, Apple, Google/Alphabet, Facebook, Microsoft, Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu.

The tech titans are on a mission in education. Google Classroom. Recently, Microsoft Classroom too. And Apple’s additions to iOS 9.3 so that it works better in schools. And Amazon’s recent release of Inspire. And Alibaba’s investment in TutorGroup. And a raft of other developments over the last few years as education technology has once again become a focus for investors, corporations and policymakers across the world.

Regrettably, these huge companies don’t seem to have considered some of the long-term consequences of their moves (or possibly don’t care about them). There is a clear and present risk that their actions will stifle innovation, create unintended controversy, and (most importantly) reduce the impact that we can all make as stakeholders in the world of learning.

Some background. Taking just the US players, Alphabet/Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft are each pursuing a “Trojan Horse” approach in the small-for-them global education market: they’re loss-leading in line with their wider strategies.

  • Google continues to improve the functionality of its free Classroom tool for schools, universities, teachers and students. Classroom is part of the Apps for Education suite and extends it so that users can not only send and receive email and work on documents together, but assign work to classes, collect students’ grades, and discuss homework. (In edtech jargon, it’s a free LMS). Chromebooks – which run a Google operating system – are now the bestselling devices to US schools, likely as they are cheap and easy to manage. They require a Google account. All of this pulls in data and users: Google’s raison d’être.
  • For many years, Microsoft has made Office free for schools and universities. They hope that this will ensure that people use their productivity tools out of habit and familiarity for the rest of their lives. Newly-launched Microsoft Classroom – very similar to Google’s offering, if a few years behind the curve – is part of free Office 365 for Education.
  • Apple is fundamentally a hardware-driven business. It likes to sell iThings and Macs and for people to become used to them (and so keep buying more hardware, apps and content). So, selling beautiful devices into education is good for Apple on all fronts – and if this requires some tweaks to iOS, so be it. Apple are even prepared quietly to purchase an edtech startup to further their strategy in education.
  • Amazon wants to be the distributor of as much as possible. Digital content especially – films, TV programmes, ebooks, audiobooks. Education resources have thus far been out of their reach as publishers and others have their own direct-to-schools sales staff. So they have bought a company which creates mathematics content, created a site for teachers to discover and share resources, and offered “one stop shop” solutions to cities and (allegedly) entire nations.

All, you may say, fair enough: isn’t it brilliant that teachers and learners across the globe get free or reduced price tools from these big players which let them do their jobs more efficiently and cheaply? And surely part of the companies’ motivations is about helping out the world of education?

Yes and Yes. But.

But – data. Google, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon lock up the data created in their own proprietary systems. They have absolute control over who gets access to it, for what purpose. Some access to the rich seams of information created by teachers, learners, administrators, content, applications (and more) is possible, but right now none of these solutions abide by any widely adopted open standards for data exchange. Furthermore, it’s rarely entirely clear who owns the data and what it can be used for, by whom.

Right now, this isn’t too much of a problem. Big tech’s offerings are relatively immature and little used in comparison to their competitors such as Blackboard, Desire2Learn’s Brightspace, Instructure Canvas, Moodle, Edmodo and many more. The competing offerings support some standards with varying degrees of usability, and in many cases do the best they can.

However, the scope and functionality of the Google, Apple and Microsoft solutions are inexorably growing. These tools are free at the point of use and are backed by relatively trusted brands with immense marketing clout. This means that such software is easily – and sometimes unthinkingly – adopted in the educational context, where budgets never go far enough. There are cases of entire countries’ education systems deploying Office 365 for Education. Furthermore, it seems that many adopters are sleepwalking right now – at a recent educational conference I asked three informed and intelligent teachers on a panel whether or not they were concerned that Google was in control of their gradebook data. Their responses implied – “Google Classroom is free – what’s not to like?”

In short, as adoption of these gratis tools unavoidably accelerates, educational data and access to it may become increasingly controlled by a small powerful group of private companies based in the USA. Google Classroom et. al. are of particular concern not because I think the big technology companies will necessarily do anything bad – I’m no conspiracy theorist. But we need to ensure that at least the majority of data created by education is public and personal rather than commercial and proprietary, and the track record so far of the big tech companies in opening up data is – shall we say – mixed.

Public, open standards are gnarly, painful to create and maintain, glamourless, and invisible if they work well (nobody thinks about TCP/IP as they “like” something on Facebook). But they are sometimes essential for the health and development of the system which they underpin. I for one firmly believe that educational data is one of those instances.

So what to do? It would be nice to think that Amazon, Microsoft and their peers could see the public benefit of collaboration. Perhaps uniquely, they have the capabilities to knit together the current patchwork quilt of standards into a workable whole and seamlessly support them (they have just about agreed on HTML). It’s debateable whether or not open standards would harm their business models – whilst “lock in” would clearly be reduced, users might be more prepared to use all of their offerings sequentially or even simultaneously – a teacher using Google Classroom on an Apple Mac to access a quiz made in PowerPoint bought through Amazon Inspire. Arguably, such openness would accelerate the adoption of their free tools even more.

Sadly, there is currently little evidence that these issues are even on the agenda of the technology giants. As with other markets such as music, at some point we may find ourselves presented with a fait accompli which seems beyond the control of governments. Control may already have slipped away.

In my view we need to work to avoid this. In the absence of Big Tech stepping up to the plate, plenty of bottom-up and top-down initiatives could help to ensure educational data is properly available and managed. Governments and groups of schools and universities should only accept contracts where there are clear assertions of data ownership (ideally by the learners themselves) and access (for both learners and institutions). All market players could accelerate the existing work which is going on by actively engaging with standards initiatives and encouraging them to work together. As teachers, learners, parents and citizens we all need to hold vendors and institutions to account. If we don’t, education will likely be the poorer.

For references and links, contact me in the comments or on Twitter @nkind88

Back in the blogosphere

I’m back with new energy, more knowledge, and a new mission.

I’m delighted to say that I am back in the blogosphere after a long absence – with a new site, the same interest in education, business and innovation worldwide, and a new mission around impact investing and better capitalism. Watch this space for insights and comment on the business of education, education technology and investing & innovating for good.

…and other things that have been preoccupying me…

Other things have been preoccupying me too – not least how to get the least worst balance between work, self and family. I could try and put down my thoughts on this, but it’s all been much better expressed and researched by Gaby Hinsliff on her blog and in her book (necessary disclosure: Gaby and I worked on the university newspaper together 20 years ago, and I enjoyed seeing her again at a party recently where we talked about all this). It’s succinct and very well written, and pretty well sums up the dilemmas my wife and I seem to face most days. Worth investing the time in, particularly for fortysomething parents.

Eton College, and what we can learn from it

Apparently Eton College is going to start up a school for less wealthy pupils – but this report does come from the Daily Mail, my least favourite newspaper, so treat with caution. And yet again, I hear that somebody at a conference is telling the world how much the English state school system can learn from one of the world’s most famous schools. I couldn’t make the Learning without Frontiers conference last month – so please correct me if I don’t quite get this right – but apparently a teacher stood up and lauded the 571-year-old public school for not having put any interactive whiteboards in its classrooms and for continuing to teach in a “traditional” way. I have attended other educational conferences which featured a lot of talk about why Old Etonians are allegedly so successful, and a similar questioning of “modern” curricula and educational approaches. Doubtless it’s because of the fact that our current British Prime Minister attended the school, and because there is a strong argument that the private school system still dominates the elite in Britain: Eton remains a fascination.

It’s not something I tend to mention very much – and never at conferences – but I went to Eton. So whenever this subject comes up in a public gathering I sigh inwardly and bite my tongue. It’s all too easy to be pigeon-holed as the posh, naïve, over-privileged Old Etonian, and I never feel that there is enough time to bore everybody with the detail of why everybody’s asking the wrong questions and not getting into the complexities of what might (and might not) be learned from possibly the most famous school in the world. So I’m finally getting it off my chest.

Eton is a bizarre, sometimes wonderful and sometimes weird, often brilliant and frequently ridiculous, resolutely unique, educational institution. I loved and hated it simultaneously, for many reasons, some personal, some philosophical, and some blindingly obvious.

The quality of its education – which was so inspirational it made me want to work in education for the remainder of my life – was grounded in some very basic and obvious facts and a lot of common sense principles.

The facts were that the school was highly selective and embarrassingly well resourced with brilliant teachers and world class facilities. This makes teaching and learning very easy, relatively speaking. It’s easy to love Mediaeval history if you are taught by an inspirational Fellow of All Souls, Oxford who treats you as if you are an undergraduate, or to have a lifelong passion for ceramics if your teacher exhibits his pots to critical acclaim in London and New York. I can’t speak from experience, but it must be a lot more straightforward to teach a class of 15 motivated, “posh” 17-year-olds picked for their intelligence than a group of 30 ill-at-ease and undervalued students in a poor (in both senses) comprehensive.

Eton’s overriding principles were to focus on the individual and make him (for there were, regrettably, only “hims”) feel that once he has been helped to find what he is best at and passionate about, whatever it is, there is no reason whatsoever that he shouldn’t be the best at it in the world. Simple but effective – and the snowball effect of saying “well, look at Jonathan Porritt/ Ranulph Fiennes/ Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, he did” (and yes, all right, David Cameron) – cannot be underestimated. This wasn’t narrow academic aspiration or box-ticking, but about being pushed to do something exceptional – in whatever field was your chosen one. Learning was in itself the best thing you could do, and continue to do for the rest of your life. I still remember my “A” level English teacher explicitly telling us that the first part of the year would be about how to pass the exam – and then we would get on to the interesting bits.

So – Eton didn’t cram you with much that was out of date. It was never relentlessly focussed on force-feeding you with the speeches of Churchill or the countries of the British Empire. Intelligent questioning was always much more interesting than dull acceptance. Marx was studied, in depth if you wished (so was American blues music). Amazingly, inside the school confines class and social status was relatively unimportant (though this changed dramatically in terms of social arrangements during the holidays – I got a scholarship, so my parents were nowhere near the income bracket and/or Burke’s Peerage listings of many of my contemporaries’, and I frequently felt “unposh” in this respect). Whilst discipline was necessarily present (usually quietly so), there was no corporal punishment and never humiliation from teachers. Whilst the place was deeply traditional in many ways the tradition was often there for a purpose (although I maintain, as I did at school, that the uniform is loony and some of the team games deeply replaceable).

Perhaps most significantly the school was excellent at teaching twenty-first century skills, utterly in line with the way in which many think the curriculum should now develop. I learnt to speak and perform in public; to work in teams; to solve problems; to think creatively; and to learn how to learn, without ever knowing that I was doing so. We learnt these skills via “traditional” methods: by performing plays, in playing team games, by being academically stretched, through other extra-curricular activities, through our teachers’ passion for learning and by constant challenging of our intellects. All of these “twenty-first century” concepts were so ingrained in the everyday experience, and had been for generations, that they just seemed obvious. It illustrates how the whole concept of “traditional” is deeply suspect in this context.

Which brings me back to technology. I suspect that every classroom at Eton doesn’t have an interactive whiteboard because they haven’t been judged to be the most cost-effective use of technology. (If this is the rationale, I’m afraid I would agree.) But – and you only need read the College’s website to find this out – all students are obliged to take a laptop to school with them and can use the Ethernet connection which they will find in their room. Every single student has their own room at Eton, and every single one is connected to the internet and to the college’s own intranet.

I quote complete with its Eton jargon (“F” block is the name for the first year of the school):

Computing forms an important part of the curriculum for new boys in F block. Almost all school events are advertised via email and internal websites, and a boy will use his computer daily for work and administration.

With of the growing use of IT in the curriculum and the need to ensure effective technical support for boys throughout the school, we have defined a minimum specification for boys’ computers.

Technology is there, but it’s been quietly and quickly incorporated into the fabric of the school where it’s useful and sensible.

Eton was not perfect by any stretch when I was there. It was particularly bad at training you to deal with what happens when things irredeemably don’t work out, whether it’s your fault, other people’s, or nobody’s. It had a pretty patronising and narrow view of the world of business. It undoubtedly has some unpleasant former pupils. It is hugely unfair that only 1200-odd pupils have access to such an experience at any one time, at a cost prohibitive for nearly everybody. Nevertheless, it is of course a hugely successful institution.

So what I always want to say at conferences is the following:

  • What success there is, is not about looking backwards to nostalgic notions of how education used to be. It’s about a combination of quality teachers, immense confidence, and high aspirations combined with pupil selection and amazing resources. Tradition is either motivational window-dressing or serves a sensible purpose, and is always questioned for its alignment with the values of the school.
  • I hope that quality teachers, immense confidence, and high aspirations are transferable into every school around the world.
  • I know – regrettably – that the resourcing is not, and selection is a deeply charged issue (which I’m not going to engage with now).
  • The interesting unanswered question is the relative importance and interdependence of these factors in creating a successful school. I hope and feel that resourcing and selection are actually the least important of them. What do you think?

An inspiring evening with Steven Isserlis and friends

Saturday night was spent at a concert in a village hall in Marazion, Cornwall. No ordinary concert, however – one of the IMS Prussia Cove Maestri concerts. It was a joy – some of the best musicians in the world performing at their best and most relaxed, in an unglamorous venue, just because they could. There was clearly no financial driver whatsoever for Steven Isserlis, Andras Scholl and others – other than raising money for the IMS project – and they were having a fantastic time playing with their friends (in both senses of the word “playing”). Recommended, if you can ever get to one…