Moodle and the next LMS: reflections and more questions

Last week Martin Dougiamas, the creator of Moodle, the world’s leading open source learning management system, joined our Future Trends Forum to discuss the future of that technology.

Someone on the site wrote up an extraordinarily rich report on the session, complete with numerous screen captures.  Bravo!

The full video recording is now available on YouTube:

During the hour Forum participants offered many questions.  Martin tackled a slew of them, yet still more came in.  I’d like to reproduce them here, edited very lightly.  They indicate the richness of today’s unfolding LMS discussion, and help illuminate where things might be headed.

Text question from Ed Finn: OER Game Changer – Moodle Community could separate it from Canvas and Blackboard who keep these types of sharing resources behind a wall.  I see it as similar to the Canvas Commons for resources with a social media component?

Text question from Sonja Strahl: Community question – Will the community you were discussing be available for only those with Moodle as their LMS (for both creation of OER and use of OER)? Or will it be open to everyone, and under Creative Commons license?  

Text question from Richard Wack: Accessibility – Blackboard recently acquired Ally which appears to be a very impressive tool to address accessibility as it pertains to courses. What is the present and future direction by Moodle on this important topic? Thank you. 

Text question from Josh: Anti-LMS – How do you respond to the anti-LMS pedagogy voices, even those who might object to an open-source tool like Moodle?  Does that debate interest you at all?

Text question from Ed Finn: Communication – Just out of curiosity, does Moodle offer social media, text and other communication coordination?  I know that Canvas has a rich development here where you can choose to communicate by email, tweet, text, or app.

Text question from Ed Finn: Versioning – What are your thoughts on different versions of Moodle and sharing between them?  How do you see the community working with multiple versions? 

What are you wondering about Moodle and the LMS, looking ahead?

My thanks to Martin and the Forum community for their generous time and thought.


Posted in education and technology, Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment

When education doomsayers aren’t grim enough

Recently Inside Higher Ed ran two columns arguing that higher education is in serious trouble.  Their titles proclaimed a very grim analysis: “What Happens If Higher Ed Collapses?” and “The Culling of Higher Ed Begins”.  Both contain useful bits of information and some thoughtful assessments.  Both serve the useful function of shocking people out of complacency. Unfortunately, neither go far enough.  In a sense, they are too optimistic.

Let me be clear.  Doug Lederman and John Warner’s columns are very useful.  I recommend sharing them with colleagues, be they in a library, an academic department, a state legislature, or in the next .edu start-up over in the incubator.  I like what they’ve done.  I just want to add to their analyses, since higher education’s problems are even more extensive and dire than those short pieces had time to address.

To summarize: Lederman notes that “the number of colleges and universities eligible to award federal financial aid to their students fell by 5.6 percent from 2015-16 to 2016-17.”  In other words, the number of institutions has declined.

colleges getting federal aid

Much of that is due to the for-profit boom going bust.

Warner hits a wider range of trends, including rising American criticism of higher ed, rising tuition, declining state support, demographics (yes!), booming student debt, and wage stagnation.  Ultimately, “we’re on an unsustainable path in post-secondary education, and have been for quite some time.”  Warner offers two scenarios:

If I had to guess – and that’s all this is – we’ll be looking at one of two scenarios, either some kind of libertarian dream version of a universal basic income that’s sufficient to at least sustain those without access to upward mobility, or we’re in an even worse dystopia, where the wealthy simply wall themselves off from everyone else a la The Capitol v. the Districts in The Hunger Games.

Taken together, these columns sketch out very dark possibilities for American higher education.

Let me make things worse.  There are other negative forces we need to bear in mind.

  • Rising tuition discount rates.  “Tuition” is indeed higher than it has been, but relatively few students pay full freight.  This means the wealthiest are paying more, progressively… and at some point they might not want to carry the rest.  Moreover, aggressive discounting can lead an institution to actually take in less revenue, which is ultimately unsustainable for many.
  • Rising medical costs.  These keep pushing up compensation for whichever campus people receive health care support, from some faculty to some staff.
  • The likely decline in the number of international students heading to the United States, as a result of Trump.  This will put pressure on our diversity agenda and hit finances.
  • The possibility that we might not think college is for everyone.  Remember, that’s been the thinking since circa 1990, when America committed itself to the knowledge economy.  Yet this belief might not last much longer.  Fears of student debt combined with stories of badly compensated work may drive people away from higher ed.  Real declines in family economic status could render college a long shot rather than a guaranteed good.  Increasing economic segregation might keep lower income high school students away from college; we’ve already seen some evidence of this starting to occur. Other options might appeal, including apprenticeships.  Students who did or would have attended for-profits don’t seem to be moving into the non-profit world. And don’t forget how many jobs are hungry for workers, and don’t really require a 4-year degree: retail, fork lift drivers, home health care aide, etc. (blog post to come on this)
  • Increasing inequality between academic institutions could drive poorer schools out of existence.
  • Pressures on research are heating up as funding becomes less available and professional demands continue to rise.  Will we see an exodus of researchers out of academia, or will university leaders face anew the difficult choice of directing resources to either teaching or research?
  • Political unrest (for example) could drain public funds from universities and/or further sour higher ed’s reputation.
  • Automated tutors could draw would-be students away from campuses, if they work, or are seen to work.

These are all present trends.  I haven’t spoken of black swans.

I also haven’t spoken to optimistic trends.  That’s for another post.


Posted in future of education, scenarios | 11 Comments

Reading _Rainbows End_, part 1

This week our book club starts reading Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End.

In this post I’ll introduce the reading (up through chapter 9)*, sketch out the first nine chapters, offer some notes about the world, then ask some questions.

Vernor Vinge, Rainbows EndFor an introduction to our reading, links to some resources, and our reading schedule, click here.  To read other posts on this reading, click here.

1. Introduction

The novel takes place in the near future, a time which resembles our own, albeit with some crucial differences.  Information technology and media have shifted into augmented reality.  Some diseases afflicting us in 2017 have since been cured, like Alzheimer’s.

The story tracks several plot threads, including a main character learning the world after having been removed from it, several education stories, and an espionage plot which might frame out the whole thing.

2. The plot so far

A group of secretive European intelligence officers, led by one Günberk Braun, organize to stop the outbreak of a mysterious virus which could influence people’s minds… a virus which has been cultivated and designed by one of those very same officers, Alfred Gaz.

Robert Gu was a major poet in the past, then declined mentally through Alzheimer’s disease (Rainbows End is the name of the care facility where Robert Gu went).  A new therapy has cured that condition and restored some of his youth, but he has still lost many years and much knowledge, so needs to be schooled in order to re-enter the world.  This means taking classes at the local high school, learning new technology, and getting used to his family, all of which he tends to hate.    His children work in the military and intelligence areas.  And Gu can be very cruel to them and others.

Juan Orozco, a poor and ambitious high school student, receives a paying digital spying job from a mysterious entity (which is ultimately Rabbit).  Fulfilling this gig brings him into connection with Robert Gu, which brings all three plot strands together.

3. About the world

Augmented reality is widespread, accessed largely through contact lenses.  This lets people represent themselves through avatars, and view the world through a variety of interfaces (including old Windows). There are public content layers and some “deadzones.”  AR users can also communicate quickly and in some privacy.  Vinge displays that kind of conversation like so:

Jerry –> Juan: <sm>Hey, where you going?</sm>

There are AR theme parks, including one that’s a riff on Jurassic Park.  AR users can also be hacked and hijacked, apparently.  As Rabbit says about an upcoming trick to play, “Sometimes he will really be me.”

Hardware: television screens – screens in general – seem to be scarce.   Gu uses “browser paper” early on to access the digital world, which many characters disdain as old-fashioned.  Drones deliver packages, hopefully just in time.  Much technology isn’t accessible under the hood, instead being blackboxed as “No user-serviceable parts within”.  Self-driving cars are integrated into the environment.

The digital economy is crucial, and has a response in curriculum:

search and analysis [is] the heart of the economy. We obviously need search and analysis as consumers. In almost all modern jobs, search and analysis are how we make our living.

Social notes: intergenerational stresses may be heating up, as Bob observes: “The taxpayers are not kind to seniors; old people run too much of the country already.”  People create and live extensively in networks, sometimes called belief circles. there are client relationships called “affiliances.”

Globalization has proceeded more deeply than it has in our time.  Character names show this, with greater mingling of different languages.

Geopolitical stresses continue, including weaponized plagues and terrorism, although some drugs have been legalized.  “There hadn’t been a city lost in more than five years.”  An Indo-European alliance competes with China and the United States.  We also learned of a shadowy digital harassment? protest? hacking? group, the Friends of Privacy.

Education: high schools are still locally funded, and unequally (“Hoover was Fairmont’s unfairly-advantaged rival, a charter school run by the Math Ed Department at SDSU”).  Shop class is back, and vital.  There’s writing or creative writing class, “Creative Composition”, which allows multiple media.  Team-based learning is widespread.

4. Some questions

Bob and Alice – is the family supposed to be an encryption reference?  Does this support the plot where Gaz might hack them?

“In the modern world, success came from having the largest possible educated population and providing those hundreds of millions of creative people with credible freedom.”  Is this a position that appeals to you?

Does Fairmont High sound plausible?

How do you cope with Robert Gu being the character closest to the reader, when he’s such a terrible person?

Next week: on to the middle of the novel, chapters 10-19 (pages 103-216 in my hardcover edition).

*Apologies for this post being a day late.  I’ve been caught up leading workshops at a conference.  Thanks to Bob Miller for help.

Posted in readings | Tagged | 9 Comments

Which old digital technologies will become new again?

We’re accustomed to a model of technological innovation that works like this: a mysterious project introduced on a stage, then takes the world by storm.  Think of the iPhone, say, or the first Apple Mac, or, further back, Post-Its.

Yet that’s not the only way new tech succeeds.  Another pattern we know from history is more public and less rapid.  This is when inventions appear, then fail to conquer.  They go underground, mutate, develop, mature, then eventually reappear and prosper.  Think, for example, of ebooks, which first appeared circa 1980 (!), and trundled along as a marginal thing until Amazon made the Kindle go big in 2007.  That’s nearly 30 years.

Lawnmower Man posterOr consider virtual reality, which had a fun boomtime in the 1990s, complete with a media feeding frenzy, rapid technology development, and plenty of experimentation.  That boom then fell into spectacular bust, and VR vanished, becoming at best a byword for technological paths not taken (which helps explain Jaron Lanier’s subsequent bitterness).  Only recently has VR come roaring back to some measure of adoption and commercial heft.  That’s twenty years, which is roughly a geological epoch in internet time.  It’s even longer than that, if we consider pre-1990 VR work.

Artificial intelligence is another instance.  It’s been dreamed of and worked upon since the mid-20th-century, and only now starting to realize world-transforming powers.

So let’s combine views of the past with prospects of the future.  Are there any other digital technologies that failed to crack the popularity code or just sank without a trace, that we might see bob to the surface in the next few years?

For example, during the 2000s virtual worlds went through a spectacular boom and bust cycle, notably in the meteoric arc of Second Life.   Will they come back?  After all, many of us inhabit virtual worlds called computer games; we just don’t call them Metaverses.  And VR’s immersive powers suggest we might be able to realize some virtual world dreams through headsets and goggles after all.

Should we expect peer to peer computing to return?  Around 2001 this was a gleaming technology filled with promise for decentralizing the web.  Instead it went semi-underground via vile sharing and torrents, while the rest of the web fell madly in love with centralization.  Now thoughtful skepticism if not open terror is rising in the wake of the Five Horsemen’s triumph (Alphabet (i.e., Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft); will we turn back to p2p’s old promise?

Responses to my “back to RSS” post are partly what’s behind this question.  RSS is another early 21st-century technology of promise, which collapsed into the silence of iTunes and fell to our goofy Facebook newsreading habits.  Yet people are increasingly irked by the Zuckerbergsphere’s habit of randomly shuffling our news, not to mention deliberately probing our privacy.  Could a new iteration of RSS roar into public view?

Which digital tech might take us back to the future?  What laughed-at old dreams are now incubating away from the TED stage, inching towards love once again?

Posted in technology | 5 Comments

How the university enrollment crisis plays out in summer 2017: two stories

American higher education enrollment has declined for the past half decade.  My readers know this well, as it’s a theme I return to frequently, yet it’s surprising how few college and university discussions really take this trend into account.  Combined with and contributing to financial pressures, enrollment decline poses a major thread to colleges and universities.

Some people see this clearly, and are taking steps in response.  In this post I’ll pick some sample writing from the past month to demonstrate some of their analysis and especially strategy.

ITEM: Catherine Hill, a former university president and now Ithaka S+R director, reflects on the situation and calls it a long-building crisis.  An economic by training, Cappy notes as well growing anxiety about student loan debt. As she puts it, in recent years

[i]nstitutions operated with an if-we-build-it-they-will-come mentality. But for today’s students that truly is a field of dreams.

Many colleges and universities are in desperate need of reform. They face challenges with high sticker prices, higher discount rates and even higher financial need from students. Combine these with increases in faculty salaries, the cost of benefits, and deferred maintenance, and the current equation for many institutions is irreconcilable.

For Hill, trying to revise that equation runs smack into two challenges: how to not reduce educational quality, and how to maintain or expand college access for the non-rich.  I remain impressed by her focus on economic inequality:

The question is how to reduce costs while maintaining quality, so that more students from low- and middle-income families can afford an education that improves their opportunities. Increased state and federal support seems unlikely in the current political and economic environment. Therefore, innovations that reduce costs while maintaining educational quality are needed.

In response, Hill identifies a series of strategies:

  • curricular reform
  • implementing some technologies to save costs
  • interinstitutional collaboration to control costs and share classes
  • lobbying the federal government to keep loans and aid intact

Each of those is very challenging and controversial.

Curricular reform can meet faculty resistance.  Faculty members can also generate their own curricular ideas which may simply go in a different direction than what Hill suggests.  There’s also the problem of shaping relatively slow-moving college curriculum to the fast-moving labor market, not to mention the ideological issue of letting business drive non-profit education.

New technologies for cost saving: as most technologists and senior administrators know, technology usually costs money.  Many of its benefits are non-financial, such as improving access to content, spurring creativity, improving learning in ways that don’t necessarily impact tuition revenue.  Distance learning generally costs more than many anticipated.  This is a hard one.

Inter-campus collaboration is something I’ve worked on for decades, and know just how challenging it can be.  Colleges and universities generally prefer to work with predatory companies rather than with the enemy other schools, and the double whammy of enrollment and financial stress makes collaboration even more tricky to build up.

Lobbying governments: the federal government is rapidly approaching madhouse status, to put it generously.  Approaching Congresscritters and officials now must surely be more difficult than in recent years.  Meanwhile, many state governments continue to grapple with politically more powerful competitors for funds, like health care, pensions, and crime.

Taken together, Catherine Hill offers a challenging four-fold path to follow.  I think each of these are worth doing, and can be done the right way.

ITEM: The Washington Post and Hechinger Report profile Ohio Wesleyan University, and finds those enrollment and demographic pressures again at work.

It’s in the dead center of the region where the student population declines are among the steepest—the number of high school graduates in Ohio, from which it gets more than half of its students, has fallen 8 percent since 2011—and the college is responding with a singular sense of urgency.

“Ground Zero turns out pretty much to be Delaware, Ohio, in the heart of Ohio,” said [David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities], himself a previous president of Ohio Wesleyan. [hyperlinks added]

In response, OWU has deployed some interesting strategies, which readers might recognize from their own institutional histories.

Boosting sports, because gender: “one group of [student] prospects was dropping faster than others: men. That’s one reason the university is adding sports.”  I’ve heard this from many, many schools.  Usually college sports at residential campuses lose money or at best break even.  That’s not the point.  Attracting male students is, now.  Recall the gender balance favors women in numbers.

Revising curriculum to meet anticipated demand: “The university also uses labor statistics to see what fields are in greatest demand, then tailors new programs to meet it.”  For example, “Faculty at the 175-year-old liberal-arts school, which has about 1,700 undergraduates, are preparing new majors in high-demand fields including data analytics and computational neuroscience.” Note the polite discussion of faculty ignorance of or resistance to this, too.

Improving connections to work: “The data also showed that students wanted internships and international study. Both have been expanded.”  Internships can be tricky, since many employers freely exploit students, and we can also see the problem mentioned above of giving business demands further sway in the nonprofit education environment.  Note the international study angle here.

Going after international students: “Admissions officers are back from scouting out prospective students in China, India and Pakistan” – a job made more difficult in this first year of Trump.

Taken together, these two articles point to a range of strategic options for colleges and universities to attempt in order to staunch the bleeding from enrollment and financial pressures.  We might well be seeing the first signs of a general administrative toolkit.

If we take these strategies into the future, we can imagine how campuses might differ.  A greater proportion of students are drawn from abroad (unless Trump kills this).  More on-campus sports.  Classes and majors tied closely to jobs and current topics.  Campus IT focused more on cost control and savings.  Some political science students graduate, then get jobs working as lobbyists in Washington or their state capital.

Is this a portrait of a college that’s more business oriented than before, or a savvy nonprofit navigating a rising storm?

Posted in future of education | 1 Comment

A growing partisan split over American higher education

American attitudes towards higher education are increasingly driven by party politics.  According to new Pew research, Democrats are more likely to like colleges and universities, while Republicans are even more critical of them than they used to be.

A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58%) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45% last year. By contrast, most Democrats and Democratic leaners (72%) say colleges and universities have a positive effect, which is little changed from recent years.

The major shift is really one that occurred within a single party. “Republicans’ attitudes about the effect of colleges and universities have changed dramatically over a relatively short period of time.”  The GOP went from a 54% positive/37% negative view in September 2015 to, now,  “a majority (58%) of Republicans say colleges and universities are having a negative effect on the way things are going in the country, while 36% say they have a positive effect.”

That’s an 18 point drop in just over one year.  Paul Fain observes that:

Viewers of right-leaning news media might not be surprised by Pew’s findings. Virtually every day Fox News, Breitbart and other conservative outlets run critical articles about free speech disputes on college campuses, typically with coverage focused on the perceived liberal orthodoxy and political correctness in higher education…

Bogus right-wing outlets also often target higher education. A fictitious story about California college students cutting off their genitals to protest Trump’s Mexican border wall plan recently made the rounds on purported news sites and social media.

That pattern of partisan attitude division plays out across several other major social institutions as well, to different degrees:

American attitudes towards institutions: Pew ResearchInterestingly, the two most disliked institutions are banks and news media.

Also interesting is the way age inflects some of these attitudes.  For one, there’s a fascinating divide within Democratic party adherents about media attitudes based on age.  The older the Democrat, the more likely they are to be fond of journalism:

Democrats age 50 and older are 26 percentage points more likely to say the news media is having a positive impact today than they were in 2015 (59% now, 33% then). By contrast, views among Democrats under 50 are little different today than they were in 2015; just 33% of this group currently rates the media’s impact positively.

Given the strong correlation between different news sources by age, I wonder what closer examination here would reveal.

For another, the older the Republican, the more likely they are to dislike higher education:

Younger Republicans continue to express more positive views of colleges than do older Republicans. But the share of Republicans under 50 who view colleges positively has fallen 21 points since 2015 (from 65% to 44%), while declining 15 points among those 50 and older (43% to 28%).

Here, too, I’d like to see more research.  Is this spike of dislike based on tv coverage of some student protests (half of Fox News’ viewers are over 68)?  Or is it based on an older, remembered fear of higher ed as a hotbed for PC unrest (1980s) or general campus upheaval (1960s)?

Looking ahead, will we see a return to a simply partisan approach to higher ed?

For the past 15 years or so, roughly, we’ve seen a degree of bipartisan alignment on education as a whole, with many Democrats deciding to reform learning, no matter what educators might think.  The largest examples here are: Ted Kennedy, who made No Child Left Behind Happen; Barack Obama, whose two terms included a full court press on all of education; Davis Guggenheim, who directed both Al Gore’s climate change documentary and an anti-public-schools documentary.  My favorite fictional example is the protagonist of the first season of House of Cards, who wars against teachers unions, and whose ideology and party affiliation are undetermined.

This is very different from, say, the clear partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans in the 1970s and 80s.  Then, one could reasonably count on the former to protect schools and teachers, and the latter to oppose and criticize them.  Perhaps we are falling back into that prior mode now, thanks to heightened partisanship, an energized progressive movement animated by anti-Trump politics, and perhaps by widespread dislike for much of education reform.  Testing, for example, once a bipartisan prize, is now widely derided.

If that’s correct, how long will the cleavage last?  Will it become simply part of the political and cultural landscape?

(thanks to David Cushing and Clyde Graham for recommending the story to me)

Posted in future of education, politics | 12 Comments

Towards the future of the LMS: to Moodle and beyond

Ah, the learning management system (LMS) (VLE to some people).  One of the central ed technologies, as well as one of the most controversial, and yet also accepted as a nearly universal  commonplace. I’ve been tracking it since the 20th century.

Two weeks ago we had LMS guru Phil Hill as a guest on the Future Trends Forum, exploring current trends in depth.  Phil was terrifically informative and thoughtful, as were the more than one hundred participants, who joyously hounded him with questions and comments.  So many, in fact, that the session spilled over onto a followup blog post here and another at E-literate.  Combined, what emerged is something like a graduate seminar on the next LMS, especially in Phil’s post and the video discussion.

At some point soon I’ll write more about what we discovered.  For now I’m struck by how powerful a role the LMS still plays in educational technology, how deeply it is embedded in our enterprises and thinking, and how many diverse issues and trends it activates.

Martin DougiamasTo follow up on this resonant theme, this week the Future Trends Forum will host another guest with unparalleled insight into the LMS world.  That is Martin Dougiamas, only the creator and global cat-herder of Moodle, the leading open source LMS and one of the world’s two leading such systems.

I’d like to ask Martin about where he sees Moodle heading over the next decade.  Based on our Forum and blog conversations, I hope to raise questions about how Moodle software and its supporting community will evolve in response to increasing use of mobile devices, to gamification, to big data, data analytics, personalized learning, and more?  How does he see the overall LMS domain changing?

What would you like to ask?  The event is open to all, and has plenty of ways for participants to connect with the guest, myself, and each other.

Please RSVP for the free (as ever) event, or just jump straight in when the session starts on Thursday, July 13th, from 2-3 pm EDT.

Posted in education and technology, Future Trends Forum | Tagged | 6 Comments