Learning Impact Blog

Takeaways from Learning Impact 2012 - Part II

Digital educational content of all sorts is always a major topic at the Learning Impact conference – and it was again in 2012.

In 2012 we had a great panel moderated by Jeff Young (of the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Wired Campus blog). It featured executives from VitalSource, CourseSmart, Cengage Learning, Follett / CafeScribe, and University of Maryland University College. The panel had a provocative title: Will Apple or Anyone Reinvent the Textbook? This title was chosen to highlight that this last year saw yet another supposedly "disruptive" entry to digital content to education from Apple – the iBook – but that this is just one in a series of such products – the issue being that the adoption of digital books in education is still very low, perhaps 2-3% of the market.

Why do we focus on e-textbook at Learning Impact?

  1. Education will eventually move from paper to digital.
  2. The textbook and supplementary materials market across K-20 is large – roughly $20-25 billion U.S. annually – thus a disruptive solution here has significant market for a digital (technology) solution.
  3. Textbook costs are considered a hot button issue – with some very loud voices calling for change in terms of cost reduction.
  4. The textbook as an “organizing format” remains by far the most proven educational format preferred by faculty (despite years of advocates, including yours truly, for granular learning objects).

The number one thing that the Jeff Young panel clearly concluded in my mind is that none of the major providers see the e-textbook of even the near term future as a digitized book. They ALL believe that the market in education is for something else – something of greater value. The best example is the rise of “homework applications” (e.g. Pearson MyLabs, Cengage Brain, McGraw-Hill Homework Manager, ALEKS).  These are discipline specific online homework applications that typically bundle digital content, digital assessment & adaptive release of content based on skill level obtained.  These products have become popular with faculty as they automatically grade the online assigned homework and thus allow monitoring of student progress. They are popular with students because they provide formative feedback and ability to work at varying paces.  The 1EdTech Learning Impact Report from early 2010 pointed to this as the highest Learning Impact product/project category.  Even the leading providers of the digital alternatives that are closest to “a digital book” all agreed that the future is coming fast in terms of features in the digital books – such as collaboration, assessment and usage tracking – that clearly go beyond a digitized book.

My understanding is that the homework applications market is growing rapidly in terms of dollar size, notwithstanding a recent report from Ithaka (see Barriers to Adoption of Online Learning Systems in U.S. Higher Education) that points out some potential barriers to larger scale adoption. A related note is that University of Phoenix recently acquired a provider of adaptive math tutoring products in this same category: Carnegie Learning. I think that acquisition speaks volumes to the perceived future value of educational technology in this category.

The number two thing that is happening in e-textbooks is that there is a continued move a-foot for leading universities and colleges to foster centralized adoption of e-book alternatives, in many cases entailing price negotiations with publishers that are willing to play (for instance see Internet2, McGraw-Hill, Courseload, and Five Universities Implement eText Pilot in Spring 2012). There is essentially a new category of intermediary suppliers rising rapidly here - with 1EdTech member VitalSource emerging as a leader, along with 1EdTech members CourseSmart, CafeScribe/Follett and CourseLoad. Note that the business models of these organizations vary pretty substantially – but what is the same is that on the “buyer” side you have a university or college that wants to encourage digital version availability (either because digital is the chosen university format or as an option) and on the other side there are the mainstream publishers who have agreed to work with these intermediaries (for a variety of reasons – ranging from providing a full customized service to being simply the distribution platform of choice by the institution). The question that needs to be answered is how robust will the development of these centralized agreements become in a higher education world that is notoriously decentralized?

There are also niche suppliers such as Kno and Inkling which by all appearances are challenged by a lack of breadth for an institutional sale and/or a lack of deep/better content. While there should definitely be a long tail in education the reality is that selling to faculty/teachers requires substantial reach.

So, the good news is that there is no lack of competition or innovation as we move from print to digital in education. The attributes of digital products that are worthy of a price are becoming known and accepted. And, basic digital alternatives are widely available (and easy to integrate into the institutional enterprise thanks to 1EdTech standards :-) ).

The bad news is that the thing that will really drive a tipping point in terms of conversion from print to digital - the “better digital alternative” to the printed book – does not appear to be in hand. And, it’s not clear where the motivation to make that happen will come from. Let me explain.

Teachers need a digital toolkit that is easy to use and most of all makes their job easier. When I say “their job” I mean the job of being the leader of guided discovery. Example: Everyone is talking about “flipping the classroom” for its potential to focus class time on more engaging content (than lectures). This means that the replacement textbook product is a toolkit to make flipping the classroom easy. Whether teachers are flipping the classroom or not they like to customize the materials. They like to pick a chapter here, a section there, an article there etc. In the digital world is it really easy for a teacher to do this? Teachers don’t have time to search the cloud for learning objects and put together original curriculum. They like the textbook plus supplemental material model.  Is it easy to do this digitally? No. Here’s a great blog post about application of Universal Design for Learning to Flipping the Classroom: UDL and The Flipped Classroom: The Full Picture.  Are publishers or anyone else providing teachers with a digital tool kit to make this type of teaching easy?  No.

How about students? Let’s take something as simple as reading text on computer. Is this easier than reading text in a book? No, it is not. Nick Allen of UMUC pointed out that students need the digital textbook materials on an e-reader if we really want them to read it. I have a Barnes & Noble Nook Color – and I completely love it – I would rather read a book on my Nook than any other way. However, is there a publisher out there that sells a complete course toolkit that works for teachers (lets them customize, integrate with the LMS, easily incorporate formative assignments, makes it easy to create summative assessments) and works for students in that it provides the right mixture of e-reader and computer content across a variety of platforms? No, there is not. Not even close from what I can tell. Readers please correct me if you have better information.

Another rumor at the conference was that sales of Kindle versions of textbooks is picking up substantially, despite the "low grade" content. Amazon is a major and growing threat to college bookstores.

So, whereas we see the “homework applications” really making the lives of teachers and students easier – and therefore of high value – these are at best “supplements” and not a complete alternative to paper. The alternatives we have to truly replace the textbook, well, are just not clearly better.

Educational publishers are some of the strongest supporters of 1EdTech. I’m sure they all know much more about their business than I do. And, they are doing a lot of stuff that perhaps some of which I’m not aware of. But, my sense as an entrepreneur says that the textbook replacement opportunity writ large will come from a pretty substantial R&D investment in which publishers work closely with their primary customer (faculty) to figure out what is needed in the textbook replacement toolkit – you know, in depth usability studies, possibly with lots of the digital stuff publishers already have – and how to provide the complete solution. This may even require including the reading device in the bundle the student buys. To get to true digital replacement of textbooks, the “whole product” for "easy and better" is needed.

Sadly, I’m not sensing that any suppler – large/existing or new/entrepreneur is on to this yet. Worse, while the large publishers may have the resources for the R&D to do this, it’s not clear if they have the motivation. After all, the printed textbook is the cash cow. It’s not growing substantially, but the movement to a myriad of digital distribution channels probably provides some growth as people ending up buying the same book in multiple formats (much like we all have bought the same Beatles albums - OK I'm dating myself - many times over in the different formats).

However, for those hoping for the digital education of tomorrow, please don’t be dismayed. Industry forces are at work. I can tell you that I have seen the movement each year at Learning Impact. In some sense, 1EdTech is playing a key role. Our technical interoperability work is all about making life easy for suppliers and users. e-textbook has been the initial killer app for 1EdTech Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI).  In fact, using 1EdTech standards you can begin to pull together the pieces needed for the toolkit – and those disruptive suppliers that wish to encourage this can do so much more easily than they could in the past.  Perhaps more importantly, buyers can demand conformance to standards that keep their options open in terms of how to configure content solutions.

But, perhaps more significantly, I sense a great frustration on the part of the end user institutions: K-20. The frustration on the part of higher ed institutions has been growing steadily each year. This year we pretty much had institutions saying directly to the publishers that “we want to take advantage of better digital solutions for content and apps and either you’re going to make it happen or we’re going to make it happen without you.” Sound far-fetched? My business sense is that it is not. See "what is happening #2" above in which universities are collaborating on centralized e-textbook negotiation and distribution. It is making more and more sense for a well-resourced supplier or group of suppliers or even universities to move aggressively to digital in the future.  And, if this is true in higher education it makes even more sense in K-12 where curriculum and textbook purchases are substantially more centralized and therefore the buyer – who wants to see digital content disaggregated – has even more power. This message came loud and clear from the leading K-12 districts attending Learning Impact this year.

What about open content? This area is still of great interest to institutions although I am sensing they are more interested in self-generated content than open content. Even many school districts are generating quite a lot of digital content. Of course, this is an area when 1EdTech standards potentially shine in that such content developed using tools that can export Common Cartridge, like SoftChalk and Blackboard, can work on other platforms as well. A related development in the marketplace that I find interesting are new programs to provide stipends for faculty developing online courses that are in essence replacements for textbooks (for example see Taking a Bite Out of Textbook Costs and Temple faculty experiment with alt-textbooks). In the early 2000’s we saw similar stipends help institutions rapidly advance online courses. Will the same happen now with respect to online content replacement for textbooks?

So, the future of digital textbooks – really content - is unfolding – a $25 billion opportunity.  It will get even more interesting. 1EdTech will do our best to enable an open and innovative playing field.

What about Apple? Apple has so far turned out to be a non-event. Everything that has been said about education so far has simply been a ploy to sell more iPads. Hey, I have one, don’t you? We love cool gadgets! My iPad has its place next to the sofa so I can search the web when I watch TV. It may have a role to play as one of the e-reader devices mentioned above - too early to tell. Samsung has joined 1EdTech and I’m hoping for great things in education from Samsung!

More on mobile in another LI Takeaway future post.


Every year I like to take some time to reflect on the Learning Impact conference experience, this year held May 14-17 in Toronto. In 2011 I wrote up my summary as a single short paper for the 1EdTech community.  This year, with the introduction of the Learning Impact Blog, I will be posting a series of short summary pieces over the next few weeks.

Our number one goal with the Learning Impact conference when we created it 6 years back was to create a conference on educational technology that leaders would actually want to go to and attend the sessions because they provided real insight into where the educational technology industry was going.  The nice thing about doing this as the 1EdTech Consortium is that was are a member consortium that “makes our living” so to speak by actually doing things. Our main priority is not to observe, exchange, write about things. Our main priority is to help the education industry transform by doing collective good work around technical standards, adoption and impact. One of my favorite sayings that I use a lot in presentations to distinguish 1EdTech is, “After all has been said and done, a lot more will have been said than done.” In 1EdTech we are about doing. We will always do a lot more than we will write or talk about it.

In a separate post I have characterized the current state of educational technology adoption and interoperability as being equivalent to the adoption of electricity to homes and use of electrical appliances in 1900 – see It Will Be Us, It Will Be Now. We have a long way to go, but we also are seeing the foundation take shape.

What makes 1EdTech special is that we are a community of organizations and individuals that is working actively to realize the foundation that is needed for educational technology. In this introduction I would like to thank the 1EdTech member organizations and the many leaders who came to Learning Impact 2012.

In the posts that follow I will be giving my impressions of what we learned.  In 2012 we focused on the state of digital learning platforms (learning management systems, apps, tools), the state of digital content (e-textbooks and beyond), the state of mobile technology for learning, the state of e-assessment and the state of technology applied to continuous instructional improvement (closed loop learning, professional development, curriculum improvement, individualized learning), institutional leadership in adopting technology, and, of course, the Learning Impact Awards. We also had the most infamous and controversial LMS smack down panel in the many years of being the only conference that has the top dogs from the market leaders face off.  I will be covering each of these areas in subsequent posts.

The focus will be on movement. If there is a lack of movement where I believe the 1EdTech community would like to see more, I will call that out. This is about working together to create the change we would like to see. If you want to run in place with respect to educational technology adoption – or pretend that the latest fad is an innovation – well, then I suggest you not tune in. If you want to understand how the leaders are laying the foundation for the future today – then this should be interesting to you.

Many thanks to Jeff Swain of Penn State for his blog post with his unsolicited impressions of the Learning Impact conference! I’d have to say that this is a pretty typical reaction from a newcomer.


A couple weeks back there was a lively discussion on the EDUCAUSE CIO listserv about whether the CIO is or should be the Chief Innovation Officer? This topic came up last week at Learning Impact - and our higher education leadership panel made the point that key to innovation in institutions are two things:

1. It should be perceived as everyone's job, goal, etc.

2. The governance structures about how to lead and foster innovation should be clear

A study was cited by Mark Stiles of JISC that indicated that when executives were not clear about how IT governance occurred in their organizations, it had significant ramifications on the performance of the organization (see What Makes for Good IT Governance).

Today, by pure chance, EDUCAUSE released a podcast interview I did at EDUCAUSE 2011, where I discussed how interoperability standards can play an important role in helping CIO's set up a foundation for Innovation, and thus being an innovation leader, versus what many are really focused on today: integration.

Listen to the EDUCAUSE podcast interview with Rob Abel of 1EdTech here.


In 1EdTech we are coming off the high of our annual Learning Impact conference held this year in Toronto. This was the 6th annual Learning Impact conference and the 10th annual conference held by 1EdTech (we changed the name and the focus to Learning Impact in 2007).

The conference has grown nicely over the years, but it is still an "intimate" group of about 300 or so industry leaders equally split among suppliers and institutions across K-20. A lot of really interesting things happen at the conference as it is as much or more a venue to work on 1EdTech continuing initiatives as it is a "state of" the ed tech industry. This includes the annual Learning Impact global competition that is the only competition of its kind worldwide: an independently judged awards program that recognizes the achievement of technology in helping to improve education, particularly access, affordability and quality.

Most years I do a keynote in which I attempt to provide some details of the "big picture" on all things knowledge economy, education trends, tech trends and the role of interoperability. This year the main message was that the 1EdTech community is clearly creating a major shift in the education landscape.  The change is as simple and yet as profound as the change around 1900 when electrical outlets started appearing in homes for the 1st time.

Most people alive today take the ease with which a wide variety of electrical appliances can be "plugged in" for granted. However, this was not very easy in 1900. The "killer app" for electricity to the home was the lightbulb.  As a result, early wiring of homes terminated in light bulb sockets - of which there were quite a few competing forms.  As a result, the "standard" for getting electricity to new categories of appliances was a light bulb screw that had an electrical wire coming out to the appliance (see collage).

So what?  Well, this is where we are in terms of the ability of educational institutions to adopt educational technology. Every vendor has their own integration APIs that are analogous to the variety of light bulb sockets. The "wiring" of integrations is complex and messy - and just not as easy as it should be (and in the case of electricity, eventually became). It was not such a great time to be selling appliances in 1900 as they were not easy to adopt.

The good news is that every industry eventually overcomes these barriers. The education segment has some unique challenges compared to some other industries which I will be discussing in this blog over time. But, the bottom-line is that the 3% of education expenditures that is spent on technology in education worldwide (see BCG report here) will eventually rise to the more normal 6% - but in order to get there, incorporation of technology will need to get easier and its value will need to be clearer.

Both of these issues - making adoption easier and getting clear on the Learning Impact of technology are key themes of 1EdTech.

In this year's keynote I relayed some very good news.  I showed 75 major products or institutions that are actively involved in deploying 1EdTech standards and directly involved in conformance certification. We are very sure that the real "market" is at least double this right now. This means that for the 1st time in its history, the educational community is in fact putting in place the "plug and play" infrastructure needed to take out unnecessary cost (think all that custom lightbulb wiring) and open up the market for greater innovation (think all those appliances available to you today in your home).

At the conference I learned of the progress of Instructure - the new entrant in the LMS segment in the last 1 year or so. Instructure has built an entire partner network around the 1EdTech standards! If I am a venture capital investor in educational technology, I am jumping for joy right now!  Do you realize how much investment was saved by not having to develop and maintain their own proprietary integration scheme? This frees up capital for focus on higher value areas.

I also learned about Harvard Business Publishing using the 1EdTech standards to more easily deploy their high quality simulations in a large variety of institutional integration configurations. This makes the use of technology more seamless for faculty and students and reduces unnecessary cost.

I could go on and on with these examples - which we do write up and capture on the 1EdTech web site. But, to sum up, why are we only in 1900 with respect to the education segment? Well, the interoperability is getting where we need it to go, but not quite there yet. The people that are responsible for building the houses - the institutions - need to embrace interoperability as a key strategy. The suppliers need to adjust the culture of custom integrations further and embrace the strategy from the top to the bottom in their organizations.

I chose 1900 as the date not only because it shows the limitations, but also because it was an approximate turning point beyond which electrical outlets rapidly made their way into homes and appliances began flourishing. It is readily apparent  to me that the 1EdTech and larger educational communities are ready to turn the corner or reach the tipping point on this. I see a tremendous cadre of leadership among our 1EdTech community - who I think have the momentum and will make it happen. We need to understand that this change is inevitable and understand our role in the history of educational technology. So, I ask, why not us and why not now? And I conclude that it will be us and will be now!


The title of this first post to the new Learning Impact blog is a quote that can be attributed to Bernie Luskin. Most people involved in educational technology don't realize it, but we are at the very beginning infantile stages of what will grow to become one of the most vital growth industries. Yes, education expenditure by most nations is already large - in the range of 5-7% of GDP. However, the percentage of those expenditures on technology is about 50% of other major industries (for instance, see this report from BCG). In this blog I will do my best to try to understand where we are, where we are going and how we can get to a better place faster with respect the use of technology to support education.

As noted in the tag line, a lot of this will be about leadership. Education is a very unique industry and community with special considerations and needs. We need community leadership on quite a few fronts - that means leadership across institutions, suppliers to the segment and government entities. I am privileged to provide this perspective from a nice vantage point as the CEO of what has arguably become the most significant collaboration to accelerate technology innovation in education ever: The 1EdTech Consortium. 1EdTech began as a project in EDUCAUSE in the 1995 timeframe. 1EdTech was at the beginning of the start of the course management / learning management products for education. After stagnating through 2005, 1EdTech has had a resurgence (see the 2011 1EdTech annual report) that now encompasses K-20+ and key technologies such as the future of the LMS, digital content, learning applications, e-assessment, educational positioning, the future of the student system, accessibility for digital learning, and so forth. In fact, the resurgence has kept myself and the 1EdTech staff more than busy - really too busy to blog or otherwise adequately communicate all that is occurring.

Until now! I hope! It will be challenging to find the time to blog.  But I feel that we have learned so much in 1EdTech over the last 6 years that it is time to share what we have learned and what this means for providing a more productive use of technology to serve education.

What needs to change? In a word, leadership. In a sentence, leadership that recognizes that the education community is powerful and can catalyze a more productive use of technology to serve education with some targeted collaboration. We are all learning together how to make this leadership happen - and I will do my best to share here what is happening in 1EdTech as well as insights that the 1EdTech experience may provide in interpreting current events.

See you in future posts!