Category Archives: Edufountain

Graduating from Blackboard

Graduation Cake Guy by Flickr user CarbonNYC, used under CC license.

Graduation Cake Guy by Flickr user CarbonNYC, used under CC license.

In August of 1999 I joined a small startup that was intent on changing education using the power of the Internet. My colleagues and I did it. It has been incredibly fun, challenging, full of highs and lows and ultimately satisfying. I got to write and design products used by millions of people. I traveled the world, met thousands of people, saw some amazing things and heard incredible stories. I want to sincerely thank every one of you who made that possible.

What’s Next

Some of you might be wondering what’s next for me. I have no comment at this time. If my life is a reality TV series I’m going to end this season on a cliff hanger.

Funding Your EdTech Startup


Last week I told you that the job you wanted didn’t exist, that your ideas are terrible and you will fail. Now that we’ve dismissed your fantasies about how amazing life will be when the world recognizes the genius of your innovative technology product and the press / customers universally grant you laurels while handing over mountains of cash; let’s get you started.

One of the most important things you are going to need is money and advice from people who have done this before. Even if you are doing a “lean startup“, you will find that eventually getting someone else to cover some of the startup costs is useful. Be careful though, the people with the money will be happy to get you to build your business into a thriving enterprise and leave you with only crumbs at the end. I’ve made you a list broken out into three categories of organizations to pitch your idea to. I don’t endorse any of these groups and I caution you to do your own research before doing business with them.

Accelerators / Incubators

Accelerators / Incubators provide training and sometimes money to help you take the earliest steps in building your business. Usually they can offer some mix of office space, small grants (a few thousand dollars), training and access to advisors. The following are ones that I’ve seen in the news recently that seem especially focused on EdTech. There are thousands of others out there.

  • Kapplan EdTech Accelerator — The Kaplan EdTech Accelerator is a three month intensive, deep immersion program for ten education startups
  • Pearson Catalyst — The Pearson Catalyst incubator program aims to match startups with Pearson brands to deliver pilot programmes and offer access to Pearson resources and product experts, including the opportunity to work closely with a Pearson brand over the course of the program.
  • Imagine K-12 — Imagine K12 is a 3.5 month program for founders and hackers intent on changing the world.
  • 4.0 Schools — 4.0 is a design lab for curious people committed to unprecedented innovation in education.
  • Startl — Provides small grants to help seed promising ed tech ventures.
  • Center for Education Technology (Israel) Provides support to Israeli Ed Tech entrepreneurs.
  • Startup Weekend Education — Provides workshops over weekends where innovative people like you can build out your ideas and get your business off the ground.
  • Learn LaunchX — Boston MA based program for Ed Tech with a summer program offering funding, office space and advice.
  • Socratic Labs — NYC based edtech incubator.
  • Y Combinator — Not specifically edtech focused, but one of the more talked about startups.

Angel Investors, MicroFunds and Venture Funds

These are the more traditional sources of funding. These are usually comprised of “accredited investors” These are usually rich people or groups of rich people with money and resources to investigate your company and business plan before they invest. These groups tend to overlap and the terms usually apply to the scale of investment made. Angel Investors are usually individuals who provide seed investments (usually less than $1 million) to startups. MicroFunds are just groups of Angel investors who get together to spread these small investments around to a number of companies. Venture Funds are larger pools of money that focus on making multi-million dollar investments.

Some useful sites for finding these investors:

  • Angel List — This is sort of like an dating site for startup funding.
  • Crunchbase — a general registry of tech companies, but also useful for finding out which funds are backing particular ventures.
  • VentureBeat — provides news and information about startups and funding.

Crowd Funding

The Internet has enabled a new kind of funding model. Crowd funding lets you take your concept to social media and then market it to potential customers and others who like your technology idea. The people you engage give small amounts of money towards your seed funding goal. Typically potential customers will get a discount or moved to the front of the line when the product becomes available.

Two of the more popular sites for Crowd funding are:

Your Friends and Family

You should be careful here. Make sure they understand that your intent is to lose their money in an epic failure. They are paying for a very expensive wedding that will end in a divorce. Still the journey will be character building for you and there is a remote chance, like a lottery ticket that they will make some money out of it. I am not going to list your friends and family here, because you have Facebook for that.


Community Brainstorm: Requirements for Personal Learning Environments

Personal Learning Environments (PLE)’s like ePortfolios seem like a great idea that has yet to coalesce into a winning product. How about a bit of community brainstorming and requirements ideation. Since these are Personal Learning Environments we want, let’s write short “ads” in the style of Craigslist/Newspaper personals. For example:

MWM seeks PLE for portfolio storage, study breaks must be non-smoker, LTI preferred.

Post to twitter with the hashtag #plepad and it should show up in the stream below.

Here is a collection of personal ad acronyms to get started.

Three Dimensions of Augmented Reality — Background For Educators

Augmented Reality is an emerging technology that will have a profound impact on how we engage with the physical and virtual world. I’ve written this blog to give educators some more background on this trend. Here is a quick visual example of the capabilities that emerge from this technology. In this short video you will see virtual dominoes placed on a real object using a touch screen. Next the user “touches” the physical space and the virtual dominoes fall down.

Defining Augmented Reality

I define Augmented Reality or “AR” as a set of technologies that integrate the physical world with digital information to create a enhanced and unified experience via a seamless user interface. Consider apps that combine the smartphone viewfinder, GPS and camera to augment perception of the physical world. An example of this is Blackboard’s Explorer for iPhone app or Wikitude.

There is more to this than just hacking the smartphone viewfinder. To better explain this technology I’ve grouped it into three dimensions: X, Y and Z coordinates.

The X Axis: From 5 Senses to 5000

Consider the impact real time computer sensory data on top of our own biological senses. We can provide the user with enhanced perception, continuous biological monitoring, improved motion and location services. As mentioned above AR Apps like Wikitude and Blackboard Explorer leverage a smartphone, viewfinder and GPS to enhance the visual experience. The form factor of looking through the smart phone viewfinder is still a bit awkward. This fall (2013) expect to see devices like Google’s Project Glass provide an integrated “heads up display” for early adopters. The number of sensors being integrated into our phones and apps is enormous. My Nike’s talk to my phone while I run. I’ve got a Neurosky headset that can give me a real time EEG readout while I mediate. Apps are helping us sleep better by monitoring how restless we are in the bed. Near Field Communications chips and QR Codes are creating cheap infrastructure for hyperlinks between the real world as virtual.

The Y Axis: Motion Capture Based Interfaces

Gestures are already taking over from the mouse and keyboard on tablets and smartphones. Gestures captured via cameras on our computing devices using gadgets like XBOX Kinect and the Leap Motion Controller are the next wave. There are already really cool classroom activities and lessons built around Kinect. Leap Motion announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in January that a number of manufactures will have their device built into high end laptops and gaming PC’s later this year. This technology is important because it simplifies the user experience and makes it easy for developers to merge physical and virtual space. As seen in the domino example above this synthesis creates interesting possibilities for simulation and interaction.

The Z Axis: 3D Projection Maps

Capturing motion and augmenting perception are increasingly combined with digital projectors to create 3D projection maps. Already this tech is appearing at concerts and stage performances. These technologies enable a digital projector to generate geometric shapes that are placed on real objects on a stage. Multiple projectors can be linked to create some awesome displays.

Look at this performance by Dandypunk called, “The Alchemy of Light” for a really stunning example of an interactive performance using 3D projection maps.

Educators should be excited about the new kinds of immersive learning simulations that will appear as this technology goes mainstream. I encourage more DIY/maker minded educators to look for ways to get students building projects that leverage these devices and systems. Most of these technologies have robust online communities and open source tools to help get you started.

Get Ready for Personal Drones

While we tend to think of “remotely piloted aircraft” or “drones” as the domain of the military or perhaps R/C hobbyists; dramatically lowered costs, smart phone based controller and improved pilot control by software assistance are about to enable this technology to cross into mainstream usage. This technology opens up new possibilities for educators looking for new ways to excite and engage students.

An example of this new class of consumer friendly drones is the AR Drone 2.0 from Parrot Industries.

This drone includes two cameras, flies for about 8 minutes and can be piloted via your smartphone or tablet with streaming video from the drone.

I recently purchased one and here is some footage at a river near my home.

Earlier this week San Francisco Based Always Innovating announced the MeCam mini-copter. This copter is designed to be controlled by voice commands and designed to get around the nagging problem of who holds the camera while you stand for the picture.

This is a big step forward for the technology. High density batteries enable 10-15 minute flight times, software and sensors have simplified flight controls and the unit is fully assembled instead of comming in a kit like traditional R/C aircraft. The manufacturer has included an SDK and a USB port which creates a nice platform for hacking and extending the device.

The rise of relatively lower cost, consumer and hacker friendly platforms has traditionally been a markers for a technology that is about to break out and go mainstream.

From an education technology perspective the quadcopter / multi-rotor platform has been used in a number of engineering programs. Consider this project from the GRASP Lab at the University of Pennsylvania. The rise of a consumer friendly platform now enables a wider spectrum of students and educators to use this technology.

Here are some quick ideas for using this technology in studying natural sciences and humanities.

Natural Sciences — consider using the drones as part of field research and exercises. For example use the drone to conduct an aerial survey of a site to gain a fresh perspective. The students could use a map of the site and information about the drones flight characteristics such as altitude and total flight time to plan the route of the survey and then compare their data with information form sources such as Google earth to create an increased understanding of the site.

Digital Storytelling / Media — consider the ways that a hovering and flying camera platform could be used to get shots that otherwise would require a crane or real helicopter. There is also an opportunity to use the drone to view a crowd or augment coverage of an event.

Ed Tech 2013 and Beyond

The New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report on Emerging Technologies in Education is in its preview stage for 2013. One of the report’s authors, Bryan Alexander wrote a blog post on the subject. I made a couple of quick comments over there and will offer some expanded thoughts below.

I think the Horizon Report has done a fairly good job of capturing some of the more mainstream trends in technology. I’m skeptical of the timings and relationships of some of the elements. First I will go through the timeline proposed by the NMC Report and then let me highlight a few items I think they missed as summarized by Bryan:

Time-to-Adoption Horizon: One Year or Less

  • Massively Open Online Courses  — I’m a believer in MOOC’s but I think this timeline is too aggressive.  The business models for the MOOC providers like Coursera, Udacity and EdX are still evolving.  MOOCs are potentially huge change agents for the way universities organize and deliver teaching and learning.
  • Tablet Computing —  I’m in general agreement with the report here.

Time-to-Adoption Horizon: Two to Three Years

  • Big Data and Learning Analytics — I think there are two parts to this.  First the technology platforms like Blackboard Analytics and Outcomes are pretty well developed now and seem to have crossed over from early adopters to mainstream usage.   I can see how this could actually be moved ahead to 1 year or less for most higher education institutions.  On the other hand there remains a gap between the ability of these platforms to organize data and the knowledge of the consumers of the information in stats to really take advantage of the data.  There will be a tremendous organizational shift to train and hire staff capable of reaching the right conclusions from the metrics presented.  There will also be competing models for a long time to come.  Look at Baseball where big data and analytics are used all the time to assess and improve player performance.  Give “Money Ball” a read and think about how far we have to go in evaluating and assessing program and student performance metrics.
  • Game-Based Learning — This technology always seems 3-5 years out.  Also the definition it self is so broad that as a technology concept it is almost meaningless.  As a teacher pointed out to me recently, we already have sticker charts.

Time-to-Adoption Horizon: Four to Five Years

  • 3D Printing — With online services like Shapeways, ThingVerse of existing 3d models, and technology like the 123D Catch app for your mobile app and cheap 3d printers like Makerbot already out there.  Industrial design and engineering students should already have access to this technology and with the increased cost and accessibility that is already out there,  I think it is likely that this technology will enter in to the rest of campus much sooner.
  • Wearable Technology — Judging by the number of people I see wearing their Jawbone Up’s, Nike+ watches and other gadgets, I think we are also underestimating the timeline for this.  Given how rapidly consumers adopted the iPhone and iPad devices, I think we’re likely to see a breakthrough gadget or two in the next 6 months to a year.

Something that was left out.

I know that the committee evaluated a lot of technologies and trends; and I suppose I should have dropped these into the wiki when it was open. Personally the most significant technology and trend that I think was left out is the whole Arduino/Maker movement.  The notion that individuals can rapidly develop customized Internet connected electronic gizmos is a potential game changer.  I would make a pretty big bet that in 3-5 years the Maker Culture of DIY gadgets, hack spaces and specialized gadgets will have a major impact on education.  In K-12 this means that shop class is about to start making a big comeback.

Back to School: Cheaters Edition

First let me note up front that I know MOOC is a potentially incorrect term and that we are really talking about Coursera courses that are open enrollment and delivered to large numbers of students for free. The press has labeled it a MOOC cheating scandal, so I’m using the term in that context.

Dr Chuck was in town recently and we had an opportunity to talk at length about some of the recent headlines around cheating, especially the recent issue at Coursera.

Reflecting on our discussion the following thoughts have been bouncing around my head.

Future expected value of Coursera Certificates.

Specifically as Coursera becomes a more mainstream way to get educational content there may come a point where actual academic credit was granted to students completing the course. A view that cheating is widespread in fully online programs could be extremely harmful to free online courses. A secondary effect of the anticipated value of the course may be the trigger for the behavior of other students who took it upon themselves to identify the cheating students.

The Solitaire Problem

People cheat at solitaire and single player video games. There are probably a number of reasons people would cheat in these situations, but I expect that some of them are motivated primarily by the desire to finish or complete the game for its own sake. When it comes to reducing and policing online cheating among these students, I anticipate student’s completion pressure will outweigh any social penalty. These cheaters don’t seem as motivated by the external validation or social rewards. However these users can as will be caught by their peers who have a vested interest in the value of the program.

Instruction practice and good course design remain important tools to block both types of cheaters. Courses which encourage collaboration and use peer review, can discourage certain types of cheating such as plagiarism. Courses that have a high status value to students, encourage students to police the class because they don’t want the course to lose value.

Instructure’s Black Eye

Instructure got a bit of a black eye when a software update allowed a large number of students to change grades, resulting in front page headlines in the Salt Lake Tribune. Instructure has been less than forthcoming about the nature of the bug and even suggested that the grade changes may have been inadvertent by the students, not intentional. Given the fact that Canvas is supposed to be a single multi-tenant instance one wonders if this was grade book corruption limited to a single customer or if there may be more widespread problems and security lapses.

Last year Instructure went out of its way to do a public security audit and invited Phil Hill into view the process. I think we’ve now seen that this was more of a marketing stunt than a real commitment to transparency and openness about their security, or a demonstration of a continuous process. Point in time security audits are fairly meaningless if a code base is changing ever week.

Harvard Students Get Busted

There has also been a lot of publicity around a major cheating scandal at Harvard. In reviewing the reports in the media. I can see how the course design, student expectations and even classroom management played a role in the actions by the students. The class seems to have had limited participation requirements and the grade was totally dependent on the final exam. Students were told they didn’t even have to show up for class, as long as they passed the final exam. They were told by peers and the teacher that this class was easy. I don’t think this excuses the behavior of the students. After all these are Harvard students who are supposed to be the best educated, elite of the elite.

Going back to the Coursesa incident it is notable that students in a free program with unknown academic value are willing to out their fellow students, while the students who are getting a Harvard “A” cover it up and actually copy their peers.

The uncertain future value is key here. The students at Coursera are much more heavily invested in the integrity of the experience because it will only have value if the community makes it have value. Harvard students get the benefit of public social currency in the public belief in the quality and integrity of the academic experience at Harvard. The immediate reward from taking and completing a free online class is the knowledge gained and there is a possibility of a future reward if the free online class certificate is seen by others as meaningful. The immediate reward of an “A” in the Harvard class was having an “A” on your transcript and the future reward of a Harvard degree is a known thing. If there are fifty resumes for a single entry level opening and you are interviewing 3 candidates, the person with the Harvard diploma has a decent chance of getting into the top 3 all other things being equal.

Closing Thoughts

A few themes emerge. First is that we can always be wary of the difference between marketing and reality. Marketing would say that all Harvard courses are academically challenging, Instructure is secure, etc. However reality paints a more complex picture. The second is that high SAT scores and admission standards do not alter the fundementals of human behavior. If people think they can get something by cheating, many will, even elite students. Finally we see that great courses can be taught anywhere. Good design and setting expectations for students can deter cheating. Students need to understand that the value of the “A” is only good if it is earned, and if others are getting the “A” without earning it, it is diminishing the value of their own experience.

Khan Academy Kerfuffle

Justin Reich at Ed Week is sponsoring the MTT2K contest offering up to $750 to the best video “critique” of a Khan Academy video. The first winner is an over the top snark fest. Why would they be handing out prizes for best troll? Did I miss some announcement where Ed Week got acquired by 4Chan? Paying people to snark seems wasteful, the people on the Internet will gladly post snark for free.

For whatever reason bashing Khan seems to be the trending topic. Audrey Watters at Hack Education, jumped into the fray last week comparing the millions of students at Khan Academy with McDonald’s customers. Her blog post seems to extend on a tweet she made while Sal Khan was presenting at BbWorld. After careful reading I see that she does raise an important question which is, “Is the Hack Education Blog is more like Denny’s or the Waffle House?” My answer is that it doesn’t matter because either way you are getting a big plate full of crap.

I suppose I should try to elevate the level of discourse here and provide points, counterpoints and such. It is difficult though, as the arguments raised against him seem more based on emotion rather than reason. I understand that there are highly effective math teachers and programs out there who don’t have the same visibility as Khan Academy. I think humans tend to be tribal and I can see where it is possible that Khan presents a challenge to the current leadership structure of the tribe and perhaps is creating an alternate tribe. This is a very emotional response though, not a rational one.

I suppose my reaction is emotional as well. I am a bit of a math geek, but it has always been a struggle for me. I was working on a problem a few years ago and found myself in need of a refresher on some bits of linear algebra. It was during that time that I came across one of Mr. Khan’s You Tube videos. It really helped me out quite a bit and since then I’ve been hooked. So here I am on my own blog reacting to the snarky attacks on Khan Academy with snark of my own.

I hope this bit of introspection has amused you. It certainly amused me.

Eight Tips to Reduce Online Cheating in Your Online Class

Jeffrey Young talked to me for a story he was doing on online cheating for the Chronicle of Higher Education. I’ve given a lot of thought to the problem of cheating in online courses during my career building edu software. Here are a few tips I’ve gathered to help you build online courses that stop cheaters.

1-Culture and Learning Design — The culture of the class and the learning design can have a major impact on cheating behaviors.  More constructivist activities like blogging, wiki creation and group projects tend to reward learning.  Foster a culture that rewards contributing to the corpus of knowledge within the class.  If students are recognized for individual contributions, they will pressure their peers to do their own work rather than copy each other.

2-Question Pools and Random Blocks — Build question pools and use random blocks instead of single questions— Instead of giving each student the same question, create variations for each topic area and then use the “random block” feature to show a different set of questions with the same difficulty for each student.  If you have a question bank from a publisher this is very easy to do because questions are often tagged by level of difficulty and topic.

3-Randomize Question Ordering, Answer Order and Question by Question display — In most systems you can set a quiz to go question by question, instead of all at once.  You can also randomize the order of questions and the order of multiple choice or matching questions.  This makes copying off another student’s system a bit more difficult.

4-Change quiz feedback display options — for high stakes exams change feedback display options to hold the feedback until after the grades are posted.  You can also limit the time that feedback is available for students.

5-Use “Negative marking” — You can assign negative points for a wrong answer.  This penalizes students for guessing by lowering their overall score with each wrong answer. This feature was added to quizes in Blackboard Learn SP8.

6-Use calculated questions — Calculated questions allow you define a range of variables and formula to ensure that each student does a unique problem set.  

7-Allow multiple attempts and use “formative assessments”— use the quiz to help the learner understand the topic rather than high stakes summative quizzing.  The goal here is to develop topic mastery by having students take the same quiz multiple tmes in the learning process and be able to see their ongoing mastery of the subject.  By lowering the stakes of the individual quiz attempt the student is rewarded for learning rather than punished for failing. 

8- Think like a video game designer — Consider video games where the player repeats the same level over and over again until they master it.  In really good games the mastery of the level is the reward, and using a cheat code makes the game boring and unplayable. “Watch a video, click next and take a quiz” style courses reward “cheating” and copying.  Completing the sequence is the reward, people will do whatever gets them through sequence the fastest. Cheating may be a symptom that the learning design needs to be revisited for the activities in the class. For more on this read Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn.

Just Call me the Cookie Monster

One of my recent projects has been to look at how the UK Cookie Law may affect universities and software makers such as my employer. Some folks have even started calling me, “the cookie monster”.
I guess I’ve earned that moniker after months of meeting with product owners, customers and lawyers to talk about this new law. I’m not a lawyer, so what you a reading here is just one guys opinion. My employer’s blog will have more official details. My goal here is to try to explain some background into my thinking after chatting with lawyers, clients and attending a few briefings by SIAA and others.

Compliance is fairly straightforward. Here is the model I used:

Get a list of all your organizations web sites and web applications

Depending on how large your organization is this might prove painful. Especially if you have random departments websites

Figure out if the site is likely to be used by people in the UK or EU

The UK law enforces the EU Data Protection Directive. The law protects these users. You’ll want to review this and decide what your risks are. Is the UK ICO going to come after a WordPress blog in the US? I don’t know.
Also sites such as intranets used just within a company by employees probably don’t need to be reviewed because only your employees are using it in a private capacity. On the other has if customers and others use the site then it probably needs to be reviewed.

Next make a list of cookies

There are first party cookies like those set by IIS, Tomcat and PHP. Then there are all the thirds party cookies set by all all those Facebook like buttons, tweet counters and Google Analytics. Finally there are things like flash cookies, HTML local storage, mobile app storage which count as cookies under the regulations. I used the View Cookies extension for Firefox as a starting point.

Figure out what the cookies are doing
What is being connected to that cookie. Since programmers try to use cookies for many things. For example you might have the Google Analytics cookie. Or you might have a session cookie that is tracking users and letting the user set preferences. The law says if the cookie is strictly necessary, you don’t have to get use consent. However since most cookies do double duty and most sites have other cookies, it really is better just to document as many cookies as possible.

Add consent popup or checkbox dialogue to your sites

When the user visits your site, before you set any of these third party or start associating the cookie with personal info, give the user a popup (such as you got when you first visited this site).

I’m using the WordPress Cookie Warning plugin on this site.

Collect the info together and publish

Put a page explaining you cookies. Here is my page.

Review other privacy practices

Take a moment to review the information you are gathering. Make sure this is consistent with your privacy policies and needs. Make sure you store and dispose of private information in ways that match the sensitively of the information gathered. Also review who has access to the information. As information becomes more sensitive you should be locking it down. For example final grades at pretty sensitive, while an email address by itself might less sensitive.

Get ready for more change

Governments around the world are looking at this issue of ePrivacy. As html5 becomes more sophisticated and allows for more sophisticated client applications we will see regulations emerge. The general thrust of these regulations is to rely less on industry standards and place more burdens on website operators.