My EdStartup Idea 2: Inverting the Textbook



1. The Idea

Ever since the dawn of the factory-model school, textbooks have been the primary way that information is delivered from teachers to students, and they’ve been

  • developed by a committee of experts
  • published (usually in print) as a large, static document
  • filled with pre-distilled knowledge (vetted and distilled by those experts) which non-expert learners are expected to acquire from the book itself and the supplementary resources that accompany it.

Textbooks worked well in the 20th century, but not anymore … and students hate them.  What would happen if we completely inverted the 20th-century notion of a textbook?

2. The Problem

Everyone has heard and made complaints about textbooks.  They’re large, they’re boring, they’re hard to carry, they’re too easy (too hard) to read, they have too much (too little) information, the information is outdated or incorrect but can’t be changed until the next edition comes out … and even when the next edition comes out, how will the cash-strapped school district afford to buy it?  Those are important concerns, but  they’re symptoms of a deeper problem: as a tool for teaching and learning, the textbook was the perfect 20th-century solution.  It was built for a world where knowledge changed slowly, and where large organizations (which also changed slowly) were able to codify their own factual and procedural requirements in printed manuals.  By using textbooks, students were preparing for the printed (hardbound!) policy and procedure manuals they’d experience on the job.  And, of course, they usually planned to work for the same large organization, progressing slowly up a pre-defined ladder of responsibilities and pay raises, until they finally retired (with a defined-benefit retirement plan) and “enjoyed life” for a few golden years.

But those days are gone, gone, gone, and textbooks now prepare students perfectly … for a world that no longer exists.  They embody pedagogy and practices that are as counterproductive today as they were helpful in 1960, 1970, or 1980.

3. How does this idea solve the problem?

With the Tres Columnae Project, we’re rethinking everything about the textbook, from who makes it to how it’s used.

  • While they can be printed, our materials are designed to be used online, where changes and updates can be made easily and quickly.  We assume – and build for – a rapidly-changing world.  No heavy books!
  • Instead of a committee of experts, there’s a community of teachers and learners who create (and edit and update) the learning materials for each other.  Our subscribers are licensed to use, reuse, adapt, and remix our “stuff” as long as they contribute their creations back to the project … and as soon as their creations meet our clearly-stated quality standards, we’ll publish them on the site for other community members to use, enjoy, and remix in turn.  No more “too hard” or “too easy” or “too much” or “too little” – if it doesn’t work for you, make something that does and share it with others.
  • We provide the raw materials and some preliminary explanations and a lot of guidance and support, but we expect our learners to create and refine their knowledge, skills, and understandings, in the terms of my friends at the National Paideia Center.  No pre-packaged knowledge!
  • Since learners are no longer passive, they actively join a joyful learning community where they build something meaningful together.  No more boredom!
  • We think we’ll prepare both learners and teachers well for the new world where community is vital, where problems don’t have clear-cut answers, and where everything changes rapidly.  No more obsolete pedagogy or practices!

4. Why do I want to fix the problem?

It’s simple, really.  I love teaching and learning, and I love working with young people, helping them become the kinds of people they want and need to be.  I also love helping them build learning communities, even though it’s hard, painful work in 20th-century, factory-model schools.  I love building meaningful things, which is much easier to do together (in a joyful learning community) than in isolation.  Plus, my students hate textbooks, and they’d been crying out for something better – along with many teachers I know.

So the problem was clear, and there was a path to a solution, and it wasn’t that hard to start.  In the words of a famous Latin proverb, “aut viam inveniam aut faciam” – I’ll either find a way or make one.  But it’s a lot better when it’s we, not just I.


My EdStartup Idea 1: Overview



This will be the first of three posts for the EdStartup 101 MOOC about my two interrelated Ideas for making change in education.  Since I’ve been working on both ideas for a few years – and since there’s a working prototype of the first idea and a vision statement for the second one – it’s both easier and harder for me to write this post than it would be if I were earlier in the process.  It’s easier because I’ve learned a good bit about what will work and what won’t work, but it’s harder because I’ve been in the trenches with these ideas for a while.

There’s probably something I’m missing because I’m too close to both ideas.  So I hope you’ll help me see it and address it … and I’ll be glad to try to do the same for you.’

I’m writing this introduction as a separate post, by the way, because I really, really want to keep to the suggested two-screen limit for each of the actual Idea posts.  Just so you know,

  • Idea #1 is about inverting the textbook, and
  • Idea #2 is about inverting the school.

You can see why they’re closely related, I’m sure, but you can also see why they’re somewhat separate.

You should also know that both of them involve replacing the factory with the learning community as the governing paradigm and organizing principle.  So here we go….

The EdTech Startup Space, III



In my first post for this assignment, I talked mostly about ClassDojo and Clever,  classifying them as basically sustaining innovations, designed to help existing educational institutions do their current jobs better.  I also talked about Degreed and Dreambox and CodeAcademy and Goalbook and Knewton as disruptive innovations that are designed to create new approaches or even new institutions.  And in my second post, I spent a good bit of time trying to figure out whether Coursera sees itself as disruptive, sustaining, or some complex mixture.

I’m still not sure what I think about Coursera, but I appreciate the thoughtful comments from Heidi and @screenstorming on my last post.  I do think that disruption is harder than it seems … and, as Donna Murdoch pointed out in a Google+ thread today, the term itself is so overused that it’s starting to lose all meaning.

That’s a shame, because it can be a really useful term … and I think Christensen and Horn’s original formulation of disruptive innovation applies nicely to Instructure.  I saved them for last – partly because I have a personal connection with them, but partly because they seem to have developed a really intriguing blend of disruptive and sustaining innovation.  First, full disclosure.  My friend Laura Gibbs introduced me to the Instructure team in 2010, and I developed a demonstration site for some content I’ll be talking about when we get to my Idea(s).

At first glance, Instructure Canvas is “just” another entry in the crowded LMS market.  It has some intriguing features, it’s nice-looking, and it’s written in Ruby on Rails –  but there are lots of existing LMS products.  What makes Instructure stand out?  For me, it was the way that Devlin and his colleagues designed and marketed their product – exactly the opposite of legacy LMS vendors.  When we talked in 2010, he told how the team started out by talking with end users, finding out their least favorite features of the LMS products they were currently using.  Based on that feedback, the Instructure team built its product, then developed a community of passionate supporters by giving away free, cloud-hosted accounts to any teacher who wanted one.

By the time they approached IT departments and administrators to talk about contracts, they had a community of passionate users who were already familiar with the product and who wanted to be able to use it at scale.  And that’s when Instructure went after the LMS market in a big, exciting way, landing the University of Maryland and a huge corporate training account among many others.

In other words, even though they produce a sustaining product (another LMS? in 2012??), both the product and their approach to development and marketing are full of intriguing disruptions.  Most commercial LMS products, designed for IT departments and administrators, focus on locked-down security, but Canvas, which is designed for teachers and learners, maintains the necessary security within an overall atmosphere of   openness and sharing and community-building.  Canvas is open-source, like Moodle and other non-commercial LMS products, but unlike Moodle it has a small, focused development team and a sleek, professional look and feel.  And that’s why I think the Instructure team has managed a disruption and a blue ocean in the unlikely area of the LMS.

Of course I could be totally wrong, or your perspective could be totally different.  But I’m really impressed by the way that Instructure started out by … listening to potential customers and taking their concerns seriously.

When we get to my Idea(s), I’d really like that kind of feedback from you as well as from our early users and community members.  We think our ideas are powerful, game-changing, and fundamentally disruptive to both textbooks and school design, and our early users seem to love what we’re doing.


Always in the back of my mind is this thought: we might be caught in an echo chamber (the way I fear Coursera is caught in the 20th-century university paradigm).  If our target market is dying, I want to know now, not in 5 years … and if it’s too small, or if there’s not enough interest in our Idea(s) as designed, it would be good to know now, in the early stages, when it’s still easy and cheap to make changes.

I’m sure somebody had a great idea for a category-shifting buggy whip … in 1918.  And somebody must have had a brilliant idea for higher-speed American passenger rail … in 1953.  I’m hoping all of us EdStartup participants have a much better sense of timing – and better results – than those poor, long-forgotten innovators in dying or dead markets.

What do you think?

The EdTech Startup Space, II



In my first post for this assignment, I talked mostly about ClassDojo and Clever.  I classified them (though I could certainly be wrong) as basically sustaining innovations, designed to help existing educational institutions do their current jobs better.  I also talked about Degreed and Dreambox and CodeAcademy and Goalbook and Knewton as disruptive innovations that are creating new approaches to teaching and learning (or, in Goalbook’s case, making it possible for a specialized and expensive approach, the personal learning plan, to be used much more cheaply, easily, and widely).

I can see that Buck Harrison has a slightly different way of classifying the companies, and I’m glad.  I’d be worried if everybody saw things exactly the same way I do!

Remember, there’s nothing inherently better or worse about either type of innovation.  Both are necessary; they’re just different.  And it’s important to be clear about which type of innovation you’re seeking and about the life cycle of your target market.  An inventor with a brilliant sustaining idea for mass-market buggy whips in 1880 has a timeline of decades; same inventor, similar idea, in 1920 … not such a rosy picture.

That’s why I want to look in more detail at two other startups: Coursera and Instructure.  I find them both really intriguing, and I’m not sure if they can be cleanly classified as purely disruptive or purely sustaining.  That may be a good thing, too, as long as they’re aware of their more complex relationship to existing institutions.  I have some personal experience with Instructure, so I’ll save them for another post because I have some serious concerns about Coursera.

I had high hopes for Coursera when they launched earlier this year.  Take world-class instructors, videotape their lectures, involve the instructors to some degree in asynchronous discussion with participants, and have participants write for each other and peer-assess each other’s work.  It sounds like everything I used to love about The Teaching Company, but with the addition of a virtual community and crowd-sourced feedback and the removal of the fee per course.  It sounds like a disruptive innovation and a “blue ocean.”

And I should add that  I think MOOCs (both constructivist/connectivist ones like ours and more conventional or “conservative” ones like the Coursera, Udacity, and edX offerings) can and will be a significant disruption in higher education.  I’m especially interested to see if they can decouple teaching and learning from assessment and credentialing, and that may be starting to happenwith the recent announcement that Colorado State will be granting credit for a Udacity course.

So I really, really want to like Coursera, and I really want to see them as a disruptive force opening up “elite” undergraduate education to anyone with some time and an Internet connection.  But based on reports from folks I trust who have taken one of their early humanities courses, I have some serious concerns – not just about the widely reported plagiarism, but about the features of “traditional” universities that Coursera has retained.

In my face-to-face teaching world, when students cheat, it’s usually because they’re (1) focused on the grade and (2) convinced they can’t get the grade on their own … and the “Harvard cheating scandal” seems to reflect a similar set of issues at work in the kinds of institutions where many Coursera faculty teach. But why would anyone feel led to cheat in a non-credit course?

The only reason that comes to mind is this: because the course feels like the kind of course where someone would want or “need” to cheat: a 20th-century course where the focus is on the grades rather than the learning, and where it’s not at all clear how you, as a student, can get the grades you want or need.  Coursera’s peer grading approach must have been intended to prevent such problems, and it surely was intended to disrupt the 20th-century model of grading and evaluation.  But at least in my friends’ experience it seems to have had an opposite result, and apparently Coursera has been completely uninterested in feedback from them.  In that way, too, Coursera sustains and “improves on” the ways that a large university can ignore students’ concerns or complaints.

So, is peer grading a disruptive or a sustaining innovation?  It may depend on your perspective.  It’s obviously disruptive to the 20th-century role of student: all of a sudden, participants in the course are being asked to evaluate each other’s work.  But  my friends’ anecdotal evidence suggests that the peer grading approach for writing is actually a sustaining innovation for 20th-century course design: when you make participants into evaluators, but don’t provide them with much training or oversight, you can build a bigger, cheaper version of a 20th-century course.  And if that’s true, what it’s sustaining is the worst features of the 20th-century university model: large, impersonal courses; minimal interaction; no personalization; minimal feedback on assignments; and (it seems) a great deal of plagiarism.  I don’t think those elements of the university need to be scaled!  And that makes me sad because I really, really wanted to like Coursera.

Of course, my friends’ experiences may well be atypical.  I hear great things about other Coursera courses.  And I like what Kevin Carey says here about how Coursera and Udacity are disruptive to higher education … keeping in mind that disruptive models never are as “good,” to begin with, on the old metrics, as the “old thing” was.  So I don’t want to rule out Coursera, but I don’t want to classify it neatly as a purely disruptive or a purely sustaining innovation.  I hope they’ll decide what they want to be, what they want to disrupt, and what they want to sustain … and I hope they figure it out soon.

This post is getting long, so I’ll save Instructure for a post of its own.  But I’d really love some feedback, especially if any of y’all have had positive first-hand experiences with Coursera courses that involve writing and peer grading.

The EdTech Startup Space



I’m glad that one of our first tasks was to look in some detail at current startups and current trends.  If you’ve read posts like this one or this one on my “regular” blog, you know that I’m very interested in applying design thinking to educational problems … and of course one critical aspect of design thinking is to keep working until you understand the needs and the available resources and the constraints that face you.  The EdTech startup space as it’s currently taking shape is both a resource and a constraint.

It’s a resource because there’s just so much going on!  From classroom management apps like ClassDojo to analytics packages to companies like Clever that will pull useful real-time data from legacy SIS databases, the education market is full of change and ferment.  And of course everyone claims to be “disruptive” – a word I’ve loved ever since I read Christensen and Horn’s book Disrupting Class.

A friend recently asked me if everything has to be disruptive.  And of course the answer is “No.”  There’s always a need for sustaining innovations (that help existing players in a given space do the “old thing” better) as well as disruptive ones (that create new spaces, new markets, for folks who couldn’t or wouldn’t participate in the “old thing”).  There’s nothing inherently superior or inferior about either type of innovation, either.  But it’s important to know what you’re doing when you innovate, so I’m using disruptive and sustaining innovation as a lens to look the innovative companies profiled in our assignment.

As I look at the beautifully crafted sites and pitch videos, I see a lot more sustaining innovations than disruptive ones.  It seems to me that very few of these startups are really competing against non-consumption,  and very few are trying to create new markets (or blue oceans in the terminology of one of my favorite books) by creating a radically different value proposition.

Maybe it’s just my perspective, of course.  But let’s take a closer look at some of these companies.  (I want to save Coursera and Instructure for another post.)  It seems to me that a lot of them are more about sustaining (and, of course, improving and refining) the 20th-century, factory-model, age-graded structure of schooling than they are about building new models of teaching and learning.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, of course, as long as they know what they’re doing.

I’m impressed with the power and simplicity of ClassDojo … and if it were 1995 or even 2005, I’d be beating down their doors to participate in their beta.  In those days, my classes used a very well-developed reward and incentive system that would have been a perfect fit with the ClassDojo approach.  My students gained points for positive behaviors, lost them for negative ones, and converted the points (in increments of 10) into “homework passes” which could replace homework assignments or add points to other types of assignments.  For teachers and schools that use those kinds of reward systems, ClassDojo would be a huge timesaver.

But it’s not 1995, and it’s not 2005.  In 2012, when Dan Pink and others have made us aware of the pernicious effects of extrinsic rewards, I’m deeply skeptical of reward-based systems … and I watched, first-hand, as they stopped motivating my students over the past few years.  So I’d have to classify ClassDojo as a sustaining innovation in a market (student behavior management plans) that’s saturated and slowly dying.  To be fair, factory-model schools with behavior management system needs will probably be around for a long time.  But if you take a perspective of decades rather than months or years, I think their target market’s best days are in the past.

What do you think?

I also think the idea behind Clever is wonderful, but, again, I’m concerned about the timing.  My face-to-face teaching environment was one of the first to adopt a statewide Student Information System solution; unfortunately, we’re now looking at an end-of-life timeframe for the product.   My concern with Clever is that they’re pursuing a shrinking market of legacy SIS users.  It’s a good bet today, but what will happen in the next 5 years or so?  If they’re looking at the short term, though, they have a really excellent opportunity.

It seems to me that Degreed and Dreambox and CodeAcademy and Goalbook and Knewton are much more interested in disruptive change in the education space.  And they have the potential to make some real disruptive changes in education and create some blue oceans along the way.  Degreed intrigues me because, like the Mozilla Open Badge project, they’re moving education away from seat time and toward certification of competency.  If they can get that to work, it will be a huge game-changer, and a lot of second-tier universities will be hurting badly.  CodeAcademy is doing something similar in its specialized niche of programming (an area where competency has always been more important than credentials anyway), and DreamBox aims to do something related with its self-paced approach to elementary math.

If the folks at Goalbook can really get teams together around the idea of virtually and instantaneously sharing students’ progress, then maybe the personal learning plan can move out of the expensive, time-consuming world of special education and become part of every young learner’s experience.  Now that would be a game-changer!  And as Knewton builds its library of lessons and refines its recommendation engine, it should also help to move education from a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach to a more deeply personalized experience for each learner.

See why I say ClassDojo and Clever are more about sustaining innovation while the others are more about disruption?  And why I keep repeating that neither type of innovation is superior or inferior to the other?  They’re just different.

But if you’re building a sustaining innovation in a dying market, it’s really important to realize that … and to be thoughtful about time frames and about the next thing you need to do.  When we get to my Idea, I’d really like to have your feedback about issues like this.  Sustaining or disruptive?  If sustaining, what’s the timeline?  And what are some good next steps if the timeline is short?

Glitches Resolved



If I had to guess, I would bet that most people reading these words are at least slightly familiar with the theory of Diffusion of Innovations.  Up until a few months ago, I only would have thought of Geoffrey Moore’s work on the subject, but several things led me back to Everett Rogers and the other pioneers in that field.

If you’re reading this from EdStartup 101, you’re most likely an innovator or an early adopter when it comes to new ways of learning.  And if so, you’re probably pretty tolerant of the inevitable glitches that occur in the early stages of the New Thing.

I’m glad I am, since I was one of the “victims” of the syndication issue that plagued EdStartup in the first few days. (It’s a good reminder, too, that not everybody is an early adopter!  The early and late majority in any market have very different needs and concerns, as I was reminded last month, and it’s easy for us early adopter types to forget that!)  Anyway, I dutifully deleted and recreated my account, but the problems continued until David Wiley finally solved them personally.  (Had I not tried to create a new-and-different account, and had someone else not tried to solve things by creating yet another account, things might have gone more smoothly.)  Thanks again, David!  It’s good to know that blog posts will show up properly.

But just in case you missed them,

  • here’s a link to my introductory post and video, and
  • here’s a link to some thoughts I had about “running to” and “running from” things when you’re aiming to make big changes.

Now that things are functioning smoothly here, and now that we’ve begun to  hit our stride in my face-to-face teaching world, I’m looking forward to being much more active in the EdStartup conversation.  It’s so good to be here and in one piece!




Hi again, EdStartup 101 friends!  Apparently my account was one of the ones that had to be deleted and recreated in order for syndication to function properly.  So, in honor of this new-yet-old adventure, and to keep things clean on my “regular” blog, I started this blog just for you … or just for us.  It’s the beginning of the school year in my face-to-face teaching world, a time when people often buy new notebooks, new pens, new school and office supplies of all kinds.  So it’s exciting to begin this new adventure with a new blog, too … and a very different theme from my old familiar one.

I’m repeating parts of my introductory post and reposting my introductory video just to make sure everything comes through properly.  Apologies if you’ve already seen this once, twice, or thrice!

For the record, here’s my introductory YouTube video once again

And here’s some more information about me and the two projects I hope to get off the ground through the EdStartup 101 process.

I look forward to this adventure – and to getting to know as many of you as I can in our time together.  What a great time to start something new!  And what fun to be able to start and restart, too.

Just in Case



When I first joined EdStartup, there were some issues with the site and some issues with the RSS feed from my blog – possibly caused by my midstream decision not to use my regular blog for the course, but to create this one instead.  So, in case you missed them earlier, here is my introductory post and video introduction, and here’s a post that I wrote about why I’m glad that EdStartup 101 came along when it did.

As I write, it’s a beautiful late Labor Day afternoon, and my head is spinning from all the vastly different education-focused startups whose websites and videos I explored earlier today.  More about those, though, in my next post!

Running To and Running From



If you’d talked to me in May or June or even July, I would have told you that I was done.  Done, done, done.  Done with twenty years of teaching in good, but complacent factory-model schools.  Done, and ready to do anything but that, even if it meant starving to death or losing everything and living in my car, down by the river, just me and the dog and the cat and the children and ….

I can be a bit dramatic sometimes! 🙂  And my “evil twin Ralph,” the less-pleasant side of my personality, sometimes takes a very dim view of things.  “He” certainly had a dim view of the 20th-century, factory-model structure of education a few months ago, and “he” almost convinced me it was time to jump ship and start something new.

Without a revenue model.

Without a customer base.

Without a plan for either.

“Ralph” wanted me to run – but there are at least two kinds of running.  You can run to something new and wonderful, or you can run from something old and horrible.

“Ralph” didn’t really care – but I did.  And I realized that I really need to run to the new, not run from the old.

“Ralph” is passionate, but not always prudent.  “Real me” is prudent, sometimes to a fault.  Together, I guess “we” make a pretty good team.

Because “Ralph” keeps reminding me that it’s not OK, in the long run, to participate in a system if that system is actively hurting children.  But “real me” keeps reminding “Ralph” that you can still do good work in a slowly-dying system … and that it is possible for a good, but complacent school to undergo a paradigm shift and start doing things differently.

I’ve seen so much evidence of that possibility in the last few weeks.

School started on Monday; teachers came back to work on August 16; and I’ve just been overwhelmed by the ways some of my very successful, very traditional colleagues have opened themselves up to real change.  Is it the huge curricular reform that’s sweeping our state?  Is it the conversations we had about moving from good to great?  Is it just the opportunity to pause and reflect that we teachers get in the summer?

I don’t know, and right now I don’t really care about the cause.  I’m just happy with the effect: my face-to-face teaching world is a happier place for me to be than it’s been in quite some time.  Maybe it’s just because I’ve started to apply design thinking in my own classroom and class structures.  Maybe it’s because I’ve been focusing on my circle of influence, not my circle of concern.  Maybe it’s a gift of grace.

It’s definitely a gift of grace!

And I’m hoping that in the course of EdStartup 101, I’ll figure out when and how to run to  the next right thing (check out my About Page for a sense of what that might be) … and maybe even find some people to run with on the journey.

After all, it’s a lot easier to keep running – metaphorically as well as literally – if you have at least one exercise buddy.

Anyone interested?