Education Platforms: Build On? Or Build One?

A Race to Develop a Platform for Education

There are still debates about what exactly we mean when we talk about Internet "platforms" -- is it a matter of infrastructure, extensibility, code execution, content control, delivery mechanisms, and so on. And debates about which companies rise to that level -- does Facebook? (Yes.) Does Twitter? (Maybe.)

Last month, George Siemens posited we are "witnessing a race to develop platforms for content, learning, teaching, and evaluation." No education company is quite there yet, Siemens argues -- at least not at the same level of, say, Amazon or Facebook. But some education companies are clearly taking steps to position themselves as such, creating the infrastructure, utilizing APIs (others' and their own), and offering the features educators, students, and administrators want/need in order to create education platforms.

"I would not be surprised," he writes, "if in the next several years educational institutions - especially those who are cash strapped - end up using a content/delivery platform the same way we use Facebook today 'Visit us at Pearson.com'. Blackboard's acquisition binge was about building an integrated infrastructure to offer one-point value for universities (and now, schools with the Edline affiliation). Pearson has been aggressively moving in this direction for over a decade."

Whose Platform?

Pearson's partnership with Knewton unveiled this week -- the latter will begin integrating its adaptive learning software with Pearson's digital curriculum -- is just the latest indication that Pearson is the most serious player here and the farthest along in building a platform that can provide content, assessment, instruction, and analytics. Just add Farmville-like social gaming and some sort of social news feed, and no one will be able to resist! (I'm kidding… sorta.)

Of course, those pieces could come from Google, particularly via its nascent social network, Google Plus. But Google Plus is clearly part of Google's own attempt to establish a platform -- one that integrates all the various Google tools (YouTube, Google Reader, and so on) under the umbrella of a user's Google Profile.

Google has already made substantial inroads into selling another piece of this platform to schools in the form of Google Apps for Education, which now boasts some 15 million users. While not a traditional LMS per se, Apps for Education does offer collaboration, communication and productivity tools that students and teachers need. And thanks to -- you guessed it -- the Google platform (the infrastructure, the APIs), it's quite possible that more of that LMS-like functionality can be built on top of Google Apps.

That's what the New Zealand-based company Hapara is doing. The startup has built a dashboard on top of Google Apps to make the Google products -- Blogger, Calendar, Docs, Sites, Picasa -- more easy to administer on a class- and school-level. Teachers can see at a glance, for example, the last time students in a class updated their websites, left a comment on a blog, or contributed to a Google Doc. Hapara's product is available via the Google Apps Marketplace.

Of course, Pearson will soon have its own offering there as well -- OpenClass, its would-be-free-would-beLMS in the App Store.

I spoke with Hapara CEO Jan Zawadzki and he said that, from the demo video at least, it appears as though OpenClass won't have the same level of functionality and support that his company's product does. You can see this as a PR battle between David and Goliath, sure, or you can see this as an indication that again, Pearson wants to build its own platform. It wants to control the edu ecosystem. Hapara, on the other hand, wants to utilize Google's.

Platforms and Punks

"Sure, we'll still have edupunks and other deviant educators playing at the corners or outer edges of these platforms and systems," Siemens says. But he continues: "Whoever has the platform sets the rules and controls the game."

But what does it mean if we build our education tools on someone else's platform? We can ask this about Google. What are the trade-offs -- in terms of control, interoperability, users' rights, open APIs, and the like? But Google isn't the only platform education needs to wrestle with. We probably need to think through what the implications are going to be now that "the library" is being built on Amazon's platform.

Do we want education platforms? What are the implications for vendor lock-in and control if we do? What are the implications if we don't? Do we want educational content built on other platforms? What other control might we be giving up then?


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