May 21, 2013
Banking on Educational Software: A Wired Economy Unfolds
By Jeremy Roschelle, Byron Henderson, Jim Spohrer, and John Lilly
Despite many factors lining up in desirable directions, huge challenges face all stakeholders in the educational technology enterprise. Advanced technology developers find the standard development cost of $1 million per software title an overly risky proposition. Teachers find existing products fragmentary, incompatible, and closed to customizations needed for their specific classroom situations. Government agencies spend millions on successful demonstration projects, but too few of them transfer into mainstream teaching and learning or scale into systemic reforms. The Educational Object Economy (EOE) is exploring one potentially revolutionary solution.
In the context of two projects sponsored by the National Science Foundation, we have spent many hours discussing ways to expedite the use of educational tools with technology companies, educational publishers, software developers, university researchers, government funders, and other stakeholders. These discussions revealed three underlying problems.
The first problem is technological, and it is the target of broad industry activity directed toward developing open, modular, interoperable software architectures.
The second problem is economic. It will require deliberate changes in policy to transform the mechanisms for exchanging intellectual property.
The third problem is social. It will require the formation of new kinds of virtual communities in which teachers and developers collaborate to create educational content.
Our research led us to see a confluence of these changes allowing the formation of an Educational Object Economy (EOE) that can dramatically enhance the impact of innovative educational software.
The technical obstacles preventing software from making a large-scale educational impact can be summarized in a single, fundamental concept: software architecture. This architecture provides the skeletal structure that allows the construction of large, reliable, maintainable programs.
For educational software to succeed, many programs will be neededand, most important, they must all work together. Mathematics learners, for example, will need graphers, tables, calculators, algebra systems, and simulations, as well as notebooks, presentation tools, and assessment portfolios. An efficient marketplace requires a rather large set of suppliers willing to build these tools and consumers who can freely choose among them.
To understand the impact of software architecture, consider the early history of railroads. Initially each railroad had its own gauge of track upon which only its own rail cars could ride. As the transportation industry matured, gauges were standardized, as were between-car couplings, allowing companies to form trains that mixed and matched a variety of cargo, each in its own appropriate car. Later, transportation was containerized, allowing shippers and buyers to combine sea, road, and rail freight easily.
Now think of a series of classroom lessons as a train. With yesterday’s monolithic software architecture, software developers built a curriculum as one monolithic train. Every lesson would be built by the same software company to fit its unique rail gauge. This is called stand-alone application architecture.
Such architecture is doubly harmful. Suppliers face high entry barriers because they must invest enough to build each and every lesson in the curriculum. The lack of interoperabilitystandards ensuring that parts made by different producers will fit togetherharms the demand side as well. Even if a better tool exists, like an improved grapher, a learner may not be able to use it because it will not work in concert with her existing set of tools.
Emerging component software architectures promise to modularize educational technology, much like containerized shipping on rails, roads, and seas. Industry standards for components, such as JavaBeans, ActiveX, and OpenDoc, are beginning to provide the standard gauge for educational infrastructure. And supplementary technical standards, such as those being developed by EduCom, IEEE, NIST, and others, may someday define the coupling that makes plug-and-play integration of tools into curricular strands possible. Moving to such standards may create a free market in educational software, and that could lead to rapid improvements in quality.
Our discussions with stakeholders suggested that the advantages of component architectures are being noticed and adopted. Wide-scale movement to Java components is already under way. For example, our Educational Object Economy Web site (http://trp.research.apple.com/EdEconomy) has been able to catalog more than 1,000 educational Java objects that are freely available on the Web.
Our analysis tells us that open-component architectures will produce much larger returns from investments in educational software:
A Wired Economy
Realizing the benefits of component software architecture is not a simple matter, however. Software goods are not much like traditional durable goods that can be conveniently shipped in containers aboard trains.
Instead, software components consist of packaged intellectual capital, and exchanging intellectual capital is a complex operation. For example, few of the software innovations developed under government grants reach the marketplace, in large part because they are tied up in a morass of ineffective, overly restrictive licensing arrangements, especially in university technology transfer offices. To untie this knot, economic and legal innovation will be required.
To return to the transportation analogy, the construction of a national railroad network required enormous financing from banks. Creation of an Educational Object Economy is likely to require a form of banking as well. But rather than lending money, the new banks will accept deposits and make loans of intellectual propertysoftware components for learning.
A key mechanism for the EOE bank will be an Intellectual Capital Appreciation license, a uniform, simplified license that meets the needs of most university-based or publicly funded educational developers. When a developer deposits a software componenta graphing calculator, for exampleinto the EOE bank, she will be entitled to interest on the asset. Our research shows that many nonprofit educational software developers are highly altruistic and eager to have their inventions used, as long as they get some form of return for contributing. Instead of receiving moneyfor individual components have very low monetary valuethe developer will get a stream of benefits, including acknowledgments by users, free bug fixes, and access to other deposits.
Another participant in the EOEfor example, a teacher in an in-service workshopmight borrow an asset for a project. The project might be composing a series of lessons that use the component. In return for receiving a loan, the teacher would contribute back to the EOE some of the lessons and might receive a continuing education credit.
A publisher might borrow a collection of EOE components and lessons for a new textbook series in high school mathematics. The publisher could repay this loan by eventually returning the polished component or lessons with bug fixes and editorial corrections, as well as indexing into the curricular standards. Or the publisher might give the EOE some older objects that are no longer at the peak of commercial viability.
The spirit of the EOE is similar to that of a cooperative. Members work together for the common good, which is the appreciation of intellectual capital, or educational objects. However, the EOE also encourages commercial spinoffs, because businesses are often the best mechanism to dramatically improve quality.
Finding the right balance is the key. The free parts of the EOE must continue to grow and be refined, often driven by government-funded university research, while the for-fee parts of the economy set high standards for quality products and services. One can imagine making early versions of an educational software product freely available to create market awareness and stimulate demand for later for-fee versions of the software.
A Virtual Community
Particularly in the beginning, two forms of economy will coexist in the EOE. Commercial publishers and developers will continue to sell educational objects under the old rules, keeping their intellectual property proprietary. Thus the Educational Object Economy will begin with the collaborative construction of educational software under another development model: the university model of knowledge exchange.
In the university model, the long-term work is research, assembly, investigation, exposition, criticism, publication, and integration of knowledge. The places of this work are transient: academics (students, researchers, scholars) move, coalesce, divide, rejoin, and cluster, and their production appears in the same wayemerging faintly, growing, spreading, dying in one place, reemerging in another.
What is most persistent in this styling of the university model is the process of knowledge production. Project-driven gatherings of scholars are the locus for observing emergent knowledge. Perhaps even more important, the overall development of knowledge requires long-term, shared commitments that span institutions, groups, and individuals.
Intellectual advances are the result of both centrifugal and centripetal forces. They demonstrate movement both away from existing groupings and toward new gatherings. Gathering or clustering behavior may occur in resource-rich settings or it may occur around innovation even where resources are sparse.
We expect a social network to form around educational components and the EOE bank, which will transform the university model of knowledge development into a uniquely collaborative model of educational software development. This process will be open to anyone having access to the Internet. Its topics, forms, methods, and directions will be determined by the community.
In fact, online knowledge communities are particularly powerful in their virtually unlimited ability to support and generate the centrifugal forces that knowledge production demands as a ground for innovation. They are much less adept at supporting the centripetal forces that knowledge production also requires as the ground for gathering and assembly. It is this second category of gathering forces that we have struggled to understand and nurture most constantly throughout the short life of the EOE project.
The world of online communities outside education has also been struggling with this difficulty. It seems extremely easy to start something on the Web, yet to form a viable community online is very hard.
The current default forms of online community seem to be of three types: the interest group (a type perhaps founded by the Well), the consumer group (a type explored by the authors of Net Gain), and the repository (an example might be the Amazon.com bookstore). None of these models fully responds to the needs of the knowledge-process model we are using to orient our work, although each contributes a valuable dimension.
Drawing on the notion of the repository type, we have constructed a repository of Java objects to be used as a resource by the community. But a repository is a tool, and just using it does not provide the continuity of development activity or the gathering we hope for. So, learning from the consumer groups, we are trying to collect data about our nascent community and to stimulate involvement through prizes, newsletters, contests, and repository-building efforts.
But knowledge development also requires groups to form out of varied, unpredictable, and unprogrammed motivations. The interest group is particularly strong. It is enticing to imagine groups of science teachers building chemistry labs from online Java components. Still, while interest groups are coherent and often highly motivated, they do not provide the general community span that the knowledge-exchange model, with its open outlook and porous boundaries, seems to need in the long term.
Our attempts to deal with these issues and to build a useful example of an online knowledge community have led us to focus on three simple expedients. In an effort to avoid limiting the EOE community to one of the default types, we have introduced the idea of exemplary members whose job is to constantly stimulate new directions, to encourage groupings, and to narrate and provide illustrations of useful activities and projects.
To stimulate gatherings that will demonstrate the production of new educational objects, we are working to create what we call Gigs in Cyberspace, which might be likened to high school science fair projects involving teams of object builders.
And to demonstrate that the knowledge community online can exhibit long-term and large-scale contributions, we are planning outreach collaborationsmultidisciplinary, international online groups to address problems that extend beyond individual classrooms and local curricula. These may be collaborations between developed and developing nations, or they may be efforts to jointly address environmental, health, or education needs.
While the Educational Object Economy experiment is still too young to provide a definitive direction, it does suggest the possibility of an emerging marketplace for educational software, closer in spirit to the university knowledge marketplace than today’s software catalogs, megastores, and online malls.
We suspect these two forms of marketplace will exist in parallel for some time, just as libraries and bookstores coexist today. Libraries provide books that members can freely borrow, while bookstores charge customers who wish to own a book. Libraries do not drive bookstores out of business. Quite the contrary; they create demand for books by stimulating an appetite for reading in a literate population.
EOE from Different Perspectives
An Educational Object Economy is from one perspective a combined library and bookstore accessible to anyone with a Web browser. Every book (educational object) on the shelf can be freely borrowed, but next to the free books are ones you can buy if you so choose. Also beside the books are names of people in the community you may wish to contact who have used the book in the past and have ideas about improving the book or about projects related to the book.
From another perspective the Educational Object Economy is like a bank, where people make daily deposits and withdrawals of intellectual capital.
From yet another perspective the Educational Object Economy is part of an information infrastructure that empowers teachers and learners to work together on projects that do not simply exchange and communicate knowledge but also support them as they collaboratively construct knowledge that is then added back into the information infrastructure.
From one final perspective, the Educational Object Economy is not just about educational content, intellectual capital, and people collaborating but also about standards and certification. Each book on the shelf has ties to the state and national educational standards; it can help a learner to prepare or a teacher to teach according to these standards. Each book has an online way to attain certification that the particular learning objective has been satisfactorily achieved. Some of this certification is free and some is for a fee.
We believe all these perspectives are necessary, if true systemic change is to occur in our education systems.
Fundamentally, the EOE is a community of communities (educators, learners, developers, and businesses) that is focused on the creation and collaboration of educational activities which include pieces of Java software in them.
The EOE is funded by a joint National Science Foundation and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration) grant, with matching funds from each of the partners of the East/West Authoring Tools Group (Apple Computer, Carnegie Mellon University, Stanford University, the University of Colorado, the University of Massachusetts, Houghton Mifflin’s Sixth Floor Publishing, and PWS, a subsidiary of International Thomson publishing company). The EOE Web site is http://trp.research.apple.com. For information, contact Jeremy Roschelle at roschelle @acm.org.
Jim Spohrer, an Apple Computer Distinguished Scientist and explorer of the future of educational technology, has gradually shifted his attention from technical to social innovation. John Lilly, also at Apple, applies his background in design and his talent for project leadership to keeping the EOE looking sharp and growing rapidly. Jeremy Roschelle works for the University of Massachusetts’s San Francisco campuswhich looks suspiciously like a home office. He leads the SimCalc Project in the design of educational simulations and mathematical tools. Byron Henderson, our navigator of community growth and expert on cooperatives, hails from the University of Saskatchewan, but doesn’t let that slow his globe-spanning travels.