Category Archives: Opinion

Education 2.0 Israel

Education 2.0 in the Land of Milk & Honey

Did you know that the first USB-sticks sold in America under the name of “DiskOnKey” were actually invented by the Israeli company M-Systems?

Ever wondered who invented ICQ, the instant message software? Israelis.

Solar water heating? The “epilator”? Cherry tomatoes? Yep, Israelis.

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Teachers matter!

Yesterday, Sawchuk referred to a research brief published by the National Education Writers Association (EWA) entitled What Studies Say About Teacher Effectiveness. His brief summation was without opinion, so I thought I’d add mine to what is to be my first post to Edukwest.

Sawchuk, who wrote the brief and is an EWA member, states in his blog post that his key points are based on solid research of the evidence (bold added to show emphasis).  This phrase made me want to investigate further into the type of data that were gathered to conduct such as study.  Focusing primarily on the first research question (Are teachers the most important factor affecting student achievement?), the following are some specific points that emerged from the research brief.

  1. Nearly all of the studies cited here rely on the use of student test scores as a proxy for learning…standardized tests measure important aspects of student learning…
  2. The brief draws on a review of over 40 specific research studies or research syntheses, as well as interviews with scholars who have used primarily quantitative research methods to analyze the relationships between teachers, their attributes, and student achievement.
  3. Findings: Research has shown that the variation in student achievement is predominantly a product of individual and family background characteristics. Of the school factors that have been isolated for study, teachers are probably the most important determinants of how students will perform on standardized tests. – Doesn’t this point undermine the use of standardized tests for measuring student learning?
  4. This brief was made possible in part by support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

So, the experts suggest that measuring student learning (to a degree) can occur through administering standardized tests to students and that teachers can be a determinant in how well students perform on such tests, but that the variation of student achievement comes mainly from the learner and family background? Note: this research was funded in part by the Gates foundation which has been criticized in the past for relying solely on standardized tests as a means for evaluating schools, students, teachers, etc.

Why not instead invest in research that looks at learner attributes and family background and what other educational stakeholders (e.g., teachers, other students, family, administrators, and community leaders) can do to contribute to the myriad of factors that directly and indirectly influence higher student achievement.  Research how teachers can create the discourse among all educational stakeholders that fosters a more productive learning ecosystem around each learner.  Teachers matter because they have the opportunity to connect content, ideas, and individuals in ways that research that is based strictly on cause-and-effect relationships cannot measure.  Yes, this type of research is more complex, but researching human behavior – like student achievement – is a complex endeavor that requires not only quantitative inferences but also qualitative data that explicitly describes, explains, and offers deep, interpretive insight into the contextual learning process.

What do you think?  In today’s digital age, are teachers the most important factor affecting student achievement?  Are teachers more or less of a factor if they are teaching a distance course (100% online)?


busuu Sounds the Charge – Hires Corporate Sales for North America

Let the battle begin. With a freshly charged war chest through the recent investment of fon founder Martin Varsavsky in the startup, busuu aim to enter the home market of Livemocha and Rosetta Stone and to compete with them in the three most promising verticals: corporate, government and universities.

busuu is looking for a Corporate Sales Director for North America. You can read (or apply for) the job offer on LinkedIn and looking at the requirements for the position, busuu isn’t looking for a freshman.

  • Set-up of corporate sales office in the U.S., recruitment and management of future sales team in the North American market.
  • Overall responsibility to develop & execute strategies to promote and build our institutional business in the North American market.
  • Inspire corporations, universities, governments and other institutions across North America to invest in language learning through
  • Coordinate the entire sales process from initial contact, to pilot-projects, to account management, renewal sales, etc.
  • Drive change and innovation by understanding our clients, market trends & competitors.

This looks like serious business, e.g. busuu really wants to take on the North American market through a local sales team. busuu’s growth in numbers has been through the roof for a while now and according to Bernhard Niesner this has also been caused by a growing number of users in North America.

If we take a look at the Compete numbers below (for whatever they are worth), there seems to be at least some evidence that busuu is growing massively on this market.

If we just compare busuu and Livemocha it seems as if busuu has almost double the traffic.

Again, take these statistics with a grain of salt but as Compete measures the traffic in the United States, it therefore shows a trend at least.

As another side note to the above, Michael Schutzler, the CEO of Livemocha is travelling a lot in LatAm these days and we already know that Brazil is a very strong market for the company.

Livemocha themselves also recently partnered with OneAmerica to provide immigrants in the States with English lessons and there is the strategic partnership with goFLUENT for corporate English lessons.

And of course Rosetta Stone are far from surrender. The launch of the iPad version of TOTALe got them a lot of positive coverage in the press and for many people RS is still the gold standard.

All in all, customers will now have the possibility to chose from three different providers and it is fascinating to follow this fierce competition in the language learning community space.

What I would be interested in was to see if a consumer faced product like busuu or Livemocha are, will be able to get into the corporate, government and university space. Rosetta Stone should have some pretty strong ties here but then both Livemocha as well as busuu have prestigious publishing partners and a much smaller price tag.

Holding Higher Educators Accountable: Why new “Gainful Employment” Regulations don’t go far enough.

On June 2nd, the US Department of Education handed down new regulation designed to tighten oversight of the for-profit higher education industry.  For-profit higher ed has been under considerable scrutiny in recent years — and for very good reason.  Default rates on student loans have been dramatically higher among students of for-profit institutions than those among students of their public and private non-profit counterparts while graduation rates among for-profits have been dramatically lower.  (This infographic paints a grisly — though heavily biased  — picture.)

The short story here is that — in aggregate — for-profit higher ed tends to produce greater debt and lower earning potential for its students than non-profit higher ed.  To remedy this, the education department has issued “gainful employment rules” which will now track the ability of graduates to repay debt and whether those repayments make up a sensible percentage of graduates’ discretionary income.  Institutions that fail to meet certain metrics will be denied access to tuition payments through federal grants and loans. Given that these funding sources account for up to 90% percent of revenues for these institutions, failure to meet prescribed metrics amounts to a death sentence.

These measures mark a great step forward in curbing abuses by bad actors in the private market.  More importantly, though, it attempts to place one simple metric at the heart of higher education: the ratio of debt to earning potential that a college degree produces.  This magic ratio is one that has been ignoredmanipulated, and glossed over for many years now and if I have one complaint to levy against these new regulations, it is that they are not being extended into the public and non-profit spheres.

Simply because non-profit and state funded institutions perform better than for-profit institutions in relative terms, it should not be assumed that student investment in traditional higher education is necessarily sound.  (I have enough friends from my own subpar alma mater carrying $50,000 or more in debt and languishing in unskilled service jobs to know better.)

Several weeks ago, John Cook at the Seattle technology blog GeekWire broke the news that Western Washington University — an important regional state-funded institution — is actively considering axing its Computer Science department in response to budget cuts.  This comes on the heels of the state publishing its 2011 Needs Analysis Report [see page 26], which showed that the region faces a dramatic shortage in the tech labor market and predicts the need to produce 2.5 times the number of annual CS graduates by 2016.

Why would a public, non-profit university that supposedly places the interests of its students at the forefront of its mission cut one of the programs delivering the strongest returns-on-investment to its graduates?

The story produced considerable outcry from the Seattle tech community.  People wanted answers.  In a follow-up GeekWire interview, WWU’s Provost offered incoherent and contradictory explanations for why Computer Science and other science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs were being targeted for cuts and elimination.  (Seriously, read it. It doesn’t make any sense.)

The real answer, however, is likely to be found in an October 2010 Wall Street Journal article, which exposed what happened when Texas A&M university ran profit-and-loss statements on its faculty.  That controversial 265-page report revealed what could as easily have been assumed: that less technical academic programs, like business and the humanities, produce strong financial gains for schools, while more technical programs produce weaker gains or even losses.

Given WWU’s budgetary situation, it makes a lot of financial sense to target STEM programs for cuts and elimination. With less-technical degree programs operating essentially as profit centers, they are perversely incentivized to churn out humanities, soft science and business graduates in disproportion to public need (and in direct conflict with their own mission statement, which includes “addressing critical needs in the state of Washington”).  In tandem with rising tuition costs, that seems to spell one thing for students: higher debt and lower earning potential.

The financial interests of any school in a budget crisis (which many presently are) can easily slip into terminal misalignment with the interests of their students and the regional economy, and they are just as hungry for — and dependent on — federal loan and grant dollars as for-profits.  Non-profit schools should not be given a free pass simply because they don’t have shareholders or because, on balance, they perform better than their for-profit counterparts.  Abuses exist across the spectrum of higher education choices and no one should be given a free pass to be a bad actor.

[Tangentially, with schools like Western Washington University actively cutting economically important programs from their offerings, for-profit institutions may be on the cusp of performing a more vital role in higher ed than many people imagine.]

As long as perverse financial incentives are allowed to persist, higher education institutions of all flavors will continue to encourage students down academic paths that, in too many cases, bleed them of four years of tuition money, four years of professional experience, and four years of income opportunity that will never pay for itself.


Kno launches Textbooks for iPad

I’ve written a lot about the Kno in the recent months, from the doubts I and others had about building a dual screen tablet with the first iPad in sight to its recent shift from being a tablet manufacturer to focus on software only. Due to the dominance of the iPad this was somewhat understandable.

Also, as a side-note, the Entourage eDGe and its online book store were discontinued as we learned last week.

Kara Swisher already wrote in her article for All Things D back in February that the Kno team will apparently focus on

[…] its robust software and services to offer students on the Apple iPad, as well as upcoming tablets based on Google’s Android mobile operating system and others.

Two months ago, Kno already uploaded a video showcasing the iPad app to Vimeo. You can watch it below.

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Compared to Inkling, the Kno takes a somewhat easier way. It looks pretty much as if Kno have simply taken the digital versions (pdfs) of textbook titles that are already available and created an app on top of these with two or three nice features and some social glue. If this is enough compared with the in my opinion more innovative concept Inkling have with their complete customization of textbooks in order to turn them into a new, better learning experience, I don’t know. It is easier to scale for sure and for students the choice of available textbooks might be more interesting than new, innovative technology.

As I am in France, I can’t download the “Textbooks” for iPad app easily to play around with it. It is free to download, students will then make in-app purchases in form of the e-books they need for their studies.

From what I can see through the information on the Kno website and the different reviews, students can organize their textbooks into courses, with a fingertip they can highlight passages and create sticky notes. A probably useful “Kick-Ass Feature” is the ability to download any PDF from the web and to use it in the app and finally the Kno has also added a social feature called “WTF” (Words to Friends) to share with your friends what on you mind.

The whole website has been redesigned for the release and around the new Kno experience. I have to say that I am a bit alienated by the messages. They read a little over the top to be “hip” but I guess, the Kno team thinks this is how their customers speak.

For me, the fact that Osman Rashid is both a co-founder of the Kno and of Chegg is still one of the major assets for the company. I am pretty sure that the more than 70,000 digital textbooks at 30% to 50% off list price are part of his good connections to the major publishers. I also believe that we will see an overlap between the two business models in the near future as the future of textbooks is clearly digital and rentals, as disruptive as they are today will of course die with physical books.