Elegance in the EdTech Ecosystem

Published April 28, 2016

By Stephen Laster, Chief Digital Officer

Stephen Laster’s Speech on Integrating the Ed-Tech Interface at the 2016 ASU GSV Summit

At the 2016 ASU GSV Summit our CDO Stephen Laster gave a presentation on the importance of interoperability and integration of ed-tech systems. Below you will find the video recording and complete transcript of Stephen’s presentation.

Stephen Laster speaking at ASU GSV 2016

Full Video Recording





Transcript: Elegance in the EdTech Ecosystem

Good afternoon everybody, we're going to get started, if you want to take a seat. I'm Stephen Laster and I'm the Chief Digital Officer for McGraw-Hill Education. I am thrilled to be at ASU GSV today. I want to have a brief conversation, and so there's a key word there. I'd like to make it a conversation. Now pedagogically this room is not set up for conversation but we're going to try anyway. I hope you guys will be thinking of good questions to add to the dialogue, which will happen in just a few minutes.

Before I get started, how many of you here view yourself in your primary role as educator? Small handful. Primary role as entrepreneur? Bigger handful. Primary role as investor or facilitator? Bit of a mix. The conversation that I'd like to have today is really a conversation that we have inside of McGraw-Hill most days, but a conversation that I'd love to share with all of you and very selfishly is a conversation that I think is central to this moment in time and central to our success.

A couple of ground rules. Number one, I don't claim to have all the answers, and certainly McGraw-Hill doesn't have the answers. Number two, I'm not raising these ideas saying that I've perfectly figured them out and perfectly implemented them, because those of you who know me and know what McGraw-Hill offers, know that we try incredibly hard, we think we have lots of success and we're beautifully imperfect as is everybody. Before I get there, so that you understand some of my thinking which my colleagues tell me it's sometimes difficult to do, I want to share a little bit about me not in a way being boastful but in a way of driving understanding.

The Events That Shaped My Thinking

I am a product of both public and private K12, and I am a product of private higher education. In my early years in public K12 I was the stupid student. I was the kid in Montgomery County, Maryland in the 60s that if I just sat still, and if I just tucked in my shirt, I wouldn't make those stupid math mistakes and my spelling would improve. The truth is I was the massively dyslexic kid. I was the kid who until I was fortunate because my father changed jobs and moved to Portland, Oregon, when I got to eighth grade and into private school, they found out that I actually couldn't read at all, yet I'd got through every grade.

I also have the gift of dyslexia which means I've really fast processing speed, and I can annoyingly model problems in my head hundreds of times a minute and easily lose people. I'm also the father of two massively dyslexic children and I can tell you things have come a long way since the mid 60s, and ed tech plays a major role in that. I am a kid who was saved by the Apple too. How many of you have ever programmed one? It's a beautiful machine, you have dual 360K floppies, and 16K of working memory. Because I was able to take that machine and write a word processor with a help of a science teacher in Portland, Oregon, all of a sudden my ideas were shareable, and I found out maybe I wasn't so stupid.

I was a guy who received his captain’s license at age 18 and sailed through my first hurricane as third mate at age 21 and survived to talk about it in the North Atlantic. I was fortunate to be at Bolt Beranek & Newman in the dawn of the internet. We were working on this thing called packet switching, anybody ever heard of it? It's that thing called TCP/IP. It's s marginally important ideas. Of course I was an intern there and I had no idea of the importance.

As my career progressed and I went from commercial technology into ed tech being the son of a university president and the son of a K12 teacher, it felt natural to stop driving commerce and start driving learning with my technology skills. I was fortunate to arrive at Babson College at the time about 2000 when Gardner issued a seminal report that said if everybody wasn't online by 2001, as a brick and mortar tier 2 college, you would be gone. Did it happen? Not totally. I was fortunate to work with people like the Online Learning Consortium and others to understand what it really means to power education with technology.

Now the interesting thing, if you think back to 2000 and back to right now, there's one commonality between those two periods of time, and that commonality is big things are about to happen. Certainly this conference is about big things that are about to happen. At least we've got past the point in time of saying, "The millennials are coming, and when they come they're gonna wanna learn differently." We covered that chasm, they're here, we don't say that anymore. There is a lot of exuberance still around this conference and around our ed tech industry, and those of you who are entrepreneurs, if you've just arrived with your idea, warning, it may not be original.

The Promise of Ed Tech

The promise of ed tech has actually been around for a really long time. How many of you struggled to get CDs distributed in your early ed tech days to your users? Before that, how many of you were distributing video tape to your users? How old is correspondence education? We've always said that technology can extend the boundaries of the classroom, the real promise of today is that digital technology truly does in ways we could never do when it was a physical medium.

If we think about the promise of ed tech, it's in service of what? This is what differentiates what we're creating from many other industries. It's in service of learning. It's in service of a very high stakes moment in time. How many of you have kids, anybody? About half the room. How many of you would be willing to take your child and say, let's pick fourth grade. Put him into an experiment, hope it works out, and be at peace with the face that if it doesn't they'll just redo the year. Everybody good with that? Versus trying some consumer app that let's you pick shoes. What if you picked the wrong shoes, does it really matter as much?

The promise of ed tech is the promise of accelerating a really important social contract. It's the contract between teacher and student, the contract between institution and parent, it's the contract that says we're gonna take people full of potential, very different people, and move them along to be well educated in service of being good members of society and in service of being productive members of a work force. Agreed? I sound a little soap-boxy, don't I?

The reason I raised that is that is truly the promise of what we're all working on together, and to the extent we lose sight of that promise and focus on shiny user interfaces, and focus on cool things that can happen, and we don't tie that investment of human capital back to that learning and teaching moment. I would argue we're creating a bubble, and I frankly don't want to be a part of a bubble. One of my asks is that you not participate in one either, turn it around to be more positive. If we fully deliver on what ed tech can do for students like me when I was in school, if we fully deliver on that promise, then in fact the return of all of our hard work is scaled beautifully.

The Real Challenge(s)

There are several real challenges and I want to talk about three of them today. Again, I want to talk about them because I want to create awareness, and then I'm actually going to ask for a commitment. The commitment will be, just so I get to the end first, is for us all to agree to work together out of self interest and out of group interest, to overcome the challenges. I recognize that many of us come here with many different business models and goals in mind. I think what brings us together is that we are all primarily mission-driven, I hope.

We all arrive here with different models. Some of use are well-established organizations serving a triple bottom line, that bottom line it means serving our teachers and students, serving our owners if you're a return on capital and serving our employees, with longitudinal and stable employment. Other of us arrive here to serve those bottom lines in different ways. Some of us are grant funded, some of us have alternative funding models, but the point being is that we can all rally together to serve that most important bottom line, learners and teachers, I think we can work together.

How many of you ever had Copyserve? All right, more than I thought. How many of you at the same time had CC mail or AOL? How easy was it to send email in say, the late 90s from Copyserve to AOL? We couldn't. Can you do it today? Do you even care who the email provider is today? Imagine if that hadn't changed, we'd probably all be better off, right? Imagine if that hadn't changed. In that day, it's one thing to send mail in the corporate network or within your community of Copyserve, but it wasn't truly a reliable means of communication. In fact, all of commerce was done through this thing called EDI, which is either machine to machine or over fax.

Today, how easy is it to order via TCP/IP in the internet? We haven't think about it, do we? Think about ed tech today, how many of you and your products think you want to own the identity of the user, raise your hands. None of you? None of you want to own a user account and have them log on to your solution directly? Honest? I'm sitting in a room full of liars. How many of you think you want to own even better yet, the performance data that happens within your earthshaking application? Because of that you're going to create a value ad. You're going to take this performance data and you're going to do something that nobody else can do, and that's your unique selling proposition.

How many think of you if those Luddites in the districts and in the colleges would just see how great you are, you're going to grow. Guess what, Copyserve thought the same thing. Guess what, owning the user in an ecosystem doesn't work. If we know one thing about education and I've been on both sides, I was a CIO for the Harvard Business School, I ran technology and curriculum innovation for Babson College, I had a consulting firm where for many years I consulted to a wide array of institutions about their technology readiness. If any of you think this is winner takes all, stop.

Why Elegant Interfaces Matter

We don't have a customer out there that wants just one of us. They want the best elements that all of us have to offer. In this world of ecosystem, not winner take all, elegant interfaces matters. Anybody played with Lego ever? You've heard of it? I received my first Legos 47 years ago, and I'm crazy enough, and my parents are crazy enough, that when my son was born we still have them kicking around in the attic. When he became about 10 years old, he's now 13, he stumbled on them and he asked if he could have them, and we said sure. Honest to goodness, those bricks, those two by four bricks fit beautifully on his millennium falcon, 47 years later. Talk about an elegant interface.

Imagine if ed tech was that elegant. Imagine if when you were building something to bring to market, you didn't have to worry about rostering, identity, you didn't have to worry about the fundamentals of the plumbing but in fact you could take all of your R&D and focus on the teaching and learning moment. How much would you save? For those of you who consume, imagine if assembling your own ecosystem was as easy as picking à la carte ed tech off of a menu and bringing it together seamlessly, how would that feel? I can tell you Ben Laster loves Lego because of the elegant interface, and Lego loves Ben Laster because of the amount that he makes his parents buy.

It Takes an Ecosystem to Educate

It does take an ecosystem. Two different data centers, which one would you rather have? The bird's nest, or the beautifully elegantly wired one? What's wrong with the bird's nest? Any thoughts? You don't even have to be a geek to have a point-of-view here.

It's hard to troubleshoot.

Say it again.

It's hard to troubleshoot.

Really hard to troubleshoot, if not, impossible. That's the one, the harder to troubleshoot that at a software level is representative of most of our districts and higher ed institutions learning ecosystems today. It is a spaghetti of homegrown, best efforts, brilliantly dedicated people trying to bring ed tech together. How many of you that are providing education to students, that are running a K12 or a higher ed, how many of you plan your calendars for recovery days? Days when teachers can have back because the technology just doesn't work, anybody do that? How many think what I just said is insanely stupid?

There isn't a calendar out there that's built for the failure of ed tech, and having taught for seven years, and I'm sure some of you have experienced this as well, what does it feel like when you're standing in a room about this size, you're not tenured, you've got these young minds who know quite a bit about user experience. You get up at a podium kind of like this, and you don't have the great tech support people in the back corner that I have right now, and you get up there and the things just fails. What happens to that teaching and learning moment, anybody know?

Goes away.

Goes away. Instantly that teacher especially in higher ed, especially if they're pre-tenure starting to think, "Oh my God, there go my student ratings." Those students are thinking, "Wow, this guy is a bit of a fool. And what are we doing here anyway?" We owe it to everybody to get rid of the bird's nest and to make it elegant and clean, so that when bad things happen with technology, and by the way my kids still blame me for the Netflix outage about three Christmases ago, because I'm in tech and they couldn't watch their favorite movie in Christmas day.

Envisioning Successful Ed Tech

When bad stuff happens and it will, the question is how quickly can we support each other in a response? One thing is about, one prerequisite of our elegant interfaces, one prerequisite is open standards. From McGraw-Hill that means I am as global interoperability standard. Why? It's a consortium of all of us, it's the best set of ed tech standard that's available, and it's community and user created and so they're reliable. Even once we have this interoperability and we get rid of the bird's nest, and things worked cleanly, and you can assemble an ecosystem that feels great, it's not enough.

As I said before I have very dyslexic children, my son Ben is 13, he's taking on an incredible challenge, he's learning Hebrew for his Bar Mitzvah. For a dyslexic to learn a second language especially a symbol driven second language, not so easy. The software that they've given him to practice with is fixed and rigid. I came home the other night and he was in tears. I said, "Ben, what's wrong?" He goes, "I get it and they won't let me move on. I answered three questions and they want me to do seven more, and I already know it, and I've got my other homework, and I can't move on. Why is this software so stupid?"

As we think about building a confident learner, the learner who's willing to take risk, and the learner who's not going to get bored, and the learner who's not going to get overwhelmed, we stand at an amazing moment in time. It's a moment in time without big data and without profiling people for life and violating their ability to take smart risks in the sanctity of the learning experience, we can offer them help. We can offer them help by focusing on small data. We can view the world as knowledge maps.

The Power of Curation, Machine Learning, Small Data, and Open Standards

This particular representation is a graphical representation of a knowledge map in our math platform called ALEKS. We've decomposed something like pre algebra into a 400 and something objectives or capabilities, and through curation and machine learning, we're able to put those notes together in way that are personalized to the learner. Very pragmatically. Coming in to it we know nothing about the learner, so what do we do? We do what any good master teacher would do, we begin to teach and assess rapidly.

In a matter of 20, 30 minutes, we can begin to tell them what they're ready to learn best next. We're not the only ones that do it, we're proud of what we do, others do this as well and that's fine. The point here is not about McGraw-Hill, the point here is that's a really authentic use of ed tech, because we're keeping that learner on the confident road, they're not getting bored and they're not getting overwhelmed.

We're also changing the nature of discourse between a learner and a teacher. Learning is inherently social, take this data, use it for lesson prep, use it for office hours, use it for feedback. It's what master teachers have been doing forever, but now it's scalable.

What is McGraw-Hill Education Doing to Contribute?

I've talked today about two big concepts. One is interoperability, and make it easy for us all to be replaced, and make it easy for districts and universities to assemble through open standards, a learning ecosystem that works for them. The second is about using ed tech for what it does really well and that's to give data and insights, not macro, but in the learning moment, in ways that are authentic, and safe, and supportive of teacher and student.

Some of you are thinking, "Wow, that guy from McGraw-Hill is talking about easily being replaced, breaking things up, creating an ecosystem and sharing data." You're saying, "Yeah, right." We've made a deliberate decision, we who are leading McGraw-Hill into the future, to honestly do this. Here are some proof points of that. Number one, everything we build today both internally and externally is using IMS global interoperability standards. Inside, when we talk to our own modules it's through IMS, and outside it's through IMS, because we only want to be used where we create value, and if we don't create value, we don't want to make it difficult for you. Conversely, we want to get rid of the grit in the ecosystem. If the ecosystem is going to be intuitive, and engaging, and efficient, and effective, these are the standards of which how to do it.

Second point, more so than ever, we're looking for new opportunities and supporting new opportunities with academic researchers to help better understand the power of small data, not just for us, but for the greater ed tech and learning communities. We're putting significant focus and energy behind number one, empowering legitimate research and trials with automatized data sets that drive the trials. Number two, providing to these researchers their fundamental tooling that lets them create their own trials and their experiments to either prove or disprove what we've already created, and to help us strengthen it, and to help publicly create deeper understanding of this state of the art. We do this because we're super worried that this idea of personalized and adaptive is so nebulous, that it needs more research to be more finite and well understood, and we think that's good for our learners and teachers.

Number three, we're working on really different business models. We know there's a cost and access issue and we've seen many address that. We actually think there's a different issue. The real issue is successful access, because we know the biggest cost are students investing both dollars and time and not completing. Turn it around, when students complete great things happen, nothing new. We're partnering with innovative folks like ASU on Global Freshman Academy, and you'll see us partner with others to change the nature of the delivery model, and to change the nature of the economic model in ways that drive successful access, not just access.

Lastly, we're unlocking our platforms. Many of you might think of us as a publisher, anybody? I've heard that. Some of you know, thank you. When I was given this job the first thing I said is why me, I don't know the first thing about publishing, I only know about technology and learning. What we've come to realize is we're really good at publishing, we're really good at curation and we're really good at learning technology, and we're separating the three. Where appropriate, you'll see us unlock our technology and let other people do great things with it and we think that's cool. Where appropriate, we will publish what we think are really good learning objects. Where appropriate, we'll simply be a services partner to help build scopes and sequences that are made up of ours,, others, and our customers content.

What we care deeply about is providing all of these in a way that's open and instrumented in the purpose of the learning moment. The ask, the ask is that we all agree to open standards. The ask is that no one of us goes for global domination but does see this as an ecosystem. The ask is that in everything we do and in every investment we make we truly put that learning moment as the central outcome. I believe if we all do that there's room for everybody, and I think that's good.

We All Have Choices in Our Business Models

The reminder of why we should honor the ask is because of this. How many people have a betamax machine at home, anybody? It was superior. It was, it's way better than VHS, and it was closed. Those of you who are building your ed tech betamaxes, please stop, and please join the ecosystem. Thank you.