For some years, strategy consultants, this writer amongst them, have talked about “migration” to the Platform. My erstwhile colleagues at Outsell have been strong on the point, but we have all of us been short of exemplars in the education sector. It has therefore been hard for industry participants to see exactly what we mean or how it might be applied. Here then is a chance to explain what I at least mean, as demonstrated by English360 (www.english360.com), a platform developed for English Language Teaching (ELT). And, with major non-educational interests (like Bertelsman this week, and News Corp when their minds are not elsewhere) thinking of education as a banker zone and seeking strategic investments this is a very pertinent area to look at, even though few current text book players seem to have got it right yet.

First of all, some preliminaries:

What is a Platform?

In most digital content marketplaces there is a need for an interface between users and technology, to allow users to manipulate content and present it to themselves, their colleagues or their learners. This may be very lite, or it could be serious industrial strength technology. Its aim is to:

Sorry to repeat what so many know already. And to do so in a context where, when we have been talking workflow/process, we have seen such a spate of examples already: GlobalSpec in engineering, AscendWorldwide in aircraft leasing; DataExlorers in equity leasing to name but three. And elsewhere, open APIs invite users to work on the vendors’ platform as a matter of course. Yet this has been rare in education, where looking at the tools needed to empower teachers has usually not survived the scorn of publishers saying that teachers will never do anything for themselves until last thing Sunday night before the Monday class.

Then again we hear that teachers have quite enough technology that they are not using – VLEs, LMS – so why add more? Well, one of the reasons why that technology is not working, in the UK at least, is that the level of digital literacy amongst teachers is often lower than their pupils, and the technologies installed in every school and classroom in the UK are high level and require a thin platform to give an intuitive interface to teaching tasks like lesson preparation, individualized learner guidance and diagnostic assessment. This is not altered by the fact that a institution has Moodle or that its VLE is stuffed to the brim with unused content or lesson plans created by teachers in previous years (but not updated).

English 360 is a cogent demonstration of this interfacing platform role. I even forgive them for talking about blended learning, since I see how desperately they are trying to de-ice these concepts from the prejudicial beliefs of publishers and teachers alike. They are providing the authoring tools required to get even less-motivated teachers into flexible course design. Through Cambridge University Press initially, and now through a widening range of published materials, they are adding digital learning objects to allow for the construction of contextualised and personalised learning, and they include all the collaborative tools needed to enable learners to learn together, which remains one of the most successful learning strategies, and one which the internet enhances considerably. And in terms of personalised learning they add the tags that reflect the diagnostic readings made by the platform, and which enable users to follow remedial pathways designed to correct their mistakes and support their weaknesses.

When I was a publisher responsible for an ELT list (now lost in the mists of time, fortunately!), there was ELT and ESP – English for special purposes like the oil industry. And the problem of both was that teachers came from all backgrounds (and sometimes none) and learners were equally fragmented by time, place and purpose. Now everything can be treated as ESP, since platform publishing allows special vocabularies or learning content to be available in the same context as basic language learning. It seems to me that English 360 drives beyond the only comparable play in this sector (Macmillan’s Campus English) and not only do I think that publisher’s should invest content in it, but I think they should licence it and use it as a white label environment for branding their approach to digital ELT. Then they can drive it towards mobile platforms, the future focus of many ELT markets, and even (just imagine, collaborative publishers!) share content to create learning solutions.

Of course, outside of ELT some publishers are already getting platform savvy in education. Pearson always has been, and it is interesting to see how MyLab has developed as an all markets vehicle. A dramatic late convert now rushing into the front line is McGraw-Hill: on 18 July they announced the launch of McGraw-Hill Campus (www.mhcampus.com) in higher education, allowing all of their disaggregated content to be used in any LMS – “a universal solution for any institutions LMS”. And McGraw has Connect as a learning platform and Create as a publishing tool already established in these markets. But still there is little progress in K-12, and many seem to see Textbooks on a Kindle as a revolution. Of course it is in one sense – it revolutionizes publisher textbook margins downwards and further complicates the rental market. But it is facsimile, not change. Until we believe that Blended is over and Textbook is dead, it is really hard to reinvent. Which is why English 360 is so welcome.

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