Monthly Archives: August 2015

Understanding Small College Struggles

There have been many stories of doom and gloom for educational institutions over the past several years. I can’t quite place it, but I expect it probably coincides with the intersection of the mainstreaming of MOOCs, the depths of the financial recession, and the heights of our collective student loan indebtedness.  I never quite believed the magnitude of the hype surrounding the negativity, but nevertheless speculation has run wild about the demise of higher education as we know it. The interesting thing to me is that the feelings of defeatism voiced for a period of time by higher educators appear to have more recently shifted to Silicon Valley, home the very disruptors themselves who were supposed to be saving education. I’m encouraged, too, by recent articles (eg: Pushing Back on the Dismantling of Higher Ed Narrative, Why Universities aren’t Dead….and Won’t BeWhy Is The University Still Here?Disrupting the Disruption in Higher EducationWhy Education Does Not Need Marc Andreessen) that push back on this narrative and provide good arguments in the defense of why colleges and universities will continue to exist long into the future despite the increasing pace of change and unforeseen influences of disruption. Nevertheless, there are, in my opinion, some hard realities to consider, particularly for small colleges and universities who are struggling with financial sustainability and continuity challenges.  While college isn’t going anywhere, it is likely that some colleges will disappear (and indeed some already are.)

There are a lot of schools

The first reality to consider is one that I’ve surprisingly not seen mentioned until recently.  The US has, by-far, the highest number of higher education institutions per capita of any other developed country. Doing some back-of-the-napkin analysis, at best we have roughly triple the number of institutions compared to the next nearest country (which by my count is Canada). At worst (depending on who’s counting and how “university” is defined) we have 5 times as many. The US however, arguably, also has the highest demand (including international demand) for higher education services of any country in the world, but is this enough to justify the existence of so many institutions?

Country Population # Universities Ratio: university TO person
India 1,290,000,000 298 1 : 4,328,859
China 1,360,000,000 574 1 : 2,369,338
Australia 24,000,000 87 1 : 275,862
Germany 81,600,000 330 1 : 247,273
UK 64,000,000 262 1 : 244,275
Canada 35,000,000 176 1 : 198,864
US 322,000,000 4599 *WA count
7540 *IPEDS count
1 : 70,015
1 : 42,706

Data Sources: Wolfram Alpha, IPEDS

There are a lot of really small schools

A second consideration is that a significant number of these institutions are very small institutions with 500 or fewer students (by 12 month unduplicated headcount). In fact, a disproportionately large number of colleges and universities have fewer than 250 students! That’s a lot of small higher education institutions whose total size is smaller than a fair number of high school graduating classes. As the owner of any small business knows – competition is constant and fierce. As the head of any small non-profit knows – it’s hard to do much without the resources.


Data source: IPEDS 12-month FTE enrollment: 2012-13 (Source: IPEDS, select “Use final release data,” then “By Groups->EZ Group,” then “U.S. Only”, n = 7540 accounting for records indicating 0 enrollments)

Making finances work is challenging for small organizations

Another major reality is that a lot of smaller colleges don’t have endowment funds to support and invest in themselves during difficult times.  Well-endowed schools also have the good fortune (no pun intended) to do good things with their funds during good times like guarantee scholarships for brilliant students who otherwise may not be able to afford tuition costs. If you add up the endowment funds of all US institutions with under 500 students – that is, all 3272 institutions of this small size combined – the total would only be 1/4 the size of Harvard’s endowment alone ($8,218,582,555 to $32,012,729,000). While endowments have probably gone too far at some schools, small schools instead rely heavily on tuition as a primary and often only source of funding.  They don’t often have research grants or technology transfer agreements or sports trademark licensing profits that diversify their revenues.

Many smaller colleges are actually being monitored by the Department of Education specifically because of the potential for looming financial troubles thereby placing additional regulatory burden on them. Cash flow is more important than many realize (unless employees are willing to work at times for free and supplies can be acquired on loan). The hard reality is that salaries and bills need to be paid, and a one-time campaign for donations is not likely to stabilize a university’s core finances in a sustainable way (unless you happen to get really, really lucky). (By the way, at only a 5% interest rate, $400 million generates $20 million in returns every year ad infinitum. $20 million in free money, every year!)

Not doom & gloom, but change is necessary

While the realities may seem insurmountable, I believe that they are for many reasons. While the percentage of college-aged students is trending down, the overall number of potential students looks to be expected to increase. Higher learning is becoming more popular in later life. Nanodegrees and bootcamps may offer spurts of learner engagement throughout life instead of only once or twice. (It’s bizarre to me that while most companies attempt to cultivate lifelong relationships with customers, higher education lets theirs literally walk across the stage and out the door.) Employers are beginning to fund education as a benefit. Technology is not only a threat but can provide tremendous opportunity to reach audiences like never before. And despite all of the craziness in the news, people still love learning. Education is one of those rare possessions that once acquired can’t be stolen or repossessed or taken away. It is not a commodity. And universities provide a level of authority and trust earned over many years. There is a reason the word credential stems from the Latin root word meaning “to believe in” or “to trust.” This is a differentiator that no software startup can match.  (In fact, many new edtech organizations attempt to build on the pre-existing reputations of schools, eg: MIT and Harvard for the non-profit EdX, the “elite schools” initial roll-out strategy of Coursera, Udacity and Stanford, etc.) But in order to keep this trust, universities must become more willing to change and adapt. There is some truth to the saying that it isn’t the smartest or largest creature who survives but the quickest to adapt.

I tend to agree with George Siemens when he says to “expect a future of universities being more things to more people.” Though universities have been argued as quick to innovate but slow to change, smaller universities in my opinion are actually in the best position to change and adapt.

As much as I am encouraged to see so much talk about learning model innovations (eg: Competency Based Education and other flexible, personalized, and adaptive options), I am equally excited to see some universities experimenting with business model innovation. Improved learning models promise to improve educational outcomes over time, but business model innovation may very well keep small schools in business today. Some schools like Hodges University (as are some giants like Kaplan) are experimenting with subscription models that offer “unlimited course access” for a period of time. Others are diversifying revenues by more fully utilizing university space and services during summers and other periods of downtime. Small universities are also exploring partnerships, networks, and alliances with each other or through partners such as StraighterLine and ed2go that begin to offer a way to address some of the business partnership challenges and lower transaction costs between universities. There is plenty of opportunity out there and a lot of great ideas. They just need to be explored and executed.

Some small schools though, in my opinion, will have no choice but to explore mergers and consolidation in the future.  There are plenty of reasons to consider doing so and plenty of reasons not to. While success is not guaranteed, there are also many success stories to consider.

There is no one root cause and no one way to solve the problems faced by higher education institutions today. Instead there are many ways to overcome our challenges that may be appropriate for different types of schools with different strengths and goals. By better understanding some of these challenges, thinking through options, and proactively pursuing new opportunities, my personal hope is that colleges and universities craft our own futures rather than having change dictated to us. But we have to do it in a way that makes sense to the needs of modern learners.


Blackboard’s Complexity Problems

Reactions to this year’s BbWorld are starting to roll in, and I’d like to add something to Michael’s recent post on Blackboard’s Messaging Problems. Yes, Blackboard could be better at communicating (can’t we all?), but I believe that Blackboard’s more challenging problems are rooted in the complexity of its software rather than the perplexity of its marketing messages. (Good work on Ultra though – that’s looking fantastic. If that’s what Ultra is. Which now I’m not sure what it is. But good work nonetheless. Though I haven’t come across anyone actually using it yet…)

Both confusing messaging and technical complexity present real problems, but while messaging can be (relatively) easily corrected, the technical complexity is a lot more difficult to untangle. Let’s examine.

Architectural Components

The most major complexity of Blackboard’s flagship Learn LMS is the sheer combination of supported configurations that it supports, even in its latest release. It can be run on different versions of Windows, or Linux, or Solaris. It can be run with databases including multiple versions of Oracle or SQL Server (PostgreSQL support was also rumored at one point, but I still don’t see it). Each of these can be run with different combinations of OS and database updates, hotfixes, and patch sets. The software runs on a version of Java which reached its end-of-life several months ago (and will no longer receive any updates, security or otherwise, else the Java version would be still another variable). It can run on virtualized environments or bare metal. It can be hosted by Blackboard or self-hosted. And these combinations don’t even consider the additional combinations that Michael’s post references – adding even more dependencies on software hosted or delivered by Amazon and though others.

The application that runs on top of all of these components is a well-intentioned but clunky amalgamation of many different pieces. It has flavors of the historical Blackboard and of the WebCT architects. There’s a little bit of ANGEL mixed in. Some of the design came from seasoned software architects with decades of experience while other bits came from media studies majors (especially one really smart one in particular). Some was built when the company was still a startup, others the artifacts of various rearchitecting efforts. Some pieces were jammed in or bolted on though various acquisitions.

Today, it’s not just the pieces that Blackboard itself owns that are important. In-line document rendering is provided by a third-party called Crocodoc. Parts of the video recording and embedding capabilities are provided by Google and YouTube, a fact that became painfully clear when all embedded course videos in all Blackboard environments across the world recently, apparently stopped working. Unlike companies like Instructure that can update every single one of their customers instantly and simultaneously when something breaks or D2L who only needs to focus on the Windows technology stack and is making steady progress towards periodic automatic updates for both hosted and self-hosted institutions, Blackboard still faces every combination of variables imaginable (and arguably still more after this year’s BbWorld).

To be fair, few other companies support this sheer raw complexity of configuration combinations, so kudos to them for holding it together for so long. In comparison, Microsoft supports an incredible array of Office product versions across Windows and Mac OSs and seems to do well compatibility-wise. Apple in contrast contains the number of combinations of OSs and devices it supports. I suppose WordPress is a worthy comparison in that it is hosted on any number of different combinations of OSs, databases, and PHP versions. But they seem to have it figured out, too, as the last WordPress update I ran took one click in a web UI and less than 10 seconds. Which leads me to my next point…

Modularity and Updates

Blackboard for many, many years has had this wonderful plugin framework called Building Blocks. It’s seriously cool (and I’m not just saying this because I spent a decade of my life building them). Building Blocks were “apps” 10 years before the concept became mainstream. And when Blackboard announced that they were (finally) modularizing the Learn product into their own Building Block plugin framework to make updates easier, I was really excited. The approach was rushed into use as a way to increase the pace and decrease the time to availability of bug fixes. This was a good goal, but it fast-tracked some thinking-through of important details. And as a result, when you had a bug, not only did the Blackboard Support team have to ask what version of Blackboard you were running, but also which specific versions of each plugin you were running.

Updating these plugins sometimes required restarting Blackboard services (ie: downtime); other updates did not.  Some updates had to be performed in a certain sequence, or else they would not work. Or one time I remember the official documentation specified an order, but it was the wrong one. Or once the specified order was technically impossible to achieve. There was also no real way to roll back once the install button was clicked. And so the risks to keeping the software up-to-date seemed to actually become even greater. Oh, and there were still releases/service packs and hot fixes to keep track of despite this welcome improvement. Sometimes those “upgrades” actually blew away the Building Block updates made between the release of the official updater/installer and the last batch of Building Block updates. And of course, there’s that pesky detail that every institution still gets to decide at its own pace and on its own timeline when to update.

APIs and Integration

Speaking of Building Blocks, there’s one last complexity to Blackboard’s software that can be observed indirectly through its APIs. You can comb through the latest API documents to make your own judgment calls, but from my technical vantage point, I see:

  • 6 representations of a “course”(AdminCourse, Course, CourseCourse, CourseSite, CourseVO, Organization)
  • 4 representations of “enrollment” (Enrollment, CourseMembership, CourseMembershipVO, StaffAssignment)
  • 3 or 4 representations of “user” (User, UserVO, UserInfo, Person)
  • 2 (public) representations of “grades” (anecdotally there are several others, which is why grades in their mobile app historically haven’t always matched the instructor gradebook which sometimes didn’t match the student view of the gradebook – and why it’s so hard to fix them all)
  • 10ish representations of “course content” (Content, ContentFile, ContentFolder, ContentVO, CSEntry, CSFile, BbFile, ChildFile, CourseDocument, LOItem (learning object))

Needless to say, it’s not only confusing for external third-party developers but likely to Blackboard’s own in-house developers which ones are the right ones, or best ones, or most-appropriate ones to use.

As was the case in 2013 when this blog started tracking LMS data, Blackboard still has the largest variance of installed versions of all the major flavors of LMSs (though to their credit, it is getting better). But the challenges are still far from over. I suspect foregoing the Spring 2015 release was one part of Blackboard’s strategy towards bringing all of their customers closer together and narrowing the version spread.

But my bottom line remains. Technical problems are much harder to solve than marketing ones, and the complexities we see here make every Blackboard installation unique in some nuanced way or another.  Staying this course is not sustainable.  If I were Blackboard, I’d focus on decreasing software complexity as an important goal rather than replaying the “rebundling the licenses” shell game. A good product may sell itself, but a complex one hastens its own morbidity.