Boiling the Ocean Leads to Drowning


The other day inBloom lost the last of its original statewide data partners when New York bowed to pressure from parents and educators about privacy and pulled the plug. After starting out with 9 (or 11, depending on who’s doing the counting) state clients and $100 million, yes million, from of old and new money, it looks like inBloom is kaput.

Without making a judgement on inBloom’s ambitions the whole enterprise had two fatal flaws. It needed to boil the ocean to work, and until it did no one had any interest in adding fuel to the fire.

Boiling the ocean means that you’re trying to get something  really big to happen all at once. The people who want to boiled the ocean as a business strategy are a lot like what Joel Spolsky called architecture astronauts–instead of having a specific idea for solving a specific problem, they abstract out the problem so far that it’s more of a vision than a practical business. inBloom’s big idea was that it would get entire state school systems–every K-12 school, and beyond, in every state–to dump all of their data in one place so that it could be treated as a Big Data resource for educators, entrepreneurs, and policy experts to improve education.

Besides the fact that there’s no evidence that such Big Data would actually lead to better outcomes, or that inBloom was apparently extraordinarily naive about how the public would feel about aggregating so much personal data in an outside vendor’s hands, inBloom’s boil-the-ocean strategy didn’t actually solve anyone’s problems (i.e. have a business model) if it couldn’t get the water to at least heat up.

Who were inBloom’s most engaged supporters? Vendors who either couldn’t or wouldn’t make the case to schools that their own products should have access to student data. And those vendors certainly weren’t paying inBloom, nor were the school districts that wouldn’t get any immediate payoff for sharing the data. inBloom wasn’t going to be useful or viable even as an information resource, much less a business, until it convinced a whole ocean of constituencies to buy into its model when there was nothing in it for them until the model reached its apotheosis.

This is wishful thinking, not building a business or even building a social good that solves problems. It’s too bad that inBloom didn’t stop to think what would be in it for the school districts, parents, and students while they waited for the ocean to boil. 

Open Badges Are a Joke

While watching the live stream of last week’s Summit to Reconnect Learning‘s opening presentation I felt like I was living that old SNL skit where Kevin Nealon reviews a movie called “Heavy Into Jeff” (which sadly I can’t find online, so only you old timers will get the joke): interested… confused… upset… amused… VERY interested… then not interested at all. Open badges aren’t interesting because the vision for them is a joke.

Maybe not the “vision,” which is only ridiculous insofar as how utopian and naively privileged it is. Changing the world should be naive and utopian sometimes! But the plan for making that vision into a reality is so kumbaya, so impractical, that the Open Badge Initiative should not be taken seriously in its current form.

I couldn’t bring myself to write a long takedown of the whole project since it seemed like popping the ego of a kid whose parents always say he does a really great job, but thankfully Frank Catalano has done it for me in a far more constructive (but still devastating) column at edSurge called Digital Badges Need Mass to Matter. His points boil down to this: badges won’t mean anything until everyone decides they do.  Open badges have a fundamental chicken-and-egg marketplace building problem.

Why is it a marketplace problem? Because when you cut through all of the talk about alternate learning, competency-based certification, goal mapping and more, the most important, practical, and radical outcome is that it will help more people connect with better jobs, and to do that there must be a mechanism for people and employers to discover each other based on the meaningful information conveyed by the badges.

Let’s compare this to the current state of affairs. There is a longstanding “open” format for displaying credentials to employers called a résumé. It documents important learning milestones, life experiences and employment credentials, often with supporting information in a widely-adopted and accepted format.

Résumés have several weaknesses: discoverability (they’re scattered on hard drives or physical pieces of paper), verifiability (there’s a whole industry of background and reference checking to deal with that) and participation (not everyone keeps an updated one handy), among others. But many new businesses have improved on the résumé over the past decade. LinkedIn, notably and to its credit, has convinced hundreds of millions of people to recreate their résumé’s online, via a LinkedIn profile that creates the inventory needed for a two-sided marketplace of employers and certain types of potential employees. Github and Behance solve not only the discoverability that LinkedIn addresses but add skill-based evidence of expertise (via code and portfolios, respectively) in place of assertion.

So how does the Open Badge Initiative improve on this? It doesn’t. Open badges are only a technical standard, not a credentialing one. As Frank notes, any jamoke can start issuing badges for any dumb thing they want to do, filling the Mozilla Backpack with undifferentiated junk. It’s as if people wrote résumé’s that included everything from attending an event to loving coffee. “Openness” is a huge handicap without standards and adoption to guide usage.

Besides which, there doesn’t seem to be anyone building an actual discovery platform for these badges. Right now, they’re simply “portable,” i.e. you can put a widget on your blog. Who cares? That’s exactly the same as telling someone they can paper-clip a blue ribbon to their job application. Without a deep marketplace of comparable, valuable, searchable credentials, the badges are nothing more than a trophy.

And what’s going to drive badge usage by institutions, anyway? As I wrote last year, open badges offer no immediate value proposition to the institutions that would grant them.

I could go on and on but instead of simply being a hater, I’ll point out that we’ve built and deployed a better solution in Merit. Merit is a closed badge initiative. Only institutions that we approve and on-board can grant badges using Merit (verification), which are backed up by a flexible taxonomy (quality) that makes badges issued by one organization comparable to everyone else on the platform (discoverability).

And as for the mass and gravity that Frank writes about: well, we’ve kept our mouths shut for a long time, but hundreds of colleges and universities are issuing these verified, high-quality badges to more than 2 million students every year using Merit; so are national honor societies and even selected high schools.

I hate to beat up on Mozilla and open badges, but it’s really past time to realize that their reach far exceeds their grasp. The revolution they want will happen, but their open badges won’t be carrying the banner.

The Coming Credentials War

As a long-overdue followup to my post about Reid Hoffman’s vision for a “networked diploma,” I’ve put together a landscape of the people fighting to create and own that credentialing platform. It has been a quiet, cold war up until now, but I believe 2014 is when it heats up.

Because this is a greenfield vision, there are not just competitors, but competing technologies and business models. The stakes are high because, as  Hoffman said in is post, a truly disruptive form of credentialing could upend both education and employment.

First you have to understand that this fight isn’t about MOOCs vs. traditional colleges, or whether a college dropout with good GitHub profile is a better hire than someone with a CS degree from MIT. What we’re talking about is how you discover, exchange, and verify credentials, not how you get them.

There are 5 main contenders:

Mozilla’s Open Badge Initiative is a “pure play” technology for moving credentials earned into a shareable, portable, online profile. It allows any organization to use the Open Badge framework to “badge” any type of credential. However, it’s a technology without a business model. While Open Badges represent a powerful way to move credentials online, a new credentialing system requires a standard-bearer to establish and promote a marketplace in which critical mass of participants are interacting on the same terms. Interestingly, Pearson has just announced that they’re building a badge service, Acclaim, that’s built on Open Badges but it’s not clear what the model behind it will be.

LinkedIn is a big, established player. They’re important because they have so much mindshare among professionals that they’re a natural place to showcase credentials. However they don’t have any special expertise for acquiring or verifying them, nor have they shown significant traction among students and learners. LinkedIn might be a natural place for credentials to live, but some other entity has to actually certify them as Reid Hoffman said in his post.

Blackboard just bought MyEdu, a course-planning startup that was attempting to pivot to a student-profile site. Adding student-driven profiles to Blackboard’s LMS platform could connect the dots between learning activity and their public outcomes, giving Blackboard a natural path from education to credentials. Blackboard also has deep and rich relationships with thousands of educational institutions. On the downside, Blackboard’s market penetration is almost exclusively in education, so finding a way to deploy their credentials infrastructure beyond that could be challenging.

Parchment doesn’t start with profiles; instead, it’s a secure document exchange technology that’s sold to schools for easily transferring transcripts among high schools, colleges, and other institutions that require a verified transcript. They build a viral distribution model that encourages adoption by schools and has driven broad penetration in K-12 and higher ed. Now, they are aiming to allow students to own and display their Parchment data as verified credentials. This model benefits from having the institution create data for the students based on their verified learning outcomes, so user acquisition isn’t an issue. However, they’ll have to move beyond the transcript-driven use case to be a true credentials-exchange platform.

Merit also starts with school data rather than with profiles, allowing schools to update and verify a public profile of every student automatically. Because it’s explicitly sold as a credentials-promotion and verification tool they don’t face the FERPA issues that Parchment may. While Merit’s adoption curve ramps slowly because of their B2B deployment model, once deployed there are no profile-acquisition costs because the institutions create and verify students’ profiles automatically. Now Merit is adding credential granters outside of higher ed–like national honor societies, scholarships, and even employers. Merit’s biggest hurdle is overcoming the mindshare and funding lead by its larger competitors.

Usefully, these players can be plotted in a  matrix:

credentialing landscape

Contrary to most consultants’ 2x2s, the upper-right quadrant isn’t Reid Hoffman’s Promised Land. His vision of a networked diploma lives in the lower-right quadrant: a verified, updated record created on behalf of every learner that complements LinkedIn (the company he founded).

What’s especially interesting is what would happen if any of these credentialing players not only realized Hoffman’s vision, but exceeded it: a verified credentialing platform that dominated that lower-right quadrant the way LinkedIn completely owns the upper-left one, but moving north into a networked, verified resume that supersedes LinkedIn or the traditional resume itself. That would be truly disruptive.

It’s worth mentioning a few other people who have done some positioning around credentials, but whose offerings don’t fit Hoffman’s model:

  • Chegg is attempting to own the “student graph” (comparable, in their terms, to Facebook’s social graph or LinkedIn’s professional one), by engaging students with textbook rentals, coursework support, and internship matching. However, they may not be able to deploy or afford an entry into credentialing itself.
  • HigherOne’s 2012 acquisition of CampusLabs gives it the ability to offer co-curricular transcripts and more traditional ePortfolio content to a consumer-facing student profile, but so far they seem focused on their B2B offerings to institutions.
  • Portfolio sites targeted at students–including Pathbrite, and, before it was acquired, MyEdu–aim to show the evidence of work completed as well as visually illustrate milestone accomplishments. These sites range from simple iterations on the “e-portfolio” academic fad to infographic-styled splash pages and have yet to show widespread acceptance.

What’s in it for me?

Reid Hoffman’s blog post last week about disrupting the diploma is aligned 100% with what we’re doing at Merit:

Imagine an online document that’s iterative like a LinkedIn profile (and might even be part of the LinkedIn profile), but is administered by some master service that verifies the authenticity of its components. While you’d be the creator and primary keeper of this profile, you wouldn’t actually be able to add certifications yourself. Instead, this master service would do so, verifying information with the certification issuers, at your request, after you successfully completed a given curriculum.

Over time, this dynamic, networked diploma will contain an increasing number of icons or badges symbolizing specific certifications. It could also link to transcripts, test scores, and work examples from these curricula, and even evaluations from instructors, classmates, internship supervisors, and others who have interacted with you in your educational pursuits.

It’s a powerful vision for how colleges and universities, as well as every learning experience students take on, can build a living professional presence for all people. Reid points to the Mozilla Open Badge Initiative as a potential platform. But there’s a big question that needs to be answered.

Why will anyone award certifications this way? In other words, from the perspective of schools, educators, intern sponsors and others: What’s in it for me?

Just look at the comments to Kevin Carey’s article in the Chronicle proposing something similar to Reid: overwhelming opposition to the idea that colleges and professors owe students anything that employers might find useful. Worse, the vast majority of leaders and educators at 4-year colleges don’t believe that the employability or preparedness of their students for work is a measure of school quality.

So who’s going to take responsibility for moving certifications and measures of learning outcomes into a new type of diploma? There has to be payoff for someone on their own terms of success, not just as a contribution to a larger good. Solutions have to recognize self-interest and personal incentives to work, which is why worthy but un-sponsored solutions like Mozilla’s will die quietly.

On the other hand–and immodestly–Merit harnesses self interest in the service of that larger vision, which is why more than 15% of the U.S. college population now enjoys the type of networked diploma that Reid envisions. With more to come.

Solving your problem, not your customer’s: LinkedIn’s University Pages

I admire LinkedIn. I’ve known about them since very early in their history, when I was doing enterprise social networking and LinkedIn was the professional alternative to Friendster. But their recently announced University Pages are going to be a bust because they’re designed to solve LinkedIn’s business model problems, not problems that universities or students have.

LinkedIn needs inventory: lots of updated, comprehensive profiles of the kinds of people recruiters, employers and advertisers want to reach. The vast majority of LinkedIn’s inventory is college-educated, higher income, mid-career professionals. LinkedIn skews older and wants to get a younger demographic; besides that, getting college grads as they start their careers hooked on LinkedIn ensures that they’ll “grow into” more valuable inventory.

Seen in this light, University Pages are LinkedIn’s latest crack at getting a younger demographic–not just college age but college-bound–into their inventory. (Their first, which was smart but incremental, was creating more space on LinkedIn profiles for university-specific content.) But what’s the value proposition for universities and students? What problems do the pages solve? From their announcement:

We believe University Pages will be especially valuable for students making their first, big decision about where to attend college.

This value proposition depends on the University Pages becoming a place where prospective students will find information that’s more valuable, more easily than elsewhere (the way LinkedIn is valuable and easy for recruiters and professionals), and allowing universities to do a better job communicating with prospects. Here’s why that’s not the case:

  • Who is the customer? LinkedIn’s core business has two types of customers: profile owners, like me, who create a LinkedIn profile for professional networking and the value of a “clean,” public profile of record, and the recruiters, employers and advertisers who pay to reach the profiles of people like me. Who is the customer for University Pages? I’ll deal with the student side of the equation below, but at colleges who gains from the new pages? Is it admissions, marketing, career services or someone else? These are generally specific, siloed functions with different goals and methods.
  • Another headache for colleges: The pages are a new, non-owned outlet that have to be updated and maintained. Hence, another content marketing channel to compete with admissions marketing, university communications, existing social media channels, and more. Higher ed communications and social media people are already overtaxed, and even early beta testers seem underwhelmed. (The reaction on Twitter was even less charitable.)
  • Not differentiated enough. There are dozens and dozens of places for high school students to learn about colleges, from the purely statistical, to the analytical, to the anecdotal. And what about Facebook Pages? The main differentiator LinkedIn’s University Pages tout is the ability to see the careers and outcomes of university grads to help high school students see a viable career path. Yet aside from a data problem–LinkedIn doesn’t have enough information about every graduate at every school to truly map individual career goals–high school students just aren’t focused that narrowly on a career. According to the most recent HERI survey of incoming freshman, just about 25% expect to be in the kind of professional or STEM-related careers where LinkedIn has depth and strength. Approximately 50% of incoming freshman are focused on outcomes that are poorly represented by LinkedIn’s inventory of profiles, like teaching and health professions and the balance–another 25%–are undecided, “other” or expecting unemployment when they graduate. And that’s after they have gotten into college! Choosing colleges based on narrow career outcomes is extremely limited and specific.
  • Little bang for the buck. What does a high school student get in return for creating a LinkedIn profile? The chance to engage with the University Page and other LinkedIn members. Is that valuable enough for a high-schooler to fill out an online resume that was designed for professionals? Compare that payoff to a site like Zinch, which offers students the chance to qualify for scholarships in return for creating a profile that’s scarily detailed and specific, but was designed for a high school kid. And what about the university? What’s the payoff for maintaining the University Page? It’s tough to see. Ideally, interested students would be compelling leads for the admissions funnel. Yet the pages haven’t been built to feed into an admissions and enrollment process.
  • It misses the point. LinkedIn is supposed to be all about jobs and professional networking. Getting a job after college is the #1 thing that students care about. So why isn’t LinkedIn, via its University Pages or some other product, leveraging its incredibly valuable business to deliver jobs to students? Instead, it’s entering a crowded field–college selection–with an underpowered offering.

I am confident that LinkedIn is going to get a lot of high school students signed up via the new University Pages initiative, and they’ll report rapid growth (from a small base). But that’s because there is a category of privileged, ambitious students who will opt-in to LinkedIn because they know that they should explore every avenue for admission to a competitive college. To me, that’s a failure of imagination and ambition by LinkedIn, because every high school and college student needs help with their educational and professional outcomes. By launching a product that simply imports it playbook from the professional world into the educational one, LinkedIn is missing the chance to really change young people’s lives for the better.

Colleges and universities need solutions that meet them where they are. That’s what we learned with Merit, which leverages the great things that universities already do while recognizing the challenges that students face in presenting a new, professional public face to the world. We’ll continue to look for opportunities to get the 500 colleges and 1.5 million students with Merit pages the attention they deserve, whether it’s in Facebook, local media, or even LinkedIn–just not with their disappointing University Pages.

The internet isn’t cool anymore

I just finished watching videos of several companies pitching at TechCrunch Disrupt and reading the overviews of the rest, and Mark Suster’s post about whether startups today are solving real problems. You know what the problem with most of the companies at Disrupt is? It’s not just that they seem trivial or transient. It’s that the internet just isn’t that cool anymore and these guys don’t know it.

I don’t mean that the internet isn’t important. I was already wrong about that in 1991. It’s that the internet is so unbelievably important that every single person who wants to accomplish anything consequential knows they have to figure out how they can use the technologies, behaviors, data and models developed online to do it. It’s not cool to have an online strategy–it’s conventional wisdom.

Thanks to Web 2.0, it’s also not very hard or expensive to start an online company. That was true five years ago and at this point the gee-whiz of being able to hack together in a weekend something inconceivable at 100x the price 10 years ago is a yawn.

All this means that if you’re starting a company now you don’t get credit just because you’re a web-based business or for cleverly using what’s now off-the-shelf open source tools to hack together something. The cool kids who were early (and right, and hard working) have grown up into powerful businesses and the professionals are moving to fill in the easy white space. The table stakes now are not cool features, but a product that solves real problems and a business model that gets paid for doing so.

That’s the disconnect I saw for so many of the companies competing at Disrupt. Most of the pitches sounded like they were either “me too” interations (track your spending, but mobile), addressed trivial problems (“let’s plan to meet, maybe, when I show up”) or looked like a consultant’s view of a problem (“you know what’s huge? subgroups. With social.).

I don’t mean to disparage other entrepreneurs. It’s hard to start a business and I root for everybody to make it. But the world has moved on past most of these companies and they don’t even know it. TechCrunch doesn’t know it, either: they cover the idea of these startups–the simple premise–breathlessly and uncritically whether it makes sense or not. However, some of the panel judges definitely know that the world has moved on from cool ideas to real businesses, which is why the presenters looked like deer in the headlights when asked about things like market size and fit (“who buys this and why”) sales and marketing (“how to you get people to buy it”), and competition (“why won’t they buy from someone else”).

Just as in life, in business the definition of cool changes as industries grow and evolve. Rehashing the Web 2.0 fashions of the past few years is not just uncool, it’s naive.