Who and what is the Shared Learning Collaborative? (Part 1)
Okay, here we go with another education reform organization, one which Delaware had a hand in creating, and which will be a player in Delaware schools soon: the Shared Learning Collaborative (SLC). Some of its participants are already on the scene here in Delaware. The partners are names you have probably heard before: Wireless Generation, Double Line Partners, McKinsey & Company, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and more.
The technical notes on the SLC web site are sketchy, so I’ll have to make some educated guesses. But basically: the vendors and consultants who built the new school data systems in Texas and Delaware have gotten together and are now going to give that system away for free, and make a tremendous amount of money doing it.
After all, there’s $500 billion on the table. Here’s what Rupert Murdoch had to say when his company News Corp purchased Wireless Generation:
“When it comes to K through 12 education,” Murdoch said in a statement about the Wireless Generation purchase, “we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching.”
Let’s hear what the SLC website has to say (keep an eye on the bolded sentences):
Led by the vision of the Council of Chief State School Officers and nine participating states, and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Carnegie Corporation of New York, the SLC is an alliance of states, foundations, educators, content providers, developers and vendors who are passionate about using technology to enhance education.
I’ll look into who these outfits are in a moment. But what are they proposing to do?
The collaborative aims to accelerate the progress of U.S. public schools toward personalized learning by creating a set of shared technology services that will work better and cost less per state than what can be accomplished by each state working individually.
The SLC technology will support the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and help states and districts provide teachers with the instructional data and tools they need to make personalized learning the norm in every classroom.
Personalized learning? Wait a minute, I thought data driven reform was supposed to turn students into widgets! but I digress…. I’ll look at what “personalized learning” really means later.
What is this technology they are planning to build?
The working title is Shared Learning Infrastructure (SLI), and much of it has already been built in the course of developing systems for Texas and Delaware. It includes:
- A data warehouse that gathers data from a state’s various education-related databases, and
- A pre-built set of dashboards that pull data from the data warehouse, and display it to teachers and other stakeholders.
This part greatly resembles Delaware’s Education Insight project, which is currently under construction, with the data warehouse up and running, and the first dashboards due next month (teacher dashboards). I’ve blogged about this before, here and here and here.
The Teacher Dashboards will pull together all the different pieces of data about a student, and provide tools to slice and dice it into different kinds of analytical reports. This information will then allow the teacher to identify if intervention or additional supports are needed. You can see some mockups of Delaware’s teacher dashboards here (under “Dashboard Snapshots”).
Delaware’s dashboards are being built by Double Line and Wireless Generation, while the underlying data warehouse was built by ESP Solutions, in conjunction with several other firms.
And when I say “built,” I mean Delaware’s system was built using designs (and likely much of the same code). that was used to create the Texas system. The Texas system was in turn based on an initial design framework funded by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and developed by Texas-based vendors and consultants. Delaware’s RFP for the dashboards specified that they were to be based on the Dell templates and the Texas implementation.
How are they going to make money giving it away for free?
The systems and standards developed by SLC partners will be released under an open-source license. That means a state, a vendor, or anybody can download the source code, review it, and even modify it and deploy it for their own customers. I plan to take a look at it myself as soon as it is available.
I assume they have to make it available it as open source, simply because it was developed with public funds (Texas and Delaware). It would be unseemly or probably even illegal to sell the software outright..
But they are not concerned about giving the technology away, because open-source can be a very good business model, especially if you are the sponsor and creator of the technology and the standards that support it. In addition to the source code, the SLC technology relies on a universe of standards and specifications developed by SLC partners, which are also publicly available for free as open standards.
However, just having the source code and standards for the technology won’t get you too far. The real work (and the real money) is in the process of making sure the system can connect to all the state’s various data sources, and is customized to meet the particular requirements of each state, a process known as integration. This part will not be done for free. On top of that, the deployment of the SLC system will generate consulting fees, training, ongoing customization, add-on features, and other needs known as professional services. Wireless Generation’s $8 million data-coaching contract with Delaware is just a small example.
Integration and professional services are that $500 billion market Rupert Murdoch was talking about.
So if you are a state looking to adopt this kind of technology, are you really going to download the code and the specifications and deploy it yourself? Or are you going to put out an RFP to have that all done for you? Sure, any consulting firm can download the code and the specifications and bid on the job. But the SLC partners who developed the technology and the standards have the most experience, having already done this work in Texas and Delaware, and they will get the integration job. And they will also have the most experience in the ensuing bids for professional services work, and these contracts will be awarded over and over again in each state that chooses this technology.
In fact, even at this early stage when the design specs are still sketchy and the source code isn’t even available yet, each level of the specs already includes an “RFP Guide” to help states write an RFP for implementing the technology. State technology officers will most likely model their RFPs on the SLC language, or even copy it outright. So when you control the language of the RFP, you are already the leading contender.
In this case, the open source model is far more lucrative than selling the software outright. When you design a proprietary (closed source) system, the minute you are finished it starts getting stale. Then you can be certain some other vendor is working on a newer better system. But the SLC system was built with a minimum of capital investment on the part of the vendors, who built it with a combination of foundation money and public funds via Texas and Delaware. So any vendor who wishes to build a competing system with their own capital will quickly encounter a truism in technology: “You can’t compete with free.”
So by developing and asserting control over the system and its specifications, SLC is now in possession of an enormous money-making machine. Vendor members of the Shared Learning Collaborative are already ahead of the curve to win the wave of contracts coming from state after state. This is the point of the Shared Learning Collaborative, and it is how its partners will lock in and capture as much of that $500 billion as they possibly can.
Coming up in Part 2:
Phase 2 of the Shared Learning Infrastructure in Delaware
Personalized learning and the Common Core State Standards