Saturday 15 February 2014

Salesforce-style platforms are the future of edtech

In my previous blog I mentioned my recent talk at BESA's edtech special interest group. A central theme of my presentation was that schools need cloud-based platforms, not standalone desktop products.

I worry that people like me are prone to saying "we should move towards the cloud" without being clear about what we mean. Jose Diaz at ARK worries about this too. I'm paraphrasing, but I think his (very sensible) challenge to me was something like: "do you mean we should move towards browser-based software instead of desktop products (which could be achieved with local hosting) or do you have a theory of why the cloud is better than local hosting?"

I assume the cloud does offer benefits compared to local hosting, such as simpler backing up, cheaper and more reliable hosting, and easier upgrades. But I imagine those benefits could be mitigated in other ways. To be honest, the infrastructure aspect isn't my area of expertise.

So I'm going to stop saying "we should move towards the cloud", and start saying "we should move towards cloud-based platforms". And I think I should focus on the "platform" bit of that sentence in particular, because we need great edtech firms to be building apps that bolt on to platforms with common standards. We really, really don't need endless standalone products that do not integrate with each other.

I think Salesforce is the best example of what a winning platform should look like. It started out life as a tool for managing customer interactions, but that isn't really what it's about anymore. The way I think of it is as an endlessly configurable database, linked to a simple user interface, with great integration tools and a built-in app store. The technical term for this kind of approach is Platform as a Service (PaaS). The Salesforce website gives a fuller description of what this really means. It also offers a nice explanation of how this links to Software as a Service (SaaS).

Definitions aside, the crucial thing about Salesforce for me is that you can make most of the functionality changes you'll ever need through configuration clicks, not coding. When you need to make bigger changes, you can usually find a plug-in app to do the job. Either way, if you can define the business logic, you can usually mould Salesforce to make it fit.

Platforms like Salesforce are different from the app stores that link to operating systems, such as iTunes (Mac OS) or Google Play (Android). App stores give you super-simple integration with your device. Platforms give you close integration between apps and your core business processes.

Now, imagine if something like Salesforce existed in UK schools. Users wouldn't have to familiarise themselves with a new interface every time they buy a new product - they'd just plug it into their platform and get started. Curriculum software would integrate with a school's standard approach to testing and data analysis. Cost would also come down, in the same way that mobile apps have radically disrupted the price of consumer software. It would be awesome.

It would be wrong to imply that nobody has thought of doing this already - in fact loads of people are trying to build an app ecosystem. Frog has the Frogstore. RM Unify is an app store for education. Moodle relies on its plugins directory. Sharepoint links to the Office Store. So the problem isn't aspiration. The problem is that hardly anyone in education is using platforms in this way. I'm also not yet convinced that any of these platforms can match Salesforce for configurability and simplicity of integration. (I can't find any data on the current market share or usage levels of these platforms and app stores - if anyone knows more, I'd love to hear from you.)

I asked the 13 UK edtech companies at the BESA session which of them were integrating with a learning platform right now. Most had not even tried. A few had experimented with Frog or Moodle integration, but had seen minimal customer uptake. One told me they were considering RM Unify, but they hadn't built anything yet. So basically, they're all still selling standalone products. I don't blame them, because there's no money in creating a great app that nobody buys. But this has to change.

We really need two or three platforms to take off. We need people like Renaissance Learning to feel confident that if they make products like Accelerated Reader available on platforms we'll actually buy them. And in an ideal world the winning platforms would extend beyond learning. They'd also make it easy for productivity, finance, HR, MIS and other school systems to plug in.

At ARK we're currently reviewing our entire approach to learning platforms. The route we take will be the one which we think leads us, and all UK schools, to the most Salesforce-style vision of the future.