Fancy virtual whiteboard that has a way to go till it fulfills its ambition as an “open learning community”
(Note: review is updated with appended section at the end)
Came across ShowMe today, and I have to say, this product is a rather spot-on embodiment of my conflicted feelings of this nascent space of “p2p educational platforms”. The doubts are, sadly, very diverse– ranging from questions of its educational value to the sustainability of the business model.
At first glance, this seems like an idea that cannot go wrong: after all, isn’t this exactly what the zeitgeist of our digital era is all about? Knowledge and technology for all!! We are all creative geniuses that finally have ways to fully unleash our potential!! The product is getting compared to Khan Academy, but I think that’s being rather generous- I can see some fundamental differences that must be brought to light.
- Spotty quality of content. Khan Academy is so great not just because it’s free, even though that’s often the point that people choose to emphasize. Khan Academy is so great because the content is extraordinarily well-taught, arguably often even more so than textbooks or classes sold for-profit. The “opensource” model of ShowMe, on the other hand, does not guarantee much quality vetting in its content. I am sure there are gems in there, but you also get stuff like this, which, while kind of cute, is also somewhat embarrassing that it’s on an educational platform (I also wonder if this is any indication of the avg quality of the 1.5M lessons apparently available)I am sure there is some level of effort to elevate the better content (the featured lessons, probably), but that alone is still not enough to make a consistently engaging & rewarding experience like that of Khan Academy. The nature of relinquishing control necessarily means that it may become harder to guarantee quality content (unless you get smart on crowdsourcing like Wiki), and that is something that ShowMe will have to figure out if it wants to be successful.
- Lack of coherence/curriculum. To me, ShowMe suffers from a pretty grave flaw that is shared by many similar services: the over-emphasis on the ‘technological’ and “opensource” nature of the platform vs. curriculum and coherence. I guess if you are just selling a service, then it doesn’t really matter what lessons are getting loaded on there. But if you expect people to come to your platform to learn stuff, then there needs to be a structure for them to follow. Individual lessons here and there are rarely that helpful– again, a key difference compared to KA, which Sal Khan has spent significant time to plan out each of his lesson roadmaps. Even rather loosely organized p2pu.org courses strive for some sort of structure and progression. You can perhaps argue that the burden falls on the teachers who are using this platform to create coherent curricula- but this is probably unlikely as it takes significant investment of effort (which most teachers don’t have), and would still have the problem of competing and/or disconnected lesson trajectories. To overcome this issue, ShowMe may have to make an active effort to provide more coherence to the content available right now, and maybe even build a “target” content roadmap and solicit material to fill the gaps.
- Positioning of the business model. Besides the educational questions around this platform, I also have big questions on how it plans on making money. If the whole point of the app is that it’s free to use, how does it plan to reconcile any commercial interests with its other, more noble goals? I really do believe that once the app is not free, people will find alternatives which are. I can’t really think of any obvious ways to monetize without it presenting some conflict in spirit to what it claims to be now. Advertising seems like it would be a terrible idea for an educational medium, and the current lack of quality content does not lend itself well to being a transactional platform. A more natural avenue may be to charge for premium features on the app, but it would need much more widespread usage for that to become a reliable source of revenue given that most users will be non-paying.
Finally, while I decided not to make this into a main bullet point, I felt vaguely disturbed by their promotion video featuring the classrooms full of kids with shiny iPads. Without rambling on about the digital divide, I really wonder if these are the kids who suffer from the “seemingly intractable problems in both K-12 and higher education” that the Techcrunch article cites. Besides the fact that kids can play or re-play these videos at home to learn/refresh the material (which I do like), is there significant value-add to kids staring at or interacting with their iPads in classrooms instead of some good old pencil & paper? Incidentally, I do not doubt the technological awesomeness of the platform: I just wonder if it’s much more than a really fancy virtual whiteboard (speaking of which – would it benefit from having some preset ‘stamps/symbols’ that are commonly used in subjects instead of having the teachers draw everything from scratch?)
To be fair, I am going to try to look around the web a bit more to see what the feedback has been from teachers: I want to know if they feel that it has structurally improved the effectiveness of their lessons– besides being glossy and providing something to do with the free classroom iPads that they might not know otherwise what to do with. Too tired @ the moment to do so, but I’ll get to it later.
After reading a bit more about the app, I understand now that the points in the Techcrunch article + ShowMe’s intimation of its ultimate vision are a misleading interpretation of what the app is really good for. What ShowMe is really good as is as a software, a technology platform– it’s nowhere near being a “learning community” yet. It does, however, seem to be doing a reasonable job at being a useful software to teachers. One can still be cynical about the likelihood of iPads playing a regular role in most classrooms, but that’s a different discussion.