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Education is Waiting For A MIDI Moment (The Elusive Win-Win)

Many years ago, while I was in graduate school, a very wise person told me during that the only good deal in business is the one in which everyone walks away a winner. A bad deal, even when it appears to favor your company, is just that: a bad deal. Bad deals are mired in the worst kind of short-term thinking and can only doom a business further down the road. Since those innocent days in graduate school I have watched countless companies and groups follow the exact opposite path in the pursuit of profit at all costs. And, I have been amused to watch those companies fall by the wayside in increasing numbers or gobble each other up in a desperate attempt to stay relevant and try and stave off death for a few more years.  

My friends, it was not always thus.

So now boys and girls I would like to take you back to a simpler time (the early 1980’s) and tell you the story of a couple of companies who, in spite of being fierce competitors, worked together to create something amazing that would explode the existing market for their products and create an entirely new and much, much bigger market as well. These two companies were Roland and Oberheim Electronics and their love child would become the Musical Instrument Digital Interface or MIDI. This new specification was, at first, simply a proposal to allow electronic instruments to talk to each other. These two companies would quickly be joined by Sequential Circuits, Korg and Yamaha to form a consortium of competitors who would propose a standard that would radically simplify the interfacing of different instruments and devices and level the playing field for the good of the customer. (I know, right?) And, in doing the right thing by their customers, they would also make more money than any of them had ever dreamed possible.

You see, up until this point, each of these companies had their own standards for controlling and interfacing their instruments with their other devices. These devices used various control voltages, input and output media and gates that were highly proprietary. Everyone had their own design, there were no standards and they really didn’t see anything wrong with this way of doing things. Company A’s sequencer could control company A’s synthesizer but not company B’s. (Unless you employed a good technical team and had a lot of disposable income.) This, in many ways, worked to the company’s advantage in the short term. An artist would make a significant investment in one manufacturer's ecosystem and then rarely look back. Perhaps Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder could afford to use whatever instrument they wanted and mix and match to their heart’s content. However, when a mortal artist went shopping for new gear the only criteria that mattered was the brand name which would insure compatibility with their existing devices. It didn’t matter that a competitor might have a better product, the lack of interoperability with their existing devices was just too difficult and expensive to overcome. (Hey IT folks, is this starting to sound familiar?)

And so, when the MIDI standard was introduced in 1983 with the support of all the major electronic instrument manufactures, it was ridiculed by many knowledgeable business types as giving away the keys to their business. Other, more sympathetic folks, simply assumed that the smaller players had just signed their death warrants and Roland and Yamaha would soon divide the world between them. A number of us, however, saw something else. Something that just might change the face of our industry and what it meant to be a musician forever.

What happened next was beyond anyone’s expectations (except, perhaps, Roland’s chief - Ikutaro Kakehashi) including the very companies who had signed on to the standard. These players watched as their musical instrument market exploded overnight. Instrument retailers also benefited. Shops who had been lucky to sell a five hundred dollar guitar or amplifier every other day were now also selling two thousand dollar synthesizers. A lot of people made a lot of money. It seemed that customers had been waiting for this forever. In fact an entirely new market demographic which would become known as the “prosumer” would grow out of this new shopping freedom. Studio owners could buy any tool they took a fancy to with the knowledge that everything would just work.

Companies who formerly had no connection to the business would soon benefit as well. Musicians like myself would purchase their first computers as we began to see a future where a computer would make the most logical central hub for our instruments.  By the mid-1980’s the innovations were coming along so rapidly that yearly trade shows were becoming archaic and a whole news industry devoted to new instruments sprang into being. Every company with a new idea was burning the midnight oil for a chance to enter one of the most lucrative markets of the late twentieth century.

Oh, by the way, did you catch that bit about computers? That would be me. That was where I first learned the ropes of what would become my second career.

Now, I don’t want to be too much of a Pollyanna. In fact, some companies did fail. Ironically, most of the carnage would be in the form of companies that produced flagship products at a very high price point and had a customer base or upper-level management that would not let them adapt. (Imagine the fallout if Bentley suddenly began producing an economy car.) I did watch as several former luxury-brands created very successful “prosumer” products. However, I also watched as several once-proud companies doubled down on their expensive hardware and were thrown on the scrap heap of history. (cough . . Fairlight CMI . . . cough, cough Synclavier . cough, cough)

This brings us to the next benefit of this newly defined and ever-expanding market: Increased competition and new ideas brought soon brought the cost barrier to producing pro-level work way, way down. By the end of the 1980’s if you could not produce a polished, professional record in your bedroom, it was your abilities and not your gear at fault. In less than ten years I would go from having to beg and steal studio time to co-owning and managing my own studio in Miami.

This also took away one of the biggest bargaining chips held by record labels: access to recording studios. An artist could spend a few thousand dollars (about the cost of a single day in a pro-level studio) and purchase their own equipment. This shift would begin to result in more lucrative contracts for many artists and probably contributed to the demise of the old-school music business model and the rise of the music business attorney and the artist-owned label. Napster would finish the job less than a decade later.

I could go on and on listing the countless ways in which that one small standard changed the nature of my former profession. My teenage-self would have never recognized half of the equipment at the gigs I was playing in my thirties. He would have been puzzled that our sound and lights were being run by a computer and mystified that a recording of the entire performance could fit on a single silver disc. (He would, however, have been very happy with the nightly paycheck which, by the end my first career, was the equivalent of more than a week’s worth of teenaged-me’s gigs.)

So what has any of this got to do with instructional technology? Well, when I first entered this field twenty years ago, I had assumed that the same kind of technology-fueled change I had just experienced in music was just around the corner for education as well. After all, computers and technology were rapidly becoming far more ubiquitous in education that they had ever been in music fifteen years earlier. Surely the entire field of education was about to be turned on its head. Right? Well, I waited. And I waited. And I waited some more. Well, after twenty years, I am done waiting. That’s right. I’m looking at you IT industry! How long must we wait for your critical mass event? How long can the world afford to wait for a real change in education?

I believe that what educational technology lacks is not money, or obvious need, or even great applications. What education technology lacks is that elusive win-win contract. That moment when all the major players stand up and place the protection of turf on the back burner long enough to agree on a standardized set of communication protocols between their systems. I’m not simply talking the embrace of open-source philosophy. I’m talking about a blueprint for complete interoperability that could quite possibly be the key to giving a shot in arm to instructional technology much as MIDI did for the music industry. A set of standards that lets each company compete on the merits of their product alone and not by locking customers into a closed ecosystem. A standard that lets small, hungry players innovate, compete and add to the collective with the same authority as the big shots. A standard that discourages expending precious resources in a short-sighted attempt to corner old markets and instead encourages coordination among all parties to create entirely new markets.

Oh I know it feels like we IT folks are making lots of change all the time. We look around at all the apps and web 2.0 services and learning management systems and it is easy to be lulled into a sense that things are really progressing. A quotation, which my father often attributed to Patronius but which I have only recently learned was actually written by Charlton Ogburn, Jr., states that:

We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. Presumably the plans for our employment were being changed. I was to learn later in life that, perhaps because we are so good at organizing, we tend as a nation to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.

This then is my formal indictment of my second love. This is my call to action for all users and makers of instructional technology industry wide. We have become far too adept at breaking down the same task and reassembling it in a way that appears new. We have come up with an infinite variety of ways to do the same old thing. We have wasted countless hours of our teacher’s time training them for the latest new system that adds little to nothing to our core mission while requiring teachers to jump through a new set of hoops. Oh yes, the process may change, but the task and its product remains the same. We finish our latest migration and congratulate each other on our shiny, new tools and heap scorn on yesterday’s applications. We do this even though the use of this new application typically results in no measurable progress. It is our thinking that must begin to change and every single proprietary system that keeps us occupied with learning new commands, installing new servers, creating new accounts and rekeying content is complicit in diverting us from the fact that nothing is really changing.

For example, witness the impact of something as simple and easy as a standardized form of single-sign on. If accepted and implemented by everyone, standardized SSO would save countless instructional hours wasted creating student accounts not to mention cut down on lost time due to password resets. Imagine if every piece of content in one tool could, through .xml or any other standard, be leveraged with a click of a mouse in another system. Imagine if systems and their management was pushed into the background and the onus was instead placed on rethinking the actual task at hand. Imagine if we took even half of that development talent focused on new proprietary schema and trained it on our core mission.

We all might learn something.

Wayne Langford - mttn Pro

Wayne LangfordComment