What’s the LMS Worth?

Herein, against my better judgement, I wade into the Great Instructure social media wars of 2019.  Last week, Instructure Inc., the publicly traded (NYSE: INST) company  announced it had agreed to go private and sell itself to private equity firm Thoma Bravo.  For people who teach in higher education this is big news. Instructure, is the current name for the company founded in 2008 that created and sells the Canvas LMS. Canvas in the last decade has toppled the previous king-of-the-LMS’s, Blackboard. Canvas is now widely reported to have largest market share of higher ed LMS market at least in North America. Moodle, the open source system, appears to dominate outside North America.

The announcement triggered a great deal of, let’s call it discussion, on social media, particularly Twitter. A lot of has gotten nasty and heated.  On the surface, the discussion seems to be about questions regarding what Instructure (or Canvas, or the data Instructure has collected) is “worth”.  Specifically, is it worth the $2billion Thoma Bravo has valued it at and why would TB pay that?

Underlying the valuation question though, is the real concern.  Can we discern the plans and future for Canvas (and thereby schools, instructors, students, the higher ed system, pedagogy, etc) from this transaction?  There’s roughly two camps. Both camps seem to think $2 billion is a big number.  I don’t but I’ll explain that later. One camp seems to be arguing that the $2 billion is perfectly justified as a valuation for Canvas as it is now and as an ongoing successful business and therefore there’s nothing to be concerned about here, nothing to see, just move along.  The other camp is seems to see $2 billion as a very big number and a clear indicator that Instructure’s new/future overlords will be monetizing the (relatively) massive database of user/student interactions (Instructure’s own claim as to it’s massiveness) and therefore putting students/faculty at risk from nefarious surveillance and profiling via AI (artificial intelligence and algorithms).

What I want to do is clarify some mistaken ideas/concepts that I see a lot of my education friends (and not so friends) arguing.  What’s been argued, by both camps at times, is not good economics or well informed finance. I’m not going to name folks here nor call out any one in particular. That’s not my intent. I’m hoping to clarify some thinking.

What’s a company worth?

Both camps seem to be arguing the “worth” (in precise economic/finance technical terms it is the “valuation”) of the company using the wrong theory or models of how valuation/worth is established.  The implicit model being used by all is familiar in economic/finance theory. It’s the idea that the current value of an investment (i.e. the purchase price of the company) should somehow be justified as expected present value of the future cash flows of the company from doing business.   That’s understandable. It’s a decent way to start evaluation of investment decisions – particularly inside companies when they decide to invest in something like a new machine or an expansion. It’s not the only consideration. There’s strategic considerations too.

So as an example  we’ve heard arguments that Instructure has been growing, generates cash, and has margins of 70%, so the value is just reasonable and therefore there’s nothing for the education community to worry about.

On the other hand, some have essentially argued that the only reason private  equity would pay this and/or the only pay they can recoup their money is if they monetize the data and that is presumed to lead to nefarious outcomes.

Let me clarify. The company was purchased, not the software and not an asset. The company. There is only one real-world way that valuations of companies are established: Will somebody pay a higher price later for this same company?  Let’s be very clear. This is a private equity deal. PE funds do not run companies. They do not sell things. They buy and sell companies. Period. That is all they do.  The only customers they have are the other PE firms or corporations or banks that they sell their  companies to.  Period. Thoma Bravo is not in the education or edtech business. They are in the buying-and-selling software companies business. That’s it. And no matter what they say about “being in it for the long run”, they aren’t. PE firms generally look to recoup and sell the business inside of 5 years, preferrably a lot sooner.

Conclusion #1:  No matter what any manager at Instructure or TB tells you, the needs of higher education are no longer the driving force.  The driving force is putting together a nice story supported by anecdotal financial data that leads to some future firm paying TB way more than $2b in a couple of years.

So is Instructure worth $2b?  We’ll find out if and when TB sells it. My guess is yes, TB will definitely flip this in a few years for substantial profit, assuming the bottom doesn’t totally drop out of the LMS market. (a small but real possibility).

Any argument you make about the deal based on business fundamentals is nonsense and fantasy. It’s part of popular econo-myths. Before you try to argue with me on that, do this one test: can your implied model of valuation explain why Uber went public at a valuation of ~$100 billion when Uber has never made money, is cash negative, and has no prospects of making money?  Can your model explain WeWork?  If you still don’t believe me, I suggest researching a little with Professor Scott Galloway (@profgalloway) about how valuations and funding happens real world these days.

What’s next?

What can we expect? Will the data be monetized? Will it be sold off piece-by-piece? Will Instructure/TB now invest heavily in all kinds of accelerated innovation? (Ok, I just threw that last question in for laughs. Of course they won’t. Real innovation costs money, time, and work). Really, we don’t know but there are some high probabilities based on the new capital structure and owners.

First off, there’s the possibility of some good old fashioned battle of the funds. We know very little about the specifics of the Instructure-TB deal. That’s how private equity works. It’s private. It’s not transparent. However, it seems that Instructure has 35 days (counting holidays) to find a better deal. Some other funds, hedge funds in this case, have taken positions in Instructure and they don’t think $2 is enough.  Typically the only people who come out ahead in these situations are lawyers, banks, and partners at the biggest funds. Little shareholders and the rest of the human race, not so much.

Once the deal closes, the priority at Instructure will be clear and it has two parts. First priority is get the money (cash) back to TB. I’ve heard it said on the Twitters that TB is putting out $2b of it’s money to buy Instructure. Again, we don’t know details for sure, but that’s almost certainly false. PE deals don’t work that way -especially with a company like Instructure that generates a healthy positive cash flow, is profitable, and has little debt (AFAIK).  Typically the playbook is that the PE firm buys the company largely with the target company’s own money.  In this scenario, the PE fund (TB in this case) puts up a relatively small amount of their own cash up front. They take a very short-term bridge loan from a friendly bank to get the total $2b in cash needed to buy out the shareholders. Once the deal closes, Instructure Inc. then is directed by their new owners, TB, to get a loan from a bank secured by the company’s assets. The proceeds of that loan are then paid as some kind of “special dividend” to the new owners to retire their loan. The PE fund has a small at-risk stake at that point. Management fees or sell-off of some assets in the first year can often pay back that cash. By maybe the end of the first year, the PE fund has gotten all it’s cash back and is playing with house money at that point. The target firm (Instructure in this case) is likely a lot more debt-laden than before with a lot less free cash flow.

At that point, we consider the other priority (don’t worry, these folks can multi-task so you’l hear this one right away). Namely, the big priority is to develop a story that leads to another big pocket putting out well more than $2 in a few years. Tell the story and tell it hard. Once they’re private, that becomes a bit easier. Less real data has to disclosed since they’re no longer public, so it’s easier to be selective with the data and put your own spin on it without fear of those pesky shareholder suits and the SEC (is anyone actually still afraid of the SEC?).

PE firms, like Venture Capitalists or hedge funds, aren’t looking for nice safe returns on their money. You and I would be ecstatic to get annual returns of 10-20% on our retirement funds. These funds look for more. They want multiples of the initial investment. So they’re looking for deep pocket buyers that can and will spend not $2b, but maybe $4b or $6b or more in just a couple years.  The PE fund wants a big exit and once the deal closes the only thought is the exit. Running the business is only important to the degree it helps tell a story that helps them exit.

Why would anyone pay that in a couple years from now?  Go back up to the section on “What’s it Worth?”.  There aren’t that many routes for exit for a PE firm:

  • do an IPO (initial public offering) -not likely here since they just took it private – obviously the public market wouldn’t value it high enough
  • find a bigger sucker PE fund – the story of why there are untold, untapped riches becomes critical
  • find a really big, deep pockets corporation that wants to add to it’s portfolio of businesses thinking this will add that magical “synergy” to its other businesses.  This is a possibility for Instructure, but the likely candidates are:
    • Google, FB, MSFT, Amazon, or Apple – the people trying to collect everybody’s data about everything in the hope of controlling/monetizing everything.  A story of the value of the data and the ability to predict the future lives of students could lead them to write a big check.
    • Textbook publishers – OK, there are only two left, Pearson and Cengage-McGraw Hill.  They could fall in love with a story of becoming the single source books-homework-courseware-LMS provider. In fact, they’ve tried the LMS before, but couldn’t do it themselves. They might choose to buy in. I’m not sure their pockets are deep enough though.
    • When all else fails, merge. Instructure could merged with Bb or Brightspace using some other PE fund’s money.

Whatever route leads to the exit, that’s the priority now at Instructure. In my opinion, all those avenues are fraught with very good reasons why colleges, professors, and students should be concerned.

Where will the money come from?

Another thing I read on the Twitter was the suggestion that Instructure is somehow impervious to the all-too-common private equity strategy of carve-it-up and sell off the parts.  Nonsense. That tweet came from somebody who purports to know and advocate for private equity but apparently, judging by their tweet, thinks Hollywood movies about whores are primers about finance.  I won’t deal with that aspect of the tweet other than to say that misogynistic tweet was all the evidence to convince me the dude has spent too much time in either tech or finance culture. Unfortunately, he’s not very skilled at the private equity portion. It takes little imagination to see how Instructure could be carved up and pieces sold off. I’m not saying they will. I’m just saying it’s a piece of cake. They’ve made 2-3 acquisitions in recent years. Reverse those and sell. They’ve already told everyone they’re positioning for a possible split-off. They’ve stated they’re separating the codebase for Bridge from Canvas.  Add to that, any business with multiple services, even when sold to the same segment, can be carved up. It doesn’t even take much imagination to do it. All it takes is a willing buyer. And all that takes is a plausible story about the riches at the end the rainbow.

Education is not THE Story Anymore

We in higher education have a tendency to think we’re important as a market. We’re not. For a long time, edtech companies and Silicon Valley have fed that fantasy. We think in terms of the edtech “market” and think it’s attractive. In truth, it’s largely failed to meet to meet SV expectations.  The LMS market is mature. Very mature. Most LMS’s are really based on 1990’s architectures ported to the Web. Canvas was an innovation in 2008 by being cloud based. But product wise, all of them are still largely the same conception of the product as 20+ yrs ago. Everybody who needs an LMS has one.

Yes, Instructure has had decent growth numbers (not sterling by SV standards, but good) in recent years. But finance is all about how are you going to top that going forward. Finance doesn’t look back. Truth is, Instructure or any of the LMS’s are going to have a hard time finding big new sources of revenue. There just isn’t much left in the higher ed budget for their stuff. Even the data analytics for learning part has failed to take off revenue wise. That’s why data mining for AI/Algorithms, monetizing the data to non-education folks, is so tempting.

Yes, any of these LMS firms, or publishers for that matter, could have had decent solid, satble, modestly profitable businesses that were mature. But that’s not how finance capitalism works.  Instructure isn’t an education tech company anymore. It’s just a software company and data processing service that happens to get its data from college and university students.  It will likely be managed that way.

FUD for thought?

I should put a word in about FUD.  Not sure if I introduced it into the conversations on Twitter or somebody else did. I didn’t realize the term was new to so many.  It’s an acronym that stands for Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.  The original usage that I’m familiar with dates back to software deals and business deals in the 90’s. FUD was something some firms tried to create in the market about their competitors. For example, back in those days, Microsoft was often accused of putting out PR releases and statements trying to create FUD about whether Linux or open source software was any good.  A more recent example in edtech world would be a few years ago when for-profit publishers would spread stories casting doubt (FUD) about whether OER was any good. They helped perpetuate doubts about the quality of OER in order to justify their high priced books. Nowadays, those publishers have tried to enclose (“embrace and extinquish” – another old Microsoft strategy) OER instead of spreading the FUD.

The thing about FUD is that it usually isn’t specific or justified.  It’s an attempt to cause people to feel uncomfortable about things.

The ironic part now is that I don’t think the concerns expressed on Twitter about the Intructure deal are FUD.  What the concerns have shown is there’s reason to be uncertain – the details aren’t disclosed and won’t be. There’s good reason to be doubtful: private equity deals very often do end up butchering or hampering the core business.

And there’s reason to be fearful:  that giant database of student data has value to big players in the surveillance capitalism industry. There’s the big obvious ones: Google, MSFT, Apple, Amazon, and FB. But there’s a host of other hidden players – data brokers, Palantir, banks, and many others, the lords of the algorithm cults. They often have deep pockets or they’re backed by funds with deep pockets. All Instructure/TB needs to do is convince them of a story about how Instructure’s data can add value to their existing trough.

A Final Lesson

I’ve argued extensively that higher education (perhaps all education, but I’m not expert in K-12) is best organized as a commons. The boundary between commons and the market-oriented capitalist economy is tricky. Capitalists and market-thinkers inevitably seek to enclose the commons, privatizing benefits and externalizing costs onto society.

This boundary is particularly tricky in the edtech world. If there’s one lesson I hope to impart to people in education, it’s the need to do your due diligence on your vendors and “partners”.  Current product offerings aren’t enough. Product roadmaps matter. Plans matter.

But most of all, capital structure matters. No matter how nice the people at the vendor, no matter how good the values of the hired managers are at that edtech “partner”, ultimately it’s capital that calls the tune.  That’s why it’s called capitalism.

Domains19 Reflection, Well Really More of A Thanks.

I just got back from the Domains19 conference and some thanks and perhaps observations are in order.

It was a very interesting, stimulating, and useful conference. Frankly, I’ve come to expect nothing less from the ReclaimHosting crew: Jim, Tim, Lauren, Meredith, Judith, and Justin(?, we didn’t meet yet, I think).  It’s a human level conference and it’s a mix of folks from different views, backgrounds, walks, and interests, united by an deep emotional and rational commitment to learning and making the world better for people.  All people.

Actually, I don’t think I have that much “observation” to put into this yet. I can feel differences but can’t articulate them yet. Domains is like that for me.  I’m still in the absorbing, thinking, and non-verbal stage. The best conference experiences are ones where you leave as a different person than you arrived  but it’s your agency and connection to others that changed you.

Good Job, Reclaim.

via GIPHY

As a former biz strategist and now economist, it’s fun to watch Jim Groom and Reclaim grow. I think Jim said this their sixth year(?) and I believe I’ve been a customer for 5 of them.  It’s exciting to see the group start to navigate the difficulties of maintaining the spirit, soul, and mission that motivated the original founding while they grow and add people.  So far, so good. I like what I see.  It’s no secret that I think higher education is and should be, at its core, a commons. In my opinion, Reclaim is a model of how a for-profit company can serve and interact with a commons in ways that don’t extract from or enclose the commons but instead actually further it.

There’s way too many people that were at the conference for me to start naming all the folks I learned from or thought it was great to see. Many are long-time fellow travelers in this open space, others are long-time Internet fellow travelers that I now know for certain are in-the-flesh humans, and others that I just met for first time. Thank you all.

 

Scale and Scope

Note: A couple of friends have asked why I say “A commons doesn’t scale, it scopes”. This is a relatively quick note to explain some thinking on why. It’s a topic I’m deep into researching now and developing my thinking as it applies to higher education as a commons, so with the caveat that I may alter some stuff later, here’s my thinking right now. This is part one of a two part answer. Typo in paragraph about Facebook now corrected.

I’ve been saying for awhile now in discussions of the commons, OER, and higher education that a “commons doesn’t scale, it scopes”. Before I explain why I think a commons doesn’t scale very well, I probably need to briefly clarify what’s meant by scale and scope. Like many terms in economics, they’re both commonly used terms in both business and everyday life, but in economics they may carry a subtly different, more precise, or richer meaning. Both terms refer to the production of an increasing volume of output of some kind. Enthusiasts of particular good(s), be they an entrepreneur producing the a product they hope will make them rich or an open educator advocating for more open licensed textbooks because it will improve education, generally want to see their ideas scale. And by scale, they generally mean “be produced in larger and larger volumes”. Larger volume of output, of course, brings a larger volume of benefits to more users. More output –> more users –> more benefits. But it’s the behavior of costs that really intrigues us when we think of “scaling” as a way to increase output. More benefits is nice, but if more benefits also means an equal increase in costs, then it’s not so attractive.

The era of mass production has brought a popular expectation that increased output should bring an increased total cost, yes, but with decreasing average costs. In other words, as you produce more it, the product (or service, or activity) becomes cheaper. This is what we call economies of scale and it’s why scale seems to be such an attractive idea for things we want more of. The idea of economies of scale goes back to Adam Smith.

But since at least the work of Panzar and Willig (see Wikipedia footnotes 3, 4 for links and full citation) around 40 years ago, economists have added a richer explanation. We (well not all economists, but IO and institutional types do) now distinguish between economies of scale and economies of scope.

Scale is to produce to the same thing in larger and larger volumes. It’s doing the same thing over and over again. A lot. There’s little variety, just volume. Scope on the other hand is a way to get to large volume by adding variety to the mix. Scope means doing a lot of things that are different by share some apects. The more aspects shared, either in final form or in production process, the closer you get to scale. The more variety you have, the more scope you have.

For some simple examples, think Ford Motor Company’s Model T. That’s scale in action. Enormous volumes of the same car – even down to the same color. Mass production generally involves scale. Standardization is a virtue in scale. Standardized inputs, processes, and outputs, all enable the great of economies or efficiencies we associate with scale. Massive scale can be managed within a hierarchical structure. The hierarchy adds costs, but it more than makes up for it by through an ability to control and standardize inputs, processes, and outputs. Hierarchical management achieves enough economies of scale to more than offset its added overhead costs.

Scope can bring economies, too. This was part of the Panzar and Willig contribution. Economies of scope are more difficult and complex than economies of scale. They’re less automatic and less obvious. Variety, whether it’s variety of location, product, inputs, processes, or outputs complicates things greatly. However, economies of scope are possible through shared services or other aspects. There are lots of examples of scope economies in the business world, although not so many in real life as business people imagine (I speak from experience). When you hear an executive make the case for merging two different businesses and say they’ll achieve cost savings through “synergies”, that’s economies of scope they’re chasing (and likely not getting, but the investors won’t know that until management has fled the scene). When a school district operates a multiple types of schools (pre-K, elementary, middle, high school, specialty) in multiple locations but insists on centralized purchasing and accounting, that’s an attempt at economies of scope.

When businesses, industries, or products first start to grow, they usually scale. But eventually there are limits to scale. When firms hit the limits of scale in growth, they begin to scope. They usually start with product differentiation and geographic expansion. Then comes segmentation of the market and multiple brands. Variety and variation bite back. Remember Henry Ford’s famous quote about “the customer can get it in any color they want as long as it’s black”? Economies of scale talking there. Unfortunately for Henry, his quote came just as Sloan and Durant at General Motors were pioneering ways of adding product differentiation and segmentation – variety.

When Facebook burst on the scene and seemingly everybody in America (and elsewhere) started signing up, that was scale. But when FB added What’s App and Instagram and Messenger to the corporate portfolio in order to keep the growth going, that was scope.

How does scale and scope apply in education? Scale seems to me to be the impossible dream. We’ve achieved very tiny little scale efforts. When a large flagship university (itself a shining example of wide scope) runs 600 seat lecture classes in principles of economics supplemented with smaller discussion/lab sessions taught by TA’s, that’s a scale effort. It’s tiny though. 600 is only 20x the size of the principles class I teach at the community college. In contrast, business world scale usually means thousands-times larger. We’ve tried to scale by producing textbooks and that has had some positive effect in that it enabled hiring more instructors (adjuncts in particular) at lower costs. But it’s limited too.

Society has for much of the past century been trying to “scale”. Society needs more college-educated people, yet, for many reasons, it is reluctant to pay more them. The idea of scaling education is tempting. If only we could scale up education like we did cars, or clothing, or beer, or music, then we could have more college educated folk and not have to pay the full costs. It hasn’t really happened.

I’d argue it can’t. Scale economies require standardization from inputs to process to outputs. That’s not education. Every learner is different – that’s variety and scope there. What works for one doesn’t work for another. Processes are different. Despite all our efforts in recent decades to define “learning outcomes”, they still defy definition let alone control and standardization. Education requires scope.

There’s more to why a commons won’t scale, but that’s in part two.

Can We See the Real U? (OER19)

Cover slide of "Can We See the Real U?" presentation showing the cover image from The Who's Quadrophenia album and titleIt’s been a couple days after the fact, but I wanted to make a post to go with my presentation at OER19. Fortunately, thanks to the nice folks at ALT and the magic of Martin Hawksey, I don’t have to try to write a long post explaining what I said and you don’t have to look at slides that don’t have many words on them and try to guess what I said!

Now, if you weren’t there and haven’t seen it already, you can play along with the home game!  Just point your browser to my wonderful page from the conference website. You can watch the whole thing!

Nonetheless, I will be doing some blogging based on the presentation. Instead of doing my usual “oh I’ll just include the slides and give a brief post” that ends up being 4000 words, I’m going to do it different this time.  I’m planning to write a series of posts – a post for each slide or two. The feedback I got at the conference tells me not only that more but shorter posts is better, but more importantly, people want to hear more depth on some of the individual concepts on the posts. For example, judging by my discussions afterwards the one line I have in there about “a commons doesn’t scale, it scopes” is worthy of post all its own.  So stay tuned.

Writing that series of posts should be useful for me too. I’m excited and gratified by the feedback I got at the conference that has encouraged me to research and write more about the academy-as-commons. I thought maybe I could bring some new perspective to the idea of commons since I’m not only an economist, but I’ve also had a whole other career in business strategy & consulting and I’ve been heavily involved in higher education governance & accreditation.  The conference confirmed that. So I’m committing to writing this stuff and continuing the research and exploration. I know there’s a book somewhere here and who knows what else coming.  I’m excited about it.

I’m also very interested in any thoughts you have on the topic feel free to comment or message me.

Finally, if you’re interested having the slides themselves, you can download my slide deck from my Dropbox.

Remember, #CommonsIsAVerb and let’s #ReclaimTheAcademy.

 

 

 

Prepare for Re-exit (OER19 Reflection)

I just got home from OER19.  Time for a little reflection and a lot of gratitude.

Gratitude First

First up, let me thank everybody involved. OER has become without doubt my favorite conference/workshop of the year.  I want to thank the people who put so much into making this conference so great and made such a wonderful experience:

  • This year’s chairs, Catherine Cronin and  Laura Czerniewicz, who put together a wonderful slate of speakers and activities and did such a great job of focusing our attention on “Recentering Open”.
  • Of course there’s ALT’s chair/CEO Maren Deepwell. With my growing research interest in academy-as-commons, ALT and it’s conferences are wonderful examples of how we (the academics) can and should pull together to create fantastic stuff.
  • There’s the wonderful tech wizardry of Martin Hawksey and his apprentice Harry Lamb.  Martin, you make us all look and sound great. The tech never overwhelms the message.
  • The two keynote speakers, Kate Bowles and Su-Ming Khoo.  I didn’t know Su-Ming a month ago and was a bit nervous a few weeks ago about whether her keynote might either contradict or make my talk superfluous. Hah! Such silly anxieties. I now feel like I have both like-minded colleague and fast friend.  We end up making two different arguments for the essentially the same recommendations!   And, Kate.  What can I say? Kate is so special that words fail me. The entire trip is more than worth it just to see Kate.

There are, of course, many others. There are always others. People I don’t know or don’t know they how they were involved.  It takes a lot of people working a long time to put on a conference. Thanks to you all.

I also want to thank all the wonderful and welcoming people I met in Ireland. It could be said that’s their job to welcome people like me, a foreign tourist-type bearing hard currency. But that’s not true. So many people were just plain helpful all the way to taxi drive who drove us to Dublin airport on Saturday. I do believe I learned more about modern Ireland, the Irish, and even the language in that drive than I have from any other means.  Thank you all.

Where I Am Not Othered

There’s a thing that happens at open conferences like OER. You get to meet in person people who you’ve known via Twitter or social media for quite awhile. They may even be people who you’ve video chatted or VConnected with. They’re good friends with your good friend so they must be OK. Then you get to really chatting in person and they become a new close long-time friend at a whole new level.  That happened for me with Lawrie Phipps.

Anyway, we got to chatting. I shared how OER was my favorite conference. It’s not just because it’s an excuse to fly to England or Ireland and drink in a real pub (OK, that helps). Rather it’s where my heart and my mind both get refreshed. These are my people. I feel connection with them. The fact that they are often from the far corners of the earth just reinforces that feeling for me.  These people are trying to do what am I trying to do. They’re trying to make the world better, but not by planning and engineering some panacea or utopia. Rather they’re doing it the only way that really works: focus on education and learning, build human connections, build networks, keep a critical eye open, include everyone. It’s people before organizations. It’s ideas in service of people. It’s technology in service of people.

In contrast, I don’t feel that way at home. At my home school, I often feel like my ideas of open or how to approach higher education or pedagogy are perceived as too weird, too abnormal. At OER, I’m in the “normal”.  I haven’t spent a lot of time in “normal” in my life, at least not professionally. I’m usually the guy that sees things differently, looks at the big picture, and questions the assumptions. Sometimes that has done me and my organization well.  But sometimes my ideas and insights are seen as just too far “out there” or even just wrong. The ideas, and me by association, are often seen as too “innovative”, too different, just not a good fit. I and my ideas are often treated as if I’m the man from mars – an implicit threat. I don’t get that from everyone. For the few of my school colleagues who read my blog such as Leslie, Jeff, or Anne, this doesn’t include you, but you likely know the feeling too.  It certainly isn’t true of my colleagues Megan and Martha in the Center for Teaching Excellence. But the larger administration? That’s where I’m reminded of the misfit. Sometimes the misfit is expressed openly by discounting or bullying. Other times it’s done more subtly by throwing a cloak of invisibility over me and just ignoring that noise in the corner. Unfortunately, those that do the discounting, those for whom “open” is threatening, are often the ones with great organizational power.

Lawrie put a phrase to my feeling. So at my home organization, he says, I am “othered”. But OER is the place where I’m at home – the place I “don’t feel othered”.  That’s it.  That describes the feeling. At OER, I feel at home. I feel accepted. I can offer my ideas without fear. Sure, some might disagree (we are academics, after all), but they disagree with the idea or the statement of the idea, not me as me. The OER conference includes. At home, it’s a struggle to not feel “othered”.

We conference go-ers often talk of “re-entry” when leaving the conference to return home to everyday life back in the office. I’m preparing to return to everyday office work now. But the conference felt like home. Am I really re-entering? Or am I re-exiting?

There are so many people I wish to thank for this feeling at OER of not being “othered”.  If I name them all, I will likely still leave some names out and I’ll end up with what pretty much looks like the registration list.  Nonetheless, I want to thank two by name in particular:  Martin Weller and Lorna Campbell. Without their urging two and half years ago, I would never have gone to my first one at OER17 and organized the panel we had. And without Lorna’s and Martin’s encouragement and welcome I wouldn’t have developed this lovely home across the sea.

PS: Special Notes

There were so many interactions that were valuable that I cannot name them all. But I want to send a special message to three people.

So for James GlappagrossklagBilly Meinke, and Laura Czerniewicz, let me say:   I heard you. I appreciate the your support and confidence.  I accept the challenge and you will be hearing much more from me about this commons stuff.

 

 

 

Accessible Lessons at Sea

I don’t often blog about personal stuff. I usually write about ideas, economics, or education. This is an exception. It’s on the long side. I understand if you haven’t time to read it. I just need to share it. It’s about some experiences I had and lessons I’ve learned. But like most of my posts, I’ll wander around and tell all kinds of background before I get to the point, so get a beverage and sit down.

The first week of March this year was spring break at both my school and the school where my wife teaches. It’s nice when our breaks coincide. This year we did something different for us.  We took our first cruise.  A colleague of mine, a long-time cruiser, convinced us to join her and her husband on a cruise.  It would be fun, they said. It’ll be relaxing, they said.  They were largely right, but it turned into quite an adventure for me with some lessons along the way.

We left from Miami for a week in the eastern Caribbean with stops in San Juan, St. Thomas,  St. Maarten, and Nassua.  But the lessons have little do with what we saw. I indeed observed a lot – like I’ve said before  “For a social and institutional economist with a critical bent that just loves to observe people and capitalism in the wild, let’s just say that a cruise offers a target rich environment.” I still plan to write about that later. This post is about more intimate, personal experiences on the cruise.

The most unexpected lessons weren’t about what I saw. They were about how I saw.  More than that, they were about how I experienced the world and how people interacted with me.  You see, I’m a part-time blind guy.

I have keratoconus. It’s a relatively rare (1 in 2000 in the US) disease. It’s a progressive deterioration and deforming of the corneas. I developed it in middle age a couple decades ago. I’m kind of a medium case right now and I’ve been blessed that the deterioration has stabilized in recent years.  That’s good news because end-stage is cornea transplants.

street scene at night as seen with keratoconus: lots of glare, blurring, and loss of edges.

What I see without lenses. Actually this is just slightly worse than my right. My left sees much worse though.

In keratoconus, what should be a nice clear dome shape of the cornea that focuses all incoming light onto a small point on the retina becomes a thin, steep, really weird shaped cornea that focuses the light onto multiple points or just scatters it all over. Instead of an nice round dome, the topographical mapping of my left cornea looks a lot like a map of a mountain range with uneven peaks, steep sides, and not centered.  My right eye without lenses sees octovision. I see eight or more of everything slightly overlaid.  Edges get very fuzzy and uncertain. My left is worse. The left eye without lens essentially wipes out all edges. Everything is glowing, scattered, haloed, and smeared.

I say I’m a part-time blind guy because there is a way I can see for part of the day. I use some very specialized rigid gas permeable contact lenses. Yes, they have some refractive correction in them, but their real function is to be artificial corneas. They float and balance on the peak of the cornea, trap tears inside, and become, in effect, an artificial dome-shaped cornea.  The light focuses just fine when I wear them.  With lenses in, I’m 20/20 in both eyes. On a good day in the morning and without wind, I might even test out at better than 20/20.  These lenses make my everyday life possible.

image of a cruise ship on the open sea

The high sea.

picture of two contact lenses

How I see.
My lenses – nickel for size comparison.

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks: People work everyday miracles. (I’ve known this for a long time). Those lenses are miracles to me. They do so much. But it’s not a thing, it’s people that enable me to see, to drive (which I love!), to work, and to see people’s faces. I know that these lenses don’t just happen. There is a long, long list of people who make my day possible. The researchers, my doctors, the people at Kellogg Eye Center at UofMich (and Kresge Eye Center, Wayne State back when I went there). There’s the people who work at the companies that make these things. There’s the engineers that have designed the machinery that can manufacture these tiny little flecks of rigid plastic that float on the tip of my eye.  They are all so smart. They’ve studied and learned and as a result, I can see. Except for my doc and his assistant, I don’t know any of them personally. I wish I could thank them all.

Living with keratoconus and RGP lenses is work. Keratoconus also comes with dry eye, but the lenses depend on normal tears to float and work. It’s tricky. Wind can dry out the lenses in a flash. And by wind, it doesn’t have to be storm-warning stuff. A strong puff from an air conditioner vent in the jetway ramp right to at your face when you’re boarding an airplane will do it. Experience has taught me to close my eyes quickly and put my hands up to feel around right away. I have to carry a kit bag with different protective glasses, 4 bottles of fluids, cases, and backup lenses at all times.

Lenses can easily lose their float – after all they’re like balancing a saucer on an off-center peak.  When they lose the float, the edge of the lens digs into the cornea. It’s sharp. It’s painful. Trust me. It will get your attention and that lens will have to come out RIGHT THEN AND THERE.  That of course, will freak out your class when it happens in the middle of a lecture (experience talking).  But taking them out is tricky too. They  pop out and bounce on any hard surface. So ideally, you want to take them out with your nose over some white towel or sheet in a windless environment.  If there’s wind or they bounce when you pop’em out, well, good luck finding it. It could be anywhere . Yes, this is more experience talking.  You’ll need help finding it. This part-time blind guy isn’t very useful at finding tiny little things when he’s blind. My wife can tell you stories, so many stories, of the “fun” of searching for a nearly transparent sliver of light blue plastic.  We’ve found them as much as 10 feet away and behind another piece of furniture.

And that’s all if they pop out. The worst is when they don’t. They can get stuck. They can get suctioned onto the eye. They can get off center and be in the corner or even below/on top of your eye.  When that happens, there’s a little tiny inch-long rubber plunger that can be used to grab it and take out. Of course, I can rarely do it.  I can’t see in my own eye.   But I’m lucky. I have a wonderful wife that steps right up and fishes around in my eye with that little plunger. When we need it, I love that having that little rubber stick poked in my eye because it means the pain will stop soon.

Even on a good day, my eyes will likely only tolerate the lenses for 9-16 hours a day.  It’s unpredictable. So that’s why I say I’m a part-time blind guy. I can see fine, albeit possibly with some pain, for 9-16 hours a day. But for the rest of the time, this boy can’t see those steps and has no depth perception. The lenses are tricky to insert and get right. If I have to move one when it’s in my eye but not on-center, there’s a high risk of scraping the cornea. A corneal abrasion means no lenses for a few days while it heals.  It also means pain.

I’ve long hesitated about saying much on the web about my vision impairments. I’m not looking for sympathy and in the grand scheme of blindness/visual impairment, my keratoconus is just a nuisance. It’s manageable  and thanks to all those wonderful people who studied at school, I can see just fine for part of the day.  Just before the spring break my school ran an Accessibility Summit conference for STEM. There were a couple blind speakers there.  White cane and braille blind. Full-time blind. I don’t want to take anything away from the attention and help they or anybody else needs. But when I was talking to those speakers at the summit, they actually mentioned something about keratoconus I had largely ignored.  It’s painful. Very painful. Scattered light in the eye hurts. Bright lights – especially LED lighting – is painful. I hate them. That’s why at a conference you’ll sometimes see me wearing the dark sunglasses indoors.  And along those lines, shiny surfaces and glare are not pleasant things. I hate them too.  Keratoconus is one of those rare visual impairments where the problem is too much light, not darkness.

So what the heck does all this have to do with the cruise?  A lot. The beginning of the trip was inauspicious. Wind in the jetway boarding the plane to Miami had my wife leading me by the hand with tightly closed eyes. It was an omen. Bright spring, tropical sunlight and more wind at the port boarding the ship had me really struggling.  ship atrium with shiny surfaces everywhere, even staircasesThen we got on board the ship.  It was a relatively new, less than year old, ship. And like most newer cruise ships, it has big open, multi-story spaces inside. The designer on this ship overdosed on shiny surfaces and bright LED lights.  Oh my god. I don’t think you could design a worse environment for keratoconus.  Glare. Bright lights bouncing off everything and everywhere. And the eyes and lens were drying out. I couldn’t keep my tears flowing right, even with frequent use of the eye drops.

I learned a lesson that first night. I’m sure I’ve experienced it before, but this time I was conscious of what was happening. The lights, the glare, the winds (even indoor), are a lot of work. There’s a lot of cognitive monitoring of my eyes and my lenses – how do they feel?  Are they floating? Should I add drops? Should I look away? Which of the 3 pairs of glasses/shades should I wear to protect them?  Cognitive load. Work. It wasn’t leaving much energy or brain left for anything else. So I became really sensitive to the loud speakers and audio systems. It seemed louder. It was overload. I didn’t want to hear anything or listen to anyone. My brain was working too hard just on seeing and sorting out all the glare and multiple visions. I craved quiet. But of course, it’s first night on a ship for 5000 people who are craving fun, party, and escape. And there’s a capitalist cruise line craving those cruisers’ cash for drinks and gambling.  I was so exhausted by the time I got to the cabin that night I just wanted to cry.  I thought my adrenaline and cortisol levels would never drop that night.

Lesson: People who deal with disabilities are working really hard all the time. You can’t see it from the outside. They may not recognize it themselves. It’s just the normal world to them. As teachers, we need to remember this. Dealing with a disability, even when it’s going well, can still be a heck of a cognitive load and make it harder to learn other things with other stimulation.. Be patient. Be supportive. They’re not weaker than you. They’re stronger and dealing with more.

The state room brought it’s own lesson. Visually it was better than common areas on the ship.  But it still had all LED lighting. The balcony was lovely. Beautiful. No bright lights. A beautiful ocean. But it also had wind. I forgot, we were moving at 20 mph. There’s wind. Duh.

In the state room I could take the lenses out. Ahhh!  Relief. Rest for the corneas. But then a new lesson. I’m so accustomed to just doing things at home without lenses in. I spend a couple hours in the evening and early morning at home without them. Of course, when I get up in the middle of the night for biological needs, I don’t have them in.  I never really realized till this trip how much I rely on memory and muscle motor memory to navigate my own house. I just know where everything is. I know where to step without seeing it or thinking about it – at home.  This was a really cramped and different and strange environment. Just going to the bathroom in the middle of the night was quite an adventure – a reminder how limited I can be.  By the end of the week, I was just fine. I had learned some kind of muscle-level or unconscious familiarity with the room.

Lesson: Disability isn’t in the person. Accessibility and ability is about a specific person with a specific environment and task. I’m not like all blind people. In some environments, like my home at night, I can function as well (better?) as any sighted person, but a new environment takes time and produces anxiety.

me and my wife standing on brightly lit open stairs dressed in 1920's garbThe next couple of days I got better at handling and avoiding the glare and shiny surfaces. I learned to just wear sunglasses or glare-blockers inside. I started to get comfortable with the room.  We even had a lot of fun at a 20’s themed “Gatsby” party one evening despite taking photos on the worst who-in-God’s-name-thought-of-putting-bright-lights-on-open-steps nightmare of a staircase.  I know I probably have some karma to work off  for the thoughts I had that evening for the designer of that staircase.

However, while I was calming down the lenses weren’t. They were getting harder to put in and drying out quicker. They wouldn’t float right. I was struggling to avoid wind because I so enjoyed being outside on a deck and watching the water while trying to read.  (imagine a guy with contact lenses, sunglasses, and reading glasses over top of the sunglasses with a hat brim pulled down low to cut the sunlight).

Finally, first thing Wednesday morning, I had to face reality. I put the lenses in and couldn’t handle it. They lost the float immediately. The glare was awful. I’ve had it this bad before. I realized I must have done a minor scrape to the cornea of my left. The right wasn’t behaving much better. There is only one thing to do in the event of an abrasion. No lenses.  I was crushed. We  were pulling into port in St.Maarten that day. I’d never been there. It was the one port I was really looking forward to seeing.

I’ve had serious abrasions and even a cut on the cornea before. It’s a risk with these lenses. Those little pieces of plastic have sharp edges. They’re floating or supposed to. Abrasions make the keratoconus worse.  Light really scatters and it’s even more painful. But there’s no choice. Corneas are amazing at healing themselves, but it takes going without lenses, without seeing clearly.  I remember when I had to go a week without them 2 years ago. I was too scared to leave the house. Nothing felt safe.

So the lenses came out. We headed down to breakfast in the buffet, my lovely and patient wife leading me. It’s chaos at breakfast of course.  Hundreds of hungry people anxious to fill their plates at an open buffet.  Fortunately for me, I’d already been to this buffet for four days, so I had some idea of the lay of the land. No bumps in the floor to worry about stumbling over except when going outside on the deck. I knew the general layout. I knew generally what foods were where. Also fortunately the food was fantastic and thus worth the work.

Again,  I learned things. With keratoconus, I can’t see facial details. I can’t even see faces. I can just tell there’s a big human-ish blob near my left side until it’s right in my face.  That means I can’t pick up the subtle cues that people give off about movement. With my lenses I’d probably unconsciously see your eyes flit to your left and take that as cue to step to my left and avoid a possible collision.  Without the lenses, I just tended to stand there waiting while everybody buzzed around this big guy imitating a tree. It took awhile to fill my plate.  I also learned that when I can’t see people clearly, my sense of personal space gets bigger. I felt much more crowded than when I could see. I wonder if other visually impaired folk or people with other types of disability experience that too. Maybe they don’t know.  I’m kind of weird in that I’m sometimes blind and sometimes not. I can make the comparison.

One thing I remember from that breakfast was the sensitivity of one of the crew. I got briefly separated from my wife. I was carrying a plate and knew roughly where I needed to go. I was walking slowly, hesitantly, and with a hand out. One of the ship’s crew – the ones with an all-white uniform – was walking by, saw me, and stopped and politely asked if I wanted help.  I didn’t really need help at that moment. But I remember how incredibly good it felt to know that somebody noticed me and cared enough to ask.  I’ve tried to do that myself of course, but now I really know that I need to pay attention.

Lesson:  Pay attention. When you see people that might need or want assistance, ask them. Give them the agency. Even if they don’t need it, it feels good to be recognized and respected.

selfie picture with eye  patch, sunglasses, and tropical hat

A different kind of pirate visits St. Maarten.

We successfully navigated breakfast and made the decision to go for it. We got off the boat. We went into Phillipsburg, St. Maarten. Just getting off the boat was a small adventure. Lower decks. Gangplanks. Strange place to walk on the docks. But then we had to take a water taxi from the cruise ship docks to “downtown” Phillipsburg. Crowds. Stepping off a dock and down across a gap into a moving, floating water taxi. I have no idea which of those 8 sides of the boat I see is the real one and which ones are illusions leading to water.  The crowds are impatient and I can sense my wife getting defensive about protecting me. We did it, though. It was beautiful.  I could feel the air. Smell the water. Hear the music. I loved it.

Thanks:  To the guys who run the water taxi in Phillipsburg, St. Maarten.  Thank you. Thank you more than you know. Getting on and off the boat was challenging and intimidating, Yes, I was scared. But you two guys just sensed I needed help, gently grabbed my arms, steadied me, and wouldn’t let me put a foot wrong. Somehow you managed to do that so smoothly while exuding a sense of genuine welcome and respect. I was touched. That’s how people should treat each other.

We spent a couple hours in Phillipsburg walking around and getting a beverage. I loved it. It’s the most adventurous I’ve ever been without my lenses. Of course we didn’t get very far or see that much. My wife was, as always, fantastic. Led me by the hand on those uneven streets and sidewalks. ” 3 inch curb now, broken bricks, gap in bricks with dirt, inch down now, …” I want to go back and I want to see other eastern Caribbean islands now.  I want to climb the mountains and hills.

By Thursday evening, the eyes had healed up. I was able to put lenses in for a few hours in the evening for the “elegant formal night” affair (it’s really just adult dress-up party!). We found a quieter, less noisy, and darker lounge with a jazz quartet and had a lovely time.

The rest of the trip was largely uneventful vision wise. The eyes and lenses cooperated. I got some rest. I saw a wonderful museum in Nassau. I sat on the beach. I read on the balcony. I watched the water. And I reflected on how fortunate I am.  My eye doctors. Unknown engineers. My friends. Guys on water taxis. My wife.  They all enable my accessibility and accommodation. Accessibility and accommodation is love. It’s recognizing and connecting with your fellow humans. I got to experience that love.

rain drops on a balcony railing with ocean in background

“Only love can bring the rain
That makes you yearn to the sky
Only love can bring the rain
That falls like tears from on high”
(The Who)