The current generation of students will witness the remaking of our education system. Change is happening on many fronts: economic, technological, paradigmatic, social, and the natural cycles of change that occur in complex social/technical systems.
People have attempted to define change principles: Christensen’s disruptive innovation, Schumpeter’s creative destruction, Kuhn’s revolution structures, Paul A. David’s model of long systemic change, and (my personal favorite) Carlota Perez’ techno-economic revolutions. Each of these are a different lens for viewing big, dramatic, change.
Education faces enormous pressure. Almost unanimously, teachers, parents, students, politicians, and random people who like having opinions, are declaring education broken. This “it’s broken” declaration is directed at primary, secondary, higher education, and even corporate training. In higher education, the language of change is usually framed in economic and knowledge terms (i.e. world class universities and the strong role of universities in economic development). K-12 reform is structured as a call for change in a changed world: learners need less memorization and more creativity. TNW details how numerous companies are revolutionizing education. Mark Oehlert looks at how the education ecosystem is being commodified
The internet has already transformed music, news, entertainment, and business. Education is trailing those sectors, but not for long. Online learning has grown consistently over the last decade (see Sloan-C image below). Judging from current hype and interest, blended/online learning is about to explode.
We’re not talking routine change here
This isn’t small micro-change. It’s not about adding a new technology into a classroom. It’s much, much bigger. It is part of the big shift: new rules, global market, capital shifts, emerging markets, new economies, and dying economies.
In education, there are many points of innovation in response to global trends: open education resources, internationalization, joint partnerships with universities in developing economies, adoption of new technology, and new pedagogical models.
One of the most significant points of innovation in education is in the increase in startups, venture capital, and general corporate interest in filling gaps or correcting inefficiencies.
Enter ASU Skysong and Education Innovation Summit
Over the past few days, I spent time in a hub of corporate-driven educational change: The ASU Skysong Education Innovation Summit. The summit was sold out at 800 participants, but conference leaders say that they could have doubled attendance. It is a three year old summit, and experienced almost 50% increase in sponsors and attendees from last year.
Let me explain why I was there.
Most universities have under-used research and IP. When 2008 decimated the university equity model, many systems turned to international students and increased tuition to address shortfalls. These systems have, for decades, tried to make money off of commercialization. Very few systems, however, are successful and monetizing their research. A few universities do very well. Most go through the motions but generate limited economic value.
Athabasca University is one of four research universities in Alberta (the others being U of Calgary, U of Alberta, and U of Lethbridge). About 1 1/2 years ago, we started looking at options to increase the impact of our research. As an online university, AU has developed significant expertise in distributed learning and interaction. Many of AU researchers have developed tools and techniques that have strong market potential. Instead of licensing that technology, AU has started to experiment with startups models: partnering with companies in bringing innovations to market. This keeps the researcher in the loop (closer to the development of her innovations – i.e. the opposite of the licensing model) and generates opportunities for local startups. Other universities have adopted similar startup and accelerator models. It’s too early to speak of long term impact, but the “knowledge to market” model is being heavily promoted in most countries.
Everybody loves startups. Just this week the government of Canada announced that it would fast track immigration for entrepreneurs. Startups represent innovation and passion.
ASU Skysong is one of the best models I’ve encountered for innovation in education through startups. And that’s why I ended up at the Education Innovation Summit.
In higher education, particularly with academics, there is limited talk of capital or efficient use of capital. Money is a conversation reserved for grant applications or for senior admin.
Not at this summit.
Capital was the arbiter of most conversations and the metric for determining the worth of an idea. From my very informal scan of badges, I’d say 30+% of attendees represented venture capital. People were here to identify opportunities for investment and to generate value for their shareholders or to draw the attention of those who had capital. It reminded me of a Milken Institute conference I attended several years ago (on a panel with Will Richardson and a few others). The best way for me to kill a conversation was to say “I work in a university”. That would pretty much end things. The correct answer, apparently, was something like “I work for [foundation, bank, VC] and I want to allocate funds to this market”.
A list of companies represented at EI Summit, and investment that they have attracted, exceeds the GDP of many countries: GSV Advisors Company List. Some had hundreds of millions in funding and thousands of employees. One person described this as the “exuberance conference”. Pretty accurate. The energy and enthusiasm was fairly intense. These people remake education. And they will do it on the principles of competition and markets.
Your ideas are starting to scare me
I missed the pre-conference dinner and Michael Milken’s talk. I’ve heard Milken speaker before, and he generally delivers a data-supported and market-oriented view of, well, anything. From the references to Milken’s presentation during the conference, it was clear that he applied that market-oriented lens to education.
The conference officially opened with a talk from ASU president Michael Crow about massive change in education (slides). Michael Moe followed Crow’s presentation with an overview of the EI Summit and an analysis of change in society and education. The slides for his presentation are available here.
The presentations and panels that followed the opening keynote ranged from interesting to quite disconcerting. On the interesting front, I find that I have more in common, in spirit at least, with startups than I do with many folks in higher education. I’m impatient. I’d like to see universities change. I’d like to see innovation. I did, however, find that in several conversations at Skysong, the VCs were pit pulls and education was a t-bone steak.
Jeb Bush started his suggestions by stating we face war-like conditions in education. I’m not sure what he meant by that or if it was more an opening joke. Getting Smart captures the focus of his presentation. It’s hard to disagree with goals of raising expectations and make better use of technology. The points about accountability and rewarding good teachers appear innocuous enough. The real problem arises when the focus turns to “accountability to what” and “who defines a good teacher”. If a good teacher is one that prepares learners to succeed on standardized tests, then we’re in trouble. I encountered this odd conflict numerous times in the conference: on the one hand, the need for innovative and creative learners is promoted…but on the other hand, the metrics of reward in the system promote normalization. This isn’t a small contradiction – it’s a foundational flaw in the vision being promoted by advocates for policy change.
As with any complex problem, the issue isn’t confined to one side. Stories like this – teachers union close to banning online courses – indicate the difficulty of systemic change. Change is threatening.
I also attended a “billion dollar” panel – companies that had generated revenues of over $1 billion dollars in education. As the moderator noted, it’s an exclusive club. It is one that I expect will explode in the next decade.
The final keynote of the conference, Reed Hastings, was excellent. He recognized that the role of innovation in education needs to centre on students and teachers. This was a departure from many of the panels where innovation and change were the general target.
Language games were evident at the summit. Instead of “for-profit”, “private education” was used. Instead of “charter schools”, “choice schools” was used. The language drew heavily on terms with positive connotations: democracy, markets, freedom, choice, and innovation.
Entrepreneurship is a good thing in education
I was about 20 years old when I bought (into) my first business. It was a restaurant. With limited capital, I arranged to work with a local business to take over about 17% ownership of the company. He contributed funds, I contributed insane hours trying to make the business successful. After several years of mediocre results, I decided to grow into profit. I opened numerous restaurants (some with my brother) over a three year period. I learned more about myself and human nature than I have any time since. People buy into ideals and beliefs, often only to synchronize with people around them. Most of my employees had no interest in owning a business or being self-employed. I tried on a few occasions to bring a few talented people into management or ownership. With several hundred staff, over almost ten years, I found only one person who shared my interest in running his own company. He eventually joined as a partner and has since gone on to do very well for himself, still in the hospitality industry.
I have colleagues and friends in education who have a disdainful view of business. I don’t.
I’m quite hopeful that startups will change education.
Entrepreneurs are risk-takers. I spent a solid decade running eight different restaurants. I didn’t get rich. I had more worries and I lost more sleep than my employees. They were satisfied to go home at the end of a shift and get on with what was important to them. I dind’t have that luxury – and that was my choice.
I’ve been in higher education since the late 1990′s. I love what I do. I love the freedom of academia – the time to think deeply, to explore ideas and concepts that most people don’t have the time to explore. I still see myself as an entreprenuer and it is a path that I frequently consider exploring.
I mention this because I don’t what these comments to be seen as a rant against entrepreneurship in education. Many parts of the education system are in horrible shape. The system itself is not adaptive or flexible. It is not responsive to change. Many parts of the world have more favorable views of private/for-profit education than what is found in US, Canada, and Europe. India, for example, has a very favorable view of for-profits. The official state response is “the gov’t doesn’t allow for-profit” but the message is clear: Education in India is open for business. Similar positive views of corporate activity in education exist in Brazil, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Create your startup around a compelling social or educational challenge. Companies such as Presence Learning address a real problem that goes beyond making money.
Include educators in your thinking. Many (most?) of the startups I saw at the Summit were not grounded in education – they were trying to innovate in a space where they didn’t have expertise.
Education is a complex landscape, fusing social, research, and knowledge domains. Change produces unintended ripples. When you mess up in business, you might destroy some shareholder wealth. When you mess up in education, you are striking at the foundation of society. Errors can ripple decades into the future. Entrepreneurs in education require a broad, society-conscious, vision of their activities. More than any other sector, corporate activity in education must focus on more than a financial bottom line.
The future is arriving rapidly. I was shocked at how unaware I was about the scope of startup and corporate activity in education. The EI Summit was an eye opener. I’ve long been aware of startups and even launched a (failed) site to track entrepreneurial activity in education. I was not prepared for the developed and well-connected the idea-capital-policy networks that I saw at the summit.
I really only have one point of advice for educators: become informed about the startup and the corporate activity in education. The language of innovation at the summit was firmly rooted in capital. I’ve already stated that I find much appealing about entrepreneurship (i.e. startup, not large corporations). But even then, the money-focus of innovation was jarring. Students were rarely mentioned (some of the startups on the showdown did a good job of this, however). Teachers and educators were most often referred to negatively. This myopic focus on capital and innovation is disconcerting.
Much of the reform rhetoric, especially in the US, is focused on the K-12 sector (for a glimpse of the angst in K-12 education, have a look at this Harvard Business Review article on Rethinking Schools)
Coursera’s $16 million VC fundraising is interesting. So is the Minerva project. Regardless of how educators feel about commercialization of education, it is critical that they are aware of the trends.
Where does this leave us?
There are a few integrated players in the market, notably Pearson. Blackboard is attempting a similar play, but serving the existing education market requires a slower pace of innovation than what is noticeable in companies that operate outside of the education system.
One panelist emphasized that the 2008 economic meltdown has been good for educational reform. Public funding of higher education has been reduced in many countries (this CSHE report presents the global trends). UK has seen the most dramatic changes, but many states (especially California) have reduced funding for education. In Canada, public support for universities generally shows a long, slow decline.
Blackboard and Kaplan are early innovators in this space. One keynote panel stated that the majority of people in attendance were ex-employees of these companies. I would love to see a network analysis of board member, financing, and startup connections. The legacy of Bb and Kaplan may be the development of a new class of “edupreneurs” who are well connected to capital and advisors.
What is happening in education?
The education marketplace is being remade in a lego-block style model. Startups are targeting different aspects of education and a few large corporations (such as Pearson) are buying these lego pieces to build at new model of education. The major sectors are listed below. The list isn’t exhaustive, but it does provide an overview of corporate activity in education. Some companies (Pearson) play in most of the sectors. Others, like Blackboard, are attempting to transition from platform to services. Organizations that focus on learner and learner support are missing. This sector is still under-developed.
do they do
|Content||Traditional publishers, OERs, to
entire online programs. These companies serve are becoming
“outsourcing” providers. Universities who are new to online/blended
learning are forming partnerships with content vendors.
|Pearson, McGraw-Hill, MOOCs (Coursera), 2Tor|
|Platforms||Platforms are systems that
universities can use to develop their own teaching and learning models.
|Teaching/learning||In addition to recorded lectures from university faculty, startups offer open tutorials for mastering “nugget-sized” learning needs.||Khan Academy, Coursera|
|Consulting & Services||Traditional consulting firms are
active in higher education. Newer models include “solutions” for higher
education by focused consulting/startup firms.
|Investment||The investment sector interest
in education is growing. Traditional VC’s occupy the space, but smaller
firms have started to target the education sector.
Advisors, Signal Hill, Weld North
|Accreditation||Alternative modes of accreditation have been around for a while, but the growth of badges and other means of indicating learner competence has placed accreditation in the spot light.||Smarterer|
|Testing/assessment||At the most basic, these
companies help learners prepare for tests/admissions. Some are also
starting to offer assessment services within existing universities
|Data & analytics||Data and analytics – rather straight forward, but basically this sector is bringing business intelligence into all aspects of education: teaching, learning, research, and administration.||Knewton, Dreambox, Ellucian|
|Integrated solutions||Integrated solutions are getting
close to actually being universities. Pearson has content, platform,
and virtual lab arrangements with ASU. It doesn’t seem like much
of a reach to become their own university. Other
I’ve tagged a few related EI Summit related resources on Diigo.
The EI Summit is one that I will attend again.
The ideas being discussed at the summit, and the people involved, will influence education. There were enough connections between energy, ideas, money at the summit to make a big dent in K-12 and higher education. Whether this dent is a positive for society and learners is unclear at this stage (it certainly seems positive for VC’s and investors).
The concepts that I use to orient myself and validate my actions were non-existent on summit panels: research, learner-focus, teacher skills, social pedagogy, learner-autonomy, creativity, integration of social and technical system, and complexity and network theory. Summit attendees are building something that will impact education. I’m worried that this something may be damaging to learners and society while rewarding for investors and entrepreneurs.
Pedagogy, policy, profits
Educators are attempting to remake education according to their pedagogical vision. Politicians are driving their vision through policy. Corporations are driving their vision through profits.
The conference was mono-voiced. During the cocktail reception, someone asked me what I thought of the summit so far. I replied “very interesting, some great ideas, but there was a lot of crap that I need to call out and bitch about”. He seemed offended that I could think anything other than puppies, unicorns, meadows, rainbows, and sunshine about such a wonderful event.
On reflection, that exchange sums up much of my unease with the summit.
In a knowledge economy, we play with ideas constantly. We don’t really know which ones are bad or just suck. We play, experiment and debate. I didn’t see enough of that at EI Summit. I saw strong agreement in the vision forward. People on panels would say really odd things (i.e. “get rid of more teachers and spend it on technology”). The problem with idiotic ideas is that they become foundational in a conversation if they are not interrogated when they arise.
I get worried when everyone agrees on, well, anything.