The Higher Education Innovator’s Dilemma / Notes from Educause 2016

–by Gordon Freedman, President of National Laboratory for Education Transformation

Educause 2016 wrap-up

The world of higher ed tech is starting to change, but it is doing so very slowly. Since leaving Blackboard in 2012, I have searched for new companies and nonprofits that are offering tech and data solutions that are like what students use in everyday life.  But ed tech is stubbornly entrenched in the yesterday of technology. Instead of real time data directing activity, we have look-back analytics. Instead of having a single sign-on to a student’s life on and off campus, we have an array of products and services, many with their own logins, completely dumb to the other services.

I firmly believe part of the dropout rate, and rise in costs, is due to students not having a single smart interface to their higher ed experience.  No student wakes up in the morning hungry to see an expensive progress dashboard or to sign on to a Learning Management System (LMS) that only half the faculty will ever use.  This is the world of adult money making, not the world of stimulating learning on a clear vector into the information economy.

Then there is the question of how college connects to work and life. Again, there is a dismal gulf between real world tools like LinkedIn and the program-laden world of academic advising and career counseling. For administrators to approach these problems by setting up or improving programmatic offices or having another RFP for student success software misses the point.

Students, young people and many older folks use apps to get things done that are routine and we use search and social media to narrow down the people or services to connect with when the routine app isn’t enough.  We live in a service economy that is powered by machine learning and algorithms.  Smart services start with a single person being provided something of use to them that is easy to use and productive with the heavy lifting operating out of sight in the background.  By contrast, the world of higher ed and technology is a world of somewhat tortured work-arounds, full of people in offices that are visited only sporadically by students and cumbersome technologies with multiple logins.

And then there is the question about knowledge transfer and acquisition. How can it be, after teaching the same core courses for two decades on LMS, that we still don’t have the data analyses that tell us where the snags are in Econ 101 or College Algebra, or Psych 101?  The LMS systems cannot be data mined for academic success and failure data in subject areas. Why? Does higher education have an aversion to smart systems, machine learning and artificial intelligence that are rampant in consumer apps, commercial software and big science?

By stubbornly holding on to textbook sales as a mainstay in the publishing industry, and by adherence to Learning Management Systems on campus that are only partially used by faculty, performance data in subjects is difficult to impossible to obtain. This lack of product performance information is not only damaging to students, it is damaging to the economy and to higher education. In the consumer sector, we know the how, where and why of performance of many products, down to very specific details. In academics, we are in the dark. This data, locked in the shadow, runs counter to how the information society works.

But there is some light coming through the cracks such as the tale of two publishing houses. Recently, Pearson reported a significant decline in textbook and other higher education sales from the year before.  This sent a ripple through the markets. At the same time, McGraw Hill, which spent nearly $200 million through the Apollo Group to acquire the math product ALEKS, has seen increased sales in this algorithmically-driven math remediation software that started its life as an NSF grant. But ALEKS is an outlier in the world of smart education software.  We no longer need analytics alone. Instead, we need products that help higher education work smarter and help guide each learner on their own journey with ample feedback and social interaction.

These performance shortcomings are not the fault of the ed tech industry and publishers, though they could do more. Most companies can only sell to buyers at institutions who are empowered to buy and knowledgeable enough to make wise choices. Buying happens in administrative silos.  People, students especially, are not subdivided into silos.

Making students adapt to bureaucratic-defined software divided into different academic and administrative units with their own rules and access points makes little sense. Yet, this situation persists.  There is no inherent way for a higher education institution or system in a heavily regulated industry to self-correct or reinvent itself.  The handwringing in the provost’s office where the CIO, Academic Computing and deans wrestle with what products and services to invest in, and define the processes to make those decisions, continues to be an uncomfortable exercise with few known methods or metrics to guide it.

You cannot easily automate institutional bureaucracy.  The efficiency gains that have been made by such automation have already been made.  What comes next is cultural innovation that will be supported by new AI, Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing (NLP) applied in general support software, not singular solutions, each doing their own thing.  This form of innovation is unlikely to come from faculty and administrators, committees, or ed tech companies alone.  It is more likely to come from students or recent grads working within or alongside their institutions to better re-engineer what they just went through.  Or it will come from younger, soon to be discovered entrepreneurs, who take the time to understand the culture of higher ed and the significance of needing to find more powerful ways to stimulate actual learning.

No such multi-sector venue exists to tinker with at this level.  The foundations that have stimulated the sector with large-scale investments still have little to show for their efforts. There has been a lot put into solving the problems of student success and college completion, but changing culture is not easy in a sector which should be able to engineer its own comeback.  But, it is not all doom and gloom. Corrections may already be on the way.

On this score, Educause ( is to be applauded this year. It’s been nearly 20 years since CAUSE and Educom merged to form Educause, the premier higher education technology association and the best attended annual ed tech conference. The Educause 2016 conference did not disappoint.  The annual event on Disney’s doorstep in Anaheim, CA was well organized and well attended and the exhibition space nicely laid out.  The competitive products’ attractive booths were ready for combat, to eek out incremental gains on competitors, or search for the pivot to more sales in a congested and finite marketplace.

However, what stood out this year was not the towering Google, Microsoft, Pearson, Blackboard, Canvas, IBM and other well-heeled exhibitor mini-castles, but a very modest row of tables with six foot by three foot vertical banners.

Welcome to Start-up Alley, the Diagon Alley of Harry Potter fame of the higher ed tech world.  Sponsored by Penn State’s Ed Tech Network (, this obscure row of exhibitors in years past would have been treated more as a novelty.  However, for the two and half days the Educause exhibit hall was open, the Alley was a buzz, people crowded around it, interacted with start-ups and plugged the nearby hallway with conversation.

The 10 carefully selected start-ups each had an angle that could easily be a foot in the door of change. To compete for one of the ten spots and then to compete for the top three start-ups, companies had to be capitalized under one million dollars, have fewer than fifty employees, and have been in existence for less than five years. The unassuming and earnest Penn State EdTech Network officials were integral to the Alley; hovering, interacting, stewarding and hoping for change.  ( annual-conference/exhibitors/ start-up-alley)

The EdTech Network is funded by the Penn State World Campus, one of the most successful online and continuing education operations globally. What a great thing. Unlike ASU’s huge GSV Conference ( where the finance and investor captains of education gather annually, the sense of this year’s Start-Up Alley competitors is that they are a mix of the type of solutions, modesty and student-facing approaches, that higher ed actually needs.  Unfortunately for them, they are aimed directly at the crux of the higher ed innovator’s sales dilemma for products and services that could make a difference.

Each of the 10 solutions seemed to point to problems not well addressed, a net positive.  But those net positives don’t easily correspond to known buyers in the institutions, and we know we can’t charge students.  They are already weighed down by massive debt.

Here is the innovator’s sales dilemma:

Student-facing or student-enhancing solutions with powerful smart functionality in the background that actually focus on learning or learning efficiency, that correspond to the processing power and design of consumer or commercial apps, do not have a single buyer on a campus.

To sell, most of these new companies, and many of the traditional players’ new features that truly address students, have to call on multiple buyers on campus repeatedly.  Full disclosure, I help both traditional and start-ups make those calls, try to socialize what is new and better and likely to make a difference. It is difficult if not impossible to be picked up by the right campus radar and then have a method where the products and services can be vetted.  There are too many scars for the campus buyers to let down their guard.

It is often safer and easier to stick to the castle-like exhibitors than it is to try to find out what is new both in the castles and what is valuable from the start-ups.

My hope for next year is that before Educause 2017, Penn State’s EdTech Network will hold a few sessions for a handful of like-minded institutions, some of the start-ups, and some of the traditional players to figure out a way around the sales dilemma and, instead, focus on methods for selecting, testing and measuring value for students.