Some Work of Noble Note

May Yet Be Done

Reflections on the Revolution in EdTech…

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Some graduate programs take over your life in that they are so demanding of your time, all you find yourself doing is working on classes, papers, and research pertaining to said degree. Then there are MBA programs. MBA programs take over your life in that they simply erase everything that you had going on and give you brand new, MBA-centric replacements. New friends, new hobbies, new routines, and, obviously, new responsibilities inside and outside the classroom.

To write the Great American MBA Novel is no mean feat and would require (irony of ironies) more free time than one could ever possibly get while actually in an MBA program. Instead, I want to focus on the specific changes I’ve seen in returning back to school. I’ve done the math. I’ve been in school from 1989 – 2009 and now again in 2014. The comparison points that are especially useful are 2005 (my last year of high school), 2009 (my last year of college), and now obviously 2014. Those are admittedly convenient benchmark years in my own life, but it turns out, they actually characterize stages of technological advancement fairly well, too.

2005 had an almost total lack of technological integration in the classroom. I still remember teachers fiddling with VCRs and VHS tapes and students – equally strenuously – fiddling with entire rainforests of paper handouts for which we were responsible an entire semester. Progress in 2009 came mostly on the electronic content management front. I’d venture most colleges in the US were on Blackboard’s LMS at that point and all colleges used some sort of email system (though Dartmouth and Blitz were definitely power users). Since ’09, we’ve had major developments in a number of directions: mobile technologies, LMSs themselves, digital content sharing, and collaboration.

Here are some brash statements:

  1. LMSs have significant growth avenues beyond even the most ambitious of roadmaps of their content management potential
    I’ll spare everyone the advertisement for Instructure’s Canvas LMS which has been adopted by Wharton. (Suffice it to say it ought to have an NPS close to 80 or 90%.) Instead, you get a metaphor.Canvas is currently being used as an offensive lineman for the quarterback / professor role. They support his efforts to advance the ball and do the thankless, gritty work of reporting, maintaining updated syllabi, and holding content in an organized fashion. Our Marketing final exam was submitted through Canvas which had an iParadigms / TurnItIn plugin that automatically generated plagiarism reports for every submission. While Canvas went down for about an hour during that time, it was still an impressive effort.

    Like the best offensive linemen, Canvas right now is hardly noticeable in our lives because of how easily it does things. It’s not an exaggeration to say that whenever I’m looking for any document or communication tool related to a course, Canvas is instinctive enough that I can find it on my first guess. This is a major contrast to LMSs as recently as 2008 where the overambitious professors seemed to find new utilizations but unfortunately left their students far behind given poor usability and coordination. I see LMSs graduating to skill positions, to continue this metaphor. They can become so much more valuable than just perfect content managers.

    One path forward is in the game simulations that I’ve experienced twice now. The first, a Leadership and Teamwork simulation, placed my five teammates and myself in the roles of a corporate management team and ran us through 3 full days’ worth of simulated market conditions. The mathematics to underlie the simulation was impressive but nothing about it would suggest it can only function as as standalone platform. In other words, LMSs are entirely capable of supporting gamified simulations. I could make the case that such simulations will become more and more a part of the classroom as educators appreciate the value of learning-by-doing and as the flipped-classroom movements allow the in-school classrooms to focus on applications more than theory. LMSs have a real opportunity to take more wallet share by owning this functionality.

    LMSs also have the opportunity to become the “system-of-record” for all student information. I initially believed the SIS and LMS were going to stay church-and-state separate given how different their use-cases and end users were, combined with the heft of the 800-lb gorillas in their respective markets. I no longer believe this, and I wonder if LMSs are better positioned to own the full spectrum. They touch more users, which likely gives them the benefit of volume when comparing customer loyalty; they’ve become increasingly ambitious in what they choose to track and report; and they just seem more nimble and upstart-y.

  2. Email is a transition tool that will help us move to an all-digital educational experience
    Back in high school, emails seemed to be designed to send out only those administrative messages that no one cared about. Everything important had to come through other channels – like in-class announcements or snail mail – because everyone instinctively knew that the broader population was so unfamiliar with email usage that they couldn’t rely on it for any meaningful response rates. In college, email was used for everything from coursework to non-academic curricula to social communication, but in retrospect, email was incredibly limited. There were no calendar invites to send, for example, and the context of the communication was significantly limited in scope.Teachers now, for example, rely on email to change the parameters of class all the time. Email is as much a part of the classroom learning experience as lectures themselves. In every class I have, any information that isn’t conveyed in class or through handouts is communicated through email. Teachers rely on this as a crutch to communicate more new information because the expectation is that every student is responsible for that additional knowledge. Email extends the classroom communication more than it ever did as recently as 2009 (when email was arguably entering the mature phase of its development and penetration).

    And the use cases for email have increased as well. We can watch YouTube videos right in the message screen, respond to invitations, and send highly formatted messages. Yet for all this, I would argue the future of email is fairly flat.

    Why? Think of email as the Safari app on an iPhone while the actions that emails would like you to take are other apps. As operating systems develop, as the technology landscape within educational institutions mature, the action-oriented apps will become more and more prevalent. Instead of logging into Facebook through Safari, I just use the Facebook app. Similarly, instead of communicating with each other through the (third-party) email context, users will find it easier and more convenient to communicate via the action apps themselves. When trying to schedule group meetings for class, users can simply use Google Calendar or Canvas. In the newer simulation exercises that are increasingly becoming a part of my classes, we just use the messaging platforms in the app interfaces themselves.   For many reasons, we should believe that education is asymptotically approaching 100% electronic facilitation. In the journey to that extreme, email will start to lose its value, arguably approaching the asymptote of 0% usage. (Again, this is purely in the educational context. Email will always exist as a communication mode for many other purposes.)

    The growth case for email in education is two-fold: 1) become a “doer” not “viewer” platform, i.e., requiring integration into action-apps, whether they’re OpenTable, Calendar, etc.; and 2) become the integration point for all action-apps out there. Apps like Accompli are trying to build this functionality in, but I’m sorely disappointed in Gmail’s lack of innovation on this front. The extent to which the email user experience has improved from 2007 to today is shockingly underwhelming.

  3. Mobile phones have become almost mandatory and will soon become entirely mandatory
    To say mobile phones have increased in importance since 2005 or even 2009(!) is laughable (“it almost sounds quaint,” as a former colleague might say). Mobile phones had zero use cases in education as recently as five years ago. As a result, when I skimmed through my Wharton introductory materials, I was not surprised to see no mention of mobile phones as mandatory, the way laptops are (I could have just missed it).   It turns out they’ve become mandatory for school.Mobile phones are useful for two things: location monitoring and real-time communication. Both features are taken full advantage of by Wharton. Any classes with mandatory attendance policies streamline the roll call process for the teacher by requiring students to check in to class on the “Wharton Connect” app. My (major, major) issues with the app notwithstanding, professors seem to love this development as it provides a strong, policing mechanism for attendance while reducing their responsibility in the enforcement to nearly zero. (They still have to handle quibbles from students who forgot to check in but were still present in class.) We are told the app has a location signal it sends, but given the easy disablement of that setting within our own phones, I’m skeptical.

    Real-time communication may be best visible by my entrepreneurship class, where the professor sends quick response homework assignments at all hours of the day. These are assignments for which he wants our responses after specific classes, but rather than simply post them on our LMS post-class (or email them), he can simply send them to our smartphone. A lot of responses require pictures which are more easily taken via smartphones. All responses take no more than 5 minutes of thought and typing. Think about those characteristics just mentioned: they result in fast-twitch, flexible work products. That’s a new paradigm for homework. I very much enjoy being able to respond to these real-time, as I’m walking home, say, and not needing to add it to my queue of work once I get home. Mobile phones here do more than just allow for real-time communication or add an audio-visual dimension to homework submissions; they create productivity for students and, equally importantly, an entirely new avenue for work completion. As a result, mobile phones have created an entirely new type of homework to assign and a new way to engage and assess students.

    I’ve said little to nothing about the predictable benefits. Our Wharton Connect app, for example, is an unfailing source for updates on when lectures are occurring, where our classes are, and booking study rooms for group work. Our LMS app lets us see grades whenever we want. Mobile phones were always going to be able to do that. The location-based features and the productivity benefits mentioned above are more intriguing to me in the educational context. They are adding new ways of doing work and new dimensions to the kinds of work that can be expected from students. These are exciting developments and ones that could lead to further monetization for the educational platforms that start to fully integrate them.

  4. Textbooks are going to become fully digital, and faster than most people would guess
    This is just one of those facts of life. There is nothing anyone can do to stop the movement to digitization and there are probably very few people who would argue otherwise.   What I have seen so far regarding textbooks is very surprising and gives me conviction to say that the move to digital is going to be faster than anyone could imagine.Something I didn’t quite appreciate in undergrad, potentially because it didn’t exist, is how finicky professors are with their subject matter. As men and women who have spent their entire professional lives studying a discipline in the greatest depth, they’ve formed very strong opinions about what to teach, when to teach it, and how to teach it. I have to imagine that the new flexibility of the LMS and smartphones and the new norms about email usage have made professors expect more resultant adaptability in the content that they teach. The standard, 700-page hardcover textbook cannot respond to this anymore. Think of textbooks as golf clubs that professors use to carry their material the perfect distance. The textbook model being used in 2005 and 2009 was akin to letting every professor chose one club for all 18 holes, with maybe some allowances for putters and sand wedges in the form of handouts and supplementary course packs. Professors now want the full selection of clubs out there on every hole and the only way they’ll get it is through digitized content.

    Which naturally means that for now, with digital textbooks making up a tiny portion of the overall market and without most of the customization tools that digital content delivery would imply, textbooks are assigned but underutilized. In my first semester so far, I haven’t opened a textbook once. You almost get the impression that professors are just biding their time for a few small advances in the textbook space. Some content clipping and assembly tools here, some bespoke modifications there, and they’ll start jumping back on the textbook bandwagon in droves.

    So what do the prospects look like? In the market right now are companies like CourseSmart, a rental site for digital textbooks (very similar to but simultaneously very different from what I talked about in my earlier post about digital textbooks). Pearson has a product called MyFinanceLab which is a digitized version of the Berk and DeMarzo corporate finance textbook stalwart. MFL is impressive in that it generates finance problem sets for a class but changes the numbers in each problem so that no student can copy another’s answers. It’s a great way to ensure that no cheating or imbalanced collaborative arrangements take place. (It’s also a great way to ensure students don’t work together on problem sets, which is an issue.) The problems are all electronically graded, as you might imagine, which reduces the need for manual labor and also ensures no grading errors.

  5. The largest, most immediately addressable gap in the higher ed technology space is in collaborative tools
    A large part of my need for collaborative tools is because I’m in an MBA program. The assignment that one completes on his own is a rare one indeed. That being said, it’s not hard to imagine dozens of contexts in which students in any context have to produce or review content jointly with other people. Content collaboration makes up a substantial part of most students’ work and the best tools out there are, sadly, Google Docs.To be fair, Google Docs are steadily improving and my sophistication and power user status with Microsoft Office (honed through five gritty years in the banking and PE industry) makes me a tough grader. That being said, it’s a little surprising to me that the best collaborative tools that we’re provided in school have nothing to do with the schools themselves. Why doesn’t Wharton, for example, buy everyone a Yammer account or put us all on the same Asana platform? Why aren’t schools paying for a premium product that offers more, better collaboration options for their students? Google has all the money in the world to build out Google Docs and is no doubt moving with a briskness that I simply cannot appreciate since I’m not a PM in Mountain View who fully comprehends the challenges to product development. That being said, there are major fixable issues that other products should have figured out and then enter the market gaining some traction. More than many other things that Wharton has spent my tuition to purchase for me, I would love for the school to pay for collaboration tools that help us MBA students coordinate stuff. Right now we’re figuring collaboration out all by ourselves which has a big opportunity cost. Self-driven tool identification and usage has high barriers to adoption when the collaborative platforms aren’t officially school sanctioned.

Such are my reflections on the revolution in education. I am truly stunned by the amount of progress that has happened in schools from ’05 to ’09 to ’14. I’m particularly excited for an entrepreneurship project that’s occurring right now which will hopefully provide me an opportunity to dig further into the EdTech ecosystem.

Author: AJ

I'm an education enthusiast, growth equity investor, and MBA student at Wharton.

One thought on “Reflections on the Revolution in EdTech…

  1. I definitely don’t want a digital text book!

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