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A Manifesto for Building Bridges Between EdTech and Higher Ed

The EvoLLLution | A Manifesto for Building Bridges Between EdTech and Higher Ed
Symbiosis is possible, but edtech corporations and higher education institutions must both engage in some critical changes to allow the postsecondary space to grow to serve today’s learners.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Education announced the eight winning partnerships in its experiment to open federal aid to alternative providers (including CSU Global and Empire State College among the institutional members). These are not without controversy, including concerns related to quality control when unaccredited entities are involved. One of those partners is corporate giant General Electric, which is collaborating with Northeastern University.

Industry co-ops to support applied learning are nothing new, but neither is skepticism within higher education regarding academic/corporate partnerships. However, I believe that productive collaboration between the academy and the “private sector” to support innovation not only is possible but can also be highly productive and—dare I say—necessary to the future of higher education. In a sort of manifesto, I would like to focus on partnerships with educational technology companies to suggest a fruitful and effective way forward.

The future of higher education has been the focus of my two most recent positions, both alt-ac: former director of innovation at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, and now head of an institute focused on R&D for competency-based education. Before this, I was a faculty member for 15 years, completing my more traditional academic career as a tenured full professor. With this breadth of experience, I definitely understand the skepticism with which partnerships between institutions of higher education (IHEs) and edtech companies might be greeted.

Historically, the missions of these two sectors have been perceived as divergent. On the one hand, traditional non-profit institutions focus on the somewhat intangible (as a product) education of students, with funding and accountability being tied to inputs (enrollment, faculty-to-student ratios, and quality of faculty) as opposed to outputs (degree completion and workforce placement). IHEs answer to a range of entities: board of regents, state and federal agencies, accreditors.  Corporations, on the other hand, are necessarily profit-centric, creating and selling tangible products, measuring sales, and answering to shareholders.

But the lines between the two are blurring. Higher ed stakeholders—including students—are calling for increased ROI and more material, transparent outcomes. Funding increasingly is tied to these outcomes. Students, for better or worse, often are referred to as customers. On the other side of this bifurcation, vendors tout passion for student success. Blackboard CEO Bill Ballhaus, speaking to institutional leaders in his recent keynote at BbWorld 2016, said, “I want you to know that the entire reason why we exist is to partner with you to make a difference in your world and to help students succeed.” And he de-emphasized profit motives, claiming, “you will not see us focused on maximizing quarterly orders, sales profit, and cash.”

Civitas Learning emphasizes partnerships as well and points to the company’s roots in education; in fact, its tagline is “built by educators for education.” Co-founder and Chief Learning Officer Mark Milliron has diverse experience in higher education as both an administrator and faculty member. At the heart of Civitas’ stated mission is the goal of “creating a community of institutions learning together with a shared commitment to student success.” Are these companies saying what they think institutions want to hear? Perhaps. But it is a shift in rhetoric.

Perhaps a shift in action is needed as well. IHEs are failing to meet the needs of our increasingly changing student populations. We are proving that academia is simply too large a vessel—a tall ship that is beautiful and nostalgic but hardly the most effective means to get from point A to point B—to steer. Corporations are much more agile and well versed in shifting strategies to meet the needs of the end-user/customer. In order to truly change, to engage in effective reform and innovation, we need to work together more synergistically.

But how can we move beyond the binary of customer/vendor to form more complex and productive collaborations? Here is some advice for successful partnerships between the academic and corporate worlds:


1. Take sales off the table

At least for a bit. Even though the ultimate goal may be increased profit margins, edtech companies should be willing to participate in discussions in the field without immediately meeting that goal. One promising practice is employing “thought leaders” unrelated to sales.

I have had the privilege of working in a number of capacities with Van Davis, Associate Vice President of higher education research and policy at Blackboard. A former faculty member and administrator, Davis speaks extensively around the nation on such topics as competency-based education and adult degree completion, and he even serves on the editorial board of a major academic journal. I believe he is invited to a number of tables that might be verboten were he part of a sales team – and those tables are more effective for all those sitting around them because of his knowledgeable presence.

2. Hire educators

Hiring former faculty members and administrators like Davis can bridge sectors and help IHEs trust that companies can have multiple missions and motives. Civitas Learning also seems to understand the benefits of doing so. For example, Rob Robinson, Senior Director of Partner Success, held administrative positions at both the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas at San Antonio.


1. Recognize that common ground exists

So often the relationship between institution and vendor is cast as a contentious one, but the two share an important common ground: Both wish to see students succeed. Numerous vendors have shared with me their fervent belief in the power of education and motivations to help institutions and students succeed.  And in most cases—while maintaining a healthy skepticism honed as a faculty member—I believe them.

2. Value the wide-angle perspective offered by companies

Because vendors work with so many different institutions, they often have a unique perspective on what is working and not working for students and IHEs. That perspective can be especially valuable as institutions look for innovations that support student success. Edtech companies often are in a unique position to both help institutions avoid mistakes others have made as well as adapt successful practices.

By offering this manifesto, I realize that I may be perceived as the Jerry Maguire—the titular character of the popular 1996 film—of higher education. When he proposes his optimistic “mission statement” to his cynical fellow sports agents, he is met with derision and firing.

I don’t expect the latter but I do anticipate the former.

I urge my colleagues on all sides of the industry to consider that, through the strategic partnerships and methods I have suggested, perhaps the best of both academia and edtech can be engaged in order to address the challenges of higher education in the 21st century.

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