The Pace of Change in Education: Expectations vs. Reality
Those reading Michael Feldstein’s post, “Why VCs Usually Get Ed Tech Wrong,” understand that education is a complex space. There are too many solutions, too many stakeholders, and too many siphons along the value chain.
The only thing that’s consistently changed in the industry that creates educational products is that the gap between value provided and value extracted widens each year. The only stakeholder that really matters—the student—bears the brunt of this, and is powerless to change the course (pun intended). What’s worse is that for all the talk around ed tech, it’s the student who gets mentioned the least.
Yes, there is considerable platform fatigue. No one wants 42 different platforms. There are a lot of good products out there, but no one’s going to win this game.
Why? Because the current cartel “competes” to one-up one another with incremental, me-too solutions.
Why? Because when you offer something new—truly new—this market is too scared to take a large step.
Why? Politics and pecking orders, committees and other considerations are all mechanisms to dampen the signal flow of progress.
If you follow the trail all the way to the end, the root of the problem is a system that cements the status quo. Over my long career, I’ve worked with some truly inspiring educators. They are often under-appreciated, under-resourced, and under-funded. I have sympathy for the ones who somehow find the energy to work against the system and inspire anyway.
My lens is higher ed, where I spent 17 years as both a “slow fat rich kid” and I guess, as a “quick skinny poor kid” too, if I extend Mr. Feldstein’s characterization. What I saw there was that even the best instructors were inhibited by a range of issues:
- The incentive structure for instructors is perverse. Tuition pays instructor salaries—at least a portion of them. You would think teaching would be a primary concern, but it often seems like it’s the last thing on the to-do list. Young faculty members are motivated by increasing their standing in the department and in their field. The “publish or perish” mindset is real, and students are its victims.
A whole other industry has sprouted to take advantage of this, and that’s journal publishing. How’s this for perverse? The university pays the professor’s salary to do the research, the professor publishes in a journal for very little financial gain, and then the journal sells the subscription back to the university at an astronomical price. The professor gets paid nothing except for (maybe) an elevation in status, the university pays twice for the research, and the journal publisher takes all the money. Now that’s disruption.
- The tenure structure is outdated. This is the topic for a whole other debate, and I can see both sides. But I’m not sure how the tenure structure really helps students, when you get down to it. Not directly, anyway. Yes, research is important, and the academic freedom to do so is cherished. But the picture I see is a professor head-down in hyper-specialized study while students wait outside for office hours. “Go away, I’m busy.”
What do you get out of that? Please the Old Guard so you can get tenure. Don’t disprove (or even advance) the theories established 15 years ago by the Celebrated Endowed Chair. You’re in dangerous territory. Get back in your box, make incremental gains, and we’ll take care of you.
- Instructors are risk-averse. Who can blame them? They get treated like replaceable, low-skilled labor. Who’s going to stick their neck out and risk something new in their 300-seat lecture hall if they have a solution that works? So, it’s expensive. Not to the instructor it’s not. It’s worth every penny for the Safety Factor. Publishers prey on that fear. It’s the very source of profit. It’s been said many times, but you are not going to get change from those who are rooting against it. They believe that they can control the pace of change, using fear and incrementalism.
What about the teaching-first institutions? Budget cuts mean heavier teaching loads and less one-to-one contact with students. Last-minute teaching assignments are de rigeur now, which means less planning and more scrambling before the semester starts. Survival mindset kicks in, and instructors will barely be able to climb to the third rung of Maslow’s Hierarchy. Innovation? Who has the time? I’m just going to plug in the $250 textbook that my colleague uses.
I could go on. There’s a lot of blame to go around, up and down the system. You have an ecosystem that’s so complex that it’s insulated from innovation. Talent is diminished and dampened. Everyone talks a good game, some quite genuinely. But the whole thing can’t get out of first gear; it crawls along while the RPMs red-line internally.
Back to the VC issue. The requirements of their success horizon are simply too short for this space. At base, time cycles are completely out of sync:
- The pace of innovation in education is torturously slow, for all the reasons above, and then some.
- The expected rate of return in the venture world doesn’t match. Actually, it might be off by a whole order of magnitude.
So, VCs will either tire of this space or learn some patience. Follow the money—there’s a lot of it here. So my bet is on patience. But should we settle for that? You can peck at Chegg and Boundless, but at least they handled the issue as if it was urgent. And both from a student-first perspective, too. I can’t tell if either will be a viable long-term solution, but I always take a circle-the-wagons posture by the incumbents as a sign that something important is going on.
In the meantime, we grind. We keep crawling. While everyone’s too scared to take a big step, we’re going to get dozens more incremental offerings. This market may be too complex for disruption. And maybe that’s OK. Prices will keep increasing, and that’s not OK. Do we really want our education system to become an out-of-reach pay-to-play job placement program, exclusive to the elites?
There’s a lot to fix here, throughout the system. It’s not going to be winner-take-all. If that’s the case, I’d like to hear more about cooperation rather than corporate turf wars and departmental in-fighting. And really, I’d like to hear more about the student—not as a customer but as an investment.
Michael Boezi writes the “Good Content Series” for EdTech Times; the complete set of articles can be found on the series page: http://bit.ly/GoodContentSeries. Check out his blog to read more articles for educators, entrepreneurs, and non-fiction authors.
Michael Boezi is an Independent Advisor and Content Strategist, specializing in helping authors and publishers make the Shift to Digital. He is a longtime publishing veteran who has helped hundreds of authors realize their ideas, from concept to completion, over a variety of roles. Michael was Vice President of Content and Community at Flat World Knowledge, where he was responsible for all aspects of content acquisition and development, and built a catalog of 100+ peer-reviewed, openly licensed college textbooks across various subjects. He writes a blog about current issues and trends in the EdTech industry, which you can find at http://michaelboezi.com, along with a full portfolio and more detail on consulting services for content creators, content owners, entrepreneurs, and investors. Connect with him on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google+.