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Time to Bust The Myth of the Slow University and the Fast Edtech Company

This article was originally posted on 5/9/2017 on Inside Higher Ed

James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation

Since Josh Kim stayed home this year, I feel obliged to share some thoughts from the ASU-GSV Summit in Salt Lake City. As the Summit rounds third and heads into its final day, I’m eager to attempt two things. I’m compelled to highlight and dispel a myth that I believe is limiting the collective potential of the wide range of actors seeking positive change in higher education: the myth that universities are slow to embrace change and edtech companies are always agile. I’m also inspired to share a quick and playful guide to establishing university-edtech partnerships that exceed expectations. To achieve the latter requires some digression about the difference between partnerships and vendor relationships.

Let me bring you to the conference for a moment and specifically to a panel session that I participated in on Monday morning. The panel centered on how different academic innovation leaders are responding to unprecedented levels of change and tech-driven disruption. The conference organizers provocatively titled our session, “Change Agents or Kamikaze Pilots? Can Higher Ed innovators survive the ongoing wave of market disruption?”

Like you, my first reaction to the title was to roll my eyes. Are we doing this again? Haven’t we sufficiently exhausted the disruption lexicon and all its awkward metaphors? Couldn’t we approach change, which is constant, with more level-headed observation. When the Green Bay Packers started the 2014 football season with a disappointing record of 1-2, there was panic across the Packer fan base. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers responded, “Five letters here just for everybody out there in Packer-land: R-E-L-A-X”. It might be time to share the same advice across the higher education sector. This doesn’t mean put your head down and ignore the world around you. I am suggesting that universities are well equipped to navigate change.

In a conference event with far more edtech company representatives and investors than higher education leaders, I suspect just about everyone in our audience heard change agent as the obvious positive choice and kamikaze, with all its World War II imagery, as the more dire and inevitable destiny of university leaders trying to keep up with Silicon Valley. To borrow from The Princess Bride and the great Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

It turns out that kamikaze translates to ‘divine-wind’. The Japanese survived multiple invasion attempts by Genghis Khan’s grandson in the thirteenth century. Both invasion attempts were thwarted by typhoons that the Japanese believed to be sent as protection by the gods. They called these winds kamikaze. I didn’t choose this metaphor for higher education but I can certainly find relevance in the idea that universities are creating new strategies that shift the current in more favorable directions. Afterall, strategic decision-making in higher education looks and feels far more like sailing a ship toward a destination than laying out a precise turn by turn driving (road)map.

The question of change agent or kamikaze, the way it was intended, reflects a harmful and pervasive belief that runs through this conference year over year, and across a higher education sector now populated with a diverse range of organizational actors and influencers. It’s time to dispel the myth of the slow university and the fast startup. At best it’s not accurate. More alarmingly, this perception is standing in the way of universities and edtech companies establishing the best kinds of relationships and fully realizing potential. This should matter equally to diverse university communities and edtech founders, employees, and investors. To paraphrase Mark Maples in his keynote comments at the Summit this morning, we are operating in world shaped by Moore’s Law and Metcalf’s Law. There is an opportunity to bring abundance to the world if we don’t get in the way of our own progress.

It turns out our understanding of each other matters a great deal if we seek to create a future where everyone can participate. Tapping into our collective exponential potential is only possible if we establish partnerships that meet or exceed our expectations. Good news, there’s a way to do this.

Given the traditional role of universities in our society, many are quick to assume that universities always operate slowly and that edtech startups always operate with great agility. “Always” is a funny word. Is one organization always slow and the other always fast or is it more complicated? To follow this stereotyping logic would be to assert that the university is always methodical and the startup always impulsive. This too is flawed and distorts a reality where we are all on a continuum of managing the explore-exploit tradeoff. Simply put, we explore by collecting information and exploit when we leverage that information to take action. Some think about this in terms of the speed with which we move from insight to application. Different organizations manage this tradeoff differently. What we often forget is that organizations also manage this tradeoff differently depending on the context.

When we gather at events like the ASU-GSV Summit I’m reminded of our flawed assumptions about each other. One entrepreneur gave a pitch and suggested that we are facing a global listening epidemic. This may be true in the current typhoon of university-edtech ecosystem as well. Research universities are communities bound together by a commitment to the discovery of what’s next. There is nothing slow about the incredible, and sustained, pace of innovation that has come from our great universities. At the same time, startups are introducing a breathtaking range of approaches to areas like AR, big data, blockchain, and adaptive learning, to name a few. Many of these organizations take great pride and care in their approaches to designing new products.

If we aren’t careful, we are subject to folly when assuming how the other handles the explore-exploit dilemma. We have more in common than we think and the stereotypes often do us a disservice. In reality, whether we know it or not, we are all participating in a massively distributed change management exercise to reshape the future of education. Change agent responsibilities are distributed and the collective action across this distributed network of actors is providing the divine wind that propels us forward.

New campus units like U-M’s Office of Academic Innovation, and others represented on the panel in Salt Lake City, are bringing this more complicated story to the surface. How do we optimize the explore-exploit tradeoff in order to drive academic R&D at the speed of Moore’s Law without deviating from an essentially evidenced-based culture fundamental to a vibrant research community. The best edtech players are leveraging information at breakneck speed without shortchanging proven methods for information collection. Together, we’re sharing complementary perspectives and strategies for navigating the explore-exploit tradeoff. When do we know enough to act? What should we observe when we do? Repeat.

The myth of the slow moving university and the fast start up is dangerously oversimplified and deeply flawed. We are assuming that we need to choose between ‘look then leap’ and the scientific method. I would argue that we are forcing an unnecessary compromise. A true partnership will bring organizational strengths together in a way that can’t be accomplished through more transaction oriented vendor relationships.

After the panel session and through the rest of the conference, talented individuals representing some of the world’s best edtech startups would ask me how they can establish a relationship with the University of Michigan and similar institutions. My playful but sincere reply: do you fancy yourself a partner or a vendor?

In my view, there are fundamental differences. If I were to establish an edtech startup or evaluate a new investment, this would be a primary inquiry in my due diligence.

Unfortunately, as with “luxury” apartments, and “gourmet” coffee, there is nothing stopping a vendor from euphemistically repositioning itself as a university “partner”. But ‘partnership’ should mean something. We’re in this together. We have a shared view of what ‘this’ is. Our interests and values are sufficiently aligned. We’re comfortable with the level of transparency. Data flows are seamless. There is real opportunity to co-create a roadmap. We’re in sync most of the time and have reasonable methods for thinking through disagreements. Risk is shared appropriately. We understand what each of us bring to the partnership. We have a shared view of how to manage tension in the explore-exploit tradeoff.

Anyone who has attended the ASU-GSV Summit this year or in the past knows that three days are filled with many rapid-fire conversations. With more time, I might have followed my playful question (partner or vendor), with a few questions to help determine what kind of university relationship an edtech company wants to have. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with establishing a vendor relationship. That said, there may be a lot wrong with establishing a vendor relationship when the edtech company and the institution think they are establishing a partnership.

Here are three non-exhaustive and playful questions for edtech companies to consider in looking at current relationships with universities and in exploring new relationships designed to meet or exceed expectations.

Question 1: Too Many Notes? Are our values and interests aligned?

Research universities are flush with expertise. Really deep expertise. In my humble opinion, these institutions are essential to a functioning democracy. In fairness to its critics, universities have work to do to make this rich expertise more readily accessible to the public and to reassert the vital importance of universities to society. Further, while universities are highly differentiated, you wouldn’t know it from our mission statements and campus tours. There is work to do to make complex adaptive systems more readily understood.

Some say universities are very good at understanding their supply side: what do we know and how to we exploit this knowledge to push the boundaries of discovery? And less expert in understanding the demand side: what do learners need now and next to thrive in a changing global economy? Enter a wide range of edtech problem solvers and market makers. In many cases, new entrants to the higher education space have brought urgency to questions about how universities can and should serve lifelong learners facing a rapidly changing future of work.

Here our values are aligned around developing learner centric models, transforming the future of higher education, and finding models to personalize learning at scale. We all want to build a future where everyone can participate whether our primary motivations hinge on learning outcomes or market inclusion. But the devil is in the details. Are we in sync on priorities, pace, and trade-offs between scale and quality? Is there sufficient understanding of a university’s intellectual diversity? Have we reconciled the long-term incentives of universities with the pressures felt by organizations with quarterly expectations?

Actor Todd Louiso’s character (Chad the nanny), in the movie Jerry Maguire provides a good illustration of the fears that are shared by more than a few in higher ed. In recommending a jazz cassette to a lovestruck Maguire, Chad the nanny couldn’t stifle a cynical digression, “This…is Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Stockholm. 1963. Two masters of freedom, playing in a time before their art was corrupted by a zillion cocktail lounge performers who destroyed the legacy of the only American art-form – jazz.”

Perhaps many of us in college towns find ourselves responding to rapid change with soapbox soliloquy and assuming the role of overprotective custodian of university tradition. It’s not quite right or fair to believe that the values of edtech companies are always at odds with our own, or to succumb to a fear of cocktail lounge lectures as our inevitable academic dystopia. But in fairness to our colleagues, many edtech companies have fallen short in developing a full understanding of the values and interests that drive university communities bound together by a commitment to discovery.

It is true that universities have incredible opportunities to expand reach and improve connection and that many opportunities are perishable. But the requisite experimentation must be in accordance with our values and strengths. Some institutions have to step forward before we can point to best practices. How else do best practices emerge?
Strong partnerships, unlike more transactional vendor relationships, require deep understanding of values. Just as universities seek to understand new kinds of edtech partners, new edtech partners should seek to understand the complexity of universities that are at one and the same time powerfully conservative embodiments of cultural heritage and massively disruptive creators of new ideas, technologies and forms of expression. When thinking about pace we can’t think in binary terms. Edtech partners aren’t always fast and universities slow. It depends and sometimes we reverse roles. But only in a strong partnership do we have the mechanisms to maintain focus in our collaboration and flexibility to allow our respective strengths come to the surface in the form of benefits to learners and society.

All too often universities find themselves in conflict with edtech companies who push for simplicity and scalability without fully understanding why universities hold tight to a certain way of doing things. For edtechs, this must feel like entrenched bureaucracy. For institutions, we hear “sirens of a zillion cocktail lounge performers.” Neither is quite right, but good partners find a way to understand different perspectives and approaches to managing the explore-exploit tradeoff and develop a shared view with shared benefits.

The ways in which this tends to go wrong is perhaps depicted best in one of my all-time favorite movie scenes. There are partnerships that will help universities to broaden their communities through creative pedagogical, technical, and programmatic innovation. Unfortunately, sometimes our negotiations with edtech companies feel more like Mozart’s exchange with the Emperor Joseph II in Amadeus after hearing Mozart’s new opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio. The prodigious Mozart, eager to share his latest work with the Emperor, is soon mystified by the seemingly thoughtless call for simplicity.

EMPEROR: You have shown us something quite new tonight.

MOZART: So then you like it? You really like it, Your Majesty?

EMPEROR: Of course I do. It’s very good. Of course now and then – just now and then – it gets a touch elaborate.

MOZART: What do you mean, Sire?

EMPEROR: Well, I mean occasionally it seems to have, how shall one say? [he stops in difficulty; turning to Orsini-Rosenberg] How shall one say, Director?

ORSINI-ROSENBERG: Too many notes, Your Majesty?

EMPEROR: Exactly. Very well put. Too many notes.

MOZART: I don’t understand. There are just as many notes, Majesty, as are required. Neither more nor less.

EMPEROR: My dear fellow, there are in fact only so many notes the ear can hear in the course of an evening. I think I’m right in saying that, aren’t I, Court Composer?

SALIERI: Yes! yes! er, on the whole, yes, Majesty.

MOZART: But this is absurd!

EMPEROR: My dear, young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Cut a few and it will be perfect.

MOZART: Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?

EMPEROR: Well. There it is.

Well. There it is. Not much of a resolution when two parties are clearly not seeing eye to eye. One party seeking excellence while the other seeks simplicity.

Anyone familiar with the biopic understands that Mozart was brilliant and also that he struggled mightily to accept feedback from those around him. Sound familiar? It’s hard to live in the depths of a discipline and at the edge of discovery and feel good about feedback unsupported by significant evidence. “Cut a few and it will be perfect” is insulting to those who set the bar in their fields. Yet clearly institutions have room to improve in terms of taking in new kinds of feedback to enrich the ways we reach and meet the needs of increasingly diverse lifelong learning communities.

As edtech companies approach universities to establish new partnerships, they need to understand the transparency required to consider such relationships. Part of this transparency is demonstrated through active listening and developing fit-for-purpose mechanisms to share new insights with established institutions. There are likely opportunities where institutions could simplify models and programs in order to make learning experiences more accessible and inclusive. Edtech companies are tapping into new sources of data and have an opportunity to enrich our view of the world. Building trust around methods for data collection and exploitation of new information is essential to driving meaningful change.

Question 2: It’s all just the same notes, right? Does it matter who does what?

In higher education’s current mode of experimentation and disruption, it’s cliche to ding the lecture for it’s imperfections. As an advocate for active learning and with responsibility to foster a culture of innovation in learning at my own institution, I would hardly argue that lectures are either infallible or fit for every purpose. Yet, anyone privileged to learn from and with a great instructor has a mental repository of specific lessons, lectures, and labs that form many of life’s eureka moments.

One lecture filed away in my own repository was delivered by Professor Tim Fort who, at the time, was leading an ethics discussion at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. A captivating storyteller, Fort was a graduate of the University of Notre Dame before joining the faculty at Michigan. Anyone reading the previous sentence with an ounce of interest in college sports just immediately shifted mentally to the gridiron. In order to illustrate an idea about culture and identity in organizations, one that has stuck with me ever since, Fort went to the playing field as well to make his point. “The Michigan-Notre Dame game is the best college football rivalry in the country,” he began.

My sport enthusiast readers are now distracted by equally subjective counter arguments to this claim. Stick with me for a bit. Conveniently, much of this story was captured in Fort’s book[1] written a few years after he delivered the lecture. After grabbing our attention with football (it was fall in Ann Arbor after all), he went on:

“…beyond the historical excellence of the programs’ traditions, there is little doubt that the schools have the two best college (fight) songs. It’s worth attending the game just to listen to the bands play all day long. The schools have a neat tradition of first playing the other’s song before playing its own. When they play the other’s song, they follow the first two characteristics of being an Honest Broker. They abide by the rules. They play the right notes, the right time signature, right rhythm – they do everything “right”. There is something to be said for that. They also build a sense of respect for politely playing the song. The fans whose song was just played aren’t going to boo their own song and the fans whose band just played aren’t going to boo their own band. So there is polite applause and there is something to be said for that too. But when they play their own song, it takes on an entirely different character because it is played with passion, pride, and identity. At that point, it transcends the particulars of the written music and takes on a profoundly inspiring transcendent character.”

In other words, Notre Dame’s marching band is perfectly capable of playing the greatest fight song of all, “The Victors”, but we don’t truly experience the music until Michigan’s band brings the performance to the next level. This has me thinking about who does what when edtech companies and universities seek to establish new partnerships. Do we take the time to answer this simple question: who does what? Moreover, does the implied division of responsibility and degree of collaboration yield the best outcomes for our learners and other university constituents?

This is not a commentary on the unbundling of the OPM model. That topic has been covered sufficiently elsewhere. Plus, it’s inevitable that it will unbundle and rebundle again (and repeat) in a continuous tug-of-war between the pull to better address university needs and the relentless quest for stickier ecosystems.

It is a question of who is best suited to do what in the context of mission-based activity. In making decisions on behalf of a university community, when and where is an institution willing to let go of some control? All of it? When and where should you hold on tight? Letting go of a technical platform seems reasonable as long as one feels comfortable with the flow and ownership of data and that the institution has a role in co-creating the roadmap. But what about the relationship with students? As we determine different and shared responsibilities for attracting learners and guiding their experiences, are institutions comfortable with an outside organization making the case to a prospective learner that your institution is the right choice? Back up a bit. What about helping the learner understand the choices he or she has the opportunity to make? Is the institution comfortable with the ways in which an outside organization will represent the institution’s values and interests? Is the institution comfortable with the ways in which the edtech company is empowered to make decisions on behalf of the institution?

This feels different to me and is an important consideration in a space that suffers from the tendency to bundle services. This is about passion, pride, and identity. We’re all playing the same notes to the same songs, right? There is a reason the University of Michigan engages current U-M students to facilitate walking tours on campus for new prospective students. It’s not about the script. Almost anyone could deliver the script with precision. Like Notre Dame’s marching band playing the Victors, an actor delivering the campus tour would receive polite applause. But only someone with passion and pride for U-M and an experience-based understanding of our institutional identity will be able to transcend the particulars of the script.

Why should this be any different when we move beyond campus tours to helping prospective learners around the globe to understand new digital and hybrid academic programs? Sharing responsibility for the development of enabling infrastructure is one thing. Designing a student experience and helping a learner navigate a set of choices is something entirely different all together. Who shapes and guides a lifelong learning pathway is worth serious discussion. At Michigan, as we unbundle our own curriculum from the traditional disciplines and rebundle around the problems, events, and phenomena most important to society, we dramatically increase student choice. We balance agency with new forms of guidance. It’s complicated. An agent with a script, and even armed with rich data sets, would struggle mightily to communicate the character of the institution and the totality of the opportunities it may provide to a learner with specific needs.

In fairness to a large number of edtech companies who continue to see opportunity when entering the higher education space, some of this is on us. Universities have been slow to recognize how little we have communicated the differences between institutions. The good news is that there is a great deal of differentiation across the higher education landscape. And universities are in the best position to share what it means to engage with a particular community of learners.

Question 3: Does this collection of notes match the scene? Are we able to select the notes we want to play?

On the same day as our panel session in Salt Lake City, the Golden State Warriors were visiting the Utah Jazz for game four of their NBA playoff series. Many grown adults turned into wide-eyed children when Steph Curry walked through the lobby of the conference venue which also provided lodgings for the visiting team. We’re all human at the end of the day. Well, except Steph Curry, apparently.

Now imagine for a moment that you are watching a professional basketball game in a modern day arena and instead of listening to the Final Countdown, Thunderstruck, or Jump Around during stoppages in play, the stadium DJ was serving up a nice dose of November Rain, Wild Horses, or In the Air Tonight. Each of these songs just triggered flashbacks for this author. Nonetheless, each of these songs would also be incredibly awkward in the context of a NBA basketball game.

I lost track of the number of conversations that I had with conference attendees where an edtech representative summarized a pitch by saying, “really, we’re the Uber for education,” “the Netflix for education,” or “the Airbnb for education.”

Gang, I get it. We want to make things simple. But I need you to follow a crossover claim with the following: “Importantly, when we think about successful business models from other industries, we know we can’t just force-fit these models into our complex educational system. There are elements of this model that give us new insights when thinking about change within a unique sector populated by institutions with intricate operating models. And we are keenly aware that there is a critical translational step. We want to design this innovation with you, not for you.”

When I hear “Uber of education” I again queue Inigo Montoya, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

As edtech companies consider establishing partnerships versus vendor relationships they should consider whether they understand those aspects of higher education that will stand the test of time and those aspects of higher education that are ripe for change. Don’t impersonate the character Dennis Hope from the movie Almost Famous, a movie set in the early 1970s: “If you think Mick Jagger will still be out there trying to be a rock star at age fifty, then you are sadly, sadly mistaken.”

Universities are incredibly resilient. This doesn’t mean institutions shouldn’t take today’s market forces seriously. But it does often feel like edtech companies don’t see the value that comes from these complex adaptive systems. R-E-L-A-X.

When universities explore edtech partners we explore whether the model proposed is sufficiently flexible or is it fixed. Will the university have the ability to influence the platform roadmap, shape the learning experience, and extract all (not some) of the data with unfettered access? Institutions like Michigan have incredible intellectual diversity and many areas of strategic focus. This is often hard to digest from the outside. We want to select the notes we will play.

Institutions select vendors for particular services. We create flexible strategic partnerships to enable core strategies. A comprehensive research university needs partners that understand all of our strategic interests, even if they intend to partner around a relatively narrow set of activities. Sometimes we feel like Elwood in The Blues Brothers when speaking to potential edtech partners about how a model maps to our highly diverse mission-driven activities:

Elwood: What kind of music do you usually have here?

Claire: Oh, we got both kinds. We got country *and* western.

With our partners, we seek a greater understanding of our full catalogue and our broadest aspirations. We seek transparency. We seek harmony through clearly defined shared values and interests. We seek mechanisms to debate future direction and opportunities to leverage our respective strengths and experiences. After all, we are neither slow nor fast all of the time. What we are is focused. Mission-driven institutions have clear north stars. As we move forward together as communities we calibrate speed accordingly. We’re not afraid of a push from good partners but we do expect our partners to be pulled.

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