Is Education Ripe For Innovation?

I am flying home from the SIIA Ed Tech Industry Summit in San Francisco.  During the past few days, there was a lot of dialog about the future, and, both campus and industry thought leaders asserted that the time is now for innovation.  Some of the themes that I think are very relevant for entrepreneurs…

Institutions are experimenting, especially in higher ed.  While most of the startups at the conference have K12 solutions, several panels showed that experimentation is more fertile in higher ed, which lacks the bureaucratic constraints that stifle experimentation in K12. CIOs Joe Moreau from DeAnza-Foothills CC and Eric Hawley from Utah State showed that the culture and process for experimentation on college campuses is increasing.  Joe commented that piloting is the way to go:  “it gives us permission to fail and allows us to date before we get married.”  Eric had the best quote of the conference:  “What’s hot is simple.  What’s not is complex.”

Focus on the teachable moment.  Many of the panelists believe that the upcoming innovations are going to be all about making teachers rock stars and using technology to increase student/teacher interaction.  Diana Rhoten from Amplify noted that the first wave of ed tech innovations were about faster and cheaper, and the next wave will be focused on teaching and learning.

MOOCs are escalating innovation. Every conference in education has a buzz around MOOCs (massive online open courses).  Howard Lurie of EdX asserted that the open sourcing of the EdX platform (slated for June) provides institutions with a sandbox for innovation.  The platform captures every keystroke and provides a window into the learning process.

Shifting roles prompt innovation. The roles of the publishers, technology players, libraries and bookstores are all shifting as the advent of new models means that lines between content, technology and services are blurred.   Gerry Hanley, at Cal State, commented that the role of the publishers is shifting as MOOCs and other open education resources become prevalent. Similarly, Mike Diaz from Proquest, the library database company, described the shifting role of librarians to be more involved in helping faculty and students access course content. Others described new learning management solutions that are cloud-based and open-source and become essentially plugs for the many apps that schools are choosing to adopt.

Clearly, the time for education innovation is NOW.  And, it’s up to us entrepreneurs and innovators to take advantage of the climate and imagine the future.

Keep It Simple

I recently had an entrepreneurial wake-up call!!  We conducted a focus group with academic leaders and they didn’t quite “get” our business.  After some probing, it turns out that they saw a need for the business, but the message was just too complicated. We were trying to do too much, and to be too many things for too many people.  What a valuable reminder to Keep It Simple.  Luckily, we learned this lesson before we spent a penny on designing the product!

David Pogue, New York Times tech columnist, and my former neighbor, did a great and timeless TED Talk, Simplicity Sells, several years back:

Too often, in the market development work that O’Donnell Learn does for companies, this lesson comes very late—after a product is built, and a product that has too many bells and whistles for its average user.

Many companies expand into new verticals before they have really nailed the first one.  We worked with a company a few years back that had a strong line of business education products.  Before they built market share in that area, they had expanded into science, social science and allied health.  Guess what?  They never got enough bench strength in any one area to solidify their business model.

Business model! That is what keeping it simple is all about.  Use your simplicity to experiment with your business model.  Figure how you are going to make money and how this will be a long-term sustainable business.  Build some market share—and then you can get complicated.  Or can you? David Pogue would say no, “simplicity sells”.

In the next few posts, we are going to explore the notion of building a business.

What’s Hot? What’s Not?

This week, three leaders in higher education told me that my new company idea is incredibly timely.  Wow!  It sounds like I have landed on something that is hot!

Being in the hot zone is no accident.  You don’t get there because you sit around a conference table and come up with the next big idea.  And, you don’t get there by falling in love with your product.  It takes hard work and persistence to have the three conversations that I had this week.  I have been working on my business idea for over a year.  I have invested a lot of time and money in determining what’s hot, and what’s not.  In countless discussions with trusted advisors and potential customers, I shaped my concept to fit the incredibly timely need.  And, I haven’t even begun to build the product yet.

Some of the things that you can do to make sure you are in the hot zone with your new business…

  • Get involved in an industry association.  I joined SIIA, an organization that has a big focus on educational technology.  And, I got involved in the organization, attending local meetings, joining a committee, mentoring and judging for their ed tech incubator.  This gives me regular access to other start ups and to see what they are up to.
  • Attend conferences.  In the past two months, I went to LearnLaunch in Boston and SXSWEdu in Austin.  Next month, it’s the Arizona State GSV Education Innovation Summit and then the SIIA Ed Tech Industry Summit.  While expensive, conferences provide you with unique access to other entrepreneurs, legacy companies that are interested in innovation, potential customers and investors.  Where else can you get all that access packed into a 2 or 3 day experience?
  • Conduct interviews with potential customers.  This is critical.  Visit customers.  Get them on the phone.  Listen to their needs, their pain points, and their reactions to your solution.  Record the interviews so that you can capture it all in their words.
  • Secondary research.  And more secondary research.  I spend hours every week trying to keep abreast of the trends, industry reports, and following the money in my industry (who’s buying or investing in what and how much).  I try to get my hands on whatever reports and information that I can.  Some leading providers of reports and analysis include Outsell, Simba and Eduventures. Media to read: Inside Higher Ed and Chronicle of Higher Ed and Edsurge.  There are also a ton of reports and government sites, depending on what you are looking for. For example, I always read the National Study for Student Engagement. If you regularly scan the media, you will hear about them as they are published each year.  Finally, check out the sites of the big industry players.  They often publish studies or white papers that can help you. For instance, my company, O’Donnell Learn, just published a study with Blackboard on Faculty Progression to Digital.

Get ready to roll up your sleeves.  This is hard work.  But, you have to put in the time to be sure you are HOT!!

What Are Your Competencies?

I spent 4 days last week at SXSWEdu—lots of meetings and sessions seeped in all the education technology trends. Some of the words that I heard uttered over and again: MOOCs (massive online open courses—yes it seems to have become a word), education playlists, adaptive learning and OER (open education resources–that means free). Generally, the trends this year centered around digital content.

Next year, I predict, it’s going to be all about competencies. Schools are under fire for failing to prepare students for tomorrow’s workplace. Most schools—particularly post-secondary—are focused on getting students to KNOW things. But, the workplace needs us to teach our learners how to DO—how to think critically, solve complex problems, access the information needed to do this, collaborate, communicate, and the list goes on. These are competencies, not bits of knowing!

Industry innovators at Southern New Hampshire U are piloting a $10,000 four year college degree that is entirely competency-based (see article in New Hampshire Union Leader). This degree isn’t for everybody; it is a workplace-sponsored program for educating lower-payed employees.

But, I think that SNHU is onto something bigger than a degree. All of us, as we strive through our journey of life and work, or entrepreneurship, need to build our competencies. Do things that take you out of your comfort zone! Learn by doing. And, build your portfolio of competencies.

If you are interested in building entrepreneurial competency, and you are willing to put in the work that this takes, then check out My Entrepreneurial Journey, an immersive program developed at the Acton School of Business. MyEJ provides a wide range of activities and experiences that will help you to build your entrepreneurial competency.