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Reflections from ASU / GSV

April 29, 2014

I’m just back from the ASU/GSV Education Innovation Summit – so-called “Davos in the Desert.” It is quite the marketplace, where energetic and creative innovators who are working in education meet venture funders looking for promising new ideas. A handful of educators participated, too – relatively grizzled and wizened by comparison to the venture folks and start-up guys with their slicked back hair, expensive jeans (why do expensive jeans have tears in them?), and pointy shoes.

The wizened educators, with a rather different sartorial style, at least introduced a reality check or two about higher ed’s operations and culture. I’m not sure the relative imbalance mattered all that much to the meeting’s success. It’s a marketplace where good ideas look for money and vice versa.

 One interesting trend that stood out for me was that much of the innovation I encountered seemed to assume that what happens in the classroom and in the formation of curricula will continue to be unresponsive to broader societal need. The result is innovations designed to  make-up for gaps left by institutions.

 Some aspects were disturbing because whether these innovations are ultimately sold to colleges and universities or offered directly to students, they only add to student costs.

There was lots of interest in two varieties of consumer information services. The first helps prospective students choose degree pathways best suited to their needs and goals, taking advantage of the market opportunity that arises when the rising cost of college causes students to want more information about their higher ed choice.

The other variety focused on consumer information at the other end of the student life cycle, targeting recent graduates and students nearing completion of their credentials who discover that the pathways they chose did not prepare them for a role in the 21st century economy. These integrate sophisticated technology (that chew through piles of resumes, for example, to identify competencies needed in the marketplace) and low-touch applications (boot-camp-like programs) to make up for the existing systems’ deficiencies. However, these come at a cost to the student that is over and above their tuition.

You couldn't look too deeply without thinking: if only higher ed itself was more clear about the value of what it offers to both students and employers.

I can say that my own EdTalk presentation fell on open ears with an appeal to investors and innovators to think about aligning commercial interest with the public good. I urged them to focus their efforts on innovations that fostered success in postsecondary of low income students. I frankly was quite overwhelmed by the number of innovations that focused on addressing the needs of today’s new student majority – more diverse, older and with families and jobs. Makes sense. They represent the biggest market, as well as the greatest need, and the innovations talked about at the conference were as wide ranging as they were filled with potential.

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