Very excited to share a recent conversation we hosted with a few of our PeakSpan Expert Community (“PEC”) members focused on the current transformation that the Higher Ed market is going through. PEC members Howard Miller, James Kenigsberg, and Derek Bruff, along with our EdTech Theme Lead and Partner, Sanket Merchant, were led through a roundtable discussion by our colleague Russell Perkins, a Senior Associate on our EdTech theme. Our distinguished panel of thought leaders shared their insights on the below key topics at the forefront of higher education innovation:
Current Headwinds and Tailwinds
Student Lifecycle Management
The Next Frontier of Innovation Among University Leaders
Please refer here for the full video and see below for a summary of the discussion with some additional detail on our participants. Looking forward to hearing your feedback and thoughts building on the discussion!
Current Headwinds and Tailwinds:
Q: What are some headwinds and tailwinds you are seeing in the Higher Education market?
James: “As an education technology guy for so long, I have always seen quadruple my budget would go towards marketing and that marketing always wins the budget wars no matter how important technology is. Now I am learning that there is a tailwind where education is becoming THE marketing tool and the external facing piece, creating a new second wind for skill-based education.”
Derek: “Coming out of the pandemic we had a lot of faculty over the last 3 years having to be more creative in how they teach and how they integrate technology in their teaching and what I am seeing is a greater willingness among the professors and the teaching staff of universities to really be experimental and to use technology in really thoughtful ways in their teaching. I have been very impressed at how fast faculty has started to adapt to these [new] tools in their teaching and I do not know if they would have done that in 2019.”
Howard: “From a headwind perspective, I think the macroeconomy is going to finally catch up to me in a couple of different ways, some of it because the value proposition of an MBA is being questioned given the price point with some of the top schools and I am going to lose the battle of marketing vs. technology for budgets. From a tailwind perspective, it is still an exciting time to be a technologist as COVID really pointed out the strategic value of technology. We are currently reevaluating the school’s overall strategic plan but one interesting thing that has come out of that is that all departments are now going to have to align to the strategy, which is a really business-like way to operate things and gives us an opportunity to look at innovation and operational excellence.”
Sanket: “A few things that are creating amazing opportunities for EdTech startups are the enrollment challenge that a lot of higher education institutions are facing and the shift moving from form to substance in terms of how folks evaluate the quality and differentiation of a university. There is a broader theme which is EdTech at its core is vertical SaaS and one of the coolest things is looking at the academic institution as an enterprise and as we have seen in the corporate side of the world, a lot of the innovation we saw in other categories of horizontal technology are starting to see an amazing opportunity and growing relevance in EdTech and the Higher Ed setting. Student experience is paramount and so it is an amazing opportunity to take advantage of blended learning and adapting to a hybrid world where we are leaning into technology while preserving the integrity of the human connection and enabling software to drive some of these outcomes for students and leverage for educators. Given the rise of alternative education paths and the rise of talent marketplaces, career pathing, and internal mobility, I think there is an amazing opportunity to provide academic juries for students and outcomes-based approaches which focus on: here is where I envision I want to go with my career, here is the outplacement success, and here is the academic journey I am going to chart over the next four years. I think that is going to be an awesome opportunity for institutions to differentiate themselves in terms of quality of outcomes but importantly to deliver the modern experience people are growing accustomed to.”
Q: How have you decided on an action plan given the fast-moving nature of the tools available (Large Language Models, ChatGPT, etc.)? What have you seen work well from an administrative perspective to convey these policies to students?
Howard: “We came up with a policy that said, if you want to use ChatGPT, cite it like you would any other resource and that was disseminated quickly to students. They seem to have adapted to that, but it is still a work in process. We had one faculty member go out and request ChatGPT Plus to use and we were not sure where campus was going to go from a 3rd party risk management perspective and what they would and would not allow. Procurement is at the top of the list of things that keep me up at night, but it was approved and the caveat around all of that is that as long as you are not putting data into ChatGPT that is not considered to be overly sensitive or confidential, knock yourself out. To rewind very quickly on it, when ChatGPT first came out, there was mass panic and chaos because several faculties had put in their final exams and the tool was spinning out B+ work or better. Some of the rhetoric on that has peeled back since. It is sort of returned to a baseline that says this has some utility, but we are trying to figure out what it is and what it means for us.”
James: “We have been educating folks basically the same way since Socrates. Technology has been pushing those boundaries and we kept questioning is that the most relevant way to teach? We should be looking at ChatGPT as more than a resource, it is a tool. I hope that kids will be trained in how to have a symbiotic relationship with an algorithm like that. Personal assistants are the next really big breakthrough. Really what is education, it is meeting students where they are because everyone is a different type of learner, everyone knows different types of things, and everyone has a different exposure to different things, and so what happens is AI is really good at stuff like that. When the calculator came out, people said we should not allow calculators because people will never know math again. You must learn how to work with these tools. I hope that we instead of figuring out how we go into compliance and create rules around everything, we are trying to create a relationship with a new tool and teach future generations on how to work with it.”
Q: How do classrooms operate now? How has the way in which learning is delivered evolved to accommodate the content? How do you see learning delivery evolving as advances in terms of technology delivery get repositioned as aides, as a next generation of supplemental tools used to facilitate even greater capacity in terms of learning outcomes?
Derek: “I tend not to say, ‘learning delivery’. Learning is a process; it is an interactive thing that communities do together. About a decade ago when Wolfram Alpha came out, I allowed my students to use it on their exams. I could still pose the question, they would have to still construct that mathematical model the right way, but then they would hit it with Wolfram Alpha, which would do that computation step fast and efficiently and accurately and they would still have to interpret the results at the end. Instead of giving them one question on an exam, where they would spend 20 minutes doing this long, complicated computation in the middle, I could give them five questions where they really focused on the hard part, which was coming up with the right models and interpreting the results. I think that is where a lot of disciplines are with ChatGPT and similar tools, is that they are really good at certain things. They are not good at other things but figuring out where can we use them as assistants, so that students can then refocus their time and energy on the stuff that the tools cannot do and things only humans can do well. One of the reasons there was so much consternation around ChatGPT is that it was unveiled on November 30, 2022, which is the absolute worst time for professors to deal with a whole new disruptive technology. We did not have time by January semesters to figure out what to do with this but as I noted, there are a lot of faculty that are exploring this space well and figuring out what is it good for, what is it not good for, and how do we need to adapt traditional learning objectives.”
Q: How can institutions accelerate readiness operating in this new world order and flipping it back to the entrepreneurs that are listening to this call who are saying what is the application and how can I leverage this to better support my Higher Ed partners, where do you see opportunities for folks to ease their way into the application of an AI driven approach in tools, whether focused on student experience, focused on classroom engagement, or focused on the learning process? What counsel would you offer to startups that are trying to take this more progressive approach in terms of how they can ease their district or their university partners to be successful with applying these technologies?
Derek: “My colleagues in the teaching center world and I have been observing how there have been some similarities this spring to 2020, when there was this giant disruptive event and the teaching and learning process had to change because of that but we are still seeing some of the same kinds of adaptations from faculty. We have faculty who are already building a lot of flexibility into their courses so when something new happens like this, it is easier to pull that in and adapt it. If you think of your work as static and then something disruptive happens, it is very hard to deal with but if every year you are changing, innovating, and experimenting, then it is a little easier to build that in. One of the challenges of ChatGPT is that it feels like it is an answer genie. One of the challenges is that the box is so wide open and can do so many different things. I am finding faculty are more interested in more targeted applications of these tools — not an open box that can do any kind of genie question you want but a targeted academic use. I think that is where faculty are going to be more comfortable existing, and I think it will feel more practical to students as well if they know why they are using this more targeted use of the technology.”
Howard: “The bigger problem here for me is that I think this is less of a technology problem and really a change management problem. At the end of the day, how do we get people who were forced to change because of the pandemic to understand that the learning model itself has flipped. If faculty does not want to come along for that ride, how can companies prove that value to faculty and show that it is worth it for them to change and that it might be easier for them to accomplish the objectives they are trying to accomplish with technology that will facilitate the change.”
Q: I think you see this a lot within emerging categories where you are early in the adoption cycle but from your perspective, do you see an academic oriented, former practitioner role emerging within EdTech startups that are spearheading change management initiatives? How do you see the most successful EdTech startups navigating the change management dynamic with the university they work with?
Howard: “It is a landmine because the people who we want to change are the ones who have been there forever who do not want to change. I think that is less of a technology problem and more of a people problem. I think there must be some collective mindset, in terms of how we can solve it. I think a lot of it comes back to what makes us successful as technologists these days is being able to form those relationships and have those relationships with those faculty members, to be able to sort of guide them through it. I think it is the largest challenge to success here.”
James: “I would tend to agree, and the topic is obviously dear to my heart. I think there is something about being data driven at universities that have student information systems that have been running since 1986. Digital transformation of universities is kind of like a snail being robbed by two turtles. When the cops come, they ask what happened and the snail goes, I do not know, everything happened so fast. It reminds me of that joke. I think we do not realize that what we must do first is to digitize our campuses, I do not believe they are as digitized as we pretend that they are. Before we even talk about any kind of digital transformation or what role ChatGPT could play, I think that first is digitizing more modern technology in the actual campuses. Second, I would say is a lot of people concentrate on a student, but one thing I know that gets the highest Net Promoter Score out of every course is the quality of that professor or quality of that teacher. You can be teaching the same course in the same learning management platform with the same Zoom with completely different NPS scores, completely different results, and different efficacy. We spend so little time training professors, and we must pay attention to creating tools for professors who already must grade 160 homeworks tonight and digitally enable them first and then we can talk about digital transformation.”
Q: What is interesting is the rise of content management systems and how they have democratized small business to be able to create awesome websites. A lot of startups who did not have the resources now have the core engine and the delivery mechanism. If you were consulting with EdTech startups that are now leveraging ChatGPT, what counsel would you offer them in terms of the market growing from delivery to application and the engine is now commoditized? What are things that founders and entrepreneurs should be conscious of as they are building on top of these engines?
James: “Thinking about the dematerialization of everything, as an example, when I worked at the Princeton Review, for one of our resources we had to create a lot of questions because the way you really practice and know whether you are getting better at SATs is by taking a lot of questions. The Princeton Review had to go out and spend a lot of money creating really good quality SAT like questions that people can practice with. These used to be worth their weight in gold. ChatGPT can probably produce flawlessly as many SAT questions as you need that can adapt to wherever you most need practice. Anytime you can find a niche where you can make something almost free, you can create a tool that helps others sort of unlock that feature for them. I would not concentrate on trying to solve every problem or create the AI of all AI’s, but I would encourage folks to create systems that are very vertically adapted to a specific niche; creating questions, creating content, assessing students, helping with dyslexia, helping students that do not know how to read comprehend better for literacy reasons, all those things. I think ChatGPT can help with and minimize the cost of content production and things of that nature.”
Howard: “It is all about automation. I bought as opposed to building. I am using automation where I can because that is where the tools are going to make a big difference.”
Q: For vendors coming to you saying that they are taking a vertical application approach leveraging AI. What do you need to see from that EdTech startup to say, I am really excited, you guys check every concern that I would have in evaluating an AI based approach for X, Y or Z?
Derek: “Faculty in Higher Ed have a lot of autonomy within their courses to adopt technologies or not. They are going to have a certain set of needs and interests and then if you want a campus adoption, then you are working with administrators, deans and provosts who are going to be making those types of decisions and they have different interests and needs. If you are smart, you are going to try to target all three of those and build something that meets all three of those where they are. The faculty are going to want to know is this tool going to integrate with the ways that I teach the things that I think are important to teach students, which is going to vary a lot. Although, as someone who sat in on classes and all the disciplines, they do not vary as much as faculty sometimes think they do. Institutions are going to be thinking about student success, student enrollment, student persistence, those kind of bigger picture questions. I think you are going to want to show some success in all those areas. It is something that students can make sense of and use easily. It fits in and makes better the teaching that faculty are doing. If you want to go for bigger adoption, you have got to have a case for administrators that makes sense as well. With AI in particular, it is an open question right now on what role these tools will play in the workplace going forward but the answer to that question is different now than it was in November, and it is going to be different again in three months. It seems clear to me that we need to prepare the students to enter a workforce where they are using these tools intentionally and thoughtfully to be efficient and to navigate when to use it and when not to use it and what are its limitations. If a company can help a faculty member start to answer that question in a concrete way, that is going to be really valuable.”
James: “I think to go to the basics of tech, it must be to some degree invisible. A big obstacle I always see with faculty is that training them on a new tool and asking them to change the way they have been teaching the same class is hard. People do not love change, especially at certain times with certain senior professors and such. I do believe that anytime entrepreneurs think about creating new tools, these tools must be as much in the flow of the current processes as possible. Do not create a tool where somebody must leave their Learning Management System to go to this other thing, login into this other thing, have this other dashboard, and then when you get there, it is going to be so cool. Nobody is going to go there. That is not the tools that usually sell. But if you come in and say here is our technology that will be a copilot for faculty to use, that is all we are, we are not a tool to replace faculty, we are yet another tool in the toolbox for you, that is received well. I remember a faculty member said, James, your grading tools make me want to quit my profession and I was so sad. Then I realized, she had to download something from the website, redline it, and after redlining it upload it back, and then if a student had comments, they would download it, they would redline it and then she potentially had to respond 165 times on one test. I changed my whole grading schema so as an example, you did not have to download all the documents. I ended up acquiring a small company that literally saved a gazillion of clicks for a gazillion of faculty members. As little as it was, that boosted our NPS scores among faculty so much that faculty got used to using and grading homework the way we had it done. As small as that was, that was a big win for a lot of faculty members.”
Student Lifecycle Management:
Q: What is your take on the changes and processes that you use to implement a new data gathering and analytics process at the administrator level, keeping in mind a lot of the privacy concerns of students, faculty and parents who are not necessarily seeing the direct benefit of increased data availability but are worried about the increased monitoring and tracking that it takes to deliver improved results for them?
Howard: “I would agree that everything we do has to take student privacy into account. There is a ton of data that applicants already give to us as part of the application process and there are also a lot of analytics in the platforms that sit behind it. I think the data is already there and available for us to do a better job of mining and this ties back to the marketing. So how do we tie from end to end that person that is on our website, is it someone that we ultimately will let in the door and is there a mutual fit? That is one way we are looking to better utilize the data that we have and make better decisions as opposed to deciding based on gut feeling. Being able to sort of tap that a little better and get to a better answer of tying that from end to end is one piece of the puzzle. It is fascinating because it is something that I am looking at through one of the large cloud providers to build an application for an individualized career path and academic journey. It is not the traditional four year one for us. I am in an institution where it is typically a two, in some cases, a three-year path. From the student’s perspective, it is about the student experience. Being able to close that gap with an application on their specific journey on their specific career path from end to end is another type of application I am looking to third party out and build for us because it is a gap. We do not have that quick reference guide. We do not have that cheat sheet. We get students who come in and they are looking at their careers and they have no idea how to do it. There is so much information and unless somebody really has the time or they have the interest to be taken by the hand, it really can be a crapshoot. So, to that end, applications that help us roadmap that journey from end to end are going to be extremely helpful moving forward.”
Derek: “I will share a different case use case where I have been spending the year at the University of Mississippi, which is an open enrollment school for the state of Mississippi. If you can graduate high school in Mississippi, you can get admitted to the University of Mississippi, which means a variety of academic backgrounds and kind of identities are brought to campus, along with career goals. A student who may be the first person in their family to go to college has those same questions too, right? Like, what courses do I need to take? What career path do I want? How do I fit all these puzzle pieces together? There are a lot of struggles there. Speaking of headwinds, as we come out of the pandemic, our students have had very bizarre learning experiences over the past couple of years. I hear this a lot from faculty who find students disengaged in their classrooms, but I think students are also trying to figure out what college is all about. They have not necessarily had good learning experiences recently. They are a little more skeptical about the value of college and education in general. I do think helping them see their way through the educational experience, why it is important to them, and what they can get out of it are big challenges for Higher Ed right now.”
Q: One of the other areas that we have seen as a particular area of opportunity is having job readiness and career readiness be a little bit more data backed. Sanket, I know you have had some experience on the career readiness side, maybe a little bit more on the corporate side, but curious to get yours as well as the panel’s take on just how things can be a little bit more data backed and where there is opportunity for EdTech startups to really help with that aspect of the student journey.
Sanket: “We are investors in a business called Fuel50, which is one of the leaders in enterprise internal mobility, workforce mobility and AI talent marketplaces. The prior topic that we are talking about is incredibly strategic. We are reorienting the conversation on outcomes and student success. There is a shift towards, from a value orientation perspective, thinking about a university’s impact from a social and economic mobility perspective. What are we doing to drive these successful outcomes? We are seeing folks abandon at an increasing clip, the U.S. News & World Rankings and all these different standards. I think the challenge is going to be building ontologies of skills that are tied to those careers and then thinking about the plethora of resources that are available on campuses. We have seen the rise of externship programs that are focused on DEI initiatives for corporate, there are tons of challenges in trying to solve the supply and demand imbalance. A lot of corporations care deeply about DEI as they should. They want to partner with universities and provide underrepresented communities across a university/campus with access to mobility and opportunities. I do not think that there are a lot of companies that attack this with any level of fidelity. If we know we have a good ontology of what skills are required to enable that success and enable career readiness and then have good visibility in terms of what tools are in the toolkit that allow us to successfully or with high fidelity, support acquisition of those skills, then validation of those skills, I think that becomes really powerful. I think that is the Holy Grail. It is a reason why people analytics on the corporate side has been super hard. I would imagine university by university this is so complex and different that I think it ends up becoming a data infrastructure challenge. I think that this is the next frontier of innovation. I think what we are doing is amazing; we a
re going to be doing a great job supporting the next generation of students, my kids, three-and-a-half-year-old twin boys and I am excited for what the future looks like for those folks.”
James: “I would agree. Your boys have something in order of more than 50% chance of living to be over 100 years old. Because of that, they will also probably have between six or seven careers in their life. Not like my dad, who was an engineer electrician and went to work the same job for two dozen years and another job for two dozen years and then he retired. These folks not only will not do the same thing or work for the same company, but they will do different things and so reskilling and understanding that taxonomy of skills is so important. We are all interested in what 23&Me says but very few of us know what our DNA as a learner is. You could take two CTOs that have the same amount of experience and went to the same university and got the same degree and guess what, they will know very different things and have different experiences. Understanding what those are with the help of the AI and by being data first, then finding the right application for you depending on where you would like to go as a human and what you would like to do next and then finding whether it is a bite size or a larger learning moment that gets you there is really the whole game for the next few years.”
Q: What role do you think EdTech solutions can play in improving the enrollment process, specifically around engagement and student retention? I think there is a big opportunity for schools to better allocate financial resources and centralize things while offering broader payment options.
Derek: “There are two types of institutions when it comes to enrollment, you have got places like Vanderbilt University, which has a hard cap on the number of new students that they are going to enroll. Then you have got a place like the University of Mississippi, where enrollment is going up. The selective institutions that have only so many seats do not see big challenges there. I think they are still going to be very attractive. I think it is for other institutions where the enrollment can vary dramatically from year to year. That is where there is too much instability. Coming out of the pandemic and the bizarre educational experiences that students have had, you combine that with the current economy and the rocky job market, there are a lot of students and parents who are like, is college really going to be worth it? It is expensive. It is four years of my life. Yes, it is the thing that everyone needs to do, but maybe that is not the thing for me right now. I think institutions have to grapple with that. Part of that is helping to convey the value, but also having that value, that is where I think some of the data comes in, in terms of not just helping individuals navigate that path, but also looking at the student body more broadly. Where are we seeing success? Where are we seeing failure? What are the structures and systems that we have in play that are affecting that? That is where institutions have the ability to make some changes if they can identify what those challenges are and if they have the wherewithal to make some systematic or structural changes, I think there is a lot to be done there. I do think that a lot of colleges and universities have been coasting on the stellar reputation of the U.S. higher education system for a while and now we are being asked to show that value in a more concrete way.”
Sanket: “I think a lot of universities are going to look out of the market and look at best practices in terms of Account Based Marketing strategies and progressive marketing approaches to ensure on the content side that they are delivering the right content to the right consumer or customer at the right time and connecting them with resources on landing pages based on intent and interest and things like that. I think you are going to see a lot more stronger data driven nurturing of candidates. I am a little bit removed from the application process, but my guess is that we have not seen a ton of innovation in terms of simplicity or ease or friction to applying. I think it makes a ton of sense that you have a central ability to upload your information. I think there is probably a lot of overlap in terms of what universities are looking for in the application process and being able to remove the friction to be able to apply at the University of Mississippi, Vanderbilt, USC, or UCLA all at once where there is commonality in terms of requirements for submission is just a logical and intuitive value proposition.”
Derek: “The Common Application has solved a lot of that problem and if you look at overall applications over the last decade to Higher Ed, they have gone way up. I think the shift that we saw during the pandemic where a lot of colleges and universities went test free in their admissions where they were not requiring SATs scores or ACT scores, a lot of colleges and universities are sticking with that and that is really changing the enrollment dynamics. The data that we have traditionally used is maybe not available at all. At the University of Mississippi, we have a lot of incoming students who we are not quite sure how to place in the right math course because they do not have an ACT score and that is how we used to do it. We are having to develop new mechanisms for doing that kind of work. It is not just getting students in the door, but it is helping them succeed and finish. That is where a lot of higher education institutions are redirecting their efforts. What are the barriers for students, particularly first generation and low-income students in college and Higher Ed? How can we try to get some of those barriers out of the way? We do not want students to take college algebra three or four times before they pass it. That is not doing them any favors. It is not helping us with the capacity problems that we have. Those types of success interventions are becoming increasingly important.”
Sanket: “If we look at the data, schools are at the end of day businesses. The revenue is generated from tuition. Coming out of the pandemic, a lot of folks have been suffering on the top line because the composition of enrollments has dramatically shifted away from international students. I think focusing on accessibility, successful outcomes, student success is going to be paramount to making to ensure that we are driving continuity and the desired composition of enrollments based on student demographics, revenue contribution, or tuition contributions, etc.”
Howard: “The interesting point here is the disruption in the enrollment space. We know companies like Salesforce and Slate have most of the market right now. Where is the room for disruption? Can somebody knock off Slate? Slate has done a good job. It is very sticky at most of its institutions because admissions officers love it. It has a lot of the things in that particular tool that if you told people you were going to take it away, they would be very upset, so I am curious about what the ability to disrupt in that market is. With that said, we are running a mainframe from over 20 years ago to do our student information system and nobody has done student information systems well. From enrollment to student information systems for the whole ecosystem of how we get that 360-degree view of the student from when they are a prospect to when they are an alum, is there an opportunity for somebody to take over that space? Can it be done, and can it be done well, that is the question for me in this space. It goes back again to me for build versus buy and I would rather buy. I would rather not waste development resources on building my own SIS. The fact of the matter is, in that space, I know it is not enrollment, but there is no good market solution today. Is there an opportunity there for student information systems? On the enrollment side, I think it is mature and I think there are good choices there. I do not know how you knock off one of those top players unless you find some other secret sauce that is not in the current solution that is going to make it better for institutions.”
James: “I think the reason there are a lot of enrollment systems and not a lot of SIS systems is because the SIS will always be an operational expense. People do not like spending a lot of money on operational expenses and people tend to spend a lot of money on increasing enrollments. From experience, it helps not to have legacy data. I have developed systems exactly as you are describing, Howard, where literally, I could see you from being an IP address, and all the way to graduation, every phone call, every email, every grade, how much time we spent on each page, how many Zoom sessions you went to, literally pulled up, visualized, the whole thing. I was working for a for profit company that eventually went public and had the resources and investment to do it. Universities still like to invest in new buildings much more instead of new technologies or new ways of doing things. I think that is also at the very top when universities begin to start creating a symbiotic relationship with entrepreneurs. After I sat through a session where these two CIOs were explaining how complicated it is to approach them (entrepreneurs) and how to send them emails, etc. I got up and I just said, do you folks need help because I have seen your systems. I feel like you need help, and you are sitting here telling me how complicated it is for me to even sit with you, but I have systems that will run circles around the things you have. Can we create a relationship where we are not always a submissive support center. We like coming together and collaborating, instead of the private public relationship that is not on an equal basis. I think taking some of these old brands and creating that symbiotic relationship between the future entrepreneurs, startups, high growth companies, universities and the technology industry will help us all move forward faster.”
The Next Frontier of Innovation Among University Leaders:
Q: What is your opinion on the next frontier of innovation?
Howard: “I think for us it is figuring out how to better automate. I think it is predictive modeling and being able to better understand what we currently have in place. If we are able to retire technical debt, to automate, to properly use the cloud, it is probably going to be relevant for the next three to five years from where I sit. It is sometimes hard to figure out where the puck is going to be or what is going to be around the corner. I think you have to go with what you know today, make it better, and then just be agile enough to be able to pivot.”
Derek: “This idea of partnering with entrepreneurs — I will focus on the university side of that. I feel like a lot of universities as institutions and university leaders, it is Higher Ed, we have a lot of inertia, we have 400-year-old brands, it is hard to change. I think some of these questions around the value of Higher Ed, what students need, the cost of it, the changing technologies, I think it is time to start blowing up the curriculum and questioning some of the assumptions that we have in terms of how we do Higher Education. Do we need majors? Do we need general education? Do we need the credit hour? There are a lot of boxes that we use that we do not notice because they have been around so long, but they really hem us in. If we started throwing those boxes out and redesigning things, higher education institutions are not good at that. After the pandemic, a lot of us are trying to rubber band back to how things were in 2019. I am excited about the institutions that are breaking that mold and are thinking creatively about what they could do if they did blow up the curriculum and approach education with different structures entirely.”
James: “All of this digital transformation, whether it is automation, ChatGPT, or whatever else, all of this does make things a lot cheaper, a lot easier to obtain, and a lot easier to create. I am very excited about what digital transformation will do for the accessibility of education as well because great education does not have to be expensive and does not have to be hard to get to. I think the access to education that a lot of the new companies and a lot of the new technologies will create will only improve from here on. As things become easier to do, as things are more automated and it is easier for us to teach at scale and teach everywhere in the world, I am excited about what that will do to the world because I think if we can get people to where they need to go and educate them, the rest of the world’s problems will kind of work themselves out. In general, excited about how this stuff will create better access for everyone.”
Sanket: “I think these are all amazing answers. We talked about the importance of student success and student outcomes, and I think that on the career pathing side is going to be amazing. There has been a downstream impact in terms of workforce readiness and workforce transformation that you would particularly expect to see in North America and in the United States that we are going to be experiencing over the next 5, 10, 15, 20 years that is going to have a huge impact. It also solves a lot of pernicious pain points around social and economic mobility, accessibility of higher education, etc. I think we are moving away from this idea of the experience being a checkbox to being opportunities based — what doors does it unlock for a learner? Second is, we are seeing this in the corporate learning space, but I think we are going to be excited about breaking conventional approaches to the process of learning. We are focused on how do we optimize outcomes, challenging the conventional approach and status quo around is this the most performant, the most effective way of delivering curriculum, content, and experience or process? I think blended learning has been an amazing catalyst for that. Third thing is experience. I think that parents are funding this educational experience. I think creating a more consumer-like experience is important. I would imagine 99% of college students have access to a mobile device and have grown up in a world in which they have had a consumer mobile experience. Very few have probably grown up in a world where you are still taking a yellow car trying to get from point A to point B. That will be interesting to see just a reorientation around experience for constituents there. The last thing I will call out is that I am obsessed with this concept around capacity expansion. That is embedded in automation, whether it is K-12 or Higher Ed, academic institutions historically have not been blessed with resource abundance. A lot of folks are having to operate within a world of more pronounced constraints. Whatever can be done to drive leverage and capacity expansion for the student, for the educator, for the administrator, or for the counselor that allows for more meaningful or substantive investments and well-being. Better connectivity resources on campus, the ability to create a more personalized, intentional learning experience between educator and student, these are all going to go a long way in terms of driving the desired outcomes, the experience, and the process that a lot of folks are directly impacted by. Just some high-level themes that we are particularly focused on and really excited about here at PeakSpan over the next couple years.”
Howard Miller (LinkedIn) is currently the Chief Information Officer at UCLA Anderson School of Management. He was most recently the Acting Chief Information Officer and Chief Information Security Officer for Columbia Business School at Columbia University. Howard is an accomplished executive and senior IT leader with expertise in the design, development, and deployment of technical strategy and policy. Before his most recent career endeavors in higher education, Howard was an IT Director of Security and Compliance for Life Technologies Corporation from January 2006 to May 2012 and served as the Senior Manager, PMO and Corporate Financial Systems for Applied Biosystems, Inc. from September 2001 to January 2006. Howard also has his PMP, CISM and CRISC certifications.
James Kenigsberg (LinkedIn) was 2U, Inc.’s chief technology officer and is a 2U founding team member. He is an entrepreneur and technology evangelist who finds the passion and fun in using technology to improve education. At 2U, Kenigsberg translated his passion for technology into creating award-winning learning management platforms, client relationship management systems, mobile applications and cloud-based architectures. Prior to 2U, Kenigsberg led the technology and product team at The Princeton Review, where he created and managed the company’s award-winning assessment products. He was also formerly a part of the technology and product development teams at Thomson Financial and Ogilvy & Mathers.
Derek Bruff (LinkedIn) is an educator, author, and higher ed consultant. He directed the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching for more than a decade, where he helped faculty and other instructors develop foundational teaching skills and explore new ideas in teaching. Bruff consults regularly with faculty and administrators across higher education on issues of teaching, learning, and faculty development. His research interests include educational technology, visual thinking, and social pedagogies and he writes a newsletter called Intentional Teaching in addition to producing the Intentional Teaching podcast. Bruff has a PhD in mathematics and has taught math courses at Vanderbilt and Harvard University.
Sanket Merchant (LinkedIn) is a Partner at PeakSpan Capital and leads our EdTech and broader Learning & Development sector focus, which spans Pre-K/ECE, K-12, Vocational Education, Higher Education, and Professional/Lifelong Learning. He has 10+ years of experience in B2B SaaS investing with participation on 10+ growth stage boards in addition to extensive exposure to the broader HCM/L&D markets. He is also the father of twin three-and-a-half-year-old boys who only recently started their own academic journey and recently had their first day of school 😊
Russell Perkins (LinkedIn) joined PeakSpan Capital in 2022. Prior to joining PeakSpan, Russell sourced and advised growth stage technology companies on M&A and capital raises as a member of the Investment Banking team at Vista Point Advisors, covering vertically focused SaaS and internet businesses. Before Vista Point, Russell began his career in the Investment Banking Division of Financial Technology Partners.
A special thanks to all of our esteemed panelists for their continued partnership and for participating in this discussion!