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Recruiting Intelligence

How to develop an addiction to learning – the future of education

“Make learning more affordable and effective (and perhaps addictive) – Learn until you understand, not fail.”   Most of us involved in education, would generally agree with such overarching goals, right?

How do we achieve these goals? Ryan Craig answers this question in the forthcoming book College Disrupted (March 2015). We will summarize the the themes of this book here. 


Spoiler Alert: Mr. Craig’s argument is rooted in the need to take advantage of technology to provide better educational experiences and outcomes.

College Disrupted [Link to Amazon] is a new entry in the literary genre that analyzes the state of current education and the ongoing changes in higher education. The subtitle of the book “the great unbundling” suggests where the author sees part of the change occurring. Mr. Craig is an active participant in education through his venture firm, University Ventures, which invests in education institutions and technology. Considering Mr. Craig’s professional activities, it is not surprising that he is a critical observer of the status quo and sees much room for improvement and future innovation via the private sector. For many insiders in universities, the book will require a consciously open mind to consider the value of the analysis and predicted trends.   It’s a worthwhile read to understand Mr. Craig’s thought process including adaptive learning and gamification, as well as, the less well known concepts of a double-click degree and the impact of competency management platforms.

The book covers a broad range of topics. Initially, Mr. Craig surveys the current landscape, and demographic and institutional trends including: graduation rates and cost inflation. The author expresses his point of view on the management challenges preventing change due to the governance structure of universities. The second half introduces his vision and hypothesis of the future of higher education. The author has an optimistic outlook for the potential of U.S. education and the enormous export potential beyond improving domestic student outcomes. For readers familiar with the present backdrop of higher education enrollment and the institutional landscape, the second part is more intellectually stimulating and controversial.

The author has a colorful writing style, frequently spiced with anecdotes about his Yale student experience. Mr. Craig emphasizes his message by using movie characters and comparisons to industries such as airlines and casinos which the traditional academically oriented reader may not appreciate.

The author’s underlying assumption is that education serves the specific purpose of preparing a student (at any age) for a professional environment, and education needs to show a positive return on investment. Perhaps unsurprising, the author believes that the current institutional structure serves student populations poorly.

He describes the current bundle of college education as a package of housing, on-campus services, networking and education delivered through an expensive, antiquated measure of units, and largely immeasurable outcomes. 

“Within a few years, we see the advent of double-click degrees and the rise of competency management platforms. The crisis of today, of affordability, governance and data, will seem like the good old days – like record labels laughing about the stress they felt over the decline of the 8-track tape market.”  The term double-click degrees to transparent transcripts showing employers the actual learning accomplishments and outcomes in individual classes.

He proposes that we are heading for a two-tier system of higher education -  the bundled elite education and the unbundled education for everyone else.  Technology will play a critical role in advancing and enabling this unbundling process. Although appalling at first blush, in the authors view, it will become a more honest, transparent system than the one we have today in which students attending non-elite institutions are led to expect experiences and outcomes typical of elite colleges, yet graduate disappointed, indebted, and too often without the desired credential.

Online and hybrid programs will make competencies visible to employers through double-click degrees and electronic portfolios.  Think of these degrees as sophisticated active transcripts that an employer can double-click on to learn a lot more about the course and the competencies the student has demonstrated . Mr. Craig states that the new digital divide will segment higher education providers into job-focused and employer-friendly institutions, and traditional campus based institutions. 

Mr. Craig does not sound optimistic about current campus-based institutions making the transition to this new world given their governance and cost structure.  He mentions positively existing efforts by institutions such as Arizona State University (ASU) and their collaboration with Knewton, an adaptive learning technology company,

Mr. Craig takes issue with the Federal Education Department (ED) on several occasions: the negative impact of developing competitive scaled online education by eliciting state regulations, the impending rating systems, and student loan policy as a profit-generating and conflicted process.

Mr. Craig seems baffled by the ED’s focus on the Carnegie Input Unit in academia, which hinders innovation from his perspective. Most attempts to develop new learning experiences outside of the accredited university system end up at the American Council on Education (ACE) credit course review service so you have to retrofit learning experiences to a credit system developed a century ago. What does a credit hour mean? Mr. Craig sees higher education, “using a model from the railroad era, i.e. different gauges of track in each region.” In his assessment, traditional universities are afraid of a clear framework for transferable credits and competencies, similar to the open source movement in software, since it could put existing colleges out of business. He recommends establishing a system of accredited courses rather than accredited institutions, allowing ease of course transfer. This would lower the overall cost to students by enabling them to take basic courses at lower cost and even through free avenues such as MOOCs.

The author presents well the current dichotomy in education. We experience great excitement and potential for innovation through adaptive and other technology-enhanced learning.  This innovation creates new competitive entries and disruption to traditional models in higher education.  At the same time, financial constraints from public disinvestment, inefficient cost structures, and student’s inability to pay the rising costs of colleges endanger the long-term viability of many of the existing campus-based colleges.

The author describes many of the buzzwords of today’s technology investment world: adaptive learning, gamification, and badges.

Mr. Craig ponders why education is stuck in a seat-time environment, where the classroom instructor can really only deliver a single stream of instruction. Adaptive learning helps in the author’s view to build and maintain confidence for the learner, which is exactly what a good teacher will do in the classroom. Yet we know the reality of large lecture hall instructions cannot deliver that experience.

Mr. Craig makes the point that we can design online learning to maximize the student focus on learning to the point that approximates controlled focus of immersion programs in the offline world. Watching my sons immersed in online gaming for hours with great focus and dedication leads me to hope for gamification appropriately deployed to immerse all of us in learning, using available technology to encourage the learning process.

I can hear my academic colleagues saying that it is all about a good teacher and not about the hyped technology. In my opinion, we will need all of the above and much more. Technology-assisted learning should scale high quality education with a consistency and accuracy hereto unavailable. Great teachers will be supported by that technology.

I believe that change in higher education will be slow and painful. I appreciated Mr. Craig’s honest and sobering conclusions about the impact of technology.  He sees a different, much more efficient education world, albeit lacking the fun of the past.  The latter must be referring to Mr Craig’s reminiscences of his time at Yale University.

Mr. Craig notes that this fun campus life is afforded to a small minority of well-funded students attending a four-year college at the age of 18-22, and is not the case for the financially struggling student or the student trying to balance a family, job and finances.  

The romantic world of roaming a Yale campus for four years and developing your personality will continue for a small group of students at highly selective institutions of higher education.  For the majority of individuals, and it’s worth remembering that 46 % of all U.S. students are attending community colleges, this will not be their experience.  Education is an investment with more direct and very practical goals. The labor market will reward individuals with tangible and measurable skills. Let’s hope that technology can lower the cost, allow for greater access, and improve education for large segments of the population.

Few believed 30 years ago that a majority of the population would carry a mini-computer – smart phones – in their pockets. I share Mr. Craig’s hope that technological progress can make learning accessible and even addictive through gaming and other tools, benefiting the individual and society.