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Education Innovators Preaching (as Usual) to the Choir

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Scottsdale, Ariz. -- Michael Crow, the ubiquitous president of Arizona State University, opened the Education Innovation Summit here this week by giving his views of what ails higher ed. He called it "filiopietism," or the excessive veneration of tradition. Not enough students are coming into the system, he said, and not enough are completing a credential to reach national goals. Quoting his father, Crow called this a "piss-poor performance."

I've seen Crow give similar keynote presentations to graduate-school deans and college presidents in recent months, although those speeches didn't seem as hard-nosed as this one. He admitted up front that this audience probably would be more sympathetic to his message of what's wrong with higher ed than those other two were.

Before him were 800 people, mostly educational entrepreneurs, CEOs, and investors, who more than outnumbered the contingent of college administrators and educators at the conference, which is now in its third year.

This was an audience that buys into the notion that the higher-ed market is primed for disruption. Indeed, many of them are leading efforts to change course delivery and credentialing, and perhaps one day will displace established players.

"When other industries are disrupted, those who don't innovate go out of business," said Jennifer Fremont-Smith. "Higher ed shouldn't be different."

Fremont-Smith is a co-founder of Smarterer, a Boston-based start-up that offers a platform for validating technical skills on everything from social media to Microsoft Office applications. Smarterer was one of more than 100 education companies here demonstrating their products. Most of the companies were start-ups in the initial stages of raising investment dollars.

A Focus on Technical Skills

Despite her own credentials from Georgetown and MIT, Fremont-Smith criticizes traditional college degrees ("they're failing") and résumés ("overexaggerated") as signals to the job market that an applicant is qualified. She maintains that hiring managers are overwhelmed with applicants, so they scan résumés in a few seconds, looking for certain signals (such as where someone went to college), yet have no idea if that person has the skills the company seeks. By testing for skills, Fremont-Smith argues, Smarterer not only helps the employer but also makes the hiring process more meritocratic.

The issue I have with Smarterer's model, and many other companies that pitched here, is that it is based on educating and hiring largely technical workers with specific skills. It's relatively easy to provide online courses in computer coding, and then assess that learning through crowdsourced tests. It's much more difficult to do that for intuitive disciplines, like English, or softer skill sets, like critical thinking and communication.

A college degree is much more than a skill set -- even Fremont-Smith agrees with that. "There's value in the academic exploration of college," she told me during a break. "But students also need practical skills to be employed, and colleges are not providing those. The challenge is to offer a degree that combines academic exploration and the practical piece."

Many of the ideas entrepreneurs were pitching here seek to break the tyranny of the degree and the corner that colleges have on the credential market. But what's missing, at least for now, is what to replace that market with. Alternative credentials won't win acceptance with their excessive focus on technical skills and the confusing array of badges that various providers hand out to job seekers. "If we break up certification into packages, badges, and classes, who is going to verify the entire package?" asked Josh Jarrett of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation during a session on the future of the degree.

Marking a Bet on Alternative Models

For now, colleges remain that validation point. That's why degrees still matter. But as college prices continue to rise, a degree from any college, at any cost, is no longer worth it for everyone. Students and their families are asking more and more questions about the value of a degree from certain institutions. The tech entrepreneurs here have discovered alternative models in their space. There's no reason they can't figure it out for business majors, communications majors, and other academic programs that have been created in recent years by colleges looking to cash in on the race for more credentials.

This is a determined bunch. Last year, 124 education companies received backing from investors, according to GSV Advisors, one of the conference sponsors. That's the most since 1999, the last time technology companies transformed the college experience with the introduction of course-management systems, such as Blackboard.

Sure, there were true believers here who think technology has the ability to solve all problems and who have no background in education. But many people I met here weren't as hostile to traditional colleges as I thought they might be or as some educators following the Twitter feed from the conference made them out to be.

Take Jake Schwartz, founder of General Assembly, which was best described in a New York Times article as a "combination of co-working space and academic lecture hall." After his pitch, an attendee asked him if his company offered credit for its courses on writing business plans or computer code. "No," said the Yale and Penn grad. "We see the liberal arts as the core. We complement the liberal arts."

College leaders, academic researchers, and faculty members would be wise to pay more attention to what these entrepreneurs are thinking. But as usual, these conversations are happening in silos.

During one of the sessions, a panelist noted how many efforts here would be helped by education research and then asked how many people in the packed room had been to the American Educational Research Association meeting the previous weekend in Vancouver, British Columbia. Only one or two hands went up. Besides Crow, I didn't see one college president here. Then again, the American Council on Education thought it had this vast subject covered by inviting one disruptor (Salmon Khan) to its annual meeting of presidents this year.