Largest Ed Tech Group in U.S. Announces New Leadership

Today, New York EdTech MeetUp organizers announced that they are passing the baton to new leadership. NY EdTech MeetUp has the largest membership of any EdTech MeetUp in the country. Founded in February 2009, the group hovers at 4,000 members and has organized 40 MeetUps. The new organizers are: Kathy Benemann, Founder and CEO of Kiyo Consulting, and Michelle Dervan, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Pearson. (Note: NY EdTech is part of the formal name of the group; Ed Tech is the name of the industry.)
There have been successful EdTech MeetUp transitions in the past, most notably in San Francisco when LearnBoost passed organizer duties to edSurge in December of 2012. But other city’s transitions have not been as seamless. Denver is currently without a formal organizer.
We spoke with two long-time co-organizers of the NY group to reflect and project about the transition: NY EdTech Founder Tom Krieglstein, also Founder at SwitftKick, a student engagement company; and, co-organizer Sharon LaDay, Vice President of Business Development at Macmillan New Ventures, an arm of Macmillan Publishers that invests in ed tech companies. Krieglstein and LaDay, along with co-organizer Adam Aronson, Sr. Product Manager at Pearson, will be advisors to the new leadership team until they come up to speed.

The NYC Ed Tech Scene

So why is NYC such a key location for Ed Tech? “The size. Of both K-12 and colleges. Just the density of the opportunity,” cites Krieglstein. “Access to talent—educational and technical experts. Access to investors. Here you could take a train ride, or walk around Union Square and meet with a lot of investors in one day.” He also noted many titans of industry are here, for example, large publishing companies.
The publishing companies tend to work at a more measured pace, while startups feel the pressure to move quickly. Working in education requires patience. There are numerous stakeholders to consult, and a long sales and implementation cycle. Those Ed Tech startups that can figure out how to balance the manic pace of the city with the careful needs of the education community often fare better with all of their stakeholders. Ed Techs in New York City have a supportive community for these and other challenges.
LaDay believes Ed Tech has a strong home on the East Coast. Boston (birthplace of WebCT, now owned by Blackboard), and DC (headquarters of Blackboard) were on the scene early. In LaDay’s view, “NYC is a natural juggernaut. We have the largest school district. Plus NYC is the center for other industries, so it has an energy or natural buzz, inside and outside of Ed Tech.”
In May, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $20 Million investment in new devices and software and a $650 Million capital investment in wiring and hardware to keep up with what the government called the ‘tech ecosystem’. There is still some question as to how much of that will impact startups.
EdTech MeetUp groups in other cities have historically been run by a company or organization. “What makes us different is that we are just people. A MeetUp in every sense of the word,” adds LaDay. While San Francisco is organized by EdSurge, an online resource for the Ed Tech community, New York will remain run by individuals.

Who Do EdTech MeetUps Help?

EdTech MeetUps have a wide audience: those new to the industry, those looking to network for a specific project, and the usual suspects who have committed to attending multiple events. Typical archetypes are the Educator, the Technologist and the Entrepreneur.
As leaders of the MeetUp, organizers get to see some companies grow from small startups to larger organizations. LaDay noted a company called neverware that applied for one of the MeetUp’s quarterly showcases, citing them as an example of “enabling the maestro, instead of convincing the maestro that we have content she needs—concepts that stay out of the way of the pedagogy.”
Krieglstein highlighted Brainscape. “Andrew Cohen is one of our longest standing members. Every MeetUp, he would stop by and give me these updates. It was fun to see his company grow.” He also gave a “shout out” to Kate Meersschaert and the Ed Lab at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

On Transitioning an EdTech MeetUp

The fact of the matter is, organizing an EdTech Meetup is a lot of work. Coming up with a theme, securing speakers, reviewing content, finding locations, filling the seats, and setting up food and drinks are just some of the tasks required to make a successful event. Krieglstein, LaDay and Aronson have been at it for quite a while, so they thought, “Let’s pass along something valuable. It still has good momentum so someone else can pick it up and move it along.”
As often is the case with EdTech MeetUp leadership, their day jobs have grown into more demanding positions over the years, perhaps even in part because of their leadership in the community. Mark Phillips, Managing Director of HireEd, an education recruiting firm, and a former organizer of the Denver EdTech MeetUp, understands that situation all too well. He and Dan Carroll, COO and Co-founder of Clever, an instant login provider for students and schools, founded a Colorado MeetUp, alternating event locations between Boulder and Denver. As their companies grew, the time commitment became an issue.
Phillips, similar to the NY EdTech leadership, cited the broad scope of the MeetUps as a potential challenge. So many groups sprout from meeting at EdTech MeetUps, and then focus on their specific area, that it can be difficult to establish a core group. Sometimes, the ‘sprouts’ stay within the core EdTech MeetUp family. Phillips noted that the Austin EdTech MeetUp founder came from Denver, where he attended MeetUp events, and was interested enough to get the group off the ground in Austin when he moved there.
NY’s Krieglstein adds, “The core advantage is the community. Bringing people together. Tons of stuff comes out of [EdTech MeetUp] that I have no idea about. It is not about getting credit for it, but about building the platform. If everyone is achieving levels of success, then the nest grows and we all achieve. It pays back dividends.”
Denver EdTech MeetUp is currently without a formal organizer. Phillips feels the best fit for the job could be a current member of the group in Colorado and has sent communications to the group soliciting volunteers. Both the NY TechEd and Denver EdTech MeetUp leadership had some conversations with representatives at edSurge (the organizer of the SF EdTech MeetUp and a supporter in Austin) during their transition talks. The NY team is clearly transitioning to individuals as leaders and the Denver group has no formal transition as of this posting. [Update: Denver EdTech MeetUp appears to be merging under Educelerate Colorado!]

The Future of EdTech MeetUp

LaDay noted that NY EdTech MeetUp, or perhaps others, might take the lead in connecting regional EdTech groups. Early on, LaDay and team reached out to EdTech MeetUp organizers across the country to try and create a “connectedness” among the MeetUps. They were considering “some unified drive to stoke a national conversation so all the troops could be rallied for key issues.” They organized a call with SF, NYC, Austin and Chicago, but that plan did not formally develop. The groups do show alignment in their descriptive language on MeetUp websites, with some nuances to highlight their regions.
Krieglstein cited the possibility of a NYC Ed Tech conference. He shared, “If you think of the number of people from this area who head to South by Southwest every year…”

Reflections on Organizing EdTech MeetUps

Krieglstein founded the NY EdTech MeetUp because of his own work helping schools build engaging communities. He has an interest in peer-to-peer learning, and in 2009, he felt there was not a community in the tri-state area dedicated to this in EdTech. He cites the biggest challenge as getting people’s attention, “not dissimilar to a startup”, he noted. “In the beginning it was 5-10 of us crouched in a small room having a conversation,” said Krieglstein. “It was like that for almost a year. Once we had a core group of dedicated people, it expanded from there.”
When asked what he wished he knew before starting the group, Krieglstein paraphrased an Ira Glass quote: “The vision in my head was over here and the reality was over there. And that frustration was OK.” Which event was his favorite? “The first one! Just the fact that we had one, and that people showed up who weren’t me.” They are also proud of their holiday party MeetUp as it raises money for charity.
In answer to the burning question, who writes the MeetUp event titles, the team spilled that it is co-organizer Adam Aronson. A favorite title (and not surprisingly, a big draw), the Biggie Smalls inspired, “I Like It When You Call Me ‘Big Data’.

Final Thoughts

LaDay: “We were ourselves. We weren’t tied to anything. So we had some fun with it.”
Krieglstein: “Looking back, I am thankful for the never-ending support from the community members. And I think of the number of times that this shouldn’t have worked. But [the community] was always willing to support it.”
NY EdTech MeetUp will hold their 2nd Annual EdTech the Halls: Holiday Bonanza for Charity on Wednesday, December 3rd in at New Work City co-working space in Tribeca, NYC.

Ideas on Preparing for Digital Textbook Delivery: Lower the Cost of College Operations or Else

This article first appeared on the Akademos blog.

SONY DSCThe higher education conference season is in full effect. I attended an ed tech conference called UBTech held by University Business magazine earlier this month in Orlando, Florida. This was my first time attending UBTech, having formerly mainly focused on the CampusTech conference. UBTech had a good mix of college and university chief technology officers, chief information officers, chief financial officers, and similar roles. It also attracted ed tech companies, textbook publishers, bookstore services providers, and other organizations in the industry.

A central theme in Orlando this year was reducing college operating costs to manage net revenue. Speakers called out that the higher education business model and delivery system appears broken. Particularly at those institutions that are struggling with revenue generation. Why do we continue to push a traditional college delivery model in areas where technology is clearly positioned to disrupt (yes, it is overused, but you get the idea) business-as-usual? For my part, I spoke at a session about trends in bookstore services and textbook delivery. My session attracted a diverse mix of college CTOs, CIOs and CFOs, as well as publishers, our textbook rental partners CampusBookRentals, and some friendly competition by way of bookstore service operators like Follett and Rafter.

The data I presented contrasted how college technology officers and financial officers see the future of the college bookstore. For example, while only 18% of college business officers in our textbook delivery survey stated college bookstores will sell textbooks completely via their online store, 95% of college technology officers we (more informally) surveyed at UBTech see the future of textbooks as delivered completely in an online bookstore. Now, given we were at a tech conference, I am not surprised. But the technology folks also noted they are ‘not so much’ involved in decisions about the bookstore. Which leads me to the question, Why are our CTOs and CIOs not more involved in the selection of bookstore service operators and strategies?

I usually approach conferences as an opportunity to listen. I might come prepared with a leading question or a thesis I am trying to get feedback on. This year, it was definitely about asking how involved college CTOs and CIOs are in textbook delivery and bookstore services. But also, and perhaps more nuanced, how much do they want to be involved, to be included in the textbook dialogue?

Those that attended our UBTech session were self-selected in that they chose to attend a session about bookstore services, so with that, are telling us they want to be more involved. But overall at the conference, most tech folks I spoke with shared that they were somewhat neutral on the topic of bookstore services. But they were quick to offer that online delivery is the way to go. In my session’s group discussion, the majority of schools shared that they have brick-and-mortar components to their textbook sales process. They also said that one of the biggest drivers to building out bookstores in the future is the eventual adoption of digital texts by students and faculty. Our contemporary at Follett estimated that number at an average of 10%, while Rafter and CampusBookRenters had less information on digital text adoption, likely because the rental market focuses more on physical textbook delivery. Everyone from vendors to schools agreed that eTextbook adoption was doubling each year, though still at small numbers.

But if eBook adoption is doubling year-over-year at colleges, when eTextbooks do indeed reach the tipping point, the mass adoption of digital texts by college students will happen “fast and furiously” (to quote the keynote speaker…more on that in a minute). The colleges and universities in my session said this was one of their biggest concerns—they want to be prepared when ‘digital happens.’ So while competition by third party sites selling textbooks (such as Amazon) was a dominant concern for CFOs, digital textbook adoption was the clear driving issue for our information technology officers.

Now on to that keynote address I mentioned. The opening keynote was delivered by Gene Wade, co-founder and CEO of UniversityNow, was well received. I’d heard of UniversityNow before but didn’t really know what they did. Here is the gist:

UniversityNow identify themselves as a social venture whose mission it is to ensure that a quality higher education is available to people everywhere. They manage Patten University and New Charter University, both online institutions serving predominantly working adults and offering course delivery within a somewhat new paradigm. For example, one set of instructors teaches you, while a different set grades you (anonymously). Tuition is based on how long it takes to complete your program (typically about 2-3K a semester for as many classes as you can muster). Learning is self-paced. Exams aren’t “unlocked” until students can show within the LMS that they have mastered the skill sets needed to pass them. Classes are held completely online. Course materials are digital.

Mr. Wade shared that MOOCs have made going to school online “sexier,” but that they are not addressing the market need (eg., a call center employee who is getting left behind because he or she does not have a bachelor’s degree; and needs a convenient, affordable degree that represents key learning competencies learned). According to the speaker, UniversityNow’s flagship school, Patten University, costs 11x less than a 4-year private school. At some schools, cost of operation, of delivery, is higher than net tuition coming in. His point was that we need to lower the cost of delivery or else.

His most powerful message? That five years from now, most colleges and universities will be dealing with “the wreckage.” Schools like UniversityNow are happening (as its namesake suggests) now. His metaphor…the rest of world will go straight to cell phones while ‘old schools’ will be dealing with their outdated land-line systems. And, of course, what is that cost of that?

If college bookstore administrators want to be ready for the move to online textbook delivery, they might consider the parallels of planning for online course delivery. The MOOCs and SOOCs are indeed coming. If schools can equate online course delivery with online textbook delivery, and maybe capitalize on the popularity (and hysteria) of MOOCs in order to frame the strategies for digital textbook delivery, we think they can be well prepared to build an innovative yet practical vision for the college bookstore of the future.

The Battle for Higher Ed’s Future: Wall Street v. Academics (Point, Academics)

This article originally appeared on the Akademos Blog

NY-Times-University-of-Virginia-Cover-Story3-246x300Torn down the middle. That’s how the NY Times Magazine’s September Education Issue portrayed UVA’s campus on its cover page, along with a dramatic title: Anatomy of a Campus Coup: The inside story of the failed ouster of the University of Virginia’s president–and what it means for the future of higher education.

By now, many of us know the story of UVA president Teresa Sullivan’s forced resignation and subsequent reinstatement. In fact, it took me a few days to read the Times Magazine cover story because, well, I thought I already knew what had happened. It turns out there was still more to the soap opera, and a little bit of journalistic digging has helped uncover some lessons learned and a conspiracy theory or two. Allow me to summarize the article for you…

At the heart of the drama seemed to be philosophical differences in how to run an elite institution between those that have more of a not-for-profit/higher ed/government background and those that have more of a business/corporate/Wall Street resume. Where these two groups see the future of education heading caused a rift at UVA’s campus that likely revealed schisms happening at institutions all across the country and the world. To the UVA Board of Visitors, an appointed body that oversees the university, Ms. Sullivan was not “CEO” enough in her actions or her image. The drama played out in the media as potential sexism, political jockeying, and fiscal philosophical differences.

But put succinctly, UVA’s board did not think Ms. Sullivan was building enough long term fiscal bets into the strategic plan, such as online programming, and was most certainly not acting fast enough in experimenting with trends like MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) along with the MITs of the world. The board had been influenced, in addition to their MBA-ness, by Clayton M. Christensen’s book “The Innovative University,” which focuses on “disruptive innovation” in higher education. Talk to any private equity wonk and he or she will animatedly tell you how education is poised for disruption–the kind of disruption that could make someone a lot money. So why wasn’t UVA taking advantage of its brand name and keeping up with the times?

Well, let’s set the scene. UVA is considered a top ranked university, right up there with the Ivy Leagues. What sets it apart from these schools though is that UVA is a public school. So already we are not comparing apples to apples. UVA also has a smaller enrollment than many of its peer institutions. And finally, UVA is committed to keeping a higher mix of in-state students than, say, a University of Michigan (state schools typically charge out-of-state students a much higher tuition, thus those schools that have a higher percentage of in-state students cannot depend on out-of-state students to line the coffers). UVA’s president, Teresa Sullivan, has been called a technocrat, an incrementalist, a consensus builder…all those terms that read slow-moving. Some questioned whether she had the inspired spirit needed to run an institution at the presidential level (president’s are well known for helping to raise funds/endowments and acting as the face of the university).

So what does a not-for-profit-type administrator with a background in sociology bring to the table at a place like UVA? Well, we know Ms. Sullivan previously worked as the University of Michigan’s provost, and before that, conducted sociology research at the University of Texas. Her post at Michigan is supposedly one of the reasons she was hired at UVA–she knew how to work in an environment where the state budget was consistently being cut; she knew how to do more with less. While at Texas, where she was “a demographer” and a “numbers cruncher,” she worked on middle class-debt research with Elizabeth Warren, a bankruptcy law  professor who has taught at several institutions, including Harvard, has been a Special Advisor for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under President Obama, and overall, is considered an expert on middle-class finance policy. Ms. Warren is something of a Wall Street-watchdog, advocating for the middle class in a system she feels is “rigged,” (according to her 2012 Democratic National Convention speech delivered just before former President Bill Clinton’s). Warren is also currently running for US Senate in Massachusetts against incumbent Senator Scott Brown. I mention all this because the NY Times article referred to Warren as a “liberal icon” and touches on conspiracy theories that Teresa Sullivan was singled out because of her associations with anti-Wall Street and/or pro-middle-class fiscal policies. The Times points out that, in hindsight, this seems unlikely, though at the time, it may have fueled some of the flames. But because the Governor of Virginia is responsible for appointing the board, and he happened to be Republican, and because members of the board also happened to be some of UVA’s biggest donors, political suspicions abounded.

Many people believe the UVA board used a faculty letter as a proxy to oust Sullivan. Faculty, tired of flat salaries they considered uncompetitive, wrote a letter asking for “urgent and immediate action.” Helen Dragas, rector/leader of the board, began lobbying for support to remove Sullivan. She wrote the following to a fellow board member: “I am growing increasingly nervous that others are thinking about big trends and long term prospects for higher education delivery and funding.” She reached out to board members one-by-one, some say to avoid attracting attention (in Virginia, university board member meetings of more than two persons are public record). She then advised Virginia’s Governor McDonnell of her plans. All systems seemed to be on go for Dragas. What is ultimately interesting about this faculty letter is that the faculty of UVA joined the reinstate-Sullivan-camp after the ouster. The Times summed it up by suggesting that faculty may voice gripes, but when it comes down to it, they prefer an academic in charge over a business person.

The faculty, the students, and a former (and influential) board member, all mounted a counterattack. The Times reported that vandals had spray-painted the six front columns of the school’s neoclassical Rotunda with the letters “G-R-E-E-E-D.” And the more the board tried to tell faculty this change was a good thing, the more faculty became “paranoid” that big money donors were controlling the strings at UVA. When Sullivan gave her goodbye speech to the board, people gathered on the lawn to protest her departure. The public relations mess that followed only further riled Sullivan’s supporters. “The national news media seized onto the story, which seemed to dramatize a broader conflict between big money and public education,” according to the Times; and further, “the conservative editorial page of The Wall Street Journal accused the protesting faculty of trying to create ‘an academic Green Zone separated from economic reality,’ while liberal publications held up Sullivan as a symbol of a beleaguered egalitarian ideal.” Ms. Dragas, the leader of the board, lost many of her backers after the decision to remove Sullivan, and Governor McDonnell called on the board to figure this mess out or resign. Sullivan was reinstated as UVA’s president on June 26, 2012. And ironically, on July 17th, it was reported that UVA would participate in a MOOC initiative with Coursera via Stanford University.

So what really happened at UVA? Was it sexism in reaction to UVA’s first female president, was it a Republican conspiracy fueled by big donors and a Republican governor, was it MBA/Wall Street bravado? We may never really know. But I think it is an important lesson in public administration. As the public sector adopts the more useful fiscal practices of the private sector, we must remember that feeding the needs of a public entity is a balancing act, even more so than sustaining a corporation. While business courses try and teach leaders how to run a company that treats its employees as more than just human resources, as a part of the company as a whole, in the public sector,  the people are our shareholders. And in education, which is a Public Good, whether the school be private or public, we have an obligation to run institutions in a manner that helps our investments–the students who are our future and the faculty who are showing them the way–best flourish.

I will end on a final note that I think captures a major schism between public and private business management as related to the UVA story. A UVA board member who considers himself more an entrepreneur than a Wall Streeter provided this analysis: “This board comes predominantly from the corporate sector, and they were not used to dealing with people who have academic tenure and can say whatever they want. They are used to being able to fire people who do that.”

The New Traditional: Defining New Terms in Your Industry

A great way to engage in your vertical is to coin new terms. True thought leaders are authentic in the way they write about their industries. So nothing over the top or too pushy. It helps when the term comes about organically.

We were struggling in our outreach to folks who work at colleges or universities primarily aimed at teaching adult, continuing ed, or online students. The term ‘non-traditional student’ has been used multiple times to define their student audience. But as one expert and former colleague in the industry, Carol Aslanian, points out, this group now represents the majority of students seeking higher education degrees or certificates. So how can we continue calling the more popular way ‘non-traditional’?

Thus, at a symposium in Denver, Colorado that was widely attended by college administrators in the area, we named the keynote session: The New Traditionals and How to Engage Them via the Web. By the end of the event, many folks in the audience were already using the term ‘New Traditionals’ to describe successes and challenges in their everyday roles managing programs aimed at these types of students.

Here is a link to a recent article discussing the New Traditionals, written by Triangle Below Canal’s Ingrid Ramos Nakamura.

Attracting The ‘New’-Traditional Student