a16z Podcast: Online Learning and the Ed Tech Debate

This week, students in  much of the country are returning to school—virtually. The intersection of learning and technology has been accelerated by the pandemic, but the debate around education’s “disruption,” and what that means for educators doing the hands-on work of teaching, has been swirling for years.

In this episode, a16z general partner Connie Chan and host Lauren Murrow are joined by educators and experts Josh Kim, the Director of Online Programs and Strategy at Dartmouth College (whose most recent book, The Low-Density University: 15 Scenarios for Higher Education, is out today), and David Deming, Professor of Education and Economics at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Kim is also the co-author of Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education, published earlier this year.

We explore the complicated issue of online education from a variety of angles: Can the quality of online learning stack up to an in-person education? What improvements have we seen over the past decade, and what improvements are we likely to see this fall, compared to the COVID scramble last spring? And might this moment be the push we need for educators and technologists—sometimes at odds—to collaborate more closely?

We discuss and debate the research behind online learning, the dual impact of tech and COVID on the future of higher ed, and tech’s potential in everything from curriculum to access to structural inequality.

Transcript: 

Lauren Murrow: So much of the discourse around ed tech or online education is posed in stark terms. Much of the discussion seems to be, “Online education was this abject failure in the spring, now kids are doomed to lose another year if we don’t go back in person.” So what I’d like to pose to the group is: What are some of the most common misconceptions you see in the discourse around online education?

Josh Kim: Well, first of all, we didn’t really have online education in the spring. That wasn’t anything that any of us who have been in online education for a long time would recognize as online education. So I think we first have to completely move away from making any conclusions about online education from this emergency pivot to remote learning due to COVID.

Connie Chan: Right. And I would argue that we should also make sure that we are not just judging the concept of online education by what we see today. There’s just so much potential for further innovation around the platform, around the medium, that I think we just don’t see, but we already see in other countries around the world.

David Deming: I think one common misconception is more of a conflating of two things. One is the medium by which education happens—is it online or in-person or some mix of the two? And then the pedagogical approach—is it lecture based, is it discussion based, how much of it is student facing, what is the size of the class, what is being taught and in what way?

And I think what you see from most of the pretty brief history of online education is that classes that are online tend to be of one type. It is often quite different than what you see in person. So when people say online education, they often have this idea: maybe it’s a superstar lecturer that’s, you know, broadcast all over the web, or it’s a for-profit college that people perceive as being predatory on some types of students or whatever. But there’s nothing that is intrinsic about online that makes it better or worse.

At its core, online is a mode of delivery for education that has tremendous potential to reach people that couldn’t be reached with in-person education models.

Connie: With far better curriculum than they could have afforded.

David: Potentially.

Connie: Potentially.

David: Although, I don’t think that’s a guarantee. I think we should get into that. I think there’s a question of whether the education can be better and under what conditions. It is true that you see a lot of education innovators in the online space, but a lot of what they’re doing could just as easily be done in person.

What I would like to hear is more discussion of what should education look like, and then we decide whether it’s easiest or best to deliver it online versus in-person, rather than debating about online versus in-person and only later talking about what we’re actually teaching and how we’re teaching.

Josh: Yeah, I agree with that. One of the challenges we have when we talk about all of this is definitions. People often talk about online education when they’re talking about a lot of different things and very different things.

Connie: Yeah. And I think to that point, some people are thinking of this as strictly K to 12 or K to college. In reality, you can also lump in things like a master class, things like lifelong learning, things like worker training, things like extracurricular classes that have already been online well before COVID.

Josh: So, one of the confusions we often hear is to conflate online education at scale, which kind of started with MOOCs and now have moved on to what Coursera does or what edX does, with what’s been going on with online education now for a couple of decades, which looks very different than that,  which is about very small classes, lots of active learning, lots of engagement between students and faculty, a lot of work with instructional designers. They happen to be the same medium. They happen to be education that’s done with technology. But they’re completely different things.

Lauren: You mentioned the precedent of MOOCs, which is massive open online courses. Those have been hyped for a decade or so and have had limited success in disrupting education, it’s pretty commonly agreed. So, what has changed? Why do you see this newfound optimism now? What specifically are we seeing that we haven’t seen in the past?

Connie: I think if you judge MOOCs, historically, they’ve been really targeted for college students and post-college graduates. And I think the effectiveness of MOOCs varies dramatically based of the age group and the kind of content you’re trying to teach.

Lauren: It’s an important point to make, which is that online education is not optimal for every subject or every learner. And so, I think we can get more nitty-gritty when we’re talking about how it translates for younger kids versus older kids…

Connie: Shy kids, right? Kids who are bullied. You hear about them preferring online school. It really just ranges on the type of student and the age range.

And I can understand why in the college bracket it hasn’t necessarily taken off. There are so many other things that a college provides to the student. And often times, the students want to be on campus. They do get different kinds of credentials with every university.

But if you take that concept of very large classroom and you target a different age group with different kinds of content, the value proposition could actually be quite different. So, for example, if I was teaching, say, a singing class and I opened it up to 1,000 students. And because I have that many students, the prices were very affordable or could even be free. One could argue that that potentially could work. So a lot of the criticism around MOOCs has been, I think, a function of the age group they’re targeting and the type of content they try to deliver.

Lauren: That’s a good point to bring up. Many educators have been skeptical of online learning to date because it’s difficult to run, say, discussion-based courses or lab work. Group work can pose challenges.

David, you’ve noted that what’s called high-dosage tutoring—that’s small groups meeting frequently—has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to improve learning, in addition to individualized feedback. So, the question is: can ed tech deliver the kind of personalized education that traditional education can?

David: I think it definitely can. I think the question is whether it can do so at lower costs and reach people who wouldn’t otherwise be reached. It’s an access question and a cost question. And I would put MOOCs toward one end of a spectrum, where the extreme is just a lecture you post online or a TED Talk or content that’s just online.

You know, somewhere online you could find the very best lecture on the principles of microeconomics by the very best explainer of those principles. And you can watch it. And that’s something that’s widely available. And the marginal cost of providing that to another person once you produce it is zero. And so you put it online for as many people who can access it as possible. But there’s absolutely no personalization at all. Everyone’s watching the same lecture.

And that’s good for some people, but most people learn through some element of personalization. You know, meeting people where they are, addressing a specific learning needs motivating them to care and show up to class and turn in assignments and stay on task when things get difficult. That’s the hard work of education. And that doesn’t scale as easily as the MOOC or the online lecture.

And so, I think the question is whether ed tech can deliver that at lower cost. I think it’s possible. I think it’s much harder than just creating great content and putting it up on the web and charging a very small fee for it. And I think that’s basically why MOOCs haven’t revolutionized the market, because that’s not really what education is. Education is not just content. It’s also engagement and personalization.

Connie: It’s the peer group, it’s the feedback. There are start-ups, though, that are trying to tackle that, that are creating small breakout groups for many of these large topics.

David: Yeah. I think those are very promising. I just think that, to me, that’s where education and learning really needs to go—some combination of personalization and scale. It’s a very hard problem.

Connie: It is a hard problem. And the content has to be really good so that there are higher completion rates than what we have currently. I think a lot of people are realizing that content can be improved, especially with multimedia. Can you use some interactive hand gesture, even, to make sure that kids stay engaged and finish the class?

The trickiness is going to be how it feels at the end of the day different than a YouTube video. I think a lot of it still comes down to: how do you design it in a way that will have a motivating factor for the student to go seek it out and complete it?

Lauren: Are there types of subjects that lend themselves better to an online curriculum versus in-person?

Josh: So, I think about this a lot because my daughters are a rising junior and now going to be a rising grad student. Where I see the future is going, which I see benefits and risks, is at the master’s level. And it’s master’s degrees at scale—basically low cost, hopefully high-quality master’s degrees at scale. We see Illinois with its iMBA. We see BU with their low-cost MBA. Georgia Tech with computer science.

And basically, these are master’s degrees that will not supplant MBAs or computer science degrees from elite institutions and will not supplant the experience you get when you come to campus and can hang out with great faculty like David. There’s no way to replace that intimate learning experience where you’re with that cohort and have that experience. That’s priceless. But most master’s degrees now don’t provide that.

My younger daughter wants to be an elementary teacher. She’ll have to get a master’s in education to get a good job. I’m not convinced that she needs to go to a very expensive master’s program. I think that she can actually be fine with a master’s program that is low-cost, more at-scale, where she gets the content, the peer group, and she gets coached and mentored by maybe not a faculty member. So, I think it would be wonderful if she could become a teacher with a master’s degree without all that debt. I think there’s enormous potential here.

Connie: Yeah, Josh, when you talk about the master’s program, it really makes me think a lot of it comes down to credentials too, right? So, can you use technology to allow more people to get those credentials in a cheaper way? And using technology to also have new signals that go beyond just the credential certificate.

Like, if your daughter took classes online, theoretically, whatever program supplied that service would know her grades, would know her scores, would know her performance. There’s a lot of opportunities, I think, in helping people get those credentials in a more affordable way.

Josh: On the downside, colleges and universities have used master’s degrees to support their money-losing undergraduate programs. Tuition discounting is so high now that they really need these master’s degrees, which have grown much more quickly than undergraduate degrees, to balance the books.

So what we’re going to see is for middle-tier schools or schools without elite brands, their high-cost master’s degrees are going to become less and less tenable as top-branded schools bring out these degrees, as well as non-degree credentials.

Connie: And in addition, there’s other outside forces affecting it. Like losing international students this year or massive state budget cuts that we haven’t seen the consequences of yet.

Lauren: So, you’re moving into the economics part of the discussion. And it’s something that has been in the news, in that many college graduates are graduating with debt. It has also popped up in younger age groups, more recently, as many upper-income families are trying to create their own pod schools. It’s this question of the economics of education and whether it may be turned into some kind of a luxury good.

Josh: You know, David’s talked about this, what we have to guard against is this bundled experience that my kids got, that it doesn’t just become the province for the wealthiest or the most privileged. And it’s very worrying and disturbing about how we’re moving in this direction in this country.

But this is where the VC and the ed tech community really can talk about inequality and the concentration of wealth and hold schools like where David and I are where there’s more people from the top 1 percent than the bottom two-thirds.

Lauren: Right. So, Connie, you’ve talked about how you think tech may be this kind of great equalizer, with this one-to-many model. It can provide access to the best instructors at any location, without the hefty buy-in of a year of tuition at Harvard. But, David, you’ve also hypothesized that on-campus learning will become this increasingly important quality differentiator. So it may become a luxury good that only students with means can afford.

How can we assess that fuzzy question of quality? Can online education provide the same level? And does ed tech pose a potential solution to the economic inequality?

David: I think that it’s very important to distinguish between different types of education that have different purposes. So Josh mentioned master’s degrees. And there are other things like coding bootcamps and other innovations out there in the ed tech space. And I think that the ones that you see achieving success and will continue to be successful are the ones that a) offer something specific that people are looking for. They know what they want and they’re going for it. And b) they sort of run assuming that the people who enroll in them have as set of basic, whatever you want to call them, 21st century skills. They’re good problem solvers. They’re self-starters. They understand how to work in a team. They can think abstractly, etc.

And I think all of those things are also learned in school and are often learned in college, in a four-year program or in high school. And that’s exactly the kind of thing that the public needs to be subsidizing. Because no company wants to subsidize you to go learn something that’s useful everywhere. They want to subsidize you to learn something that’s useful for the job you’re doing for them.

But those skills are incredibly important for succeeding in the modern workplace. And my worry is that all of the budget cuts and other things that Josh and Connie mentioned are going to cut to the bone in terms of the really core important skills that education is teaching.

I do think those things can be taught online. I don’t think it can only be done in person. But I also think the in-person experience, particularly at public flagship universities and mid-tier public universities, is much more successful than people give it credit for. It provides a very high-quality education, in terms of future earnings, at relatively low cost.

And many of the schools that educate our nation’s students are not the ones that are written about in the New York Times where you see, you know, climbing walls and lazy rivers and incredibly lavish extracurricular things that detract from the core purpose of education. They’re actually pretty lean organizations that do a lot of teaching and provide a lot of student support without spending very much money. And they’re about to get hit terribly by budget cuts, as Connie mentioned.

And so, to me, I think ed tech and this general enterprise will all succeed much more when we, as a public tax base, subsidize those colleges to do their thing. And then we let the market do all the extra stuff, which I think it will do better than our public universities. That’s how I would do it if I could play puppet master.

Josh: And kind of going back to David’s point. There’s not a lot of history in the Valley of being champions for the funding of public education, post-secondary education. In fact, if you look at the rhetoric, it’s often not that.

So I would say, you know, to the extent that academics feel comfortable and feel like we’re actually partners and collaborators with the VC community and the funding community, I think it’s very important to engage. Because David’s exactly right, the crisis we have now in higher education is about defunding at the state level of post-secondary education. There’s no technological silver bullet.

Connie: Point taken. Is funding the biggest problem in your mind then?

Josh: I think there’s all sorts of entrenched challenges that higher ed faces, which we face as a country. I mean, David teaches about it—all the growing inequality. These are structural issues that we have to work on together.

David: Can I draw an analogy? So, you think about some of the most successful startups and Silicon Valley companies, almost all of them have relied on public infrastructure in some way. There’s no Uber without public roads that work and get people from point A to point B reliably. And, you know, that’s an obvious point, but in many, many countries that doesn’t exist. There’s not a tax base to fund roads where there aren’t gigantic potholes in them. They need constant maintenance, etc.

And there are many examples like that. We need public infrastructure for private enterprise to succeed. And that’s our physical infrastructure. But education is our human infrastructure. And every ed tech startup will succeed better when we have more self-directed learners as a baseline pool of people who are interested. And that’s what public education does. And if we don’t invest in it as a society, we’re eating our seed corn.

Connie: Yeah, I totally agree. And I know teachers are bearing a good chunk of the brunt. And, you know, I hear stories of a lot of teachers getting hired away for private education or for teaching small pods of children instead. So I do think the way our public school system and the resources they have today are going to look very different in a year.

Josh: I mean, I think it’s a good discussion to have. The reputation of ed tech amongst academics and within higher ed is not great. Professors don’t feel that great about the ed tech industry.

Lauren: Why do you think that is?

Josh: Well, what you often hear from the industry at large is that “We’re gonna disrupt higher education.” That “You guys are bloated. You’re expensive. You’ve been doing it the old way. You have to pivot. You have to evolve.”

And it really does not match the realities on the ground, where most education is public. Forty percent of students go to community colleges. There’s a real mismatch. And I think often our communities are talking past each other.

Connie: I do think that you have to acknowledge, though, that there are people going to colleges, graduating, taking on a ton of debt, unable to find good jobs. And that also the quality of teaching drastically, even within a university, varies by your professor. So it’s really hard to say that education is fine, as is. I would say there’s still lots of low hanging fruit and ways to improve it.

And it’s not even just improving the status quo. It’s also getting more students in the door. Again, figuring out the access question. How do we incent more students to go to community college? Is there a way that we can either drop the prices even further using technology or can we make the classes happen at the right schedule so a kid can still have a full-time daytime job to support his family, but still take classes at night?

Josh: I think community colleges have been leading the fight into online education. The reality is, though, no sector has had larger declines in public funding than community colleges.

Connie: Certainly. That’s a huge problem. But theoretically, if you had every community college course available online to any student at any community college in the country for every single quarter, then it’s hard to argue that more students wouldn’t be taking more classes.

I’m also really curious what everyone thinks about: You start hearing rumors about schools potentially doing away with some standardized testing in terms of admissions. I’m curious if there will need to be new signals. And would that need to require ed tech?

Josh: I think that it’s great that we’re getting rid of them. The SATs are somewhat predictive of first year success, not predictive of college success at all. And they’re highly correlated with all sorts of other advantages.

The more we move away from standardized tests, which only really benefit people based on privilege, the better we would be. And, you know, I think part of that is schools like the schools that David and I work at, we have to really ask ourselves are there ways that we can expand opportunity? Is it morally defensible anymore to judge our success by our scarcity? What role can we actually play in creating opportunity by growing? But to answer your question, I’m all for getting rid of those tests.

Connie: Is there a potential tech solution that could still provide some kind of unbiased way to evaluate students?

David: I don’t think it’s possible to answer this question in a vacuum because it all depends on what replaces the test. Standardized tests are almost certainly biased, but are they more or less biased than what they replace? That is the question. And if you suddenly continue to do college admissions without a test, are people with privilege going to find other ways to signal that and to get ahead in the admissions game? Yes, they are. And so the question is, is this the most direct way to achieving the goal?

So to me, getting rid of the SAT and the ACT is probably not by itself going to make a dent in this problem. My preferred solution would be if we think colleges ought to be more diverse, then they should just admit a more diverse class. And set that as the final goal, rather than this quite indirect solution of changing which criteria can and can’t be used for admission. In other words, if you have a goal which is diversity, directly achieve that goal by deciding who you admit, and worry less about disparities in test scores and things like that.

Josh: Yeah, we worry way too much about who we admit. But there’s this enormous range of who can succeed at various institutions. It’s less about who comes in, at a pretty big range, and more about the supports and resources that are provided. The fact is that the wealthy institutions provide way more resources and support for learners. And they graduate at very high rates. At public and non-flagship public institutions, they can just cannot provide those resources for the learners. And you see that in attrition rates that are very high.

David: By the way, the scale of inequality in the resource allocation within higher education is way, way higher than in K to 12. So schools like Harvard and Dartmouth are spending about $100,000 per student per year on education. And schools like Bunker Hill Community College down a street from me are spending about $10,000 a year. That’s 10x at the most elite schools. And then many people don’t go to college at all, so they’re basically getting zero.

Now compare that to K to 12 education. The richest districts are maybe spending $15,000, $20,000 per student per year and the poorest districts are maybe spending $12,000. So there are gaps, but they’re just way, way greater in higher ed.

Josh: I do think it’s a very interesting question: what is the tech community’s role? Like, if the real issue is this public disinvestment and inequalities in investment in higher education and class and racial lines, what is the role of the ed tech and the VC community in that? I don’t know the answer.

Connie: There are startups already trying to offer that kind of curriculum for very low cost or free. And there are also startups that are working on worker training. I know people go to higher ed not just to get a job, but that is a big part of the incentive. And so, there are startups that are helping people become better sales reps, marketing reps, computer scientists, you name it.

David: There are also startups that are helping people apply to college, fill out their forms, and get into college and then get support when they’re there. And that’s and important piece of the landscape, too.

So the way I think about it is… I think Josh is right that it’s simplistic to say, that ed tech will disrupt higher education and just like leave it a wasteland. I don’t think anybody really believes that, but that’s often the caricature.

But I do think that ed tech places very beneficial pressure on institutions of higher education to innovate. So, to me, what I like about the ed tech space is that it shows us new ways to be better within traditional educational institutions. I don’t think that higher ed is on the verge of being completely turned upside down. I mean, some colleges will go out of business in the next couple of years because of COVID. And some of those were probably going to anyway. It’s just going to accelerate the process.

I don’t see a future where everyone is doing college online or through new startups and things like that. But I do think that many of us don’t teach as well as we should. You know, “sage on the stage,” so to speak, is mostly what happens at a lot of large colleges, lecture-hall type classes. And that’s not just a good way to learn. We sort of know that, but we don’t face any pressure to change as tenured faculty members. And maybe nothing can make a tenured faculty member change.

But if anything can, it’s this idea that other people are out there getting a different and better type of education. So, to me, that’s really the vision. It’s that everything will be better because of a little bit of competitive pressure. And I think that’s already happening.

Connie: And I think ed tech also encompasses tools, right? It’s not necessarily about replacing the teacher. It could even be just the clicker you check so you can track student attendance. Or other ways to make sure that people are abiding by the honor policy.

I’ll give you an example. I was talking to a high school teacher. And she was explaining how even just having Google Classroom show automatically when every student has submitted the homework—it’s timestamped—has saved her tremendously in terms of all the arguments she used to have with parents.

Parents would argue that their kids’ grades were not accurate. And now she can just open Google Classroom and show, “Hey, the kid did not hand this assignment.” “Hey, this assignment was handed in three days late.” And so even something like that, it’s just a small tool, but has significantly helped her in managing her classroom. I feel like there are other ways that tech can be helpful and beneficial to the existing system.

David: I totally agree. And I think the other reason why I’m optimistic about not just public higher education or traditional higher education, but education in general, is if you look at the history of technological change, one thing you can learn is there are some products that when we get more innovative at making them at less cost, we don’t want more of them. Like food.

So, you know, a hundred years ago, 40 percent of all jobs in U.S. were in agriculture. And now it’s less than 2 percent because we’ve got more productive in making food and we only need so much. So now we just devote fewer resources in the economy to making food. But education and healthcare and few other things are not like that. When we get richer and more prosperous we want more of it.

So I don’t think education as a sector is going anywhere. I think there’s going to be more space for everybody. I think that a lot of these innovations in the ed tech space are going to exist on top of traditional institutions, not replace them.

Lauren: Many teachers on the ground do balk at this top down infiltration of big tech in education without baseline classroom experience. What should technologists in this space know, from an educator’s perspective? If you’re addressing ed tech founders, technologists in the space—what should they know that they don’t?

Josh: Yeah, we like talking to people in the ed tech world, we like people in the VC world because you guys are all about change. You have all these new ideas. And we don’t think that the status quo is what it should be. We are in this game because we believe that higher education should be an engine of mobility. But where the conversation often breaks down is that there’s a mismatch in understanding of our time scales. So we’re looking at very long time scales with our institutions. We believe in that.

And also, in higher education we never start with the technology. Technology for us is just a tool. We don’t even really talk about online or blended or residential. You use the best methods for what’s appropriate at the time. It’s not actually reaching faculty in ways that they feel like it’s supportive and helpful to them and not threatening.

Lauren: How could that be better? I agree with you, I feel like there’s a real divide between the tech and the actual educators.

Josh: I think that if our communities are going to come together in a more authentic way we have to talk about where are the issues of access and cost and quality. Find that common ground, and then figure out together how we can create shared value with the expertise and the resources and the capital that we can all bring to this.

And there’s not really a space for that. If you look at the ed tech conferences like ASU GSV or South by Southwest, it’s all this about “disrupting higher education.” And, you know, we’re sitting here saying, “Well, we don’t really want to disrupt higher education. We want to invest in higher education.” So I think our language just misses each other, often.

Connie: I agree. The language is very polarizing right now and it should change. I think ed tech’s role should be to improve, and everyone wants to improve education But it doesn’t necessarily mean to replace or to disrupt it in a negative sense.

David: I have one thing I would like to communicate to the ed tech community.  I would love to see folks focus more on curriculum and less on the delivery model. You know, everybody says things like, “A lot of the things I do on the job, I never learned in school.” Or, “I had to learn on the fly things that I never learned in the classroom.” And that’s true for a lot of people.

So why don’t we have more education that is actually new content, new curriculum, that the public school system is not covering? Just to give one example: for years and years, the standard for high school math that you take if you’re good at math is calculus. And only a few people take probability and statistics. But probability and statistics is far, far, far more important for life success at this point, given the growth in data science, given the importance of data for making decisions for managers. We should be teaching that in every high school in the country. And if we’re not going to do that, we should have ed tech focusing on delivering good content to teach numerical reasoning, decision-making under uncertainty, probability and statistics to fill the void that is left in our public high schools. I would love to see more talk of curriculum innovation.

Connie: Which by the way, though, I was really shocked that you said that, David, because I would have thought that focusing on the curriculum might feel even more threatening to the existing system and professors and teachers today.

David: Well, I’ll speak for myself, maybe it is. But for me, that’s not threatening, that’s an opportunity for collaboration because there are faculty all across the country who have knowledge about content that isn’t in the curriculum that is widely taught that can be communicated.

But, you know, we don’t speak the language that the public understands without a lot of practice. And most of us are not good communicators—or, at least, we can be better at it. Part of that is that we’re not just trained to do it. You know, no one teaches us how to write a good op-ed, or how to communicate, how to do a podcast. We sort of have to learn on our own.

But there’s so much knowledge and expertise embedded in the university that needs to be brought out. And that would require ed tech to work closely with people. There’s just so much interesting content that could be made more available. Like, if somebody were to work with me, and say, “Oh, you know, you teach this class on economic inequality. How can we make it speak and live to people?” I don’t have time to do that. But I’d love to work with somebody to do that.

Connie: But if we took that to the extreme and, say, we had the perfect curriculum for that particular course and then we offered it to every university. Doesn’t that threaten the professor in some way, because now every school has access to the same curriculum?

David: Well, ultimately, the professor isn’t the constituency that we should be interested in. It’s the student.

Connie: I agree with that.

David: If the cost is making some tenured professors feel threatened, I think that’s a cost that I’d be willing to pay in exchange for educating our nation’s students and spreading the knowledge that exists in institutions of higher learning around more widely.

Josh: I think the issue is that most academics don’t work at the kind of places that David and I work at. I agree with David that I’m positive about the overall trajectory of higher education. But I’m very concerned about the individual institutions, particularly the smaller, tuition-dependent private institutions.

So while we have more students who attend public institutions, we actually have more private institutions. We have an amazing diversity of schools. And that kind of diversity has been a strength. In a world where everything is coming into one or two monopolistic providers—you know, you only have three cell phone providers and four airlines. One of the gifts of higher education is how diverse the ecosystem is.

But right now, with COVID, it’s very much accelerating the trends that put these schools at risk. We are seeing demographic headwinds, the costs are going up. And I think that if ed tech can come into this world to actually help out these institutions in some ways…You really should not be paying attention to the places where David and I teach and work. We’re really not that important. We should really be thinking about the big flagship universities and this diversity of schools. If you can do that, the faculty will not be so threatened because you’re actually helping to save their institutions that help keep their jobs.

David: I mean, think about in all of those institutions. There are professors and departments all across the country who have developed a really thoughtful and interesting way of teaching certain material. And if you could combine it all into the perfect syllabus for certain topics that are not widely taught, you could really supercharge the amount of learning that people can access. And if it’s threatening, so be it.

Lauren: Right. So that could then potentially lead to this culling of teachers where if we have online courses taught by the “best” instructors, that could make lesser lectures obsolete or redundant.

David: Well, just to piggyback on that, I do think that you would have superstar lecturers, but I don’t think that would make us all obsolete. I think what would happen is when you would rather watch a lecture from somebody who’s better at teaching it than as I am, my world transforms. I’m no longer the lecturer. Instead, my job is to basically guide people through the material and to meet them where they are in their learning and to form a human connection with them that makes them want to turn the assignment in. Because they come to my office hours and make a personal question with me.

I mean, if you think about teachers that have touched your lives, just imagine the teachers in your life that meant the most to you. It was a mix of the personal connection and the stuff that they taught you in classroom. It wasn’t like, “Oh, my gosh, you know, Mrs. Hicks was the very best first-grade teacher in terms of teaching me phonics.” Your probably don’t remember what they taught you. You remember the human connection you had with them. And I don’t think that’s ever gonna be replaced.

Connie: I remember hearing an argument that everyone should pre-watch the lecture beforehand and then just do their homework in the classroom. And that guided time with the teacher would be far more valuable.

Lauren: Interesting. It’s true that so much of what we get out of education is that personal connection, that mentorship. Though, Connie, I know some startups are actually trying to tap into that mentorship model as well.

Connie: Yeah. There’s a lot of startups right now that are trying to offer online tutoring and peer groups even for learning different topics to help encourage each other or answer each other’s questions. And in the online model, I think the value proposition is you are able to access people who don’t just live a couple of miles from you. So if you live in a place where you didn’t have access to great tutors, you can now still hire a tutor from one of the best universities or one of the best schools who can still teach at a reasonable price.

Lauren: I do want to get to more into the actual design of education. From a research perspective, what should educators know when they’re delving into this world of online learning? Many educators are using Zoom by default. How much is the effectiveness of an online learning curriculum impacted by that interface, or what you might call the delivery method? Would students and educators benefit from some kind of custom platform that was designed from an education-first perspective versus a Zoom, which was not originally intended for this purpose?

Josh: I mean, the way we’re using Zoom now in education is never how people who think about online education thought this should be or would be or could be. Basically, when you design a good online course, most of that work is asynchronous. You’re building active learning, you’re building discussion, you’re building formative assessments, you’re building peer learning. Mostly it’s asynchronous. And then you can combine some synchronous conversations, discussions. It never works well to lecture. But it’s complementary and it’s really for the relationship building.

What we found with the pivot to remote teaching and learning with COVID is schools didn’t have time to develop these really well thought out asynchronous courses where everything you do is online. There was sometimes, too much emphasis on Zoom classes that were not very good. And it burned people out. And so if you assume what we’re seeing now is actually indicative of anything, you’re getting a false negative.

Lauren: I think that’s a point well taken. But if Zoom, as you say, is just not working, what will the improvement be? You mentioned we’ll likely see improvement this fall. In that you know a lot about the research of online ed and you both have done it.

David: My answer is, ask me in a couple of months because I’m teaching the first year in master’s in public policy curriculum at the Kennedy School’s stats course. I’m teaching it with some colleagues who have done it before and have already started to use blending tools, so it’s a pretty successful model that I’m stepping into, luckily. But this will be a challenge because you’re trying to teach something that actually requires a lot interactivity.

You know, I can make some asynchronous content. But when you’re working through problems and explaining concepts, part of the challenge when you’re in a classroom is to intuit when you need to slow down, when you need to speed up, when you need to step back and explain something differently. And a lot of good teaching is not about what you prepare ahead of time. It’s how you react, at least in my experience. And, like, reading a room.

And my observation from doing a lot of seminars is that the four of us right here, I don’t find it to be meaningfully worse in terms of reading your reactions and talking with you. But when you get to above 10 or 12 or so, it’s just very hard to read the room and read people’s faces and get a sense for what happening. You don’t have any body language. You can’t look at 15 faces at once. And I just find it, frankly, very difficult to pace correctly.

And I don’t know if there’s a technological solution to that. It’s just something about when you’re in a room with people sitting there. You can pick up more information from scanning the crowd. And I think that’s a real limitation of online teaching, at least for me. So, I would really be open to technology that helps me do that better.

Josh: The challenge of it is it doesn’t it doesn’t scale very well. Having that real, authentic education that is personal and transformative where it’s built on relationships, it’s expensive to do because, like, David only has so much time in a day.

David: I never sleep.

Josh: And so it really doesn’t scale very well. It’s figuring out how you can actually use the affordances of the technology and realize the limitation.

Lauren: That’s a great point. I think it’s one that you’ve both made, which is that some of the inherent features of a great education are very difficult to scale up. Connie, how would you respond to that?

Connie: As David was describing reading the room, I couldn’t agree more when you are talking about, say, 30 students or less. Just witnessing my daughter’s kindergarten online experience through Zoom in the spring, it’s hard for the teachers to control 30 5-year-olds. Really, really hard.

But I can also see the flip argument. Let’s say you have a lecture hall of 500, 600 students, even being able to see the attendance. And technologically, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t be able to use software to figure out if the students are paying attention or making eye contact. So theoretically, you should be able to read the room in a very, very large class sizes, potentially better than even in person. So I think there is still an argument that tech can still even help you read the room more than what you see today.

David: Yeah, I definitely think that’s possible.

Josh: I just wrote a book called Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education. One of the things we talked a lot about in the book is how education is changing to become much more of a team sport. Like David and I, when we went to grad school, we certainly learned to teach the way we were taught by our professors, which means, not at all. We learned our discipline; I’m a sociologist and demographer by training. I didn’t learn anything about teaching.

Now, at certainly at schools with more resources, they’ve been able to bring in people who are learning designers, structural designers, media experts, those kinds of things. Really, teaching and learning is become a team sport. I think that’s a positive, because education is getting much better.

I also think, you know, one of the underlying issues that we think about when we’re talking about higher education and the future of technology is the growth in inequality. We’re seeing that the schools with the most resources are really able to bear COVID and the current trends.

Schools that don’t have the resources to bring in all these folks to work with faculty around designing online courses, low residency, blended courses, you know, it’s a much different type of thing. So it’s a real question about how do you bring those resources to places that really don’t have the money to pay these kinds of folks, now that education is changing? I don’t know the answer to that. I think it’s a really difficult problem, but I do think we’ve seen the inequalities grow and grow over the last five or six months.

David: I agree with that. Although, I do think what probably will be a solution to improvement is the sort of complementarity between people who have content mastery and the tools. You still need a person to figure out the best way to reach people who teach a complex topic like, let’s say economic inequality or something.

So I’m an economist by training and I never encountered economics until college. And there is an AP micro and macroeconomics curriculum, but most people never realize until they take an economics class that economics is not just money and finance, that it’s actually the study of human behavior and choice under constraints and that economists have interesting things to say about all kinds of social issues.

I started teaching a freshman seminar at Harvard about economic inequality, basically for the sole purpose to introduce to freshmen at Harvard, a few at a time, this idea that economics can be the study of social problems and of human behavior and that it’s far more interesting than most people think. I would love to get some of that insight into the hands of high school students and middle school students. You can make that stuff accessible to people without it being technical. The core insights of economics are not about math and abstract probability. They’re about human behavior and things like sunk costs, etc.

But in order for me to entrepreneurially go and create that content and go take a roadshow around…there’s just no way that professors have the capability of doing that or the time to do it. And that’s a place where innovation could. And maybe there’s not enough money to be made in it, but it would just be an incredible benefit to society if we could have innovative content creators pair with people who have content expertise and create stuff that really spoke to people—multimedia content that kids are interested in watching.

And then you’ve got other tools that let you, you know, annotate slides on an iPad. Or, they’ve got these beautiful light boards where you can teach in reverse and look at the camera while you are teaching and write on them. Those are all tools that by themselves don’t do anything. But if they’re combined with people who have content knowledge, can be leveraged to teach more people at the same cost or to increase productivity.

Lauren: So we’ve talked about tech should play a supporting role in in-person education. This is an interesting moment in time in that tech has to play a much greater role than I think many educators desire or are comfortable with.

But as we come out of this and we go back to normal life, do you think this is an inflection point for ed tech? Is it just a temporary, inconvenient scramble that will eventually reset to the way that we were or do you think that there will be lasting changes?

David: I think that people prefer to be educated in person, many people do. And so I don’t think the in-person market for education is going to disappear or go into a long-term decline. But I do think there are going to be a lot of people who understand that there are many more options available to them in the tech space, that if they can’t be on campus for whatever reason, there’s a much richer landscape out there than most people realize.

So, to be optimistic, I think what we’ll see is more education happening in a lot more different ways, rather than the tech sector competing away in-person education. That’s my hope and I actually do think that’s what’ll happen. But I could be wrong.

Connie: K to 12, I think almost everyone universally prefers in-person. I think the kids prefer in-person. I think the teachers prefer in-person. And I think the parents very, very much prefer in-person.

David: Second that.

Connie: So I feel like K to 12, while we are all surviving in an online context, the preference will be to go back to school, especially in that social interaction for young kids is so critical to their development. And my hope is that a lot of this disruption at this moment in time will result in better curriculum and allow for the best curriculum to get to all of the teachers. Because if you think about, especially K to 12 and the common core programs, most schools are teaching the same topics, right? The same kindergartener is learning about how plants grow in one school and learning about it in a slightly different way in another school. But why aren’t those teachers having better collaboration tools so they can share tips and learnings and content and the best YouTube videos on the topic that they found?

Lauren: Josh, I want to get your view as well. Is this temporary and we’re going to reset or do you think we’ll see lasting changes in the way that we learn?

Josh: Ah, yes. In terms of how are we going to come out, I’ll say something very positive, in that over the last few months what we’ve really seen is that professors and learners have had to have a different kind of relationship. We’ve all been at home, we’ve seen how complicated and crazy our lives are and how difficult it is. I’m hoping that as we come back and when we come back that professors and students will have a better understanding of each other as people and how complicated and difficult our lives are and that we’ll have more of an ethos towards care and caring for each other.

Connie: Oh, I think parents appreciate teachers far more now than they did before.

David: Totally, agree.

Connie: They’re much more grateful to teachers now than before.

Lauren: Well, and the whole ed tech debate brings up an interesting dichotomy in that teachers are recognized as being largely underpaid—I say that being married to one. But also, in the ed tech space, they’re also expensive and there’s ways that we can bring down those costs with online models.

Connie: But if you take what David mentioned about teachers playing a different kind of role, the guided role, there’s still always going to be a need for the smaller group or one-on-one interaction. It’s indisputable that people do learn certain topics better one-on-one.

David: That’s right and I think that would be a really great development because, speaking for myself, that’s really where I derive joy from teaching is that moment when I see understanding in students’ eyes and make a connection with them. And that’s something that…whether it’s online or in person, it’s just the joy of teaching. And if we can immerse ourselves more fully in that using the tools of technology, then I’m all for it.

Lauren: Can you have that same emotional connection through a Zoom screen as you can an in-person classroom?

David: I think you can. I mean, I would prefer to be in person, but I’ve felt at times in the past few months that connection with students or with colleagues.

I mean, I think if nothing else, the one thing you don’t get online is serendipity. Just think about when students file into the classroom there’s that five minutes before class starts and people connect, you know, “How was your weekend?” And they talk about this and that and then you have that at the end, they come after to talk to the professor. I mean, you can engineer that in the online space and be thoughtful about it, but when you’re in-person it just happens like magic.

Lauren: Josh, you seem slightly more skeptical of that.

Josh: I mean, I don’t want my college kids having online, I want them on campus. I’m the director of online programs and strategy but I know that you can’t replace what happens when people get together. It’s such an important thing, and it shouldn’t just be a luxury for the few.

I really do think there’s a lot going now with these nonprofit for-profit partnerships and that we all need to work together because it’s such a difficult challenge. We all have a stake in this. This is not someone else’s issue. This is what we have to do, and we’re not going to be able to do it on our own.

Nonprofit colleges and universities, we need to be part of a larger ecosystem and we need to be working together. Software is eating the world, but maybe education is eating the world also.

Lauren: Thank you all so much for joining us in the “a16z Podcast.” It’s been a pleasure.

David: Thanks for having us. Great to meet all you, guys. It was fun.

Josh: Yeah. It was great.

Connie: Thank you, guys.

 

 

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