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Why Every Education Leader Must be a Tech Visionary

Posted in CEO Jose Ferreira on May 21, 2013 by

Education, like many industries before it, is now having its internet moment.

There are two great phases unfolding. The first is the shift to digital materials for use either in blended learning courses or as a replacement for the printed textbook. This shift is now well underway in the U.S. Before long, there will be no more printed textbooks.

The second phase is the shift of part of every student’s coursework to purely online formats. This phase is now beginning to seriously pick up steam, as evidenced by increasing numbers of for-credit online courses, MOOCs, and archived video lesson repositories like Khan Academy. And what we’re seeing now is only the beginning.

There are so many implications of all these changes that one can be forgiven for thinking it is hopeless to make sense of them. But the alternative — not worrying about it at all — probably isn’t the right answer either. I try in this newsletter to break down one implication at a time. Today I’d like to discuss how this coming world of digital education is changing the roles of everyone in the education ecosystem — in particular its leaders.

Leadership positions in education, whether at universities or learning companies, have recently undergone a crucial change (though not everyone has realized it yet). Namely, every education leadership position must now include as part of its skill-set the role of “tech visionary.”

By “tech visionary,” I don’t mean that education leaders must dream up their own new tech-enabled products. Far from it. But it is absolutely critical that a leader in education has a strong, informed opinion about where technology will lead the industry in the next few years, and that he or she plans accordingly.

What’s at stake?

A lack of technology vision could result in a series of small, “good enough” decisions that satisfy today’s needs but ultimately lock you into a structurally inferior system or strategy. It could mean that your big product launch falls flat, or that your institution suddenly faces strong new competitive threats that come out of nowhere, with no obvious way to respond. It could mean you find yourself seriously out of position as advancements gain steam. And since sudden technological innovation can lead to runaway marketplace dynamics where the strong get stronger, being out of position could turn into a death spiral.

Education didn’t used to work this way. There may have been unpredictable one-off events, but there were no system-wide surprises. But that isn’t how digital industries — which education is now becoming — work. A technology wave can take years or decades to develop, but when it crests it reshapes everything in its path. It is unstoppable, but with some intelligent foresight it is partially predictable.

Take the current — and still incipient — wave of online courses and big data.

MOOCS are too important to ignore. In addition to their social utility, they add real value to the system by (re)capturing a non-traditional market. The billions of people who have left the formal K-20 education system are largely invisible to that system, but some of those people would love to take online courses from reputable schools. With MOOCs, they can, and schools can then start marketing for-credit or for-certificate courses to this great untapped demographic. But to bet that colleges will put themselves out of business by offering free MOOCs for credit at scale alongside their traditional fare would be naïve.

However, transferable for-credit (and fee-based) online courses will soon be a staple of the average college student’s diet. In classic disruptive innovation style, this may initially gain widespread traction with courses a given student’s school doesn’t offer, and which hence are only available to that student online from other institutions. The implications of this, should it come to pass, are huge: an enormous new market of online courses that bring high margin revenue and rapid growth for institutions that start offering them early and declining numbers for those who do not.

Another big change: as education content migrates from printed textbooks to tablets and smartphones, the efficacy of any particular set of education materials will become accurately measurable for each student. Gone are the days when education courses and products of middling quality could be compensated for with stronger execution in sales and marketing. In an industry as high stakes as education, transparent outcomes will create intense competitive pressure on product quality.

The education ecosystem is just beginning to be transformed by this new wave of digital technologies. Education leadership today tends to be strong in areas like campus management, fund-raising, brand management, textbook sales, etc. These men and women are good at running huge, asset- and Human-Resources-intensive operations. These are extremely valuable abilities to be sure, but these leaders must now add technology vision to that mix.

Having a technology vision is tough, but it’s possible. Managing to that vision is even harder. You have to be smart and fearless. It takes years to know for absolute certain whether a major tech bet — a university’s course delivery ecosystem, a publisher’s platform, a company’s training tools — was the right one. You have to have a strong opinion today about where the world is headed, make your bets accordingly, and live with them until past the point where success or failure is predetermined.

That takes real vision.