Higher Ed Futures: Why context matters

If you follow the world of literature on higher ed, books proposing ideas for what’s next are released at an almost monthly rhythm.

That’s a good sign. Publishers–and a few authors–are recognizing that the status quo won’t broadly serve higher education in the next decade.

But there’s something missing with (most of) these new releases. Many posit the next move in higher ed. It might be the infusion of technology for online or tech-infused experiences like Minerva. It might be a new wave of hybrid education that revolutionizes the classroom experience. Maybe it’s competency based learning.

But here’s the problem: Context matters.

The strength of this industry is (and can be) its diversity. Pursuing the same metrics and same students and same definition of prestige is what has created many of the current challenges.

Instead, the strategy to develop excellent, relevant learning opportunities for students moving forward will look different for each successful institution.

It will take into account the unique mission of the campus, the top program offerings and expertise of the faculty, and will be grounded in the unique needs and personality of the physical location.

The flagship research-focused state institutions and the well-known private institutions with large endowments will likely continue to offer the familiar collegiate experience of today. But the small and mid-size public and private institutions will benefit from moving into a future that is focused and uniquely their own.

How to think about time

Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute, just shared the institute’s 2019 Tech Trends report, which includes more than 300 tech and science trends and 48 scenarios for consideration.

In the introductory remarks, they provide a summary of how leaders should think about time and plan for the future:

The organizations the Future Today Institute advises are always thinking about the future. But most often, their planning timeframes miss the mark. We observe teams stuck in a rut of three or five-year planning cycles. Many are reluctant to do any serious planning beyond five years. They argue it’s pointless, given all the technological disruption.

To effectively plan for the future, organizations need to learn how think about time differently. For any given uncertainty about the future—whether that’s risk, opportunity or growth—leaders must think strategically about tactics, strategy, vision and systems-level change.

Start retraining yourself to think about change and disruption to your organization and industry across different timeframes and build actions for each. The next 12-36 months – tactical actions. 3-5 years – strategic action. 5-10 years – vision and R&D initiatives. 10+ years – how you and your organization can create systems-level change so that you catalyze that change for your benefit.

The Future Today Institute’s 2019 Tech Trends report

12-36 Months: Tactical Actions

3-5 Years: Strategic Action

5-10 Years: Vision and R&D Initiatives

10+ Years: Systems-Level Change

Sometimes, when we think about planning horizons, it becomes either/or. Instead, this frame provides a helpful rubric for multiple levels of simultaneous work and thought to prepare organizations for future needs while acting on immediate opportunities.

The Future Today Institute’s 2019 Tech Trends report

Closing the loop

Donating blood to the American Red Cross can be an inherently rewarding activity. You know you’ve broadly done a good thing. You’ve helped someone.

But look what happens a few weeks after you donate:

What a surprising, unexpected follow up!

It’s another chance for relationship and a reason to remind people to sign up to donate again. It makes the general good a specific good and further anchors the positive feelings.

How many times do we thank people in the moment but miss an opportunity to follow up, close the loop, or add specifics?

The direct application might be that survey you give or the feedback you request. What happens with it? What change does it inspire?

But take it a step further. What other ‘one more thing’ moments might be embedded in your daily routine?

“Thanks for the discussion in our staff meeting. Here’s what we did and where we’re headed.”

“We noticed you all really liked this event, so we’re planning two more like it!”

It’s easy to underestimate the noise we all live with and assume others see the things we see. It makes us think the follow up we did from that conversation or work is obvious.

Sometimes, a small ‘here’s what we did’ can make a big difference.

You won’t believe what happened

It happened again. They did something irresponsible. Rude. Lazy.

They were wrong. You are right.

You can feel it. We’ve all felt it. The anger. The tension in the chest. The laser-like focus. The words you’re going to say running through your mind. The list of how they’re wrong.

Now what?

What feels good is to step into our justified, righteous actions. To blame. Vent. Expect an apology. Or at least some groveling.

You might be right to expect them to make it right. And they might actually follow through.

But if they don’t, consider whether it’s worth giving all of that power and control of your day to the very person you believe is wrong.

We can get stuck in the bad behavior of others. But what does that really do? What good does that create?

Instead, consider the alternative.

Rather than what’s deserved and what’s owed, what if you asked a different set of questions?

Questions like ‘what would great look like?’

‘Here’s what I need. What will it take?’

Even better yet, ‘what’s their perspective?’ ‘What led them to write/say that?’ ‘What if they’re right? Or what part of what they said is right?’

To let an email ruin your day is normal, but it’s not leadership.

When these moments happen – and, unfortunately, we all know they will – we can get even, or we can get better. Which option makes us stronger leaders a year from now? Which one puts our organization in a better place tomorrow?

Belonging comes from follow through

For all of the great programs and resources we can offer, the foundation for a sense of belonging among our students starts with …

a quick response to that emailed question,

a conversation with an advisor that helps them know what they need to do next,

and a clear understanding of what’s expected of them in class.

Belonging comes from layers of interaction, involvement, and mattering. But it’s built on a foundation of responsive people and clear systems.

Is vision a filter or a frame?

As I research senior leadership teams in higher education who have led successful, adaptive change, one thing that stands out is the strength of the vision the leader sets and the commitment of the team to pursue that vision together.

The shared vision and mission motivate the team towards unity and excellence.

But that’s not news. I get it. It’s boring. Pick up any book on leadership, and you’ll find a section on vision.

But when we talk about vision, it’s usually in the context of inspiration. It’s implied the (often inspirational) clarity motivates and unifies the team.

I’m beginning to think it’s the other way around. Rather than a clear vision helping a team unify around a cause, it seems like most often, a clear vision helps people opt in or opt out. Knowing what the team is committed to and fanatical about provides an immediate cue for people as to whether or not they’ll resonate with the work.

These teams talk a lot about hiring well. They respectfully share about folks who have exited because it wasn’t a fit. They recognize the courage it takes for a leader to set clear expectations and – at times – help someone leave who isn’t following through.

I know strong cultures can be polarizing. But successful teams usually have strong cultures.

Successful teams have clarity. But if it’s due to an opt-in/opt-out effect, we don’t want to be caught surprised when transitions happen. They may not signal failure. They may just show that the vision is taking hold.

As much time and effort into the small number of things that give huge rewards

Since this is related so closely to yesterday’s post, we’ll go ahead and add it here.

One of the problems here is a sort of digital FOMO. “If I don’t have that thing”—Facebook, Instagram, whatever—”what benefit might I be missing out on?” You’re pretty unplugged. How do you deal with that digital FOMO?
There’s a rarefied number of activities to invest time in that are really important and return a lot of value—the amount of value [in these activities] is way higher than, say, the little bit of value you get by seeing a funny Tweet or writing a comment on a friend’s Facebook post. Spreading your time and attention over these low value things takes your time and attention away from the things that are disproportionately higher value.

If you want to maximize the amount of value you feel in your life, the mathematics are clear: You want to put as much of your time and effort as possible into the small number of things to give you these huge rewards. When you think about it that way, fear of missing out looks like, just mathematically speaking, a really bad strategy.

– Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism (and a number of other great books), in this interview

What a challenging, but clarifying way to see the trade offs of technology and how we spend our time.

Freedom from fake work

When I ask my son to clean up at night, he’ll sometimes start putting toys into the bin at a snail’s pace. Then, when I ask him to speed up, the motions turn frantic, but the toys keep hitting the bin at the same rate.

Lots more movement. Nothing extra to show for it.

Sometimes our workdays can feel that way. We’re busy all day, but when we look back, there wasn’t much accomplished.

It gets worse when we add a dose or two of social media into the mix. Skimming that feed involves reading, processing, and writing. It feels like work. It feels productive. So it must be, right?

The most successful leaders I know are relentless at prioritization. That doesn’t mean they’re heartless or task-driven machines. A top priority may be to connect with Jim over coffee and hear about his life. But they take the time to name what’s important, what’s valuable, and what’s scarce. They’re intentional about contributing there.

This can be as simple as starting the day by listing three things you’re grateful for and naming your intention or purpose. It might mean jotting down the top thee things that must happen today.

Bringing clarity to our “musts” makes the less important pieces stand out in contrast.

What if you committed to, as much as you’re able, identifying the fake work in your day, and relentlessly eliminating it?

You have one life. In it, you get to choose how you will connect and what dent you’ll make in the world. How was today an example of the impact you want to make?

Oh, and my son? He eventually gets the room clean. And the upside to all of that extra movement? He’s tired and ready for bed!

What business are you in?

That chart above is a summary of Starbucks’ stock prices over the last few decades. Howard Schultz may be in the news for other reasons now, but a 2012 article about the Starbucks CEO/Chairman records a fascinating exchange with the head of a company that was about to embark on 7 years of growth. In it, the interviewer asks if Starbucks has lost its vision and strayed too far away from its core product. Here’s what Schultz says:

When I ask Schultz whether Starbucks might be straying too far from its core, he says, “Well, you have to ask: What is the core?” Starbucks is not a tech company, he points out, nor is it an apparel company. “We have 40-plus years of acquiring real estate and designing and operating stores all over the world. We understand how to elevate and romanticize an experience built around a beverage. And we think we can do that again on a platform of health and wellness, and elevate the nutritious value of what fresh fruit and vegetables can be in a world that is longing for educational tools to eat and live healthier.” The company can, he vows, “bring that to life in a way that has not been done.”

from What’s at the core?

If you’re at a college or university, what business are you in?

What we hear from Mr. Schultz at the front end of a series of successful launches (blonde roast, anyone?) and growth reveals that innovators don’t always answer that question in an expected way.

The standard brick and mortar residential college experience for 18- to 21-year-olds is one answer to the “what business are we in” question. But that’s not the entire market. (We know it’s a very small portion of the market). Others would say “research and knowledge creation” or maybe “accessible education for all.” Each answer defines priorities.

Regardless, the answer to the “what business are you in” question – and whether it is answered broadly or narrowly – defines focus in a way unlike any other. As we survey the current higher ed landscape, it may be time to ask better questions about the nature of our business and challenge ourselves to find new expressions and models.

It’s hard, until it’s easy

I’ve been sprinting recently toward the completion of my dissertation, and there’s one thing that’s consistently true for me in writing.

Writing is a practice with uneven returns. It’s a slog. It’s hard. You feel lost. You push, push, push. And then – in a moment – everything clicks, comes together, and that section is done!

There are a number of areas of life that are like that. We expect projects to have linear progress: 1+1=2. But in an increasingly complex world, there are some actions we can take where 1+1=0 and others where 1+1=12. There’s no way to know on the front end when or what the payoff will be.

In complex systems, success is about 1) choosing the projects you’re willing to push through and 2) being willing to stick with it until success comes (or abandon at a pre-determined point). It won’t always happen when or how you’d expect.

And now, it’s back to slogging through the next section of that dissertation.

When online education scales, you can hire James Cameron to produce Math 101

Marc Andreessen, creator of Netscape, talks about, among other things, online education:

You could probably bring in the whole online-education movement. But for me, the question is, who does the best with online schooling? And it’s mostly ­autodidacts, people who are self-starters. They’ve found that people from low-income communities actually get the least out of it.

It’s way too early to judge, because we’re at the very beginning of the development of the technology. It’s like critiquing dos 1.0 and saying that this will never turn into the Windows PC. We’re still in the prototype experimental phase. We can’t use the old approach to teach the world. We can’t build that many campuses. We don’t have the space. We don’t have money. We don’t have the professors. If you can go to Harvard, go to Harvard. But that’s not the question. The question is for the 14-year-old in Indonesia staring at a life of either, like, subsistence farming or being able to get a Stanford-quality education and being able to go into a profession.

The one other thing that people are really underestimating is the impact of entertainment-industry economics applied to education. Right now, withMOOCS,11 the production values are pretty low: You’ll film the professor in the classroom. But let’s just project forward. In ten years, what if we had Math 101 online, and what if it was well regarded and you got fully accredited and certified? What if we knew that we were going to have a million students per semester? And what if we knew that they were going to be paying $100 per student, right? What if we knew that we’d have $100 million of revenue from that course per semester? What production budget would we be willing to field in order to have that course?

You could hire James Cameron to do it.

You could literally hire James Cameron to make Math 101. Or how about, let’s study the wars of the Roman Empire by actually having a VR [virtual reality] experience walking around the battlefield, and then like flying above the battlefield. And actually the whole course is looking and saying, “Here’s all the maneuvering that took place.” Or how about re-creating original Shakespeare plays in the Globe Theatre?

This is key, folks. Scalability and production values (along with gamification and outcomes focused on significant learning) are going to change everything.

Failure arrives in a whimper

“Failure almost always arrives in a whimper. It is almost always the result of missed opportunities, a series of bad choices and the rust that comes from things gradually getting worse.

Things don’t usually explode. They melt.”

Seth Godin

Education hasn’t seen true disruption. Yet.

For the first 10 years of “fairly common internet usage,” newspapers were fine.

There was email. There was AOL. There was instant messenger. There were even some news sites.

But for news, the local newspaper still provided a better product than the others.

Last weekend, my wife and I signed up for a six-week newspaper deal at one of those community festivals where you can get insurance quotes, sno cones, and hours of bounce house fun for the kids.  And as I flipped through the paper this week, I couldn’t help but wish I could scroll through a list of headlines and click on the ones of interest.

At some point, the internet won. Once I had a Twitter feed, Facebook, and push notifications, most of the news I wanted found me. Anything else could be found in seconds.

Personalized. Immediate. Convenient. The internet became the better product.

Higher education has faced technology-driven change, but the real disruption is yet to come.

When the choice is either an online classroom that includes lectures and discussion board posts or an in-person lecture and classroom discussion, the in-person option still wins for a number of people. If online is simply a mirror of in-person but a little less personal and a little more convenient, it’s not a clear winner.

But a new form of education is on its way. Predictive, responsive, technology-driven learning will suddenly make a classroom seem antiquated. Why sit in a lecture with 40 students all at different levels of understanding when I can move through a focused, personalized, adaptive curriculum at my own pace?

Universities and colleges can choose to integrate new technology now and create a radical, dynamic, personalized learning environment, or they can wait and insist that in person lectures are better than online videos. There’s an opportunity. And there’s still a window.

When I worked in newspapers, our publisher frequently compared newspapers to the railroad industry. He said if rail lines had realized they were in the transportation business, not the engine and track business, we’d have BNSF and Union Pacific airlines today. Likewise, newspapers had to decide if they were in the information business or the paper business.

What about education?

Tangible experiences + technology = education’s sweet spot

Ben Thompson writes an insightful post on the cost of software moving toward free, and it ties in with online education.

Ben says “over time the price of a product moves to its marginal cost, and if the marginal cost is zero, that means free is inevitable.”

Online education will move toward free. That’s good for students, but bad for universities (education needs to find a reasonable cost, but “reasonable” isn’t zero, either).

As we move to online information delivery, the pay model will go the same direction as music, books, and software. The additional cost of one more user in a digital setting is almost $0. The sunk costs of creating the knowledge, the video, and the website don’t matter to the user.

Back to Ben:

“This is one of the primary ways that software will be monetized going forward: hardware sold at a significant margin that is justified by the differentiation provided by software. …

On the flipside, though, tangible products, which by definition have marginal costs of greater than $0 – continue to be valued by customers. No one expects a free microwave, or car, or even a candy bar. Consumers understand that making, packaging, and shipping such products costs money, and there is no compunction to spending money for that proverbial latte that is more than an app.

This is critical to understand while thinking about consumer business models: consumers pay money for tangible goods; they don’t for virtual goods (in-app purchases for games is a glaring exception here).”

As higher education experiments with online delivery:

– Cost will plummit to zero.

– Unique experiences still matter.

And that’s the killer app. It’s the secret to success in the online age. To compete with online-only options (especially if and when those online options gain credibility and credentialing abilities), existing universities must provide the tangible good that creates value.

The successful …

The successful people we spoke with — in business, entertainment, sports and the arts — all had similar responses when faced with obstacles: they subjected themselves to fairly merciless self-examination that prompted reinvention of their goals and the methods by which they endeavored to achieve them.

Secret Ingredient for Success, by Camille Sweeney

(via Swissmiss)