On Electric Cars and EdTech Innovation

Thomas Waite and I first bonded over a question we both shared. What is the electric car equivalent of educational technology? We wondered if Tesla could upend the auto industry so thoroughly, there is an organization (school, company, nonprofit) that could do the same to higher education?

In most ways, Thomas is better positioned to answer these questions than I am. First, he actually owns a Tesla. I only own electric bikes and a battery-powered snow blower. More importantly, Thomas (who holds a PhD in Higher Education Administration), is the co-founder and CEO of the edtech company K16 Solutions.

Thomas graciously agreed to do some lateral thinking with me on the relationship between the transition from gas to electricity in our vehicles, and what this change might teach us about the future of higher education.

Q: Thomas, let’s set the stage for everyone. For those readers who don’t know K16 Solutions, what services to colleges and universities does your company provide?

Thank you, Josh. I enjoy any opportunity to visionaer with you about important topics, especially technology and education. We provide LMS Migration with a speed and fidelity never before realized; dare I say, like a horse and buggy to a Tesla. We also archive student data once an institution leaves their old LMS. The affordability and accessibility of moving and archiving data on our platform is powerful and easy.

We can also replace course content within an LMS, whether you are updating links and embed codes or are moving to a cloud based offering. Our platform can find anything and replace anything across any of your courses. And, maybe this is a good time to offer a teaser of something very special coming from our workshop this summer. It will be as transformational and disruptive as our current world offerings.

Q: Let’s talk about electric cars and higher education. I’ve posited the following set of equivalences:

electric cars = online/blended learning

driving = low-cost online independent scaled degrees

First, what do you think about those analogies?

I love the analogies, and I love the depth and creativity of finding the perfect analogies for our beloved higher ed, especially today. An electric car and online learning is a fair and fun analogy. They have both been around a lot longer than people realize, and they were both mocked as being pretenders to the tried and true conventional methods; in this case, transportation and education.

Q: Do you think that the postsecondary ecosystem will transition to online at a similar pace that we move from gas to electric vehicles?

In my estimation, adoption has moved slow in both sectors, but I think education has moved slower. I have been working with online systems for 22 years, and there are many today who continue to deny the value of online and blended learning.

Viable electric cars, at any scale, have only been on the market for the last 10 years or less, with Tesla offering its first car in 2008. Yet it took years for Tesla to accelerate to any scale. Given the reality of COVID, the adoption of online and blended learning has accelerated similarly to the way Tesla catapulted to scale due to growing climate issues and price-at-the-pump issues. But of course, it’s also just a great product.

Relative to education and COVID, we now have a new remote workforce and family learning structure reliant on online and blended learning; Thus, it is also scaling, but more from begrudging necessity than for the kind of desire for the product experience that has driven Tesla.

Q: And like the dream of fully autonomous cars, is quality at scale even possible?

So, Tesla is finally achieving quality at scale; therefore, it can be done. Online and blended learning are scaling, but in my view, still emerging in comparison to the potential for how humans will produce, measure, and consume education given the fact that the speed of technology is doubling every 18 months.

I might go one step further and say the excitement will come as we move closer to the singularity, which is where the technology (machines, learning, and producing) will blend with biology (humans) to anticipate and develop education delivery systems on levels we are currently unable to imagine. Sometimes quality arrives instantly, but mostly, it arrives by embracing and learning from mistakes and iterations. This certainly happens in Tesla laboratories and, no doubt, in education as well.

Q: One issue that we’ve talked about — beyond electric cars — is the need for higher education to address the student crisis by making our education and credentials more affordable. Student debt might be higher education’s equivalent of greenhouse gasses from gas-powered vehicles. What role do you see your company playing in enabling colleges and universities to potentially leverage new technologies to increase access and lower costs?

Thank you for this question, Josh. Interestingly enough, in most cases, technology improves costs for consumers. Yet, in many online and blended learning programs, we are seeing the same costs or higher costs in comparison to face-to-face delivery.

There are numerous ways to impact student debt and it is its own question in and of itself, but a great place to start is with the interest rates charged on student loans. Detrimental but controllable debt and education bureaucracy are fair analogies to also detrimental but controllable greenhouse gases. For years, consumers have thought, ‘isn’t this online modality supposed to be more affordable than face to face?’ It is certainly not up to me to answer this question, but it must be answered.

The role my company plays to positively impact an institution’s budget is definitely quantifiable. Our technology is designed to improve the student and staff experience with various systems and data. For example, our LMS migration technology is well proven to save time and resources. Moving from one LMS to another is no longer taking years, but weeks; As I mentioned, it’s like comparing a Tesla to a horse and buggy.

My co-founders and leadership team came from the academy, and our singular objective has always been to improve costs and it is now a reality. But as you always remind me, it is also about quality, and our fidelity is astonishing as our speed.

The final comment, Josh, is that technology is oftentimes viewed as a threat, just as Tesla was a threat to the big automakers’ way of doing things. But from my chair, better education technology that improves the value of online and blended learning should never be seen as a threat. Instead, it is a way to help administrators repurpose resources for the benefit of the student.

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