The Untapped VC Opportunity in Higher Education: Technology for Faculty to Reimagine What the Classroom Looks Like

Credit: Anita Elberse, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School

At the drop of a hat, thousands of professors across the country were unexpectedly thrown into a mad dash to be Zoom-proficient. Some teachers worked to adapt their syllabi and instruction methods to meet the new needs of students in a new age of remote learning. Others didn’t, either not grasping the massive differences between in-person versus online instruction, or lacking resources from their institution to deftly make the switch. Many instructors perhaps underestimated the distracting urges of Tik Tok, Instagram, and texts, assuming that attention spans and accountability would transfer from in-person to online. Unfortunately, they have been met with students at all-time low levels of engagement, attendance, and attention.

If the last three months have shown us anything in higher ed, it’s that there’s a massive gap between student expectations of the value of their tuition and what is currently being offered. Simply put: what was offered in person, from content to style of teaching, can’t just be transferred to a remote environment. The classes where the most intelligent conversations were had were ones that sought out thoughtful and frequent ideas from students. These have now been replaced with virtual ones with little to no engagement, as students have shown to be more reserved and timid without interactive aspects added.

Some would view this as a challenge, but this is the opportunity for those building products and investing in technology to make higher education better. So much has been invested in the student experience, yet those that need the help of innovation most are the instructors. Blackboard and university-built dashboards are just some examples of the outdated class management tools that teachers have no choice but to be confined by. Even worse, is that the most engaging styles of instruction — case methods and cold calling — tax faculty with high levels of prep time that are hard to scale and replicate without the resources.

In a previous piece I talked about the rise of workplace-based education, but that world only works when we understand what it would take to empower both students and faculty. This piece is how we make instruction better.

Like my previous piece, there are two disclaimers that I’d like to make:

  • I am not a higher education professional, or an expert by any means. I am a current MBA student who has gone from in person to online education at NYU, and come from a family of educators, professors, and principals.
  • None of these thoughts, opinions, or claims are those related to my employer in any way — they are my own, as someone passionate about giving students the ability to receive a blend of vocation and scholarship in higher education.

Learning needs to be both engaging and consistent

With tuition being what it is, there are two main opportunities in front of us today: making class more engaging, and giving faculty equal access to the tools that will make their classes better. The first is something that many of us in tech have already experienced. Maybe it’s a product or team quiz hosted on a platform like Kahoot, where you can see how you rank against your peers and watch your name climb atop the leaderboard with every correct answer.

Credit: Kahoot

Maybe it’s a Zoom poll every three or four slides of a presentation to get relevant and topical feedback while information is fresh.

Credit: Zoom

These tools work in startups and tech companies because we’ve worked in environments where remote collaboration has been a part of our culture for more than a decade. In education, however, creating engaging experiences for students has been limited to the classroom, which is why many tools built for teachers isn’t in instruction but in class management: making announcements, collecting assignments, posting grades, etc.

The tools above only take engagement so far, as we need to think about built-in mechanisms that allow for collaboration and conversation in classes much more frequently than we’ve found in lecture formats. There’s a reason why YouTube Ads interrupt you just as your settling into an interesting video, or why Hulu sticks with 60–90 second commercials for free accounts. This same style of engagement needs to be brought to the classroom, with frequent interruptions that move the conversation forward yet capture attention in new ways.

Technology is only one half of the equation. The next layer of engagement is delivery. There’s a reason why Cold-Calling and the Case Method are part of the foundations of Harvard Business School: it keeps students on their toes by holding each other accountable for the readings and advancing class discussions, and it also presents case studies to learn from.

“In this environment, I have to make sure the content is effective and that the delivery is engaging or else I’m going to lose people,” said Anat Lechner, Professor at NYU Stern School of Business in a recent class I took with her. “That’s going to happen with more than 60 people, but I need to work through it. That’s process.”

Engagement aside, we’ve seen that every experience is different in an age of online learning, as some teachers are more tech-savvy than others or are willing to put in the extra time to adapt their lessons to remote learning. That’s why the next section is so critical for how we take these ideas and put them into practice.

Canva for instructors and immersive classroom experiences

Many people responded positively to my first piece about bringing more practitioners into higher education curriculums but there’s one main problem with this: academics are far better at instruction, design and execution of a curriculum, and the ability to plan, prep, and test knowledge in a course. Instruction can be taught over time, but the most cumbersome parts of delivering materials in class is the ability to design and prepare a curriculum that may inevitably change and be nimble enough to update the content used in class to ensure the students have access to the most relevant and engaging topics.

Canva has figured this out, turning marketers into magicians, with easy access to graphics, templates, illustrations, fonts and more for any presentation or creative they need with little design experience. Personally, I’ve never been able to bring an idea to life faster in a startup than with Canva. Imagine if professors could access a database of slide templates that had built-in methods of engagement — like quizzes or polls — and could easily pull in video, case methods from HBS, and other relevant pieces of content even a few hours before a class. Imagine if a class could learn about a case and someone who worked on that project from the company itself could drop in to the conversation, with no tech setup or coordination (think of a Slack magic link).

Here are a few things to think about:

  • In the way Canva makes it easy to make world class designers, how can we make tools or build systems that allow people at the top of their field to make vastly more rich digital learning experiences?
  • In the way MasterClass provides a high quality content platform, how can we build a video network of practitioners in the field to present on a few key topics that are recorded ahead of time, from customer acquisition to product marketing and use that as supplementary material to jump start the next class? How can we lower the barrier to entry to create high quality videos like those offered in MasterClass without the $100k+ per video price tag?
  • In the ways that we’ve open sourced technology, how can we provide access to libraries of cases, templates, and power points to build an inventory and community for faculty to build curriculums, share ideas, and collaborate together if their subjects align?
  • How can we combine physical and digital worlds, turning our classrooms into studios where interactive whiteboards and a stage bring the classroom to life while finding more cost-effective options to create digital learning materials that amplify the knowledge and expertise of instructors?
Credit: Anita Elberse, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School
Credit: Anita Elberse, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School

Venture Capitalists are interested in the problem, not the buyer

Now that we’ve established a few foundational ideas an perspectives on how to make higher education instruction engaging and consistent, now comes the age old B2B question of how a company could deliver this to schools at scale, keeping in mind sales cycles and its passion for homegrown technology solutions.

When speaking with a few venture capitalists recently, there are two trends that seem to be getting the focus right now:

  1. Vocational training for key jobs in healthcare, construction, as well as continuing education for freelance employees to ensure they’re obtaining the most relevant skills based on what employers need
  2. OEMs such as Coursera, 2U, and Udemy for direct to consumer opportunities that provide an alternative to existing college offerings or a way to piggyback on continuing education needs

The largest challenge is the ability to sell into schools that not only make infrequent software purchases that take enterprise-levels of speed to close, but the amount of training and implementation required to get them to be effective in the classroom. That’s the opportunity, though. If we only build for students, for continuing education and professionals in the workforce, we neglect the pressing need in higher education right now where Louis Vuitton prices get you Footlocker experiences.

The goal of this piece was not only to spark new ideas of how we can make instruction better, but to help us think about how we can fundamentally change the model in which teachers have access to technology.

After all, we’re demanding world-class levels of instruction with little change in how they can make then classroom experience itself better for their students.

Marketers have 10 seconds to capture your attention with copy. Video producers say it’s less than 30 seconds. We have the opportunity to bring the same level of support and guidance to 60-minute classes around the country. The future of education depends on it.

Product Marketing at LinkedIn. Ex Twitter, Notarize, Voysis (acquired by Apple), Boston Globe. Alum: HKS, NYU, UMass Lowell. Runs on ☕️ and Celtics 🏀