Technology

4 Ed-Tech Ideas Face The Chronicle’s Version of ‘Shark Tank’

March 29, 2016

Four innovators with four very different ideas for improving higher education brought their pitches to The Chronicle’s second-annual Shark Tank: Edu Edition during the South by Southwest Edu conference in March.

The New Education Landscape

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Re:Learning project provides stories and analysis about this changing moment for learning.

They included a professor with technology that turns students into moving elements of classroom visualizations, an entrepreneur whose company aims to ease the process of hiring adjunct instructors, a nonprofit organization supporting working-adult students as they pursue competency-based degrees, and a consulting organization proposing the establishment of a new kind of educational advisers, supported with federal dollars, to help students navigate an increasingly "unbundled" education system.

As in 2015, The Chronicle borrowed some of the format from the ABC television show Shark Tank, but with a different intent. We weren’t looking for the best business idea in which to invest (nor did we have any money on the table to do so). Our objective — with fast-paced pitches and some friendly grilling from the sharks and the audience — was to showcase and probe a set of ideas that tackle key issues in higher education today.

Our sharks were Jason Jones, an editor of the ProfHacker blog and director of educational technology at Trinity College, in Connecticut; Paul Freedman, founder of Entangled Ventures, an "education-technology studio"; and me, a senior writer at The Chronicle. We each spoke from a different perspective — Mr. Jones as a professor and administrator at a college, Mr. Freedman as an investor and consultant looking for the next big thing in education technology, and me as a longtime reporter who follows academe’s business and innovation trends. Jeffrey R. Young, who edits The Chronicle’s new Re:Learning reporting project, was the moderator. We also caught up with some of our 2015 contestants to see how they’ve progressed over the past year.

Following are edited highlights of the 2016 edition of our Shark Tank. Or, if you prefer, you can listen to audio of the session here (the Shark Tank session begins at 1:11:55):

Pitch 1: Perry Samson, professor of meteorology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and senior vice president for teaching innovation at Echo360

What his idea does: promotes active learning with location-tracking technology, called a Wireless Indoor Location Device learning system, that can make students into living pieces of instructional simulations

Samson: The world is full of very complex problems. I teach weather and climate and have for a long time. Trying to teach to these students about the complexities in weather and climate is a challenge. What I’ve done as part of a NASA grant is we’ve created a new technology at the University of Michigan, which is going to come on something about the size of a cellphone. With that, I’m able to locate you in the room here, down to the centimeter. The value of that is that now I can have you become data points in a large, complex system, and by standing up and walking around the room here, you can now participate in a model.

For example, I’m trying to teach concepts of the polar vortexes, which you’ve probably heard about. What is a polar vortex, and how does it form? Instead of me lecturing to you for an hour — instead I give you a device, and on your device I can beam to you a value. A value of, perhaps, temperature, or pressure. Based on the value I’ve beamed to you, I now challenge you to get up, walk around the room, and I want you to now create a wind blowing from that side of the room to that side of the room. You can do that because your data is feeding back into my laptop, and I’ve got a simple model running on here, which can project on the screen your location and the wind field you’re creating by your location.

Imagine what you could do with that in other disciplines. About how you have students’ being able to move around, and from that, how is it that your location and value is going to feed into and change a complex world.

This sort of tool is going to greatly expand what we can do in terms of extending the classroom to make more-active learning. An important part of this is we’re going to have an API [application program interface] available to developers. So I know weather, and you might know biochemistry, and you might know some other field — you can start creating your own apps that you could create for your own classrooms. This central system would be available to schools to purchase as a physical entity, and now it’s up to you to go and find these activities that we can share through an app learning store.

There’s a competitive advantage to this system over others. Some systems allow location based on lasers, based on Wi-Fi location. With this we are actually taking advantage of the magnetic field of the earth. With that I can locate you down to the centimeter.

Collaboration-based learning products has a market of something like $4.2 billion. We think this sort of activity can get into that. We expect to create a set of founder customers, people who have ideas for how to use that in your own discipline. We’ll make you part of the initial system. You get an initial set of tools so you can go out and build these apps, so that you can make some money as app developers. Our job is simply to develop, and present to you the hardware to make that happen. Thank you very much.

Freedman: Very cool idea. I was introduced as "the money guy," so let me start with a two-part money question. How much does each device cost?

Samson: We expect, at full development, they should be about $20 each. A system for a school would be like $2,500, I think.

Freedman: So $20 per device. For your class, over the semester, or a quarter, how many different times would you expect to use it?

Samson: That’s a good question. It depends on my imagination. I could imagine using it at least three times in my semester. When I’m talking about polar vortex, I’m talking about climate change, and I’m talking about hurricanes — all are examples of where I could have the students, either in the classroom or we can go outside and do this, but have them actively involved in building their own knowledge.

Jones: Do you envision students’ buying these, or do you envision schools’ buying them?

Samson: I envision schools’ buying them and making them available like a clicker system is now to a classroom.

Jones: I was thinking about clickers, because now all the clicker companies are like, "We don’t want to sell the clicker to the school. We want to sell the clicker to the student, and then have the student set up an account."

Samson: Well, if you embed my tool in the clicker, it becomes a very powerful tool, wink wink.

Blumenstyk: I guess I have two questions. I could probably see myself talking to education researchers about this afterward to try to understand, Does this method seem sound? This is the question that gets asked at every panel. I do have a question about implementation. Is this a gimmick? You’re a very creative professor, and you have really good ideas about a way to implement this in your classrooms. I would wonder how many professors would actually go that mile to get it done. What’s your sense from talking to people?

Samson: I think professors that want it have wild imaginations. The whole purpose of this is that it’s going to open the doors to professors, yes, but also the students. To graduate students, to developers who can all develop their own apps that use the system. I can imagine the collective intelligence of that group is phenomenal.

Freedman: I had one more question. Can you speak to the privacy concerns? If I can locate somebody down to a centimeter, and you’re creating this open environment to plug in as an API, how do you ensure that this isn’t utilized for —

Samson: I don’t know who the student is. As you’re moving around, I’m not tracking you as a human, I’m only tracking you as a data point. I would never connect you to the human.

Young: Well, thank you. Let’s go down and give a quick "Would you recommend?" from each of the panelists.

Freedman: Sure. I think it’s a tremendously interesting idea. If the question is "Would I invest?" I think the answer is I’d love to learn more. I think my concerns are price. You might have heard that tuition isn’t going down. You mentioned selling it to the institution, but really that still ends up going to the student. I would be very excited about this idea, because I can really see the way it would change learning, and the way people would remember the experience that they had in the classroom, and the impact. I can see the pedagogical advantages.

Blumenstyk: I think I would want to write about this idea, particularly if I could talk to some education researchers who could help me understand how it has a higher-ed advantage. We find at The Chronicle that a lot of stories that we write about teaching and learning are very popular with our readers. They really care about good ideas about teaching, even if they’re not going to implement them themselves. I think they want to know about them.

Young: You could watch some students run around the room and act like a hurricane.

Blumenstyk: I think that might be really fun to see.

Jones: I certainly like the idea. Even when you were presenting it, I was thinking — I was a Victorianist before losing my soul — and I was already starting to think about ways that I might want to use this to model historical phenomena and different kinds of activities. Wearing my current hat, I do have questions similar to price. We’re increasingly reluctant to buy anything small, that looks like one day it might be on a phone, or in a phone case, or something like that.

Pitch 2: Lesa Hammond, co-founder of ProfHire, in Berkeley, Calif.

What her company does: an online tool to help colleges find, screen, and hire adjunct professors

Hammond: ProfHire is a web-based platform that connects universities with scholars and industry professionals. We prescreen and then present them to the universities for part-time faculty positions. My background is, I’ve been in higher education for about 20 years. I’ve been the chief human-resources officer at three universities. I’ve also been an adjunct. And part of what I’ve found is that placing part-time faculty is a huge issue at universities. Often they aren’t screened well, they’re done by word of mouth, and universities are having a difficult time finding them up until the last minute before the class.

What we’ve done with ProfHire is we’ve created a web platform where the individuals create a comprehensive profile and then we screen them. And the university, through matching technology, is able to get the best-qualified candidates for the positions and have them placed in the classroom.

One of the big issues in higher education, as you probably know, is that the number of adjuncts has increased substantially over the past 30 years. More than 50 percent of the faculty are part time now. With that, what that brings is a lot of questions in terms of the quality of the education that the students are getting. When the faculty is being tested, and confirmed in the classroom, to see if they’re a competent faculty member, then the students suffer. Our goal is to pre-empt that by having the university have a qualified pool of faculty upfront.

It’s also a problem on those people that are looking for a part-time faculty position. If you’ve ever applied for the job, and done a real comprehensive job search, one of the comments is, "Finding a job is a job in and of itself." If you’re looking for industry professionals, they don’t have the time, the energy, the desire to spend a lot of time looking for a job. By coming onto ProfHire’s platform, they’re able to be presented to multiple universities.

What I like to say with ProfHire is, "Think LinkedIn meets eHarmony or Match.com with prescreening, for higher education."

Freedman: I want to go first. For full disclosure, I know Lesa, she’s friends with my mom. I’m not an investor, but I have been around the business. I won’t let that stop me from asking tough questions. Fundamentally, the business is helping universities get more efficient at hiring adjunct faculty. One way to frame what you’re doing is you’re encouraging the gig economy in higher education. Is that a good thing?

Hammond: Well, I think it’s a real thing. Whether you agree with the trend that’s happening or not, it’s what is happening, and we don’t see any reversal of the trend. Finding the best quality to get onto the platform, and get presented to the universities, that’s what we’re focused on.

Blumenstyk: A couple of questions. You have a screening process. Who says it’s any good? Can you say, very briefly, what you’re screening process is?

Hammond: One of the things that we do, and my background is human resources so I have an extensive background in recruiting, and we train the people who come on. We currently have two interns who are doing recruiting also. We train them in the recruiting process, and in the interviewing process. Each person, before they’re presented to the university has been interviewed. We consider it a high-touch and high-tech solution.

Blumenstyk: Who pays for this? Who’s your customer? Is it the faculty member? Is it the university?

Hammond: The university is the customer.

Blumenstyk: Have you thought about turning that on the other side? Flipping it around so that there is also a way for adjuncts to rate universities as employers?

Hammond: We’ve talked about having a 360-review process for the universities, and the instructors, and I think that is something that will probably happen as we get further along in the process.

Jones: This is the moment where I also acknowledge in my previous life, I mean literally a few years ago, I was the president of a faculty union and a vice chair of the national AAUP Collective Bargaining Congress. My head is about to explode a little bit. [Laughter.]

Hammond: In a good way, right?

Blumenstyk: Let the record reflect: quiet pause.

Jones: I was delighted with Paul’s question, is what I’ll say. I have a couple of questions. I was not actually aware that there’s that much of a difficulty in hiring contingent faculty, except insofar as geography is a major bounding factor. It’s relatively trivial to be able to hire adjunct faculty, even at a relatively high standard. For example, in Austin, where you have great armies of them, quite frankly. Even in Connecticut it is not that difficult to find fairly decent adjuncts because you have a pool that goes from New York to Boston. In other places that’s not true. I was wondering how you manage that issue?

Hammond: What you’re saying is true to some extent. I’ve talked with a number of college administrators. We did a survey of 200 academic administrators, and 76 percent of them said that hiring quality part-time faculty who could teach, and have real-world experience, was a huge problem.

Jones: That actually is the other follow-up question I have. The contingent-faculty issue has two different dimensions. One dimension is the appalling defunding of the universities, the expropriation of public goods for private gain, and the shift toward what Paul called "a gig economy." That’s not the issue you just described. The real, legitimate use of adjunct faculty is there’s industry professionals, where you do want practitioners to come into the classroom. That model, I understand. I think that’s a great service. I wonder how you speak to the other issue. Where you’re finding armies of people to teach freshman composition, or teach intro-level math courses, which is the vast majority of adjuncts.

Hammond: We have a number of different people who are currently on the platform. We have both sides. The universities that we’re currently working with are primarily graduate schools. We have heard the community colleges say they have an interest in it, so there is a need.

Young: All right, so, sharks. Let me start with Jason this time. How do you feel about ProfHire? Now that your head is finished exploding.

Jones: I’ll return to the issue I raised before. At a small, liberal-arts college like Trinity we don’t have that many contingent faculty to teach the freshman comp or the math classes. What we have are the practitioners. On the one hand, I could definitely see the appeal for that. On the other hand, the thing that we hire practitioners for is their connections in the capital. We are likely to say, "You know our trustee. We’re going to hire you," which is a model, frankly, I don’t see our trustees being willing to change. In our situation it’s unlikely to be terribly useful, but it may well be useful in other contexts.

Blumenstyk: I would write about it. I should say, also, to some degree at The Chronicle of Higher Education, since we also have job ads, and have a job service, there’s probably some deep, dark conflict of interest.

Young: Well, we’ll write about anything.

Blumenstyk: We always write about things in hiring. In fact, we recently wrote a story about another effort in the adjunct market trying to create a certification test to certify adjuncts. I had a lot of questions about that effort as well. If I did this story, I would probably have a lot more questions about your certification process along the lines of "Who the heck are you?" I agree with what Jason is saying, and this would be in my article. It does seem that the hiring prerogative is something that departments take very seriously. Even when they’re hiring adjuncts at some level. Although I imagine at other kinds of courses — distance-education courses, the ones that are two steps away from the core of the university, they’re often out there just trying to track down somebody to teach a class. I could definitely see this having value in the market, so I would write about it.

Freedman: I have been following this company. Haven’t invested — my mom hasn’t told me I had to. But I am interested in it, and will continue to follow it. The reason why I haven’t invested yet is, sort of, two parts. One is the question about marketplaces, is anytime that you’re building a business around a marketplace, you have what I call a "first-to-the-party problem." Like when you show up at a party early, and no one’s there, it’s not a very fun party. The same thing happens with marketplaces. In order for them to actually function, there needs to be a critical mass. They tend to be difficult businesses to get started, and then very successful businesses when they’re started. That’s just the core business issue.

I do think that there’s a problem that ProfHire is solving. I’ve seen some nonprofit institutions that have scaled their online classes very quickly, heavily relying on adjuncts, and using very poor adjuncts, having adjuncts quit midsemester, having adjuncts falsify credentials. I think there is a problem worthwhile to solve. For me, I’d like to see how the marketplace develops, then I’d also like to see how it’s being applied. There are some problems that I wouldn’t want to be encouraging to be solved.

Young: I just want to say, one of the reasons I like this format, because obviously there are these specific instances that we’re reviewing, but I feel like it opens up all of these bigger trend issues within the academy, the different problems that are out there that touch a lot of different areas. I think by having these very specific new ideas presented, I think it’s an interesting lens into that.

Pitch 3: Laurence Roth, chief growth officer for the Education Design Lab, in Washington, D.C.

What his idea would do: create federally funded, independent "Ed Guides" to help students navigate among varied postsecondary-education options

Roth: Let me set the stage. You walk the halls the last few days, you can see the great unbundling of higher education is coming at us, whereas traditionally education was about going to one or two institutions in your lifetime. Now the opportunities are exploding. The options are exploding. Whether it’s MOOCs or boot camps or CBE [competency-based education] or Credit Based Learning or certificates or badges or whatever. There’s a huge plethora of options. This poses both promise but also a problem.

The promise is, in the not-too-distant future, an education consumer will be able to pick and choose from different institutions and create their own customized educational path. A stackable path toward their career and life goals. This will be a better fit, it will be cheaper, it will be faster time to completion. Terrific opportunity. But there’s a peril in all this as well. Because with all these options, thinking about one large, virtual course catalog to choose from, how the heck does an individual, average education consumer navigate this? How on earth do they pick a plan that is actually ideal, and optimized for them?

That’s where our new start-up idea comes from. We call it Ed Guides. Independent educational advisers for the unbundled world of higher education. Similar to college advisers but institutionally agnostic. They understand the entire range of opportunities available to a client, as well as the skills and competencies that are required by different career pathways. They will work with a client, to devise, based on their life circumstance, the optimal path through all of these options. It will be optimized on fit, on price, and on time to completion. At the end of the day the consumer comes out with a plan that is quantifiably better than anything they could have done themselves.

What will this cost? Our back-of-the-envelope calculation is maybe $800 per student, but we need to check that in the marketplace. This raises the bigger question of who pays for this. There’s a lot of business models I can discuss during Q&A, but I want to get to something that’s very important to the Education Design Lab. It’s very sexy to talk about the unbundled world, very sexy to talk about stackable credentials, and all those buzzwords we use here, but at the end of the day the people will need the most help navigating this new world, and the least able to afford services like this, will be the folks we want to help the most — low-income, first-generation, underemployed. We believe the funding for these kinds of services needs to come from Title IV. Now that’s a long-term play, but at the end of the day it is a moral imperative to handle this new world that’s coming at us. We believe that the ability to get a customized education pathway that’s better, faster, and cheaper is not only life-changing for an individual but a way to optimize use of federal financial aid.

Blumenstyk: I want to go first on this. I’ve heard this concept referred to before as the Education Sherpa. I kind of like that notion too. I’ve been intrigued by it because it fits with this proposal to create education savings accounts, where the federal government would do that. It also fits right now with the current political climate, where both sides of the aisle are talking a lot more about encouraging these kinds of models. I do wonder, $800? I’ve read stories and interviewed people in college situations right now where the college advisers aren’t even necessarily that well trained to help the students in their own environment. So I really have some questions when you’re asking someone to, oh, advise someone on the world?

You’re basically having an academic adviser say, "Advise this person, here the world is your oyster." I don’t know how you’re going to train people who’re going to understand what the best option is for every student, when they have to understand everything?

Roth: I think the key here is that we develop a team of experts, and with shared knowledge, and a shared database of this kind of information. I imagine in the short haul there’s a growing knowledge base that all of the advisers will be able to access.

Freedman: My question’s sort of along similar lines. First of all, I think you should be aware of a company called Quottly. Quottly does a technology that maps all the publicly available information about articulation agreements between schools to let people take the courses that they need for their major at lower costs. That could be a good underlying technology for the service that you’re offering.

My line of question is sort of similar to Goldie’s, and my skepticism is in the same place. There’s state systems that don’t have functional articulation agreements between the schools. They’re giving personal advice to somebody completing college, sometimes knowing what faculty member’s going to be more responsive, and what the major requirements are. It seems to be tremendously personalized. Convince me that you’re ever going to get that type of advice down to an $800-per-student price point.

Roth: I appreciate that feedback, and I think the marketplace testing will determine whether we can do it. We were trying to figure out a price point. Really back of the envelope, figuring one counselor to 150 students, does allow for that kind of price point, but I understand the training, and the knowledge is a really key piece.

Jones: It feels like other things need to happen first. Because in addition to articulation problems, normally when one thinks about one’s courses you think about things like double counting — "I can take this because it fits various different kinds of requirements." I understand that you’re envisioning a world where those requirements don’t really exist because it’s build your own, and "Hey, that’s going to be awesome, and free, and great." It’s not necessarily your problem, but it seems like there are historical steps that need to happen first.

I’m a little leery at the notion that one counselor would be able to sustain 150 students. It seems like a fair amount of work, but that’s not my problem. I do think that also this is kind of a tiered solution. It is very much a solution, for example, not for colleges like mine, where someone typically goes to their college for that experience, and they’re focused on that campus, rather than pulling lots of resources from the world at large. But that’s a very tiny subset of the market. It’s not really a criticism, just an observation.

Freedman: I think you started by saying this was a long-term play. I think that’s the appropriate view. I think particularly if part of the mission, which I would agree with, is important to making this valuable, is that this is something that would be available to students who aren’t affluent, and who are reliant on federal subsidies. I think it’s a long-term play. I think there’s a lot of infrastructure, technology, systems, that would need to be in place before it’s going to be successful, but as a long-term, nonprofit, I think there’s a valuable mission there.

Blumenstyk: I think it’s kind of interesting to think about this, and I would write it as "This could be the beginning of a new industry." I will note that whenever we write stories that are about people who are trying to get federal student aid, people don’t like other competition for that pie. That would also be kind of an issue. Every time someone else wants a bite out of the Title IV pot, it often comes out of somebody else’s hide. I think you’ll find as nice as this idea sounds, politically you’re going to find some competition to it from the traditional people now who get Title IV money.

Jones: Quite frankly, I really liked your presentation. When people talk about "the great unbundling," I tend to want to punch people because it takes all the risk, and puts it right onto the student. It expects them to have an understanding of what things will work for their education that just seems improbable. It’s really great that the service would try to address that. I agree that it’s a long-term play, but you knew that. You said it in your presentation.

Pitch 4: Hudson Baird, co-founder of PelotonU, based in Austin, Tex.

What his organization does: provides face-to-face counseling and support for working-adult students enrolled in a variety of competency-based degree programs

Baird: Thank you. How many of y’all in the course of the last four days went over to the J.W. Marriott to hear at least one session? Would you raise your hand? When you went upstairs, up the escalator, there was a Starbucks up there, right? There’s a lady who works there who’s name is Gina. She’s been trying to go to college for a long time. Graduated from high school, went to the Art Institutes for a little while, got behind on bills, and said, "Hey, I’m going to take some time off and work." She’s a fantastic employee at Starbucks. You wouldn’t have seen her because she was upstairs doing training for all the folks who are about to get hired temporarily for the SXSW stuff. It’s going to get crazy.

What Gina experienced in her education was this desire to get a degree, but conflicted with this: "I need to pay the bills, and I need to work, and I can’t do both at the same time, so I feel I’m stuck. I put education off, and I intend to come back to it some way. I wouldn’t even call myself a college dropout, but it’s just not for me right now." Five, six, seven years go by. We see this all the time with nontraditional students. We see folks who are older, have families, have kids, have financial responsibilities, and can’t afford the cost and the constraints of college.

At PelotonU what we’re trying to do is to create a pathway for folks who are working full time but want to go to college. The things that we’ve identified help do that are to add more flexibility and more support to that college pathway. We add flexibility by recruiting and sourcing high quality, regionally accredited, competency-based online education providers. We go out in the marketplace, and we say, "Who’s got direct assessment, competency-based education that’s pretty effective and proven?" We like College for America and Western Governors right now.

We say this stuff can be effective, except if you’re like me, and when you take an online class you watch Netflix, and you never learn anything. How can you layer on top of that a limited set of services that can make CBE effective? We’ve paired that with what we call a college-completion adviser. This is someone who works with a cohort of 30 students for the first two years they’re in college, meets them every week, checks with them about their studies, creates weekly accountability benchmarks, and also talks to them about all the nonacademic stuff that gets in the way of school. Whether it’s work, whether it’s relationships with family, whether it’s having to move, or your car breaking down. That’s the stuff that normally is a big deal, and how can we connect you with resources that mitigate that?

We also do this service provision in an office so we have a physical place where students in different online schools, going at different paces, studying different things, come to study. They meet together, they have a cohort of peers, they’ve got access to Chrome Books, Internet, resources, tutoring as needed. It’s online school paired with a community, and an individual college-completion adviser, that can make that effective.

We’ve found over the last three years that it works pretty well. We’re sitting at a 79-percent rate of students who have started the program are still involved, or graduated. We’ve got 23 students right now, and 43 starting this coming Monday. Sixty percent of our students have been in college before, and are coming back. The average age is 28 and increasing. Our hope, long term — we’ve been a nonprofit — is to create a financial model that’s viable. While we’ve raised funds from the community to fund the pilot, we think it works pretty well, and we’re going to start charging students 2,500 bucks per year to be in the program. Most of that we hope will come from remaining Pell balances on their Pell eligibility.

The other thing that we want to do is prove, here in Austin, that this blended higher-education model, where you pull in high-quality CBE, you put it with the right kind of in-person support, can be effective. We want to help other people in other communities replicate it. Not that we grow, but that we grow a network of other providers who are experimenting on the edge of this, to figure out what’s effective, and what time frames, and what software, so that we can continue to provide this third way to go to college. It isn’t on-campus four-year university, it isn’t part-time community college, but it’s blended higher ed, with high-quality, in-person support. That’s what we’re up to, and would love y’all’s help.

Freedman: A couple of questions here. What you seem to be describing is more intense success coaching, with some regional, hybrid, community programs. Most of the schools have some version of a faculty member. College for America has success coaches. What are you doing that they don’t do? Aren’t they already doing this?

Baird: They’re doing great on the academic side, depending on the institution. They’ve got some that will call, that will check in. They’ll say, "How are your grades? Did you study?" What they don’t have is the pull factor that begins to become important, relationally, when something in life happens. They don’t have a relationship with the student, they’ve never met them, the student doesn’t really get emotionally involved with them, and they don’t have a resource for all the other nonacademic stuff that is traditionally the bigger barriers for nontraditional students.

Freedman: I think what you’re describing is success coaching. Your model, 30 students, is smaller than usually an 80-student cohort. My other question is, you’re trying to get Pell Grants for this? How would you structure it that you would be able to use Title IV funds to subsidize this?

Baird: The students go, based on prior credit, ability to pay, where they want to go to school, what their terminal degree is, if they’re going to transfer, kind of like Laurence was talking about. We build an education pathway. A lot of times they’re eligible for max Pell, and depending on where they go, that may not all be used up by the institution. The remaining Pell, we can say, "Hey, will you transfer some of this to us as a service provider, in lieu of having it returned back to the student?"

Blumenstyk: So in a way, similar in the same things, that Laurence was talking about?

Baird: Yeah. Very similar.

Blumenstyk: I love that this is aimed at adult students. I wonder why only competency-based education. There’s a lot of other really good online education, or even community colleges right here in Austin. Why is it limited to just competency-based programs?

Baird: We wanted to build a small expertise in one area before trying to grow. We think that the time-bound nature of a semester, even an online schedule, is really tough for working adults. When your schedules change every week, when you’re going to have your finals in December when work’s going to be crazy if you work at any sort of service job. The flexibility is not just weekly, when your assignments are due, or in the remediation issue of "I need to learn something that gives me more time." But it allows students to navigate — within 12 months, you can get about 10 classes done, and let’s build a student-specific plan to do that. In traditional, semester-based universities, that’s a lot harder to do.

Jones: It’s true of universities. I would be interested in doing a fuller scan of what’s going on in community colleges. My dad used to run a community college in Virginia, and I know that investing in success coaching, and moving toward competency-based options for adult learners, was definitely a thing that they were doing, especially in their partnerships with the U.S. Navy, and so forth. Also on the one hand, I think those are good ideas, but I wonder to the extent to which that’s going to be your competition.

Baird: Austin Community College is a fantastic example of a well-intentioned institution that is trying to serve a variety of students with an open-enrollment mandate. They’ve got one CBE program in IT right now. What they’re finding is for part-time, community-college students, of which it’s 80 percent of their enrollment, they’ve got less than a 15-percent graduation rate. A lot of people are coming, struggling, dropping out. The resources are available, but they’re spread out over eight campuses, and the student has to really self-advocate to go find the tutoring, find the resources, find the support. It exists, but it’s difficult to access. Students who come to us, often from there, need a little bit more high-touch support in the beginning as they’re getting back into their enrollment.

Blumenstyk: I would write about this. I’m also interested in the notion of synchronicity coming back into online education, and to distance education. I would want to probe on that a bit more. I’d also want to know if you’re teaching the self-advocacy because I think that’s a question. And to Paul’s points, I would want to understand what’s going on with the Pell money a little bit more to make sure that the Pell money is being well used.

Young: Paul, are you reaching for your checkbook?

Freedman: I’m intrigued. You’re playing on a lot of themes that are near and dear to my heart. I’m a big believer in success coaching. I’m a big believer in bringing back some synchronicity and community to online education. There’s some value in meeting people, and building community. It’s one of the values of going to a traditional college, and sometimes lost in terms of online education. I’m struggling with the business model. Unfortunately I have a lot of experience in why the business models are very important to these things. I would need to know a little bit more about that detail.

I also have a concern: I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it feels to me that what you’re doing is providing an additional service layer, over what the competency-based programs already do. It’s sort of like an extra service. I’d be really interested to see the dynamics of who would opt into that service. Is it actually the students who need it most, or does the extra $2,500 mean that it ends up being used more by students who need it the least?

Jones: I share most of Paul’s concerns. To a certain extent I like the focus, I like what you are offering to people. I do wonder about whether it devolves into an add-on layer for the students in this market who are likeliest to succeed anyway. Some of them need help anyway. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing.

Young: I want to thank everyone for sticking with us. Let’s give a round of applause for our sharks and for all our presenters today.

Correction (3/29/2016, 9:48 a.m.): This article initially misspelled the name of the organization co-founded by Hudson Baird. It is PelotonU, not PeletonU. The article has been updated to reflect this correcton.

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.


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