I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around higher ed.

We’re doing some innovating of our own here at The Edge. Each week I will share my latest thinking on the people and ideas reshaping higher ed, alternating between my own reporting and my picks for thought-provoking and useful stories and resources from other organizations. I’ll also mix in some quick takes, noteworthy quotes, and stats that catch my eye, as well as occasional contributions from my colleagues.

This week I report on four ideas to improve higher ed that were featured at our “shark tank” session at SXSW EDU, last week in Austin, Tex.

Where higher ed is headed.

Selecting the contestants for our higher-ed shark tank at SXSW EDU always puts a lens on the state of innovation in the sector and serves as a bellwether of emerging or lingering challenges that people are trying to solve. The pool is too random to be fully representative of new ideas — it’s limited by who comes forward and is going to be in Austin — but it’s revealing for the signaling.

This year was no exception, as contestants pitched ideas to foster international education, bring equity (and a hint of TikTok?) to the college-admissions process, help students develop social capital, and nudge soon-to-be graduates to get their career planning on track.

As in past years, neither the judges nor the audience offered investment money — just commentary and advice. Unlike prior years, an injury left me unable to take part (I’m on the mend). But I listened to a recording of last week’s session, where my my replacement, The Chronicle’s editor, Brock Read, joined veteran sharks Paul Freedman, president of the Learning Marketplace at Guild Education, and Catharine (Cappy) Bond Hill, managing director of the nonprofit research consultancy Ithaka S+R.

Here are the pitches and reactions, along with a taste of the kibbitzing I might have offered had I been able to travel to Austin myself.

The idea: A coaching platform to guide students in launching their careers, presented by Dan Gusz, co-founder and CEO of Lloyd.

The pitch: By embedding a series of career-coaching exercises into a traditional academic course, Lloyd aims to help students, particularly those who would never make it to career centers, prepare résumés, and explore professional paths. Gusz likened the approach to the psychological guidance behind the dieting app Noom. Students wouldn’t have to seek out that support, he said, and it could augment services that colleges already offer. The Lloyd platform can also handle much of the “annoying administrative work,” Gusz said, freeing up college advisers to do more actual advising.

The reaction: All the sharks saw value in embedding career development into courses. But they questioned how Lloyd planned to personalize the coaching and measure whether it was making a difference. Students may still not realize all the paths they could pursue, Hill noted. “How do you open the world of options to them?”

My kibbitz: No doubt requiring these exercises as part of a course would encourage more students to reflect and plan (as I recall from a webinar I did years ago, integrated career development is standard practice at some institutions). But many professors would probably still argue that that doesn’t belong in class, so a big cultural divide might need to be bridged before Lloyd’s approach would get much traction.

The idea: A tool for students to “insert their authentic voice” into their college applications, presented by Terry and Gloria Crawford, co-founders of Initial View.

The pitch: Looking to reduce the many inequities in the college-admissions process,

Initial View provides students with an easy-to-use platform to record a 90-second video story about themselves and share it with colleges. (Before Covid, the Crawfords were based in Beijing and offered video-interview services to local students applying to colleges in the United States and other countries. In Atlanta when the pandemic hit, the couple stayed and shifted their focus to the domestic admissions scene with this elevator-pitch product.) The tool is a way for first-generation applicants in particular to share their own stories, especially if they can’t visit campuses for interviews. “They’re the ones that need the voice,” said Gloria Crawford. And developing a personal pitch can be valuable in itself. “It’s a good skill to have, and it can be taught,” said Terry Crawford, noting that one college counselor described the model as “TikTok with positive consequences.”

The reaction: The sharks wondered how quickly wealthy applicants and fancy private schools would find a way to game the system. Already, said Hill, many students’ application essays are “very curated,” and she predicted consultants “will charge $250 an hour to create those 90 seconds.” Read wondered if the approach would favor extroverted applicants, and Freedman asked for any evidence that the tool was actually increasing the diversity of colleges’ applicant pools.

My kibbitz: When Goucher College announced in 2014 that it would accept some applicants based solely on a video application, I initially saw it as a silly gimmick. But in an increasingly test-optional admissions environment, I now see real value in ways for colleges to hear those “authentic” student voices. I would just hope that the Initial View platform could keep the playing field as level as the Crawfords are envisioning.

The idea: A program to teach low-income and first-generation students to recognize and showcase their own resilience, presented by David Obstfeld, a professor of entrepreneurship at California State University at Fullerton and founder of its new Social Capital Academy.

The pitch: The academy is designed for students who spend so much of their out-of-class time working or caring for their families that they don’t have many opportunities to develop professional networks, and often don’t appreciate the skills they have that would make them attractive to employers. The participants — typically juniors — spend four Saturdays over four months with volunteer mentors, learning to convey their personal stories in a way that is compelling to potential employers. The perspective of mentors who are themselves working professionals is key, Obstfeld said. Students tend to “discount their resilience” until it’s validated externally. The academy is still in the pilot stage at Fullerton, and Obstfeld would like to see the nonprofit model go national by partnering with other institutions.

The reaction: The sharks questioned how the program recruited and trained mentors, and how it was able to attract already-busy students to show up on Saturdays. Students receive $50 gift cards at the beginning and end of the academy, and the author and futurist John Seely Brown has donated some start-up funding. As with Lloyd, the judges also wondered how Obstfeld would measure impact.

My kibbitz: I noted Obstfeld is working with Fullerton’s psychology department on a pre-course and post-course test, and potentially some longer-term evaluations. Regular readers of this newsletter (and listeners to my podcast know I’m a fan of the evaluation and reporting that the organization Braven uses to measure the impact of its program to help students develop social capital and land strong jobs. (Its latest report was published last month.) Given the similar missions, I hope Obstfeld’s academy looks to the Braven reports for guidance.

The idea: An “equitable and ethical” tech system for collaborative international online learning, presented by Loye Sekihata Ashton, a former religious-studies professor at Tougaloo College now working as chief academic officer at the social enterprise Class2Class.

The pitch: Already working with more than 700 institutions and some 3,000 instructors, the Class2Class platform aims to provide students with meaningful international educational experiences “in a way that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg,” Ashton said. The technology is based on the principles of Collaborative Online International Learning pioneered by the SUNY COIL Center and since adopted by many other institutions. And the platform can support synchronous or asynchronous learning, Ashton said, as well as virtual internships, project-based learning, and other forms of collaboration. Because it integrates with learning-management systems Class2Class doesn’t require a lot of technical expertise to get started:. “You just need a good department chair who will let you work with it,” he said. He called it a virtual “third place for global education,” while noting that the features that connect campuses across continents could also foster cross-departmental collaborations at a single institution.

The reaction: Our sharks wondered what it would take to generate more interest in the product, and Freedman in particular noted that despite its nifty features — for video conferencing, for example, discussion, and course planning — the success of the product would be “only as good as the pedagogy.”

My kibbitz: That the tool might facilitate cross-departmental collaboration reminded me of the continuing need for more interdisciplinary teaching. Beyond that — and especially considering the fragile and fraught state of the world right now — I’m happy to hear about any tool that might bring about greater understanding across borders. Lord knows we need it.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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