Why Partnerships—Not VC Funding Alone—Will Ensure Continued EdTech...

Opinion | Higher Education

Why Partnerships—Not VC Funding Alone—Will Ensure Continued EdTech Innovation

By Craig Weidemann and Pete Wheelan     Nov 22, 2016

Why Partnerships—Not VC Funding Alone—Will Ensure Continued EdTech Innovation

Analysts and industry experts have lamented the recent slowdown in edtech investment, crystallizing doubts already felt by entrepreneurs and academics. Meanwhile, the pressure on institutions to drive improved outcomes continues, even as higher education is facing fiscal challenges that can leave little room for innovation and creativity.

In response to this challenging environment, one possible solution may come in an unexpected place—a new kind of partnership between those who create technology for education and those who use it for teaching, learning and student support.

Too often, educational institutions and technology companies work in their own silos, keeping their relationship contractual. That relationship changes drastically, however, in a model of embedded partnership. With such a model, each party can focus on what it brings to the table, and together they can concentrate on the critical challenges of reducing time and cost to degree and increasing student success.

Penn State and InsideTrack, a company that helps colleges with student support programs, have worked closely together to pioneer this model as part of the university’s new EdTech Network initiative, which is working to replace traditional vendor-client relationships with collaborative partnerships. The EdTech Network, a vertical of Invent Penn State, is bringing together investors, entrepreneurs, faculty, staff, students and alumni to find new and previously overlooked opportunities for innovation and partnerships with the private sector.

As part of its partnership with the EdTech Network, InsideTrack has co-located at Penn State’s University Park campus and is working closely with faculty and staff to develop new ideas and initiatives in conjunction with Penn State’s online World Campus. The partnership is based on mutual respect, learning and commitment to improving student success. Based on what we have learned so far, we’ve developed three strategies for embedding tech in education in a way that meets the needs of students, institutions and solution providers.

Find fertile ground for innovation together.

Institutions can be so busy walling themselves off from commercial influence that they may miss unexpected opportunities to engage with the technology sector. We need a new, more collaborative model in which academia and the private sector address real-world challenges by leveraging their respective strengths.

Drawing on successful models of tech accelerator programs, universities can bring other resources that are just as or more valuable as those commonly available in incubators to entrepreneurs or early-stage ventures. Institutions have faculty who can offer expertise and pilot new teaching strategies, as well as alumni and career networks, who can contribute to solutions aimed at enhancing post-graduation success. They enroll students who can participate in research activities and—as learners and customers—help create new apps, products and services. Startups, growth-stage tech and mature companies frequently need and benefit from office space contiguous to customers.

Another university strength is applied research. Higher education has had enormous success in using its research capabilities, human capital and facilities to attract investment from industries including agriculture, life sciences and manufacturing. But when it comes to educational technology, which has the potential to dramatically improve student outcomes, the shoemaker’s children often go barefoot.

Companies can also add value to institutions in unexpected ways. Companies can provide technical expertise to help solve institutional and pedagogical challenges, and they can provide powerful engagement and learning opportunities for students and staff. For example, InsideTrack, which provides coaching to Penn State World Campus students, provides regular, data-driven briefings to university administrators on trends in student attitudes, behaviors and preferences.

Measure what works.

In the past, well-meaning companies have come to the table with solutions for influencing student outcomes, but without much proof to back up their claims. Others have paid lip service to student and institutional success while jockeying for more favorable contracts and seeking to further entrench their position for the next round of negotiation. Now, however, measuring student outcomes and engagement through analytics—once a futuristic vision for the office of institutional research—is increasingly the norm, rather than the exception, for a growing majority of colleges and universities.

As business intelligence and analytics become increasingly ubiquitous on campus, universities can help their private-sector partners produce efficacy data and evidence faster and more efficiently. For more established enterprise technology, evaluation is becoming a foundational component of successful implementation, and something that can be done with immense precision, helping to optimize performance.

Collaborate with transparency.

Solutions providers and institutions must develop relationships built on trust and honesty. Attempts to guard against showing weakness or exposing the “secret sauce” will simply result in missed opportunities to strengthen each other’s offerings and do right by students.

Penn State administrators have regular, candid discussions with solutions providers on the challenges the institution is facing. In exchange, they encourage competitive solution providers to come together, through the EdTech Network, to develop joint solutions to address the needs of the university and its students.

Collectively, higher education and the edtech sector are beginning to merge their unique capabilities to improve pedagogy, student services and outcomes. The success of these mergers requires leaders willing to go beyond the traditional vendor-client archetype that too often defines industry partnerships today, and instead establish long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships based on trust.

Craig Weidemann is Vice Provost for Online Education at Penn State University and Pete Wheelan is CEO of InsideTrack.

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