I’ve been struggling with how to characterize this year’s ASU + GSV Summit. Part of the problem is that it’s just become harder to sum up, for three reasons. First, the conference has gotten so big that it’s hard to see enough of it to get a representative sample. Second, as it has become a “must attend” conference for certain circles, it becomes harder for me to clear time away from meetings with people I know—both planned and unplanned—to be a fly on the wall. I can partly deal with that problem by bringing e-Literate colleagues who can be extra pairs of eyes and ears.
But the third problem is harder. As the conference and the culture around it mature, the trends become harder to identify because they’re no longer fashion. We’re past the Year of the MOOC and the Year of Personalized Learning and all of that. Some of the less patient money has left, and some of it has refocused on corporate talent management. (Good luck with that; I don’t think it’s any easier than edtech.) A lot of the hype has faded into the background. The conversations seem more real and more focused on tackling important educational problems in realistic ways.
Don’t get me wrong; there are still 12-year-olds in $300 jeans talking to 22-year-olds in $3,000 suits about how their math app is going disrupt education, and a few random dudes—and they are still often dudes, despite a sincere and concerted effort to make the conference more diverse—walking around wearing tinfoil headbands and loudly declaring, “I CAN READ STUDENTS’ MINDS!”
But it’s easy to get distracted by the spectacle and miss the big picture. One way to look at the summit is as a giant peer review machine. Yes, with so many submissions, the quality will be uneven. And yes, sometimes a bad product will make it through the peer review process. And yes, you may find the process and the culture to be alien and unsettling if you’re not from that world. But from what I can see, the peer review machine is getting better in the sense that the pitches from startups to investors increasingly seem to focus on things that actually make sense in terms of developing products that are educationally useful.
Coincidentally, I was reviewing some of the videos of the lightning talks from our Empirical Educator Project (EEP) summit this morning as I was thinking about this post. I was struck by how the presentation from RealizeIT, which is the type and size of company that would typically pitch at ASU + GSV, was not hugely different from the best of the pitches at that summit:
The main difference is that, for the EEP crowd, the presentation focused on the collaborative research with University of Central Florida and others to improve student impact, while a good GSV pitch might pivot off the impact visualizations to talk about how their evidence of impact has led to increased sales. Having the latter conversation between companies and funders is an important piece in the ecosystem that was missing before the ASU + GSV conference. Trying to have the former type of conversation doesn’t work easily in the same forum with the latter type, partly for reasons of cultural differences. In the early years of ASU + GSV, the conference organizers—again, with the best intentions—worked very hard to try to host both conversations, with the result often being strong negative reviews from the academics. In more recent years at the summit, the academic needs seem to be coming in more organically via the companies as intermediaries and self-selecting academics who are, for lack of a better term, bi-cultural.
The one trend that did stand out at ASU + GSV, which I think is related to the above, is a lot of activity around Online Program Management (OPM) companies. Something fairly deep is happening in this space. Right now, most of the buzz is around the debate over whether the future of OPM business models is in revenue share or fee-for-service. I think that’s a red herring, created in part by the bad blood between some individuals at Noodle Partners—one of the leading proponents of the fee-for-service model—and 2U—the darling of the revenue share crowd. The truth is that, while there is some overlap in competition, what we are seeing increasingly is a range of different companies, many but not all of which are currently labeled as “OPMs,” that offer different bundles of services and different financing models that are best suited for solving different kinds of problems. The common thread is that there is a growing range of service businesses that help colleges and universities develop strong, student-centered degree and certificate programs, either by creating new ones or strengthening existing ones. We don’t have a good term or set of subcategories for this class of businesses, of which traditional OPM is one subcategory. (And some of these business are pretending that they are not service businesses for a variety of reasons, but that’s another story.)
To me, this squishiness in the OPM market is a sign that more and more schools are serious enough about learning to be systematically better at supporting student success that they are increasingly willing to pay for help. And that change in prioritization is potentially good for everyone. And ASU + GSV has become a good vantage point for spotting that kind of change—if you look hard enough.