While they’re both ostensibly working to make education as strong as possible, educators and edtech don’t always see eye to eye. Observers of the space, for instance, have long noted that teachers are often excluded from edtech procurement, as are higher ed faculty and staff.
But if they want to thrive, both groups might need to learn to meet each other’s gaze.
The deepest challenge getting edtech and educators to connect is a cultural one, said Luyen Chou, chief learning officer at 2U, Inc., during a panel at ASU-GSV on Monday.
They’ve each focused on their own concerns historically, but it’s no longer possible for them to be so siloed, Chou suggested. To compete, companies will have to “relentlessly” focus on learning outcomes, just as educational institutions will have to focus on the business outcomes of their institution, Chou said. But they often talk past each other, focused on their own concerns.
And there are those who say they’re working tirelessly to do just that, including Sean Michael Morris, vice president, academics for Course Hero, a contentious homework help site that relies on student-generated content.
When Morris accepted that role earlier this year, it sparked controversy.
Morris had been known as a vocal critic of edtech, and companies like Course Hero—as well as similar companies like 2U and Chegg—have been roundly criticized by educators for providing students with the tools they need to cheat. (The companies note that they forbid cheating.)
The companies have attracted big money, with Course Hero’s value rising to around $3.6 billion after a funding round last year. And while Chegg and 2U have been among the biggest public market decliners in the past six months, there’s reason for bullishness, according to Jason Palmer, a general partner at New Markets Venture Partner, an education-focused venture capital firm.
Despite the controversies, Course Hero’s platform has continued to grow with educators: The company now says that it has roughly 94,000 verified educators using the platform.
Is Morris’ move a model for other educators? At ASU-GSV, Morris agreed to give EdSurge an update on how his transition is going.
So far, he says, his critics haven’t warmed up to the move.
When he was first brought on board, Morris viewed the role as stepping from the outside of these companies to the inner circle, placing him where he can catalyze conversations between educators and business leaders, which he hopes will end up leading to a better result for students.
Forcing the exchange between educators and edtech businesses is precisely the opportunity he saw the job. “It’s an opportunity to really hold edtech’s feet to the fire,” he says. And he determined that Course Hero was willing to have that exchange, to have its feet held to the fire.
If you ask him, it’s working.
Morris says taking the gig has allowed him to introduce the educator’s perspective to influential edtech executives who would otherwise probably not get exposed to it. “I’m in conversation with people who have never talked about pedagogy before,” he says. “I can feel the needle moving ever so slightly.” That movement is reflective of a real feeling within the company that it needs to change how it thinks about its product, he says.
Those in education aren’t quite as sold.
“Educators are hard to move,” he says. And before he can push for the interchange between Course Hero and educators that he says will bring them around, Morris says that he needs to focus internally to iron out the wrinkles in the way Course Hero thinks about their product.
Shades of Gray
What about cheating?
“We need to take more responsibility for how students are using the product,” Morris says of Course Hero, adding that the same is true of edtech broadly. But he also hopes to work with educators to build a more nuanced understanding of cheating for the digital age, an area which he describes as prone to misunderstandings.
Part of the problem may have to do with the business model, which focuses on student-generated content, and which has included students posting lecture notes, tests, and similar material. Morris said that educators can struggle to accept a business model that puts students in control, during a panel at ASU-GSV on Monday.
“Cheating has always been a very clear black and white line. I think that digital technology has blurred that line a great deal: in terms of what is authorship, what is borrowing, what is stealing,” he says.