A Virtual Internship Startup That Meets the Needs of Universities & Companies

Part of what I love about my work is simply learning about the many interesting and innovative things that people are doing in the education space. This is sometimes happening with new school startups, intrapreneurs within existing schools, and in classrooms around the world. However, there is so much happening in the education startup world as well, which is part of why I enjoy doing a modest amount of consulting in that space.

At least three or four times a week, I get an email, LinkedIn message, or direct message from one of those education startups, rarely to pitch a product. It is usually just to share ideas back and forth. Perhaps they came across an article that I wrote, one of my videos, or they were at a conference where I was giving a keynote or leading a workshop. Something that I shared connected with their vision or passion, so we follow-up. That is how networking works, right?  Well, this is more true than ever in the digital age.

A couple of weeks ago, one such conversation happened with Michael Quigley, co-founder of Promazo, and I’m excited to tell you a bit more about it. I apologize in advance to Michael and his colleagues if I misrepresent anything here, but here is what I heard and what excited me about what they are doing.

When it comes to higher education, we know that hands-on and real world experience are both powerful. First, it is an incredible way to learn real world skills. Second, it adds something to student’s resumes so, upon graduation, they are not applying to a job with absolutely not tested experience in a given field. Third, if helps students discover whether a given type of work aligns with their gifts and abilities. Fourth, if helps students understand the relevance of what they are learning in classes that would otherwise come off as abstract and disconnected from the rest of life. Finally, by being tested with real world projects, students get a better sense of their strengths and limitations. They can learn to build on their strengths, reduce their limitations, and fill in gaps along the way. As such, they start to take more ownership in their learning and personal development.

With such a long list of benefits, it would seem that internships are a no-brainer for college students. They are great ways to gain that real world experience, get to know themselves, apply their learning, build their resumes and more. Yet, there are geographic limitations to internships during the regular school year. Transportation can be a challenge for some students. And, given all the other responsibilities in college, it can be a challenge to fit an internship into that schedule. When we can make them happen (especially during breaks from school), these immersive, in-person internships can be tremendous. However, in the absence of that, is there anything else that can be done?

This is where I was excited to learn about Promazo and see what they are doing. As I talked to co-founder Michael Quiqley, they aspire to revolutionize the way students find jobs and the way employers find (and keep) top talent. Since much work is moving to become more virtual, why can’t internships be virtual as well? Promazo will work with companies to find a project that could benefit from interns. This is not the “go get me coffee type of internship.” It is real work that addresses real needs and has real deadlines. Promazo then works to find a group of University students at a given campus, assembles them as a project team, manages the project, and guides this team of students from project start to completion, sometimes even concluding with an in-person pitch of their product at the company headquarter.

They launched this idea with 7 college students working on a project for IBM. Now they have over 300 students at schools like Georgetown, Harvard, Boston College, Carnegie Mellon, and Notre Dame involved in these virtual internships for an impressive collection of well-known and well-respected companies.

There are countless benefits to this beyond what I’ve already mentioned, but consider these three. First, these are paid internships during the academic year, so this is real work that replaces what might otherwise be traditional campus jobs. This is better pay and more real world experience. Second, this is a great recruiting tool for these companies. They get a peek into the skills of these interns which can easily turn into a new job for a recent graduate and new, promising talent for the company. Third, this is a model that doesn’t depend on extensive work or coordination from the University. Promazo does much of the work, while giving the University a great internship program about which they can boast.

This is a solid example of an education startup that has a creative solution for both companies and Universities. They do this while not ignoring the need for a sustainable financial model for themselves. This is a brilliant model for a win-win-win example of educational entrepreneurship. I look forward to seeing how it develops over the upcoming years.

From Degrees to A Lifelong Educational Ecosystem

This is an age of unbundled education and it can be argued that higher education institutions are sleeping giants in this realm. As such, I’ve been grappling with a concept for the past year that I’d like to share with you, one that I suspect represents an emerging shift in the way we think about educational offerings. If this were to gain traction, it could have promising possibilities for everything from workforce development to social entrepreneurship, ongoing professional development to educational credentials.

Let me start by explaining what I mean by unbundling. Where we once thought of formal education as an all or nothing, one size fits all option, we now see many aspects being broken down into discrete elements, providing a buffet of choices. One might choose the free online lectures and content without the degree. Another might opt for a competency-based program that is heavy on assessment and verification of learning leading toward a credential, but it does not have the typical classroom experience. Another might get the credit without the class through a prior learning credit option. Still another might choose computer-based instruction that carefully monitors progress toward mastery, but it may or may not be in the context over an overall school experience. We can have the class and credential without a face-to-face element through online learning. Then there are also a litany of education companies emerging that have unbundled services that previously didn’t exist or were typically an integrated part of a University offering: services ranging from tutoring to educational travel, online study groups to writing help, gap year experiences to college prep services, career services to opportunities for internships. While many such companies have been around for a long time, today we see a rapid expansions of startups and education businesses that provide these and more services.

Why do I call higher education institutions the sleeping giants in the age of unbundled services? It is because flagship higher education institutions are gold mines of expertise in everything from neuroscience to healthcare, public policy to educational research, new product development to international business. Yet, many education businesses emerge in areas where higher education institutions have been less interested in venturing. Colleges and Universities think about research and degree programs as two primary elements, although there are many that have robust continuing education units that have a long and impressive history of a broader spectrum of educational offerings.

With this in mind, I’ve been exploring a concept that seems to have great potential for both higher education institutions and education companies. I refer to it as the life long learning educational ecosystem and wheel of offerings. This is a way of shifting our focus from degree programs to distinct areas of educational influence. The following image illustrates one such ecosystem as an an example. This particular example is focused on an area of personal interest, nurturing educational technology innovators and leaders. Notice how the center of the visual is not a degree in educational technology. Instead, the center is a vision or mission. The goal is to nurture innovators and leaders in the field of education. How we go about that will vary from one person to another. It will depend upon one’s interests, resources, level of expertise, stage of life and work, and much more. As such, a degree is listed as one option. Along side that we have a graduate certificate that is a focused but less expansive offering, one that also might cost less than a full degree. It might serve as a stepping stone to a degree, a stand-alone credential, or an add-on to an existing graduate degree. There there are also offerings that increase access and opportunity like open courses. These might be funnels to recruit students for the degree or certificate, but they are also ways to live out the mission even when people are not in need of a formal credential or do not have the time and resources for the degree or certificate. Continuing around the circle, we also have possible offerings like an 8-day boot camp, perhaps a series of 8 intensive 6-8 hour workshops focused upon key areas for educational innovation. From there we have options like mini-courses (for credit or not), potential coaching and mentoring services for emerging or existing educational leaders, 1- day events or conferences, and unconferences.

FinalAnd for bite-sized insights to help aspiring and emerging educational innovators, there is even a potential offering like a newsletter or blog that highlights promising practices and emerging research. There are hundreds of other spokes that could be added to this wheel of offerings ranging from webinars to Twitter chats, fellowships to online communities. The point is that they work as individual offerings but combine to create a robust set of standalone or stackable learning opportunities. Imagine what would happen if more flagship higher education institutions embraced such a vision for various academic areas of influence. What if more Universities thought of organizing their units around such discipline-specific missions instead of organizing more around degree programs?

I realize that there are many factors that make such a shift unlikely, but if a few sleeping giants in higher education fully embraced such a vision, imagine the potential social benefits. What if we did this with key social challenges and intellectual pursuits? Then what if we did it more formally through partnerships across organizations. There are examples, but they remain isolated and a minority.

The more I follow the trends in education, the more confident I am that such an ecosystem will become increasingly common. What remains unclear is the extent to which this will take place in formal higher education institutions. However, if it were to do so, I suspect that it would quickly silence (or at least muffle) concerns about the future of higher education.


Bold But Humble Innovation: A Philosophical Primer for #SXSWedu

london-600921_640As I prepare to head out for what I hope to be an amazing conference at SXSWedu, I decided to take the time to remind myself about a few of my core values when it comes to educational innovation and entrepreneurship. Without question, I am a champion of educational innovation, but one of my core values in this arena relates to innovation with humility and any eye toward genuine social good. As such, I write the following as a reminder to myself and and invitation for others to join me in bold innovation that is seasoned with humility and transparency.

If you are a champion of educational innovation, an educational entrepreneur, or an educational technology evangelist; I contend that it is a moral responsibility to investigate the affordances and limitations of one’s work. There are wonderful benefits to educational entrepreneurship. There are also side-effects, even negative consequences. The same is true to pretty much anything that we do in life. Maybe it is easier to go about one’s work without knowing the downside, but I believe that all work in education is a form of social entrepreneurship. It exists to do more than generate revenue (which is a perfectly good and admirable outcome in many contexts). It is about seeking and pursuing some form of social good. As such, this calls for us to devote just as much scrutiny to our social impact as we do to the financial reports. It calls us to be interested in digging down through perception to what is really happening.

In 2001, Larry Cuban published, Oversold and Underused, a critique of the growing investment in computers and technology in schools. The book garnered cheers from some and sneers from others who thought it was little more than the complaints of a University Luddite who masterfully cloaked his fears in academic language. It was so much more than that. In the text, Cuban shared rich cases about mass purchases of technology in schools with not only limited positive impact, but even some significant negative consequences.

A couple of years later Todd Oppenheimer wrote The Flickering Mind, a less academic but equally strong critique, pointing to what we he saw as, “the false promise of technology in the classroom.” Oppenheimer made his case by describing multiple instances of technology adoption in schools and how they failed to deliver on the stated promises.

The more we embrace life and learning in the digital world, the more important and valuable it becomes for us to engage in ongoing, healthy, scrutiny of where we are going, what we are doing, what is being done to us, and what we are becoming. As Marshall McLuhan explained, “”We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.”

I’m not arguing that we necessarily need to slow down, just that we leave room for questions, reflection, the relentless pursuit of data about the impact of what we are doing, and an ability to look at multiple sides and perspectives. I often find myself in meetings where I am advocating for an idea, and some might not agree with it. It is interesting how they sometimes seem confused or surprised when I agree with some of their critiques and add a few of my own. Why would someone join in critiquing their own idea or proposal? In my case, I do it because I believe that ideas have consequences, and that we are accountable for what we do. Even when we do it with the best of intentions, there can be unexpected negative results. As Neil Postman wisely pointed out, there are always winners and losers with a new technology, and that applies to new methods, strategies, philosophies, programs, ventures, products and services. It may make us feel better to ignore the negative impact of our work, but it does nothing to help us try to muffle or minimize those negative implications with the goal of maximum social impact.

Consider the nature of much political debate. How often do we hear politicians openly acknowledging or even personally pointing out the potential negative implications of one of their proposals? Some in media do not help the cause by polarizing people in their reports.

The same thing happens in education, even when it comes to publications and reports. When research comes out showing the low performance of some high school students in virtual schools compared to brick and mortar schools, how do we make use of that as advocates of online learning? Some might respond by ignoring it, minimizing it, or even trying to explain why it was not valid. It is certainly appropriate to assess the validity and reliability of any study, but taking the time to read and understand such research gives us wonderfully valuable information for online learning advocates. Why not learn from it and use it to create better online learning experiences with improved results? This example can apply to everything from micro-credentials to competency-based education, adaptive learning software to project-based learning, self-directed learning programs to blended learning initiatives and the maker movement in education.

My challenge is not that we hold up every new idea or ensure its demise by tearing it apart. We tear it apart to know what we are doing, to more fully understand the potential harm and help that comes from it. We critique to make it better, to genuinely and more fully understand the impact on real people with real needs. It would be malpractice for medical practitioners to ignore the most current research because it challenges their preferred methods. The same is true when it comes to educational innovation and entrepreneurship.

We can find some help from a less known area of study called media ecology. The Media Ecology Association consists of a wonderfully diverse and insightful collection of scholars who are, “dedicated to promoting the study, research, criticism, and application of media ecology in educational, industry, political, civic, social, cultural, and artistic contexts, and the open exchange of ideas, information, and research among the Association’s members and the larger community.” They represent a form of much-needed scholarship as we find ourselves in contexts that inch closer to propaganda and further away from a candid search for the truth and understanding.

Where do we go with these ideas? One step is to start or recommit ourselves to asking the tough questions, seeking answers to them, and creating time and space to talk through the implications. That also leads us to an obligation to act on what we discover. Another great starting point is to get informed about some of the thoughtful critics of our technological age. While there are new books coming out each year, I still find value in starting with some of the classics. Check out Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization, Neil Postman’s End of Education and Amusing Ourselves to Death, Marshall McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy, Water Ong’s Orality and Literacy, and Jacques Ellu’s The Technological Society. Many of these do not explicitly deal with education, but they are almost certain to help any thoughtful reader with developing a sensitivity to the types of questions that can help us as we explore the affordances and limitations of educational innovation and entrepreneurship.

With all this stated, I’m off to one of the most exciting education innovation events of the year!

Who Decides What Should be Taught & Learned in an Age of Educational Choice?

Dozens. There are more choices in education than there are cereals at the typical US grocery story. Where I live there are dozens of choices for schools. There are community public schools, charter schools, magnet schools, independent schools, and faith-based schools. There are classical schools, core knowledge schools, self-directed learning academies, project-based learning programs, game-based learning, blended learning schools, and place-based schools. This has empowered families with choice about curriculum, pedagogy, and anything else that they consider important. While some would rather us have a single uniform community public school system (with limited and select options through magnets), that is not where we are in education today. This is true about early childhood, elementary, secondary, and higher education. In addition to these educational organizations, there are hundreds of education startups and established companies that offer even more choices about what and how to learn. It is also true about the what and how of lifelong learning. With the digital age comes more educational options than any time in history.

That is the thing about democratized knowledge. It not only increases access and opportunity, but it gives voice and choice when it comes to determining what knowledge is worth acquiring and when to acquire it. Personalized and adaptive learning movements in education are growing quickly, but many of these early efforts are focused upon training and education that is largely standardized (e.g. math and foreign language). These are often complex product designs that require a large audience to get a reasonable return on the investment. That is why it is no coincidence that developments like the Common Core State Standards parallel the growth of education startups and the education sector at large. There is a reason the market share of educational assessment and testing companies has increased over the past couple of years. We see adaptive software gaining traction in areas like math, language instruction, and computer programming. What do these have in common? There is far less debate about the scope and sequence for areas like this.

Depending upon your perspective, these are delightful or troubling times withe regard to choice. For the business-minded, there are experiments like Draper University, probably one of the only schools that has a business curriculum that focuses upon futurology, bitcoins, and the warrior mindset. At this point, it seems that the startups and education sector in the business world are leading the way for more choice. As I shared in a presentation to University presidents yesterday, consider projects like Lynda.com, General Assembly, Udacity, and Learn Up. These are samples of the creativity, innovation, and infusion of choice that exemplifies the modern education landscape. These are not only efforts to sell products to schools. These are also standalone education companies that do what schools often do not or cannot do, reaching out directly to the learning, bypassing the educational establishments.

  • To what extent will we see some of these education companies filling the gap for schools and Universities?
  • How much will come from partnerships between these companies and schools?
  • Will more schools begin to embrace similar offerings and innovation from within their organization?
  • Which organizations are most insulated from growing choice and which are least?
  • Will the broader culture of choice redefine standard operations in many schools, driving them to provide more choice to learners?
  • How much with regulatory bodies limit the growth and impact of educational choices?
  • And, will the heavy regulations drive most of the innovations out of schools and into education startups and companies that are less bound or completely unbound from such limitations?

These are the types of questions that intrigue me in this age of educational choice.