Interview: Emily Dalton Smith, Online Director, SkySong, Arizona State University

What makes for a good system of online operation in a higher ed institution?
I don’t think it matters whether you’re online or face-to-face – a good system is a good system. In that sense, it’s a bit like shopping; the retail sector has already proven that whether in person or online, what makes the difference is understanding the people you serve and providing an outstanding product and experience.
How will higher ed institutions of the future align themselves with K12 and the need for strong core curriculum that is proved to facilitate a career-readiness and / or college-ready standard for students?
We could take a lesson in innovation from the railroads. In the early to mid-1800s, railroad traffic was managed locally, with individual operators responsible for small sections of track all across the country. Each track manager was wholly responsible for managing traffic on his section of the track, which often led to tremendous slowing as trains moved from one manager’s territory to another. Predicting traffic was, at best, inexact, and each route was only as good as its worst manager. The railroads began using time zones and standardized time in the early 1883, enabling high speeds and increasing productivity across the entire country.Freeman, Christopher and Louca, Francisco (2001), “The Second Kondratiev Wave: The Age of Iron Railways, Steam Power, and Mechanization,” in As Time Goes By: From the Industrial Revolutions to the Information Revolution. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press), p. 188-219.
Emily Dalton Smith, SkySong, Arizona State University
Our school system is like the railroads pre-1883: For a long time, education has existed in clearly bounded segments, each of us concerned with our section, whether it’s a system or an institution or a single class. To align K12 and higher ed, we need to work as a single system rather than as many dependent segments. At ASU Online, we’re focusing intently on developing partnerships that transform the boundaries of our system into milestones rather than choke points.
It’s also important to remember that education isn’t an assembly line; it’s a dynamic, open system that responds to a continually changing set of variables in students, politics and policy-making, culture, economics, and the education system itself, which is run by its own graduates. To really align K12 and higher ed, I think we need to take a very broad systems approach that coordinates student movement throughout the entire education system and empowers practitioners at all levels to keep our students on track.
You worked in digital marketing before working at ASU: what real life digital marketing-related lessons need to be taught in higher ed to make students’ work more feasible to the current work world?
There are two things I learned from digital marketing that have heavily influenced my approach to education: keeping service at the core of our work and using data to tell us about our students so they don’t have to. We can’t continue to center our student experience around the university’s organizational structures; we have to reconstruct our operations around the students’ needs and use whatever tools and resources are available to us to create an exceptional student experience. Luckily, the online campus has tremendous potential to gather student data and use it to deliver a personal experience to each of our students.
We’ve spent a week or so at edReformer talking about digital media as a way of gathering data and teaching curriculum, so in return to an old favorite of ours, how can the use of digital / online solutions in teaching lead to better performing students?
Learning, learning, learning – teaching requires learning, and the wealth of data we can now collect allows us to learn at a volume and speed that was incomprehensible even a few years ago. The big question I see now is who’s going to collect, analyze, and present the data so that teachers, administrators, and policymakers can learn. The New York Times Magazine just had a great piece on “The Data-Driven Life” that illustrated the power of interrupting our perceptions of ourselves with data and objective analysis. I think our education system would see a lot of benefit from that kind of learning.
Can you think of current companies out there that do well in the online curriculum and learning systems niche that, strung together, make a complete end-to-end system for learning online? If not, what is the missing link?
I see lots of companies tackling interesting pieces of the student experience, but nobody who has successfully captured the comprehensive student experience – or provided a hub for pulling it all together. The company that figures out how to knit together all of these technology, processes, and people – the master scheduler, to continue with the railroad analogy – is going to be the big winner. I keep wondering who’s going to develop the for education, but I haven’t seen a clear winner yet.
What kinds of companies are you looking for to partner with?
We’re looking to partner with companies that have great products that solve real problems and create real opportunities. That means they need to have a product that works, a solid team whose vision aligns with ours, and enough funding so that we don’t have to worry that they’ll disappear in a year or two. We’re also looking for companies that have realistic business models. Public institutions are operating in an incredibly challenging funding environment, so a startup that proposes we spend $100,000 a year to help them build out their product isn’t going to get very far.
Is it possible that higher ed begins to work inside the corporate or operating environment of a company? In other words, is there more of an education to learn by working for a start-up, now that we can use online tools to facilitate a learning environment?
I think what’s more interesting is the question of whether, going forward, we’ll ever really be out of school. As the U.S. becomes even more of a knowledge economy, we may very well find that while the boundary between secondary and college education blurs, so does the boundary between formal education and professional development. Our College of Teacher Education and Leadership is implementing an extended induction program for new teachers, meaning that many of their graduates graduates will continue to be associated with and supported by ASU for two years after graduation. Who’s to say this won’t happen in all disciplines?
Let’s play a value game. What’s more valuable to you: a diploma or funds for a start-up that you may fail at running or that may succeed?
Easily a diploma. If you’re an average college graduate, you’ll make more than $1 million extra over your lifetime and will have better health and a longer life, greater life satisfaction, happier children, and more hobbies than people without college degrees.Reaping the Benefits: Defining the Public and Private Value of Going to College. The New Millennium Project on Higher Education Costs, Pricing, and Productivity.
In contrast, research shows that if you fail at your first startup, your chances of success are pretty much no better the second time around. (If you succeed, your chances of success are 50% greater in round
Research also shows that having industry experience has a significant positive effect on succeeding at a startup.Gompers, Karvner, Lerner, Scharfstein. Skill vs. Luck in Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital: Evidence from Serial Entrepreneurs
So, I’d get the diploma, work for several years, and then start a company.

Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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