Warren Kennard is a globally connected higher education professional and reformer with extensive leadership experience across edtech, strategy, marketing, business development and partnerships. He is committed to giving higher education a stronger voice in society
Crowdsourcing digital education with ConnectED
Natalia: What is ConnectED? Why did you build it?
Warren: ConnectED is a crowdsourced education business. The problem we’re trying to solve is the speed-to-market gap. Curriculum design is very, very slow in most private and public higher education systems. What we’re trying to do is be the Uber/Airbnb of the education world and crowdsource programs rapidly so that we can improve the speed-to-market of the curriculum.
We’re super passionate about the higher education space, so the first course that we decided to build is an edtech and higher education strategy program. We crowdsource insights from a whole bunch of people, really prominent figures in the higher education space—like Michael Horn, David Blake, Liz Macmillan, Terri Givens, Ryan Craig. We’ve curated that into a learning experience as a small private online course.
Natalia: And, of course, you’re trying to make it as practical as possible, and connect the audience to the digital education industry.
Warren: Absolutely. There’s lots of really novel kinds of challenges that the higher education system is facing. What we wanted to do is be able to leverage the insights and the thought leadership of really prominent figures in the marketplace—that really understand it on a practical level—and then be able to equip people with the tools and the skills and the wherewithal to be able to develop strategy that’ll help them to be successful in their roles.
Effective digital learning
Natalia: What does effective digital learning look like to you?
Warren: I think the key to digital education is engagement. I’m very wary about the highly personalised streams that are coming to the fore at the moment. If you look at AI and personalised learning, there’s a lot being done to really focus on the individual, and how you can push them down a track towards an outcome. And part of me is concerned about that. It’s wonderful for technical skills. If you’re wanting to be a better mathematician or coder, you can really hone in on those specific skills and drive somebody down a path.
What I’m more worried about is the broader categories, the kind of courses that one does, or careers that one is going to go into into the future. The ability to engage a cohort, and have that experience and conversation with other people is what’s key. And I believe that from a digital point of view, we’ve got a wonderful opportunity to do that and to trial that, and that’s going to take really special design if we’re going to get that right.
Natalia: I completely agree that social learning and creating learning communities is really important.
Warren: I think it’s been the stumbling block for a couple of years. If you look at some of the MOOCs and how they started—and how they continue today—it’s very much an asynchronous kind of experience, and a point-and-click kind of experience. This is what most people are experiencing in the corporate environment, especially when it comes to compliance and other necessary training that they’re getting within their organisations. I think there’s a wonderful opportunity for us to bring humanness and community space into that learning experience.
How will digital learning impact the future of education?
Natalia: How do you think digital learning will impact the future of education as a whole?
Warren: It’s a really difficult question at the moment, because we’re seeing it explode onto the scene—mostly from a remote learning point of view, of course, as we’re seeing in the US—and also mostly in the school system, where many of the lectures have been transposed onto Zoom and or equivalent platforms. I don’t think we are getting a full appreciation for what digital can really contribute at the moment. What we’re seeing is a kind of a disjointed experience and a replication of the offline experience, online.
What I believe will happen in the future is that we’re going to see much more carefully, well thought-through design that’s specifically tailored for the digital experience. Testing—that iteration, the ability to see what’s working, and what isn’t working—is going to be of paramount importance as we start to build our digital learning materials for the future.
I think the digital realm is certainly allowing for a lot more accessibility. We’re seeing that many more people can access courses and learning material—and in some cases, fantastic material—for relatively little or no cost.
What we haven’t necessarily got right, and where I think a lot of work will go into in the future is looking at: how does that compare to a face-to-face experience? Or how does that compare from a market-adoptability point of view? Are people getting jobs? Are they getting work with those qualifications? I think there’s a massive opportunity for higher education to clean up its act and make things a lot simpler and easier, so that people can understand: what is this course going to give me? Am I going to get a job at the end of it? Who are the employers that normally look at these kinds of qualifications? And is it a qualification versus a short course? I think we’ve got a ton of work to do to curate this experience—this learning—and to make it a lot more easier and accessible for students.
Digital learning in 2030
Natalia: How do you picture digital learning in 2030? What does it look like in your mind? And what do organisations need to do today to keep up with the needs of future learners?
Warren: I think what we’re hopefully going to see—and the big opportunity is—to again look at credentials, to look at the microcredential movement and state on a global scale. How do these things stack up? How are we going to aggregate the landscape so that we get a fair and equitable kind of stance upon which we can apply for work, or that we can know where we stack up?
In addition to that, it’s also looking at this continuous lifelong learning. We’ve got to look at how students can engage in learning over their lifetime. So I think there’s the combination of the credentials being able to be stacked up over time, and then maybe cashed in for some kind of formal qualification and also the ability to renew your skills every so often, much like renewing your driver’s license or renewing your passport. These are all things that will be innate for us. We would just know that we have to level up periodically to make sure that we’re competent in the area of expertise that we have.
Natalia: Do you think the demand for degrees will diminish compared to the short courses?
Warren: If we look at the current statistics we are seeing a decline. I spend a lot of time, mostly in the US, on these kinds of topics, and we’re seeing a decline in enrolments. That’s due to a combination of factors including experiencing COVID. Students aren’t able to access the full campus facilities and the fun and excitement that happens with students’ coming of age experience. We are probably seeing a decline in enrolment as a result of that, but we’re also seeing a rising cost of tuition—and that’s globally—it’s extremely expensive.
Students are starting to question whether this is really worth the money. Am I getting a job? If that is the reason why I’m going to study—which for many students it is: I want to get a job—is it not easier for me to do a boot camp or to do a short program or to do an internship that’s paid for by Google or Uber or whatever, and then get my qualification while I’m working? Are those better routes towards where I want to be? And for many students, it is, and we’re seeing an increasing number of those students.
Business model for higher education
Natalia: What do you think are the critical priorities for universities to be able to survive the evolution of digital education and keep up with the needs and changing jobs?
Warren: For me it starts with the business model. I think the business model has come under a hell of a lot of scrutiny over the last little while—the purpose by which that institution was founded and what it’s fundamentally there to do. I think that many of the vice-chancellors and senior leaders in the universities that I speak to are really questioning their value proposition, really thinking through their commercial model, because the commercial viability is absolutely quintessential to them delivering services. So I think the business model—the ability to augment their revenue streams, to think differently about partnerships with industry, to think differently about partnerships with online program management providers and the like—is hugely important.
The key—and our course builds firmly on this premise—is to look at what higher ed leaders need to do. They certainly need to look at the digital disruption that’s happening. Innovation, looking at the business model, looking at how digital transformation is affecting it and industry 4.0 and the like, what do the partnerships need to look like? And why do we partner? And who do we partner with? What is our brand? What is our sales and marketing strategy? How do we embrace digital marketing and the like?
Then looking at teaching and learning: do we want to embed AI teaching assistants into our program? Or do we want to go down a very personalised track? Or do we want to start looking at what Udacity does and have much more of a crowdsourced response to student inquiry and to make speed of feedback a really important measure of success?
Natalia: I think it’s also critical to put the learner at the centre of decision-making and really understand the target audience that you’re serving, and how those needs are changing as well.
Warren: It’s absolutely critical. It goes to whether you need to be a research institution or a teaching institution, and you’ve got to think about the balance of that. Having that focus around the student and thinking about ‘what is our value proposition to the student’—these are going to be very big decisions that that institutions are going to need to make.
Edtech and strategy for higher education
Natalia: And circling back to ConnectED, what are the long-term goals that you have? What’s in the pipeline?
Warren: We’ve got an upcoming program starting on the 19th of June, the ‘Edtech, and Strategy for Higher Education’. The inaugural cohort happened in September of 2020, and it was extremely successful. We had a lot of fun and we took a lot of learning out of it. We had some wonderful senior leaders from across the globe during the program.
We’re also now in the process of building out several more courses and they will all be announced relatively soon. The one that we landed on in the immediacy is going to be ‘The Business of Higher Education’. So we’re very much focused on the commercial sustainability of institutions, then, what do we need to do for our students? We need to look at the student differently, but focusing mainly on the financial sustainability as a starting point.
The future for ConnectED—we are uncertain whether we’re going to focus very intently on the higher education sector, or whether we’re going to expand into K-12, and other markets. Or alternatively, look at the model more generally, and consider other opportunities in other sectors outside of higher education. So that’s what we’re principally focused on at the moment.