Sep 18, 2020

Identifying Four Camps of the Future


“The work of the school is determined by the needs of society.”

— Francis Parker

The world is changing. Fast. And, COVID-19 is acting as an agent of acceleration, deepening all of the preexisting conditions plaguing industries that had not planned for serious environmental disruption. In the education industry, schools and colleges are trying to plan for an uncertain future while simultaneously running continuous virtual learning platforms for the first time. It is a tough task. We know that, given all of the conversations we have been having during the pandemic.

Francis Parker’s view of education was that it should constantly evolve to meet the needs of a changing world. The progressive pioneer did not see education as a static model. Instead, he assumed that education would always be influenced by the external world, even anchored in it.

In January 2018, our firm authored a four-part series focused on recalibrating education for the future. It was not the first series on this topic that we had written, but simply among our more recent calls to action to an industry in decline. It was another chance to rethink the future and create a business model accordingly. We explored the extraordinary challenges that plague our industry, from how we use time (scheduling), how we credential our work (assessment), how we deliver it (continuous learning), and how we pay for it (accessibility).

The time has come. Education is in the process of recalibration. It won’t be the same in the future. COVID-19 is the most recent – and the most deadly – environmental issue to hit our industry. It is huge. But, education has dodged other bullets in the past. Every decade has seen inflection points, from 911 to global economic crisis to SARS, that should have served to place education on notice. The model will change in the future.

I predict four camps will emerge that will serve to define schools and colleges in the future. In which camp will your school or college land?

These schools and colleges get it. They read the tea leaves and got ahead of the curve. Early bird get the worm, as they say. They planned – or are doing so now – with great courage and audacity. They took risks to diversify their access points, from price to location to delivery model, and therefore they diversified their audiences. They challenged the status quo by redefining time (schedule), assessment (credentials), and community (location). Most importantly, they are pulling a Wayne Gretzky: they skate to where the puck is going, not where it is. They will not only make it in the future, but they will drive best practices of the model. As a cohort, they will lead, disrupt and punch above their weight.

These schools and colleges get it – sort of. They understand that times are changing but they have systems and structures that they perceive are too great of barriers to change at this time. They want to adapt to a changing world, but they worry that they may not be able to manage the internal change to do so. Some of these schools and colleges are current market leaders and possess large resources and big brands that they perceive will bring them through the challenges. They hope they can adapt over a period of time, hoping to implement gradual change that everyone can agree upon. Many will make it – some will get smaller over time. As a cohort, they will follow a safe and proven path and receive incremental results.

This group of schools and colleges don’t get it. They are intrinsically tied to old models and structures. They believe that there is such inherent value in their type of educational experience that they will not adapt, let alone innovate. These are the organizations that claim that marketing will save the day and that “if we just told our story better, people will flock to us.” They will spend a great deal of resources to preserve their model as they get smaller. Their market share will erode and public confidence will, as well. Some will pass away. As a cohort, they will attempt to preserve an an outdated model, somehow thinking that they will be able to resurrect their glory days.

Unfortunately, there are a group of expensive, small, overgeneralized, non-distinct schools and colleges that will die. They don’t have the innovative chops, distinctive programs, or large reserves to manage through an inflection point of this size. At one time, they were valid competitors and provided a solid education. But, unfortunately, they never received a transformational gift or extraordinary success in any one signature program. As a result, they entered COVID-19 with the preexisting conditions for a short life. As a cohort, they will die slow and, in some cases, painful deaths.

I see these four camps playing out during the next five years. I am deeply concerned about the future of our education industry, especially since many schools and colleges have failed or will fail to adapt to a changing set of circumstances. If there is a “Blockbuster moment” for those organizations, it is right now. None of us wants to see schools and colleges struggle; we want to see them thrive, so that their students thrive.

So, what is the future of place-based education? That is a question that a small group of ISA-U thought leaders, called the Strategy Collaborative, have been pursuing since January. Tough times to answer that question, right? My sense is that we will return to our natural wheelhouse of place-based in the future. We will appreciate it even more than before COVID-19. And, we will lean into it as a core strength. But, we will not be able to solely rely on it in the future. We have to diversify. After all, restaurants with drive throughs and delivery systems are really grateful to be able to deliver their dishes at this moment in time.

I am bullish on the future. This is a terrible moment in time, no doubt, with challenge and heartache in abundance. But, innovators never miss the opportunity a crisis represents. COVID-19 will provide the backdrop for that extraordinary innovation. It will accelerate the issues that already plagued us. And, it will breed a new frontier for education. I am confident in education as an industry. We will change and create a new model for the future.

Simply stated:

If more students can be served in the future, and if more students can be served better in the future, then some good will most definitely emerge from this pandemic.

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