6 Questions for Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill

A conversation with the gurus of ed tech.

October 17, 2018
 

Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill need no introduction. We all read e-Literate. We all know about MindWires Consulting.

Still, I have questions. Michael and Phil generously agreed to answer all of them.

Question 1: If I were to name the most influential thinkers working at the intersection of learning and technology, I'd put both of you on that list. Neither of you are professors. Why would two people who decided to make a living in thinking and writing about learning innovation decide to do so outside of traditional academic gigs?

Michael: Phil and I came to consulting via different paths. In my case, I grew up in a family of teachers. I started my undergraduate career wanting to be a philosophy professor. But the further down the academic path I got, the more I realized that excellence in and scholarship of teaching, which is what I really cared about, was something that I’d have to work in around the main work requirements for job security and advancement in at least the first decade of a career as a professor. I made two more runs at finding a career path inside academia -- once as a Ph.D. student in English and a second time as an assistant director at the SUNY Learning Network -- and both times I came away believing that I could spend more of my time focused on my passion by working for academia rather than working in academia.

Phil: I’ve been doing independent/small-company consulting in academia for 16 years after an unexpected entry into consulting at the end of the dot-com era (hot tip -- it turns out your job might be at risk if you fail at a hostile takeover). It turned out that consulting fits my skills and pathologies, but I needed a specific market to keep the small-company approach. Based on early client feedback that there was an unserved need that my style fit into, and based on the intangible benefit of truly caring about the field being served, I moved all work to focus on education. That’s a long way of saying that this was not a deliberate choice but more of falling into a role that suited my style and client needs.

Question 2: I'm trying to get my head around MindWires Consulting. What is it? How does MindWires compare to other consulting companies?

Michael: We are probably unique in that we are a blog that has a consulting company rather than the other way around. E-Literate preceded MindWires by nearly a decade, and most of our consulting work flows from our writing. The kind of consulting we do is typically around sense making and change management. How is the future of pervasive technology-supported education likely to be different from the present, and how can organizations prepare for it? Not coincidentally, this is also what we write about. Organizations -- academic institutions, ed-tech vendors and sometimes ed-tech investors -- have to answer the same questions for themselves. When they hire us to consult, we will often give them more detailed or organization-specific analysis and decision-making support on topics related to ones we have written about.

Phil: As Jerry Weinberg wrote as his Second Law of Consulting, “No matter how it looks at first, it's always a people problem.” A particular focus of our approach at MindWires is that we help people make decisions, together. When the California Community Colleges’ Online Education Initiative needed to select a common LMS, the decision was not rocket science -- there were only a small number of LMS solutions that could possibly serve an entire state -- but the challenge of getting a large group of colleges to work together and then to collectively support the decision was the challenge.

Question 3: Can you give a specific example of the work that MindWires Consulting is doing?

Michael: Sure. Another way that we’re unique is that we have earned the trust of both universities and vendors to be able to consult to both sides. I’ll talk about one area from the vendor side. The curricular materials market is going through a lot of changes, between general downward price pressures, the rise of courseware and adaptive learning, increasing use of OER, and different measures of product value such as efficacy, to name a few. Vendors in this space -- both large and small -- will hire us to help them figure out how those trends affect them, how they can engage in dialogue with academics more productively about these changes, and how they can think about the best opportunities for them to contribute value to the overall educational process. Sometimes these are short-term engagements, where we are asked to provide a constructive critique of a particular product strategy, and sometimes it’s a more long-term relationship, where we keep them up to date on changes we see in the market and they ask us questions that come us as they think through how to respond to those changes.

Phil: On the academic side, we recently helped UCLA as they identified and prevetted a group of vendors that provide a range of OPM/digital enablement services. The university made a strategic choice to help various colleges who might seek OPM support by going through a public evaluation process, clarifying market choices and working out institutionwide requirements and terms -- by not leaving the full decision up to individual programs. We guided them in understanding the OPM market and advised them during the request for proposal process.

Question 4: The higher ed community looks to you guys to help us make sense of the ed-tech world, including the claims of ed-tech companies. I read e-Literate as a source of smart and unbiased analysis. At the same time, you are both engaged in paid consulting gigs in the ed-tech space. How can we be confident that your consulting will not bias your analysis? Even if the consulting is disclosed, it seems to be human nature to be influenced by where the funds that pay our mortgages come from.

Michael: There is no doubt that we have conflicts of interest to manage. We do our best to minimize them, but some are unavoidable in the odd role we play of marriage counselor between academics and ed-tech vendors. That’s why we always disclose when we are writing about somebody who is paying us or has paid us in the recent past. Readers should know the relevant facts to judge for themselves whether we are being fair. For the same reason, we usually don’t argue with people when they accuse us of bias due to conflict of interest on a particular post. They have every right to draw their own conclusions regarding our objectivity.

That said, we have developed a reputation for routinely biting the hand that feeds us. I’m proud to say that I don’t believe we’ve ever killed a story for fear of losing business. And we definitely have lost business from this approach, but we’ve probably also gained some. Our clients know what they are going to get from us because our behavior as consultants is pretty much the same as it is in our public writing. We try to be honest, fair, unflinching and constructive. I think the smarter companies also understand that we are one of the few outlets that can say something positive about an ed-tech vendor and have a chance of being believed. We don’t take that trust for granted, and we can only maintain it so long as our readers have bedrock faith that we always write what we believe to be true about a company, whether it is good or bad, and whether it helps or hurts our business relationship with that company. If we write something critical of a vendor’s behavior today, that means we have a better chance of being believed if we write something complimentary about their behavior down the road.

Phil: Ditto.

Question 5: Making a living by consulting seems really hard. You need to get and keep clients. There seems like there would be lots of travel. I'm wondering if the work of being consultants contributes or detracts from the thinking and the writing that you both do on innovation in higher education?

Phil: Over all, consulting clearly contributes to our thinking. This is one of the best avenues to more directly understanding the perspective of students, faculty and academics, often in the form of focus groups, interviews and surveys. As we work in between institutions and the market, we also get to see how one group perceives the other. Plus, we meet a lot of really smart people who help us learn. The biggest detraction is time and the need to make payrolls and mortgage payments, with the reduction in time to think and research and write.

Michael: I’m not as much of a natural road warrior as Phil is, so for me, there’s a balance. I can only be useful, as an analyst or a consultant, insofar as I can immerse myself in the worlds of the people that I’m trying to help deeply enough to gain some insight. I could form opinions at a distance, but the world in 2018 provides ample evidence that armchair punditry tends to do more harm than good. At the same time, I do need to think about what I’ve heard and learned. Even more than Phil, I tend toward long-form analysis. That kind of work takes time. So it’s important for me to give myself some “think” time.

Question 6: I want to turn the last question around. It seems as if in many ways not working inside higher education is beneficial to understanding how higher education is changing. You get to work with many institutions. You are exposed to the larger higher ed ecosystem. And you might have more freedom to be critical. Is it possible for someone working for a college or a university to think and write critically about higher education innovation?

Michael: Every perch provides a view into the world, and every viewpoint enables a person to see some things more clearly while obscuring others. Our perch, which gives us a view of academia from the middle distance, is inherently neither better nor worse than the inside view. One of the most dramatic benefits of ours is that it’s rare. We have somehow managed to find a relatively habitable perch where we can see into and across a lot of different silos from the outside, and there just aren’t many people who are lucky enough to be in that position. I also think our chemistry as partners makes a huge difference. Even when looking from the same perch, Phil and I bring different yet complementary experiences and analytic strengths to our work. It’s a real joy. But I want to emphasize that we could not do what we do without the benefit of the experience and perspectives that we get on a daily basis from talking to academics. They teach us a lot, all the time.

Phil: What he said. But I’ll add that there are multiple examples of people writing critically on higher education that come from inside that I enjoy reading. It might be difficult for them to separate out their emotions and vested interests in outcomes (requiring transparency in what their position is), but their perch gives them firsthand insights as well as “I’ve lived through this, I get it” experiences. We need multiple viewpoints.

What do you want to know from Michael and Phil?

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