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Shaunak Roy is the founder and CEO of the ed-tech company Yellowdig. He and I have been chatting about higher ed after COVID-19, a series of conversations that grew into this Q&A.

Q: My institution already has a learning management system. Why should we look at Yellowdig? What does Yellowdig give students and professors that the discussion features of the LMS do not?

A: Yellowdig helps build education communities that are relevant, engaging and focused on outcomes, inside and outside  the classroom. Learning management systems are primarily used for managing course content, such as hosting course syllabus, assignments and grades. LMSes do offer discussion boards, but it is primarily used for discussion assignments as opposed to building true learning communities. We believe when students are able to form relationships with their peers, their education becomes so much more than classes, textbooks, projects and grades. It becomes a formative experience that will make them better people. Yellowdig sparks real interactions that result in real communities, allowing students to learn the way they were always meant to -- together.

Yellowdig’s Community Health dashboard is an evidence-based tool that measures community health along three dimensions: sharing, listening and interacting. Our dashboard allows instructors to understand students' levels of productivity, connectivity and attentiveness.

The Network Graph Visualization allows instructors to be more connected with the progress of their students and allows instructors to give more directed support. This tool shows you which members are connected, helps you find those who are leading interactions and identifies members who are not connecting with others and may be more likely to drop the course.

Our patented points system provides incentives for community building, which encourages not only sharing, but also listening and interacting. This way we can support all those engaging in the platform, and not just the loudest voices. Our learners build community and student agency and are just as invested in the community as we are.

Although our primary focus is building technology that our users love, we view ourselves as an outcome-focused education company. We bring research-backed practices, training, onboarding and a plethora of data science capabilities to help our clients use our technology correctly and efficiently.

Q: How do you think teaching and learning at colleges and universities will change after the pandemic?

A: Higher education is going through a massive amount of change, and it is almost impossible to predict what the future will look like. Abraham Lincoln put it best: “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” Given the massive amount of change we are going through, I believe the future is being built right now.

If there is one thing I am most certain about, it's that the adoption of technology in teaching and learning will continue to substantially increase after the pandemic. Almost every industry in the world is being transformed by technology, and looking at the younger generation that higher education primarily caters to, it is almost impossible to bet against it.

Prior to the pandemic, ed tech was largely viewed as a “niche” category outside of bread-and-butter technologies like the LMS. Most educators were either reluctant or resistant to adopt research-backed learning technologies outside of a selected “must-have” tools such as LMS, storage or lecture-capture tools. There were some curious early adopters who would experiment with ed tech, but it was mostly limited to a small group. As a result, it was difficult for ed-tech platforms to attain broad-based adoption.

This pandemic has forced a large number of educators to adopt technology in their classrooms for the first time. As a result, ed tech is moving from niche to mainstream. Yet it still has some way to go because along with the challenge of rushing to go online, a vast majority of instructors have a steep learning curve. However, the pandemic certainly forced a change that could otherwise have taken decades to manifest. In the coming years, I expect a gradual shift towards more thoughtful adoption of technology and increased investments in instructor training and efficacy research.

Another important shift I’m starting to see is that ed tech buying decisions are moving from IT to academics stakeholders. Previously, most ed-tech decisions fell in the hands of IT, who naturally evaluated technology based on features and functionality and ran aggressive RFPs. This approach has worked well for buying established tech like the LMS but does not work for ed tech that is mainly focused on teaching and learning and thus embedded in pedagogy, learning science and academic outcomes.

Institutions are increasingly involving faculty members and academic leaders (provost/CAO) to select ed tech that has potential, and CIOs are demanding access to data streams for efficacy research as a must-have for tech adoption. This is a welcome change, as I believe the true power of ed tech is not in its features and functionality, but the thoughtfulness with which it approaches learning design, the impact it has on student well-being and how the data can be leveraged to create feedback loops for continuous improvements.

Q: What should be the role of for-profit ed-tech companies (such as your own) in driving higher education change? How do you respond to critics of for-profit involvement in higher education?

A: The pandemic is putting pressure on the entire ecosystem to work together. Prior to the pandemic, there was a sense of us vs. them depending on which side of the table you were sitting on. Universities and educators often saw themselves as the stewards of the student, and ed-tech vendors saw themselves as providers of technology without much influence on the outcome.

With increased competition, the pandemic has shown us if students are not getting the highest-quality education, they are probably going to look elsewhere. This is neither good for the universities nor the vendors who serve them. A student-first approach is not nice to have, but an absolute must-have going forward. Colleges and universities have a vast network of capabilities, decades of experience and public trust to be able to deliver value over a long period of time. Private companies are often better resourced, able to move fast and benefit from working with a large number of institutions in any problem domain. At a macro level, we need to pivot the conversation from profit to the outcome, as ultimately, we are looking to deliver superior results for our students.

We see too many students finding themselves in debt by starting programs that they never complete. The successful academic outcomes we as institutions and education companies strive for are more lofty than to just give students a piece of paper; they are to give students life-changing opportunities to grow and succeed through community.

The welcoming news is that we are seeing a rapid shift towards greater collaboration. Our team works with over 75 large universities in the U.S., and we are seeing rapid progress towards this future in many, if not most of our clients. Like any good partnership, it starts with trust and accountability in terms of measurable outcomes. In the coming years, I expect to see a lot of progress towards new and improved frameworks for this type of partnership, more openness and accountability.

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