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Yellowdig: An Evolution in Higher Education

Yellowdig: An Evolution in Higher Education

“You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world”(1)


For the past four years or so, since MOOCs reared their multi-million-eyed heads over the usually sleepy higher ed landscape, college and university campus leaders have been told that the revolution is coming. The end is nigh or at least nearly nigh, we have heard again and again.  

Airport “bookstores” are stocked full of headline-grabbing, exclamation-point-filled tomes by business school professors like Clay Christensen, foretelling the rapidly approaching higher ed-pocalypse.  He and others have prophesized that in less than one generation, as many as half of all American universities will be bankrupt.  The revolution was immediately forthcoming, he and his followers have ceaselessly been telling us.  The time was now, they told us, to start to re-think the entire ecosystem in which we exist.  Those who failed to heed the revolutionary call would surely perish.    

There is no doubt that things on our campuses seem to be changing at a rapid, even ludicrous speed.  And there you are, perhaps sitting in the president’s or the provost’s or the CIO’s office at your school, the disruption swirling around, pondering your next steps.  Your bosses, who might even include the board of trustees of your school, are asking what you are going to do about it.  So, what are you going to do about it?

Students have already made the pivot to this new world and living in this new reality.  Facebook was birthed on university campuses, to quench the unquenchable thirst that students have for social networking.   It quickly went viral and conquered the world.  That was a mere ten years ago.  Students will adapt to change, especially the ones that empower them within the boundaries of the institution.

So, it’s faculty and administrators who are the question.  I have served in something like the role you are in now, as associate dean at Harvard Law School, where I oversaw faculty development, amongst other administrative responsibilities, and also taught at Harvard and elsewhere.  I was a vice president while edX, the MOOC provider founded by Harvard and MIT, was nudging the higher ed world from that perch of a non-profit.  I have also seen this from the “sales” side, working at two ed tech companies.  

As I see it, my fellow scholar/administrators, you have basically three paths:  1) do nothing and follow the old formula; 2) throw your lot in with the revolutionaries; 3) trust that Darwin was right and choose to increase the pace of evolution.      

“But when you talk about destruction
Don't you know that you can count me out”

Option 1) Doing nothing is never the right option.  Even maintaining your current capacity requires constant tweaking, constant striving.  And, as I have written before, simply raising tuition every year and not changing the “product” that you are providing is also not an option.  

Option 2) You could throw your lot in with the revolutionaries.  This is the school of thought out there that universities are going to go the way of the Dodo bird. They say that the landscape will be littered with thousands of empty carcasses/campuses.  

This is a basic misreading of the situation.  These revolutionaries argue that you should fundamentally transform what you do and how you do it.  They come to you and talk of “nano-credentials” and other techno-babble.  This is the same self-serving twaddle that you heard from companies who came to you over the last few years promising riches and quick fixes with bizarre partnerships with things like vocational training groups.  To follow these hotheads into an unnecessary battle is to leave behind the core of what colleges and universities do, which is to lose the battle even before it begins.  

3) There is, as there almost always is, a third way.  It is to act in ways that take the core strength of what you already do better than anyone and make it ever better.  It is to act in ways that speed up the pace of evolution that has always taken place on our campuses.  What is needed now is strong, bold, but evolutionary action.  The call to violent revolution is very rarely a necessary one. It is certainly unnecessary until the other, more evolutionary options to destruction are actively considered.

“Don't you know it's gonna be alright
Alright, alright
You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We'd all love to see the plan”

So, what’s the plan?  

Here’s where you start.  Ask yourself what you do best.  You have great teachers.  You need to help your faculty compete with the billions of bits that are being blasted at their students every second. 

Here’s what you know.  You’re at a university and the online train is a-comin down the track.  You can’t stop it.  But that doesn’t mean you have to get run over by it.  Still, you aren’t sure how you can prepare for it and adapt to it, the way clever creatures have always responded to changes in their environment. 

It is not a stark choice between online and in-person.  Go back to what you have done best in past.  Yes, the move to more online, distant and hybrid educations is simply reality.  Traditionally, colleges and universities have excelled in providing an emotional foundation to learning, not just the fee-for-service information transfer that so often characterizes online education.   

This evolutionary shock to the system now puts you in the position to take the lead in harnessing the foundational knowhow you have to build learning communities that go beyond the campus walls with the students who never step onto your campus.  What is that secret sauce that makes residential education work?  Part of it is that chatter that happens before and after class.  Adding the social learning elements of Yellowdig to that online mix will grab and retain more students.  Such connections are absolutely essential for successful online programs, and play nearly as important a role with on-campus and hybrid programs.  

Universities can also lead in getting graduates ready for careers -- as they have always done -- but now you have to adapt to preparing your students for the careers of the future.  A finance degree no longer guarantees a job at a top bank, and the same with law degrees and jobs at top firms.  What makes for better hiring outcomes for your graduates starts with the kind of social learning that takes place on Yellowdig.  The kind of learning that is facilitated on this consciously constructed platform of social, collective learning, allows students to take more ownership of their learning and then also of their individual career paths.  In this kind of learning, ideas emerge freely in the social soup of the course, and, as the resulting, market-tested and thus stronger concepts challenge students to defend their ideas in front of their peers.  Your faculty are then there in the Yellowdig-enhanced universe to guide but not to control your students as they train for the brave new future of work.

You have great student support services.  You need to help them identify students who are in trouble, students who are not engaged, and not at the end of the semester, but automatically and in real time.   As all of your colleagues who read the front page story about us in InsideHigher Education, Yellowdig helps with that.   

You have great institutional research.  They need better native data produced by your own students to help recruit more students like the ones who succeed.  Yellowdig helps with that.

You have great research projects happening across your campus and between your campus and scholars on other campuses that need a secure, shared space to accelerate those collaborations.  Yellowdig helps with that.

You have great campus-wide projects like strategic planning processes that need a secure, shared space to bring about the best possible outcomes.   Yellowdig helps with that.

Yellowdig provides that secure, private, collaborative space for all of these vital elements of what we do on campus.  It has been piloted on dozens of campuses.  The results are clear.  Most importantly, courses that use Yellowdig have more engaged students.  But it is not just a tool that counts words that students post to the course board.  Through carefully constructed data analytics, we can provide real-time tracking of at-risk students to your student affairs folks to see who has dropped off the map.  Before your at-risk students get too close to the risky edge, they can be nudged back to the center from their dangerous lives on the periphery.   

“You ask me for a contribution
Well, you know
We're all doing what we can”

So, what’s it going to cost?  The cost of a Yellowdig solution for your entire campus, with tech support, with the ability to create boards for a whole range of solutions, is the equivalent to a minute fraction of the cost of attending college or pursuing a degree.  Our base platform price is $10 per student per year across all use cases. This price gives you access to the base platform plus a pipeline to all of your data via the API/application program interface that we have created and we have created it with significant input from our clients.   For those schools, like Northwestern, who want to truly take your data for a drive and see what it will do, we offer premium, custom services that include additional training and support for your staff, strategic planning and design for your academic affairs, student affairs, and tech folks, and custom data analytics and value added premium features.  

Think about that for a second.  For the cost of $10 per student, you get a powerful suite of tools that constitute an entire learning and analytical environment that can help engage thousands of students, faculty, and staff.

“You say you'll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head”

There is no need to destroy all of the amazing, core things about your school in order to adapt to the changes that are taking place.  Yellowdig offers a powerful but evolutionary tool for university leaders.  It is something that will appear normal and native to your people, but also innovative.  It exists in that hard to find sweet spot of welcome change.

“You tell me it's the institution
Well, you know
You'd better free your mind instead
But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow”

While radical chic is, as it has always been, tempting, the siren call of radical change is one that should be avoided.  What we do has real, demonstrable value.  The four years that American youth spend in college have been shown in study after study to be time well spent.  What we owe our students in exchange for their investment is a promise that if a tool comes along that can increase the value of that investment, then we will adopt it.  Yellowdig is that tool.

“Don't you know it's gonna be alright
Alright, alright”

The real change, as you know, has to come from the faculty and primarily from the administration.  Students are already there a few years ahead of you.  They are waiting for you to catch up to their social learning ways.  

Some faculty will resist change simply because it is change, but the majority of professors know that the tide is shifting and they are motivated to stay relevant as you are.  This will take leadership from the top.  

Your colleagues at Northwestern know that it’s going to be all right.  They made the modest investment in a campus-wide solution for Yellowdig.  Even as soon as the coming academic year, you could include some of that “all rightness” as well.  This is why we do not view the social learning that Yellowdig captures as a tool, but as a broader change management initiative that starts with technology but stands on leadership, communication, training, and planning.

Join your pro-Darwin friends at Northwestern and at dozens of other campuses and jumpstart your evolution with Yellowdig.

Akiba Covitz, Ph.D., is Head of Business Development for Yellowdig.  He is also co-editor of the InsideHigher Ed blog, “Higher Ed Gamma.”  He previously served as associate dean and a member of the faculty at Harvard Law School, as vice president for university relations at edX, as senior vice president for strategic relationships with Academic Partnerships (an online program provider), and as a tenure-track professor. 

(1) “Revolution”(Remastered), The Beatles, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, 1968.

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