ExtensionEngine Blog

Reflections on ASU+GSV Summit 2017: Competition, differentiation, and complexity

I just returned from a few days at the ASU+GSV Summit in Salt Lake City during which I talked with many dozens of attendees — professionals in higher ed, nonprofits, technology firms, and edtech venture capital. The overwhelming themes of the summit related to the intertwined trio of competition, differentiation, and complexity. Let me explain.Universities know that their competitors are online and providing programs at some reasonable level of quality. This is an evolution that has gained steam during my 20+ years as a faculty member, administrator, and dean. The tools and technology, mostly provided by traditional OPMs at this point, are easily (if still expensively) attainable.

However, just being online is no longer enough to compete; this is now table stakes for education. In order to survive and thrive in today’s world, schools and nonprofits know that they have to differentiate themselves in the online world from their competition. It is at this point that most of my conversation partners seemed stumped -- or even worried -- about how they might proceed, saying things such as:

  • “How can I differentiate myself online?”
  • “I was planning on using [this LMS] for our programs. Won’t that work?”

My answer to the first question is that it’s not my place to answer this. Every organization knows, or should know, what it is that makes them special. It’s based on the following:Screen Shot 2017-05-16 at 12.54.33 PM.png

  • How do you relate to your customer?
  • What types of problems do you find valuable and interesting?
  • How do you approach the problems that you want to solve?

Now, transferring this understanding to an online experience is, no doubt, complex and is not a step that can be undertaken without a big commitment in time and organizational resources, both in people and money. Every one of my conversation partners had good answers to these differentiation questions, and they felt good about their organization’s positioning. But not one of them could tell me what their next steps were.

Here’s where ExtensionEngine steps in. We have the experience and talent across a broad range of needed areas of expertise to help our clients build their organization’s unique features into their online presence.

As for the question about whether an LMS will be a difference: what every school and organization is looking for is an easy and inexpensive way forward, an out-of-the-box tool that they can buy to solve their problems. As one person said, “Why can’t I just use [this LMS]? Other schools that I know of use it.”

I followed up on that statement by asking if that other school’s program is particularly different or outstanding or even specific to that school in any way. No one was able to answer “yes” to that question. It just doesn’t seem possible (at least with courses and programs that are provided today) to start with one of these tools and effectively build a learning experience that engages a learner in a way that accurately reflects an organization, at least not with today’s technologies.

Why is this not possible? A major reason is that many of these learning management systems are big, mature platforms that have a huge investment in time and money behind them.

At the same time, the learning experience is complex with many distinct, though related, facets, including:

  • In-course experiences and pedagogies (though these differ across faculty, subject areas, students, etc.)
  • Communication with peers, faculty, coaches, staff
  • Navigation among different courses/modules in the program (or certificate or knowledge base)
  • Amount of support available to the learner (either F2F or digital)
  • User experience style, structure, and supporting technologies
  • And many more

Expecting that a standard, off-the-shelf tool can support all these is folly. If it were possible within these tools to integrate data, customize a user interface for a wide variety of new and developing pedagogies, and manage flows and processes in organization-specific ways, then the standard LMS might work.

But it’s not possible. We have only seen two ways to provide a differentiating, custom learning experience. Both of these are complex:

  1. Developing a fully custom website and applications, or
  2. Pulling together many third-party tools — each of which supplies a particular functionality in an organization-appropriate manner — then designing and implementing a custom integration and interface unique to that specific organization.

Again, this is where ExtensionEngine comes into play. We have worked with and implemented customized platforms and courses for many organizations on a huge variety of tech stacks. For each one, we have provided our expertise in project management, instructional design, user experience design, and technology (architecture, programming, and quality assurance). Our organization excels in solving those problems that are in your “too hard” pile. This isn’t cheap, and it isn’t easy. But who said that competition or education itself would be easy?

It was gratifying to have these conversations at ASU+GSV, and to hear comments from all parts of the edtech market recognizing the importance of the problem that we are solving. It’s apparently a growing awareness in the market. The very basis of competition for a school — its ability to differentiate itself and to accurately and effectively support its brand online — is front-of-mind for many people in a wide variety of organizations.

This challenge is complex, if not impossible, for an organization to solve on its own because of the diversity and size of organizational resources that must be brought to bear. Send me an email so that we can set up a conversation and talk about how ExtensionEngine can help you.

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