Q&A Troy Williams
Q&A Troy Williams
Can you tell us about your personal history in education, either as a learner or in your professional capacity?
I grew up in a working-class family and ultimately finished Harvard law school, so education has made a big difference in my life. I believe deeply that education has a democratizing impact on society, and that a well-educated populace is key to a well-functioning democracy.
Professionally, in 1998 I founded one of the first E-book companies, which enabled people from all around the world to access books online. I ran it for a long time and have worked in education technology ever since. Today, I’m lucky to be able to invest in innovative companies that are having a major impact on student learning all around the world.
What would you say is the greatest challenge to focus on?
One of the biggest challenges is overcoming the gap between ideas about educational technology and the efficacy of those technologies in their impact on student outcomes and learning.
I don’t think there’s a shortage of ideas; I think there’s a shortage of execution. This breaks down into multiple layers: Execution on pedagogy and how teachers actually employ technology; the speed at which new and innovative platforms are introduced, and the lack of time to perfect educational technology before the next platform comes along.
There are many parallels between education and healthcare. It can take years to perfect something, yet we have an impatience in seeing the efficacy. We haven’t been able to get there. When the internet came along we were working on things and now the mobile platform comes along and now we’re starting to see virtual reality and augmented reality. However, in each advance, we haven’t been able to maximize or get to an efficacious stage. The constant influx of new technologies presents a challenge.
We found in both education and healthcare, people don’t want you to test things on their own children. So, with every new cohort of students, there’s a lot of resistance — not just from teachers or professionals, but also from parents. It becomes a challenge to innovate and figure out what works by utilizing new technology in the classroom.
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You described the gap between schooling and the working world; how would you narrow it?
I would focus primarily at the higher educational level. A four-year degree is simply not the best solution for many students. In the U.S., close to fifty percent of students enter the university; historically it was 10% or 15% percent. Many students graduate and begin jobs that are similar to those that people got a generation ago without a college degree. Meanwhile, today’s graduates have spent four of the most productive years of their lives at the university and it’s been a very expensive cash outlay in addition to the opportunity costs of what they could have earned.
I think we should identify ways to get students who are at second or third tier universities into shorter degree programs – maybe four to six months long — that get them to their first degree and first job.
I think the classic university is vital, but not for fifty percent of the population. The classic university is great at educating you for your fifth job, for middle management and upper management. But we need to move students out of the schooling environment with technical skills for their first jobs. This requires degree programs or credentialing that are narrowly tailored to areas in the economy with big employment gaps or skills gaps. I believe that technology solutions can provide this in a very scalable and flexible way.
How would this apply to the learning space? What changes would you make?
I would want platforms that are capable of identifying the skills and outcomes that are needed for a particular job and can measure time in a competency-based way. We should use competency based solutions rather than measuring by time in seat or time in a course. Online and real-time assessments can indicate whether the student has mastered certain soft or hard skills. We can move students through an entire curriculum, as fast as they can possibly move, in a personalized way.
We’ve found that there is no average student. There is no student who is fast at everything or slow at everything. Different students are faster in certain things and slower in other things. If we require every student to move along in lock-step fashion, we slow everyone down. Even the fastest student or even the slowest student slows down in that environment. So, as we personalize the adaptive environment and really assess the credentials and the needs, we are able to speed up everyone. Further, if we tie the overall program to the needs of individual students and the needs of the particular jobs for which they’re training, we can help place them faster and at lower costs. It would have a beneficial result for all of society.