A Technological Nudge for Higher Ed

by James A. Bacon

Washington venture capitalists Ted Leonsis and Steve Case have put money into Echo360, a Dulles-based software maker that converts college classroom lectures into a digital format that students can watch online. They made what they described as a “significant new investment” through their Revolution Growth Fund.

“Technology has had a transformative impact on many facets of our lives – but the one major area where we have failed to leverage technology to its potential is in education,” said Case in a prepared statement. “Echo360 empowers universities and colleges to enhance and extend the classroom experience to bring a much needed revolution to higher-education. Blended learning is about marrying the best of online with the best of in-person teaching.”

The technology creates video and audio recordings of professors’ lectures and makes them accessible online, along with notes and web links, where students can access them anywhere, anytime. Other capabilities enable students to re-watch, search and bookmark specific spots in the lecture and also to form virtual study groups. As Echo360 describes it in its promotional literature, the technology “liberates the lecture from the classroom.”

At present, the company is working with established institutions of higher education — some 500 in 30 different countries. The goal is to reach 50% of all U.S. students within five years.

Bacon’s bottom line: Existing institutions are where the money is, but the impact of “blended learning”will not likely be revolutionary. For an incremental added cost (roughly $15 per student per year) the technology make an incremental improvement (the ability to review lectures) to the higher ed experience. It takes a leap of faith to suggest that this will transform the higher ed business model.

The potential to disrupt higher ed, with its out-of-control tuition increases, will come from empowering start-up institutions to design entirely new business models around the technology, not using it as a add-on to existing processes. Strip out bricks-and-mortar, administrative overhead, luxury dormitories and tenured professors who teach two or three courses a year. Virtual institutions should be able to pay professors handsomely (100,000+ per year) and keep tuition below $1,000 per course on average ($5,000 per semester or $10,000 per year). Whether Echo360 will be the company that accomplishes that goal, I don’t know. But it is a step in a positive direction.

Update: It is clear from the comments that I did not make clear my admiration for Echo360 and what it is trying to accomplish. This is a very worthwhile endeavor that pushes education in the right direction and is part of a broader technological movement that will push higher education to change despite itself. The old model is dead — higher ed just doesn’t realize it yet.

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  1. larryg Avatar

    well.. what you are buying from the Universities is a piece of paper that says “yep..this guy learned all this stuff”.

    Until you get that level of certification, how will a prospective employer know any more than the fact that you “took the course”?

    If you really want to strike fear into the heart of the Higher ED Tuition Scam, set up national certification standards and challenge tests – like the “boards” that lawyers and Doctors have to meet.

    I always ask – “what is the real purpose of a teacher” in a world where you, as an individual, can obtain virtually any kind of content for any subject?

    When we say “class size” what does it mean? If you can learn online then why does class size matter?

    All of what I say above – does not apply in K-3. It DOES take a teacher to teach kids how to read and write and understand mathematical concepts.

  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka


    Exactly. The conservatives want to turn education over to a for-profit TV or computer monitor so that ALEC supporters can make a buck. If you want to see our standards REALLY slide, just make it all the University of Phoenix!

    1. Hah! Hah! Peter, you’re such a reactionary — so scared of change!

    1. Awesome! The technology kicks butt. The question is whether lumbering institutions of higher ed can keep pace.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    “It takes a leap of faith to suggest that this will transform the higher ed business model.”.

    Well, it’s not as amazing as a new meat pie shop but it might have merit. For example, I could use the technology to let my Virginia – based employees take courses from MIT that are being taught in the Computer Science Department. Since the best CS program in the state of Virginia’s #24 effort in Charlottesville, the distance learning from Cambridge, MA could be quite valuable.

    One wonders what Jim Bacon first thought when he saw his first blog or Twitter message.

  4. Hey, the technology is really cool and it will help people like your employees. Great! But unless the culture of higher ed changes, it won’t dramatically bring down the cost of tuition or make higher ed any more affordable. At present, it’s an add-on technology, not a transformative technology…. Unless Echo360 puts it in the hands of educational entrepreneur. The new technology-enabled *business model* is what will create disruptive change.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Oh! You mean that letting the political class decide how things are done will keep our school in permanent “sucks out loud” mode?

      Well, I agree with that.

      Good news for us – Virginia is a leader in innovative charter schools. What? We’re not? Really?

      Take a look at this map … click on Charter School Law …


      What grade does the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond get?

      Oh! An F? Who could have guessed?

      Maybe it’s the MWAA’s fault – right, Jim? Couldn’t be the Clown Show, could it?

  5. larryg Avatar

    ” The question is whether lumbering institutions of higher ed can keep pace.”

    oh I don’t think so. This is not how lumbering failed business models change.

    the wave comes around them and drowns them….. ask companies like Blockbuster …. Kodak…

    but I still do not think any of this “awesome” technology is going to be worth much nor effectively challenge moribund competitors util the people who complete the courses have something in their hand that certifies their achievement but HEY .. we have a real live businessman here.. in DJ…let’s ask him.

    Would you hire someone who said they completed a bunch of online courses and were qualified to do your work?

    1. I agree with Larry here. The need to certify the value of online education *not* taught by recognized institutions of higher learning will slow the spread of this technology.

    2. DJRippert Avatar

      Any number of my employees dropped out of college or completed college online. Bill Gates dropped out as I recall.

      I hire hackers. I don’t care if they dropped out of Groveton High School or hold a PhD from MIT. I have only two questions – first, “Can you code?”. If they answer, “yes”, I have a follow up, “Can hang with my hackers and keep up?”. A “yes” there puts them on the path to a job. That job will be very short – lived if the candidate lied in answering either question.

      This is the introduction to a book about Silicon Valley called Nudist on the Late Shift by Po Bronson. It encapsulates everything I feel when I think of what technology in America should be …

      “By car, by plane, they come. They’re just showing up. They’re giving up their lives elsewhere to come here. They come for the tremendous opportunity, believing that in no other place in the world right now can one person accomplish so much with talent, initiative, and a good idea. It’s a region where who-you-know and how-much-money-you-have have never been less relevant to success. They come because it doesn’t matter that they’re young, or left college without a degree, or have dark skin, or speak with an accent. They come even if it’s illegal to come. They come because they feel they’ll regret it the rest of their lives if they don’t at least give it a try. They come to be a part of history, to build the technology that will reshape how people live 5 or 10 years from now. They come for the excitement, just to be a part of it. They come to make money, to score big. They come to make enough money so they will never have to think about money again.

      They come too because what they see ahead of them, if they stay behind instead, is a working life that seems fundamentally and unavoidably boring. Nothing seems worse than the fate of boringness. They keep finding themselves saying, “What the hell am I doing with my life?”

      Every generation before this one has had to make a choice in life between pursuing a steady career and pursuing wild adventures. In Silicon Valley, that trade-off has been recircuited. Injecting mind-boggling amounts of risk into the once stodgy domain of gray-suited business, young people no longer have to choose. They’ve turned life into a two-for-one deal: the career path as roller-coaster adventure. Working has become nothing less than a sport. Here in superachieverland, people are motivated by the thrill of the competition and the danger of losing, and every year the rules evolve to make it all happen quicker, on higher margins, to reach more amazing sums.

      It is a mad, fertile time.

      Let’s up the bet, they’re saying. Let’s make it exciting. Let’s put it all on black. Let ’em roll.”.

      Bacon, my boy – you get that elixir somewhere in Virginia and you’ll have your New Economy all right.

  6. DJRippert Avatar

    Well, I’ve had about 5 minutes to consider Echo360 and I am really wondring about Jim Bacon.

    1. Echo360 could provide distance learning for advanced courses that less affluent counties can’t afford to teach. For example, if Hayfield County can’t afford a second year of advanced biology they could broadcast the lessons from CityLights County where the course is taught. Rather than pouring transfer money from CityLights County to Hayfield County to try to equalize education, the teaching could be “beamed in”.

    2. Colleges regularly hold 200 person classes with a well regarded professor (like Ken Elzinga at UVA) and then let graduate students (functioning as teachers assistants) help the students in smaller settings. This vastly leverages the skills of the capable professor and dramatically lowers the cost of teaching the 200 students. Now, apply that to high school students and you have both improved the quality of education and lowered the cost.

    3. If the Commonwealth of Virginia taught from a common curriculum (as the country of India does) then the same lesson would be taught on the same day all around the state. The lectures could be captured by Echo360 and the students cold rate the lectures. Students who struggled with the material could view the highest rated lessons and benefit from the best teaching skill thus raising the quality of learning. In addition, the teachers which regularly received the best ratings could be given bonuses while those receiving the worst ratings would be under review.

    4. Captured lessons from prior years could be viewed by new teachers and used to improve the speed with which new teachers gain knowledge and skill.

    5. Questions could be developed and tied to the lectures. Students watching a recorded version of the lesson could try to answer the questions as fast as possible in a competition to see which students and/or schools scored the highest. This type of electronic trivia game is very popular in some bars.

    6. Additional media such as film clips from historical movies could be edited into the best lessons. This would allow the students to see visual examples of the subject matter. How much more real is Pickett’s charge when viewed in a movie clip than read as words in a book.

    7. The recorded lessons could have subtitles in various languages for less verbal subjects like math. The equations drawn by the teachers would make sense in any language while the spoken commentary could b translated to help children who don’t speak the language of the teacher.

    8. The material can be viewed on a computer where the student must answer questions provided by the system as the lecture progresses. If the student is incapable of answering the questions after several tries, another version of the same less (taught by a different teacher) is played allowing for a different approach to teaching the child.

    9. Students can work with teachers to develop self-directed curricula where appropriate. Instead of relying on physical classes, the student can mix physical classes and virtual classes allowing for a more specialized course of study.

    10. Students who are ill and unable to attend school can still get the lessons.

    11. Student athletes traveling to and from games can keep up with their studies.

    12. Parents can watch the actual manner that teachers are teaching and decide if their tax money or tuition is being wisely spent on that teacher.

    Yeah, Jim … not much there.

    Is there something in the water in Henrico County that kills that part of the brain which contains human imagination.

    1. Don, I assume you’re just giving me a hard time because you’re attributing beliefs to me that I most certainly don’t have. “Not much there?” I never suggested that. Why would I have highlighted Echo360 unless I thought it was cool? I just don’t think it will revolutinize existing institutions of higher education.

      I’m rapping higher ed — not Echo360!

      You pointed out all the cool stuff that Echo36o can do. How long do you think it will take those innovations to diffuse through the ossified culture of higher education?

      How long do you think it will take public high schools (or even private ones, for that matter) to start implementing this technology?

      Do you seriously doubt my point that the technology must give rise to new educational business models to reach its full potential? Let me rephrase the question in a way that’s meaningful. Do you seriously think that in a state run by the Clown Show that public high schools and universities will use this technology to transform the way they do things?

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        Please Jim …

        You are preaching to the choir. However, you think in Old School linear ways. You think the business models have to change before the technology will have an impact. Not so fast. The technology itself can force business model changes by illuminating the path forward (for those who will see). What happened to traditional newspapers in the face of the internet? They collapsed. What happened to the business model for news distribution? It changed. So, did the existing purveyors need to change their business model for the business model to change? Of course not.

        Our broken education system will change because technology and a few entrepreneurs will force the change.

        It’s already happening….


        Technology makes home schooling practical. Home schooling is growing, partly because technology makes it practical.

      2. DJRippert Avatar

        Ever hear of a Korean cram school?


        “But a new and gentler version of cram school is emerging in the United States. Over the past 15 years, scores of Korean-run academies have opened in strip malls and office buildings in such immigrant enclaves as Ellicott City and Annandale. Names such as Elite Academy and Einstein Academy reflect the educational goals that brought families halfway around the world.

        This summer, thousands of Korean American students, along with an increasing number of non-Koreans, will attend them to prepare for next year’s math classes, SAT tests or the entrance exam for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.”.

        Gee … I wonder why Korean Americans end up doing so well in our society?

        You want an online cram school? Think the NEA will be setting one up soon? Me neither. Echo360 based entrepreneurship? Sure.

        1. I’d heard of Korean cram schools — I just didn’t know they had come to the U.S. Competition in the educational sphere comes from sources you’d never imagine.

      3. DJRippert Avatar

        Think about Uber. Did the cabbies and the hack bureau support Uber? Just the opposite. Did the Uber entrepreneurs envision a business model and then go about inventing the technology (affordable, mobile GPS)? Of course not. The technology itself created the business model with a bit of gutsy entrepreneurship. GPS drove Uber. Uber didn’t drive GPS.

        The NEA’s days are numbered.

  7. larryg Avatar

    the funny thing here is that Fairfax spends an arm and a leg on education and DJ has been a stronger supporter of that – even though a significant amount of the money is NOT spent on core academics but essentially amenities – which is the same problem higher ED has.

    I understand the “hack” mentality but it’s no good in real-time software that can kill people if it goes wacko. Hack Programmers, as a group, do not highly value “reliable” or “maintainable” software. They’re quick and dirty artists but that kind of software is no good for real world applications that involved people’s lives.

    Airplanes, traffic signals, MRIs, anything that if it fails ..can kill .. has a much higher standard.

    The programmer must know and follow “best practices” for each kind of code.

    ” The technology itself created the business model ” who created the technology?

    A GPS system that gives you bad data…can kill you.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Poor LarryG – He just can’t stay “on message”.

      This thread is about innovative educational software. Jim Bacon contends that the business models of education must change before the innovative technology will innovate. I contend that the software itself opens the door to innovative business models.

      LarryG also demonstrated his “circa 1985” thinking about computers and technology. He claims (incorrectly) that hackers write unreliable software that would not be used for life or death situations. As usual, LarryG is wrong.

      Here is the VC arm of the CIA, In-Q-Tel: http://www.iqt.org/technology-portfolio/index-information-communications-technology.html

      In-Q-Tel is a non-profit investment company dedicated to finding technology that supports America’s intelligence community.

      Guess what, LarryG?

      Lots of hacker based companies in that portfolio. Clouders (supporters of open-source Hadoop), Cleversafe, Connectify, etc.

      LarryG, like Virginia’s gas tax, is frozen in 1986.

    2. DJRippert Avatar

      Further evidence that LarryG is like an insect trapped in amber …


      Now, LarryG – what operating system do you think GPS systems use? Are there any running Linux? You know, that open source OS originally written by uber-hacker Linus Tovalds?

      Our own software (free version) is used for real time battlefield situational awareness. And yes, LarryG, not knowing where the enemy is during a battle can most definitely get you killed.

  8. larryg Avatar

    Having worked most of my life in software development, I know the difference between hacked software and well-written software.

    Hacked software is unreliable and unmaintainable by another person.

    That kind of software might be acceptable in applications that are not mission-critical or where lives depend on the code … but not in serious applications.

    When your car flips over because the software controlling the brakes screwed up.. it’s way different than Google or FB returning a error 404.

    I don’t claim hackers write unreliable software. I claim that hacked software that does not use standard style guides and cannot be figured out by other programmers is bad – and it is…demonstrably so.

    in terms of education –

    DJ supports the most-expensive public school system in Virginia even though it has the same flaws as higher education does – which is high costs and low achievement levels compared to our Asian and European competitors.

    Yet he continues to not only support the higher costs – he actually wants the state to cough up even more money for Fairfax schools.

    Then he flops and claims that people don’t need college at all… that because people like Gates and other dropped out it “proves” that others can do the same – much like some believe if you can play basketball “good” you don’t need no schooling.. just get yourself a job in the pros.

    I think that BOTH public schools AND higher ED are on a wrong track not because the basis for getting a good education is wrong but because we are way too expensive and the results – suck.

    and I continue to ask – since the higher costs are largely due to employee costs – what the purpose of a teacher is in a world where content is freely available?

    Why does Fairfax County have so many highly-paid teachers if all those students can learn at home watching video lectures?

  9. larryg Avatar

    ” Our own software (free version) is used for real time battlefield situational awareness. And yes, LarryG, not knowing where the enemy is during a battle can most definitely get you killed.”

    then it need to be testable to prove it meets those standards – V&V is what it is called and usually a fully battery of tests is performed and each anomaly detected has to be explained as to what happened… then fixed.. then re-tested.

    hacked software for battlefield situational analysis sounds incompatible to me.

    like I said.. having weird fonts show up on a website or blog and not understanding why is one thing… having the legs blown off your platoon leader because his “app” had a software glitch.. will get that software booted from any real applications.

    I am very familiar with the “hacker” mentality..been there… done that.. works fine for apps that are not mission critical.. is a disaster when mission critical or lives are involved.

    “hacking” software is like telling a bridge engineer to build a bridge in half the time and for half the money it normally takes.. you’re gonna get a hastily-constructed bridge on the cheap.

    3rd world countries do this all the time…

    by the way – it does not matter what language or operating system the code is written in – near as much as it matters what style guide is in force and whether or not any competent programmer can figure out what another programmer did … when it comes time to fix an error or upgrade the software.

    When other programmers cannot figure out what the first guy did..you’ve got serious issues. That kind of “hack” will eventually get you a heap of trouble IMHO.

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