EdCast CEO: The University as Record Album In An MP3 Era

At first glance, Karl Mehta seems to have executed a sharp U-Turn when he founded an edtech company, Mountain View, CA-based EdCast, in 2013. He’d made his name in e-commerce and financial technology when the payment software company he co-founded, PlaySpan, was snapped up by credit card giant VISA for $190 million in 2011.

Look more closely, though, and EdCast has a lot in common with PlaySpan, which created a payment mechanism for online game players who wanted to buy virtual goods, such as weapons to defeat their virtual opponents. EdCast is also grafting a payment marketplace onto an existing site of shared activity: but in this case, it’s the OpenEdX platform, where educational institutions offer online courses to their students and the public.

Many of the courses now shared by universities on OpenEdX and other systems for hosting online courses are free. EdCast’s Knowledge Cloud, an online software suite, not only facilitates registration for courses, but also gives schools and individual educators the option to collect tuition fees. Mehta (pictured above) sees this as an easy way for universities to monetize their courses by offering them simultaneously at multiple other schools online. He envisions online student discussions that could then cross campus boundaries, and even national borders, to enrich the educational experience.

Students at one university might have the option to take a few courses at other schools, when an outside professor offers expertise in a specialized interest not covered at the home campus. But Mehta also sees EdCast as a potential means for a more significant restructuring of college degree programs.

The broader possibilities include the creation of what Mehta calls “Multiversities.” Conceivably, whole degree programs could be cobbled together through widespread sharing of core courses, and college degree credits, within a network of campuses. Universities could adopt the 21st Century practice of customizing their products for individual users, as industries ranging from advertising to pharmaceuticals have learned to do.

Mehta, EdCast’s CEO and a venture partner at Menlo Ventures, shared his thoughts with Xconomy on the changes that educational technology may open up for universities, in an era when the schools are under fire for mounting tuition fees, which burden students with heavy debts on graduation.

(Note: Like PlaySpan, EdCast is intertwined in a Mehta family narrative. In 2006, Mehta’s co-founder in PlaySpan was his son Arjun Mehta, who was then 12 years old. Arjun Mehta went on to found his own edtech venture, Stoodle, with some friends when he was 17.)


Xconomy:   You’re known for your accomplishments in the technology industry, notably as founder of the payment platform PlaySpan. What motivated you to jump into the higher education field?

Karl Mehta:   I have been involved in founding three companies over the past 20 years, and I have a son in college. I’m an outsider looking in, but I have seen first hand how technology has not penetrated education.

We’ve seen shopping make the transition from bricks and mortar stores to online. We’ve seen the sharing economy emerge through companies like Uber and Airbnb. Nothing like that has happened in education. How do we expand access to higher education?

That has been locked in ivory tower institutions, which are often very expensive. It is in some ways hoarded in pockets. I started EdCast to expand knowledge sharing and collaboration in education, and it should be across multiple institutions.

We’ve seen Airbnb expand access, bring down cost, bring down barriers. Uber also epitomizes this model. EdCast has similar aims. It becomes kind of the Uber of education.

Xconomy:   What is the problem EdCast is trying to solve by creating a platform that allows universities to share their courses?

Karl Mehta:   When a student studies at college, that university has you captive for four years. But students should be able to learn from experts outside that school. We’re advocating collaboration from institution to institution, instructor to instructor, student to student, peer to peer, and also across those categories.

Universities need to unbundle their monolithic offerings. This has happened in the music industry. You used to have to buy a full CD to get the one song you liked. The same thing will happen with core degree programs. I think we’re going to see that unbundle very soon.

Universities are recognizing that this option is coming in the higher- ed space because of a number of factors: the rise of mobile and online education platforms; the changing workforce; the $1 trillion in student loan debt; lower graduation rates; and new student demographics that are very comfortable with sharing and mobile. Universities are definitely expecting that they have to look at new ways of attracting and retaining students.

Students also want to do some work outside the university and see what their job prospects are like. Right now we graduate people in fields where we don’t have demand, and we’re not graduating students where we do have demand.

Universities need to ask how their users want to engage. They need to become more user-centric. Now they’re instructor-centric or institution-centric.

Xconomy:   If 60 colleges and universities all offer the same online course taught by one renowned expert at say, Harvard, won’t that collapse the job market for professors in the same field?

Karl Mehta:   We don’t believe that scenario. Some people are saying, “How many best Math 101 teachers do we need in America? We can fire the rest of them.”

We don’t believe that online education can completely engage students. Students will still need local instructors. I think there will be a shift and a change in what a professor or instructor is. They become coaches instead of teachers. They can move away from lecturing—the worst form of instruction—and focus on the flipped classroom, real discussion, real projects.

Xconomy:   Will these coaches, or local instructors, need to have a PhD?

Karl Mehta:   Not necessarily. Effectiveness doesn’t come from having a PhD. It’s all about communication and coaching ability. I would wager that all this disruption of the traditional higher education model will actually expand the market for instructors dramatically. There are 30 million Americans with some college credits, but no degree. Online education can help them get a degree, which they can’t do within an inflexible and rigid system. They can’t leave their jobs and go back to school.

We can think of courses on online platforms as the new books. Instructors all over the world are comfortable with teaching from a book not written by themselves. Online courses can expand the scale of participation in higher education massively, bringing sharing and collaboration to an unprecedented level. It also brings down the cost. Individual institutions don’t each have to have the best experts on that topic.

Xconomy:   How do you think online education and new edtech models will change the way students earn credentials? Will new forms of credentials emerge alongside the academic degrees conferred by colleges and universities?

Karl Mehta:   The credential we know today definitely may change over time. A bachelor’s degree may not be very important to an employer. I always hired engineers based on their knowledge and demonstrable skills; I would hire people who didn’t have a traditional degree. You can give a programming test in an hour. I can tell when somebody is better than another person who has an Ivy League computer science degree.

There is still a need for some level of endorsement or validation. An enterprise, such as an employer, could give a badging credential. There may be new types of endorsers who would look at all your individual badges and say, “I’m willing to give you a degree based on assessments and various badges.” It could be a university. That may have enough credibility in the employment market.

Xconomy:   How can colleges and universities survive the changes in the education market? Which ones will be most vulnerable?

Karl Mehta:   I am sure that the future university that will be successful will be able to provide the highest quality of education, at the lowest price, to a global audience. The successful university will also take on entrepreneurial problem- solving as its mission beyond just teaching and research, and will be using a network model to build what we call the “Multiversity.” The Multiversity platform allows the instructors not to duplicate, or lecture the same material, year after year. It turns instructors into coaches, and universities into “centers of innovation” and not just “centers of learning.”

The schools at very high risk are at Tier Two or below. If you’re Tier Two or Tier Three in terms of quality, you can only make it by using online education to upgrade quality, not just by waiting to hire the right faculty. If you’re a college in a cornfield somewhere, it’s not realistic to expect to hire world-class faculty. Some of these lower-tier schools will adopt online education faster than the Tier One schools.

Xconomy:   Do you think urban schools that connect students with local employers will become more popular than big non-urban campuses with lots of amenities?

Karl Mehta:   Given the speed at which the economy is changing, it will become imperative for students to stay close to employers in their fields. Otherwise, you’re completely disconnected from what is changing and what is the next big thing, and your degree is obsolete when you graduate. Four years is a very long time, given the speed at which the markets and the economy are moving globally. As an employer, I see a lot of students with a bachelor’s degree in business, but they don’t have a skill set in any specific area to become productive and solve a problem.
Universities will need to collaborate with industry more meaningfully than just research and tech -transfer, and a new digital ecosystem will emerge. Future universities will look very different than just the center of learning and/or research.

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One response to “EdCast CEO: The University as Record Album In An MP3 Era”

  1. Lea Patterson says:

    I think unbundling degrees is a great idea to allow greater
    flexibility on tailored education packages. The biggest issue with this is that
    universities will have to have very detailed information on how much is really
    costs to provide that one unit/subject. At the moment most universities don’t
    measure the full cost (including all the overhead and support costs) down to
    individual program and courses, taking into consideration all of the
    cross-subsidization between various programs/courses, research and sports
    programs. This is a major stumbling block to achieving unbundling because this
    doesn’t provide them with a basis to price the unit of study, they could find
    themselves losing money if they price it below the actual cost to provide it.
    This cost will vary from subject to subject and it will change over time (its
    dynamic). This is somewhat different at “for-profit” institutions
    like music publishers and I’ve read similar arguments comparing universities to
    the cable industry. Profitability is their reason for being, so they have to
    have excellent and detailed cost models. For universities it’s a combination of
    Mission and Margin – not so much to make a profit, rather to ensure financial
    sustainability. So the focus to date hasn’t really been on granular level
    costing, but it needs to be to support this unbundling concept.