Lumina Foundation Gives Odds For Edtech Innovation Under Trump

[Corrected 2/22/17, 9:35 am. See below.] Bipartisanship hasn’t exactly been the watchword in Washington over the past month as the new Trump administration grapples with stalled nominations, court battles over its travel ban, and investigations of campaign contacts with Russia.

But deeply divided politicians may still find some common ground over education policy—in ways that could be good for educational technology companies and other inventive startups, says the CEO of a richly-endowed non-profit that’s trying to catalyze change.

Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, sees bipartisan interest in education initiatives that help U.S. students and adults prepare for success in the 21st century labor market. Toward that end, Indianapolis-based Lumina has been supporting non-traditional education providers such as online learning programs, alternative credentials like badges and certificates, and other measures to re-invent post-secondary education.

One of the big themes of the new Republican administration and the Republican-dominated Congress is paring back government regulations, Merisotis (pictured above) says. And that could advance Lumina’s mission.

“Less regulation could encourage more innovation,” he says.

Merisotis is mindful, however, that the Trump administration isn’t perfectly aligned with Lumina’s primary goal—to increase the percentage of Americans with post-high school education credits from 45 percent to 60 percent. For one thing, Trump and the current Congress are unlikely to pursue “free college” proposals advanced by Democratic Party presidential primary election candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton during the campaign. Merisotis has also spoken out against Trump’s travel ban, which temporarily blocked international students and faculty from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States.

But Merisotis says the Republicans now at the helm may cooperate with the other side of the aisle on certain initiatives, and perhaps carry over some of the prior administration’s programs.

Merisotis is guessing that the administration and Congress might choose to continue an experiment in loosened regulations introduced by President Obama last year—the EQUIP program. That pilot project would allow students to qualify for federal financial aid when they learn via selected non-accredited code schools, online education companies, and workforce training programs that have formed partnerships with accredited colleges or universities.

“It’s certainly consistent with what I’ve heard Republicans talk about for quite a while,” Merisotis says.

One of the code schools chosen for the EQUIP pilot project is San Francisco-based Hack Reactor, which partnered with UT Austin. The school’s policy director, Nick Mann, says plans are in the works to offer “a rigorous 17-week immersive program that teaches advanced JavaScript, preparing traditional and non-traditional students for careers in software engineering.” [An earlier version of this story misspelled Mann’s name. We regret the error.]

Mann says the school is going ahead with plans to start classes by 2018, and hasn’t heard yet whether EQUIP will be continued or canceled under the new administration.

“It’s definitely my hope that the program is continued, if not expanded,” Mann says. “It represents a bipartisan effort to encourage innovation without affecting quality.”

Merisotis sees potential for other trends that emerged during the Obama years to continue under President Trump. Among them is “competency-based learning,” a departure from the traditional way of structuring, measuring, and recognizing the acquisition of knowledge in post-secondary education. While universities count the number of credit-hours a student completes when they confer degrees, under a competency-based system, students can learn at their own pace from a collection of different sources. These may include a college class selected a la carte, work-study on a community project, or an online course.

State school districts have experimented with these new pathways to high school graduation. Merisotis says the method is also being explored at both established higher education institutions and nontraditional post-secondary education organizations. This type of learning raises the need for alternate systems of skills verification, such as independent testing organizations.

As part of this “unbundling” of traditional higher education, edtech companies have created alternative credentials such as certificates and badges that can be displayed on a LinkedIn professional profile alongside any college degrees earned.

Lumina is a strong backer of credentialing innovations. It has invested in New York-based tech startup Credly, which helps edtech companies that confer alternative credentials—as well as universities—to design electronic badges (or symbols of degrees) that can be easily popped into online work resumes. Lumina has also invested in White Plains, NY-based venture firm Rethink Education, a backer of independent skills testing company Smarterer, which was acquired by edtech company Pluralsight.

Emerging credentials could find support during a Trump term, Merisotis says. “That work has a lot of life in this administration,” he says.

Merisotis sees the new education secretary, Betsy DeVos, as a proponent of new choices in education, based on her support for charter schools and voucher programs as an alternative to established public schools.

DeVos, in a speech at the 2017 Community College National Legislative Summit on Thursday, praised the nation’s junior colleges for their flexible options, including online courses and academic schedules that work around the needs of parents.

DeVos said the president’s education plan includes an expansion of vocational and technical education, as well as measures to make college more affordable.

“He has called multiple paths for postsecondary education ‘an absolute priority’ for his administration, and I share that vision,” DeVos said.

Congress still holds most of the cards going forward, Merisotis says. A number of federal statutes are up for reauthorization, including the Higher Education Act.

Merisotis says it’s too early to say what types of educational technology companies and learning-related startups such as code schools might come out as winners in the new political environment. More than one model could succeed, he says.

“The jury is still out on the long-term success of the coding academies,” Merisotis says.

One of Lumina’s goals is to reconfigure the educational system so that it better prepares students for a labor market that has been transformed by digital technologies. But that effort is a thorny challenge for both the foundation and the U.S. government, Merisotis says, because larger disruptions of traditional employment are ahead.

“Automation and artificial intelligence are going to have a big impact on work,” Merisotis says.

Some proportion of jobs will be eliminated or substantially changed, he says. “How does the learning system, from K-12 through higher education, prepare for that?” Merisotis says.

People are now asking, in all seriousness, what role humans will play in the future labor market. Although science and math education will “absolutely” be needed, Merisotis says, there could also be job market advantages in human traits such as empathy and communication that are hard for machines to duplicate, he says.

“You’ve got to have these sort of future-oriented conversations,” Merisotis says.

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