We recently attended the OLC Innovate conference in Nashville, Tennessee and there is always much to be learned when convening with great minds from all over the country. 

The conference included a mix of instructional designers, online program directors, innovation folks, higher education technology vendors and more. One walk through the vendor hall revealed multiple Learning Management Systems, video conferencing applications, testing software and more. I had to do multiple laps to get a sense of who was there and for what reason.

As a first-time attendee, and ed-tech provider, my top five learnings from this conference:

Salespeople bombard higher education professionals trying to make a connection

I attended a session entitled, “Is Ed-Tech Killing This Conference?” I thought it was going to be a presentation-based session and it turned out to be a facilitated discussion on how vendors and higher education can connect and work together more fruitfully. There were only a few of us on the provider side and many higher education professionals in attendance. The higher education folks shared horror stories of working with vendors and what they enjoyed about finding real partnerships. I wanted to make sure the people at my table knew I had been a higher education professional and was not going to do the things they were complaining that lazy vendors do to make quick sales. It was an informative time, and we promise to continue to be above board in our sales practices and to continue to build authentic partnerships with our future partners.

Having a booth at a conference may be useful for bringing awareness to a product but is not the best way to develop authentic relationships with future partners

One of the higher education professionals leading the session I was in mentioned, “I want to know where you are from and if you have kids before I hear about your product.” This struck me because it resonated with my sales philosophy – if you don’t have a real relationship any sale will be strictly transactional. At Ucroo, we are looking for transformational partnerships that will give life to our partners. This is the only way we will grow exponentially into the future, not by making quick sales that don’t yield results for our partners. After the session, I asked that higher education professional if we could have lunch in Denver and he was open to that idea. Relationship first!

Higher Education needs to budget for innovation

In a recent poll done by EdSurge, 90% of schools list innovation as a priority, but only 40% of schools have dedicated budget set aside and earmarked for innovation. When I was a young staffer for a Senator on Capitol Hill years ago, I learned the concept of an ‘unfunded mandate.’ That was when someone asked you to do something but gave you no resources to get it done. Higher Education is suffering from unfunded mandates. If they truly want to innovate and continue to push into the disruptive innovation that is pressing on the whole industry – they will need to fund innovation or risk extinction. Ideas need support from the systems they are a part of through budget, policies and political support. Money talks.

The cost-benefit of a college degree is under the microscope

The other day I was at a park near my house in Denver, and I heard a young couple talking about their five-year-old as she played. The couple was openly debating whether or not their daughter should even go to college down the road. The Dad mentioned she might not need college to start a business and was it worth all the money. This discussion should scare everyone in Higher Education. You are no longer a given. You have to be relevant and tied to outcomes, or people will look at other options. With that in mind as I listened to sessions at the conference, I wondered how many of the dedicated higher education folks there understand the urgency of what is happening in the world outside of their bubble.

Universities and tech companies need to create meaningful relationships to come up with great solutions that help solve problems

It can’t be prescriptive solutions coming at universities without any input, and higher education institutions typically will not have budgets to allow for the continued development of new products. The middle ground is essential for both groups – they cannot exist without one another. This became even more clear to me as I spent a few days in Nashville hearing from both sides.

As someone who had been a higher education professional for the majority of my career and who now sits on the other side of the fence, I am hopeful. I am confident that through relationships we can figure this out together. It is not fast, but building transformational partnerships is the only way both sides will succeed in continually transforming the higher education landscape into the next century.