Dan McFadyen, Managing Director at Edalex speaks with Ryan O’Hare, CEO and Founder of Keypath Education (Australia and Asia-Pacific) where they discuss how to get ahead in Higher Education by challenging assumptions, focusing on digital strategies, embracing skills-based learning, catering to lifelong learners (the new majority) and being learner-centric.
Watch on Channel Edalex (YouTube)
1:26 – Keypath Education’s journey so far and the drivers of their rapid growth – internal (e.g. market knowledge, partnerships) and external (e.g. rise of technology, COVID)
5:49 – What higher education is already doing well and why digital strategy, systems interoperability, integrated data and lifelong learning should be the focus in 2023
16:26 – Learners have already shifted from traditional qualifications to skills-based learning – and the majority are lifelong learners / earners, not young adults
26:10 – To remain relevant, higher education needs to challenge long-held assumptions around who learners are, cohort segments, learning preference and industry alignment
29:56 – A top-down people-centric culture – with an intentional focus on diversity, equity and inclusion – underpins Keypath Education’s success
36:31– Why you should stop doing pilots and start committing instead – going all in can mean the difference between success and failure
39:17 – Higher education changes in the foreseeable future – A learner-centric vision
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(This transcript has been lightly edited for readability)
Dan McFadyen (DM) – Hi, I’m Dan McFadyen, Managing Director of Edalex, and it’s my great pleasure to be joined today by Ryan O’Hare. Ryan is the Founder and CEO of Keypath Education Australia and Asia Pacific. As such, Ryan leads one of the region’s fastest growing education businesses and the largest online program management business in Asia-Pac focused solely on the postgraduate education sector. With over 20 years experience at the forefront of higher education across the UK, North America, Australia and Asia-Pacific, Ryan has a history of launching and scaling online education businesses. Established in 2014 Ryan has grown the Keypath Australia and Asia-Pac team from his kitchen to over 300 full-time employees across Australia and Asia and built multi-year partnerships with many universities across the region. In a previous life, Ryan and I worked together for a number of years which is a great pleasure and it’s great pleasure having you back again, Ryan.
Ryan O’Hare (RO) – Thanks, Dan – Good to see you. We used to spend time face to face together sorting problems, but this time only virtual so I guess that’s the way the world works. But yeah, I am delighted to be here. Thanks for the invite and looking forward to the conversation.
Chapter 1: Keypath Education’s journey so far and the drivers of their rapid growth – internal (e.g. market knowledge, partnerships) and external (e.g. rise of technology, COVID)
DM – All right. Thanks so much. Well look – to set the stage, can you tell us about Keypath, what is it that the company does and what do you see as the key to your success?
RO – Thanks. So we are, in education vernacular, we’re called an OPM, which is an Online Program Management business. We don’t really love that title or that tagline, and I think I’ve mentioned this before, but no OPM company wants to be referenced as one, so I’ll try to do a better job of explaining what we do than referencing us as an OPM. We started in 2014, as you alluded to – which is frightening because we still try to sell ourselves as a start-up, especially when we’re trying to recruit people. We used to say, we’re a start-up, but we’ve got money so you don’t have to come in and clean the toilets at the end of the day…
DM – The best of both worlds!
RO – Exactly – yeah, that was our sort of failsafe way of trying to entice people to come into the company. But for the last, what is it, coming up on nine years, we’ve worked with leading universities across this country, a bit like you guys, in helping them understand the non-traditional student and the online education world, which has – was growing pretty nicely for years, and um, due to the emergence of tech and the growth of the non-traditional student and slowing down of the international student market and universities needing to find alternative ways to find students and businesses like us coming in and helping with that. And then obviously COVID happened and it accelerated a huge step change. So, nowadays as you and everyone knows, online education is part of the main delivery, it’s part of the mainstay in higher education and it’s kind of here to stay forever. But I circle back to nine years ago and even prior to that – when you and I worked together Dan – and we were having to have very strange conversations with people about what online education and what it wasn’t, and why students wouldn’t necessarily cheat if you couldn’t see them in front of your eyes – despite the fact that they were cheating in your lectures there too. So we started the business with the view to help universities, and large-scale universities understand the audience and the market and the need for diversification.
And then we worked with them to do a lot of the stuff that’s core to us, but probably not core to the institutions – which is marketing, recruitment, student growth, online pedagogy, instructional design, data and insights, market awareness, and allow them to be great at content and delivery and subject matter expertise and accreditation and qualification. So, together it made this a really interesting partnership. That sounds great now, but nine years ago, we were, like most businesses and most start-ups in any market, but especially in Australia, it was a lot of door knocking and a lot of “No’s” and a lot of failed attempts to try and build a business.
So, we work now with ten universities in Australia. We manage close to 100 degree programs when we sort of stack them all up in anything and everything from engineering to health, social work and psychology and counselling, business and I.T. and law and juris doctors and project management – and I could go on forever – creative writing, whatever. There’s almost a degree in everything because there’s a market for everything. But eight years ago, a little over eight years ago, we launched an online MBA with Southern Cross University and that was it – that was all we had. We had about ten people and a couple of marketers and a few student recruitment people, and we put an online MBA into the market and we told them we would get them, you know, a few students and we would create a nice degree, and we launched it, and within our first year we had over 300 students in the program – and that completely dwarfed everyone’s expectation and we took off from there, and off and running. But it’s been a pretty fast ride and we’ve been quite fortunate along the way, but we now get that really great opportunity to try and make a difference in this sector with a lot of great university partners.
DM – Wonderful, and in a competitive environment that’s huge success, so kudos to you and your team, Ryan. You mentioned the pandemic, it obviously comes up in quite a few discussions, and that’s caused some very tumultuous several years for the education industry globally, but certainly I’d say, especially here in Australia. Given your experience here and really, experience around the globe, what do you think universities are getting right today? And then where do they need to improve, adapt, stop, change what they are doing?
RO – Yeah, great question. I mean, obviously no sectors, no industries were prepared for a pandemic and not the least higher education, um, so it’s easy in hindsight to say you weren’t prepared, but we weren’t prepared as a business. I remember having to – the week after Scott Morrison shut the country down – sign up an enormous invoice for laptops so that we could send all our staff to work from home, whereas everyone was on desktops in an office, and I had to spend an absolute fortune on laptops so that we could keep everyone working from home – with the – and you would remember this – we were “Well, how long will they be there?” and “Won’t they come back in the office in a few weeks time?” So no one was prepared for it. And I will say as it pertains to us in the online education world, and no one – very, very few universities had any form of plan for online education at scale. I’ve used this example before but they’re the sort of bellwether for coming together as a sector – a trip to Canberra once a year when you go and do the Higher Education, the Australian Higher Education Conference. I’ve mentioned this before, but the three years prior to COVID, there wasn’t a single session or discussion on online education on the agenda for three years prior. Now they talk about it a lot at that conference and we’re all there, but no one was talking about it, and no one was prepared for it. So, we got the outcomes we got as a result of it, so – I think the things that higher education has done well – and I see universities doing really well, and I think even prior to COVID this was happening – and I’d be curious to hear your take on this: I think there’s been a mentality change towards, you know, looking outside of the, of the confined sandstone walls when it comes to partnerships – and I think Australia’s history and international education has got a lot to do with that too – we’re a bit more open and receptive. There were a lot of new innovative partnerships happening.
You look at things, like Swinburne Online really set that stuff in motion, things like Moodle and other things being created here – there’s this sort of environment that’s somewhat embracing of the external, I think in Australia. And I certainly saw – and curious to hear your take – that over the years that it was becoming more and more open and it was becoming easier and more accessible for universities to think outside of doing everything themselves. And so COVID has accelerated it – they needed partnerships and they needed external support and experts to be able to help upskill quickly and bring in competence. So I think the mentality change has really helped, in that, you know, the competitive environment for universities aren’t other universities – they are anyone and everyone these days that can, you know, help and support and upskill people, and I’m sure, when they talk about this skills growth at some point in time…
And then I think the other is this certain need for the improvement on the student experience and on the consumer expectation side is certainly getting better. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that higher education lags a lot of industries in terms of its quality of user experience, and it’s aligned to what happens in – whether it’s retail or travel or online banking or Netflix or whatever you want to use – so, I think we’re getting slowly better at that, and again, that’s a result of more public private partnerships. So, I think, maybe I may say this because I’m on the outside and it’s easy to look at it that way, but it’s a lot easier to do business with universities than really it was 10 or 15 years ago, and I think the mentality shift has happened. I still think there is a long way to go, and I – most of the universities we’re fortunate to work with would acknowledge such.
I’m still amazed in 2023 that we aren’t, that a lot of universities don’t have a digital strategy. You know, there’s a building strategy, there’s an I.T. strategy, there’s a teaching and learning strategy and an infrastructure strategy. And the biggest disruptive force, over the last 10 – 15 years and going forward, is digital and technology and the fast emergence of it. And really, for the most part, universities don’t have a combined structured digital strategy, which is, as I’m sure you know, similar to you when you walk in and try “Where will we fit in with that?” and “What is the measurement of success?” and “How are we going to sit alongside the other initiatives you’re trying to do?” and “Where are you trying to get to by 2530?” And it’s hard then to be successful because you’re sort of a subcomponent of something that’ll maybe join up with something else at some point in time. So I truly think that’s an enormous piece of work that a lot of education executives are going to have to work on as well: “What is our institution’s digital strategy – how are we going to stay as fast, or as close as we can to keeping up pace with it?”
And on a, on then probably on a more micro level, I think the measurements of success in higher education are changing – and need to. I was on a panel the other day, we were talking about retention – a topic close to my heart. And there was a perspective that – rightly – that retention and attrition in online education can be markedly different or worse than in face-to-face education, which in a lot of cases is correct. But it isn’t an apple to an apple, and the measurement of success for the student is the viewpoint through which we should be looking at it – as opposed to what tends to guide us in what to do. The argument that – ‘is someone better off doing a four-year bachelors of I.T or a two, three-year master’s of I.T., or are they really better off taking some courses in Cyber and Risk or IOT and move into the data science or into the next?’ Surely the user gets to, sort of, decide what level and volume of skills they need to be, they need, in order to move and progress within their life, depending upon their age, of course. But I think we need to adapt a lot more to ‘less the internal and insular views of what success and completion and retention and graduation and other things look like’, and more towards, well, ‘what do we need in order to be able to feel comfortable that there’s progression in skills and expertise, but also that that’s what the user needs and wants. And that’s sufficient, and that, if they’ve got that inside of three and a half months and they’ve progressed on with their life – are they a failure and are they a failed statistic?’ So that – I think there’s a lot in there and there’s a whole Pandora’s box around that, especially when it comes to lifelong learning and evaluation of skills.
But, I’ll just summarise by saying – I really think we’ve progressed a lot in understanding that higher education doesn’t start and stop when you’re 18 to 22. That’s the front ending of education. That there is a perspective that we need to be much more tied towards lifelong learning, however that user wants to, or however that user wants to get it.
DM – So, just building on a couple of the points, I think one of – I would agree with, with so much of what you said, and that COVID really broke down a lot of barriers. And the “No” – you know, the old excuses of “No, we can’t do it that way. No, we can’t do it online. No, we can’t change,” – well, there was no choice, just as you said, you had to buy laptops and everyone had to work at home that week. And talking to a number of institutions and organisations that within two weeks, they didn’t have an online program or a full-fledged online program, they had to spin one up in a matter of weeks. How do you do that? But I think it’s also helped, helps remove barriers for the learners, right? So, again, not necessarily do they have to follow the same path that an institution or previous generations…
RO – And don’t get me wrong Dan – I have no problem with all of us being unprepared for a pandemic, and having to do what we needed to do, right? I mean, it’s – if you have to stand outside Woolworths at 7am to make sure you get toilet roll, then the comparison to building a course on the fly for students anywhere and everywhere quickly, and not doing it brilliantly, is not far off. However, I love a line I heard recently, which was that, um – “No one learning to swim in a flood is going to win gold at the Olympics.” So, it’s fine to be unprepared. But what have we learned out of it? And how does that then inform the fact that, you know, there is a need for a coherent digital strategy across all institutions? We’ve moved towards – we already had less and less people coming to campus and wanting learning in different forms or validated in areas – there is no way we’re ever reverting back to whatever normal was. So, how do we embrace the fact that change has absolutely happened and that, you know, our digital life is going to impact universities forever, so we’ve got to embrace that. I think that’s a – and I say we in the… it’s our responsibility, it’s your responsibility, it’s, you know, it’s corporates’ responsibility, it’s professionals’ responsibility, it’s universal responsibility – we’re all figuring in this out together.
DM – Perfect. I want to pull on one of the threads you mentioned around skills – so that’s the word – skills, and the concept is, it’s on everyone’s mind these days, and deservedly so. So, there’s this increasing spotlight on the imperative to develop skills and learners. And that those skills need to be workplace relevant, they need to be delivered with greater clarity and focus, and delivered at the speed that industry requires. And this, we’re certainly seeing this being driven both by learners – newly liberated learners perhaps – but by learners as well as industry, and the global skills shortage that’s really impacting every company around the world. And from, from my experience, the concept of skills, at some institutions, used to be looked down – like it was a dirty word that might have been for the vocational sector, and “We don’t do skills”, but certainly recently, we’re finding our clients…
DM – Well, I know – you can say ‘mastery’, but never ‘competency’. Right? So, different vocabulary, but and yet, you know, still the same learners. So, we’re really seeing that our clients are getting on board and really looking to make that shift from course-centric to skills-centric learning. I’d love to get your thoughts on the broader perspectives – broader industry, education industry… Are they ready? What do you think they need to do to make that transition?
RO – Yes – we need to be all better skilled. No – we don’t have the capacity to do it all… is that sufficient? So, we – and just to give some perspective – so we are traditionally a business that’s focused on qualifications, accreditation, and degrees we manage across our portfolio. The vast majority of our portfolio is in postgraduate qualifications – from stackable certificates right the way up to master’s in anything and everything. So, we have been less focused on, I guess, what people might assume skills-based learning is – which is, you know – shorter, un-accredited, micro-based components. That said, we manage tens of thousands of students in anything and everything, and the vast majority of those students aren’t there to complete a two to three years master’s degree – they are there to get the component of skills within the qualification that they need. And that’s been fascinating to us over the years, which is that – and some of that is sort of labour-driven. If four months worth of cyber-security learning is enough to get me an increase in salary and a job, do I need to complete this, because we have such skills shortages? But others are because – I think it’s a reflection of – once people get beyond that undergraduate, their, maybe their desire, their need, their will to be able to persist through one form of learning for two to three years is certainly less. We will have more students now in some of our… we have more students now, who would complete multiple graduate certificates in various things than do one master’s degree, which is quite amazing. So we might even have a student who might have graduated in HR, one in analytics and then something else in management before they would do a one, two-years master’s program, which is fascinating. So the disaggregation of the traditional qualification into – call it whatever you like – skills-based learning, or micro-learning or, sort of sub-qualifications – has been happening already and like most things, it’s driven by the user before the market catches up and creates a sort of terminology for it.
Battling around micro-credentials which you can’t say these days without saying the word ‘framework’ after it, I’ve learned – the market’s been doing it for ages. We’re just a little bit late to try and figure out that it’s happened and that we need to put some sort of parameters around it, some sort of name and terminology and structure to it.
RO – The vast majority of our students don’t live in metro areas. They live in regional, rural areas all across Australia. And one of their reasons for studying online is obviously physical disparity to a campus. But another reason is the anxiety and nervousness existing, especially around 50% of our students are female. There can be an apprehension for working mothers going back into higher education that the remoteness is a benefit to them and that then feeds into how they learn and the anxiety that comes with that. So to get back into education is a huge step, especially if you’ve been hired for 15, 20 years. There are all forms of nervousness and anxiety that come with it. And getting yourself back into a sort of way of learning through an academic qualification is tough. And that’s a lot of what we have to do. Supporting students in rural areas with the path that they then need to get to that qualification. So if that working mum in a regional part of Victoria or Western Australia persists for 4 to 6 months to get some form of qualification or learning in an area that they may not have done for 15, 20 years, then in no way is that a failure to us and it shouldn’t be in any way, but it might be a statistical failure in terms of a dropout or a lack of full qualification completion. But it’s a fantastic success story. So anyway, back to your point around our own skills, I think it’s certainly happening and I’m sure you spent most of the last couple of weeks typing things into ChatGPT just to see how clever you are.
RO – [Laughing] I know, I know, I know. Where were we? Yeah, and I think things like that are wonderful and you know, in six months time there will be the next version of that and we’ll move on etc. What, is it going to replace the university in the next five years? No, it’s not. There will be a great use for it and it will complement as it lasts. But I do think it’s just another brick in the wall towards the various ways through which we can acquire knowledge and learning away from maybe the traditional way that you and I went to university, which was the only offering that we could have got maybe 10, 20 years ago. I think if I told my parents 20 years ago: “Actually you know, the computer is going to teach me how to be a … you know – whatever. And there’s this thing if I type in and it’ll tell me really quickly.” My dad would have thrown something at me. But we have to understand that again – I love the line that “the future doesn’t really care how you become an expert.” And I look at that right now with the long, long list of people we have to hire. And do I really care where my front end devs learn to be really good front-end devs? Do they need to have four years worth of software engineering behind them at the university to be able to be competent in the workplace? I probably do not. But then at the same time, we said that we fully believe in the value of a university qualification not just because of the skills you can learn but also the non-transferrable information, the human-centred skills that you get alongside it. And when we go to work with large corporate and professionals which we do all the time, the same feedback comes through again and again and again, which is, any amount of skilled professionals we can find, but none of them can solve a problem, work in a team, communicate, think critically – the general things that a great university experience add to and supplement as well. So, there will be areas where things will be replaced, I think that’s an absolute. But there’s probably greater propensity for opportunity and complimentary opportunities for the sector where we can embrace – yep, the change and the diversity happening in technology – but it can add and supplement to the great experience that we can get through formal and informal qualifications out of university. And I think we’re more excited about that than anything. And certainly that’s a lot of what I know you’re focused on, which is the acknowledgment and recognition that skills are in many capacities, right? Skills are like communication and critical thinking just as much as they are software engineering.
DM – Well, that’s right, and an A-grade doesn’t tell you, as you said, all those 21st century skills, human skills, turbos – call them what you will, which are so, so important. So yeah – that’s one of our core focuses around that surfacing of skills, which ties in to what you said about the variety of options that learners have and that the degree itself is no longer the signal to hire as it once was.
Chapter 4: To remain relevant, higher education needs to challenge long-held assumptions around who learners are, cohort segments, learning preference, and industry alignment
DM – So, so what does that mean for universities who have geared themselves – their structure, their programs, their offerings – around this assumption that there are these monolithic, stackable at some level but, you know, these very large degrees – and that’s good enough?
RO – Yeah, look, it’s been happening. Most analysts – most people that assess data at a university, whether it is in finance or insights or marketing, will be able to tell you that they’ve seen these sort of changes happening over time. I think the greatest disruption will come outside of that traditional undergraduate area – I think that’s still relatively safe for a period of time and I would hope so. There’s just so much that a 18 to 22 year-old can get from being out of university and travelling and learning and embracing that sets them up for life. I think the great disruption will happen beyond that in the lifelong learning area, that the acknowledgement of a degree being the only passport to skills and employment if you want to work in certain professional areas is somewhat flawed. I will caveat that by saying like everyone – I want my doctor to have got more than a LinkedIn badge. I want my physiotherapist to have done more than an app, but I think that’s straightforward in those areas and a lot of work we’re doing around the embracing of technology to support clinical health care skills can help. There is still obviously an extreme acknowledgement that we want people to be able to operate in a physical hospital or private health care centre as well. But coming back to it, yes, the need for a diversity of offering to our really diverse audiences is critical.
And the bit that we’ve probably lost as a sector is this bundling of everyone non-undergraduate into one thing. Whether they’re a postgraduate, they are our audience and they want an MBA and here’s how we’ll get it to them. And they want the greatest lecturers to be able to tell them all about it. We have students from 100 countries around the world who have been learning with us for nine years across multiple different disciplinary areas. We can tell you how nurse unit managers learn entirely differently to aspiring fintech students – the time of day they learn, they know the amount of content they need in order to be able to feel confident doing something, the amount of support they need from an instructor or a facilitator, or what that support is and what that type of feedback is they’re looking for. And that will then feed into them being able to engage and network with all their students, which then leads into group work problem solving and group things. So we have all of the data and insights and I think universities in a lot of ways have these data and insights, too. I think back to when we first met Dan and it was around utilising the mountains of data and insights and pieces of information that universities have and helping them to be able do something with it much easier. I think the starting point is who our audience are and how they are learning and what our professions need and want and how we create something for them that aligns better to that, rather than the sort of historic assumption we may have had.
Chapter 5: A top-down people-centric culture – with an intentional focus on diversity, equity and inclusion – underpins Keypath Education’s success
DM – Thanks for the run. I’d like to take us in a different direction and focus back on Keypath for a couple of minutes – actually more on your employees. As I followed your success over the years, I’ve been incredibly impressed by the diversity programs and initiatives that you have for your staff at Keypath. Obviously that flows down from the top, but you have wonderful people around you. Can you share with us how that evolved and developed over time and what can other companies learn and strive to achieve your successes? And then part two of that is: Do you see that flowing across in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion for your university partners and their programs and respecting the diversity that you mentioned of the learnings?
RO – Thanks Dan. It’s always reassuring to hear when people pick up on that. I had the fortune of meeting every new person that comes into the company irrespective of where they are, and what they’re doing. I spend some time with them two to three weeks after they’ve come in or scared the life out of them and they ran.
DM – And you don’t make them clean in the toilets I hope [Laughing]
RO – I don’t make them clean the toilets – yeah yeah. And I don’t care how they got their skills. Whether – I could set my clock without fail, they will say: “I had no idea it was this welcoming, this diverse and this supportive from the outside. I had no clue.” And there’s a lesson for us in how we communicate, of how we do, and who we are, and what we embrace, and what’s different about us. It doesn’t matter where people come from, what their background is, they will say that without fail. So it’s nice when it gets recognised externally and I appreciate that. Our emphasis on equality and culture and diversity is by far the greatest asset we have as a business. It absolutely feeds into the work we do, the partnerships we get to have the top and bottom line performance that we have as a business. It is all directly correlated to the culture that we have and the people we get to hire and the environment they get to work in. It is a straight path between them. And I think of all the things that we are proud of and we’ve got right over time, the way, the culture that we’ve been able to build here is so far ahead of anything else that we’ve been able to do. And it’s certainly the thing I’m most proud of. We were intentional about it from the start, so I always find it quite difficult to talk about: “What have you done?” and “What has evolved?” and “What have you got?” It’s kind of been in our DNA from the start, certain principles that we align to, the same as most companies do. But we were ruthless about them, about embracing diversity, about hiring youth, and young people – we really did do that. We certainly chose inexperience in a lot of ways because we were looking for aptitude and determination and skills and the opportunity for risk taking. And I think people often overlook this, but we worked on a lot of stuff, made tons of mistakes and some stupid things over time. But we’ve kind of always been O.K. with that and we’ve told people: “That’s all right, give it a go.”
And one thing I’ve learned for people from various cultures and backgrounds is the ability to fail and not be judged and treated differently or held accountable but in our ‘lessons learned’ way as opposed to a stick, that’s really helped build culture. So, we’ve won awards and we’re right, I think it’s close to 60% of people that work here weren’t born in this country, where, you know, 70% is female and all these types of things. And yeah, they’re statistics, but they drive the culture that we’ve got. And I think, I don’t know … I haven’t worked anywhere else for nine years. I don’t know if that’s any different than anywhere else. But I think the thing that helps drive it is none of those things are any different to how most companies operate. Every so often you get tested. Something happens and you have to take a position or a stance, that can be an internal issue, or matter, or discussion, or problem you’ve got to solve, or it can be something external. And we were really intentional and focused on the external things that we felt matter. There’s a lot of external stuff happens all the time, right? But the stuff that had a direct impact or correlation to what we did – I think back to, we’re really early supporters of marriage equality and we’ve made a real big difference. Black Lives Matter. And we ran some things when the mosque attack happened in New Zealand and even little things around how we handled COVID – given how people came from various different backgrounds and the sort of anxiety and fear and family issues that they had with that. Those things were tests along the way, that reinforce the culture. I’ve used this example before, but, you know, I send emails out every so often around us achieving X things, or we’ve signed a new university, or we’ve grown to Y numbers. No one really cares, but I remember if I go back to four or five years ago and we took a real stance around Black Lives Matter, for example. The feedback I got on that is greater than anything we’ve ever done around a university partnership or something. So, integrity matters, and sometimes you’ve just got to manage the task that comes your way because that enforces culture more than anything.
Chapter 6: Why you should stop doing pilots and start committing instead – going all in can mean the difference between success and failure
DM – Well said. Look, there’s so much more that I’d love to dive in to there, but I’m also aware you’ve given us a lot of your time already, so two questions: One – I always come back to this over every time that I remember from a couple of years ago. I don’t know what event or conference it was, but you were asked for your advice for universities. And your advice was to stop doing pilots – piloting all these different systems and to make a decision and, you know, go all in on an initiative. And from a vendor perspective, that was obviously music to my ears. But then COVID happened, right? So that devastated institutional finances in terms of the teams and institutional capability to actually deliver on a mission. So, does that advice still hold true?
RO – Yeah, I fully believe that. Like most good things I’ve learned in life, someone else did it and said it. And I was fortunate to be at Arizona State University (ASU) Online in the really early days of their development when they began this behemoth that does everything and they probably ran pilots and trialled nothing. But I remember spending time – this might have been 15 years ago, with ASU online and Phil Regier, who was, I think he still is, the Dean of ASU online – he said that line: “Don’t pilot anything.” And I was amazed that, you know, a Dean at a university said it. I think we were with a group of people and “Well, what do you mean?” He said: “Well, no one takes pilots seriously.” Whether it’s an internal pilot or you’re piloting a vendor or a partner or something like that, no one takes them seriously because they’re allowed to fail. And you don’t put the right accountability and leadership around them, they have a short lifespan and the measurements of success are all wrong. He said: “So either don’t do it or go all in.” And I love that. And we’ve kind of kept that mantra here a lot. And it’s frustrating because we think we’re fast paced and we think we do as much as we can, but there are still so many things you sort of see sitting on the shelf like: “Oh, I’d love to give that a go.” But the things that we failed out over time are the stuff that we didn’t go all in on – we maybe didn’t put enough leadership support, or investment, or structure, or governance on them, or give it enough time, or go hard at it – those are the things that we have done right or when we’ve done obviously the absolute opposite. So when we get it right, it’s where we put absolutely the right people towards it. And when we give it the time to be successful, learn the lessons and go along the way. So it’s an easy thing to say “Don’t pilot anything.” When universities are asking: “What can we pilot doing something?” We never say “yes” – because who’s going to win out of it? Yes, that’s our mantra. Don’t pilot anything. Go at it or don’t do it.
DM – Go big or go home.
Chapter 7: Higher education changes in the foreseeable future – a learner-centric vision
DM – And the last question before I let you go home or obviously back to work, is around the future. We both have young-ish kids around the same age and, you know, for me thinking over the next decade the changes that I’d love to see in higher education, I would love to hear your thoughts on that and then what role you think Keypath can and is playing in fostering some of those changes?
RO – Well, it’s still school holidays here Dan and I’m just figuring how long do school holidays last? We’re going to run out of things to do and every day is, you know, a high expectation day. Well, what are we doing today? So I’m kind of looking forward to them getting back to just … school.
DM – That’s step one. Okay [Laughing]
RO – That’s step one, never mind. A university in ten years time, whatever it is … I think university or universities or whatever formal learning that our kids are going to get in ten years time will look materially different to how they look today. I think a lot of it will come back to an earlier point we were talking about – the need for a real digital strategy and focusing on them. I would like to think and there are so many answers I can give here, but I’ll summarise it in one. I would like to think that by the time my children get to university age in their life – wherever it is, universities are going to know a lot more about them (my children) than those students walking in there right now. Of course it’s up to my children to be able to chart a path for themselves, to learn and to apply the skills and to work hard and do all those types of things and fit into whatever environment, virtual or physical, that the university has on offer. But I don’t think it’s unkind to say that our higher education institutions need to know so much more about who the students are, when they walk in, whenever that’s a virtual or a physical door and be better prepared to cater for who they are, and how they learn, and when they want to learn, and why they want to learn. And that’s on their terms, more so than a sort of binary offering we give currently through higher education. And there’s no excuse for that not being the case. We have just too much data, and too many insights and too many systems. Yeah, there’s a lot to do to link up schooling and learning right through life, but I can’t see why we can’t get better at that faster and we can’t know more about students. Yes, there’s a component of self-driven learning that is always on the learner that they’ve got to apply themselves, but the onus is on the system and groups like us, and you, and everyone else in there to be able to take everything else away so that when our children get there, we have the right form of learning for them that’s catered to my daughter, your kids, whoever it is.
DM – Right. Great answer. Yeah great vision. And we’d better get busy and partnering with educational institutions of all shapes and sizes to help make that a reality – that future vision a reality.
RO – It’s exciting Dan.
DM – Wonderful. Well, Thank you so much Ryan for your time. I really enjoyed the discussion. So many wonderful thoughts. And so, yeah, thanks again. It was a really great discussion. And truly, Dan, thanks for the opportunity and lovely artwork.
RO – Thank you.