The ASU Skysong Education Innovation Summit has become the can’t-miss education innovation event of the year in just the three years since it was founded—and this year came as close to living up to the hype as anything could (full disclosure: I am a member of the advisory board).

Held at Arizona State University’s Skysong campus from April 16 to April 18, roughly 800 people—from educators to entrepreneurs to investors, thought leaders, and policymakers—crowded this year’s education’s “Davos in the Desert” conference.

As usual, there was a great mix of thoughtful panels and keynotes about how to use innovation to drive educational improvements for all students—not just in the U.S. but in the world—as well as a number of education companies showcasing their wares for investors (with disruptive start-up PresenceLearning winning this year’s pitch contest).

But this year’s conference also occurred in a different context. The climate in the “edtech” world has heated up dramatically and become even frothier than it was a year ago at this time.

Coursera has been only the latest in a string of education start-ups to announce their debuts with significant investment and investors behind them. In Coursera’s case, it brought heavy-hitting VC Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers to the party.

In an industry long noted for its lack of innovation and investment, things are changing fast.

The Minerva Project, for example, caught several people’s eyes recently when it announced its presence to the world to the tune of the largest seed investment Benchmark Capital has ever made in a company—a cool $25 million. Billing itself as the first elite American university to be launched in a century, Minerva enters the market as an online university aiming to overhaul students’ experience in some serious ways—from an actual emphasis on learning and student creation to what promises to be a low price point (likely well under $20,000 annual tuition) for everyone.

Although up-start innovations aimed at the high end of a market and designed to leapfrog the competition tend not to be successful, CEO and founder Ben Nelson—former CEO of Snapfish—appears to have an interesting insight into this market, which is that elite universities are really a different beast from the rest of the higher education industry. And in that particular segment, there is a lot of nonconsumption, as there is plenty of demand for elite higher education but a very limited supply (in that way, his insight isn’t all that different from Chris Whittle’s vision for Avenues: The World School, in the K-12 private school world). It’s a bold bet worth watching.

Turning more eyes at this year’s Education Innovation Summit were the number of announcements that companies made during the week, which turned it into an International CES-like atmosphere in some respects. Sophia, an online social learning company, turned some heads when it announced that its original incubator, Capella University, had acquired it—and then alluded to bigger plans to come as it seeks to address spiraling college costs. With UniversityNow’s recent exciting launch of the low-cost, competency-based New Charter University, making college fundamentally affordable to students and society looks like it might not be a pipe dream for much longer.

The most exciting announcement in my opinion at the actual summit came from Altius Education and its founder and CEO, Paul Freedman. The announcement was the public launch of its new Helix platform.

According to Freedman, despite online learning’s continued growth and studies from the Department of Education that show online learning can be as good as if not often better than traditional face-to-face learning experiences, the results on the ground in online higher education show that all-too-often online learning still fails to engage students.

As Altius looked at the problem, Freedman said the team saw that there were three critical parts of the learning system: what you teach, how you teach it, and the learning environment. But these three pieces were all fragmented—or modular in our language—and, given the immaturity of the online learning industry, still not good enough to do the jobs for which it was being hired. As a result, Altius is now adopting The Innovator’s Solution playbook to integrate all three to control for the different interdependencies between them and create an experience that is good enough.

First, Altius Education has been using cognitive science grounded in decades of research—from Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset to cognitive load theory—to redesign all of its courses over the last few years.

What Helix will now do is take the learning environment to the next level, according to Freedman. It will make online learning social for the student and the teacher. It will simplify teachers’ administrative tasks and allow them to focus on teaching. It will create a competency-based, adaptive learning environment—good buzz words, but that’s not all.

Helix will engage students through storytelling, as Freedman asserted that the human brain is wired to understand stories. The stories will be based on personal interest and will adapt based on a student’s competencies and goals. Helix will also allow students to set goals around when they want to complete things and why (not everyone has to shoot for a “4.0” for example), and then Altius Education will set the schedule with firm deadlines based on the students’ individual needs (as a side note, in my opinion this is big; if I had been able to have a schedule based upon my needs and my personal objectives but also still have deadlines, I probably would not have become a Udacity dropout after my third week in its seven-week CS101 course—but that’s a story for a different blog). Everything a student learns will be geared in a larger context around why he or she is learning it with different content formats based on what instructional designers think is the best way to learn.

There is more, but the last thing worth highlighting here is that the system will not only return information around academic competencies, but also around communication, critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, and information literacy. The idea is to returns some control to universities to allow them to think about these horizontal competencies that they are supposed to do.

The first Helix courses will launch in August 2012, so it’s certainly in the early innings to see what the reality will be, but the sneak peak gave good reasons for some cautious optimism.

As the overall ASU conference showed, that’s not a bad way to think about the overall state of education innovation either.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.