Donn Davis headshotAs the 20th Mid-Atlantic Growth Conference rapidly approaches, Corporate Growth Capital Style has been featuring conversations with the show’s impressive roster of experts and panelists. We recently spoke with EverFi Vice Chairman Gene Riechers, who shared his thoughts about education and technology.

Today’s conversation is with Donn Davis, Co-Founder and President of Revolution LLC. Mr. Davis will be moderating the “Trends and Controversy in Education Technology” panel, which will also feature Mr. Reichers, as well Echo360 CEO, Fred Singer, and Dr. Ángel Cabrera, President of George Mason University.

Here’s what Mr. Davis had to say:

CGCS: What is Revolution? Can you explain the firm’s mission as well as interest in the education market, specifically, education technology companies?

Mr. Davis: Revolution is a D.C. based venture capital firm Steve Case and I co-founded in 2005. Our mission is straight-forward: partner with entrepreneurs to help build game-changing companies. I co-lead Revolution Growth, which invests in companies that we believe are at the “speed-up” stage. That means a promising company that is at an inflection point – it has an innovative product and market leadership and we believe we can help them scale to become a billion-dollar businesses.

Revolution Growth II is our current fund – a $450 million fund in which we concentrate our time and capital in just about 10 companies.

Why education?  It is a huge market that is ripe for innovation and disruption. It is the largest segment of the economy that has not been transformed by the internet. The world has moved to digital – and education has remained analog. It is time for a major wave of products and services that can make education better and more affordable; should be a very exciting decade.

CGCS: What are some of the changes that are occurring in education today?  How is this creating opportunities for private companies?

Mr. Davis: Let’s start with the main issue. Everyone agrees education costs too much and could be more effective. So the opportunity is there for companies to create products and services that harness the internet and digital technologies to improve the learning experience and actual outcomes.

Today’s generation consumes information on their tablets and lives connected on their smart phones — why not tap into those trends to expand the classroom? Students use social media — why not harness that dynamic for study groups or tutoring? Something as basic as office hours done in the same way as 100 years ago — why not use digital to make office hours more efficient for the professor and more timely for the student?

Teachers today are more important than ever. The question is – how to best use their time. Instead of providing the same lecture over and over again – why not record it? Instead of using the class time for downloading information – why not do that in advance and use that time for valuable interaction, discussion, and projects? Simple technologies – that are inexpensive and scalable and exist today – can be used by administrators and instructors to redefine the concept of the classroom and reimagine the teaching-learning experience.

One example: One of our portfolio companies, Echo360, provides a digital platform that enables the “classroom of tomorrow” – today. Echo360 records the lecture and digitizes the classroom materials and hosts them in the cloud for access by students any time on any device. Imagine if students had to leave their textbooks in the classroom – how would they study and learn? Well, without Echo360, that’s the disadvantage all students have when it comes to the lecture and the classroom materials. What if a student missed class due to their job, conflict, or sickness?   What if a student did not understand a lecture or had incomplete notes on the materials?

Today more than 600 universities around the world in 35 countries use the Echo360 classroom of tomorrow digital platform. It is using data to inform professors on who needs help.  It is used by more than 1 million students as core to their learning. It is proven to increase outcomes. With the capital and expertise of Revolution Growth, we aim to have 50% of all college students have the advantage of the Echo360 digital platform in the next 5 years.

CGCS: What is the main challenge in education today, and are MOOCs the solution?

Mr. Davis: There are 20,000 universities and colleges globally serving 100 million degree seeking students every year. These institutions need solutions and partners to help them improve the on-campus learning experience for those paying tuition and seeking a degree. That is the main event.  Universities and colleges that embrace digital will win.

Higher education institutions have only recently started to adapt the classroom to better service their tuition-paying students through new technology. Students today are paying $20,000 to $50,000 a year in tuition – with little of it going to innovation in the teaching-learning experience. My son can more easily watch “The Walking Dead” on his iPad than study his lecture in World History 101.

The advent of the MOOCs (massive online open courses) is a side-show – it has taken the University President’s eye off the main event. The MOOCs shift resources away from what really matters: improving the higher-education environment for degree-paying students who pay nearly $350 billion in tuition each year. MOOCs have exploded in popularity over the past few years as they enable the masses to learn new things – think of them as supplemental learning. Ask the newspapers if giving away for free their proprietary content helped them. That is the analogy of what MOOCs will do to universities.

CGCS: What are, in your opinion, some of the biggest challenges to mass adoption of technology in education today and what can be done about them?

Mr. Davis: Our view at Revolution Growth is that technology should be invisible. Steve Case, Ted Leonsis and I spent a long time at AOL, and I remember that “so easy its #1” was our tagline. Mass adoption requires everything to be easy to use. So that means less whiz-bang technology with lots of features, and simpler, more reliable tech.

CGCS: At the upcoming Strategic Growth Conference, you are moderating a panel of experts on trends and technologies in education – what can we expect?   

Mr. Davis: This will not be your father’s education panel!

As we have seen with other industries – there is the classic tipping point when digital changes everything. Newspapers were one of the best businesses in the world for 150 years, and then in just a 10 year period, most of them faced extinction or bankruptcy.   We have just entered that decade for higher education. The “top 1%” of universities will always be fine. But the other 99% of universities and colleges need to take action.

Our discussion will revolve around a number of trends in the education sector – from gamification to big data. There are innovative companies with new products and services – but who will break through and how to really make the difference is on the table.

To learn more about the 20th Mid-Atlantic Growth Conference and to register, click HERE.