Is Teaching Quality the Next Front for Education Investors?

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education covering innovation in and around academy. Like many of you, I’ve had a lot more on my mind these past few days than innovation in higher education. It really does feel like the fabric of our democracy is being challenged when we face a mass murder in the name of anti-Semitism and immigrant hate, a racially motivated killing in a grocery store, and an assassination attempt on political and civic leaders within the span a few days. Let’s hope that the weeks to come bring greater civility. Here’s this week’s newsletter.

Is teaching quality the next front for education investors?

It’s game on for the business of improving faculty teaching. No, really.

Three years after a company known as ACUE burst onto the scene, selling universities on its training-in-teaching program for professors, a competing company called Faculty Guild has now begun to more publicly vie for that market.

This is remarkable for many reasons, mostly for what it says about how education investors and entrepreneurs view the state of teaching quality at the college level. They see it as a pain point for universities — and therefore a ripe business opportunity.

I’m also curious to see how these companies might change the dynamic of the faculty hiring market, particularly for adjunct professors. Organizations like Quality Matters and the Online Learning Consortium already provide training and credentials in online education. But with the emergence of these new ventures that look at teaching more broadly, will it get to the point where an instructor who has earned an ACUE certificate or achieved the goals of a Faculty Guild fellowship stands a better chance of landing a job, or higher pay, than those who haven’t?

The rise of ACUE, which is partly owned by the American Council on Education, and the growing profile of Faculty Guild also indicate an evolution in the so-called student-success movement. After several years of college leaders looking to data-driven advising systems as the keys to student retention, many now see the new frontier as teaching quality. As David Yaskin, the founder of Faculty Guild, put it to me: “They’re either actively focusing on the classroom, or they know they have to.”

Yaskin is more than a little familiar with the student-success movement. He was the founder and chief executive of Starfish Retention Solutions, a company that was early in helping institutions deploy data-analytics in advising. A company called Hobsons bought Starfish in early 2015. A few months later, while trying to figure out his next gig, Yaskin found himself sitting next to Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College, at a Gates Foundation dinner in Seattle. Their discussion turned to the topic of improving college-level teaching, a passion of Mellow’s. (If you’ve never heard her on the topic: Trust me, she pulls no punches.)

Over dinner, Mellow told Yaskin about the book she had co-written, Taking College Teaching Seriously, which described the methodology she and hundreds of colleagues had developed in tackling the subject as part of a project called Global Skills for College Completion.

For Yaskin, it was a lightbulb moment. After reading the first chapter, he says, “I realized this is what I’m going to spend the next decade doing.”

Faculty Guild’s two-semester teaching fellowship model is based on the Global Skills research and methods. This morning the company announced that it had finalized a license with LaGuardia’s foundation for exclusive rights to the research, methods, and other assets of the project.

The company, which began in January with contracts on five campuses, is now working at 35 institutions. It uses faculty members trained in the Global Skills methods as some of its facilitators.

While Faculty Guild and ACUE each do faculty-development work, their models differ. ACUE, which is now working with more than 100 colleges, offers a curriculum of 28 modules that its college clients can sequence in varying orders. Professors spend about a week per module, in both asynchronous learning and in face-to-face settings with peers. Instructors who complete 25 of the modules receive a certificate in effective college instruction. Through an arrangement with the American Council on Education, the certificate can also be worth three credits toward a graduate degree. (A spokesman for the council said external experts reviewed the curriculum.)

The Faculty Guild model is more bottom-up, with the instructors choosing which aspects of their teaching they want to focus on, and then following a structured process to help drive skills home. “We’d much rather have them change something than have them learn a lot that they don’t incorporate,” Yaskin says.

Analyzing the pros and cons of faculty-development programs is a bit outside of my wheelhouse. I’m more comfortable when it comes to the business arena. Already, I can get a little glimpse of how these two companies might square off.

ACUE, which despite being a company is formally known as the Association of College and University Educators, has the advantage of backing from the American Council on Education, which promoted it prominently at its last annual meeting and in other venues. Officials with the council said its stake in ACUE is less than 10 percent. ACUE also claims some big-name higher-education figures on its board of advisers.

Faculty Guild doesn’t have the council’s marketing halo. But through his earlier work in higher education at Starfish and before that at Blackboard, Yaskin has gotten to know hundreds of provosts and deans who play key roles in their institution’s student-success strategies. Plus, the company now owns the rights to the Global Skills program, which has some academic chops of its own.

In Faculty Guild’s formative period, Yaskin talked about a “hiring bureau” model under which it would offer fellowships to individual professors and then connect them with colleges that are interested in hiring its graduates because they “care about good teaching.” That’s still a consideration, he told me last week. But for the moment, both companies see colleges as their main clients. Their services could act either as a complement to an existing teaching-and-learning center on campus or as a stand-alone offering.

How all of this shakes out on the business front remains to be seen. But I think both companies are onto something, because they’re each associating themselves with key issues like student retention — and, implicitly, with helping colleges improve their bottom lines.

Losing students is costly. If colleges become convinced that better teaching can help them improve their retention rates, it won’t be long before they start investing more in programs to improve teaching. Whether that means juicy contracts for companies like Faculty Guild and ACUE, or more investments in homegrown efforts, or all of the above, it’s safe to say that the emergence of this movement is now widening the notion of what it takes to solve the problem of student success.