Kate Valenti: You just celebrated your 2nd anniversary at Unicon, but you have an impressive 24-year career in education technology. How did you get into this industry?
Cary Brown: My background is actually not in technology, I’m a liberal arts major with a graduate degree in literature. My first job outside of school was as a Director of Communications in PR on Capitol Hill. When I started out in the business world, desktop technology was really just starting to enter the workforce. As the low man on the totem pole, I was assigned the job of figuring out how to use the desktop word processor. This sparked an interest for me in technology, and specifically in database development. It seems like after that, each job I had I was handed the technology challenges. In the late 90s, I had a friend recruit me to PeopleSoft Campus Solutions given my experience in technology and as an educator. At PeopleSoft, I was thrown into the world of application development as a Business Analyst (akin to a current Product Manager). I worked my way up the ladder from there!
Kate: That’s a long span to be working in the education application space. How have you seen education technology change over that time?
Cary: Two changes come to mind. First, in the application development space, when I first started out, the general approach was to build monolithic enterprise applications. These mammoth all-encompassing systems were built in a tightly coupled fashion, not in useful modules but as an entire enterprise system. This was true in Student Information Systems and in Learning Management Systems. What we started to see as we moved into the 2000’s and 2010’s was decomposition of that approach. It became clear these monolithic apps were very expensive to buy and to maintain and upgrade. Over time, there came a recognition that a best-of-breed approach would allow for more flexibility and servicing of the idiosyncratic and individualized nature of higher education business processes. Interestingly as the pendulum swung in the other direction, we traded monoliths for highly integrated ecosystems - possibly too componentized and modularized, and we just shifted the cost to tying all these apps together. So, now we have a bundling of related services, but a degree of componentization, which feels more like middle ground.
Second, a change that I fully support is a continuing orientation toward a consumer-centric approach to technology development. In our industry, that “consumer” is the student. Student Information Systems and Learning Management Systems all started out as technical representations of paper processes, built with the administrator in mind. We’ve begun to see we really need to be developing with the learner in mind. Learner-centricity, at an architecture and a data level, means you are thinking about the business process you are building to support the learner, and you are considering how the learner’s interaction with the system should drive the experience. And then, you consider what the administrator needs to support the learner. At times a fairly subtle and nuanced shift in perspective but a very important one - it speaks to a change in overall orientation in how we think about architecting systems.
Kate: I share your interest in learner-centric experiences! Are there other edtech trends that you are excited about?
Cary: Absolutely. First, I am excited about the emphasis on integration and interoperability. At a technical level, we’re making a lot of progress on making it easier, more efficient, and safer (from a privacy and security perspective) to build out integrations between systems. The focus of this effort is to enable interoperability between systems to reduce the unnecessary complexity that we’ve imposed on students. Harkening back to the monolithic app, and the pendulum swing to increasingly disconnected functions, we’ve made things harder by having all these disparate systems with disparate data, and the learner suffers by not having a coherent experience. When we shift our thinking to be learner-centric, we focus our efforts on the interplay of systems for the best learner outcome. The technology exists to enable this experience, so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be solving these problems now.
Second trend is related to changes in pedagogy and the emergence of scalable Competency-Based Education (CBE). Having sets of learning outcomes that can be expressed as competencies and skills, and enabling those competencies and skills to be translated into learning paths will help a learner know what to learn next, and help an earner to understand pathways to employment. We haven’t had good solutions for this in the past, and graduates have hoped they’d get a job in their field of study, but they weren’t sure. The ability to articulate the outcomes of our education is going to help the learner immensely. The idea that we can actually codify, at a granular level, what we actually know, is going to be a key change for learners and for employers.
Kate: Well said - you have a way with words. Related, I happen to know that you’re a writer, both screenwriter and fiction writer outside of your role at Unicon. Can you share a recent proud moment in this aspect of your life?
Cary: A while back I wrote a treatment for a TV series with my friend and producing partner. We had been trying to get this story off the ground for a while, and we wrote a pitch document, which outlines your vision for the series including characters, environment, etc. We got a call from a prominent agent who wanted to read the pitch deck, and after his review actually told us not to change a word. You never hear “don’t change a word.” In screenwriting, everyone's a critic! But he actually wanted us to keep it as we had written it. To get that kind of reaction to my writing at this stage was very personally validating.
Kate: Congratulations on that. Let’s wrap things up today with a bit of dreaming…if you had a magic wand and could fix one thing in the edtech space, what would it be?
Cary: Hands down, adoption of standards. The fact that we still struggle so hard in education to get vendors to adopt standards so that there are common methods of communication is crazy. On the other side of the coin, to get institutions to require the adoption of standards as part of their procurement process would solve an enormous amount of problems we have in ed tech. Both at institutional and vendor levels, players in this space are constantly looking for their own unique value proposition. Everyone is a snowflake. We continue to make the mistake that certain basic technical infrastructure features contribute to that differentiation, when in fact they shouldn’t.
Kate: Thank you so much for spending time with me today, Cary. I always learn something new when we speak, and I appreciate you sharing your experience and insights with me.