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Phil Hill

Industry Insiders Call Him Phil, His Full Name is Phil Hill

Can you start by sharing who you are, a bit about yourself, your family?

My name is Phil Hill. I've been working in education for about 22 years, mostly as a consultant and market analyst with Phil Hill & Associates. About my family, I've been long time married. My wife and I met in high school, we have three daughters, so we had a family fairly early. Family's been pretty big for us. Actually, I have our grandson living in the house with us.

I went to school to be an electrical engineer and was in the Air Force for a while. I never really fit in the Air Force, though. I'm not a conventional guy trying to climb the ladder, get promoted. Then I thought of a way to make things exciting, I guess. I decided to try a hostile takeover of the engineering company I worked on.

It turns out that failed hostile takeovers can lead to job loss, which is how I got into consulting as a business. And then as far as how I got into education, I had several customers, warehouse management software, education. The feedback I got was saying, what you're doing that is most useful and most unique, was in educational technology. How I got here, really a lot of it was falling into it, following instincts, and reacting to events as they happen.

✨ Pearl of wisdomWhen I realized I needed to pick one industry to work on and I just asked feedback from my clients, the best feedback I got was from education. And it had the additional benefit that it's nice to work in an industry where you care about the outcome.

Can you elaborate a bit more on how you ended up working in EdTech?

So, I left the company where I tried the hostile takeover and started working in e-commerce, which was a big emerging field. My client was Grainger Internet Commerce and Daniel Hamburger was the CEO there. Daniel left that job, and then he worked for Accenture right around the time that I was getting into consulting, and they were doing EdTech, but not higher education. They were doing corporate learning, so he hired me as a consultant to help them out on a job. And then he became the CEO of DeVry University.

Again, he called me in to help them out. It was a personal connection that got me doing that job. But then when I realized I needed to pick one industry to work on and I just asked feedback from my clients, the best feedback I got was from education. And it had the additional benefit of it's nice to work in an industry where you care about the outcome. I care about people getting degrees, I care about them as the basis for their life. I mentioned I had three daughters, I care about what's going to happen to them. I've had that huge benefit that I actually care about the outcome of education.

Can you tell us about your consulting business, Phil Hill & Associates, and a bit of the history of your newsletter as well?

The consulting was the original business. When I first got into EdTech, I was helping individual universities choose technology, develop online strategy. For the first 10 years, that's what I did. Over time, I started writing a blog, and the reason I started writing is because if people wanted to hire me, they needed to know what I know, how I work, what I think. So that's how I started blogging. And then I got involved with Michael Feldstein, who had the e-Literate blog that was very influential. And I just noticed, Michael just wasn't writing very often. Eventually I said, why don't you let me be a co-publisher? I'll take over the site, and then when you can get time to start writing again, we'll write together.

So, a common theme, I fell into it. People started looking to me and my company, the work I did, not just as consulting, but as market analysis. They got value out of what we wrote. Here's what's happening in the market, here's how to interpret some news story, here's what you're likely to see next. And so, it became market analysis, even though we didn't charge. So over time, we needed to actually try to monetize market. That's what we do today. The market analyst is all based on the writing and speaking. The newsletter is the primary vehicle for that right now. And consulting means private stuff you do for a specific customer, and typically you can't even write about it.

✨ Pearl of wisdomThe reason I started writing is because if people wanted to hire me, they needed to know what I knew, how I worked, what I thought. So that's how I started blogging.

Do you have a reference of your most popular story?

When I was still writing at e-Literate, one of the articles was What is a learning platform? We would get on and it still might be the top post two or three years later. Another one was there was a study about hybrid learning that came out of one of the schools down in California. It basically came out saying the flipped classroom really wasn't giving good results. There was a study that was getting pushed in the media saying, the results are awful and it proves that things don't work. As a matter of fact, the researchers, when they have been interviewed by the media, are giving misleading answers. So, I really attacked the public story. That one, for several years, got a lot of readership.

I don't have the numbers off the top of my head, but I know some of the most read was Blackboard getting acquired, Blackboard Learn Ultra being late. Instructure, when they changed the CEO and the mess he created, those have probably been the most read numerically. But there's also another challenge to this. It used to be almost everything was a blog; it was reading on the web. Today, so much of it is newsletter. So, you're measuring things on how many thousands of people open up your email, and it's a different metric than the page views.

How would you characterize the profile or demographic of the folks who read the newsletter?

This isn't based on data analysis. What I know best is the people who give me feedback. And what I would see is the readership are pretty advanced people. They learn some new perspective; or I didn't realize this was connected to that, and you showed it to me; whether they're vendors, investors, or in the schools themselves. They're not newbies, but they know that they want to learn even more advanced stuff on what's going on. Now, because we're controversial with the regulation stuff, we get quite a bit of readership from the think tanks and the government who are doing these regulations, but I doubt that they're fans of ours.

✨ Pearl of wisdomThe readership are pretty advanced people. They learn some new perspective; or realize this was connected to that; whether they're vendors, investors, or in the schools themselves. They're not newbies, but they know that they want to learn even more advanced stuff about what's going on.

What is one of those biggest challenges that higher education in North America is facing up? Do you perceive that regulatory hand of the government as a good thing or not necessarily?

I think it's going to make it much more difficult for colleges and universities to innovate and try new things. The motivation is, in the US there's too much debt held by students. The motivation to address that problem is good. What they can't see is that they have ideological blinders on and they think they already know the answer. And the answer is almost always there's somebody doing something bad and our job is to catch them and punish them. So, it's like a consumer protection mindset. Sometimes it's appropriate, but there's a lot of unintended consequences. They'll write a regulation intended to catch the bad guys, but they write it in such a way that it harms everybody.

✨ Pearl of wisdomDeclining enrollment is a major structural issue. Some of that is driven by demographics, some of it is driven by debt. Students don't want to go into debt. Some of it is driven by schools not doing a good job. They try college, but then they're not getting a valuable degree that makes them happy. The public in the US is losing a lot of confidence in higher education as being a good thing, and that's a dangerous situation.

Is there another challenge in the North America higher education system that you see beyond, of course, the debt that you already mentioned?

I mean, it's somewhat tied to it. The declining enrollment is a major structural issue. Some of that's driven by demographics, some of it by debt. Students don't want to go into debt. Some of it is driven by schools not doing a good job. They try college, but then they're not getting a valuable degree that makes them happy. The public in the US is losing a lot of confidence in higher education as being a good thing, and that's a dangerous situation to be in.

What were the forces that changed that positive public perception of higher education?

Well, the first one I would list is there is too much student loan debt, and it's discussed publicly so much, and I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but if you're a high school graduate, you're really asking yourself, is it worth taking on all this debt to get a college degree? I think that's a concern I share with a lot of the people I disagree with. The other one is the outcomes. I think that higher education has lost its way in terms of maintaining principles and being primarily about student learning. I think that outcomes are poor and there's always an excuse to be made.

Instead of dealing with it, you have two things that happen. You have a lot of people who get defensive, so they push back. They just argue. But then you also, to be quite honest, you have too much of the technology world and people promoting technology as magic solutions. MOOCs are a perfect example. They were going to solve access to education, they were going to make education suddenly accessible to anybody for such a low cost that you wouldn't have student loan debt anymore. There was all this magical thinking. Both of those perspectives are dangerous. We need to get back to focusing on student outcomes and accept it when we do things wrong. Let's not fall for false promises and just use what works, don't use what doesn't work, and let's keep improving.

✨ Pearl of wisdomIf you're a high school graduate, you're really asking yourself, is it worth taking on all this debt to get a college degree? I think that's a concern I share with a lot of the people I disagree with.

Do you think technology vendors are taking note of those changes and the challenges that the system is facing to better serve institutions and ultimately students?

I'd say yes. If you're doing an LMS evaluation today and look at what's available, and compare to how the systems look 14 years ago in 2010, it's remarkable how much better the systems are. They make it easier for students to find what the assignment is, keeping track of their calendar. All the things that LMSs can do, they do a much better job. Absolutely, they paid attention and they've made improvements to it. Now, there have been individual things where LMS companies overpromise, but overall, I would argue the situation is better today.

LMS has made life better for students; almost all students. Now, if you compare that to some of the other ones, like Civitas, where they're trying to do predictive data analytics to improve retention. Well, I don't see any evidence to show that that whole push has improved students' lives.

✨ Pearl of wisdomWe need to get back to focusing on student outcomes and accepting when we get things wrong. Let's not fall for false promises and just use what works, don't use what doesn't work, and let's keep improving.

On the LMS market, has there been much improvement on the teaching and learning side or pedagogy?

They don't have the content. I mean, it's hard to really impact teaching and learning directly if you're not tied into the educational context. The LMS model, by its very nature, is content agnostic. We'll make the delivery of your content much more efficient, but it's the management, getting rid of all the administrative stuff so that students could pay attention to learning. That's what LMSs primarily do and do well. Their mission is to make it easier to design an engaging course, but it's the instructor, or the design company who's going to do the real learning improvements. Our job is to enable it. That's what the role of LMSs should be.

✨ Pearl of wisdomThe problem is that competency-based education is still a fringe concept with only a handful of schools doing this at scale. But I have to say this is an example where it changes some of the assumptions we're talking about. It focuses on teaching and learning and how to learn more effectively. The data is all organized around actual learning outcomes.

You already mentioned declining enrollments, but is there another trend that we should be looking at that is reflected on those things reported by institutions?

I wish I could say, there's great data where we can figure out what's working for helping students learn, what's not working and how to make improvements. But we’re not there yet, and the problem is we don't have valuable data in a consistent format across schools. I think individual colleges and universities can have their own internal data that really focuses on learning outcomes. But at a national level, across schools, across sectors, we just don't have very good data. The closest we have is student retention. But that's really just measuring, are you still enrolled a year later? Graduation rates, which again, is, I stayed enrolled and I achieved the objective, but it doesn't really measure learning. And I take competency-based education. The idea there, is to start designing things and focusing on what skills and knowledge did students learn. And that changes the game conceptually, it truly is based on learning outcomes.

The problem is competency-based education is still a fringe concept with only a handful of schools doing this at scale. But I have to say that's an example where it changes some of the assumptions we're talking about. It focuses on teaching and learning and how you can learn more effectively. The data is all organized around actual learning outcomes. If I could wave a wand, I would have a lot more competency-based education throughout the higher education system, because I think that would get us focused on learning outcomes as data and making improvements there. But I acknowledge it's going very slowly.

✨ Pearl of wisdomWe've got to go back to focusing on the first principles of learning. Stop being political. Stop being defensive. Stop constantly supporting things that get in the way of work. Go back to what a university should be doing, which is not just learning in the classroom, but an engaging atmosphere where people debate and that we represent higher level thinking. By doing that, not only will you help the students, but I think that it would get back to improving the perception of higher education. Here's the place where I can go learn, try out new ideas and improve my life.

If you had all of the high education leaders of North America in a single room and you could just talk about something or send a message, what would it be?

I would try to say we've got to go back to focusing on the first principles of learning. Stop being political. Stop being defensive. Stop constantly supporting things that get in the way of work. Go back to what a university should be doing, which is not just learning in the classroom, but an engaging atmosphere where people debate and that we represent higher level thinking. By doing that, not only will you help the students, I think that it would get back to improving the perception of higher education. Here's the place where I can go learn, try out new ideas and improve my life.

✨ Pearl of wisdomLMS is boring, but if you look at it, the LMS market has improved over time and is helping students. We need more of that mindset, we're here for the long haul.

And if you had all of the EdTech venture capital, private equity investors, CEOs of EdTech in a single room, what would you say to them?

I would try to get them to focus more on long-term value. Stop looking for the shiny toy. Stop getting distracted. I keep going back to MOOCs. The LMS is boring, but if you look at it, the LMS market has improved over time and is helping students out. We need more of that mindset, we're here for the long haul. A focus on long term value and having more patience is probably the biggest thing I would push them to do in the area.

✨ Pearl of wisdomGenerative AI, I think, is the one area that will have a long-term impact as a new category and a new set of capabilities in EdTech. It's probably the one area that’s potentially transformational, that ten years from now, things will look dramatically different because of it. (…) It democratizes the creation of learning content. It brings the ability to create interactive, really interesting content, much closer to the people who can teach or design, and in a much quicker manner.

There's been discussions around the amount of solutions that are out there in the EdTech space. Do you think that's the case?

I think we have fewer areas that generate excitement. And to a degree, that's a good thing. Generative AI, I think, is the one area that will have a long-term impact as a new category and a new set of capabilities in EdTech. That's probably the one area that is potentially transformational, that 10 years from now, things will look dramatically different because of it. On the one hand, it democratizes learning content creation. It gets the ability to create interactive, really interesting content, much closer to the people who can do the teaching or do the designing, and in a much quicker manner.

The other aspect is the internet made the distribution of knowledge, videos, and content, not a scarcity issue anymore. You could transmit stuff anywhere anytime easily. David Wiley wrote it in a blog, and he tried to boil it down in one sentence. He said, generative AI is going to revolutionize the access to expertise. That phrase, I think, captures a huge amount of why I think generative AI is going to be transformational.

🔥 Rapid fire questions
Ed or tech?
Ed. I mean, Ed is the purpose and tech is getting integrated into it.
Thinking or doing?
And if you force a choice - doing, I’m much more pragmatist.
Quantity or quality?
Quality.
In-person or online education?
If you look at it in terms of the future and where we're going, I would pick online. That doesn't mean online is superior and we shouldn't have face to face, but it's the thing. It's going to have a bigger impact.
Writing, talking, or drawing?
Drawing. Although, for me, paying somebody to draw. I say that because a lot of the biggest impact I've had is by some of certain graphics we've done that have lasted 15 years and people still learn from them.
X or LinkedIn?
I have to admit, I'm more of an X person. I recognize a lot of activities moving to LinkedIn, but I'm still X. It's a more natural form of conversation.
The most innovative institution in higher education in the US?
Arizona State does so many different interesting things, and they're innovating and their culture supports it. It would be the most boring thing in the world if I picked them because everybody else picks them. It’s such an easy answer.
The most innovative EdTech vendor or company?
Most innovative right now? Well, keep in mind what I'm arguing is the most effective vendors are not really innovating right now. They're just doing a solid job, so let me think about it. I don't have an answer right now because I favor doing a good job and not trying to innovate too much. Instructure is doing the best in the market, having a big impact with students. Thirteen years later and they're still doing really well. I know that's not what you're looking for, but that's a tough one.
Who's your most admired leader in education?
Ted Mitchell, who heads up the American Council on Education because he's bringing his experience when he was at the Department of Education, the amount of influence as they're trying to improve the regulations coming out. So really, his leadership, I would put at least this year at the top of the game.