The Future of Online Learning and Education with Daniel Pianko


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Daniel Pianko is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of Achieve Partners. Pianko also serves as Managing Director of University Ventures. With nearly two decades of experience in the education industry, Pianko has built a reputation as a trusted education adviser and innovator in student finance, medical education, and postsecondary education. 

A frequent commentator on higher education, Pianko’s insights have been featured in national media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, TechCrunch, Inside Higher Ed, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He began his career in investment banking at Goldman Sachs, and quickly became intrigued by the potential of leveraging private capital to establish the next generation of socially beneficial education companies. 

After leaving Goldman Sachs, he invested in, founded, advised and managed a number of education-related businesses. He also established a student loan fund, served as chief of staff for the public/private investments in the Philadelphia School District, and worked as a hedge fund analyst. Daniel Pianko graduated magna cum laude from Columbia University, and holds an M.B.A. and M.A. in Education from Stanford University.

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Here’s the timestamps for the episode: 

(00:00) – Introduction

(01:46) – COVID is going to do a massive experiment in taking millions of learners online in the space of a week. Online education in the US will get to maybe 50% of people getting their content online. It’ll be a second massive evolution revolution in learning at all levels, as those online environments will become even more robust, even more like a replacement for the in-person. In-person education is going to go away.

(05:17) – Almost no Ed Tech platform has their own video interface, but Zoom is never going to build out the ecosystem that’s required to actually run an online school. Packback uses an AI system to basically put it up. It uses AI to allow professors to grade online discussion, because you’re not actually looking to grade very detailed work. 

(08:25) – You’re seeing technology bring massive consolidation. And that is happening in education because an online learning environment has to scale, and scale is a different beast in the online world. We’re going to have to move these things online and it’s gonna reward scale in a way people are not ready for in the traditional education consumer market.

(12:15) – People don’t quite realize how important schools, K-12 schools, physical schools are. They don’t have digital connectivity. I would strongly encourage schools to look at organizations like K-12 and other online environments to figure out how to solve these equity issues. Especially, if it means getting technology in the hands of these kids.  It’s a failure of leadership that we can’t get these devices and the internet connectivity in the hands of our students, and I know it’s hard, but that’s no excuse.

(16:32) – It’s important that we differentiate between the aversion of online education that people are experiencing this week versus a real online education, because online education shouldn’t have to be synchronous. 

(18:29) – Predictive analytics is not quite AI. We’re able to dramatically open the funnel rethinking the entire classroom experience, technology experience, that led to a predictive analytics revolution in education, in medical school education. And now we admit students or we’re starting to admit students based on their success in the MSMS. You can transform equity issues through technology and through predictive analytics and through AI.

(23:30) – Adaptive learning has been the buzzword in education broadly, for the better part of 25 years. And even before then, some really great work was done down by very famous education professors who basically said there are different ways people learn. I’m not a technologist, but what is important for tech hardcore, techies, to understand is learning is still one of those fundamentally human endeavors. We have failed. And the reason why is because the technologists and the educators aren’t connected enough.

(25:45) – We’re not where online education or AI driven education is totally worthless and meaningless. We’re at this kind of in-between stage where the most successful interventions are going to be those where the technologist and the education folks can come together and say, here are the areas where we can deliver a high quality program that radically improves the product and it’s going to be high-performance.

(28:09) – Adaptive tests are a perfect example where technology works really well. Psychometricians can basically prove it. That’s a better model for testing because it levels out where you’re going to end up and allows you to drive a better outcome. While the actual instructional component will stay fairly human centric for the foreseeable future, a lot of these back office, I don’t call the admissions office back office, but the non-straight academic functionality will become much more consumer-friendly and tech-driven and where AI can have a massive impact.

(33:02) – People learn differently in different components. Sometimes I actually really prefer online learning. I’m actually not a believer that COVID is going to radically change human existence. I don’t think technology fundamentally changes that. I do believe that the vast majority of humans want human to human interaction.

(38:26) – The skills gap is massive and it is not going away. There are vast areas where the connectivity between education and employment has broken down. And we see a future where a series of intermediaries develop,  intermediaries that solve the education friction and the employment friction.

(45:39) – Software is eating the world and it’s changing how everybody operates. But at the end of the day, things around education and workforce are very human-driven. And there’s a push to automate the job search and education processes.