March 10, 2014
Matthew Pittinsky, CEO at Parchment


In March 2014, Smith, Aronson & Associates interviewed Matthew Pittinsky, Ph.D., the CEO of Parchment. Matthew is on the faculty of Arizona State University and serves on the Board of Trustees of The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. In 1997, Matthew co-founded Blackboard Inc., and served first as its CEO and then as Executive Chairman. Matthew straddles the fence between two education silos: education technology and higher education.  We are certain that you will find his comments and analysis to be insightful, informative, and based on extensive experience. As always, if there is someone who you would like to hear from in the future, please send us an email with suggestions. Now, without further ado, here is what Matthew Pittinsky has to say:

What brought you to the field of education?

I have always wanted to be a teacher. I went to college to become a social studies teacher. I did a small amount of student teaching while getting my undergraduate degree at American University. You could say that teaching is in my family. I have family ties. My mother is a retired teacher. My father was president of our local school board and is a retired university administrator. One of my brothers is a faculty member at SUNY Stonybrook.

Like many people who are interested in education, I had a bad experience prior to college. I was not the best student. My education did not click with me. I failed courses. I went to summer school. I did not get why school worked the way it did. I thought it was odd. For example, and I could not articulate this as well at the time, but I thought it was odd to speak to a 3rd grader about reading at a 5th grade level. If I am reading at the 5th grade level, why am I not in a 5th grade reading group?

How has the field changed since you entered it?

The role of technology in education is, by far, the most significant change. Obviously, this is a very big topic. Technology is transforming education. When I started Blackboard, the term “academic computing” was synonymous with a projector in the classroom. Now, it is the core of everything that universities are focused on in terms of student retention, data management, and core delivery of classes.

I don’t have any direct professional experience with K-12 curriculum technologies, but I do have a daughter in elementary school. My six year old is on Study Island and Spelling City every day. She chooses to use Dreambox Learning, which isn’t assigned by her teacher. She is doing a lot of online practice, but I think its fair to say that, to date, technology integration is much more profound in higher education than in K-12.

If you were Arne Duncan, what policies would you enact to improve the field?

I am a believer that most things in education start with a highly qualified teacher. I am on the Board of Woodrow Wilson Foundation, which focuses on the preparation of school leaders and teachers. We do extensive work around how teachers are developed and rewarded.  These issues are central to improving teaching and learning. There is no magic bullet to fixing education, but excellent teachers are integral to success.

Further, in postsecondary, transfer articulation is an unbelievably complicated and broken process. The degree of difficulty in transferring, getting credit, and understanding your path to a degree is unacceptable. That needs to change.

What do you think the field will look like 10 years from now?

I am someone who is a curmudgeon on panels. I always caution that the timeline is slow, often for good reason. Many of my colleagues say that there will be a major consolidation in higher education. Or that college will become disaggregated.  There is truth to these trends, but much less than is being predicted and on a much, much slower timescale.

We think of innovations like MOOCs as overnight changes, but they have taken years to percolate before exploding on to the scene. It is exciting to see MOOCs hit the mainstream. But it’s equally important to recognize that massive online courses delivered by elite faculty has been predicted since 1998, and we have seen online aggregators like Fathom and Hungry Minds before.  Change takes time.

So I believe that in 10 years, education will pretty much look like it looks today. We will not see as much change as others predict. We will see more digital course resources, and instruction will be more data-driven. True we will see more diverse programs and more flexible credentials. More classes will be online. But substantive change will take longer than 10 years. My 6 years old daughter will graduate with a similar experience to the one that I had in school. She will only see marginal changes.

For example, no one would have thought that it would take 14 years to get MOOCs in higher education when I started Blackboard. We were talking about this stuff in 1997, and look how long it has taken to get to where we are now.

How do you see the movements between the various education sectors unfolding?

The silos within higher education still exist, but most education technology companies are thinking about creating pathways between K-12 and higher education institutions. They are focused on serving students and institutions. This is the space where the next valuable company will be built. It will not be a K-12, higher ed, or corporate training organization focused inside those sectors alone. It will be a pathway company that crosses those dimensions. And one that will hold on to students outside the institutional relationship.

Blog comments powered by Disqus