Faculty members are looking for more customization options to align their content with the learning objectives of the course. However, limited time for research and resources makes it difficult for some to build a course pack from scratch. SkyPack is offering more customization and more control over pricing.
Carrie Watkins: Over the past few years we've seen an increase in faculty members looking for customization options that better align their course content to the learning objectives of their course, but without the time and research required to build a course pack from scratch. In our conversation with Brady Kalb, CEO, and Kris Skaff, director of account management for Skyepack, we talk about how the needs of content are shifting. Not only are the faculty members wanting more customization for their changing course needs, but they also want more control over the cost of the content. Welcome to the MBS Direct podcast, where we talk with some of our partners who are doing interesting things with content and education. I'm Carrie Watkins, the senior digital consultant with MBS Direct, and today we are talking with Skyepack. Kris Skaff, the director of account management, and Brady Kalb, the CEO.
Skyepack fits and really interesting niche within our partner schools, and something that I've seen a lot through our conversations, schools that want the customization of a course pack, something that's truly customized to their learning objectives, but maybe don't have the time or the energy to manage that process themselves. Tell me a little bit about Skyepack and how you got into this part of the content industry.
Brady Kalb: Sure. Absolutely, Carrie. Thank you. Primarily as you mentioned, what we do at Skepack is really focus in on helping faculty members build those customized course packages that you referenced. Really what our chief aim is to do is to help that faculty member help their students by identifying and compiling and curating content specifically for the class that is designed and built with the teaching methodologies that the professor uses, and the needs of the student population curated into a customized course pack that is an alternative to a traditionally published textbook. The reason that we got into this side of the content business is really because we identified a need for it. As you noted there are a lot of faculty members that are interested in this sort of thing, but they don't have the time to do it themselves. There is a very big services side to what we do, and then there is also a technology component for delivering that content to the students.
Carrie Watkins: The technology, component obviously you guys do more than just pull together a PDF. Can you talk a little bit about what that technology component is?
Kris Skaff: I think that's something I actually enjoy doing is when we talk to prospective partners we like to highlight all the features of our platform so that the instructors get better ideas of how they can present their content and make it interesting and more engaging for their students. Rather than just posting PDFs, which actually some instructors that's as little as they'd like to do is if they've written or authored some content of their own they may want to share it with the students through the platform so students have access to that content on their tablet or a mobile device and it's a little more portable. Then we have other instructors who utilize almost all the features in our platform, so with the technology we can incorporate videos. We can incorporate lectures that have voice-over. We can incorporate discussion boards for the students, and they're able to pull all of that together and do a seamless presentation. The faculty are enjoying the fact that they can even actually do grading on the platform. Some prefer to do it in their own LMS, but they just like to see all the different options that we offer.
Carrie Watkins: Course packs have been around for a long time. I think most people are familiar with the idea, but obviously the technology that's available now has allowed us to do a lot of different things and be more specific to the needs of the student these days. How long has Skyepack been doing this?
Brady Kalb: We will be five years old in a couple of months. We've been doing this for not a long time as it pertains to the education industry, but we've been doing it long enough to really understand the needs of students and the needs of faculty members. Many of us on the team, myself included, have taught at the college level before, so we have that hands-on experience and can really understand from a professor's perspective what their needs are and also what students like and expect to see in college courses today.
Carrie Watkins: We've talked about the customization and the growing desire for faculty to have a truly aligned content to the learning objectives of their course, and also the growth in the technology. What problem is Skyepack trying to solve, and has that changed over the five years that you guys have been in the industry?
Brady Kalb: The second part of your question, has that changed, absolutely. As we've grown and as we've brought on more faculty members that we're working with, we're always looking for what's the next thing that people are going to be looking for. We definitely evolved and will continue to do that. Our primary focus is on addressing the financial burden of students in college. That's really our primary objective. Not only helping faculty members design a package of course content that is a perfect fit for their class, but also doing that in a way that course content is less expensive than the traditional textbook model.
When we build a class course package for a faculty member, there's really three primary objectives that we're looking at. The first is what's the end cost going to be for the students? That's key for us. The second is does this content align perfectly to the instructor's course? That means a number of things. It of course means learning objectives and key outcomes that the instructor wants students to have as they come out of that course. Then it also means how does that content align with the teaching methodologies with the professor? Is it a flipped classroom? Is it a blended classroom? Is it all online? Also what are the needs of the student population? As you look across different colleges, even though a introduction to psychology course is going to be from a topical perspective 80% the same at any given college, the way that that is taught and the needs of the student population are sometimes drastically different. Our belief is that content is not one-to-one portable, right? To say a set of content that is used at ABC University and fits well with that professor's class and that college's students is not going to work the exact same way at XYZ University. There are definitely teaching and learning considerations that go into that.
Carrie Watkins: You talked about low cost and one of the ways I know that you guys help keep the cost of the material down is by looking at openly sourced content. Over the last five years we've seen a huge increase in the growth of open educational resources as well as the knowledge around open educational resources by schools and faculty. Can you kind of talk about how you're taking advantage of that and what you're kind of seeing in the content market around OER?
Brady Kalb: As you noted Carrie, just in the last few years both the breadth and the depth of open source content that is available has really grown exponentially. While there is a lot of good content out there, our belief is very similar to what I just spoke to, that a lot of that content is created for use at a specific university in a specific class, and then has attached a Creative Commons license to it so that it can be used at other schools. However, the needs of the professors and the needs of the students at the university for which it was developed are different than the needs of a potential adopting university for any given resource. Those same challenges still exist. Even though that content is out there, it likely is not one-to-one portable to another class. It would take a significant amount of effort on the part of the faculty member to rework and revise, update, amend that content to port it over to their class.
That's really where the services side of our organization comes in. For every faculty member that we work with, we assign them an instructional designer from our team, and that instructional designer's role is first to understand at a very detailed level the needs of that course, all of those things that we just talked about. Then they go out and identify content that meets the learning objectives, meets the teaching methodologies, meets the students' needs for that specific class. Really open sourced is definitely a big part of that, but it's just one piece of the entire puzzle. Of course we look to open source content, but we also have a team of content developers on our staff as well so we can custom design and custom build content to meet the needs of that class. We can also leverage content that a professor has already created or wants to create in conjunction with us and we take all of those pieces and put them together in such a way that it is optimized for that specific course.
Carrie Watkins: It sounds like you really work very closely with that instructor. Can you kind of take us through the process of when an instructor says, "Hey, this looks like the platform I want to use. I really want to keep the cost down. I really want it to match the learning objectives of my course, and what are the next steps?" Can you kind of take us through what an instructor would be doing with Skyepack?
Brady Kalb: Absolutely. This is what Kris does every day, so Kris is the perfect person to address this question.
Kris Skaff: It is kind of unique with each course pack as Brady was saying. How I end up working with each of the faculty members is kind of first understanding their direction that they want to go with their pack, making sure that they understand all the different features that they can offer in the platform. We usually start by just going through looking at several different packs that we've created for different instructors so they can see what the possibilities are for their own course pack. That's where they are almost amazed at how much we're there to help them and take them through the whole process. Initially they may believe that they're going to be doing so much of the work, but we're really there to guide them through it all and collaborate with them and provide solutions or look for content when perhaps they don't know how to fill in some of the gaps for some of the objectives for their course.
Carrie Watkins: Kris, how do you work with faculty who are maybe looking at doing a hybrid course or a blended course, and how do you help them with those content suggestions and strategies?
Kris Skaff: It's a lot of conversation at the beginning looking at what they've been doing previously and what their wishes are moving forward with Skyepack. Some faculty are coming to us wanting to take a fully face-to-face course into an online environment an that's where Skyepack would be a great way to present the content. But there are others that are doing more of the flipped classroom approach where they're pulling all the content together into modules in the course pack and then having the students get engaged in the content before they actually come into class and so that they can have deeper discussions in class and they come a little more prepared having everything right there in their pack.
Carrie Watkins: Are there some best practices that you've seen work really well as a faculty member is looking at their face-to-face content or their traditional content and wanting to move to one of these other new learning modules?
Brady Kalb: When you think about the traditional higher ed model, students come into the classroom and listen to a faculty member for a 45 minute lecture, they go off, do their readings, do their assignments, that is something that while it can be recreated to some extent in the online world, it tends to not be very effect. We do see a lot of [inaudible 00:15:20]. I know there are a lot of classes out there like this that the online version of the class is simply a 45 minutes recording of the lecture and the reading content, the homework problems, everything is identical. The only difference is instead of coming into a classroom and watching the professor, they're sitting in front of a computer screen and watching the professor.
We know now that that isn't necessarily as effective for a number of different reasons. Primarily it's because of ancillary activities going on around the students that while they're watching their screen that cause that disengagement. If I'm sitting at home watching a lecture, there's many other things going on around me. I've got the TV in front to me, I've got the kitchen right down the hallway. There's lots of things that can distract me from that class I would not be exposed to if I was in a classroom setting. When we look to help a faculty member switch from a face-to-face type of class to a hybrid or a fully online class, we're really thinking about how do we keep the student engaged, and how do we make sure that the student gets the key topics and meets those learning objectives for each class session?
Some of the things that could be considered best practices for that are breaking up material. Rather than having students read the equivalent of 25 pages and then watch a 20 minute video, we want to break that up into smaller chunks, and our platform is really designed to do that and enhance the learning experience in that way. If we're building a class session or what we call a module for a professor that wants to do that, our recommendation would be to okay, let's give the student approximately five minutes of reading content, a very short three to five minute maximum video that reinforces that reading, and then follow that up with two or three self-assessment questions that allows the student to check themselves that they're getting the key concepts that they're supposed to obtain from that reading and video. If we follow that structure throughout the what would have been a 45 minute lecture, but it's broken up into chunks, into very easily digestible pieces that are constantly reinforcing those key learning objectives, and that keeps the student much more engaged.
Carrie Watkins: I'm really excited about this partnership. Like I said at the beginning, I think you guys really fill a need a lot of schools are looking for. If a school is interested obviously we would suggest that they speak with their account manager and we can definitely set up a demo or get them in touch with you. But if a school just kind of wanted to look around and get a little bit more information before they did that, what would be the best way for them to learn more about Skyepack?
Brady Kalb: The website is really the first place to start, and that's just skyepack.com, S-K-Y-E-P-A-C-K.com. There's a good amount of information there about what we do and how we do it, and really what our values and beliefs are as we approach our tasks. There's also a contact form that folks can fill out there as well.
Carrie Watkins: Well, I thank you guys so much for your time, and I look forward to seeing where this partnership goes.
Brady Kalb: Yes, thank you so much for having us, Carrie.
Kris Skaff: Thanks, Carrie.
Carrie Watkins: Hey guys, thanks for listening.
For more information on any of the topics discussed in this podcast or any other questions you have about digital content options, contact your account manager or you can reach out to me, Carrie Watkins, senior digital consultant, on Twitter @CarrieJWatkins.