The Direct Network

Trending Topics in Education: Pluralsight [Podcast]

Posted by Kate Seat on May 2, 2016 7:00:00 AM
Topics: Higher Ed, podcasts
Pluralsight started in the corporate world as a way to keep programmers and technology teams up to date on new developments in coding languages and to write better code. In this conversation with Kurt Walker from Pluralsight, he'll talk about how the company saw the need in education for the same knowledge delivered online and constantly updated. We'll also talk about the new norm of higher education students going back to school for new skills, and the idea of Competency Based Education popped up a few times as well.

Trending Topics in Education with Carrie Watkins


Welcome to the MBS Direct podcast where we talk with some of our partners who are doing interesting things with content and education. I am Carrie Watkins, Senior Digital Consultant with MBS Direct, and today we are talking with Kurt Walker, Director of Academia at Pluralsight. Thank you for joining us, Kurt.

Kurt: Thanks for having me.

Carrie: Great, so, Director of Academia. What is that and what is your role at Pluralsight?

Kurt: Maybe to explain that it would be good to give a little bit of background about the company because Pluralsight, although maybe new to academic institutions, we've been around for 12 years as a training provider, focused initially and primarily on enterprise in industry. About 2 years ago there was a ... I wouldn't say a shift in the company, but maybe a realization that we had neglected the academic market. I was brought to Pluralsight to try and help our training work within the context of the university education. So Director of Academia, I help our university partners globally to use Pluralsight in their curriculum and as a student resource.

Carrie: Very cool. So you said that to be scalable you guys shifted the business model to be more online learning. You brought in these 600 industry experts to help author these courses.

Tell me a little bit about the courses and the platform and really what is Pluralsight for somebody who wants to use it.

Kurt: The founders, their expertise was primarily in computer science, so really nuts and bolts of writing code. Through acquisitions over the last five years, they've added components to the library, which include 3D animation and design and illustration. Other areas of technology that we touch are information technology, so most of the certification exams in IT. The newest portion of the library is CAD design and development and engineering. It focuses on anything from architecture to designing and prototyping a product, and then there are some soft skill titles in the library as well. As you can see, everything we offer is technology focused, and that focus allows us to get really deep in each of those topics. By using industry professionals, academics as our authors, we're able to provide a depth of content and learning that can't be found elsewhere.

Carrie: You guys cover quite a bit of those technology skills that are really going to be needed, and are needed currently, but especially as everyone needs to learn a little bit about how to code, how to build an app. I mean these are things ... I look back to my own education and thinking, just knowing some HTML was really important to me as I was growing up and being able to build a little bit of a website and edit a little bit of that. And I think some of these coding languages, some of the basic knowledge behind how an app works and how to build one, are the skills that these students are going to have to need in order to be successful regardless of the career. So I think you guys touch on what students need regardless of their degree program.

Kurt: I think you touched on something that's important and something that our CEO and founder Aaron Skonnard says a lot. That type of digital literacy that you referenced, it really has become the currency of our emerging economy. It's not just restricted to job functions that we traditionally think of in the context of technology, but anybody can benefit from this kind of technology learning. I hesitate to say challenges, but it can be a challenge that a lot of academic institutions face, is the fact that technology changes so quickly. We've done some anecdotal studies that are showing that most universities, once they launch a program or a class in technology, it's 30% irrelevant. So the cycle is really really fast, and the fact that we're at the forefront of technology means that it can ease that burden on a professor. So I want to make it clear that we're not trying necessarily to replace the instructor or professor or the mentor, we're just trying to make sure they understand that we can bring these 600 experts into their classroom with them and help them be dynamic in the way that they approach new and emerging technology.

Carrie: And that efficacy is an issue that we face on just the content in general side. A lot of issues that people have with traditional textbooks, whether that's print or digital, than something created by a third party, by the time it actually filters itself down to the student a lot of that stuff is like you said irrelevant or it's missing a significant piece of what's happened in the 2-3 years it took to develop that textbook, develop that content, and then make it available. So you guys have a much faster cycle and a lot less time to the student, to the end user.

Kurt: Yeah, it's true. For a long time the largest department at Pluralsight was our content and editing department, which also included the folks that go after new authors or vet people who approach us to become Pluralsight authors. It still remains one of the largest portions of the company but for good reason. Currently we publish anywhere from 2-5 new titles into the library every single day. They range based on what technologies are emerging or what technology is important. Think about the power for an instructor and for a student because of our subscription model. That includes everything that's offered in the library. Just as an example, they don't have to buy a new textbook when there's a new version that comes out. They don't have to purchase another textbook when there's another technology they want to learn. All of that is included constantly in their single subscription. We can not only provide and deliver that learning at the fastest possible rate to the students, but then also with instructors, we can help them keep their classes current without having to redesign the whole thing.

Carrie: And the faculty can focus on what they do best, which is the student engagement and really making sure the students understand the material.And then you guys focus on the material and being able to explain that in a way that students understand. Then the faculty can come in and really focus on the learning and making sure that each student is being successful.

Kurt: That's right, and we have a lot of university partners today who focus a lot on deliverables as part of their education, so it ends up being really project based but hands on. Ideally, the flipped classroom means that the students do learning on their own and hands on with the instructor, which is different than what traditionally happens, right? They go and listen to a lecture with the professor and then they go home and try to do the hands-on themselves.

We love the idea that universities are trying to turn that around a little bit, so think about how powerful it would be if the students would watch their modules at home as part of their homework and then come to lecture ready to participate with the professor but then also ready to get their hands dirty. In fact I can't think of a better way to prepare students for that type of an education environment than having Pluralsight as the replacement for their textbook or their bound material or the key resource in those classes. As you said, it's a super effective way to allow the teachers and the professors to do what they do best, which is that mentor relationship that they end up having in a powerful way with their students. I think if we maintain that as our focus, everybody wins.

Carrie: I'm going to take it back just a little bit. When you were talking about Pluralsight and how it came to be, you mentioned that the founders, people who created Pluralsight, were really looking for a way to help people in corporations, in businesses already, learn new languages, learn better code. Is that still the problem that you are trying to solve at Pluralsight or has that evolved into a new problem?

Kurt: You know, it really is the same problem. There is an emerging issue globally that we need to address, which is the skills gap. The Department of Education, Department of Defense, they all talk about it all the time. In the year 2020, we'll have over 1 million jobs in the tech sector for which we'll have no applicants. That's definitely a focal point that we're trying to help fill, so that's one piece of the issue that we feel like we can help universities be a silver bullet for. So if we can help bridge that gap into those technology jobs, we feel like we've won.

You can look at the news now and see reports of companies saying we're going to spend more money on trying to retain and better train our employees, realizing that employees that feel stagnant in their careers are just going to look for another opportunity. That's a big piece of what we can help corporations to fix. There are some cases where we're essentially commissioned by these companies to develop new technology training. Think about how powerful that is that that focus on our enterprise clients provides us the insight that a university can't get

Carrie: I read an article yesterday that was talking about things that people already have that will help them in the future, and one of those was the ability to learn new skills all the time, and making that a priority in your life will open up doors you don't even know were closed to you. So I think that's huge, and for our partner schools, a lot of them work with ... because we are an online provider with the online bookstore for schools that may have a huge online component where students are ordering from all over the country. A lot of those students are going back to school after being in the workforce for many years and realizing that their skill set is either obsolete or their job is obsolete and they need to figure out what they need to go from here or have the opportunity to try something different. So I think a solution like what you're providing really speaks to a lot of the schools that we work with, and the students that they're servicing, in providing them other ways to grow and learn and expand those skill sets.

Kurt: It's absolutely true, especially for that ... what we term nontraditional student, but becoming more common student, somebody in the midst of their career or in the early stages of a career they're unhappy with, or unemployed or underemployed who have gone back to school to try and repurpose their life and improve their life in the end. And you're absolutely right, our library is the ideal future for somebody who's interested in technology and going to university in order to get a better job. There really isn't a better resource available than Pluralsight.

You specifically get to see a lot of that applied to education, so what do you feel is one of the most interesting things happening in education right now?

Kurt: It's actually a little bit of a conundrum for education I think. The news right now ... there's a huge focus on competency based education that used to be the purview simply of community colleges and then some private universities and now institutions that you would not imagine would have any interest whatsoever in Competency Based Education are realizing that that's the way that the future is going. That's the struggle that a lot of universities have, there's such merit to CBE and even vocationally focused education, and how do we provide that and give those students a real opportunity to make a dent in the world, but still teach them how to be lifelong learners.

Unfortunately we fall into ... I think a weakness of academia is we fall into this desire to say that the answer to all of that is online education. Now I'm not badmouthing online education because we're all online. That's all we do is online education. The point I'm trying to make is that rather than just saying, "Well, if we're going to do all this stuff the way to make it cheaper and more efficient is just to go online." I think that's wrong. I think everything in education, and higher education especially, should be looked at independently, if I can say that. We're not just saying, here's one thing that can fix everything, but instead we're saying, here are little pieces that we can change of all these different things that are wrong with higher education today. Here's how we make it less expensive, here's how we work with the federal government to improve and increase access to nontraditional students. Maybe there aren't easy answers, but we're in a really unique position with the way we're delivering content in real time. It does have a focus on the eventual outcome for that individual student, and it's been really really successful. So my encouragement for education is think first about the outcomes for the student and then think second about everything else.

Carrie: I think that goes back to what we were talking about with the nontraditional learner now becoming the more traditional face of this higher education student, and they don't fit in a mold like we would've expected from a traditional four-year university with your 18-22 year old who is fresh out of high school and everyone sort of looks the same on paper that way, and that's not the case anymore. So higher education is looking at that and realizing they have to be more flexible in order to meet the needs of this more diverse population of student at different points in their life.

I think that's one of the reasons why CBE has really caught on. We've got a number of schools that, if they haven't already created a CBE program, a degree program, that they're actively looking at it, and it's very interesting to see that grow. I do agree with you that it's really about the student and making sure that they're learning what they need to learn, not only just to get that degree but also to be productive and find success in their career path, whatever that may be going forward. So yes, there's definitely a lot of very interesting things around Competency Based Education.

Obviously we've got a great partnership here with Pluralsight, and we would encourage any schools that had interest in learning more about Pluralsight to talk to their account manager, but if somebody just wanted some more information or maybe wanted to do a little research before they had that conversation with their account manager, what would be the best way for someone to learn about Pluralsight?

Kurt: They can come to our website, which is We're happy to provide free pilot access to get people into the library to see what's there, and of course in partnership with MBS. I'm happy to answer questions they have, or even give me a ring 801-784-9187.

Carrie: I appreciate your time and we definitely look forward to this partnership continuing to grow and getting our schools on board with Pluralsight.

Kurt: Likewise, I appreciate the time. I'm excited for the partnership too.

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.

About Kate Seat

Kate Seat is a former copywriter at MBS. When away from work, she’s either creating one-of-a-kind art dolls, reading or watching way too much tv with her husband, daughter and an irritable chinchilla named Klaus.

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