E-Portfolios: Competency Marketplaces For Colleges

Volume V, #16

I have three young boys. Zev, age 4, is the youngest, and he’s constantly straining to be heard above the din. If survival of the fittest is playing out at home, Zev’s survival skill is volume. He is loud. When he asks for water, he yells. When he announces he’s going to the bathroom, he yells. And when he wants his brother’s attention, he really yells.

For Zev’s other notable attribute is devotion to his brother: our middle child, Hal, age 6. Zev follows Hal around the house, and when he can’t find him, his bellowing shakes the foundations: “WHERE’S HAL?” repeated at the same deafening volume until Hal, once lost, is found.

It’s understandable that Hal might want to get lost. It’s equally understandable that Hal doesn’t always listen to Zev. Often as they’re playing together, Zev has something important to say and tries to get Hal’s attention. His approach is much the same: “HAL. HAL. HAL. HAL. HAL.” Repeated yelling until Hal acknowledges he’s listening to what Zev has to say.

A few months ago, beleaguered Hal came up with an ingenious solution. As Zev launched into his “HAL. HAL. HAL. HAL. HAL.” routine, Hal – perhaps inspired by his phone-bound father – held his hand up to his ear as though on the phone and told Zev point blank: “Zev, I can’t talk to you right now. I’m on the phone.” Hal’s pretend-phone creativity was matched only by Zev’s confusion as Zev quieted right down.


For the past few months, I’ve been going on about LinkedIn in a Zev-like manner: incessant and annoying to some. In brief, I’ve argued that LinkedIn is building a competency marketplace that has greater potential to transform higher education than any prior digital technology. By assembling profiles – profiles of people, of jobs, and of learning experiences – and then matching one to the other on the basis of competencies, the competency marketplace has the potential to become the default GPS for education and human capital development. In the spirit of debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, I’ve even gone so far as to speculate on the question of ownership of competency metadata, and the importance of the answer to the current higher education business model.

But what if – like Hal – colleges and universities already have a solution in hand? After a recent conference where I droned on about LinkedIn and competency marketplaces, one attendee picked a Twitter fight with me:

  • “@ryancraiguv that’s gobbledygook and can’t. $LNKD is a resume warehouse for recruiting mid-level managers and a job board. Rest is vapor.”
  • “@ryancraiguv $LNKD failing in #highered. In 18 mo since Univ. Pages, stopped using words “university” “student” etc on analyst calls”
  • “@ryancraiguv it’s a resume parsing service… won’t find the students who aren’t there.”
  • “@ryancraiguv I read press releases too! But I also talk to biggest US recruiters of new grads -- $LNKD isn’t a solution for them.”

I’m not accustomed to being attacked at this volume (except by Zev). So I looked into his claims. It turns out he’s right: only 13% of Millennials are using LinkedIn and only 7% more have future plans to do so. As I think about it, this makes sense. LinkedIn’s content isn’t directed at traditional-age college students. And few students have professional relationships or relevant work experience to show, which is the whole point of $LNKD.

What students can show is their work. All 22 million students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities produce work for every course they take (or at least those they pass). Student work takes various forms – papers, projects, models, designs, drawings, videos, code – any and all of which can be showcased for employers in e-portfolios. In addition, there’s no question that students gain competencies from their many extracurricular activities, and this work can be showcased as well.

While only a handful of institutions have launched e-portfolios institution-wide (as opposed to faculty members requiring them for individual courses), providers like Portfolium are now partnering with universities to rapidly deploy e-portfolios for their entire student base. Portfolium’s product incentivizes students to upload and showcase their work by incorporating tried-and-true social networking techniques, as well as by viewing the product not simply as an academic tool, but as a competency marketplace. As students showcase their work, employers are looking on from the other side. And why not? Research indicates that work samples are the best predictor of new hire performance.

To be sure, few employers are interested in reading a 20-page paper on the Bhagavad Gita for a course on Hindu Religious Literature (something I somehow managed way back when). But as platforms like Portfolium integrate algorithm-based competency parsing, extracting and matching, employers won’t need to look at the work itself. E-portfolio platforms like Portfolium will filter candidates for open positions based on competencies and prioritize candidates for interview. They’ll also alert employers as to which students are likely to be good matches a year or two down the line. In so doing, they may usher in a variety of e-internship and other pre-hire engagement opportunities between employers and students.


In the same way as for-profit online universities are losing the enrollment battle against traditional universities partnered with online program management companies like 2U and Synergis, won’t for-profit online competency management platforms be at a disadvantage when universities partner with e-portfolio companies like Portfolium? If these e-portfolio platforms are able to scale to millions of students and tens of thousands of employers, and deploy a comparable level of student-employer matching functionality, it’s hard to see why students would want to switch away from their alma mater’s competency management platform. As we’ve learned from Facebook, serving students while they’re in college can be a winning platform-building strategy.

This could be the key to allowing colleges and universities to manage the competency profiles of their students – not just for a few years, but for life. And as higher education unbundles, winning institutions will be those that are able to turn students into customers for life. It is for these reasons that University Ventures recently made a small investment in Portfolium.

I’ve got to go now; Zev is yelling again. But having learned more about what companies like Portfolium are doing, I take comfort that emerging competency marketplaces may not necessarily constitute an existential crisis for higher education. Colleges and universities may have a ready solution in hand: e-portfolios, the pretend-phone of higher education.

University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of 'innovation from within'. By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV is setting new standards for student outcomes and advancing the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.


Three articles that tell us where the puck is going in higher education

The Record (New Jersey) report on how the isomorphic governance structure of New Jersey state institutions (i.e., independent governance for each university with virtually no coordination) has resulted in inefficiencies and unnecessary competition, by Patricia Alex. Since the state eliminated the 90-person Department of Higher Education two decades ago, the dozen four-year public colleges and universities have largely acted as free agents. Their presidents answer to their own governing boards, which rarely question their authority during public meetings. The schools are loosely supervised by a presidents’ council — each school’s president is a member — and the secretary of higher education… Systems in Tennessee, Oregon and Indiana do a good job balancing school autonomy and state control… Those states also have decentralized systems, where schools have their own governing boards. But they also have more overarching state authority to set clear statewide goals and policies. Read more Cleveland.com report on the extent to which student tuition and fees subsidize college athletics at Ohio’s Division I universities, by Rich Exner. In Ohio, the six MAC schools, plus Cleveland State, Youngstown State, Wright State and Cincinnati combined to spend $164.2 million in student fees and other university support on sports in 2013-14… For the… 10 Division I public universities in Ohio [other than OSU], student fees and other school support adds up to an average of $820 a year per student on campus. At each school, more is spent on coaching and staff salaries than on athletic scholarships… “The trends have shown historically any increases [in spending] have resulted in increases in student fees or institutional funding,” said Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission. Read more Reuters brief on Education International Corp (EIC) plan for Hong Kong initial public offering (IPO). EIC is the largest education agent, recruiting students from emerging markets for transnational education opportunities in developed markets, most prominently the UK, Australia, the U.S. and Canada. Education International Corp (EIC), a Chinese education counseling company backed by private equity firm CVC Capital Partners, plans a Hong Kong IPO that's set to raise up to $500 million, IFR reported on Friday, citing people familiar with the deal. Read more