Higher Ed, the Metaverse, and the (slow) Pace of Change with Daniel Pianko, MD, at Achieve Partners

“Instead of universities dominating the higher education landscape, you have a series of companies and third parties that, in effect, are controlling the shift from learning in classrooms to learning online.”
– Daniel Pianko

The Metaverse has the capacity to radically and fundamentally change the face of education in the future. Yet, there are not enough conversations going on about the fact that a single corporate entity is trying to lead the charge interfacing with this technology. Luckily, Daniel Pianko, Co-Founder and Managing Director at Achieve Partners and University Ventures is bravely sounding the alarm. On this episode of On Work and Revolution Podcast, we dig into what the potential dangers are of just sitting aside and allowing a few companies to monopolize a conversation as important as this one.

Debbie & Daniel discuss:

✓ Why there’s such a long cycle of change in the higher education space
Whether or not the metaverse is the next big innovation to radically change higher education
✓ The number 1 concern with Facebook leading the charge in dominating the metaverse 

About our guest, Daniel Pianko:

Daniel Pianko is Co-Founder and Managing Director at Achieve Partners and University Ventures. With over a decade of experience in the education industry, Daniel has built a reputation as a trusted education adviser and innovator in student finance, medical education, and postsecondary education. Daniel 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, Daniel invested in, founded, advised, or managed a number of education-related businesses that led to the creation of University Ventures and Achieve Partners. Daniel graduated magna cum laude from Columbia University and holds a M.B.A. and M.A. in Education from Stanford University.

Helpful Links:

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Open for Full Episode Transcript

Open for Full Episode Transcript

Debbie Goodman  00:05

Welcome to On Work and Revolution, where we talk about what’s shaking up in the world of work and education right now. I’m your host, Debbie Goodman and today we have Daniel Pianko as our guest. So Daniel is co founder and managing director of Chief Partners, which is an investment fund, which invests in companies that are driving the future of learning and the future of employment. Prior to Chief partners, he was MD of University Ventures, which is another education focused fund. So he has over a decade of experience in the education industry, although actually, to my count, way more than that. He’s recognized as a trusted education advisor and an innovator in student finance, medical education, and higher ed. He’s a frequent commentator in the higher ed space, his insights have been featured in Wall Street Journal, CNBC, TechCrunch, Inside Higher Ed, also more recently EdSurge. And we’ll be digging into his very fascinating op ed, that was released a couple of weeks ago, we’ll do that in a bit. He started off at Goldman Sachs kind of traditional investment banking. But then he became intrigued by the potential of leveraging private capital to establish the next generation of socially beneficial education companies. So way back, Daniel was an impact investor at heart. And he’s now also host of the podcast, Better Money Better World, which is a really great podcast. But today, we’re going to be talking to Daniel about the pace of technological change in higher ed, what’s happening, what’s stalling? And what’s on the cusp of massive innovation. So welcome, Daniel.


Daniel Pianko  01:54

Thank you, I’ve never had my bio read.


Debbie Goodman  01:56

Yeah, those 10 years, like shy of a decade, I think,


Daniel Pianko  02:00

Yeah, I’ve been doing this for quite some time. Thank you for the intro.


Debbie Goodman  02:04

Right, so when we spoke a couple of weeks ago, you said to me that higher ed is not changing as much or as fast as it should be, or could be. The technology to enable change is out there, it exists, but higher ed is slow. So why is this? Like explain this long cycle of change in the higher ed space?


Daniel Pianko  02:25

Yeah we like to say, never bet against the pace of the slow pace of change in higher education. And look, there, if you think about what higher education is, universities are the second oldest institution we have as a society, second only to the Catholic Church. So there’s a reason universities have survived as long as they have. There’s a reason why universities have sort of built in place, a slow pace of change. And that is because, you know, we don’t want to really experiment in the education world, in the sense that, you know, education is one of the most expensive things you will buy in your lifetime. You only get one of them. And you know, people don’t really want to experiment for their bachelor’s degrees or experiment with fourth grade. And so, you know, there isn’t an appetite from the consumer to change rapidly. I don’t want to do anything that jeopardizes the most expensive decision I’ve made in my life, right? This is a multi 100, multi $1,000 in those $100,000 type decision. And the flip side is, you know, university faculty members tend to, you know, like the way things go, and administrations tend to like the way things go, right. There’s tenure systems and regulations that, in general are built to slow the pace of change. And that allows universities to avoid sort of the visceral, Vim and visceral whims of day to day changes. But I do think you are starting to see some fundamental shifts in how we learn. And I think that’s really, really exciting.


Debbie Goodman  04:06

Despite the fact that it’s almost like the institution has been set up to deliberately work slowly and to avoid rapid innovation for certain reasons. Nevertheless, the higher ed space is also where the R&D for cutting edge innovation happens. For example, right now, the metaverse. I mean, you recently wrote an article in EdSurge speaking about this latest innovation in higher ed space, namely the metaverse. I found it absolutely fascinating because it seems it’s something that is so cutting edge, so innovative, so radical in terms of its opportunity to transform all of our worlds and all of our landscapes and in particular the higher ed space. It was a really fascinating piece. So in your article you explain that universities have a long history of innovating, and then giving away the value that they create. I really need you to explain this to me a little.


Daniel Pianko  05:09

It’s really simple. You ever hear of Gatorade? The University of Florida created it and hasn’t made $1 on it since. And that’s kind of a flip version of what I mean. But in a sense, universities fund a huge amount of research, right? The NIH, the various eight federal agencies, much of funding for research actually is funneled through universities. And historically, universities have done a really poor job of capturing that value. Now, it’s one thing when it’s Gatorade, right? I mean, it wouldn’t make any sense for universities to capture that value. But let’s talk about another innovation on a college campus – Facebook, right? Facebook is literally just saying, hey, Harvard would publish a book of everyone’s picture in it, and send it around. Well, you and I have all seen The Social Network. And if you haven’t, I strongly recommend it. It’s a great movie. And it basically documents how Mark Zuckerberg takes what is in effect, Harvard’s intellectual property, that student body and turns it into a trillion dollar company, one of the largest, most important businesses in the world. And Harvard got zero from it. Maybe Mark one day will give a nice donation to Harvard. But from a practical perspective, the university effectively gave up the Facebook, and every university had one I still have mine from when I was a kid, don’t you have your Facebook? Oh, I mean, I’ve you know, I don’t want to speak to so most people do have this, you know, their Facebook and and so in effect, what happened was, the university gave up something that was core to who it was, the identification of its students, how they interacted with each other. And effectively, an existing student took it and created a trillion dollar company. We see this happen all the time, whether it’s research, most recently and kind of most strong, the best corollary to what’s happening with the metaverse right now is online learning. All online learning in higher education started in higher education, higher education is is where this all should have started. But instead of traditional universities dominating the higher education landscape, you have a series of companies and third parties that in effect control the shift from how we used to learn in person in classrooms, to how we will most likely learn in the future, which is online. And even traditional universities and still have large numbers of students on their campus do take at least one or two classes online. And so what you’re seeing is at this point, roughly 30% of American students typically some portion of higher education, it is easy to see that the same thing will happen with them. And what I mean by giving up the value, right now companies like 2U are publicly traded with close to a billion dollars in revenue have Wiley owns. Many, many are called online program managers and their business is to manage the online environment for traditional universities. In effect, universities are sharing half or more of their revenue with third parties. And that would be great, I don’t have a problem with it. But if I were a university, why would I be giving up half of my value? Or in the case of Facebook, all of my value? And ironically, the metaverse is sort of both of those combined. Let me just take one second on that and then let you dive in with follow up questions. In a set, the metaverse is online learning, like 5x better. It will be an environment where you’re not just the Brady Bunch zoom image or kind of a more modern versions of it. You will literally be able to see sitting in your home, go to a lecture in the metaverse, interact with other students, interact with faculty members, show you learn by demonstrating your learning in a fit in what is an effective physical in or physical feeling environment where you can do things like you know, show how you would operate, show how you’d install an inchback. Show, not just not just the Zoom base, but actually images of doing things. And we’re about to make this transition. And instead of jumping all over it, universities are again ironically outsourcing this to Facebook, which has been investing in you know, online, which has changed its name to Meta. And we haven’t learned any of the lessons from the past. And so that’s kind of disappointing.


Debbie Goodman  09:35

Okay, so just to summarize, you’re saying that the metaverse is the next big innovation. The R&D, the actual development of the technology is going to be cultivated, is going to be developed in the institutions themselves, the actual VR AR technology. And instead of retaining the IP, instead of retaining the commercial value of what that means for the universities themselves, instead, they are doing what they did previously with OPMs – the online program managers – by kind of outsourcing this to Meta and other AR VR technology builders, and giving away the value. Is that what I’m hearing?


Daniel Pianko  10:24

Debbie, you’re very smart and did a better job describing it than I did. So thank you.


Debbie Goodman  10:28

I just wanted to take a look. Thanks for that. Take a little step back. Because I think we glossed over a bit like what the opportunity around the metaverse in higher ed actually is because I think there are a lot of listeners that hear about the metaverse and a bit confused about what is that? And is that the same as VR? And AR? Is it something different? And what does it actually mean for our institutions for tertiary education?


Daniel Pianko  10:54

So that’s a really good point. A lot of times when people say the metaverse what they’re saying is some futuristic 10-20 year enhanced experience that’s kind of like Ready Player One, if you’ve ever seen that movie. And the reality of this kind of fully immersive environment where everything just kind of works with, you just feel like it’s real life, even though it’s digitally intermediate. We’re probably a long way from right?Probably at least 10 years. Who knows if we’ll even get there. I think we kind of know where we’re gonna get to really quickly is, you know, take a very simple thing like Google Glass, like your glasses, many people wear glasses, right now glasses, you know, have what they have. Very soon there will be something as powerful as your phone, in your glasses. That means you’ll be able to record things you will too, for example, project what an image of let’s just take something really, really simple. We want to teach you how to fix HVAC. Right, you could see the glasses project a hologram of what an HVAC is, you could use haptic. So haptic just means it does what you put them on your haptic gloves. So it shows the actual physical movement in this metaverse of where your hands are. And you could put on these gloves and demonstrate to a third party that you actually know how to fix an HVAC system. Now that’s already sort of happening with companies like Lobster and others. Now take it a step further, right, you could have sort of mock seeing of patients, if you’re in medical school, you could create sort of environments. I’m on the board of the University of Nicosia, we now have our first classes in the metaverse and you can go in there, and you literally sit and listen to a lecture from a professor that looks a lot better than a kind of zoom call. But also you can kind of tap the person on your shoulder next to literally in this case, and talk to them about what’s going on in classroom create that sort of on campus environment. And so each of these is substantively superior to a simple when you’re on classroom environment, right? Even take a history class, you know, you’re sitting there a history class and your Google Glass could be augmented create an augmented reality for you, where the professor is talking about Napoleon, and you literally see an image of Napoleon pop up in your viewfinder. And so you actually know who he is, you could show a demonstration of you know, a battle. And you could see how different people interacted on the battlefield instead of like just still maps or just a video of him that everyone can have. So you’re seeing this augmented reality already coming into play. And it’s a probably a 5, 10, 15, 20 year progression from where we are today, which is this kind of augmented reality stage to, you know, the full on immersive experience, which is going to be superior to our real life.


Debbie Goodman  13:50

So it’s absolutely clear. I mean, as you’re talking about these examples, the unbelievable benefits that we could just form from the learning environment, how those could be enhanced, advanced, made more real, where students would come out of the tertiary institutions with actual skills instead of just mostly academic learning, unless they’re like doctors, they also have their various residency programs, etc. What do you do you think any of the institutions actually have the capability to build the technology? Considering what you said earlier, around their willingness to actually take on board innovation and embrace change?


Daniel Pianko  14:31

And this is the fundamental point. Right now you know who’s leading the charge? Facebook. You know how much they’re spending to kind of dominate higher ed move to the metaverse? $150 million. We spend $500 billion a year on higher education and in effect Facebook with $150 million is driving the discussion. How is that possible? The leading company in this space amazing company, Steve Grubbs, I’ve been on a panel with him his company is great. I mean, millions of dollars of investment, I don’t know you can look it up on pitch book, amazing entrepreneur. Here he is he’s invested via people have invested relatively small sums of money at this point to create an outsized influence. And this is how it starts. This is how giving up the right to win in what’s going to happen in higher education is happening right now. For want of millions of dollars, and just a little bit of oemf from some faculty members, we’re effectively giving up, higher education is giving up the future way we’re going to learn. And that’s the fundamental rub of the piece, which is why are we not finding the money and the effort and the people to create this in a way that is separate and distinct from Facebook and other, you know, non market market based buyers as opposed to people who will create something for the public. In effect, what we need is a metaverse that is not dominated by a single company. We need a metaverse that is distributed in nature, where people can maintain their own identities, maintain their own, take a very simple example, right? If we operate on the Facebook platform, and you know this from your life, web2.0 – you’re on Facebook. And Facebook says I don’t like you anymore. Facebook, can kick you off. Any government can send Facebook a letter saying please give me all the information about Debbie Goodman, because we think she’s not a good person or whatever. And it may not be happening here right now. But it could happen. And it’s happening in China. It’s happening in other places where you’re in this kind of modality right now where Facebook can get a subpoena or something else from any government on earth and has to give up all the information about you. If they want to turn off your account, they can turn off. In a decentralized metaverse which is governed by distributed networks, right, not just one person, not just one entity, it is virtually impossible for governments and other centralized actors to control that. And not only is higher education giving up the profit center going forward, but they’re also giving up the control. And that’s the part that really adversely impacts society. We’re giving up our control of our data and our information at the university level. But then it filters through, right? Of course, once you’re in metaverse paid by Facebook, on your college campus, you’re going to use it afterwards. Think about just simple things like why don’t we just use an open source headsets instead of using the Oculus, it’s owned by Facebook? Why are we giving up all of our personal information to the same company that’s been dominating our personal information in the existing Facebook kind of ecosystem. And so that’s where I think this is not just about universities, but it’s also about society in general, for want of 10s of millions of dollars, in a $500 billion ecosystem, we are literally giving all this up.


Debbie Goodman  17:59

Okay, so as I’m hearing it, you put out the alert here is to say there are a couple of companies that see the commercial opportunity and are already dominating the space that is ultimately going to influence our future dramatically if we think about the cost of education and what that means for society in general. And that they cannot be the only participants or they cannot be the primary drivers in this particular technology that is going to be so radically and so fundamentally change the face of education in the future. And if other parties both higher ed institutions themselves, as well as society in general, individuals, consumers, don’t also come to the party, this is going to once again end up being a monopoly of a few players, and that is going to be very disadvantageous in the future.


Daniel Pianko  18:59

Hey, man, I’m doing a decent job, you’re doing a better job. So you’re hired,


Debbie Goodman  19:03

You’re doing a great job. I’m just wanting to summarize all these ideas because they’re kind of fresh and new in relation to really understanding the interface between this word that we’re hearing thrown around a lot, meaning the metaverse. Meta, which was Facebook has very, very clearly put their their flag in the ground. And I think there’s a lot of people are still kind of unsure about how this plays out. What do they actually mean by Meta and Metaverse, but when we actually like really look at the honing it into this just one domain being our education, and what the potential dangers are of just sitting aside and allowing a few companies to monopolize the conversation. I, you know, really see the point that you’re that you’re trying to make. The question is why aren’t more higher ed institutions not jumping up and down about this?


Daniel Pianko  19:55

I don’t know. Get me on more podcasts, Debbie. No, look, first of all I think that universities in general, and this is getting back to how you started the conversation, but in general universities are built to be slow moving, they’re not built to move fast. And in this case in particular, for whatever reason, faculty members, and who really drive universities and drive institutions, right at the end of the day, you know, faculty, I think, rightly have a lot of power, especially in traditional university. And we’re just not seeing individuals at these institutions really step up and say this is important. I think it’s because it’s, you know, faculty members, and universities, as a whole aren’t really focused on sort of what this will mean, not just for them, but for other people. And while you know, millions of dollars in the broad context of a $500 billion industry doesn’t seem like much for an individual institution, it is a lot. And so I think you would likely need governments or foundations to really step up and put some pots of money out there that are separate and distinct, that drive interest in this concept, because I think everybody agrees that how the web developed where a limited number of companies control your data is bad. It’s even worse when you’re talking about the metaverse why it’s so much more immersive. It’s your identity. It’s everything about you. It’s not just your online identity, right? Because it becomes such an integral part of your life if this technology develops the way it seems to be. And so if you don’t like Google and Facebook and Twitter and other people controlling your lives and controlling what you see and how you see it, you should be jumping on this bandwagon of a decentralized metaverse. Please check out the University of Nicosia’s focus on the decentralized metaverse. Please focus on other people who are liberating themselves from centralized systems, right. Facebook is going to charge you a lot, a lot of money in the future just like they charge you today with their advertising, right, and Cambridge analytic and all this stuff. We are effectively handing this same group of people in this Facebook example one individual, in some of the other examples, I’ve given you multiple people and perhaps shareholders, you’re handing them all of your future information and all of that in this next iteration of the technology. And that’s just scary. And frankly, it’s stupid for us as a society to do that.


Debbie Goodman  22:34

So at this stage, Daniel, I mean, your your day job is as an investor and this awareness around what’s happening and shifting and changing this kind of revolution to the world of education. And this alert that you’re sounding out. Are there other people out there other organizations, other groups that are lobbying in a similar way, either formally or informally? For the kind of decentralization that you’re speaking about? I mean, we can see decentralization and the advantage of that in so many other platforms, but in so many other industries. This is one that I don’t know that has come too much to the fore yet. Who else is talking about this? Is it just you standing on your soapbox?


Daniel Pianko  23:21

I definitely feel pretty lonely on the soapbox when it comes to academic institutions. And I’m not even really formally part of an academic institution in that way. What I’m about to say, probably shoots the argument in the foot. The groups that have been most active and vocal about these types of issues are people in and around things like Bitcoin and cryptocurrency and you know, kind of, you know, people who view centralized systems with a huge amount of disdain. And the problem with groups that view centralized systems with a huge amount of disdain is they’re not very good at organizing, and then it attracts people who may not be the best people in the world. We have heard recently about things like Sam Bankman-Fried absconding with billions and billions of dollars and lying publicly. These are the people who have historically been talking about it. So the question is, who are the good people in crypto who can make this transition? And who in a more traditional university environments and more traditional power structures can stand up and say, We gave away our data and our rights to privacy and our rights to control our information and our rights to benefit economically and socially, from things like our Facebook information, our social media, do we really want to do this again? We have the opportunity right now for tens of millions of dollars and some element of of effort from a limited number of people. So that literally Facebook, the group that is doing all this on the web2.0 and sort of the existing ecosystem that we use is trying to do this in what is clearly the next generation of technology. And for want of tens of millions of dollars, we are literally doing nothing. And the result is Facebook just as it controls your social media, friends, presence and web2.0 which is kind of like web of the way you know it right when one was actually controlled by universities, right? The web, the internet, the interwebs started in universities. And then because universities didn’t want to deal with all the headache of managing those systems, they handed it over to web2.0. Web2.0 is Facebook, Twitter, etc. Web3, we have the chance right now to make it independent, to make it decentralized to work for individuals rather than individual corporations. And instead of standing up and seizing that moment, we as a society, and especially the academic community, the higher education community, saying okay, yeah, fine. You want it you want to take this trillion dollar opportunity, go take it, we don’t have the money, the time the effort. We can’t be troubled with this stuff. That’s horrible.


Debbie Goodman  26:00

I am really intrigued at this conversation. I’m hoping that On Work and Revolution podcast is another avenue to get this message out to more people. I think there probably are more people than you know, who are starting to become aware of the metaverse in relation to education and higher education. You’re right. It’s not very well organized, or, you know, there’re no lobbying groups out there as yet. But I think the more that people have become aware of the issue, that there actually is a problem here. I think the greater the awareness will continue to grow. And I hope for all of our sakes that you are joined by many more people who speak loudly enough so that we can start effecting change. But this has been an amazingly interesting conversation. Thank you, Daniel, for all of your insights and your passion. And yeah, I have really enjoyed every minute of this. Thank you so much.


Daniel Pianko  26:58

My pleasure and looking forward to seeing you in a AR intervene world in the not too distant future that is decentralized in nature.


Debbie Goodman  27:07

Amen to that. Thanks for hanging around all the way to the end. It would mean the world if you would rate and review On work and Revolution on your favorite listening app. It helps people know that the show is worth listening to. And so I will really appreciate that. Thank you so much.



metaverse, universities, facebook, higher ed, higher education, edtech


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