Education Futures Podcast 18: Helping schools be strategic with Brandon Tatum, CONNECTedu

by Aug 26, 2020

“We are missing the boat on how we do online education. We are taking the worst aspects of traditional pedagogy and we’re just transposing it to online.”

Brandon Tatum admits that he wasn’t a great student in high school. But after a career detour led him to college, he found he could make an impact by helping students like the one he had been. In this conversation, Brandon, now the CEO of ConnectEDU and the Executive Director of the National Christian Schools Association, talks about his time as a classroom teacher and administrator and how that has given him the perspective to help schools be more strategic with degree programs. Brandon talks about opportunities with partnerships with industry to lower costs and create better pathing for students as well as how mixed reality will help students build relevancy for their future careers.

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Full Transcript

Full Transcript

Rob Reynolds:

Hi everybody, Rob Reynolds here. I’m joined today by Brandon Tatum. Brandon is the CEO of ConnectEDU. He is also the executive director of the National Christian School Association. And I think beyond all that, just an all-around innovator in the education space. He’s been doing it for a good while in multiple states and nationally, and just has his finger on the pulse of a lot of interesting ideas, what’s happening and what can happen and so I’m really happy to have you on board today, Brandon.

 

Brandon Tatum:

Thanks. I’m glad to be here. It’s always a privilege and always fun talking to Rob Reynolds.

Rob Reynolds:

Thanks. Brandon, when I bring somebody on the show, one of the things I always like to have them talk a little bit about is their own personal education journey. I think that provides some context for the other bigger ideas that we share here so if you can, just talk a little about your own journey, how you ended up where you are today.

Brandon Tatum:

I was a terrible student. I hated school. I struggled my way through school. Fortunately, got to go to good schools. I graduated from Brentwood Christian School out of Austin, Texas, which is a phenomenal school with great people that dealt with kids like me. And college was not on my radar, to be super honest. You probably don’t know that. I was going to graduate high school and wanted to be a police officer. My grandpa was a cop, my uncle was a cop and I actually wanted to be a detective. I just thought that would be so cool. But I couldn’t because you had to be 21 before you could enter the police academy and all my friends that I was graduating with were going to college, and I just thought this is crazy, but my friends are going I might as well go.

And so I went to Abilene Christian University in West Texas and I turned 21 but I was already… Like I was almost a senior and I’m like, well, this is almost over and I’ve done okay, I might as well finish this thing out. And that, just going to college changes you. And it just put me on a different trajectory, not a better trajectory, just a different trajectory. And started coaching, started teaching, started doing some things that I really enjoy doing, and ended up in the education world, predominantly private education. Just got to be with a lot of great people and then next thing you know, I’m working on a master’s degree and then finished a doctorate. And each step, I got to be a little better student a long way but would have never imagined that I would be in education with a doctorate degree, working in multiple aspects of education. Just would have never imagined it.

Rob Reynolds:

Yeah. And you know a little bit about my background, something similar. I was going to be a professional baseball player. I played baseball in college and I went on and I never really thought… And I wasn’t a good student either. And it’s funny how way leads on to way, you go on, you get to graduate school and you get advanced degrees, you become a college professor or whatever, you’re running these, you’re in the… And you think, no one would have ever checked that box for me. I mean, of all the people, family, et cetera, no one would have said, he’s going to do that, right? It’s just… And it’s interesting. But I think what that speaks too to me is how education really works, how learning in life works.

We’re works in progress and we see ourselves that way and then we have to look at other people that way too. And I think education, one of the challenges we have, I know you agree with this, is we tend to want to put people in these very narrow categories from a very early age and say, you need to be this, and this is what you need to do. And sometimes we really stifle the creative growth that they have [inaudible 00:04:28].

Brandon Tatum:

I agree a hundred percent. There’s so much that takes place in the education journey besides learning content, right. That’s actually the smallest and sometimes the easiest piece of education, right. We can teach content but how do we help students develop as people?

Rob Reynolds:

Yeah. So now segueing into where you are now. I mean, you’re wearing multiple, multiple hats, but primarily I’m going to introduce… I’ve introduced you as the CEO of ConnectEDU and now the executive director of the National Christian School Association. Now, let’s talk a little bit about ConnectEDU first, and then we’ll talk about the other. How did you make that transition? What is that about and what do you see yourself trying to accomplish through ConnectEDU?

Brandon Tatum:

So I was superintendent of a Christian private school for close to a decade. And I love that job, loved that opportunity. But during that opportunity, I was working on my doctorate and my doctorate was in educational leadership with an emphasis in higher education. And so I started, it opened up the page to the insides of higher ed. And obviously there’s a lot of discussion on the position higher ed has in the market right now. It’s just fascinating to me. And so I started looking at that also through the lens of, what are millennials wanting? And now it’s generation Z, what are they looking for in life, in career, in college? Who are they? So we know they’re fiscally conservative, right? We know that they are… Generation Z is going to be more specific about trying to get their career figured out earlier because they saw millennials moving back home and sleeping on the couch after they graduated college, they didn’t want to do that.

So anyway, it got me thinking about, could we do higher education differently? Not better, but just differently. And started visiting with a couple of friends who were college presidents and one in particular out in Nebraska, a mentor of mine and just said, hey, what if we looked at some of your graduate course offerings that are specifically already… They’re already online. And what if we thought differently about the price structure of this and differently about the marketing aspect of how we get this degree to market, and could I help you with the enrollment process? And so that started, and we’re now I think close to 200, maybe a little over 200 students within a school year of enrollments with that small college. And then I started looking at these online offerings and thinking, you know what, we’re really missing the boat on how we do online education in the market.

We are taking the bad, the worst aspects of traditional pedagogy and we’re just transposing that into an online… So we know the lecture has very little impact on student learning yet online education is “watch this video of this professor talking”, right? Or just read these materials and do these assignments. And so I started wondering, how could we do this better? And that’s when the virtual reality aspect came into our work. I know we’ll probably talk more about that. But we really started thinking about how can we leverage mixed reality, virtual reality, augmented reality into the online course experience. And I think there’s a lot of opportunities there.

Rob Reynolds:

No, that’s really exciting. Now, so as you said, you were the superintendent at a successful private high school here in Oklahoma and now you’re occupying this role of the executive director of the National Christian School Association. So what are the big lessons that you think you took away from your time as a superintendent and that you’re being able to use to help other superintendents and other leaders in that Christian school or that private school market?

Brandon Tatum:

Well, the first one is, I lived the stress of that role. And I’m not sure I survived it to be real. I mean, that position has got to be one of the toughest positions out there because you can’t make anybody happy. You have parents that are over-involved, you have students that have very low expectations. This isn’t a categorization. I don’t think of even private education or the school I was at, I think when you look statistically, this is just a categorization of generation Z in America and their [inaudible 00:09:42], parents. It’s just difficult to try to keep everybody happy. So there’s a lot of empathy that sits on my shoulders for the people doing that job, and even the teachers in the classroom, because it’s not getting easier and COVID has even thrown a significant curveball at these folks. So empathy is one of them.

Two is seeing that there is a need in education to change yet being in the midst of cultures that aren’t ready to change. And that balancing act of change management is significantly difficult. The best thing that COVID has done for educators is it has forced change. And the leaders in our schools right now that are going to be the most successful are going to be the ones that use COVID to get them to where they needed to go, right? Use it as your leverage point to change education. In some ways that’s very helpful right now. But I would say those two things, just the difficulty in changing cultures and the empathy for the stress of the position.

Rob Reynolds:

No, that’s terrific. Now, I know you just mentioned COVID and the impact that it’s having and of course, we’re all over the map, both in K12 and higher ed about who’s trying to do face to face, who’s going online, what they’re doing. Are you seeing a pattern with the private schools you work with and a tendency to be face to face or to be more remote, or is it just pretty much scattered?

Brandon Tatum:

No, we’re trying to open up. I think most privates are trying to open up with… And they’re trying to open up not out of a sense of, we have to be open and it’s the best way to do education, we can’t go online. It’s not from that place. It’s more from what do our families need? And our family [inaudible 00:11:52], schools to be open. And so balancing that is very, very tricky. Every day provides more and more challenges for school leaders. But we’re seeing a lot of schools that have opened up, but have also provided opportunities for blended learning experiences.

Now if you’re a family that for whatever reason can’t be face to face, there typically are opportunities for you that… Some of the schools we actually interviewed one on the Ed Idea Show was a school that has brought in technology to where every class is streamed live. A student can be at home and watch the class live, but can also [inaudible 00:12:31]. They can ask the teacher a question, they can interact with the other students, they can write on the whiteboard that’s in the classroom. High level of technology. So we’re seeing a lot of those new entrants into the market that weren’t… They might’ve existed last year but they weren’t in the school buildings last year. So we’re seeing a lot of creativity in that aspect.

Rob Reynolds:

Well, I think that with the private schools, in particular, especially those that are let’s say, I’ll say a thousand students or less and they could be for larger as well. No, scale and focus matters, right, in terms of being able to deal with this. So if you’re, and I’ll use our neighbor university here, University of Oklahoma and you have 25,000 students and basically you’re a city of 18 to 22-year-olds, it’s really hard to manage that. And we’ll see whether they do it successfully or not or like the University of North Carolina, they end up having to go remote.

But I think with a certain size, it is much better. And with that blend of technology, I love the blended, I think you can be much more attentive to parents and come up with solutions that only work better. Just, if for nothing else, your constituency is a little more focused and smaller. Whereas I know here in our city, it’s a balance. Our teachers don’t want to, our parents say we have to, we don’t know what to do is we’re hearing a lot of that with our public school. So I think there is real opportunity for private schools actually because its-

Brandon Tatum:

And again, so we had a head start at some level with most of the private schools because our class sizes were already drastically lower, right. I mean, we were already 50% of some of the public school districts as far as class size goes. So the social distancing in the classrooms, spreading out desk, that was the easiest part for us because we had already been touting the small class sizes.

Rob Reynolds:

Sure. Sure. So you’ve had all these experiences and I also know… So you work with high schools still, you consult with higher ed institutions so you really touching both. Let’s hear about higher ed for a second. So let’s create a little fantasy here. You are now the president of a university. And forget about what you’re doing to try to deal with crisis today, but you’re wanting to steer toward a successful future of growth of helping students, et cetera. Using you as an example then we’ll extrapolate out and say this would be good advice for a lot of schools. How would you see coming in and saying, this is what I think we need to focus on to be successful and to keep growing out in the future?

Brandon Tatum:

Yeah, that’s a very hypothetical question. You have to play that game. So obviously the context of that university matters. I know many universities right now cherish the on-campus experience. And so you have to find ways to make sure that that on-campus experience is providing the mission that it needs to provide, that it’s impacting and developing students as we’ve already talked about. And I don’t think… I think students are always going to want. I say always and I hate using the term always, but I do think students are always going to want the on-campus experience. Now I think students are going to have fewer and fewer options of on-campus experiences with the way school closures at the higher ed level. But I still think that will exist. It might become more elite as we move from it, I don’t know, but some version of on-campus college experience will exist.

But as we think about what is new and different and what are new opportunities, I think universities have to aggressively approach bringing their degrees into industries. And I think if universities don’t do that, industry is going to do it regardless, right? And so we’re already seeing that with Google. Google has announced that they’re going to be offering coding certificates that are equivalent to a four-year degree. Who can train a coder better than Google? Nobody can train a coder better than Google, right? And so industry is going to realize this. Industry is going to realize that we could lower student debt, we can train you better, we can give you real-life applicable experience. You don’t have to take courses like bowling and tennis that don’t matter to you becoming a coder. I know there are people that would argue with that statement but I think it’s ridiculous that I had to take pickleball in college and pay thousands of dollars to take pickleball. I really do.

And so I think we have to be a little bit more intentional and strategic with what we’re doing. So for instance, I think nursing degrees should be offered inside of hospitals. I think hospitals should be hiring high school kids. A lot of high schools are already offering nursing type certifications. We’re seeing that at the career tech, we’re seeing it in a lot of publics and privates honor students getting certificate programs in those fields. I think that the industry should be hiring that student. The university should be walking alongside of that student with industry and helping them become professionals in that field. I think education is a good model for this. I think there’s no reason that high school graduates that want to be elementary teachers can’t be going into an elementary classroom as a teacher’s assistant, learning from some of our best teachers in the state, providing help to that classroom teacher while getting a degree in that university while working in the job that they want to do, right?

I just think we could be more strategic and I think by doing so, the cost of the degree could be lowered significantly. And that’s a point that higher ed’s got to fix.

Rob Reynolds:

Yeah, no, I agree with that. I was just thinking, as you were talking about the coding in Google and I was thinking, hey look, higher ed seated like networking and that part of computer science to Microsoft with all their certifications in Cisco a long time ago. And you would think, okay, we’re going to learn from this, that we’re going to become more engaged in a practical way with industry. And I think that’s, the computer science and the computer technology industry is a great example. Like you’re also examples of nursing and education. I would tie it back to the comment you made about what is that on-campus experience like?

In the K12 market that I deal in, we often talk about it with very small schools, rural schools as… Well, let’s think about a blended solution. Maybe a lot of your content learning is actually online, but that rich experience of interaction, of exploration is happening face to face in different ways than we think about it now. As you know, the old flip model so instead of saying boy, campuses for all this content acquisition. But I think most students would say, that’s not what they remember. That’s not the value they got. We could double down on that campus experience and it could be something else that could actually be more flexible when times like this come because the content learning can happen anywhere. And so I completely-

Brandon Tatum:

I would love to see a university in an apartment complex in a downtown metropolitan area, right. To where it’s residential, it’s building friendships, it’s building community. It’s all of the relational aspects of that, but you’re in a metropolitan area where you’re walking into the hospital across the street and that’s where you’re going to school. That’s where you’re going to experience. I love that.

Rob Reynolds:

Yeah. I think it’s terrific. So let’s go back then to virtual and augmented reality experiences. And obviously, as we look out into the future, we’re talking about experiences in general. We are talking about campus experience, vocational practical experiences. How do you see AR, VR that whole XR experience transforming education over the next decade?

Brandon Tatum:

Yeah, so, I think at one point, and maybe for some still people think online education is innovation and there’s… I just don’t see that anymore. I don’t see online education being innovative. I see online education being old school and it hasn’t been really touched in a decade or maybe more, right? And so now’s the time to innovate online education. So what does that look like? So it’s VR, AR all the [inaudible 00:21:42], aspects. What if we could put a student anywhere in the world, right? Or in any type of situation, whether it’s a safety barrier, right? Like we’re wanting to help students learn construction management and we can’t put a student on a skyscraper because their generation Z parents are going to sue us, right? So we could put a student on a skyscraper in a very scary situation using VR and give him almost this real-life experience, right.

We could put a nursing student in a surgical scenario where something bad happens and they have to decide how they’re going to handle the situation. We could put a teacher in a classroom that is very… That’s not managed well and we have students acting up or even to get a little scarier, there’s a school shooter in the building and you’re having to manage that aspect of it. There’s just so many environments that we can put people in using virtual reality that could just enhance the learning process. It’s one thing to be told in a classroom setting, here’s how you’re going to do this, this, this, and this. It’s a whole nother experience when you actually get to sit in the center of an experience. The learning pattern and the learning process that takes place just from a neurological level, we’re finding out is just so valuable.

Rob Reynolds:

No, it’s like they say about a lot of things. We don’t know when the hockey stick is going to happen on the graph, right. And then we’ll have full buy-in but it’s hard for me to imagine that this isn’t going to become a pervasive technology over time because it solves so many problems. It solves staffing problems. It solves experiential and interior things, safety issues, it brings the world into the student as opposed to having to send the student out always, and it’s cost-effective. Now, right now, people may look at and go, well, it’s not cost-effective compared to what, right? And this goes with your idea of changing models of education and how things have to evolve for most of our schools. I think this was going to be a key piece of that when it happens.

Brandon Tatum:

Or you could get right now in the market, the headsets that we recommend, you could get for far less than a laptop computer. So, I mean, we’re talking very affordable type stuff. And the other thing is, there is a significant amount of free VR content on the market right now. Especially in the 360 video space, there’s a significant amount. And quality people, New York [inaudible 00:24:36], popping out staff. Discovery Channel, Science Channel, National Geographic. I mean, there’s so much high-quality stuff. And so that’s one of the things that I’ve been working on is, we call it XR Box. But it’s this virtual reality learning management system that just organizes virtual reality content that’s out there for us, right?

Because a teacher, she might know that this is out there on National Geographic, but she’s no way for her to know that all of this stuff is sitting out there on the web. So we found a way to categorize and organize all of that VR content to where a teacher can just almost drag and drop all these different VR modules from these different places into third-grade math or into third [inaudible 00:25:20], and all of those modules sit there for their students. It’s very, very nice.

Rob Reynolds:

No, and it’s exciting. I used to tell people when I was in that part of the business about OER in general, in textbooks and course material. And I would say, look, this will take off when it’s easy to find, it’s easy to select and it’s easy then to implement into what I’m doing. And when that happens, that it’s just as easy as anything else I’m ever doing. A textbook company in the old days, they’re going to send a rep who’s going to tell me what I need, they’re going to help me get it set up and they’re going to try to take care of it at the bookstore.

Once, and we saw this happen with OER and the adoption rates just keep going up because now, yeah, there are a lot of providers, the web has made it easy to find, you can adopt it, you can even incorporate it in your LMS and it works. And I think that’s a good benchmark. And so I love that idea that you’ve got and what you’re doing because I think you’re solving the key problem that people are going to have for it to take off. And I think that’s really exciting.

Brandon Tatum:

We just launched, we just got… The other day we had a group of 20 students that got headsets.

Rob Reynolds:

Oh, that’s awesome.

Brandon Tatum:

And it was interesting to watch them because I guess from my perspective, I assume most high school kids had some sort of VR experience already and they hadn’t. They hadn’t had the VR. So it reminded me how early we are in this process. I mean, we’re early adopters. It doesn’t feel as if we’re early adopters, just I guess because of the networks that I’m in. But this is early to the game and it’s-

Rob Reynolds:

Yeah. I think that’s true, certainly in education. And that’s one of the things about the education space that’s often happened, whereas a technology like VR and AR has really been taking off and having a lot of applications in other places for quite a while and now we’re getting standardized platforms, et cetera. But education comes along and what’s new to education or early adoption is much further along in other industries, but education is kind of catching up, getting in. In general, we’re a conservative market because of the way we’re structured, change is hard. And so sometimes we’re not as quick. And the early adopters don’t always win, but this is the one that’s going to I think that dovetails nicely with all the transformation. I know before we get out of here, I have to mention and just bring this up. So you’re also a children’s book author so that goes a creative side of your life. So why? How? Where did that come from?

Brandon Tatum:

I don’t know where that came from because [inaudible 00:28:17], writer. When I was working on my doctorate, I just love the concept of Grit. Angela Duckworth, all her work it just stuck with me. And I really thought my dissertation was going to be on that specifically. And so I spent hours and months working on Grit research. I ended up not doing my dissertation on that but through that process, I have little kids, at that time I think I had a three-year-old son and twin daughters that were just born. And I thought, you know what? There’s not anything in the children’s market teaching Grit. I read books to my son every [inaudible 00:29:04]. So I thought, what if I could personify Grit? And so I wrote The Adventures of Grit and Grit is a squirrel and his counterpart is a chicken and obviously chicken personifies wanting to [inaudible 00:29:20], being scared and all of those things. So you have that relationship taking place the whole time that they climb this mountain and he goes on this adventure.

And so I wanted to do that for my son and so I dedicated that to Sawyer. And then I thought, okay, I dedicated a book to my son now I got to [inaudible 00:29:39], daughters. And I asked several close friends. I said, “Hey, if, you were to write a book for young ladies, what would you focus on?” And they said self-worth. And so I started thinking up concepts and I heard a song, man, I think it’s by Chris Stapleton, that might be Jamey Johnson. Is one of these country guys with the big beard. And it was about a guitar in a pawn shop. And it was this lonely guitar in a pawn shop and nobody would play him and at one point he was big-time but now he’s just a guitar in a pawn shop. And I thought that’s a cool type story of self-worth, right. This guitar really struggling with not being wanted.

And so, I don’t know, I kind of took that concept and created The Diary of a Lousy Book. And it’s a book that can’t remember its story and can’t draw pictures. So it’s a picture book but can’t draw pictures. And so it’s just this book struggling with itself the whole time, trying to figure out who it is and trying to be things it’s not. It’s just a silly kids book.

Rob Reynolds:

No, that’s great. I love it. And what a gift to your children too. That’s just awesome. No, I think of going [genet 00:31:02], full circle as we finish up here and we talked about how… What our journeys are like and how it’s this lifelong process. And every little thing we do goes into that. Having kids is part of it, things we do for them and then it kind of makes us who we are so that’s just… It’s really rich. Tell us real quickly as we’re signing off about your show because I know you host a video, set of video interviews and it’s really exciting.

Brandon Tatum:

I do the Ed Idea Show it’s Facebook live, YouTube live typically Tuesdays at 11:30 on the National Christian School Association site. So you can find this on YouTube and Facebook. And we’re doing authors, we’re doing thought leaders just like your show as well. So I think the next one we have on is Chap Clark with Tim Elmore and David Kinnaman with Barna group will be on shortly so that’s a good folks on the show.

Rob Reynolds:

It’s exciting. I’ve listened to a couple of… Watched a couple episodes and I really recommend it to everybody. It’s good stuff. Well, Brandon, thank you for joining us today. I encourage all of you to check out his show, but also if you encounter anything else that he’s doing, Brandon is a true thought leader in the space. You can just tell from listening to this, he’s got a, just a lot of great ideas and is really one of those people, I think that’s looking out into the future and seeing how education is evolving. So you definitely want to keep up with his thinking and his leadership. So thanks a bunch, Brandon. We appreciate you joining us today.

Brandon Tatum:

Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

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