John Katzman Makes the Case for Remote Learning and Ed Tech

The combined forces of the COVID-19 pandemic, soaring inflation, and a looming recession have aligned to rock virtually every sector of the American economy; our education system has not been spared.

As a result, those working within the education sector—as well as parents and students themselves—are left to grapple with a set of newly urgent questions: can we learn effectively in a remote setting? Can educational technology help students find the employment they seek? Can online learning offer a truly stable and high quality educational model for the future?

In today’s podcast, Eric is joined by ed tech veteran John Katzman to learn why he’s so optimistic about the efficacy of ed tech, how he thinks it should be tailored to different age groups, how it can help job seekers weather a difficult hiring market, and much more.

ABOUT JOHN KATZMAN: John Katzman is the founder and CEO of Noodle, a prominent ed tech company that partners with universities and companies to facilitate online learning. He previously founded the online learning company 2U, as well as The Princeton Review, which helps students prepare for the SAT, ACT, and graduate school entrance exams.

Katzman has additionally served as a director of organizations including Carnegie Learning, Renaissance Learning, the National Association of Independent Schools, the Institute for Citizens & Scholars, and the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.


Podcast Transcript

Eric Jaffe: We make decisions every day. While some of them are small, others can have a huge impact on our own lives and those around us. But how often do we stop to think about how we make decisions? Welcome to Deciding Factors, a podcast from GLG. I’m your host,

Eric Jaffe. In each episode, I’ll talk to world class experts and leaders in government, medicine, business, and beyond who can share their firsthand experiences and explain how they make some of their biggest decisions. We’ll give you fresh insights to help you tackle the tough decisions in your professional life.

Eric Jaffe: As the forces of the COVID-19 pandemic, soaring inflation, and a looming recession, combined to rock the entire American economy, our education system has also suffered. As a result. Those focused on education are grappling with a set of newly urgent questions. Can we learn effectively in a remote setting? Can educational technology help students find the employment they seek? Can online learning offer a truly stable and high quality educational model for the future? My guest today is remarkably well equipped to help us navigate this complicated puzzle, especially as it relates to higher education. John Katzman is the founder and CEO of Noodle, a prominent EdTech company that partners with universities and companies to facilitate online learning. Sometimes referred to as an OPM or Online Program Management company, he previously founded the online learning company, 2U, another OPM, as well as the Princeton Review, which helps students prepare for the SAT, ACT and graduate school entrance exams.

Eric Jaffe: Katzman has additionally served as a director of organizations, including Carnegie Learning, Renaissance Learning, the National Association of Independent Schools, the Institute for Citizens and Scholars and the national Alliance of Public Charter Schools. Listen in as John and I dig into what I consider is somewhat contrarian optimism about the efficacy of EdTech. Why he thinks it can be applied evenly to every age group and how it can help job seekers weather a difficult hiring market and much, much more.

Eric Jaffe: John Katzman, welcome to Deciding Factors. So excited to have you on the show today.
John Katzman: It’s great to be here, thanks for having me.

Eric Jaffe: I know from speaking with you and from interviews you’ve given that you are a big believer in the future of remote learning. Maybe at the highest level, why are you a believer in remote learning and kind of like remote partnering?

John Katzman: There are a few reasons. And let me draw a couple distinctions, the first one is for whom. So kindergarten works better face-to-face, because the main part of kindergarten is the socialization process with other students and the physical playing that’s going on and those interactions. On the other hand graduate school, the contacts you make and the knowledge you gain and the skills you gain are why you’re there. It’s not about the experience, it’s about the takeaway. And so somewhere along the line between the two, depending on the student, depending on the topic, online education becomes more and more valuable. Somewhere along the line, as technology gets better and virtual reality and augmented reality, you could imagine that that curve is going to shift as people get more used to technology. And as the technology itself gets better, that there are more things you could teach online in that spectrum.
John Katzman: But when I say I’m in favor of remote learning, I mean can we use technology to make learning better? Sometimes that is you don’t have to go to a classroom, you can do it online. Sometimes it’s the combination of the two that might be the solution. Not everything online is good and in fact, most things online are not good. But good online learning is as good as classroom learning for certainly any adult and probably anybody at all.

Eric Jaffe: I think that’s a bit of a … I don’t know if contrarian or a unique perspective because, and we’ve talked about this before. I think a lot of people would assume that remote education is not as good as in person education, especially for like really technical crafts, for a doctor. You would think learning how to be a doctor would be sort of impossible remote. Can you address how you think about that?

John Katzman: Let’s take that example. When you look at a med school, the first couple years are largely learning the science in the worst possible way, which is there’s a lecture. You walk in, there’s somebody lecturing at you and then you go home and actually learn something. One of the things that’s tough about education is things like lectures. All of the survey data says, “People think lectures are a really good way to get information.” And all of the learning data says, “No, lectures don’t work at all.” For the great majority of learners, it might have been entertaining, but it’s not how we learn. Just like sitting here, listening to somebody talk. And by the way, the first generation of online learning was taking that lecture and putting it on video, which made it even worse.

John Katzman: The interactivity, what you really want is that doctor to be in a hospital. I’m in there, I’m doing whatever I can do to be helpful, and then the formal instruction, the biology courses, the chemistry courses, I can do it online and I can flank my real world experience. If I’m a teacher, I could be in a classroom a lot of the day, working with kids, working with experienced teachers and again, do the formal instruction of learning how to teach online. I don’t have to travel to the university to take those courses and then see my practicum, see the actual experience as like this thing I do on the side. I can make the thing itself, front and center and the formal learning flanking it. And that shift of, “Where is the role? What time of day? How do I use the real world as a chance to like practice things and chew on them?” I think is really important in a lot of disciplines.

Eric Jaffe: How does that affect your view of where higher education is now? Let’s take universities specifically. Clearly during COVID they shifted toward a more digital hybrid solution. Are they going to go back to in person learning decisively as campuses continue to sort of reopen and what are the incentives there? Do they even want to? Is it more cost effective? Like how do they think about that?

Jonathan Katzman: Let’s carve up higher ed into three groups. The first is for 18 year olds. The first two years of college, as you’re getting out of the house, you’re leaving kind of a high school that’s relatively small. And that the courses you take are pretty much the same ones everybody else is taking, into you’re learning the things that you find interesting and you’re finding your way, especially in an on-campus experience, in a residential experience, you’re finding your way into who you are outside of your folks’ home. For disadvantaged kids, it’s about socialization and joining the middle class and higher ed is an important part of that. And for middle class kids, it’s just about establishing your own personality, your own persona.

John Katzman: The second part, when you get to junior and senior year, there’s more and more of a place for practical real world experience. Northeastern has been a leader in that for a while, but there are more and more schools saying, “Take a semester doing an internship or study abroad and get out in the world.” And those are cases where again, the formal courses might well be online courses while you are working at Microsoft as an intern. And then graduate school should just be online and it should be halftime. Most graduate schools, the major cost is the opportunity cost of not working. And the longer you are out of school, the higher that opportunity cost is. So if you worked for a couple years and then went to business school, the business school itself is charging you. I don’t know, $80 or $100,000, but during those two years at your B school, you might have made $150 or more thousand dollars. If you go halftime, taking two courses a semester, three semesters a year, yeah the MBA will take three years instead of two. But meanwhile, you were working the whole time and every semester you became more valuable to that company because you’ve gained that many more skills. And so you’ve just taken the cost of your grad school down by probably two thirds.

Eric Jaffe: At least for some subsection of the population, I actually think the in person graduate school experience is a meaningful one. Those connections you make help you get jobs, help enrich your life. Do you agree or do you think that’s a very small subsection of the population?

John Katzman: There are students who learn by themselves actually better than they learn with other people. And I’d say that’s probably 20, 25% of students based on what we saw during COVID. But the vast majority of students, you’re right, need interaction with other people. So when you’re studying online, there are a couple ways to get it. Number one, all sorts of tools that we can work together better starting with Zoom. But in interactive ways, we just don’t happen to be in the same room and those tools are going to continue to get better. But number two is all sorts of immersions where we can bring you to campus on a weekend.

Eric Jaffe: So bottom line, like it’s a hybrid solution.

John Katzman: I think that’s true of companies right now, too. Like we are about to move offices and we’re moving to a place I built a million years ago at Chelsea Pierce. Beautiful office looking out over the river, no one’s going to come. Unless, if it happens to be right next to the health club at Chelsea Pierce, which is arguably the best health club in the country. And what we’re saying is if you come in on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, then we’ll pay for the health club. And our hope is if I get people together, my New York people, just a couple days a week, that’s plenty, because they’re doing a great job online. And actually, 80% of my staff is now living in other states, I think we have 43 states where we have people living. But if I can get them together just two days a week to establish kind of a heartbeat for the kind of relationships you’re talking about, my betting is that’ll be enough to maintain the kind of culture I’m looking for. For a young employee, I’d say it’s only worth going in if other people are going in. Nothing’s more lonely than coming into the office and going through the commute and then there’s nobody else here and you’re just working on Zoom anyway.

Eric Jaffe: Let’s start talking a little bit about the industry side again. So I thought we could start by just defining two commonly used terms. One is MOOC, M-O-O-C, and the other is EdTech. What is a MOOC? Could you help explain that to our listeners?

John Katzman: A MOOC is a Massively Open Online Course. It is a free course. Generally it’s a lecture of some guy talking about some topic that tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people might watch. In terms of length, it might be a couple hours of video. And starting maybe a decade ago, the feeling was that these MOOCs would provide the kind of ongoing instruction that you would need through the rest of your life in a pretty friendly format. The reality is maybe 2% of the people who start a course finish it. So they’re not particularly engaging or effective and there was no business model to provide them and so they weren’t very good. Nobody was really investing in building something of quality. The model has evolved. It’s now, in a sense, a lead gen device for degree programs and for certificate programs that do have a fee, some of which could be pretty good.

John Katzman: EdTech as a term really is just about education technology and I would say the thought experiment like FinTech or GovTech or any other sector of technology is a relatively small percentage of the cost of education is the teaching, everything else. Not just the physical building, but the support of students and the marketing and recruiting. There are a whole bunch of things that go into good instruction and in almost all of them, technology can be effective in making it better and less expensive. The teaching itself, as we’ve been talking about, as we can move towards more hybridized ways of combining face-to-face experiences with asynchronous instruction online, we can make education more compelling and more effective.

Eric Jaffe: How does higher education look at EdTech? How do they view EdTech and integrating technology into their offerings?

John Katzman: There are very different answers in K-12 and higher ed. In K-12, the Gates Foundation and others walked in saying, “We’ve got all this great technology and we are going to have data on what’s going on in schools. Isn’t that terrific?” And the educators said, “Well, what are you going to do with that data?” And they said, “Well, we’re going to close all the bad schools and fire all the bad teachers. And then you’d kind of get them a little bit drunk later that night.” And you’d say, “Well, what percent of teachers are bad?” And they go, “Oh, like half.” And you realized fairly early on than the educators did in K-12 that technology was not their friend, that data was not their friend. And that the technologies that they were using in their classroom were generally surveillance devices, providing a stream of data about their work to the principal and to the superintendent that would probably be used more against them than to support them. And they weren’t wrong in thinking that. And so there’s a real hostility to the use of technology, which is wildly unfortunate. If we’re going to get real use out of technology in transforming K-12, we’ve got to put down the weapons and use education to support education and not just to measure it and to act upon it in negative ways.

John Katzman: In higher ed that never, happened. I think the issue there has been more, yeah things are kind of working, people come to this campus and they like it and why do we need to change anything? And the answer is number one, because it’s just too expensive. We’ve got to find ways to reduce costs. Number two, there’s an increasing number of students in higher ed who are adults, right? It’s over half now who are nontraditional learners. And going back to campus is actually a tremendous amount of work, whether it’s on weekends or evenings and so forth, people have their lives. And moving to online learning and using technology to drive efficiency while maintaining the core of what makes a university great, the student to student interaction and student to faculty interaction can make that sector, which is already really high performing that much better.

So I think higher ed has adopted it. Yeah, they move slowly, but when COVID hit universities moved online in a heartbeat, faster in most cases than companies did. And they did a credible job with it over the past two years of navigating pretty, pretty tricky waters.

Eric Jaffe: Is there a world in the future or are we living in that world now where you can actually get credentials on skills or competencies or certificates that could be offered online that would meaningfully advance one’s employability?

John Katzman: I’m a little bit skeptical. The Silicon valley narrative for years was that credentials and certificate programs are going to replace degree programs that we are now in an era where Bachelor’s Degrees or Master’s Degrees don’t matter. And they’ve been saying this for 20 years, even though every year, the gap between people with degrees and without degrees goes up, not down. So all the data says that they’re wrong. I believe that that’s going to continue to be true. There’s all sorts of stuff packed into a degree that has real value in terms of the soft skills and the network you’re joining. And the fact that as an employer, I kind of know who you are because I’ve had lots of students from that school before and I’ve seen them perform. And that’s really hard with certificates, because they’re all over the map.

You’ll get two credentials that look identical, but this one’s a six hour program where you went to a lecture and then got an attendance badge and this one’s a year long program where you did a lot of very serious work. You don’t know if there was cheating, you don’t know what soft skills were baked in, you don’t know almost anything about this thing, it’s just the name of a school and it’s some random credential that is almost meaningless to you. And until there’s a lot more clarity and a lot more standardization, I think the reason to take a certificate program is to just make yourself a better leader, a better employee, a better technologist, that new set of skills you have is going to show up in better job performance, which in turn is going to actually translate into better job opportunities.

Eric Jaffe: So I want to use these last few minutes to talk about some trends in education. Can you talk about the current macroeconomic headwinds, high inflation? We’re potentially moving into or already in a recession. How are those headwinds going to impact higher ed and EdTech?

John Katzman: Tough economies are very good for higher education for the reason actually stated that the opportunity cost of higher ed goes down when unemployment goes up and when companies are in trouble. There’s no better time to go out and get a degree. And as the economy picks back up, you’re well positioned with a new set of skills to address it. Inflation is another story. And it’s a wild card, right? It’s you lock in your prices and thinking you’re going to outguess what’s going to happen and that you can keep pace with it. So that I can’t speak to as much, but I can say that over decades of watching higher ed, even small changes in regional economies get reflected in higher ed and it’s almost always countercyclical.

Eric Jaffe: And what about enrollment rates? Can you give us a kind of quick recap of university enrollment, any meaningful trends that happened through COVID and then where you see those going in the next three to five years?

John Katzman: Obviously online education became an enormous percentage of teaching, that’s gone back down. For adult learners and for graduate school, we’re now over 50% online and it continues to grow. So I think adult learners in graduate school is just going to end up virtually all online. COVID was a preview, not a blip of where we’re going. In terms of undergraduate, you’re seeing more online learning. Undergraduate for traditional learners, for kids coming right out of high school and reinforcing, the students in all kinds of surveys have been clear, “I’m willing to take classes online, but I want to be here.” And so I don’t think that shift will be as dramatic.

In terms of overall enrollment, higher ed’s been down a decade running in terms of enrollment. Most of that shortfall has been in the for-profits, which once people really started seeing the data and as traditional schools got with the program and built online, those schools have dramatically shrunken. But community colleges have also been badly hurt over the past decade. I’m not sure that that trend isn’t going to continue. The fact is community colleges are run a lot more like school districts than they are run like four year schools. And I’m painting with a broad brush here, there are certainly some well run ones as well. But there are an increasing number of options outside of that. I think the whole community college space is in for a very, very tough decade.

Eric Jaffe: Last question, just kind of popping into my head. Is there a metric aside from income that we should use when we think about the return on higher education?

John Katzman: If you look at both K-12 and higher ed there absolutely is. We all agree on what the outcomes we’re really looking for, broadly are, in education. That over the next 40 years, you’re going to be employed in a job you like that pays a living wage and that as the economy changes, you’ll be agile enough to get a new job in a growing career path. You will be happy as measured by things like obesity and alcoholism and other social issues and you’ll be a good member of society. You’ll vote, you won’t go to prison, you’ll do things with other people. And Gallup actually surveys adults I think every night and has for many years. And has found that people who went to college outperform on every metric, people who didn’t. Taking those metrics and bringing them down to the level of specific programs, what are the goals of this program and what are the kinds of students who achieve those goals?

When we work with students like this, 90% achieve the goals we’re talking about. It’s very specific to the program and wanting to be a nurse and wanting to be a philosophy major, they’re kind of different things and there’s no better or worse, but trying to find a metric for both of those is very hard. Whereas when you really dig down into what they’re trying to do, now it’s a relatively simple matter of measuring the outcomes over time and being able to report on them based on students like you. Measuring education well is something that’s very doable and something that would add a tremendous amount of value. And the fact that we don’t do it doesn’t mean we can’t.

Eric Jaffe: I love that. I think that’s a great and hopeful note to end on. So John, thank you so much. I thought this was an incredible conversation and I can talk to you about education and where it’s headed for hours. So thank you so much for making the time.

John Katzman: Thanks for having me. It’s always great to speak with you, Eric.

Eric Jaffe: That was John Katzman, the founder and CEO of Noodle. My biggest takeaway was John’s confidence in the caliber of remote learning. It’s palpable. And it’s also understandable as he has seen firsthand the power of online education, particularly for those whose life circumstances would’ve otherwise prevented them from gaining access to the doors that can open in our lives. We hope you’ll join us next time for a brand new episode of Deciding Factors featuring another one of GLG’s network members. Every day, GLG facilitates conversations with experts across nearly every industry and geography, helping our clients with insight that leads to true clarity. Feel free to leave us a review on Apple Podcast, we’d love to hear from you. Or email us at If you have feedback or ideas for future show topics. For Deciding Factors and GLG, I’m Eric Jaffe. Thanks for listening.