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Interview Transcription
Chok Ooi, Kenzie Academy


Q: Janet Tran
A: Chok Ooi


Q: Even prior to COVID-19, you were considering technicalities regarding the theory and practice of online learning, and how distance education would work with your students. One thing you said to me, when we were fortunate enough to visit your facility, is that you were very aware that this incremental mastery of hard skills, like engineering and sort of hard skills, works -- but learning soft skills might not be as effective. How has the Kenzie Academy continued to fill the learning gap that COVID has created, and what are you saying in response to the challenges?

A: Kenzie exists because we see how automation will disrupt jobs over the next decade. We designed an educational program that serves people who are most vulnerable and most disrupted by such a shift. They don’t just need technical skills: teaching them how to code will not lend them a job. They need problem-solving, critical thinking, communication, a lot of those “360 skills.” Employers hire someone to solve problems, not just to code, so we designed Kenzie around providing that support, so that people can be successful. What's happening with COVID, I think, is what professors call an “automation sourcing event.”

COVID is accelerating the pace of companies who are deciding to double-down on the automation front -- perhaps you’ve seen the problems with fulfillment center workers and people protesting. The best way to hire employees who don't protest and don't complain and don't make demands, is to replace them with automation. That's what robots and machines are good at, which means there will be a lot more jobs that may not come back, or will be gone at a much accelerated clip. On the flip side, that means also companies need to hire a lot more technology-savvy people to build all this automation that will be used globally. So that's why it's important for us to continue to provide the right training and mindset: so we can get more and more people transitioned from the old economy into the future economy and into the future of work -- which is exciting, but requires a very different mindset.


Q: Yeah, it is extremely exciting. I think something that history teaches us is that after great times of crisis and disruption, you get incredible innovation. So, that's the silver lining in all this tragedy: we have so many things that are forcibly being changed, and they're not going back and that's not a bad thing. We want to let go of the things that didn't work.

The income-share agreement model is very innovative. If you're not invested, if you aren’t teaching your students to get a decent job, you're not going to get paid. Now, many students are deciding, “Hey, we're not even going to go to these four year colleges.” What is the value of a four-year college and this network if I'm not able to be on that physical campus? But the Kenzie model has always been focused on access and affordability for the most vulnerable populations. As people are considering their options, what impact has this income-share agreement model had on your current students and prospective students?

A: The ISA is a great access tool. Absent of something like an income share, people from underserved communities or people who don't make enough -- or don’t have good credit scores -- don't even have access to non-traditional, non-Title IV Pell Grant programs like Kenzie. The beauty of this model is instead of looking in the back mirror to determine whether you are eligible to do the training, we're looking forward. It allows people to monetize their future earning potential, and in this case we as a school are sharing that risk with the student. It breaks the traditional model of: “I got paid upfront, so my job is to get more butts on seats as much as possible--  without too much care of the outcomes”, whereas for us, we only get paid when students succeed and get paid. We’re full skin in the game; it forces us to deliver an effective program. Otherwise, we wouldn’t exist for long. The good thing about this is that over time it also helps differentiate good programs from not-as-good programs -- because programs that don't produce the outcomes would not dare to use an income-share, or even if they use it, they won't exist for long. There's always anxiety about student loans. Some people are paying into the sixty or seventy thousand-dollar range, and with the income-share even repayment, most programs are anywhere from two to four or five years away. So, there is insurance and also making sure that you're not paying perpetuity.

Q: We’re probably going to see the first generation of people retiring with student loan debt, because a lot of these Parent Plus Loans are being taken out -- which is astounding in terms of economic implications. How do you retire if you still owe money for your student’s college career? We need to disrupt the model right now. You alluded to it as a struggle for access. So I'm curious as to addressing the fact that all online learning is not created equal.

There's pedagogy. There's obviously different levels of access and technology and expertise -- and we're seeing it now with varying degrees of technology in homes.  We're supposed to be overseeing education as parents; Kenzie's learning right now is entirely in your hands and your wife's hands. I'm curious as to what you think about all these concerns, because you were there before everyone had to do it. What are the risks of online learning and in your opinion, what are the rewards?

A: Well, we're experiencing why it has always been our vision of the future of work, which is going to be quite heavily remote and distributed where talent exists all around right now. So right now it's no longer more place-based and it's more talent-based. But what was interesting was that COVID did more to the workforce and higher ed to push things forward in two months than what it took over the last hundred years in terms of progress. For this model to be successful, you need to create a proper structure; you cannot just throw out a Zoom link and say, “we are now teaching online.” At the core, there are a lot of people who have the motivation and discipline to do things at their own pace without the typical physical structure around them. But the majority of people tend not to behave that way. So what we've learned and what we have perfected the last two years, was, “How do you create this online structure and give it to people so that they have a format, and the discipline to be able to participate, be fully engaged, and push themselves with completing the program that moves things forward?” And then how do you create this community where you get an offline model without the people next to each other? How do you replicate that in a Zoom room, or in a Slack, or in an online environment? What you need to have for a successful online delivery is community. It’s very, very important. We managed to create an online community that is as engaging -- if not actually more engaging -- than some in-person settings. When I can see you and you can see me, you can’t be on your phone.  When we see each other, it's a lot more difficult for people to be distracted. It’s high-level engagement.

Q: You named, and you were inspired, to found this academy because of your daughter, and now we're looking at distance learning and the reopening of schools. Even if some school districts open -- and it's looking less likely -- it will look entirely different. From a parent’s perspective, do you have any advice for parents who may not have as much know-how and expertise as you?

A: I think the experience will be a very unequal one today. This morning I asked Kenzie: “Do you prefer to learn in school or do it online?” and she said, “I prefer to be in school all day.” I asked why, and she said, “Well, I miss recess.” I think she's interested in the structure. My three girls are more distracted when you're home and there isn't someone saying, “You're in class, you need to do this before you go play.” They tend to play a lot more in between class times. That's why I think that structure is very important, no matter the academic environment. Also, this new environment shines an interesting light on the difference between programs according to their schools. Some of my girls go to expensive private schools, while others students go to public -- and in some situations public school is doing a better job teaching online rather than the expensive private schools -- which I think translates to higher ed, as well. Though some schools have big branding with expensive tuition, they may not do online education as well as other low-branding schools, who put in more effort and worked out the kinks to deliver better-quality training. If you look at higher ed, we will see an unbundling happening soon, perhaps between a few months to a year, because people pay so much money for the whole experience. When people can pick and choose different educational elements to create their own bundle, programs become much more cost-efficient.

Q: How does this unbundling happen? What are some examples?

A: I think it would look more like a stackable credential. So instead of one sequential four-year [track] toward a Bachelor’s degree, students start with a few certificates, but they count credit towards multiple degree pathways. Students don't have to do all four years at the same time. They could take class for six months, or to receive a one-year certificate that allows them to get a job. Hopefully there's an affordable pathway to then stack them onto a degree or a Master’s, or something else that leads them to a higher-paying career. By doing this, students can actually afford to pay for their education, and won’t be saddled in heavy student loan debt when they try to access additional training for a promotion or to switch careers. It's more of a just-in-time consumption of training education.

Q: There’s certainly a lot we need to focus on in terms of affordability, accessibility and applicability, as well. What did we focus on before COVID-19? What should we conserve and what remains important? What are the core elements that need to remain in this new world?

A: I think pre-COVID there was a lot of talk about free college, and college for all. Personally, I don't believe that is a solution. In low-quality programs, the outcomes are poor. We're wasting a lot of money as a country. What we need to do is move the country, and move higher education, to a much more accountable system. That will look something like a hybrid of an ISA, or some kind of incentive plan. I don't believe in free money as a solution. Higher education needs to behave just like any other industry in this country. If you produce high-quality product, you will win; if you produce low-quality product, you should be weeded out by the marketplace. I think post-COVID, people will be a lot more focused on how the training translates to better jobs and better pay. You're going to see the market moving more and more towards career-focused and career-oriented programs and training, versus a more traditional academic setting. Not to say that liberal arts training is not important. It is important. Liberal arts, general education are vital, and we need a balanced society with different skills. Not everyone in society should become a software engineer, but what we need now is both accountability and programs that involve liberal arts training. Coupled with design or coding or other components, that's what I’d consider stackable credentials. Such a cohesive program would give you much more translatable, transferable, and applicable skills.

Q: Are you seeing students jump on board for that re-training? Is that something that your team is planning to re-think or perhaps prioritize more? There’s an idea that so many Americans will need to be retrained, so they don't have to work in, for instance, JCPenney anymore -- because JCPenney may not be there.

A: In the last three to four weeks, we saw a 266% increase in applications at Kenzie. In April, we enrolled our biggest cohort to date. There is a lot of demand for re-training and new methods. By looking at our social media data metrics, we know we’re barely scratching the surface of the market demands. Many Americans lost their jobs. For those who were at the forefront of the service and retail economy, there may be no viable future of work. The risk of them doing nothing is greater than taking the risk to retrain themselves for better jobs. We’re trying our best to serve as much of the growing demand as possible by including the best pathways for them in our program.

Our challenge right now is, “How do we scale up our program?” because our scale can grow by 1,000 students today. But if the demand grows by 10,000 or more right now, we want to make sure we can build a highly-scalable online program -- so that as we increase our numbers, everyone still receives the same level of support and training, at-scale. That way, we can produce the right outcomes down the road. That's been our most significant challenge. The good news is we have a lot of highly-qualified, intelligent people at Kenzie who are constantly working on innovating and changing the way we teach. We're constantly destroying our own model. I can guarantee you our model will look nothing like what it is today.

Q: Is there anything we're missing, any other information people should know as we get over this hump, anything you want to share with consumers of higher education, or with the parents who are charged with this distance learning?

A: If we're training talent for companies and for the country in the future, right now higher ed is very committed to it -- but students are the ones forking the bill for the training while employers and state and society benefit from jobs from the training. So, we would love to see a world where employers will also come in and pay part of the bill because if they're getting new talent, they should also invest in the workforce so that they can continue to get good talent.

States that are putting workforce dollars to use should not only invest in Title IV programs, but should extend support to non-Title IV, more job-focused programs. This will help level the playing field and give people more choices and options for their individual needs, rather than assigning them a list of schools to pick from which the government presents and supports.

A lot of people are talking about next year right now. Many incoming college students may not go back to campus this year, which presents a great opportunity for people to enroll in job-centric training programs that could potentially give them a pathway to change their perspective. After completing such a program, many might think, “I don't probably don't need to do four years anymore-- I still want to get my degree, but there are different paths. When I do go back to college, I’ll be much more successful as a student as I've already honed job-centric skills.”

Q: I’m certainly hopeful these innovations will change the course of higher education. Disruptions that are accessible -- and change both incentive structures and human behavior -- will ensure we're always learning and living up to our full capacity.