Strategic Debt in Online Learning

Why short-term decisions can lead to problems down the road that will be difficult to untangle

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My spouse sometimes teases me about the number of business and technology books I read - and I read a lot. My excuse is that: 1) I enjoy them, and 2) that is the world in which I work, and they are useful. It is true that many business books should probably have been a blog post, or at best an article. But one of the more useful ones I've read in recent years is Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things. The book gave me a concept that helped me understand why colleges and universities struggle to grow and mature their online strategies and problems.

From technical debt to management debt

One of the things I got out of Horowitz's book was his concept of management debt. Horowitz starts with the concept of technical debt - the idea that organizations make technology choices now to solve an immediate problem, but where these choices have adverse consequences for them down the road. He extends this concept to management and introduces the concept of management debt. This refers to a situation where a manager decides to solve a short-term problem, but that decision has repercussions down the line that results in lots of additional work having to be done. The example he uses is when an employee who is good, but not stellar, comes to a manager with a job offer and wants a retention counteroffer. Making the retention offer keeps the employee in place and the manager does not need to find a replacement. But in time it means growing dissatisfaction on the part of other employees who will recognize that the original worker was not stellar and that this was a stop-gap solution. They might leave, they might make additional salary demands or they may just be unhappy. Now the manager has more problems on their hands.

From management debt to strategic debt

I want to extend the concept further and apply it to strategy. We see several examples of what is best described as strategic debt, and I think it is a common problem in EdTech. This version of strategic debt borrows more from Horowitz’s use of the term and is different from how project managers use the phrase strategic debt*. Leaders sometimes make short term or tactical EdTech decisions to solve immediate problems or because opportunities arise. These decisions come back to haunt decision makers later and result in quite a lot of work having to be done to extract the institution and set it on a more rational, sustainable path. But the decisions are not technical; they are the consequence of a lack of strategy in decision making and what schools end up with is strategic debt.

I see it in all kinds of EdTech areas, for example in proctoring. Schools promote online proctoring for all assessments or double down on proctoring severity to prevent cheating rather than developing a way of meaningfully differentiating between high and low stakes or working with faculty to design different kinds of assessments.

Strategic debt in online learning

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