In-depth with big-hearted Mark Milliron of Civitas Learning.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Editor’s note: For one of the fastest-growing edtech companies in higher education, we’ve dug deep and present here one of our most in-depth interviews. Enjoy!
A first-generation college student, Mark David Milliron came from a family of nine kids, with an African American brother, Native American brother, Korean sister—in total, 25 foster children, and was the first one to go on a higher education journey. It could have gone differently, but it hasn’t. Decades later, he’s doing what he knows how to do. And he’s doing it well: he’s bringing together the best of emerging technology, data science, and design thinking to help students learn well and finish strong. Today, Mark David Milliron, Ph.D., (pictured) as Co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer of Civitas Learning, helms one of higher education’s fastest-growing startup companies. An award-winning leader, author, speaker, and consultant, Mark has worked with universities, community colleges, K-12 schools, foundations, corporations, associations, and government agencies across the country and around the world. In previous roles, Mark served as the Deputy Director for Postsecondary Improvement with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; founding Chancellor of WGU Texas; Endowed Fellow and Director of the National Institute of Staff and Organizational Development at The University of Texas at Austin; Vice President for Education and Medical Practice with SAS; and President and CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College.
I’m a firm believer that we are entering what could be the Golden Age of Learning. And I don’t say that full of hyperbole, I say that with eyes wide open.
Mark is a member of numerous boards and advisory groups, including the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), the Global Online Academy, and the Texas Student Success Council. Past board service includes the American Council on Education (ACE), the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and Western Governors University. Among numerous honors and awards, in 2014, EdTech Digest named Mark an EdTech Leadership Award honoree for his “Visionary Leadership in Education”.
Here, Mark goes in depth on recent events, technology in education, assessment and student data, catalytic conversations, “social-purpose corporations”—and how his company came to be one of the fastest-growing startups in edtech.
Our conversation with Mark came just after hurricane Harvey and before Irma. Before our interview formally begins, we catch Mark in the middle of doing what he does best – looking out for the best interests of students.
Mark: … these students who are taking steps to change their lives – they just got their lives changed in a whole different way. We are setting up an emergency aid program with the support of a broad constituency. It’s going to be totally focused on helping these students. HELP stands for Higher Education Learning Pathways. The idea is that you’ve got some emergency aid to overcome the life logistic issues right now and get themselves back on the path of life and learning. We’re going to be pulling together big foundations, rescue foundation, private university, public university, community colleges to do some pretty important work to help these folks who are wrestling with this.
Doesn’t surprise me that you and Civitas are doing something about it because you’ve had a long career in helping students. That’s excellent.
Mark: I have one of those riser desks that stands up. It’s always better for me to put it back down. I’m back to sitting. I’m not standing anymore.
Nice. I was looking at that in an in-flight magazine. Looks like a pretty cool tool.
Mark: It’s actually pretty useful. The joke in our office is that ‘sitting is the new smoking’—right? They’re trying to, health-wise, they want to get you to stand as much as possible throughout the day. That, in mind with the fact that our two data scientists came from healthcare and tout micro activities throughout the day, we’ve got a very active office.
Wow, you’re going to get me to stand up—I sit way too much!
Mark: All is going well in your world?
Yes, going well. We’ve got the annual EdTech Awards underway with a lot of people and companies looking to be recognized among the best and brightest in edtech, we’ll announce results in March 2018. We have a lot of interesting stories coming out as well as an end-of-year State of EdTech report with leaders weighing in about the future. And it’s exciting to be interviewing you and learning what you’re up to.
Mark: Okay. Sounds good to me! I like you harvesting content, Victor. Nice work.
Thank you. You know we’ve known each other since back in the day, a couple decades ago, you wrote a column that I edited.
Mark: Oh yeah, Lev Gonick and I had that column series. We loved it.
A lifetime ago, but some of the same issues. You have an interesting perspective, knowing there have been a lot of changes since then—and I do have a special affinity for you Mark, I don’t know if you knew that!
Mark: Oh, that’s good. It goes both ways! All I know is that the things we were writing and speaking about back then actually happened, so we have a good track record.
Mark: I still remember trying to convince educators that the internet was a thing.
Yes, it’s been a while. And Lev Gonick, he just recently joined—
Mark: He’s now the CIO at Arizona State University.
Mark: Yeah, but truthfully, for the last ten years, and particularly the last five, Lev has been leading the charge with the OneCommunity initiative out of Cleveland that he’s been driving—taking a regional perspective to connecting to digital footprint and non-profit infrastructures, library and all the rest, and it’s been a really impressive project. And I think it’s not surprising you found him. Obviously, we know he’s done so much—and now the work he did with EDUCAUSE and now that, so I’m going to be waiting with bated breath to see what trouble he causes at ASU, which I happen to be an alumni of, so I’m super excited.
The connections! We’ll feature him soon. A panel of people perhaps. What’s on your mind with Civitas from a high-level perspective?
1) is that there is enormous amounts of signal or of real information from our students that can be analyzed from the digital footprints of our students. If you look at the digital footprints of our students and the SIS, card swipe and the emerging stream of data, you pull those digital footprints together and they tell stories about their journeys—so what we’ve really worked at developing is what we would call a student success intelligence platform, and that platform allows you to kind of turn the lights on and understand what’s working and what’s not. The biggest thing in our work has been trying to help institutions make the most of their data to help the students make the most of their learning.
And the two biggest areas, now, to go to two and three:
2) is, how do you help a student basically personalize their pathways? Build the right kind of pathways, keep them on the pathway and help them finish strong. And
3) is a big body of work is around precision engagement, using the data that comes from these students to be able to understand the right time to reach out to a student, to understand the right kind of message that will support them and encourage them, what kind of program works the best.
So we’re doing work in all three areas.
One is to better perfect and stand up the signal processing for institutions.
Two, to help develop the pathways, and develop tools and resources and apps that keep students on the pathway, and we’ve got great outcomes around that, Victor.
We know for a fact that these tools will help students finish strong. Then, a whole series of outreach campaigns, nudging and economics kind of work that help find the right students at the right time with the right message to help them get across the finish line, combine with—we now have a tool called Impact, which actually analyzes the whole family initiatives they’re doing, whether it’s orientation programs or classrooms or course redesigns, we can actually—because we have the intelligence platform, we can show them what’s working and what’s not.
We know for a fact that these tools will help students finish strong.
If you go back to our early articles talking about “The Road Ahead”—we said, “As these digital streams come in, institutions will be able to use that data and understand what’s working and what’s not in a way they hadn’t before.”
And that’s kind of what’s coming to the floor now. It’s been a rowdy four years at Civitas Learning as our partners have come to the floor to do this work, and we are learning a ton. Don’t get me going because I could share with you 15 stories of really compelling ways our partners are doing work in this area.
I hear your enthusiasm—love the excitement. How do you explain data science in relation to education?
Mark: What we’re trying to do is help people understand this difference between data for the last 30 years that higher education has been used for reporting, is in use for accountability analytics. Getting data to accreditors, legislators, administrators, and it’s always been backward looking and totally focused on the reports. The real shift here Victor, is moving to a time where we’re using data for real time understanding of what’s happening in a moment with students, and trying to diagnose challenges, intervene, and in particular to use that data to chart better courses for our students so they don’t need support.
So the real difference is moving from accountability analytics to action analytics. The work of data science is to be able to use data to, well, I’ll make it as simple as possible: to help an institution build the right infrastructure, to get the right data to the right people at the right time, so they can understand—so they can help those students be more successful. And that’s the shift. It’s just a fundamental shift. Institutions have been using this, to use a medical metaphor, they’ve been using the data for autopsy, and we’re actually trying to shift them toward using the data for successful operations, diagnostics and hopefully wellness programs, right? The idea is just using the data very differently.
By the way, that means different kinds of data strategies. Most of the reporting work, you end up with analysis based on demographics because those are the neat little categories we’re used to putting students in, so it’s full-time/part-time, it’s male/female, it’s different race and ethnicities, and what we’re finding is that 95 percent of our models, our predictive models, are actually driven by derivative variables, which are calculated variables that are much more driven by what students do. It’s just a different way of looking at the data, and it stops you from jumping to conclusions.
Refreshing! All the focus on demographics can be a bit obsessive or even illogical—and your approach doesn’t even really need that.
Mark: The whole demography-is-destiny thing drives us bananas. What we’re seeing is that—here’s the bottom line: people have used demographic categories as signal. They’ve said, “somebody who is going part time might be a signal that they’re working a lot, or they don’t have as much money.” So they’ve actually interpreted the signal out of the demographic categories—which is pretty dangerous. If you want to talk politically incorrect, that might be politically incorrect, because there are a whole lot of upper- and middle-class African Americans in statics who don’t want to be assumed that because they’re a static, they’re a risk. I think we’ve got to be very careful about the demographic categories in that regard, and I think what we’re trying to do with our data analytics is help them understand, “Listen, if you’ve culled together a whole lot of data and then process and analyze it, what you find is that there’s a better way to do the signal processing. You actually can get more precise signal about who might actually be at risk.”
It’s just a different way of looking at the data, and it stops you from jumping to conclusions.
I’ll give you a concrete example. One of our community insights reports kind of blew everybody away, where we said, “Listen, you are obsessed with academic triggers. You think the main ways a student is not going to persist is they’re below 2.0, they failed a course last semester, they failed a gatekeeper course.” And what we showed them was, 78 percent of the non-persisters across four million students in higher ed that we were studying, 78 percent of the non-persisters had above a 2.0. 45 percent at between a 3.0 and a 4.0. These weren’t academically challenged students. Often, the reason they were leaving were: life and logistics, or often: mindset problems. They literally felt like they didn’t belong, or they didn’t over—the grit challenges and overcoming issues.
So we ran a “nudge” campaign, and we worked with one of our institutions and identified high-GPA students who, in a predictive model, said were on the pathway toward some problems. And we did a basic nudge campaign that said, “Hey, congratulations on being so successful here. We’re really proud of you and we know college is hard. Here are the kind of things many of our students face, financial challenges, work-life balance, dealing with kids. If any of these are a reality for you, please reach out to us because we’re right here, ready to help.” And they got an enormous response. And they ended up seeing almost a 9.3 percentage point bonk out of that initiative.
So that’s the kind of thing where they stopped relying on the demographics and start using the data analysis to more precisely find the students who needed it, and try a different strategy, then measure it.
Does that make sense?
Totally. Really, data can be manipulated or “selectively presented” so you have to ask, what are the intentions of the people behind the scenes? And you are asking the interesting questions, you are not just pushing propaganda, you’re using science in a real, lively, practical way, along correct lines of logic, and have assembled truly empirical minds with good goals, reaching for real results.
Mark: Yeah, [it’s] not [just] the best argument wins. A great example is, we recently did a bunch of promotion of the work of University of South Florida. We just love what they’ve done. They’ve really leaned into this.
They’ve actually created this Student Care Team that meets every two weeks and looks at the data and identifies which student groups needs an outreach, and they started testing different kinds of outreach, and they started doing this over the course of the last 3-5 years, and by changing the orientation from traditional academic triggers and demographics, switching it to this kind of orientation, they have literally in the last five years, have gone from a mid to high 50 percent graduation rate to over a 70 percent graduation rate.
They’ve actually eclipsed a 90 percent first-year retention rate, which they never had come close to before. It’s been game-changing for them—because what they have found is, this ability to find the right student at the right time and actually test the outreach has changed their orientation, and it kind of got them off the reporting drug, if you will, or the demographic drug. It actually made them think about, “Let’s actually look at the data as it is and figure out which students need our help, and what kind of outreach will actually work.”
The good news for them is that they have really good outcome data they can share with people. Not to mention, Victor, they closed all the equity gaps—so they don’t have any distinction between the different demographic categories that everybody’s worried about in the first place.
Mark: Again, it’s just as powerful as you can imagine. And the thing I love about it is, they’re making significant gains in the student success metrics at the same time that they’re closing equity gaps. At the same time, they’re really thinking about how they can optimize that learning experience not just for—you know I hate the term “at risk”, it’s the idea of, how do you optimize learning for all students, right? How do you help that student make the most of their time there? Because that’s when you get expansive and you can do some exciting work.
That connects to the idea of values, mission, and what drives your engineers, your scientists. In the first place, what prompted you to sign with—
Mark: Before you jump on that one, I want to make sure: we participated in the creation of the student privacy piece that was put together by the New America Foundation. We feel really strongly about the ethics of this.
Actually, my co-founders Charles Thornburgh and Laura Malcolm and I, we feel strongly about this notion that there are probably some people who shouldn’t be using analytics because they’ll use it for the wrong reasons, so we often push this notion of an ethic, and the ethic is “Do no harm.” This should be used to actually improve the outcomes for the institution and for the students in particular.
And also, we have a firm belief that we should be making bets on getting the data to the front lines. Let’s get the data in the hands of the teachers, in the hands of the advisors, in the hands of the students to help take more agency in their move forward.
But we could not feel more strongly about that notion of “do no harm”.
I get terrified by people who say—and they use math the wrong way. They actually say, once they get a trigger that a student might be having a challenge at a STEM program, they want to cancel them out of STEM and get them into a different major. I think that can’t be the go-to move. We got to think of better ways to help students. Does that make sense?
Absolutely. That’s a value. Your work and leadership branches out to many areas, very commendable and worth promoting—so what’s the story of how and why you signed on with Civitas, with Charles, in the first place?
Mark: I was coming out of the work with the [Bill and Melinda] Gates Foundation, and Gates really had done so much work to champion the challenge that not enough students were finishing what they started in higher education and, in fact, the outcomes were desperately disparate based on income. If we want education to make the difference it can make in our country, we have to help more and more diverse students be more successful than ever before. So Gates really invested in not only making sure people understood that challenge, which resulted in a lot of energy around the completion agenda, but it also invested in innovations to help solve the problem, so we literally gave away tens of millions of dollars to innovators.
If we want education to make the difference it can make in our country, we have to help more and more diverse students be more successful than ever before.
But one of the most frustrating issues in that process was, you never knew what worked, really. There really was no data that understood what worked in what ways for whom, and I—and you know this. For decades, I’ve been championing the idea to be able to use data, and especially getting data to students to help them chart their own course, and I just got kind of frustrated because the ERP vendor said they were going to do it eventually, said they were going to do it, other people had done little side projects. And Charles basically challenged me and said, “Okay, Mark. Stop writing and speaking about this. Someone’s going to actually have to build this—because if we want to get this to help make the difference it’s going to make in education, we’re going to have to pull it together.”
Laura, Charles and myself came together around this idea of a social purpose corporation, totally focused on the Million More mission: help a million more students each year learn well and finish strong—and basically use the best data science and design thinking to help change the way people launched and understood their innovations. And that became the core of our work.
We got great champions behind us. Adam Dell jumped in with Austin Ventures and gave us our first round of dollars. We pulled in a group of institutions for our basic program that ran for about two years. Then we finally opened up to work with pioneer colleges in late 2013, early 2014, and basically for the past four years, we’ve been in that stage of this pioneer work. And it’s gone fast and we’ve learned a lot.
Lessons learned at Gates? You had a couple years of tens of millions in giving.
Mark: No, I think the work of the Gates Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, and a host of others is incredibly important, because they are catalysts to innovation. What we want to be is a partner on that so our data can actually show which of those innovations are working and for whom. The answer can’t be, “We have to waste two years and write a meta-analysis on this stuff.” We want to get as much real-time data in people’s hands as possible—so they can tune and test and try these innovations, and bring them to scale faster.
Goes back to the medical metaphor, the autopsy analogy—
Mark: Yes. Basically, it’s what I wish we had when I was at Gates.
Your company’s community now includes more than 285 institutions reaching 6.5 million students. So, you are at the helm of one of the fastest-growing edtech startups of all time—any words of wisdom for others in edtech? Or has it been head-to-grindstone, no chance to look up and reflect?
Mark: We are so focused on our partner community. We named our organization Civitas Learning because it literally means a community of learning together. So, in some ways, the fact that we’re the fastest growing edtech company—I don’t want to focus on the company. I want to focus on the community. I think we’ve got a community of institutions, universities, community colleges, private, public, who are rowdy, totally difference-making focused folks that are trying to do this larger work. In some ways, I want to speak to social purpose innovators—people who want to build things that actually make a difference. It’s actually one of the reasons why we don’t have—I think we are blessed with the ability to quick track amazing talent from the data science world, the develop world and other places is because people want to be a part of a social purpose mission. I think that’s different. If somebody’s trying to make a million dollars or do X, Y, or Z that’s a totally different thing. We’re trying to create something substantive that’s going to change the lives of millions of students, and we’re more explicit about it.
If somebody’s trying to make a million dollars or do X, Y, or Z that’s a totally different thing. We’re trying to create something substantive that’s going to change the lives of millions of students.
To me, the two or three big lessons would be: Be totally focused on a mission that matters, get really good people together to help go after that mission, then work with the kind of partners that want to learn, that are willing to turn on the lights and figure out what works and what doesn’t—and it’s amazing the kind of good things that can happen.
In the realm of helping others, how do you stay focused amidst waves of political distraction? In your work, how do you not get into it and remain focused? Or is this even an issue?
Mark: Well, one of the most important things you can do is talk to students on a regular basis. When you start talking to thriving students, you get real stories of the challenges they’re trying to overcome, and you get a lot of passion around trying to fix that, and you realize this isn’t a political issue—it’s a personal issue for these students. That helps you stay focused. And here is a brutally practical one, which is, if you’re going to work in this world, you’re going to be, I always call it, you’re going to be an “educan” or “educat”, you’re not going to be a Republican or a Democrat.
You’re going to be totally focused on trying to improve the pathway to possibility through education. And there are great people in all of those political sectors who can help in the process, so I’m all about welcoming people to the cause. IF they’re going to help improve the pathway for students, I want to be there. Third is, you just got to be careful about the shiny objects of politics.
By the way, politics are not the only shiny object. The other shiny objects in our world are—you can be drawn off path by politics, you can be drawn off path, by the way, by technology. There are people who—you remember us talking about the Techno Cro-Magnon Theory, where it’s just this guttural feeling of “technology is good. And it’ll solve all of education’s problems.” You can’t be wowed by the technology. It’s too—what it is being used for? That becomes a really big thing.
You can also—you can get a lot of religion for a specific technique. You might fall in love with online learning or collaborative learning or whatever else it is. To me, it’s what works. I’ve always been driven by this notion of, does it improve or extend learning and how do you know? And use that as your decision razor. And for me, part of this work is, are you going to help these students improve or expand their learning and how do we know? And that’s how we stay focused on it.
So I don’t think politics are the only shiny object. I think you can get drawn into politics, you can get drawn into technology, you can get drawn into business. You can say, “I want to build the biggest business ever.” That can really distract you from the focus and you’ve just got to keep your eye on the prize.
Well put. Okay, so what’s your take on the state of education today?
Mark: I’m a firm believer that we are entering what could be the Golden Age of Learning. And I don’t say that full of hyperbole, I say that with eyes wide open. And why I say that is because we have more tools at our disposal than ever before, and we have more data at our disposal than ever before to understand what works and for whom and in what way. I think we are at the cusp of being able to do some radically personalized, powerful learning with every different kinds of programs in very different sectors. I think across K-12, community colleges, private/public universities, and even in workforce education, we’re at a very interesting moment. But I think it’s going to take some hard work. We’re going to have to put our shoulder to the wheel on this.
We are at the cusp of being able to do some radically personalized, powerful learning with every different kinds of programs in very different sectors.
Now, I say we’re at that precipice, but it can go south fast if we politicize education or if we just make it more problematic for people to get on these learning journeys. You know me. From the beginning, it’s about trying to make sure that striving students, especially first generation, low-income students can get on the stats and stay on the stats and be successful.
What is the state of edtech—and what do you believe is technology’s role in education?
Mark: What’s good is that edtech is being more purpose driven than ever before. I think people are—I think the “Techno Cro-Magnon Theory” is being bursted, where people realize now, it’s not just that technology will improve education, it’s how you use it. I think now people are more sophisticated, savvy, and demanding on edtech, which is probably a great thing. And I think now we’re getting to the place where we can ask harder questions faster, and we’re not just, “Oh, look at that cool new shiny object!” I think we’re right away saying, “Does it improve learning and how do we know? Does it improve this outcome for students and how do we know?” So I think that is a great thing.
I will say, one of the things I’m most excited about is the Millennials, and whatever you want to call the next generation, the generation Z or the iGen, very mission driven, very socially conscious, seem very focused on trying to do things that will improve a lot for others, and one of those things include education. So I think we’re getting a lot of energy from that generation coming into our world, and they are so native to technology that their ease and facility with thinking about how technology can improve education is going to be compelling.
Now we’re getting to the place where we can ask harder questions faster, and we’re not just, “Oh, look at that cool new shiny object!” I think we’re right away saying, “Does it improve learning and how do we know?”
Well Mark, you have one of the most active careers of anyone I know—at least on paper! So—
Mark: When you say ‘active career’—you mean I can’t keep a job? Is that what you’re saying?!
[Laughter] You’ve contributed to so many different efforts and to everyone you’re very generous with your time. What compels you to the catalytic conversations that you have, what really compels you—and what is your vision of the future?
Mark: The thing that compels me the most is that I’ve been blessed in my life by the right people showing up at the right time to help me get on my own path. I was a first-generation student, as you know, coming from a family of nine kids with an African American brother, Native American brother, Korean sister and 25 foster kids, and I was the first one to go on a higher education journey, and if it wasn’t for that, I was absolutely not “completion-by-design” in higher ed. I was completion-by-serendipity. The right people showed up to help me get on the right path, including folks like Dr. Alfredo Alfantos, who’s the vice chancellor of America Open Community Colleges. I just happened to make friends with his son, and suddenly he became a second father to help me get through higher ed. What I became committed to is making sure that hard-working, striving students who wanted to use education to change their lives, to make it more likely that they could be successful. And there’s a lot of work to be done in that area—so I’ve been at it ever since.
Sounds like you must have a unique view of time in order to get so much done!
Mark: I think so. As my wife would say, I’m radically unrealistic—especially because I’m idealistic. I just feel like the energy is going to show up. There are people there who want to work on this work, and I’m just amazed at how many people of goodwill will jump in to try and solve some of these problems. A good example of what we’re doing right now with the Harvey HELP program is, suddenly all kinds of people are showing up to help solve the problem and that’s energizing.
Very good. Anything else? Works in progress, podcasts, books, what’s on the horizon? Any back-burner, percolating projects?
Mark: Yeah, a couple of them. One is, I run a podcast called Catalytic Conversations, and we have some great episodes up there with folks like Vince Tinto and Gerardo de los Santos. We’re also doing an e-book on nudging. We’ve sent about two million nudges in the last two years and analyzed what kind of nudges work for which students in which way, and that’s going to be a pretty compelling resource for a lot of our colleges. Thirdly, we produce these things called Community Insights Reports, and the Community Insights Reports are large-scale studies across the Civitas community about what people are learning.
I haven’t seen anything done on that sort of scale since Project Tomorrow; and you have more than two million student records at 55 colleges and universities in your community. Amazing, huge feedback loop! That’s a lot of insights, and to bring order to it…
Mark: Yeah, I mean, we’ve got seven million active students in our data stream, and 20 million enrollment records. The good news is I think we’ve got—the goal is to scaffold students with the stories of students past. I always jokingly say that second, third, fourth-generation students are insider trading, they’re operating on insider information about how to manage higher ed, and first-generation students don’t get to do that. So the idea here is to use the stories of these successful students to scaffold the first-generation strivers on their journeys, and now we’ve got a lot of resources at our disposal to do that. Any student starting in higher ed, if they are in community college, and they’re going to plan their next semester, we should be able to say, “A student like you at this stage, there’s a next set of courses you probably should take.” The idea of being able to use tools like the green app and others that can help them make those choices, those are just things that should exist and we’re going to try to help make exist.
Excellent and thank you Mark, it’s very inspiring to see such a purpose-driven individual forming a true group and getting to work—and getting real results. Keep it up and let’s continue our conversation down the road! For now, unless there’s anything else you want to add or emphasize, I don’t have any further questions.
Mark: No, I think we’re good. And Amanda’s dragging me out of the office for another meeting so I have to get going pretty quick.
Sounds about right!
Mark: It’s so good to reconnect. I’m glad you’re doing well and let’s find ways to consistently cause some good trouble, whether it’s a call series or ongoing conversations, let’s stay in good touch.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: email@example.com
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