Exclusive Interview with Dr. Richard Hezel, President, CEO and founder of Hezel Associates

May 12, 2012



Dr. Richard Hezel, President, Hezel Associates


Dr.  Saba: Dr. Hezel, How did you become interested in research and planning for education and technology institutions?

Dr. Hezel: Early in my career I felt I could be instrumental in social change via media, so I studied mass communication and became a public television producer for a number of years.  Then I saw the possibility to multiply my personal impact through university teaching.  Getting a doctorate was, of course, essential, and at Indiana University I became absorbed in the study of social impacts of media.  In the late 1970s we were involved in studies of media and aggression, violence, and alcohol.  Most important for me, though, were our studies of children’s television and features that enhance attention and learning.  We were trying to discover how humor and other attentional techniques might increase the instructional effectiveness of children’s media.

The focus on educational effectiveness of media and my teaching in electronic media and telecommunications at Syracuse University led me to a deeper concern about how the burgeoning industry of telecommunications could be harnessed for the benefit of education.  At the time it appeared that very few education institutions were engaged in using telecommunications to bring learning opportunities to current students or a wider array of learners.  It was clear to me that a few individuals and their organizations were leading the charge into a new field of distance learning, but many were reluctant because they didn’t know if distance learning really “worked” or “was effective,” or was even appropriate for their institutions.  With my knowledge of telecommunications and my research background and experience, I believed I could contribute to the development and dissemination of a vision many of us shared.  That’s when I started Hezel Associates, in 1987, as an organization dedicated to the development and improvement of learning via technology.

My very first research study, with the Annenberg/CPB Project, looked at how each of the 50 states was organizing and coordinating its telecommunications development specifically for education purposes.  That study stimulated a lot of thinking among state government, higher education, and K-12 administrators about their own approaches to technology and planning and roll-out.  Almost annually from 1987 until 1999 Hezel Associates updated and expanded that research.

Dr.  Saba: How Hezel Associates has evolved over the years in terms of services that you have offered, and opportunities that have been presented to you?

Dr. Hezel: The early 1990s was a heyday of sorts for the growth of telecommunications in education.  Telecom companies were building out their capacity, and educational institutions wanted to get in on the planning.  Telecom regulation was still fairly intensive, and states were requiring telecom companies to provide public service.  We were doing policy and impact research for the regulators, the regulated, and the beneficiaries (without conflict of interest).

Simultaneously, late in the 1980s and into the 1990s, computing technology in schools was expanding, and Hezel Associates began mapping the impacts on learning.  It was only in the mid-1990s that the Internet gained a critical mass such that distance learning evolved—leaped really–to its online platform, and telecom, distance learning, and computing converged into a dynamically growing, more widely accepted mode of teaching and learning.

After 2000 as technology adoption became mainstreamed, we perceived that the focus in education was shifting toward deeper effectiveness, less centered on technology per se.  Now technology became an element of improving effectiveness, embedded in pedagogy and the teaching and learning process, no matter what the subject. At the K-12 level of our work we began studying teacher professional development, especially online.  Then with our literacy experts, we evaluated Reading First projects nationally and in states.  Now we are evaluating STEM projects.  But we still recognize our roots in technology development and continue to work with institutions on projects in online/virtual schooling.

In higher education we have paved a similar path.  From our early policy research we began to look at management and administrative systems for sound development of distance and online learning.  To that end, we first built a business planning tool to estimate the revenue, costs and likely profitability of online learning services.  Later, with the NUTN Network, we started up a small enterprise, Interactive Quality Assessment Tool (IQAT), which gave birth to a benchmarking tool, IQAT, to help online learning administrators compare the growth of their college’s service with those of similar colleges.

Integrating our research capacity, much of our current higher education research is market research aimed at helping colleges and universities find and target the markets for their current and potential online programs.  Continuing education divisions, too, which are heavily market driven and outreach-oriented, comprise our market research clientele.  Naturally, these interests lure us down some divergent trails:  We are working on the economic development role of universities and colleges as they offer new programs to a rapidly changing workforce.  In addition, we are providing research and guidance to those institutions about the global marketplace for their programs.

Finally, from our years of management consulting Hezel Associates has developed a capacity for institutional strategic planning.  Now we are also helping college presidents and provosts and their committees craft their multi-year plans to guide the college as well as document for their accrediting agencies.

Dr.  Saba: Over the past two decades, we have seen a revolution in technology; change from analog systems to digital systems have put incredible means in the hands of educators. Yet we see some of the problems, such as, increasing cost of education linger on. What are some of the barriers, and impediments?

Dr. Hezel: Indeed, the evolution has been far better and deeper than we might have predicted in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.  We initially envisioned the shift to digital technologies as a method of miniaturization and bandwidth savings, but with major capitalization outlays.  Of course, most of the capitalization costs have been borne by the telecom and technology companies.  The tech companies, especially the smart consumer products companies, have earned extraordinary returns on their investments.  Many of the telecom companies folded during the telecom glut and crash of the late 1990s, but those that survived have found strong earnings in convergence.

In our early days, in the 1980s, we had envisioned and hoped for a growing democratization of media, where individuals and small organizations hold greater control over the editing and transmission of information and learning.  That has occurred, even beyond our dreams, as broadcast and cable media and newspapers expand to consumer-driven multimedia or fade into marginalization.  The impact on education is noteworthy.  Twenty years ago schools and colleges were dependent on either a public broadcasting facility, their own over-the-air telecom system, or costly telephone company bandwidth to distribute learning.  The internet has leveled the costs and reduced the dependence on particular distributing organizations.  Competition has kept prices reasonable—far lower than were typical of the early days.  In fact, given the multiples of uses: telephony, administrative data, courses, system email, and many, many other types of content pushed through a school or college telecom gateway, the cost per learning unit and per service is far lower than we had expected in pre-internet days.

Meanwhile, the cost of education continues to rise despite the proliferation of low cost technology.  Frankly, it surprises me that schools and colleges continue to invest in physical plants and higher cost people as much as they do.  We have the technology at hand to deliver instruction at lower cost, but we are still wedded to the same parameters as of old: 1:25 teacher: student ratio; 9-3 classes; September-June school year.  Meanwhile, urban schools are literally crumbling and failing to get students to the finish line.   Colleges, like your own California State University system, Fred, are turning away students because they lack the state funding to educate more of them.  Now, I don’t believe that technology is a panacea by any means, but I do think that by reconceptualizing our assumptions about use of faculty, compensation, instructional space, schedules, and learner segments we might have greater effect through technology.  Most of the solutions will arise from a public and institutional determination for change, not through some intervention of technology.  But technology can be a part of the solution, for example, helping students advance through high school; targeting developmental education; and delivering low-cost, high outcome courses to college students, a la StraighterLine.

Dr. Saba: Given the realities you described what are some specific areas in which research and advanced planning can be helpful?

Dr. Hezel: Naturally, in my view, planning and research are essential tools to running education organizations.  That’s a fundamental of Hezel Associates.  Sound strategy is based on good research, and thoughtful research and evaluation always leads to recommendations that suggest institutional change.  For nearly 40 years I’ve been posing a wide variety of research questions—about learning, behavior, media, policy, and so on.  Not all of the questions are researchable or can be answered through research, and many wouldn’t attract research funding.  Still, it’s important to keep seeking the answers to life’s persistent questions.

For eons we have been standardizing education.  The Common Core attempts to unify standards in all states.  Higher education accrediting agencies are standardizing organizations:  Though they portend to allow individual differences in solutions, they have the effect of homogenizing institutions and their curricula.  If you have ever looked at college strategic plans, too many look alike, especially their mission and goal statements—something about teaching and research and service—even if they are not research-driven institutions.  Those institutions don’t even try to distinguish themselves.  I believe institutions need to distinguish themselves boldly and use their distinctiveness to attack the educational challenges of the times.

The research from Tony Carnevale and the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce shows a mismatch:  Although we have many unemployed in the USA, we also have jobs that go unfilled due to lack of workforce educated and trained in special disciplines.  We need to undertake some research that could result in collaborations among colleges and universities, online and face to face, to address the workforce needs.  The college completion agenda needs research about online methods to can get more American adults to complete college requirements and take a degree.

Colleges should segment their populations.  If they choose to attract multiple segments, then they’d better be prepared to support all of them equitably or at least in proportion to the students’ needs.  We need research on the strategies that appear to suit best those different segments of students.  Also, we need to be researching more effective ways to make education cost-effective, whether through technology or not.

Oddly, 25 years after starting my company, we are still finding resistance to online learning from many corners of the education enterprise, but particularly from faculty.  It’s rare to find more than 10 percent of college faculty offering courses online, and that minority takes arrows of resentment from other faculty.  Quality of online learning is still called into question, merely because the mode of interaction is different from that of classroom instruction.  We need some good research comparing rigorously the many facets of outcome differences between online and face to face learning.

Dr. Saba:  What is your prognosis for the future? I am sure technologies will evolve and become ever more powerful in the future. However, will they be viewed as useful and effective by policy and decision makers?

Dr. Hezel: Technologies will indeed evolve, grow, and converge.  The most useful and effective technologies will be those that efficiently address the most pressing learning needs, but often a technology with lasting impact emerges not from a needs analysis but from playfulness.  For example, playfulness—or entertainment—was the function first envisioned in some of Apple’s most enduring products, like the iPod which converged with a cell phone into the iPhone.  Any technology that can merge entertainment with personal function with business function stands a far greater chance of being adopted in the learning place.

Perhaps the greatest challenge on the horizon lies in the aggregation of technology patents by a few super technology companies.  On the positive side they will have the symbiotic power to lever their technology intellectual property into new devices for learning; the pessimistic view is that they could squelch development of instructional products by keeping those patents off the market for the foreseeable future.

A second major challenge will be the vetting of technologies appropriate to the learning market.  Technology vendors nearly always think bullishly of their new gadget or software.  In that spirit they rush the product to market to allow the marketplace testing of value.  Generally, at the higher education level, there are smart IT people at universities and colleges who kick tires, look under the hood, analyze, and test drive the products.  By the time a technology is adopted in higher ed, it has been through substantial review.  In K-12 there are fewer individuals with those evaluative skills or time, so technology adoption might be executed based on a technology vendor’s promise of effectiveness.

The third challenge is that we need to invest in technologies, large and small, that can alleviate two major problems perceived across our entire education system: cost of education (and burden on taxpayers, parents and students) and effectiveness of education in learning outcomes and transitions to next level of education or to gainful jobs.  We don’t seek to replace the live teacher, but we still must better understand how to segment students by inclination and learning needs into technology-enabled lessons and activities.

Altogether, with wise investment learning technology and communications will continue to develop in marvelous ways.  We need to harness the best of them to advance the intelligence and interests of our next generation.

Dr. Saba: Thank you for your insightful comments and unique historical perspective. 

Dr. Richard T. Hezel is president, CEO and founder of Hezel Associates, one of the first research and consulting companies with a specialty in distance and e-learning.  Since 1987 Hezel has directed market analyses, evaluations, needs assessments, and strategic services for many national and international clients in PK-12 and higher education, as well as corporate and healthcare sectors.  His company’s clients include the US Department of Education, the World Bank, PBS, the World Health Organization, the Arizona Board of Regents, Regis University, University of Connecticut, Cornell, Penn, Laureate, and many public, private, non-profit, and for profit universities, learning companies, and state education departments.

Hezel gained recognition as a national expert in higher education policy, management, and development, in part through the publication of a series of reports on state development of distance learning and educational telecommunications.  In 2005, Hezel published the Global E-Learning Opportunity for U.S. Higher Education: a 42-country market analysis.  His B.A. from Fordham was rich with history, classics, and philosophy.  A native of Buffalo NY, he spends most of his time in his home city of Syracuse NY and in New York’s Adirondacks, when he is not traveling, He can be reached at richard@hezel.com.