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5 Questions with Ramji Raghavan – Founder and CEO of Pragya Systems

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If you’re not keeping up with ETC’s 5 Questions series with some of the best and brightest leaders and innovators in education and edtech, you can catch up here: http://edtechchronicle.com/tag/five-questions/ 

This time, it’s our pleasure to chat with Ramji Raghavan, a bright light in education innovation and a founder and current CEO of Pragya Systems, a company that’s laser-focused on creating efficiency in higher education by helping schools and students use tools and resources better. Here are our questions and Ramji’s answers:

Q: Your company, Pragya, is focused on making higher education systems and institutions use their data more efficiently – improving outcomes and saving money. What’s the scale of this problem? In other words, if you had to say, how much more efficient can campuses and schools be in these areas? 

Let’s look at the problem in Colleges and Universities from a student’s perspective…a recent Gallop-Purdue study notes that only 52% of undergrads visited career services. Among those who visited, less than half said it was really helpful. If you take out engineering and business graduates, that number is even lower. It’s no wonder that 35% of dropouts are because of “unclear value of program” and 45% are because of lack of engagement. These are shocking numbers considering that 50% of freshmen don’t declare a major coming in, and many others change within the first year.  So, clearly students are looking for guidance. While over $1B spent on Planning and Advising nationwide, the poor advisor-student ratios that’s been well documented cannot address this problem adequately.

Many of these problems are created by the numerous silo-ed departments, groups and systems that are common in every institution. However, there is a ton of valuable data locked within the campus – think of all the alumni data that a single college has. What Pragya is doing is leveraging machine learning technology to unlock this valuable information…and doing so in a way that seamlessly helps students through their exploration, discovery, planning and collaboration process. When you couple that with aggregate labor market data, you get really interesting insights. Our mission is to not just to get students to stay in school, but actually learn things that are relevant to what employers need. Better placement, lower skill gap on one hand, and much more effective and efficient advising and counseling on the other hand. We believe we can make a significant impact on this front, but if we can move the needle 1% you can see the magnitude of the impact.

Q: One of the things your company offers is thee-way integration in the transition from school to career – a closer loop between school, student and potential employer. As part of that, Pragya, suggests that employers should have input into the college curriculum. Is that a correct assessment? Would you expect to run into push back from colleges about that idea? Why is that part of the loop – employer to educators – so important? 

The vision for us is not just to keep students in college, but bridge the gap between what employers want and colleges produce. Skills and competencies are a big part of it, but we’ve talked to several large employers and every one of them feels that co-curricular activities are as important a factor in determining the success of a campus recruit. We are not for a second claiming that employers will design the curriculum. But the engagement of employers with students and campuses is really poor today. Both sides want to change that.  For example, if I’m a student…I typically have no idea how a certain course or a sequence of courses prepare me for a career.  How is this course going to help me? Is there an experiential learning opportunity or a mentor who can help me connect the dots?  There are several ways to accomplish this, without sacrificing the college’s ability to define the curriculum and teaching foundational concepts.  Pragya’s Learning Streams is a powerful way to bridge that gap. We’ve had enthusiastic interest from both sides of the aisle – colleges and employers.

Q: Can you share some of your company’s successes? Places where your engagement has made a real difference for schools or students? 

We will be sharing real case studies of the work we’re doing with colleges in the near future. We’re working with universities across the spectrum – MIT, Stanford, Kenyon, National University etc.

Q: You say schools are under-utilizing their leaning management systems. Can you share more about why that’s the case and how your solutions can fix that problem? 

This addresses a different use case of the Pragya platform – learning content management. In reality, it is a different manifestation of the same underlying silo problem.  Although virtually 100% of all U.S. College campuses have at least one LMS, only 25% of the courses really use the LMSs like they were intended to. This is a number that we’ve heard anecdotally in our conversations with campus leaders, but Instructure and others have published similar stats as well. One of the reasons is that faculty workflow is quite cumbersome. Discovering, sharing, reusing or updating course content is all much harder than it needs to be. Canvas and other LMS’ were designed and optimized for course management and delivery and not for managing content.  In fact, it is hard for faculty and instructional designers to find their own content that may have been developed for a different course. Third party content authoring tools are often used to build content and formative assessments. Updating such content, forking versions of it for a different course etc. is difficult, if not impossible today. Pragya’s team has deep expertise in building the largest LMSs in the market today. We’ve leveraged that expertise to create a platform that works seamlessly with LMSs and other repositories, while plugging the deficiencies.

Q: Pragya is part of the Michelson Runway – an edtech accelerator – what’s that process been like? And what’s next for Pragya?

The Michelson Runway cohort companies are a little different from a traditional accelerator.  The companies are a little further along with experienced entrepreneurs – not your typical 2 founders and an idea type incubator. And not all based in the some place. But all complementary to solve the larger problems in higher-ed. From making the right introductions, to giving us avenues to raise our profile…it’s been a great experience. Going forward, we expect that 20MM foundation will continue as an investor as we progress. For Pragya, 2017 is about growing our college footprint and starting to make the connection with the employer.