Shock the System: Higher Ed Faces A Tech Reckoning, Expanding Opportunity Through Access and Preparation, NFTs Revisited, +More

I spend a lot of time thinking about the economic recovery as we emerge from the pandemic, and the uneven way it's playing out. On CNBC we typically look at it through the lens of the financial performance of public companies. Some, especially airlines, hotels and restaurants, have taken enormous hits over the past year or so. Others — so-called stay-at-home plays — have soared; think Zoom, Peloton, Roku. But companies are less important than people. So this week I wanted to shift the narrative, and talk about the uneven way the pandemic and recovery are playing out for workers. One of the best ways to unpack that, I think, is through education. That's the most important way entrants get prepared for the workforce, and existing workers boost their productivity.

To have these conversations, I worked with my CNBC team to engage with three leaders in particular: Rachel Carlson is co-founder and CEO of Guild Education; I first met her when she was a Fortt Knox 1:1 guest almost four years ago. Guild helps companies offer higher education as a benefit to employees, many of whom are frontline workers at companies like Walmart, Chipotle and Lowe'sAndy Bird is CEO of Pearson, a learning company with roots in the traditional textbook and testing markets that he's trying to transform for the digital era. And Dan Rosensweig is CEO of Chegg, a platform that provides digital learning tools to students; it has seen remarkable growth over the past year (to a market valuation above $12 billion), as the world has run toward its vision of a consumer-driven transformation of education.

This week I also reached back to a Fortt Knox conversation I had earlier this month with my friends Jayson Council and Lloyd Pierce. We talked about the opportunity gap in education for Black and brown students, and what's to be done about it. That's why this week's theme is Shock the System.

Online Learning is Key to Recovery: Guild Education CEO

Guild Education CEO Rachel Carlson talked about how technology can open up opportunity for populations that have been hit hardest in the pandemic economy. Getting them new skills will be essential to a lasting economic recovery for all:

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Consumers Are Demanding Education Transformation: Pearson CEO

At both the college and K-12 levels, schools and districts have begun to embrace technology tools more eagerly, driven by consumer demand. That's part of the reason why Pearson CEO Andy Bird is emphasizing the direct-to-consumer portion of the business:

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Education Industry Having its iPhone Moment? Chegg CEO

"Change is going to come because the students are going to force it, not because the schools want to do it," Chegg CEO Dan Rosensweig told me. It frankly reminds me of what happened to the wireless industry when Apple released the iPhone. It's too early to say whether the impact will be that dramatic or lasting. The conversation:

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Access and Preparation for Diverse Groups of Students: Setting Priorities for Better Outcomes

Advancement for underrepresented groups will require both preparation and access, and there's a tension between the two. I discussed that earlier this month with two friends: Jayson Council, a social impact leader who has worked in education and philanthropy, and Lloyd Pierce, a social impact leader who's been a changemaker in the NBA. We called this March Forth (and streamed it on 3/4), and Jayson and I plan to make it a Fortt Knox series. All of us grew up in public schools, but we had different experiences with testing, and access to knowledge about how to get ready for academic challenges. And we gave our perspectives on how to handle access to specialized schools in NYC. I love showcasing different perspectives, and being open to conflicting ideas:

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Are NFTs a Fad? On the Other Hand

On a completely different subject: Are NFTs the future? Or are they a Bitcoin and Ethereum-fueled bubble? I argued both sides in the latest edition of On the Other Hand, on CNBC's Squawk Box:

Speaking of online learning platforms: Many readers of this newsletter will be familiar by now with my latest project: The Black Experience in America: The Course. I designed it last year after the tragic killing of George Floyd, and I'm building out an online learning experience based on the content.

The students and alumni of my alma mater, DePauw University, gained access to the course material this month. I'm looking forward to more collaborations that lead us to a deeper understanding of this moment in history, the ideas that got us here and the work to move forward.

If you're interested in exploring the same material, a bundle of three lessons is available for purchase here for $12.