The State of Innovation in Education: An Interview with Howard Tullman, CEO of 1871

People working in a large office space with tables and chairs and couches
Howard Tullman

Howard Tullman

Howard Tullman is CEO of 1871, a startup incubator that has done much to put Chicago on the map as a hub of innovation, design thinking, and entrepreneurialism. Now home to hundreds of startups, 1871 is working to ensure that each team or person with a vision that comes through its doors ultimately has the resources needed to go it alone and become a sustainable and viable business.

The ed-tech business in Chicago, in large thanks to Tullman, is booming. With its strong educational ties, 1871 was just named a “Top University-Affiliated Business Incubator in the U.S.” Tullman, with his extensive experience in education, understands the growing challenges schools and universities today face around implementing tech, keeping pace with new developments and, in many cases, doing more with less. A tech-savvy and entrepreneurial generation of thinkers will be critical to solving much of America’s ongoing education challenges. With that in mind, we caught up with Tullman to better understand the link between education and entrepreneurialism: what’s broken, what’s working well, and what will education look like in 20 years time?

Describe the current relationship between education and innovation—how can it be enhanced and improved?

It’s a very interesting situation. The traditional top-down or bottom-up innovation models are being replaced with lateral change. That is, that parents, students, and teachers are finding alternative methods to innovate in the classroom. For example, we’re seeing that the people responsible for delivering educational outcomes are bringing the tech with them into the classroom.

So, how can we improve? Well, the paperwork is getting in the way of teaching the students. In order to see some improvement, we need to eliminate the stuff that’s sucking hours out of educators’ days that really doesn’t benefit the students and replace them with technology that permits the teacher to do more.

Why is adopting tech for technology’s sake a bad idea for higher education institutions? What are some institutions that have adopted tech the right way?

I say this all the time:there probably isn’t a school district left in the U.S. that doesn’t have a 3D printer, though probably 99.5% of those places aren’t qualified to operate it. They bought the technology, but there’s no instruction, so the tech isn’t benefitting anybody.

Men talking in a meeting room surrounded by laptops, sticky notes on glass

Collaboration is highly encouraged at the 1871 offices in Chicago.

Now on the other hand, institutions that successfully adopted tech apply some of these systems and approaches. For example, when teachers use online evidence-based learning with a class that is performing under par, they get about a two-year jump in their assessed capabilities. If a school is at par or ahead of par, the jump is less, but the enriched environment and quality of the learning is enhanced.

What strategies do institutions need to adopt to increase the role of technology/innovation in their work?

I think we have to figure out how to get a device in the hands of every kid—both during and after school. Currently, we don’t have a good answer to that. Most of the successful school districts have said that it’s absolutely essential that the device belongs to the kid or family, even if it’s totally subsidized, so they have an incentive to take care of it.

What challenges do educators who are new to technology face when teaching a population of digital natives?

Well, I think we have to outlive one whole generation of current teachers. When the Teachers Union used to ask the Chicago mayor for a technology representative, he’d answer, “No, I want the teachers to learn the technology, not rely on somebody else.” I think that’s where we’re headed.

What are the consequences for institutions that don’t keep pace with technological advances?

I think those institutions are going to fall behind, or just be completely left in the dust. Going forward, you have to have a strategy. The two words that we use are “Transparency” and “Efficacy.” The thought is that more parents, students, and regulators will know what you’re doing and how well you’re doing; if you’re not doing it well, they’ll find a better solution. Either the performance is there, or it’s not.

What across the board advice would you give to higher education institutions looking to expand their tech and innovation capacities?

Honestly, they need to not focus on how many hours you spend with your butt in a seat, but on what skills you’ve mastered. We are seeing these flex programs, where basically, they’re saying, “We don’t care if it takes two years or four years. If you demonstrate a mastery of these subjects, you’re going to get your diploma.”

We’re headed towards mastery-based learning and going forward I think we’re going to see certification break away and be separately administered. So, maybe there will a “Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” rather than a degree in marketing from, say, Indiana University, whatever that may mean.

How can institutions be assured that their investment in innovative tools is worthwhile?

The technology is neutral; you could overdo it. It has to be in service of the learning.

What qualities position a student for success in an innovation economy? How do tech advancements support their development?

I think they have to be critical thinkers and understand that you need to approach almost everything with a combination of innovation and iteration. Innovation, meaning, look at things in a new way and perspective. And iteration being the tech or the system you use to get closer to the best possible solution. You just keep doing that loop: try something, evaluate it, measure it, adjust it, and do it again. I think if you judge students by their critical thinking skills, we’re going to turn them into more employable and successful people.

How can we teach young people to be successful entrepreneurs in an innovation economy?

You can’t teach someone to be an entrepreneur. You can teach somebody to be a better entrepreneur if they’re entrepreneurial. But while I do think everyone won’t have a single job description, everybody will have to be a lifetime learner. It’s not going to be one job for 30 or 40 years.

When we try to roll that into a simple analysis, I would say that there are really three propositions. You actually have to love yourself—be a happy person, in some respect—love what you’re doing or do something else, and you have to love the way that you’re doing it.

What will higher education classrooms look like in 20 years, and what role will innovation play?

I think everything will be on wheels and designed to be conducive to constantly forming teams and collaborative groups. Rarely will there be a sage on stage. All of the stuff will be prepared outside of class and problems and solutions will be interactively worked on. You’re going to see a lot of instances where technology is going to inform and enable new kinds of collaboration. It might not even be on a single university campus—people are going to find resources and tools wherever they are.

What single tech innovation do you anticipate having the greatest institutional impact on education in the next decade?

Video. All of our lives, we learned visually. And yet, 90% of all the knowledge on the Internet is text-based. So the biggest single change is going to be: How are we going to use video? How are we going to make it interactive? How are we going to distribute it? All of the learning is going to be bite-sized, taught to students by peer-to-peer interaction rather than by a 50-year-old grey haired lady with 10 years of experience speaking French.

Despite the shrinking of the digital divide, there are people who are, due to a lack of resources, still living in what could be called a digital desert. What are some of the most effective innovations you’ve seen that provide educational tech access to these populations?

I think the most powerful thing is this idea of having instructional videos on the cloud where everyone can access it—parents, teachers, and students alike. The family will sit and watch an eight minute video that will prepare them for the next day’s studies. This way the student can learn the night before and spend class building on what they’ve learned. The videos can be accessed anywhere, after school, at the library, on your phone or at home through a variety of different tools.

* interview was edited for brevity and clarity


On February 10th, Howard Tullman will give the morning keynote address, When Forces Collide—Emerging Tech’s Impact on Education at

Register to attend in person or virtually, or join the conversation on Twitter at #PearsonCite. We look forward to seeing, Tweeting, listening and learning alongside you.