How can technology impact some of higher education’s most pressing challenges? Self-confessed puzzle solver and Barnes & Noble Education’s new Chief Digital Officer, Jay Chakrapani provides some clues through the technological maze, along with thoughts on student debt, Uber and what he’d do for a Pete Sampras tennis racket.
What was your first job?
I was a house painter in junior high school. The driver behind that was that I wanted a Pete Sampras tennis racket, which I’m sure then cost around $300. My Dad owned a couple of duplexes and that’s how it started. When you’re working on a roof with an open can of paint, things don’t always go as you plan.
How do you describe your current role at Barnes & Noble Education?
My role is about finding opportunities based on who we are as a company; who we want to partner with, and where we can use technology in more interesting and beneficial ways to help meet some of the challenges our campus partners have.
What are you working on right now?
A lot of the things we’re looking at now have to do with academic support. Currently, an instructor might use a one-size-fits-all textbook, yet technology is now enabling us to offer them support for their syllabus, customized to their individual teaching methods. We have an opportunity to be a service provider here, providing instructors with the materials for what they want to teach, in the way they want to teach it, and personalizing it down to the individual student.
For all the diversity in our campus partners, do you find any similarities in the kinds of technological solutions they’re all looking for, and how might solving them provide an opportunity for Barnes & Noble Education?
There are the underlying challenges in higher education that everyone is facing — attracting and enrolling students and keeping those students in school and helping them transition into the job market. But technology isn’t about one size fitting all. What it enables is very viable and scalable mass customization where we can treat every person as an individual, and provide them with a very individualized experience — without a massive cost outlay.
From your perspective, do you have a view on what might be one of the biggest challenges facing higher education today?
Student debt. When you realize it’s higher than credit card debt at over a trillion dollars, it suggests the current model just isn’t going to work for a lot of students and a lot of colleges. We’re in a unique position to offer meaningful help to make college more affordable, accessible and gainful, using technology.
As a company, what do you think is the most significant thing we’re learning about the ways technology can help with the learning process?
I think we’re learning how to remove a lot of the friction in the learning experience. Currently, an instructor in a large classroom environment isn’t going to have the time to have an individual relationship with his/her pupils. If you help that instructor by taking away some of the obligatory work, by auto grading papers and aggregating performance data, they’ll be more able to intervene in areas where their students really need the help. We can also use data to identify an at-risk student or someone who needs more help choosing their degree. In the same way a company like Uber is relieving the friction between a driver and a passenger, we want to remove all of the low-value friction to ensure that students and teachers can utilize their relationship in the best way possible.
Is there some distinct or notable characteristic you’ve noticed working with Barnes & Noble College people?
Family. From the top to the bottom, it feels like family at Barnes & Noble College, where everyone cares about you, and cares about your success. Wherever you go, if there’s a problem, the prevalent attitude is always ‘okay, let’s figure out how to fix it.’ That also translates to our interactions with customers. Whenever I visit a campus, it’s hard not to be impressed by how passionate our bookstore staff are in wanting to support the success of their school.
We’re both a retail company and a learning company. Do you think there are similarities in perhaps the way e-commerce has developed to the way e-learning is developing now?
People are people and we’re all consumers, but learning has always been presented as something different — something hard to access, hard to do. If you can give it a consumer appeal, direct them towards meaningful, appealing opportunities in learning, then it becomes a more achievable proposition. We’re all early in exploring that at this point, but through our research, our students have already asked the question, ‘I live one way, why do I need to learn in another?’
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
I’d like to be in any entrepreneurial situation that lets me forge new ground. I’m an engineer at heart and by training, and so the tougher the puzzle the more that I think it can be solved and, because of the direction Barnes & Noble Education wants to go, I have the opportunity to be that entrepreneur and solve those puzzles here.
Favorite book or book you’re currently reading?
I’ve just finished Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel. It’s about the difference between established companies and startups, who, before they do anything, have to prove that a business actually exists. The way to do that is with lots of quick and inexpensive experiments in the search for sales, growth and profitability.
Most valuable thing you think you’re learning from working with Barnes & Noble Education?
Not to look at things at face value. Sometimes a solution isn’t immediately obvious, but there are often a lot of latent ideas that might not have surfaced because the opportunities just haven’t presented themselves yet.