Actual results may vary

Here’s another quick finding in the tealeaves of educational technology prediction. Providing you can get through the argot of the deals, mergers, acquisitions, takeovers, and patent showdowns, sometimes you find yourself face to face with the poetry of the safe harbor statement. It’s hard not to read it over and over to check that it still says what you think, and that it says it so beautifully.

The safe harbor statement is a get-out clause currently derived from the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995, although it also seems to have been in the Securities Act of 1933 where it’s expressed with even more affection for good language, as you might expect.

In these strange days for higher education, the safe harbor statement protects us all from the exuberance of edtech futurology by pointing out that more or less nothing about the future is known, and no one can be held accountable if things don’t turn out the way the LMS suitors (or anyone else in a suit) said it might. It’s a metaphor from the world of risky seafaring and ambitious, perhaps even mercenary, navigation towards the uncharted future.

At the moment, it’s attached specifically and prosaically to the need to limit the value of what’s called “forward-looking statements” in being able to predict anything at all about how things will unfold from here on in; typically it shows up as a footnote to the announcement of a deal with a truly breathtaking price tag.

Today I’ve been looking at one attached to the news that Hellman & Friedman LLC have bought SunGard Higher Education for $1.775 billion, in order to merge this with something else they own, Datatel Inc.  In case you’re wondering, SunGard HE “collaborates with the higher education community and provides software and services to help institutions find better ways to teach, learn, manage and connect” and Datatel “is a provider of innovative technology products, services, and insight to higher education.” This is carefully unclear about what they actually do for us, which is more plainly explained here.

But if you only read the press release, you might think that the result of their union will be more innovative and better ways to teach, learn, manage and connect, plus insight to higher education. Or the other way around.

Just don’t get too excited, because none of this may turn out to be the case:

Statements in this release other than historical facts constitute forward-looking statements. You can identify forward-looking statements because they contain words such as “believes,” “expects,” “may,” “will,” “would,” “should,” “seeks,” “approximately,” “intends,” “plans,” “estimates,” or “anticipates” or similar expressions which concern our strategy, plans or intentions.  … We assume no obligation to update any written or oral forward-looking statement made by us or on our behalf as a result of new information, future events or other factors except as otherwise required by applicable law.

This primer in how to identify the language of optimistic promises doesn’t give much else away, except that forward-looking statements are the opposite of historical facts.  So they clearly aren’t written with the same pen as going-forward statements, of which we’ve been hearing so much lately.

But what should we make of the fact that they seem to start to fade as you look at them, like the Cheshire Cat? Shouldn’t we be just a tiny bit worried that the press release that tells us something shatteringly good just happened involving Blackboard and the QM program, for instance, also mutters that of course “Actual results may differ materially from those indicated by such forward-looking statements as a result of various important factors, including the factors discussed in the “Risk Factors” section of our Form 10-K.  … These forward-looking statements should not be relied upon as representing the Company’s views as of any date subsequent to” etc etc?

Of course, we know why the small print exists, and at $1.775 billion of business activity, fair enough too.  Universities use it all the time in their audit reporting.  But bringing it out from the contractual backstage to the realm of the publicity campaign, where it can tip a bucket of cold seawater on itself, is a bit like l’Oreal having to admit that using their makeup won’t make anyone look like Julia Roberts, even Julia Roberts. We’re not fools. But why do the promotional airbrushing in the first place, if you’re only going to have to explain to your customers later that this miracle may not occur in their very own bathroom?

So we do understand that neither forward-looking nor going-forward statements can tell us exactly what educational technology will do to the future university—we’re just going to have to wait and see.  This is exactly why we’re the ones quietly asking why it wouldn’t make sense for everyone just to stay off the Kool Aid and moderate the predictions a bit.

A few more candid statements—”We’re not sure exactly how this will work out because we’re a really big business in the middle of dramatically upsizing and you’re a very small customer in a remote educational outpost well beyond our major market, so while the following features might be on our roadmap we might have to let some of them go, and in the end, we’re not educational specialists, we’re here to sell you stuff”—wouldn’t stop us buying the product, but it would make us feel much less patronised and annoyed while doing so.

But as this isn’t likely to happen, on my reading of the tealeaves at least, then perhaps those of us who actually work in universities, rather than just sell things to them, should also start using the safe harbor statement as often as possible.  Competitive research grant applications, writing deadlines, statements of learning outcomes, strategic plans of any stripe, and all of the promises we make about the deadset value of a university degree in today’s competitive employment market: all should come with the rider that at the time of writing, we simply believe things have the potential to work out in this way.

But really, who knows what the future holds?


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