Education as a Product

Our education system is showing its age.

Many others brighter than I have written about the failings of our industrial-age style of teaching and learning including Seth Godin (seriously, read that post from Seth) and Richard Florida. Allow me to vastly oversimplify, the system as we know it was designed to produce workers to function as small cogs in large machines.

As our economy changes, it’s clear that innovation in education is desperately needed. Students are having a tougher time finding work. Change is happening, but far too slowly.

While listening to episode 33 of The Critical Path I was struck by what is happening to many of the large telecommunications and electronics incumbents like Sony, Samsung, Nokia and RIM. Each have recently reported dismal financial results. They’re all focused on the product “pipeline” and not on the product itself. The same thing is happening in higher-education. In schools, it’s less about the financials and more about student enrolment numbers and student engagement but the problems and processes are similar.

Why don’t we treat school more like a product? In many ways, we already do, but most of the “product” is about all the parts of going to school except for class itself. Institutions sell and market based on services like residence, food, amenities and campus design. Students pay money in exchange for learning, prestige and access to existing networks. They pay money for benefits. They “hire” a school to achieve a function (job, career, future). At the most simplistic, it’s just like shopping for a new phone.

Apple has created massive disruption in a number of industries by focusing, rather, obsessing over the product and the user experience. They still have all the other “business” parts of a large corporation, but rather than iPhones and iPads being products to stuff into a pre-built pipeline, they are carried to market on custom moulded silver platters (Apple: You can have that packaging idea. It’s yours to run with). The silver platters in this terrible analogy are all the parts of the institution that aren’t the product itself. This only works because customers want to use the product. Apple doesn’t need to manufacture demand through marketing – but they still market aggressively.

Let me be clear. I know that many higher-ed institutions are working on solving these problems of declining enrolment and struggling programs. Many smart and talented individuals are working hard to solve these problems and build the education system of the future that our society needs. School as a product isn’t a new idea. My point here is that it’s not that easy. The concept is simple, but the execution is incredibly hard. RIM is a good lesson here.

Listen to RIM thrash around trying to pull out of its death spiral and most of what you hear is focused on “targeting customer segments in the enterprise” and “doubling down on marketing”. Most intelligent observers have long ago realized that RIM’s problem is its products, not marketing, distribution or carrier partnerships. Those in charge at RIM know this as well, but are realizing how hard it is to create good products. It doesn’t happen overnight, it takes sustained iterative failure. Over and over.

Similar thrashing is happening in education. Rather than actively trying to build programs and courses that fit a need that customers (students) have, we try to compensate for declining enrolment by increasing the volume and frequency of marketing and promotions. It’s trying to prop-up the existing pipeline without fixing the product.

Schools, school boards, colleges and universities function much like old-guard, MBA driven tech companies. They have processes, boards and committees. They use words like “operationalize”. All this cultural inertia slows them down when it comes time to adapt to changing conditions. Most schools have realized the importance of the student experience. The student experience is more than just new buildings, fancy places to eat and great residences. At the core of the student experience is learning. If students are delighted and (pleasantly) surprised by what happens both in and out of the classrooms, they have a good experience.

Students have to jump through hoops, get shunted from department to department and can’t find basic information easily. No wonder they aren’t happy. No wonder less of them are buying the product. I realize there are other factors (economics, demographics etc.) at work here, but at the root, they don’t matter much. The product can’t suck. Full stop.

Education needs to take a lead from Apple and start making products that people desire rather than tolerate. That means obsessive attention to the experience on all levels. It means bulldozing existing silos within institutions and letting talented people do great work for customers. It means throwing out conventional management ideas. It means taking risks – a whole lot of them. Failure will happen and that’s ok. It’s actually a good thing. It’s how we learn and learning is the whole point