What’s Next for Education? Answer: Follow-the-Learner

follow-the-leader-sign-620x250Most readers are likely familiar with the childhood game follow-the-leader. The ‘leader’ would lead doing various antics while the ‘followers’ would mimic the leaders’ every move. Players who failed to follow risked elimination from the game, typically an insignificant consequence from what I remember. It’s not unlike what’s happened in higher education in the last two years with the MOOC phenomenon. A handful of elite institutions began to offer Massive Open Online Courses [MOOCs] taught by the best-of-the-best faculty, for free to the world, and the me-too race began. Now there are over 119 institutions worldwide offering MOOCs via for-profit and not-for-profit MOOC providers (Haggard, 2013). It’s apparent that many institutions that played follow-the-leader, weren’t quite sure why they were in the game in the first place.

I attended several conference sessions in 2012 where I had opportunities to pose the question “why are you offering your MOOC[s]?” to institutional representatives—typical responses were ‘to promote the institution brand’ and/or to ‘participate and experiment’.  It turns out that much was for naught given that most learners enrolled in the MOOCs [known as xMOOCs which differ significantly from the initial constructivist MOOCs] were not the university’s target market in the first place. The majority of learners [typically 90%, if not more] didn’t complete the courses, and were in fact quite well-educated, holding at the very least an undergraduate degree. Reasons for taking the courses varied, but usually learners cited ‘personal interest’ or to ‘upgrade skills’ (Haggard, 2013). Yet higher education administrators [and the media] viewed MOOCs as panacea for its woes, despite reports emerging early on from various institutions with insights into student demographics.  As readers might remember San Jose State University tried the MOOC format for undergraduate courses with Udacity that failed quite spectacularly. This was just one of several efforts by various institutions to use xMOOCs for undergraduate education. Thousands of hours [and dollars] later, many institutions are entering into 2014 wondering what do we do now?  The answer lies with the learners.

The pressure is greater now than ever before for higher education to reform in some way—cut class sizes, reduce tuition fees, reduce administrative costs, attract students, etc. Numerous US colleges and universities are entering the New Year with varying degrees of angst. According to the report The financially sustainable university by Bain & Company, one in three colleges and universities are spending more than they can afford; these schools are financially unsustainable.

Leading change is challenging in any organization. But in higher education, it’s markedly more difficult. If the stakes weren’t so high, incremental improvements might be enough. But they aren’t, and that’s become abundantly clear. Change is needed, and it’s needed now. (Denneen & Dretle)

As the Bain report infers it’s time to stop following and start leading—time for a bold, fresh approach. Addressing finances is one facet, but a proactive plan that meets learners where they are is critical for long-term viability. That bold approach begins with understanding the learner; how they learn, communicate and interact in our digital culture. We need to look to learners’ actions, and behaviours—examine and analyze potential, existing and target students. It’s not uncommon for education decision makers, administrators and/or leaders seeking to reform education in some way, to implement strategies or plans that don’t take into consideration behaviours patterns and actions of the students they ultimately serve. 

Why Study Learner Behaviours
The approach I’m suggesting, considering behaviors, is similar to Clay Shirky’s instructive description of a scenario coined the Milkshake Mistake in his book Cognitive Surplus. Shirky describes how the fast food chain McDonald’s hired researchers to determine how to increase sales of its milkshakes by examining the shake characteristics, sweetness, thickness, flavors, etc. to appeal to customers. Yet one marketer chose a unique approach; he started by examining customer behaviours— when customers purchased milkshakes and why—essentially asking the question “what job did the customers hire [buy] the milkshake for?” [Shirky, p 12-13].  It turns out researchers were missing an opportunity for innovation by focusing on the product [milkshake], assuming that everything important was implicit in the attributes of the milkshake.

Researchers missed examining the behaviours and actions of the customers, i.e. how, why, and for what purpose was the product used [which turned out to be a for a quick, easy breakfast food to consume during the commute to work]. The key takeaway here is not to focus on a solution before examining the problem one is trying to solve. We can apply this analogy to the recent phenomenon with xMOOCs.  Institutional leaders of public higher education, the media, even state officials, focused on the how the product, xMOOCs, could solve a problem within higher education given its mass appeal and ability to reach thousands of learners. Yet what were the behaviours of the majority of students? What did the student ‘hire’ the MOOC to do? What we know now, as mentioned already, is that the majority of learners completing MOOCs were not potential or existing students of post-secondary education.  Unfortunately, numerous institutions and stakeholders viewed xMOOCs as a solution, creating policies and programs to solve a complex problem with a complex product.  An example of the Milkshake Mistake in action.

Four Learner Patterns of 2013 
Below I’ve identified four student behaviours patterns of 2013 that appear significant when considered in conjunction with several reports and predictions of societal, technological and even political events and trends. Considering one report or trend in isolation, for instance the Bain report mentioned above, does not provide scope for a thorough analysis. Yet when synthesizing student behaviour patterns, advancements in digital infrastructure, trends in education, shifts in cultural norms for instance, there is potential to be proactive rather than reactive, anticipate what the future may hold for education and plan accordingly.

I’ll highlight another valuable resource before moving to learner behaviours of 2013, which is a series of reports, collectively called The Shift Index published by Deloitte’s Center for the Edge. It provides further insights about learner behaviours, even though it’s geared to non-education sectors. Updated each year, the indices seek to help leaders understand and take advantage of the changes around them.  An excerpt:

The world around us is changing. Long-term trends, driven by public policy and the exponential rate of change in the digital infrastructure, are fundamentally altering the global business [education] environment. We initially respond to these changes by working harder within existing institutions and practices. The result is diminishing performance and mounting stress. Until we understand the nature of those changes and evolve our institutions and practices accordingly, we won’t be able to effectively harness new capabilities and turn stress into success.  Report 4, The Shift Index

1. Learners acting as savvy consumers. During the last few years’ business has changed its model, shifting from a product-centric framework to a customer-centric one. The End of Business as Usual by Brian Solis describes how customers, with their constant access to abundant information flows transformed how organizations conduct business. This same transformation is now affecting education institutions as students drive change, and influence the traditional model of education. The model is morphing to a learner-centric one as students behave more like customers, and savvy ones too. They shop schools—compare facilities, residence halls and cafeterias. As tuition prices become more transparent and comparison-shopping is encouraged—yet again students are in the role of customer with access to numerous tools and sites that facilitate ‘shopping’.

Students are also balking at buying textbooks, discouraged by hefty price tags. Renting is becoming increasingly attractive to students as is buying used books and comparison-shopping through online sites.  In some instances, students are choosing to do without.

2. Learners connected to friends, peers and information anytime, anywhere. And it’s not just learners that are connected, it’s the majority of the population in numerous countries, not just the United States. Constant access to flows of data, information, and people is facilitated not just by mobile devices connected to the internet, but by applications [phone apps], social and other innovative platforms. The traditional boundary between work, school and life is rapidly dissolving.  The next generation of learners, will not only expect to use devices and applications in and out of school, but won’t know any other way.  And, the Internet of Things, we’ve just started hearing about, is not too far off.

Seventy-one percent of students in Grades 3–5 use the Internet from home to help with schoolwork; and within that same cohort, 40 percent have smart phone access, and 41 percent have tablet access. gettingsmart.com

3. Students are value conscious – avoiding private, four-year institutions and seeking alternatives.  Post secondary age students are avoiding high sticker price of private four-year institutions. From 2010 through 2012, freshman enrollment declined at U.S. private four-year schools by ten percent. The trend continued into 2013, enrollment was down at for-profit, private education institutions. The increased transparency of college costs, and the media’s emphasis on the cost and value of college likely influenced students.

Students also appear receptive to, and eager to explore alternative types of higher education. An example is Quest University, a new concept institution that far exceeded enrollment expectations last year with increasing student demand (read more here from a recent blog post).  Another type, founded by a college drop-out, Dale Stephens is the UnCollege experience, encouraging students to seek alternative and diverse higher education experiences. Stephens also wrote a book, Hacking your Education, which appears highly regarded if one considers the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads as a benchmark.

4. Learners are customizing their learning paths, by choosing courses from various institutions, creating their own digital transcripts—essentially becoming untethered to any one institution. Badges, another form of credentialing is a route some learners are following, as well as gathering certificates from various MOOC platforms, such as Signature Track with Coursera or others through Alison.com.  New platforms are satisfying student needs for recording and showcasing their learning accomplishments with sites such as Degreed.com, and others including Linked In. Another term for this concept is personalized learning, we will likely hear more of personalized learning in 2014.

Following-the-learner is a concept that seems counter-intuitive. Yet I’m convinced that in order for education institutions to remain viable and relevant in the future it is essential to analyze its learners, behaviours, and actions, in conjunction with an analysis of societal and cultural trends and events. The traditional method of education needs to change, and has changed with the technological developments and digital infrastructure available, yet it’s apparent we need to focus on learners, and not technology to solve education problems and challenges. Though there is not a one-size-fits-all solution for each institution, there is a solution that lies within its learners.

Further Reading

11 thoughts on “What’s Next for Education? Answer: Follow-the-Learner

  1. Hi Debbie, found this interesting report from CIBC in my files that says some interesting things about Canadian students’ choice of degrees. As a bank they seem to be interpreting the high level of choice in academic degrees with lower earning potential as a kind of anti-economic foolishness. Turn the inferences on their head and we find a possible realization that work-ready degrees may be less preferable than to invest in than a general curriculum that builds mind skills. This is a generation that has seen how fast “marketable” skill-sets evaporate in the face of change. Being adaptable in a fluctuating economy sounds like a good survival strategy to me.

    Article on the report:
    Get more bang for your buck with post-secondary degrees
    CIBC report says too many students go into low-paying majors, few choose profitable fields

    The report:

    Click to access if_2013-0826.pdf


    1. Hi Scott,
      Yes this is interesting — I like Lloyd Lloyd Axworthy’s response–he highlights what employers really want is students to have good judgement, to think critically, etc. There is a disconnect with what employers claim to be looking for and what students offer. Ideally a four-year undergraduate degree prepares students for jobs that aren’t even created yet when they are in school – they should be adaptable, have excellent communication skills, and be prepared to work in our global [and digital] economy. Thanks for sharing Scott! The report is most interesting! Debbie


    1. Peter,
      Thanks for sharing the link to Ubiquity University. The concept appears quite different [radically so] than what I’ve come across. Quite intriguing. I’ll be following. Thanks again. Debbie


  2. Hi!
    Your post resonated with me as I have found myself reflecting on the purpose of post-secondary institutions (and specifically, universities) quite a bit over the past few years. I am also an instructional designer who has worked in distance education units at a number of post-secondary institutions, so I have heard the “this XXX (put name of technology/innovation in course delivery here) will save us all” mantra many times over the years. The MOOC odyssey, especially over the past year, has been interesting to watch unfold (and I don’t imagine it’s quite done yet!)

    Over the years, I have also listened with interest to the repeated denial that students are consumers, and the reiteration that university education is what it is, and will always be what it is. Roberifs said “I am personally frustrated that in higher education, so much of the discussion remains on the products that the professors want to produce, often for a matter of convenience…”, and I agree. I think that for an institution to survive means that it needs the ability to adapt to change, even if it means considering a change at its core. At the same time, thinking of students as “customers” and reflecting on what they want doesn’t have to mean the death of what a university is (i.e., an institution of higher education and research that grants degrees/accreditation and fosters critical thinking and reflection), but if universities don’t begin to consider what their “customers” want (and are willing to pay for), they may soon find that they don’t have any customers left to support the research and innovation that is so important to them.

    I am looking forward to see what 2014 brings!


    1. Emily,
      I agree with your viewpoint on the unwillingness to view students as customers, which seems odd to deny given universities are spending thousands of dollars each year ‘marketing’ the university, spend thousands [if not more] to upgrade facilities to attract students, and are handing out ‘A’ grades like never before as per student expectations. As your statement infers, acknowledging the student as customer doesn’t mean rigor of education needs to be sacrificed, which is what numerous faculty are perhaps afraid of.

      Thanks for sharing your perspective! It is nice to hear from a fellow instructional designer! Thanks also for taking the time to comment Emily. Debbie


  3. Great posting. It seems important in times of change to cultivate adaptability and a kind of self-confidence. My sense of higher educational purpose is to foster a respect for deep knowledge on a subject or in a field. This is a honorable purpose in a world of distractions but seems one dimensional, selfish, poorly adapted and even lazy in a world where change can topple your carefully crafted self in a second.
    Being adept at sampling and staying on your feet are the message I get from MOOCs. When you learn these things in a social atmosphere of cooperation and muted competition the ethics of reflection allow you operational life skills that are hard to acquire in a self-directed and expensive system for adding value to yourself.
    Student needs are hard to predict but I think higher ed has become too confident in what it offers as being “necessary” to the person.


    1. Hi Scott,
      I so like your comment about the necessity to ‘be adept and stay on your feet’. I heard a similar statement in a keynote address at a conference I attended this past November — the speaker identified the need for academic institutions and its leaders to remain ‘nimble’– to be flexible enough to adapt to change and respond proactively. This same speaker also spoke of ‘academic courage’, also in context of institutional leadership. I took from this the idea that leaders need to take risks, and move beyond the status quo — which in some way ties into what you allude to that often higher ed leaders determine what students need-to-learn rather than asking questions, and considering a different approach from a different point-of-view.
      Nice to hear from you again! Debbie


  4. Your follow the leader point is extremely important. I recollect a year ago plus when the higher eds were ranting against MOOCs, but then they decided to jump on the bandwagon. But the MOOC strength and draw has never been for the traditional classroom. It seems that the follow the leader folks were missing the understanding that my discipline of museum studies has come to grips with – the lifelong learner – as your data show.

    I recollect as well some months ago you posted about how MOOCs could be ideal for high school students to test the waters on where they might want to focus for their college major. I have also come to encourage the AmeriCorps Teams that I engage with to use their time on the road as an opportunity to register for MOOCs to investigate areas of academics they might be interested in pursuing after their 1 year rounds are completed.

    So . . . your milkshake analogy holds up very well. I am personally frustrated that in higher education, so much of the discussion remains on the products that the professors want to produce, often for a matter of convenience, and not on what the customers are looking for, or even more so, what the job market indicates the customers need.

    Thanks for a great blog to kick off 2014!


    1. Hi Robert,
      Happy New year – and so nice to hear from you! Yes…it’s not too long ago that we were discussing MOOCs when the first they came on the scene…time flies doesn’t it? MOOCs satisfy numerous many learning needs of various types of learners, yet untapped needs and opportunities for different groups – i.e. the AmericaCorps Teams :).

      As you said it’s so much about the product, the technology, the tool, etc. etc. I read a lengthy [but worthwhile] blog post on e-literate http://mfeldstein.com/can-pearson-solve-rubrics-cube/ recently about Pearson, and their new strategy for 2014, which appears just as we talked about, focusing on the product, and not the student.

      Thanks for posting Robert! I look forward to learning with you in 2014.


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