There’s a trend in higher education, sometimes (and unfortunately) called the “consumerization of education”. It sounds gross, and it’s easy to conflate with the “commercialization of education”, which is another obvious trend that’s underway. While not benign, the trend isn’t all bad. Here’s my take on the benefits hidden inside of this trend, and what we’re hoping to support at Blackboard with a shift towards “consumer design”.

  • A consumer approach to education operates outside of slow, bureaucratic institutions of higher learning. It may take a school five or even ten years to adopt a new learning process, tool, or method, and the slow rate of change isn’t always driven by good intentions – it’s often driven by political infighting and a fear of change.
  • A consumer approach to education demands a vastly simplified product. Ed-tech has gotten away with precedents set by poor enterprise software: giant user manuals, training, and help desks are used to hide poor design. Our products need to be as easy to use as any other consumer product; you don’t need a massive manual to learn how to use the iPad, and you shouldn’t need one to learn how to use Learn, either.
  • A consumer approach to education forces innovation and fresh thinking by eliminating “lock-in”, “switching costs”, and the dreaded “RFP moment.” It’s extraordinarily difficult to jump into ed-tech with a new product, because you’ll find yourself selling to institutions, and a lot of that selling is “relationship selling.” Direct to consumer (direct to students, faculty, or staff) is an end-run around that massive block, and opens the door for changes that can benefit users but may feel threatening to institutions.
  • A consumer approach to education demands a clear value proposition. Institutions of higher education have offered only vague promises of value that are substantiated largely by legacy, and while a school may actually generate “life-long learners” or instill “the love of learning” in their students, it’s extraordinarily difficult to rationalize that value in the context of the increasingly massive, and unrealistic, expenditure of tuition. Ed-tech providers like Blackboard are no different; we need to make, and deliver on, aggressive promises of value directly to students and faculty.

I’ve always approached the word “consumer” with hesitation. I’ve seen attempts to empower the word by associating it with economic progress and tying it to identity: consumers, it has been said, buy things in order to represent their voice and signal their preferences to the market. In the context of purchasing physical products, I’ve never felt that this was entirely realistic, given the time and cost of product development. It always felt a little overly optimistic.

But in higher education, I think this trend has the potential to drive value for students and teachers, rather than simply driving profits for institutions. It feels like the “voice of the consumer” really does have an opportunity to be heard and to impact and change a conservative, slow-moving industry. Over the next few years, we’ll see this consumerization in all aspects of higher education, from the institutions themselves to the programs they offer, and to the supporting tools and services provided by companies like Blackboard. In the best light, I view this as driving improved product quality, improved product variety, and a way for students and faculty to advocate for themselves in an increasingly bureaucratic environment.

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