Dear EdTech: We only have one product.

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

Dear EdTech Community,

Over the last year in the role as a Lead Curriculum Architect for Enterprise Bootcamps at 2U, I’ve had the opportunity to see a lot of very cool projects. We’ve had the chance to work with Netflix to create a partnership with HBCUs to increase diversity in tech. We’ve partnered with several Fortune 500 companies to create training programs to take learners from nothing to functional programmers, and seasoned developers to the next height of expertise. I’ve had the chance to design and write curricula for Java, C#, Python, Machine Learning, Financial Technology, and a huge host of other languages, technologies, and disciplines. At 2U we offer programs in the form of boot camps, short courses, and even partner with universities to create amazing full degree programs.

However, one statement often repeated by clients, sales teams, and management makes my ears stand on end: “What products can help your/our team improve?”

I cannot stress enough that there is, and has only ever been, exactly one product in training and education. That product is a learner that exits the training program with new skills and abilities that they can deploy in the field at-will. A class of any kind is a service that we provide as an EdTech company, but the product is always a learner that can utilize their new skills. This set of definitions most certainly runs counter to the all-encompassing MBA definition of what a product is (which includes services), but I feel it is important to make this distinction within the education and training space.

When training is viewed through the lens of being a service, the learner can … become the product.

Why do I draw this distinction? Clients often tell us that they want their team members trained on this new technology or that cool new buzzword. Nearly always the first question I ask in response is “That’s awesome, but what do you want graduates of your program to be able to do?” My goal is to fundamentally shift the client’s thinking about what training they actually want. The conversation is no longer about a set of areas of familiarity but instead focuses on a set of performative characteristics.

If a client asks for a course on Angular, we could, of course, build them a course on the basics of Angular, get into some cool two-way data binding projects, ship it, and collect a check. We could call this a product, box it up, and when the next client asks us for content on Angular we could go back to the shelf, ship it again, and collect another check. This is a great way to collect checks, but it does not rise to the value proposition of what a company that provides training does, nor does it serve the true client of the endeavor: the learner. The learner is quite literally the only thing that matters.

When training is viewed through the lens of being a product, our focus is placed primarily on the content of the training. We’ll spend hours arguing over whether Angular Router should be in week 1 or week 5. We’ll spend days trying to figure out how to teach JavaScript, then TypeScript, then Intro to Angular in as short a time as possible. All of this work will be done to hopefully make sure that we’ve covered a specific set of content in a specific set of time. This treatment may consider learning outcomes at the beginning of the design process, but after getting underway with the writing the only thing that matters is delivering content as quickly and comprehensively as possible. Content is important, but it plays second fiddle to skill acquisition.

Content is important, but it plays second fiddle to skill acquisition.

When training is instead viewed through the lens of being a service, the learner can then become the product. Focus is shifted towards developing content that induces learners to gain specific skills. Outcomes are at the highest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. We stop writing to cover content and instead write curricula that have the highest possible chance of helping learners understand a concept because we care about whether learners can perform a specific task. Most importantly, training as a service is not an off-the-shelf commodity to be packaged and resold half-a-dozen times. It’s an experience. It requires knowing how to create a learning environment and a set of materials that transform learners from X into being capable of performing Y at Z level of precision. How that is accomplished differs a little bit each time it’s taught and who is involved in the experience.

A course on Angular as a service simply feels different. Sometimes the adjustment may be order or pacing. It could be that we switch out the candy shop example with a manufacturing example because the client builds cars. This kind of mismatch in topics could completely derail student attention if placed at the wrong point in the course. It could be an overhaul of the first three weeks of content because students are already web developers that only need training with this specific library. These changes take time, but they always have a direct impact on the product — the learner can more rapidly and cohesively accumulate information, and more easily translate that information into a new skill.

As an investor, we often seek to maximize return for our capital. Although there are numerous strategies to accomplish this, they all seek, in some way, to maximize value. Which creates more value for a company: buying a packaged course, or buying the services of expert trainers and educators to make your employees more effective?

At the end of the day, I’m probably being pedantic. Many of us in this space, especially those with Education degrees, at least instinctually understand this difference. However, I think it is critical that we in the EdTech space focus on creating the best possible experience for every learner, and moving away from the “course as a product” mentality helps shift attention to the things that matter most.

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