May 23 2013

The Well Worn high-wire: Balancing Pedagogy and Revenue

There is an insightful article at Hybrid Pedagogy by Sean Michael Morris: A Manifesto for Community Colleges, Lifelong Learning, and Autodidacts.

Morris alludes to, but doesn’t examine, the calculation that colleges and universities make regarding revenue and cost. MOOCs must be worrying to institutions for their disruptive effects. At the same time, however, there is a hopeful belief that an untapped revenue stream lies hidden and unrealized. Incidentally, I would love to know how the MOOC vendors are pitching to universities. About fifteen years ago, I worked at a start-up. The ridiculous elevator pitch that I heard was along the lines of ‘The space we’re targeting is a $200B per year industry. We’ll create B2B exchange. If we can get just 1% of that…’ It was this type of fallacy-math that caused such enormous pain and regret. I suspect that it is fallacy-math all over again in these meetings: ‘You’ll have 12,000 students in the MOOC. If just 1% of those pay for credentials or enroll in degree programs…’

In Morris’ article, he states:

“The paroxysmal growth of MOOCs overlooks pedagogy in favor of credentialing.”

Yes. But isn’t that the true source of tension for every education provider? What pedagogical best practices necessarily fall victim to the bottom line? Surely, credentials are where the revenue lies within the MOOC ecosystem. In a recent Huffington Post survey, 71.8% of respondents indicated that MOOCs could be appropriate for continuing education courses. This is a clear indication of where universities see their opportunity (and where the vendors are no doubt employing some interesting math and RIO propositions). Taking just one example, Harvard’s revenue from continuing education and executive programs in 2012 was over $281M, up 8% from the previous year. (That is, incidentally, more revenue than from their undergraduate programs.) Another 52.4% said that MOOCs could be used for technical training, also providing some notion of where the perceived opportunity lies. There are surely teachers participating in MOOCs who do so with noble intent: those who teach with a passion born of a joy of imparting knowledge, or an idealized view of the role of education in society. With the stakes in the billions, however, there are also those who make choices based not on the needs of learners, but on revenue interests. This particular high-wire is well worn in the world of software training.

What is the role of the corporate education department? Should they be tasked with enabling users? Or should they be tasked with revenue and margin targets?

The space that was once solely the domain of the training department is eroding. There have always been internal competitors to the training department’s mission:

  • Marketing departments drive leads through education campaigns. “He who has a thing to sell and goes and whispers in a well is not as apt to get the dollars as he who climbs a tree and hollers.” Though professional marketers may not refer to their activities in language familiar to educators,  there are direct analogs for almost every part of a marketing campaign to an educational one, from audience/market analysis to their measures of success. The norm is for Marketing departments to push content, but there exists a real need to also create content that customers and potential customers can readily find.
  • Technical Publications, with Technical Support, is part of the three-legged stool upon which customers rely for their knowledge and understanding of a product. In many organizations, Tech Pubs and Training are not separate entities. Furthermore, much of the content is often shared between the two functions. It is typically when an organization reaches the point where training revenue opportunities can be realized that the functions are divorced.
  • Technical Support is the final organizational ‘pull’ content provider, and often the most personal, most specialized, and consequently, most expensive.
  • External Sources include the myriad sources of content that arise (mostly organically) outside an organization. ‘There is nothing more dangerous than the inspired amateur. ‘ Examples include blogs, wikis, YouTube videos, presentations at user group meeting and conferences, and the vast array of channels that have yet to be discovered.

Despite these other creators, traditionally the bulk of what would be called ‘training content’ has come from Training departments:

This mix is shifting radically, for a host of reasons:

  • The availability and ease-of-adoption of tools to rapidly create content objects that looks very much like traditional training content has inspired all of these audiences to create content in the service of adding additional value, creating leads, or driving down costs. One needs only look at the shift from expert tools such as Macromedia (now Adobe) Authorware to straightforward tools such as Adobe Presenter, Adobe Captivate, or Articulate Presenter to see examples of this trend.
  • 80% of the purchase decision for a product is made before engaging with a sales person. Marketing departments have an interest in providing richer technical content sooner in the sales cycle.
  • Support departments are expanding knowledge bases and actively deploying gamification methods to inspire users to help other users and further drive down support incidents and costs.

The new mix of content about a product is much more evenly balanced:

Note, however, that with the exception of the Training department, none of these groups are motivated by a P&L. Marketing drives leads and opportunities, but does not drive a profit directly. Support’s aim is to decrease costs. Everyone seeks to employ External Sources to further their particular aims. It could be argued that all of these groups seek to drive down support costs, to educate customers, to enable users. The lines between the functions have begun to blur:


Further exacerbating this is the very real fact that software is becoming easier to use, calling into question the need for formal training. Compare, for example, the training footprint required for a Microsoft Word user compared to a Google Docs user. And user behaviors have changed radically in a short period of time. When is the last time you explored the documentation for a software product, rather than searching for a solution or answer to a question online. We no longer bother to remember what we can find. More often than not, users don’t want ‘training,’ they simply want an answer to a specific question. Once the user has determined that the question can be answered through a search, there is little reason to remember the answer.

In the book Consumption Economics by J.B. Wood, Todd Hewlin, and Thomas Lah, they project a new path for corporate training departments:

“Customer education for most tech companies is a line of business. We sell classroom and online training about our products for a fee. In the world f the Consumption Model, education will often morph into a value proposition delivered through the product and our service teams rather than remain a standalone offer.

Yes, there may still be some amount of basic training that gets sold up front. But let’s fact it, “just in case” training – that is, training every end user and system manager on everyhing they will ever need to know about our product – has never worked.

Our Consumption Model allows us to correct much of that inefficiency by making the product start off simple and unfold in real time as the end users are ready to consume more advanced functionality. We will train them in real time, in small chunks, delivered through the product… We will shift from just-in-case to just-in-time.”

If Training departments can prove that they can drive consumption (additional sales) or lower support costs, then the tension that exists between enabling users and earning revenue dissolves. This will be welcome to those who have committed themselves to the art and craft of creating or delivering training, albeit in a corporate environment. These training professionals understand the needs of the balance sheet, but they want to be like the enlightened professors who deliver the massive online course in Ancient Greek studies. There’s no significant continuing education credential at stake for such a course. The teacher shares his knowledge for the joy of teaching, while the students learn for the joy of discovery. For corporate Training departments, there is a greater degree of practicality – but the passion for teaching is there – and the students reward is as meaningful, for it is manifested in the doing.




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