Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Pile ‘em high; sell ‘em cheap!

I have been reading Dan Pink, To Sell is Human, over the past few days.  He puts forward a good argument for the realisation of our role selling ideas to others.  I don’t want to spoil the book for you so I will not go in to detail but one of the points Dan makes is the need for “Perspective-taking”.  He illustrates the difference between sympathising with customers and understanding their point of view – the latter being more effective since it is a business stance (selling with the mind rather than the heart).

One of the best illustrations of such a stance is that of Jack Cohen who had a clear perspective of his customers’ needs and desires, garnered from his days on market stalls and applied at the core of his growing empire – Tesco; the largest retailer in the UK and possibly second largest in the world.  The expression of his perspective-taking was (and perhaps still is) “Pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap” but Sir Cohen (as he became) didn’t just “sell ‘em cheap”, he made sure that quality was inherent in the product.  His perspective-taking had also highlighted the customer’s desire for quality, illustrated perhaps by the London housewife rummaging through the vegetables to find the best cabbage or juiciest apples.  Tesco still “Pile ‘em high” and use the quantity to dictate supplier quality at a customer focussed price.

So what has all this got to do with education and in particular online education?

Well for a start I see education as being akin to selling and, before you all write comments to object to the analogy, not the old fashioned, second-hand car type selling.  I mean the selling of ideas, bringing our audience (students/ learners, etc.) to a new way of understanding, hopefully, somewhere near to our own. Dan Pink’s book is all about the selling of ideas.  The idea behind the Analysis part of ADDIE is that we take the perspective of our learners, understand their background, family, experience and approach to learning. 

We already have the Tesco’s model in education with the current class sizes, universities opening their doors to wider participation and industry entertaining online education.  We have teachers, lecturers and trainers who try to make sure that quality is also considered; they supply quality environments and attempt to limit online class sizes; they encourage small group interaction, self-development and self-directed learning; they support, cajole, scaffold and guard netiquette. 

But there are changes afoot in education.  Course developers are encouraged to skip past the analysis stage(s), which provide the chance for perception-taking; course owners wish to reduce the cost of courses – and MOOCs have entered the marketplace.   So now we have “pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap” in education but with a difference.  It is the students we are piling high and it is the courses we are selling cheap.

Now, if the MOOC was aimed at the bottom end of the market perhaps that would be okay, since the simplicity of content would allow individual or small group work within the MOOC environment, or if it was seen as an add-on (as it originally was) to enhance the social knowledge base within a course, I suppose that would be okay, since the many would be helping the few. 

But administrators have got hold of the MOOC, or at least the idea, and now we see suggestions that MOOCs will replace Higher Education and that they will be the answer to the need for widening participation.  Lecturers time can be sold at a ‘reasonable’ rate, since so many are sharing the same lecture and so commercialism rears its head.  Suddenly we have a new, commercial, layer separating the learner from the university, who are then not responsible if the course fails or large numbers of learners drop away.  In fact the university is no longer responsible for the quality but then neither, it seems, is the commercial layer, since the university supplied the material and backs the course; all the commercial layer does is aid accessibility and possibly assessment.

I am worried. 

One way to compete with a model based upon customer perspective-taking is to find ways ‘under’ the quality of the current model (i.e., displays, packaging, supplier quality, post-sale support, etc.) so that costs are reduced, in the hope that this will lead to greater quantity, which will further reduce costs (to allow for profit).  There are a few supermarkets in the UK that have tried this model and have failed and probably further examples elsewhere too.  The problem is that they reduce quality for everyone, albeit temporarily, before they disappear, because everyone must compete on a similar basis.

Thus it is we see universities rushing to develop MOOCs, in case they get left behind and ‘go the way of the dinosaur’, in spite of the obvious drawbacks: lack of commercial models, lack of qualifications and quality that no longer depends on the supplier, relying instead upon the consumer, which works as long as the consumer can provide that quality (most MOOC participants, up to now, appear to be graduates). 

Is there a risk of falling quality in education?

Then there are the excuses: well it’s early days yet; we have to try things out to start with; this is a ‘Beta’ phase and, when pass rates of 5% are quoted, the reply that 40,000 started out so 2,000 passed (passed what, what did they achieve, how will it benefit them?).  

When are we going to stop experimenting on our students?

Of course the current batches of MOOCs are designed so anyone can undertake them, although they claim HE level.  Many seem to be an ‘introduction’ to their subject or a taster and set out to provide the learner with a feeling of satisfaction because they have completed something or facilitate learning on a more formal course.  I wonder how long it will be before these basic courses are welded together to form a formal degree and then how long before the early majority follow the innovators.

When are we going to stop experimenting with our courses?

If you look carefully you can begin to see the changes, up until 2011 quality was an important discussion in education and particularly in online education, now it is MOOCs and what they will do for Higher Education.  I have already pointed to the speeding up of e-learning development and those discussing quality seem to imply lack of support for quality initiatives.  There are few discussions now in the Quality group on Linkedin.  Is it really the case that we have got quality sorted?  It is difficult to see the quality assurance in MOOCs, it seems that here quality must line up alongside the other experiments.


When are we going to stop experimenting with quality?

Epprobate and TOLDC┬║ are working together to raise awareness of quality in online learning courseware.  MOOCs are courseware in that they may form part of a course or provide stand-alone knowledge as a short course.  Find out more at epprobate: http://www.epprobate.com/

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