Future Proofing Canada’s Workforce – Innovating Higher Education

I recently read the newly released report The Intelligence Revolution – Future Proofing Canada’s Workforce. In particular the report mentions the need to retool Canada’s eduction systems to convert them into practical lifelong centres of learning.

Machine learning, artificial intelligence, AR/VR and quantum computing are unleashing forces and creating change on a scale that has never before been seen by humanity. A conservative estimate pegs a minimum of 40-50% of the existing workforce being directly impacted within the near future. This will likely lead to a huge increase in the working class persuing re-training and further education.

We’re going to need to re-examine how we think about work and how we think about education and lifelong learning. In this post I’d like to start looking at the education side of this challenge.

What can the customer focused tech titans teach us?

If you have a closer look at most startups and industry leaders in the technology space, you’ll find an almost obsessive focus on the customer.  Their number one priority is understanding their customers and providing them with the products and services they want and need at the most competitive prices possible. These technology titans have overturned almost every dominate industry of old. What would it look like if we approached higher education from this perspective?

Are our current public universities and colleges as focused on the customer as the private sector?

In todays day and age, learners are not simply students coming out of high school. More often than not, they are increasingly working adults with challenging work-life schedules.  Many of them may have already completed a bachelors degree and would love to pursue a Masters degree or continue their professional development. Their struggle is finding the time to physically attend classes and bend their life and work schedules to fit that of the institution they wish to attend.

Couple this with artificial constraints of how long a degree or credential should take to achieve and you end up with a lot of lost business opportunities and frustrated potential customers.

How many working Canadians out there that would love to work towards their Masters degree, earn a second degree or pursue a new a credential but just can’t  because of the awkwardness that exists of the current system?

While it would be easy to harp the the current shortcomings of the existing system, perhaps a more productive approach may be to ask ourselves what good would look like? If we looked at students as customers (which they are) and we applied the same level of focus and zest that the tech titans on serving them, what could education look like looking into the future?

Let’s examine things from the perspective of the customer.

Lifetime Learners

No longer would we see a student as a 3-4 year client. With our new outlook, we’d view them as lifelong learners and hence lifelong customers and revenue generators. What if it became commonplace for people to hold multiple undergraduate and graduate degree and they continued to add to these credentials over their entire lifespan?

Delivering Value and Affordability

Customers want value for their money. Education costs have ballooned over the past decade. In the tech world, many companies have been successful in toppling existing markets and competitors by attacking costs and removing inefficiencies. Look at the impact Amazon has had on everything from the cost of books to setting up your whole technology infrastructure on Amazon Web Services.

Does it continue to make sense for degrees to cost $50,000 – $100,000+. What if an equivalent if not superior learning experience could be provided for a fraction of this cost? What if higher education became financial accessible to pretty much anyone wishing to learn. What if higher education was free? Never going to happen? You might want to check out the increasing number of institutions like MIT who have opencoursweare initiatives and organizations like Coursera, EdX and Udacity. Amazon AWS certifications can he obtained in a matter of months, with testing for certification costing less than a few hundred dollars and providing pathways to well paying jobs.

Now, just like in the business world, customers don’t mind paying for value, but the value must actually be there. How may students currently graduate from various programs in Canada and are ill-equipped for the realities of the current workplace? What if institutions measured and focused on delivering verifiable value to all their students and what if when they failed to do so, they offered a full refund? We apply this in the world of business every day, could this be applied in the realm of education?

Convenience

If we looked through the lens of the customer, we’d realize that many of them don’t have the ability to take day classes and may not be able to regularly attend physical classrooms because of their work schedule. Why not make it easier for them? We could empower learners to take courses online at times and places that are convenient to them. We wouldn’t make them wait a semester to start a course, we’d let them dive in right away if they wanted to. We wouldn’t artificially dictate how long they took to complete a course or program either. If a learner wanted to power their way through a course that normally took 3 months in a much shorter time frame or they need a extra month or two, why would’t we let them? As long as they could demonstrate the necessary mastery and knowledge, why should’t they be able to set their own pace?

Customization

Customers like to customize and design their own experiences, so wouldn’t it make sense to give our adult learners/customers the power to design their own educational paths. Many programs limit the course offerings to a handful of choices. If for example a learner wanted to custom design their own masters degree, why shouldn’t they be able to be empowered to choose the courses they felt would best serve their learning needs and goals?

Customer Engagement

Top tech companies are constantly engaging with the customers. Whether is requesting feedback on their products or services, making helpful suggestions for other products or services their customers may enjoy or asking for a review or endorsement, a lot of effort goes into maintaining ongoing positive relationships with customers.

Customer Feedback and Continuous Improvement

Paying attention to and responding to customer feedback is another major strength of successful online companies and service providers.  In the tech world, product managers play close attention to customer suggestions and feedback on new features, products and services. Their goal is to constantly improve and add value.  When we look at traditional education, are our teaching methods and outcomes constantly getting better and better over time? Is any given course that was offered 10 years ago significantly better today and does it deliverable the best value possible to its learners? Why aren’t the same expectations of continuous improvement and results that exist in the world of business being applied to the realm of education? Teaching is a system and as such, is it not unreasonable to expect systems to evolve and improve consistently over time?

Customer Appreciation 

Whether it’s providing loyalty discount, receiving a simple “thanks for your business” email or making the effort to follow up on customer feedback, complaints and praise, the all-star companies out there know that it’s better to keep customers happy and excited about their products and services than risk loosing them and then have to look for new ones. Do our current systems of education convey the clear message that you are extremely important to us, we value you and we want you as a customer for life?

Cleary the current system is far from perfect, but unless we start asking tough question and start looking at opportunities for improvement, these systems may likely remain slow to change.

What is certain to change is there are an increasing number of competitors who are seeing the gaps and opportunities to jump into the education space … and do it better. Their aim will be to serve customers better, to cut costs, provide more value, to scale delivery globally, improve accessibility and provide options that have not previously existed to learners from all walks of life.

The opportunity to improve and evolve is definitely there for higher education. The question is, will it seize the opportunity while it still can or will it be the next industry to be upended?