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How Consumer Technology Companies Like Apple Set The Standard for Higher Ed

AUDIO | How Consumer Technology Companies Like Apple Set The Standard for Higher Ed
Consumer technologies and higher education are both dealing with rapid innovation and a vastly changing customer demographic, but the technologies have adapted more quickly to the changes.

The following interview is with Phil Hill, a market analyst with MindWires Consulting. Hill has been active over the course of his career helping organizations, major corporations and higher education institutions implement key IT projects. From this vantage point, Hill has been uniquely positioned to see the ways the higher education industry and consumer technologies industry have reacted to disruption and change. In this interview, he shares some of his observations on this topic and discusses the lessons he thinks higher education leaders could draw from their counterparts in consumer technology.

1. What are some of the major similarities between the changes happening in the consumer technologies industry and those happening in higher ed?

In both industries, we’re in the heyday of technology-driven changes; a lot of people are looking for dramatic changes to come from the technology in both industries. Related to that, there’s been an increasing amount of investment capital coming from venture capital firms and private equity. It doesn’t mean the changes are going to stick, but a lot of this is driven by investment and the hype  going on right now.

The other thing is the fact that — even though consumer technology is a much faster-moving industry — it doesn’t have the same [ed. though, to be fair, it has some of the same] historical issues higher education has as far as adapting to change.

Both consumer technology and higher education are driven by communication. When you first get a new innovation, a new technology, people tend to just try to say, “Can I do the same thing I’ve been doing but just do it in a better way?” But over time they start to figure out, “Wait, should we actually be changing our basic processes because we think of it differently based on the [innovation]?”

2. How have the reactions of the two industries to their respective changes and disruptions differed?

Both industries are often defined in a fairly shallow sense by the millions, or billions, served type of mentality. The difference is that in consumer technology, this is much more appropriate. It actually is pretty relevant how many millions of people adapt to a new type of mobile phone, software application or piece of hardware.

It’s a trap in higher education to focus on this “millions served” mindset. Certainly MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses] are the poster child of this mentality where we got caught up so much in how many millions of people have registered with Coursera [without asking] whether it’s actually making a meaningful change.

3. What are some of the biggest differences between these two industries?

While consumer technology firms sell products that benefit customers and society, higher education is a public good in a way that consumer technology never will be. There are elements of higher education that come across as products, and the product mentality can definitely improve the innovation happening in higher education; but, at its core, higher education is a public good.

The other thing, and it’s related, is that higher education will always be there, even if it’s in a different form or with different approaches. There are categories within consumer technology that are very much subject to the public’s whims and they could just flat out go away.

It’s much harder to define success in higher education than it is in consumer technology. You see a lot of this in the debate over the potential college scorecard the White House is offering; there’s a lot of pushback. Some of that is resistance to change in general, but there’s a very strong argument saying, “Hey, it’s very hard to measure learning, let’s not fool ourselves that we can come up with a simple way to do it that’s going to be able to capture whether we’ve been successful or not.”

4. In spite of the differences, what are some important lessons higher education leaders could learn from their counterparts in consumer technology?

[In their recent announcement] Apple demonstrated one of the biggest lessons to learn for higher education and that is to focus on simplicity and making people’s lives easier with elegant products. That type of simplicity can just make people happier with what they do. Making people’s lives easier is a huge lesson learned that hopefully will apply with a lot of the educational changes coming up. Those changes aren’t just for students; they’re for faculty as well. So much of the ed-tech market that serves education is aimed at faculty adoption. If you really want these technology changes to get adopted within education, one of the most important features is to help make faculties’ lives easier.

Another example is changing demographics. People within technology, they used to sell mostly to the higher tech people — the geeks, the nerds, the people who were willing to try things out. But now that they’re marketing technologies your grandmother might use, they understand they have a different set of demographics and they need to adapt to it.

That’s one of the biggest things higher education needs to look at. The traditional student is no longer in the majority and there’s a very wide set of demographic changes. Education has to change to meet a different set of needs and that’s something where, if you can take time out of the equation, you can learn from consumer technology.

This interview has been edited for length.

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