Published on 2014/09/15

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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Key Takeaways

  • Consumer technologies have focused on making the lives of their users easier, and this is a lesson higher education leaders should follow.
  • As consumer technologies began to target a wider demographic, their products evolved to meet the needs of those different groups. Higher education faces a similar challenge and should take the cue from leaders such as Apple in this regard.

Readers Comments

Quincy Adams 2014/09/15 at 3:05 pm

I think the more we think about higher education as a product, the worse the quality is going to get. That said, student satisfaction will go up because the product they seek – a degree – will be easier to achieve. We’ll just be selling out on providing them the “product” they came for: an education.

    Gilbert Clancy 2014/09/16 at 10:15 am

    You’re completely wrong here, and have fallen into the trap of thinking of higher education only in terms of the classroom. Higher education is more than just a classroom. Read Dan Krinkle’s comment and you’ll understand. Higher education as a product is similar to a personal training client-student relationship. You pay the money, but the client only gets the results when they put the work in. That said, the trainer should take care of everything periphery to ensure the client only has to show up and work out.

Dan Krinkle 2014/09/15 at 4:36 pm

I really like the idea of looking at how we can make higher education more simple in order to improve customer acquisition and retention. When students are panicking about bureaucratic processes, they’re not focused on their education. The easier we make it for them to enrol, attend and learn, the happier they are the more likely they’ll remember their time at our institution for the learning rather than the bad experience they had with the registrar.

    Phil Hill 2014/09/23 at 12:02 pm


Jackson Earthwood 2014/09/16 at 10:18 am

In my view, part of the reason consumer technology has been able to adapt to changes so quickly is because of its ability to gather and apply user feedback. Companies like Apple and Samsung, when they release a product, can see thousands of reviews within a week, identifying what the consumer likes and which areas need improvement. Almost immediately, people start to customize the product, from hardware to operating systems, to improve its aesthetics or performance. There’s no equivalent step in higher ed, where “consumers” get to either provide feedback or have a hand in creating/customizing their educational experience. Feedback on areas for improvement, thus, take longer to reach the developer (the institution or a partner) and change and innovation are slower to come by.

    Phil Hill 2014/09/23 at 12:05 pm

    I certainly agree on need for more feedback . . . as long as we don’t oversimplify education as purely consumer product or as simple measurement as in the WH rating system first pass. But given this caveat, feedback would go a long way toward improving HE organically.

Arjun Mahal 2014/09/16 at 11:27 am

It’s difficult to compare a consumer product company like Apple to a higher ed institution. While Apple sells only a handful of products, a higher ed institution is expected to sell multiple “products” (courses, credentials) while simultaneously selling services (enrollment, athletics, career services). This creates a unique dynamic that makes innovation and change necessarily harder and slower.

    Phil Hill 2014/09/23 at 12:07 pm

    Arjun, hopefully the interview did not imply a common level of complexity (you are correct on differences). In my opinion, the key to learning from consumer tech to HE is to remove the time constraint and focus on higher-level issues such as feedback loops, focus on simplicity rather than feature bloat, etc.

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