Giffgaff – could it be a role model for universities?

How can universities distinguish themselves in today’s marketplace? And how can they appeal to finance-conscious students, whilst ensuring they offer a comprehensive and high-quality education experience?

 

Increasingly, universities are looking to collaborative, co-operative and innovative approaches. But can universities learn a thing or two from unusual models created by young companies and start-ups? Recently, mobile virtual network operator Giffgaff found itself the third top trending subject online, after climate change and the global economy. The company, set up in 2009, has created a real buzz for its innovative service. But could a university be run along the lines that Giffgaff has explored?

 

Giffgaff uses a community model in its approach to customer service. There are no customer service phone lines. Instead, the firm uses online message boards and problems are solved by other users. As payment, these informal IT support teams are rewarded ‘payback points’, which they can exchange for cash using PayPal. If there are specific issues that can’t be dealt with, or which involve confidential account information, they’re handled by ‘agents’ – Giffgaff employees.

 

The result for the company is huge cost savings in terms of call centres – not just salaries, but also real estate, heating and lighting, phone calls, etc. Comparably, BT has some 20 call centres in the UK alone, with a similar number in India. That’s a huge number of employees.

 

It works for a digital start-up. But could it work for a university? What if lecturers only lectured; administrative duties were stripped to a minimum and instead, online communities helped with the student support that has traditionally been the role of the teaching staff? It makes sense on the one hand, because lecturers are well-paid and there is the argument that they should not be spending time on areas that are not their specialism. On the other hand, the student journey is a sensitive one and needs to be handled carefully; is it fair to say that a key part of student support is to get one-to-one time from their tutor?

 

The result could be a pared-down approach to fees – a no-frills model, where minimal support and a reduced student experience is accepted as the price of significantly reduced fees. But could this work, and would it be popular?

 

Making the connections

In practice, a collaborative university is likely to look somewhat different.

Ryan Craig, author of College Disrupted, outlines what ‘Career Services 2.0’ might look like. It’s likely to be data-focused on the one hand, and connectivity- focused on the other. ‘Career Services 2.0 can advocate for university-wide ePortfolios or skills passports or digital badging, Craig says, ‘providing additional competency data that employers can utilize not only to determine which graduating seniors might be good candidates, but which sophomores and juniors might be good candidates for virtual internships or other engagement.’

 

Secondly, Career Services 2.0 would ‘engage schools and departments to galvanize a culture of employment focus and connectivity, for example through the aforementioned online departmental career networks, or – more promising – by facilitating the establishment of structured pathways to employment.’

 

It’s in this second area, connectivity focus, that our comparison with Giffgaff might come into its own. The key is for university providers to think differently about how to connect students with the workplace. The existing model – give students an education, then expect them to somehow find the right career straightaway when they leave – is no longer fit for purpose. Indeed, we could argue that it’s never been fit for purpose; it has just always been the default, with neither university nor business seeing it, until now, as ‘their job’.

 

These things can be changed, so why is it not happening?

‘When we think about how dramatically the world of work has changed, it is remarkable that the methods utilized to prepare students to enter it have remained static,’ says Andy Chan in Roadmap for Transforming the College-To-Career Experience.

 

There are lots of highly-skilled graduates out there, but they might not be aware of the companies that are looking for them. How many job applications can a graduate reasonably fill in on leaving university? We all know how long such forms can take to fill in; and to maximise the chances of getting the job, they need to be tailored to the company the applicant is trying to get noticed by. Often, job applicants have to fill in templates supplied by the employer which mean you can’t cut and paste – you have to manually enter information into different boxes.

 

All this is extremely time-consuming. It’s inefficient and frustrating for the applicant, and it means companies are missing out on potential as a result. There’s hard evidence that this problem is real. Nicholas Wyman, CEO of the Institute of Workplace Skills and Innovation wrote last year that ‘as 2015 begins, 9 million Americans are unemployed. Youth unemployment hovers at 15%.’ But at the same time, ‘4.8 million jobs are unfilled because employers lack the skilled workers they need. This gap between jobs and the skilled talent needed to fill them isn’t going away any time soon. 63% of CEOs globally are worried that a lack of skilled workers will continue to threaten the growth of their businesses.’  Clearly, something needs to change.

 

For Wyman, ‘people without jobs and jobs without people’ is a problem that ‘won’t be solved by one sector alone.’ Short-term fixes won’t work, he argues, and the way forward has to be ‘the creation of innovative partnerships between educators, policy makers, and industry leaders.’ Fortunately, ‘there is growing momentum’ for this. ‘The future of workforce development in the US hinges on collaboration between the companies that will hire the next generation of workers, and those charged with educating them.’ Wyman points out that while companies need skilled workers, educators need more understanding of what skills are required by business, both general and specific. ‘The good news is, collaboration between policy makers, educators, and industry is growing.’

 

Wyman outlines four key qualities that innovative collaborations and partnerships demonstrate to ‘change the game for students and job seekers at any stage of life, creating clear pathways to a promising career and a stable economic future.’ These qualities also ‘bolster local economies and strengthen local communities’:

 

  1. Have a shared vision. ‘Partners need to share the same goal and commitment to solving a shared problem.’ It’s in collaborators’ interests to ensure that graduates are equipped for work in today’s fast-moving environment. But to achieve this, ‘partners need to really listen to one another, and determine what each brings to the table. What unique resources can they each contribute to further that shared vision and how, specifically, will they do so?’
  2. Be flexible. ‘Not only do successful partners share a common goal, they also know how to meet each other halfway,’ Wyman argues. ‘Educators need to be willing to adapt curriculum and training programs to meet the changing realities of the world of work.’ Additionally, ‘business leaders have to learn to be flexible and adaptive in their approaches to training and mentorship.’
  3. Start before university. ‘Offering students the opportunity to get a taste of vocational and real-world skills early in their educational journey only results in a more engaged, and motivated workforce.’ Wyman quotes the example of a school in South Carolina where high school students can study robotics, machine technology and industrial electronics with industry professionals coming into the school to help them. Not only that, but as a result, ‘international talent recruiters who want to invest in promising students’ post-secondary education’ are also present at the school. This aligning of study with ultimate career is invaluable and as the example shows, cannot start too early.
  4. Stay up to date. ‘A hallmark of successful skills training models throughout the world is ongoing efforts between educators, employers, and industry groups to stay on top of the newest technologies and trends.’ The South Carolina region referred to above has a Business-Education Alliance, where ‘local business leaders and managers meet regularly with the district’s teachers, guidance counselors, and school superintendents to collaborate and share information.’

 

Taking the initiative

Graduates are taking the situation into their own hands too, by using social networking sites like LinkedIn to provide a ready-made shop window for their skills and experience. Learning how to get this right can be invaluable; if you have a strong profile, are well-connected and have recommendations, you will get alerts to specific job adverts that you might be well-suited for. You might even get headhunted. The algorithms involved here are used in ways that are still relatively crude; but the canny student can take by advantage of it by thinking strategically and using LinkedIn’s community model to narrow their focus on jobs that they standing a good chance of getting.

Collaborative models are only going to increase as the gap between unemployed people looking for work and businesses looking for workers continues to be a problem. Technology can help crunch this; and the sophisticated student will find their own new ways to get jobs. But schools, universities, governments and businesses could all find that by working together more, the benefits add up for national economies, the university sector and businesses as a whole.

 

Main sources

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/4-key-traits-partnerships-work-nicholas-wyman

http://www.forbes.com/sites/ryancraig/2016/03/17/career-services-2-0/#522f024d23ba

http://www.theguardian.com/money/2015/sep/18/bt-promises-to-bring-call-centres-back-to-the-uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why we need a new education model

Higher education is in crisis. Companies aren’t getting the employees they expect, and are discovering that graduates aren’t fully prepared for roles once they are in place. At the same time, students have different expectations of what they want from their learning providers. Generation Z are no longer passive learners. A combination of seeing themselves as customers, alongside an expectation of personalisation and instant feedback from their experiences as digital natives, creates a very different landscape for education providers.

 

Compounding this is a crisis in funding. Student fees are multiplying, and for many higher education students, fees are reaching a tipping point – the debt can become higher than their projected income expectations, making them question going to university at all. Those from less well-off households are hit particularly hard as a result. The global recession has fractured higher education, as described by David E. Shi, a former president of Furman University in South Carolina. This has led a situation ‘fragmented between haves and have-nots,’ he says in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

 

This perfect storm of company discontent, student expectations and financial considerations makes it pressing that traditional models evolve. The rise of MOOCs, boot camps and distance learning is quietly, but pervasively, pressing on the prestige and ubiquity of traditional universities. Things are changing, and with employers less focused on traditional degrees and more interested in what potential employees can bring to the business, this shift away from traditional pedagogical approaches is only going to continue.

 

A powerful way forward is to offer hybrid models – revolutionising the classroom-only model and augmenting it with online modules, in-work internships and guest lecturing from business leaders, directors and managers, as well as academics. A hybrid model can be visualised in the following way – a rich balance of the best of classical models, but incorporating disruptive innovation and advances in technology too.

 

Hybrid models can offer advantages for students over traditional universities in five key ways, as this article will explore.

 

Bridging the gaps

First is the ability to better match graduates with employers. Hybrids have the potential to be the bridge between the academic and the corporate worlds. By having options that include – for example – formal working relationships with corporate affiliates, in-work placements and a focus on guest lectures from business leaders, directors and managers, hybrid models give the graduate a better understanding of the workplace and can identify where they need to fill gaps in experience, in addition to their academic training.

 

Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, says that ‘what we’ve been historically good at for a very long time is telling the world exactly how long someone has sat at a desk. But we’ve been much less precise in saying what people have actually learned.’ LeBlanc asserts that in the past, a college degree was ‘a proxy for certain things: the ability to think critically, the ability to write well, the ability to present well.’ Today, however, LeBlanc argues that ‘when I meet with employers, I will sometimes ask them, “Have you hired someone with a college degree who doesn’t write well? Have you hired somebody with a college degree that you wouldn’t put in front of a group of customers to make a presentation, who can’t understand a balance sheet?” And it’s like touching a nerve.’

 

Ryan Craig, Managing Director at University Ventures and a former McKinsey consultant, takes up this point. ‘The national skills gap is well documented in the mainstream media and a top priority for policymakers and CEOs alike.’ And yet, ‘our system of higher education produces only one STEM graduate for every 2.5 job openings.’ The numbers are even worse for women, ‘who earn just 18% of computer science degrees.’ And although there are in excess of five million STEM job postings annually, ‘fewer engineering degrees are awarded today than in the early 1980s.’

 

For Craig, too many students graduate without the right skills to match what employers want. His argument is that ‘talented students from many institutions need to be trained for and matched to many employers.’ This is a role that coding bootcamps and staffing companies like eIntern can fulfil. They will ‘come to campus and provide a clear pathway to a career’ and will also ‘provide valuable no-risk training to specifically prepare students for the high-risk problems employers are trying to solve.’

 

There will always be a time-lag between what can be taught on courses, and what companies need and want their new employees to be able to do – especially in, but not limited to, the tech field. Teachers can only teach what they know, and syllabuses have to be agreed and approved well in advance of students being taught. Yet this only proves the need for some kind of shift in education, towards courses that are more closely aligned with, and actively influenced by, real-time organisations. In response, Southern New Hampshire has developed ‘College for America’ to address some of these gaps between what universities are offering and what businesses want to see. That’s why I think it has had such a great response from large-scale employers,’ Paul LeBlanc says. Namechecking other early starters in this area – Excelsior College, Western Governors University, Charter Oak State College in Connecticut for example –he argues that College for America is ‘the first that has been fully untethered from the traditional course.’

 

Matching capabilities to work

The second element is that hybrid programmes lend themselves better to a competency-based approach. In Education Dive Keith Button writes, ‘advocates say competency-based education puts the focus on students’ capabilities rather than how many hours per week they spend in the classroom.’ In the US, at least 200 institutions have competency-based education programmes – and yet ‘the U.S. Department of Education has been slow to process the applications of colleges and universities seeking approval to receive federal financial aid’ for these programmes. This is an issue that is being addressed, but by no means resolved – perhaps because of the prestige factor associated with traditional university models. Button continues, ‘the benefit for employers,’ [advocates] say, ‘is that prospective employees can be judged more easily, based on their demonstrated competencies rather than guessing how their grades will translate to real-world work.’ LeBlanc adds, ‘You’re going to see more competency-based programs coming and I think they’re game changers.’

 

It is true to say that employers are changing their approach to what they expect from their graduates, and it’s even possible to question whether traditional university models are still fit for purpose. Witness Penguin Books, the global publishing empire run by Pearson, which recently announced it was lifting its requirement for employees to have a traditional degree. A self-aware and ambitious student can recognise that the tide is changing in the corporate world, and increasingly choose the university course that best suits them; rather than feeling that the name of the university is the most important thing.

 

Rethinking the campus

Third is customisation. Students get a more personalised experience, and this has notable positive effects on achievement. The ‘hands-on’ element of hybrid models is analogous to an apprenticeship model – internships or similar work experience inside real-life organisations give students a much better grasp of what employers expect. ‘Many of today’s rewarding and well-paying jobs do not require a university degree, but do require some form of post-secondary training,’ says Nicholas Wyman, CEO of the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation. Arguing that ‘vocational education is smarter than you think,’ Wyman says that ‘the focus on college preparation often fails to make one important connection: the connection between school to the world of work.’ Wyman here is talking about work that does not require an academic qualification, yet benefits from in-work experience and along the way gives workers the social skills they need to thrive in a work environment. But the principle can be applied squarely to hybrid models at universities. If we want our students to succeed in the workplace, they need to know how that workplace operates – it is not simply a case of transferring academic knowledge, but adapting it.

 

The fourth key advantage is an enhanced experience. Hybrid models can stimulate students’ learning by being modular: one-on-one sessions one day, maths on another, visiting lectures on a third. The approach might be a linear stream, rather than a series of courses. Or consider TEx, an initiative by Texas University. The ‘Total Education Experience’ enables students to learn ‘through simulations, team-based projects and clinical experiences.’ Ensuring that the content can be delivered by mobile phone – ‘to meet students where they are, with the technology that they are used to,’ according to Marni Baker Stein, chief innovation officer of the Institute of Transformational Learning, ‘a student’s path through a course is automatically personalized to his or her needs and learning style.’

 

TEx is the kind of innovation that makes the delivery of hybrid models a reality. ‘Beyond fully online courses, TEx is designed to support a wide range of innovative teaching methods in classrooms, laboratories and in the field that ultimately will provide richer and more accessible content for students while preserving the quality of a UT degree.’ In other words, personalisation enabled by technology – a compelling proposition for today’s graduates.

 

Thinking too far outside the box?

It’s not too much of a leap from seeing the benefits of hybrid models to ask – do we need universities at all? Campus models are based on the principle of scarcity, as Peter Smith explores in his book Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning. In an age where reams of information are available at our fingertips online – ‘abundant information,’ as Smith defines it – is there a need for students to attend classes at all? ‘Abundant information – in its many, divergent forms and uses,’ Smith writes recently in Educause Review, creates ‘a new ecology’ that consists of ‘three big changes, unleashed by technology and the global economy, which affect education. They eliminate scarcity as we have experienced it.’ Two of those changes are ‘unlimited content and unlimited access.’

 

The rise of MOOCs bears witness to this shift in thinking. Many – but by no means all – of the courses described as competency-based are purely online offerings. But here it’s time to sound some warning notes. Yes, MOOCs can offer outstanding learning opportunities for those unable to attend university courses – whether for reasons of finance, location, disability, family circumstance or other reasons. But the evidence consistently indicates that without an element of classroom-based learning, students will not reach their full potential. We could make a similar point about coding bootcamps. They work best as a top-up; not a replacement.

 

Perhaps the most obvious argument against Smith’s ‘abundant information’ model is that someone needs to curate that information, make sense of it and teach it – in ways that are absolutely no more or less central to student success than they were before the internet developed. Yes, students can access huge amounts of information and universities no longer have the monopoly on scarcity. In fact, there’s no such thing as scarcity any more. The problem now is that there is too much information, and the academic institution’s role is that of shaper and guider.

 

Institutions that can offer a mixed portfolio of lecture, seminar, online add-ons and in-work placements are best placed to meet the needs of both students and companies – needs which fluctuate depending on the individual student and individual organisation. For tech companies in particular, there is the added complication that there will inevitably be a time-lag between what is taught on a university course, and what businesses need their graduates to know when they start work – simply because of how quickly technology changes.

 

Make sure the student gets the job

The answer to the deliberately provocative question ‘do we still need universities’ is to challenge the disconnect between the university experience and the job offer at the end of the process. Ryan Craig quotes Mike Fishbein, a marketing guru who has discussed what such ‘full-stack’ education companies might look like. ‘Fishbein’s view is that the goal for the end-user is not a quality educational experience, but rather a job: “Jobs are the top of the education stack.” According to Fishbein, “a full-stack education company might not look like a school at all. It could look like an employer, a lender, a school, and/or a recruiter all rolled into one” – because the point is to provide all services required to get the student a (better) job.’

 

In other words, for Craig, ‘if you’re going to go to the trouble of creating a product to improve higher education, and if you’re going to devote your life to a company to advance that product, you might as well make sure the student gets a job at the end of the day.’ Otherwise, the experience of university is all the student is finally being rewarded with – and in an age of increasing fees and commoditisation, that’s where many universities are, it could be argued, heading in the wrong direction, exposing themselves to attack from vocational courses and MOOCs as a result.

 

For Craig, writing in a separate article in Forbes, the key is to link performance to the job offer. ‘Expect to see some colleges offer a performance-based value proposition: pay tuition only once you achieve the desired outcome. For most students, that means a job – either a new job or a promotion, but definitely higher remuneration than the status quo.’ This kind of performance-based college will be, for Craig, ‘a full-stack higher education enterprise, in that it will take a strong interest in what you study, and in making sure you get the job.’

 

On the money

There’s one more key benefit that hybrid models bring. As fees rise, higher education ‘is increasingly being commodified, and its access restricted’ writes Ethan Miller in the Huffington Post. Many students begin to feel priced out of the market, and higher fees can in some cases prevent highly able and gifted students from participating in the higher education that they deserve. Miller quotes stark figures – ‘in the last ten years, tuition and fees increased 66 percent beyond inflation at public four-year institutions and 26 percent beyond inflation at private not-for-profit institutions’ (figures based on US institutions). ‘Nationwide, total student debt has surpassed one trillion dollars and the average student with debt owes about $26,600.’

 

Hybrid models can disrupt these ballooning figures, as they can be more economically viable by running on a lower cost base than traditional, exclusively campus models. The model at College for America envisages education as an ‘on-ramp’ – ‘to more stable work, an on-ramp to further study.’ Identifying that one of the key barriers for their target audience is cost, LeBlanc aims to make it ‘ultra-affordable, which is why our program is out in the market at $2,500 a year.’ College for America focuses on working adults, who according to LeBlanc are ‘the majority of today’s college students’ but who are ‘often least well-served by the traditional higher ed industry.’

 

Students have changing expectations from their learning providers – and businesses want changes too. Traditional universities need to wake up to this change – and there are key opportunities for hybrid models to steal a march in the new competitive age by giving learners, and organisations, offerings that are more attuned to their needs.

 

Hybrid models – the key benefits

 

  • Better match graduates with employers
  • Competency-based approach
  • Customisation
  • Enhanced experience
  • Ensure there is a job at the end of the process
  • Economically viable

 

Sources

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jan/18/penguin-ditches-the-need-for-job-seekers-to-have-university-degrees

http://www.forbes.com/sites/ryancraig/2015/04/03/a-new-generation-of-engineering-schools/#484764ed2923

http://evolllution.com/opinions/how-we-got-here-is-not-what-will-get-us-there/http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304561004579135253438812772

http://evolllution.com/opinions/meeting-students-are-critical-success-developmental-hybrid-programming/

http://chronicle.com/article/A-Crisis-of-Confidence/127530/https://www.technologyreview.com/s/429376/the-crisis-in-higher-education/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ethan-miller/the-crisis-in-higher-educ_b_2727653.html

http://www.utsystem.edu/news/2014/11/03/university-texas-system-makes-bold-move-competency-based-education

http://er.educause.edu/articles/2014/11/the-coming-era-of-personalized-learning-paths

http://www.educationdive.com/news/7-competency-based-higher-ed-programs-to-keep-an-eye-on/328382/

http://www.educationdive.com/news/will-the-internet-remove-traditional-higher-eds-prestige-factor/413466/

http://chronicle.com/article/MIT-Dean-Takes-Leave-to-Start/235121

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/vocational-education-smarter-than-you-think-nicholas-wyman

http://evolllution.com/opinions/audio-revolutionizing-competency-based-education/

http://www.forbes.com/sites/ryancraig/2016/01/07/revolution-on-campus-no-risk-pathways-to-high-value-careers/2/#255e91e220e9

http://www.forbes.com/sites/ryancraig/2015/06/10/performance-based-college/#311aa816567a

http://www.forbes.com/sites/ryancraig/2015/05/26/the-full-stack-higher-education-company/#5c6af7be459d