W02.1: Is Education a “Marketplace”?

A common belief is that education and business are incompatible, like oil and water. For example, almost everyone believes that classrooms should be commerce-free. Yet while the price-tags and marketing aren’t obvious, a global corporate battle is being waged for every item in the classroom, and all the systems that feed it. And our administrators are driven to be more “accountable”. And the digital lives of modern learners lead them to expect a media-savvy learning experience. These are just a few of the marketplace forces that influence education. Even when few of the learners carry wallets, money is flowing.

In 522 we explore this tension within a collective learning process we call a “Forum”, which carries the dual meaning of a marketplace and a place to exchange ideas.  You’ve already encountered the Emerging Markets Forum and you’ll experience others in the weeks ahead.

The learning technologies marketplace is like none other. One demonstration of this uniqueness is the joke (I think it originally came from Neil Postman) that if you took a surgeon from the year 1900 and put them in a year 2020 operating room they wouldn’t even recognize their workplace, let alone be able to operate, while if you took a teacher from 1900 and put them in a year 2020 classroom they’d pick up the chalk and get right to work. Why is this so true? Health care and education are both essential – and deeply complex – enterprises for the common good, yet one has embraced technology deeply to deliver enormous apparent benefits for individuals and society, and the other has resisted technology in fundamental ways.  There’s no point trying to blame teachers, schools, or systems for this resistance – consider it a resilient strength of what may be our most social of social institutions, and a definitive characteristic of the marketplace.

Business people similarly like to joke that education is a “get rich slow” marketplace. Electronic games companies, for example, have almost exclusively avoided trying to create and sell “serious games”  because they don’t believe they can make money, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars spent globally on education each year.   The truth?  Education is a hard market to break into, yet it can be lucrative once you’re there.

Consider yourself forewarned: the elearning marketplace is not for the faint of heart.

So why should you be inspired?  Witnesses to the transformative power of technology in health, business, entertainment and other domains often regard the learning frontier as enormously inspirational for a variety of social, intellectual, and economic reasons.  And global circumstances make the education technology marketplace particularly “hot” right now….

Global learning technology markets are so significant that a number of professional organizations try to look into the future, aiming to help governments, corporations and educators plan forward.  We’ve assembled a small library of their predictions in our Market Projects Forum (these were used to populate the Emerging Markets Poll we just completed).  Have a closer look at a few of these now if you wish, but we’ll dive into them again a bit later.

Of course, blind luck is a significant factor in the success of most ventures, but you can certainly increase your chances with a respectful understanding of what happens when education, business and technology come together. That exciting convergence is what 522 is all about – think of it as a launchpad for intrepid learning technologies adventurers.  To help with that launch we’ll next look at some of the global dynamics of the elearning marketplace, explore the unique sense of “customer” and “enterprise” here, and then ask you for an evaluation of the opportunity horizon.