I’m currently taking some graduate courses from Trinity Western University about online learning and the future of education. It is fascinating because it is giving me a glimpse of what education will probably look like in the near future. Unlike many other industries, education hasn’t been radically disrupted by the internet yet, but if COVID-19 is an accelerant, then education is about to experience disruption.
Bezonomics – Why Amazon Won the Online Retail War
Incidentally, I have also been reading Bezonomics: How Amazon Is Changing Our Lives and What the World’s Best Companies Are Learning from It by Brian Dumaine. The driving principle behind Bezonomics is that Amazon puts the customer at the center of everything. As Dumaine comments:
“Of the scores of Amazon employees, both current and former, whom I interviewed for this book, all at some point mentioned the line ‘Everything starts with the customer,’ as if their brains had been hardwired by one of the company’s ace computer scientists.”
“…everyone must focus on the customer because all else flows from that. As Bezos put it in Brad Stone’s 2013 book, The Everything Store: ‘If you want to get to the truth about what makes us different, it’s this: We are genuinely customer-centric…'”
Of course, there are many other reasons why Amazon has conquered the online retail space, many of which are less noble than putting the customer first. However, for the sake of this thought experiment, try to set those complexities aside in order to compare the following similarities of multi-access education to the customer-centred focus of Bezonomics.
Bezonomics, an Analogy for Multi-Access Education?
Multi-access education aspires to provide learning opportunities “anytime, anywhere and any way” (Irvine, Code, & Richards, 2013). Just as you can order a product from Amazon anywhere you have internet, multi-access education envisions education that works the same way.
An ideal multi-access course provides the learner with an A-Z of options. In practice, it might look like this:
- If you can’t make it to a face-to-face class session, you can view the recorded lecture later.
- If you feel sick, you can video-conference into the classroom and join up with your peers in a hybrid model.
- If you hate class sessions altogether, you can access a text-based multi-media rich version of similar content and participate in discussion forums to benefit from the social aspect of learning.
Essentially, multi-access education puts the learner at the center by empowering them to choose how they access their education. Notice how similar this is to the “customer-centred” orientation of Bezonomics:
Multi-access education “has the learner at the center, with the ability to choose how he/she wants to access the course. The core principle of the multi-access framework is one of enabling student choice in terms of the combination of course delivery methods through which the learning environment is accessed; that is, each individual learner decides how he/she wishes to take the course.” (Irvine, Code & Richards, 2013).
It is important to note that advocates of multi-access learning don’t believe that every student should move online; instead, students should be empowered to choose what fits their stage of life and learning style. After all, studies show that if students have the choice to access their learning in whatever mode they prefer, many who live within an hour’s distance of their universities prefer online learning to face-to-face. This confirms that “it is the flexibility rather than the distance that matters to these learners” (Bates, 10.3.1.3).
Is Bezonomics Good for Education?
I believe that as the internet disrupts education institutions that survive will do so because they figure out how to offer the student more choices. So, is Bezonomics good for education? The book, Bezonomics, concludes this way:
“The key question facing societies around the globe is whether the convenience that Amazon and other big tech companies bring to customers … is worth the price. So far, the answer is yes, as these giants continue to grow at a rapid pace. People, after all, like what they offer.”
It seems counterintuitive to suggest that offering students more choices regarding how they access education could be a bad thing. Still, if Amazon shows us anything, it shows us that when the internet disrupts an industry scale is everything. For this reason, large universities with the resources to provide multi-access education at lower costs will likely force the little ones to close. If this is true, it makes me wonder whether we will look back nostalgically at the traditional face-to-face classroom the same way we long for the Mom-and-pop shops Amazon has almost completely decimated. Yes, you paid twice as much for a pack of gum, but at least the clerk (or your teacher) knew your name.
Perhaps this is overly pessimistic; after all, disruption always opens up space for innovation. Today, Amazon gives millions of independent sellers access to buyers at an unprecedented scale. Similarly, multi-access education will require an army of remote facilitators and coordinators to keep all the moving parts of delivering education organized. Another innovation we can expect as education is disrupted by multi-access is that brick and mortar schools will have to innovate to survive. It is likely that face-to-face teaching will have to move away from lecture-based classes to more interactive experiences. The blended classroom is an example of this, where students study the content before coming to class and then interact with it in the classroom with their peers and teacher. More interestingly, the popularizing of role play as a teaching method is another exciting innovation in face-to-face teaching. Teachers who use immersive “reacting games” are finding that students are willing to come to class early, do extra work, and engage material deeply when learning is embedded in play (Carnes, 2018; see also the Reacting Facebook Group).
I have already taught the New Testament book of Romans through Role Play a few times and have found that students engage with Scripture very deeply as a result (Finger, 2007). However, some introverted students avoid the class out of fear that they will have to act spontaneously. This is a good reminder that education needs to be delivered in various ways to suit every kind of student if it is going to be truly student-centred. Regardless, if the pattern of Bezonomics holds, in the long term, the only type of education we can expect to succeed is student-centred education.
Bates, A. W. (2019). Teaching in a Digital Age – Second Edition. Tony Bates Associates Ltd. Retrieved from https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/teachinginadigitalagev2/
Carnes, M. C. (2018). Minds on fire: How role-immersion games transform college. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Dumaine, B. (2020). Bezonomics: How Amazon is changing our lives and what the world’s best companies are learning from it. London: Simon & Schuster.
Finger, R. H. (2007). Roman house churches for today: A practical guide for small groups. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans.
Irvine, V., Code, J., & Richards, L. (2013, June). Realigning higher education for the 21st century learner through multi-access learning. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9. Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol9no2/irvine_0613.htm