Much like retail has had to evolve to meet the demands of shopping across physical and digital channels, education is also being forced to evolve. Contemporary students require new ways of learning, both in terms of content structure and delivery, that build more on the shifts in media than traditional education--leaving academic institutions largely unable to meet demands without reliance on external partnerships with ed-tech companies.
The current university model is heavily reliant on an in-person, on campus experience. Not only is this how it’s “been done” for more than a century, it also provides institutions with multiplicitous profit centers from cafeterias, dorms, sports events and more. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, universities weren’t able to bring students on campus, meaning profit was no longer coming from these sources--and in fact, had become a liability in the form of empty classrooms and dorms. It is no wonder that these institution’s first priority then was to get students back in person. These preparations began in earnest once a shift to online learning was facilitated in spring 2020. By fall 2021, most universities were back open for business despite the Delta variant.
In all of this, the stark contrast was that university development over the past 50 years was largely focused on building new buildings and expanding the campus footprint, while the rest of the world was turning more digital. Universities were putting very little thought (and budgets) into the development of new digital learning technologies, modalities and support systems, including the purchase of video equipment, recording studios and even digital pedagogy.
This situation is analogous to the retail industry that up until the beginning of the 21st century was mostly still focused on expanding their store network, leaving online retail as secondary or ancillary to this core business. This ultimately led to what has been termed the “retail apocalypse” wherein brands were over-stored and under-leveraged online. The pandemic all but accelerated the apocalypse for many brands, finally shifting their business to a fully omni-channel business model. Onsite shopping is now more focused on offering a unique or boutique experience, while online is focused on ease, access and reach.
This shift is now happening in higher education, wherein many universities are being forced to rethink their offering across both physical and digital channels, understanding how they work together and separately. The onsite experience will need to become more customized and one-on-one, while the online experience will be all about ease, access and even lower costs. Students may choose one or the other, but if what happened in retail holds true for higher education, they will likely want to be able to move fluidly from one modality to the other. Ultimately, they want to have more control over their education.
There are some schools that are taking the lead in omni-channel learning, albeit heavily relying on what’s been dubbed “ed tech” or educationally-focused technology companies. The focus in these partnerships has largely been on educational delivery--in this case taking traditional learning and shifting it online--rather than on innovating educational content itself. Companies like Coursera typically partner with a university like Stanford or FIT to create content with those school’s faculty. Companies like Canvas and Blackboard are focused on shifting content online--providing tools that make it easy for anyone to post content and lead a class. However, in the era of YouTube and TikTok, it’s not enough just to shift traditional content online, much like it makes no sense to simply upload a brick and mortar store on to the web; content must be shorter and edited, with higher production values, including music, images and B-roll.
Companies like Yellow Brick, MasterClass, Business of Fashion and Fashion Launchpad are beginning to shift this dynamic in the area of fashion and arts education. In short, higher education must completely rethink their strategy to be fully omni-channel--fully coordinated learning with the student at the center of the model--if they want to compete in the short term or exist in the long term.
In our next and final episode, we will summarize the issues facing fashion education today and how it must change to meet the needs of a fast-changing industry.