Sorry, Steve: In Edtech, Consumers Do Know What They Want

Opinion | Student Voice

Sorry, Steve: In Edtech, Consumers Do Know What They Want

By Robert Strazzarino     Sep 3, 2017

Sorry, Steve: In Edtech, Consumers Do Know What They Want

“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” In the library of Steve Jobs quotes, this may be among the top—particularly among entrepreneurs and the news outlets that cover them.

I get it. It’s counterintuitive, even revolutionary. And it reserves invention for a select few who claim to “think different,” reading the minds of consumers to predict what they don’t even know they want.

Here’s the thing: Although I have much respect for Jobs, I beg to disagree here. When I was a student, I knew exactly what I wanted: an easy way to optimize my course schedule, combining the courses I wanted with the professors I preferred, all in a way that fit around my demanding schedule as a student athlete. Yet the plethora of courses available and resulting potential combinations can be overwhelming, particularly when constrained by non-academic commitments. In my case, it was track practice. For others, it might be a job, a child’s schedule, or another activity. While my college offered an online tool for exploring available courses, there were thousands of potential combinations, and no easy way to see each option.

Plato famously noted that necessity is the mother of invention. And so, as a computer science major, I wrote an algorithm that downloaded the available courses each night, and explored every schedule possibility within certain constraints, like times, instructors, or courses. I built it for myself, but quickly learned that others were looking for a similar solution. By the time I graduated two years later, approximately half of the students at California State University, Chico had registered for their classes using the schedule planner I had built. Today, 4.4 million students use it.

Easier scheduling means students tend to enroll in more courses, make faster progress toward their degree, and are more likely to persist and graduate. According to our data, colleges whose students use the software have seen, on average, a 3.25 percentage point gain in persistence rates, and a 3.5 percent point gain in graduation rates.

Improving the experience speaks to a broader challenge in the higher-ed market, where generally the institution is the purchaser of a tool or program, but the end user is the student. Colleges and universities aim to provide what their students need but, despite the best of intentions, sometimes fall short of providing them with the right tools and services.

For feedback to make it from student to vendor, it must travel a long road: from student to administrator, to procurement officer, and eventually relayed to the vendor. Those who have played the game of telephone will know this is a process guaranteed to introduce error into the system. This means that neither the people creating the products, nor the people buying tools and services, fully understand the nuances of the problem they’re trying to solve from the perspective of the end user.

Improving scheduling has other downstream effects. It allows advisors to use their time with each student more effectively, spending less time on logistics and additional time on more important things like ensuring a student knows how to access tutoring services, if needed, or other campus resources. This is particularly important during new student orientation, to ensure each student starts off on the right foot.

Countless edtech tools widely used today have been built by students who felt the pain—and need—themselves. D2L, provider of a learning management system, was started by a student at the University of Waterloo. Adaptive learning tool Smart Sparrow traces its origins to a graduate student in Australia. Quizlet, best known for its digital flashcards, was founded by a high school student.

In Steve Jobs’ defense, his whole quote is this: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” And in that way, he’s right: focus groups alone often aren’t sufficient. There is a difference between market research and an authentic connection and understanding of the problem to be solved.

Many entrepreneurs look to Steve Jobs for inspiration. We certainly need ambitious visionaries, but we need even more entrepreneurs channeling Plato: understanding what is needed and developing useful solutions to meet those needs. In education, this means supporting tools developed by students, with students, and for students.

Robert Strazzarino is the founder and managing director of College Scheduler, which was acquired by Civitas Learning in 2016.

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