Here is my long promised sequel to my blog post on GoodSemester – please read Part 1 if you haven’t already. There were two topics I wanted to discuss regarding this educational startup but didn’t have space for in the Part 1 post: (1) how such a site can change the way we teach and (2) how the company fits in the innovation framework developed by Clayton Christensen at Harvard Business School.
My first comment is that such sites where students can upload their course materials have gained in popularity – Coursehero comes to mind, among others – and it is only a matter of time until a market leader emerges and aggregates the information disseminated between “frat files” and online accounts. GS’s high-quality design and easy-to-use interface makes it a good candidate to play that role in the near future. (This is because students can create their own groups and share documents among group members, without needing an instructor to be assigned to the course. So for instance a fraternity could get accounts for all its members and have them upload notes and materials for easy reference.)
This means that we educators have to embrace the fact that all our materials will be soon available online for many to see, even if we’d prefer to keep control over what the students have access to. This raises the following questions, and I’d be curious to know people’s thoughts on possible answers: how should we (educators) adapt the way we teach so that we continue to bring value? Should we continue to assign homework or, if students have all access to a bank of past exercises, should we only give midterms and final exams, as in my engineering school in France? Should we abolish large lectures and only have recitations where students practice without a grade, since they’ll be able to read or watch lecture materials from their dorm room? How do we use this technology to move toward more customized interactions with students and away from “one size fits all” to provide superior training?
My second purpose for this new post on GS is to discuss how it fits in Christensen’s framework on disruptive innovation. Recall that GS’s purpose is to disrupt an industry dominated by Blackboard and CourseSite, the latter being open-source. Christensen’s key idea is that newcomers disrupt incumbents when they offer a product that is good enough for the low end of the market and thus captures market share in a segment the incumbents don’t bother fighting for. (Then the product improves and more and more higher-end segments get impacted, but the incumbents retreat every time to protect the high end of their market.)
Based on the demo I’ve seen, GS appears to be a far superior product. It also seems to be directly aiming at institutional markets, which are the bread-and-butter of the incumbents, and plans to generate revenue using what looks like a fairly standard freemium model available to both individuals and institutions. In other words, its business model is apparently to go head-to-head against the incumbents to build critical mass instead of chipping away at the customer base by first focusing on, say, students who want to create their own groups (something that – to the best of my knowledge – Blackboard and CourseSite don’t offer). Admittedly, students might be unwilling to pay for the service, and the higher education sphere has its own peculiarities and inertia that might make GS’s strategy viable. But Christensen makes a convincing case in favor of competing against non-consumption (targeting a non-consuming part of the population and turning that segment into consumers) as a recipe for success for innovators.
Christensen also points out the need for many disruptive innovators to create new channels instead of using existing ones. Talking with technology services departments at universities to convince them to switch their course management software to GS is simply using an existing channel. Recruiting professors and students to use the service and spread the word on a large scale beyond beta-testing would be creating a new distribution channel. GS has many features in its favor, in particular the ease with which it supports collaborative tools – a “job” (to use Christensen’s terminology) that students are already trying to get done, but which is not supported by CourseSite or Blackboard, both of which are very one-directional in terms of information flow.
Finally, Christensen recommends being “impatient for profit, patient for growth.” In his words (p.290-1): “When someone tells you as a senior executive that you must endure years of substantial losses before a new business will become huge and profitable, this flags a plan to cram a disruptive technology into a sustaining role in an established market… [As for growth,] Disruption – and competing against nonconsumption in particular – requires a longer runway before a steep ascent is possible.”
Wise words that I hope GS will abide by. Its superior product deserves to win.