Applying the New Theory to Education

Competing Against Luck touches on a few examples in education that follow the same pattern. For example, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) President Paul LeBlanc features heavily into the book’s discussion of a leader willing to rethink higher education admissions and learning experiences beyond the “average” 18-year-old customer that his university had traditionally targeted. Instead, LeBlanc architected online-learning experiences designed to optimize for demand among nontraditional students facing a variety of circumstances: working adults, students far beyond the boarders of New Hampshire, and late-stage career changers.

By understanding the range of jobs that adults in particular circumstances might be trying to get done, SNHU incorporated new designs into its burgeoning online program: reconfiguring wait times for financial aid advice, implementing high-touch guidance models, and launching advertising campaigns that catered to adults who were considering going back to school to better themselves or make a better life for their loved ones.

At the Institute, we believe that jobs-to-be-done theory will prove a crucial tool to getting innovation right on behalf of students. We’ve spent the better half of the past year conducting in-depth research on why students “hire” college (the results of our surveys will be published next year).

Why Engagement is Low

And over the years, we’ve also made our best guesses at some of K–12 students’ key jobs, particularly drawing on research on what motivates younger students. We’ve noted that many of those jobs—such as “make me feel successful” and “let me have fun with friends”—figure only marginally into traditional school design.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that students don’t actually appear to be “hiring” school at the rates we’d hope; survey after survey show that student engagement is low and drops off precipitously in high school. If we truly want students to buy into new learning models, then we will have to optimize for the things students themselves are trying to get done. Such models will have to compete with all of the other things students are willing to hire in their lives, like the latest social networking sites, tantalizing gossip, or mobile games that can make them feel equally, if not more, successful and social than school manages to.

As Competing Against Luck’s title suggests, jobs to be done is a theory of competition. Like disruptive innovation theory, it helps us to analyze whom or what is likely to win out and why. That competitive framing can feel crude when we think about a public good like education. But the power of jobs to be done is that it can help reformers, school leaders, and education entrepreneurs alike bridge the frequently gaping chasm between need and demand in education.

Lesson Learned

Over the years, reformers have tirelessly tried to innovate to tackle chronic deficits (not just in learning experiences, but also in paltry data collection tools, teacher shortages, and limited community engagement, to name a few) with sleek, well-designed solutions. But failures to make progress against these “needs”—from the demise of promising personalized learning platforms like inBloom, to countless failed efforts to shift instructional practice, to lackluster results in parent engagement—can teach us a lesson: efforts to “fill” perceived gaps in the education ecosystem do not always result in solutions that end users—be those teachers, students, or their parents—are willing to hire.

Squaring the difference between systemic needs and stakeholder demand may be a hard but important pill for champions of education innovation to swallow. To that end, I hope—and expect—that budding entrepreneurs in education will pick up the book to think about their customers differently.

But I’m also holding out hope that leaders, reformers, and advocates without any profit motives whatsoever, but who are deeply invested in changing the education system, can likewise take a page from Competing Against Luck. It offers a critical chance to consider the actual motivations of the entire constellation of actors in the education system in a new light; and in particular, what compels—or doesn’t compel—our students to buy what we’re selling.

About the Author:

Julia Freeland Fisher is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.


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