Consumer Awareness

LeiLani Cauthen, Author, The Consumerization of Learning

Chapter 14: Consumer Awareness from The Consumerization of Learning

Most educators, along with growing numbers of families and students, are aware of screen learning options. They’ve been seeing advertising on television. They have apps. They see ads pop up when they do Internet searches for “back to school” and see things like “Not-Back-to-School- Camp” – an annual camp for unschooled teens in Oregon. Finding a course, finding a piece of content, downloading an app – all of those things are for the truly earnest, but increasingly the not- so-earnest at digital learning are seeing intrusive ads as they surf, shop, or pick up email. The great default is simple search engines, which is the same for shopping any consumer product.

Yet it didn’t start with the average parent and student. Consumerization started with teachers.

According to the Learning Counsel’s national 2015 Digital Curriculum Strategy Survey, in which

540 U.S. Schools and Districts responded:


  • 58% of teachers already spend up to five hours a week just on web search for resources. Approximately 12.5% of their work time  is consumed in web searching. (Do the math; this is a huge shift that has happened gradually over the past ten years or so, at a phenomenal countrywide cost.)
  • One-third of teachers spend up to 10% of their workweek building digital curriculum. (Which typically will be a lesson built on top of some Internet resource shown in the lesson with a link to some discrete piece of knowledge in a document or site, or a video.)


In fact, teachers themselves have built a huge portion of the available consumable digital curriculum. Most of the industry content vendors have had trouble in the last ten years making digital sales because of this, although total spend in 2015 on digital resources topped $7.2 billion in the U.S. The faith in the textbook model, or do-it-your- self by teachers, was hard to overcome initially, and the distribution of computing devices was not what it is now at 77% of all students having a device for a significant portion of the day, if not a full one-device-per-child model. But now the paper-versus-digital trade is happening at a phenomenal pace.

Learning Counsel research indicates that 2016 was the first dramatic shift, popping the digital purchase side up to a total of $9 billion (a $1.8 billion increase in a single year!) to educators and institutions, while diminishing the textbook side by at least that much. At the same time, the overall market has lost at least $1.8 billion in worth due to the fact that some spend has actually left the market for teacher-created or free and open resources. From the outside, the curriculum resource market looks like it hasn’t gone up in four or five years, remaining relatively flat but shifting from one foot (paper) to the other (digital). What growth there could have been to coincide with nominal population growth never happened, because the market instead chose non-purchase and has put in place a significant portion of home-grown or free digital resources.

Industry players have long been aware that their entrance point into selling schools was ini- tially the supplemental resources space, things like math games, videos, etc. Administrators in schools were usually not the purchasers; school principals and individual teachers were, at a rate of 3 to 1 in local small purchase versus institu- tional. This meant that companies had to sell in a nearly pure-consumer-marketing model to reach the bulk of the buyers who had been teachers for the starter years of digital transition (the nation has 3.3 million teachers). This cost-to-market for industry has therefore been built-in to most com- panies who are using tactics that completely skirt the old textbook district or school board levels. Now that schools are at long last taking inventories of all that their teachers are using and establishing strategies to get full-coverage models of digital curriculum and content, they are making short work of saturating the school landscape with all things digital learning. In addition, the industry of paid professional dig- ital resources is gaining some minor efficiencies now reaching whole districts, resulting in lower costs of marketing overall.

Meanwhile, the seeds of consumerization had already been sown, with many for-profit and non-profits continuing to bypass the existing governmental structure and sell learning directly. The seeds have grown so much that companies are selling digital learning objects to consumers at a pace that’s faster and growing more quickly than that sold to schools (currently at $10.44 billion and growing at 20% annual growth rate versus school/teacher purchase, which combined was   at $7.2 billion last year and predicted to jump by 25% this year. Hereafter, it will level off to about a 5% growth rate due to 2016 being a major adoption and new purchase year because of pent-up demand to utilize the computers and tablets purchased). Ultimately, indications are that consumer-based learning purchase will outstrip institutional spend- ing by a factor of at least 10, and rise to assume 10-15% of all mobile market purchases whereas it is currently .08% of a $1.4 trillion industry. That promises industry a potential gain of some $100 billion in the next ten years. It may go even faster if it catches a strong consumer trend pattern.

The major digital learning objects, the “Three Things of Digital Learning” are:

  1. Discrete digital learning objects – video, apps, eBooks, documents, sites, games and courseware (iTunes, Teacher Created Mate- rials, YouTube, Overdrive, Scholastic, Waggle, Amplify, Tenmarks, Macmillan, Disney Interactive, Lumosity, ABCmouse, ReadingKingdom, Rocket Group, HMH, Discovery Education, and thousands, if not millions, of others)
  2. Discrete Online Courses (The Great Courses, Khan Academy, Udacity, Coursera, Florida Virtual School, Fuel Education,, LinkedIn )
  3. Online Schools & Distance Supplemental Services (Fuel Education, Florida Virtual School, Presence Learning)

The intermixing of these into existing schools is part of the blending of education today, and the growth of all these learning things is now saturating teacher, administrator, and consumer consciousness with big media messaging and socialization online.

The design basics of the Three Things of Digital Learning reflect the internet modalities of other things, like the single-song sales on iTunes and one- off game apps downloaded onto tens of millions of phones worldwide. The Things are commonly all grouped into the terms “learning objects” or “learning resources.” As a trend, the Things are all attempting to be:

  • Shorter form
  • Participatory
  • Multi-sensory

The “Long Form” Things are attempting to be the same as the “Short Form” but additionally:

  • Book and textbook replacements or whole libraries (collections of Things), now typically coupled with pre-assessment for reading Lexile level
  • Mastery games complete with all gaming stylization
  • All-inclusive immersive environments, covering standards by grades and single log-in
  • Embedded assessments with analytics
  • Provisioning teacher controls


The “Long Form,” a gaming term, is not typically seen in the straight-to-consumer world if the item is educational. Only recently did Amazon start to include long-form games for sale on its consumer web platform. Most teachers and schools are actually going the consumer-oriented route of short-form purchase, especially free. This means that rather than the form the textbook took of a collected and scripted knowledge masterwork, they are  following  the internet modality which atomizes things but also adds dimensions like sound and interactivity, and ultimately allows for a re-col- lection into a customized and branded learning experience.

This is real consumerization now at work, knowledge reorganization across a newly globalized neural network for mankind. True personalization possibilities are endless. However, curation is a bigger burden on teachers.

“Apps can bring a portable solution to every learning style which can suit different language learning skill requirements: grammar, vocabulary, reading, listening, writing, or speaking. A com- bination of apps (app mashing) that covers the different skills will help language learners engage, any time, any place, and at any pace with a variety of teaching styles, from the repetitive grammar drills, to the gamified all-in-one solutions,” said Fernando Rosell-Aguilar, Lecturer in Spanish at The Open University.1

Commissioned studies are showing vocabulary and literacy gain for young children with app use.2 Arguments may be raging for a few more years about whether the Things of consumerized learning will continue to make relentless incursions into the education landscape. Or whether they will tear down the status quo, put teachers out of work, and rip up the bureaucracies. Or if these “digital natives” with their apps and games will be made powerless and ignored by all consumers everywhere because educators launch an effective challenge as to whether the Things teach anybody anything or are mere amusements and a passing fad. This is doubtable.

It’s doubtable because the proverbial cat is “out of the bag” already. People see learning online and they are using it. A bald-faced order to just “get back in class and learn” won’t hold out for much longer now that nearly everyone has a device on them all day anywhere they go. The advised route is to know, in detail, what is really happening with consumerized learning and develop a brilliant strategy as a school, a teacher, student, or parent, to embrace the shift and use it for greater gains.


1 Fernando Rosell-Aguilar, Lecturer at The Open University “How Smart- phone Apps are Revolutionizing Language Learning”, The Conversation, April 29, 2014.

2 Cynthia Cheong and Carly Shuler, The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, “Learning: Is There an App for That?” 2010.

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