The Face of Consumerized Learning

LeiLani Cauthen, Author, The Consumerization of Learning

What does the face of consumerized learning look like? What’s it like to experience it?                          

The fact is, it’s a lot like watching a great movie or documentary that has commercial breaks and the people around you are slouched with you on the couch making various comments and asking questions about whether one character is doomed and another one destined for greatness before the end.

It’s also a lot like playing a game – a board game, like Monopoly, with your friends. In fact, the “gamification” of learning is not creating violent or silly games; it’s creating games that challenge you intellectually and may even be co-played by others in your global class. You might be the game assigned “banker” in a math schema teaching you to think in denominations of drachma (the old monetary standard of Greece before the Euro and the European Union). The game may be studying international finance and have open discussion going on with fellow players.

There are three ways to consumerize learning and try to sell it on the open market, and each has a major effect on what the learning objects look like.

1. Create digital schools and courses.

2. Create digital objects.

3. Create digital solutions (things that put multiple objects into a sequence of learning).

Each of these ways can be seen morphing into the others within the broader education market. It’s confusingly complex.

The main considerations by those in the edu- cation market, business-to-business consumption, is around what they will use, and they are seeking first and foremost a replacement technology to prior resources. They seek cost efficiency and immediacy. As the distributor of the learning objects, certain schools could be buying them in bulk to retail out to  students.

Schools don’t think of distribution of learn- ing objects this way; they normally think of the digital objects as the elements they must work to build into something interesting, a course or whole subject area coverage model grade-by-grade or within a single school inside a university.

They want to custom curate and then manipu- late and personalize the digital objects themselves. This is a lot of work and may actually be duplicative work better left to the pros of digital instructional design. If not, it may be building things that will not  “compete”  against  similar learning objects in the consumer world.

Creating Digital Schools and Courses

Online schools are typically course-centric. They are not retailers of digital learning objects except in the sense of courses. They are increasingly commercializing those, selling even without regard to enrollment in their school (if there is an actual physical school). This is a sign the U.S. is at the early stages of consumerization of learning. Why? Because the early stages of any major industry started with sales to existing lines of business.

Consider the car industry. The earliest resellers of the first cars were the horse-drawn buggy makers who had for hundreds of years been the go-to source for people needing faster transportation.

Virtual online schools such as Udemy, Khan Academy, Florida Virtual School Global, Open Culture, Ed-X,, and Coursera are proof positive that course-purchase and use is hot and continuing to grow. It is only a matter of time before they are also widely accredited, and perhaps accredited-in-context, or each course is its own accruable unit regardless of diploma or degree plan. “Badges” are more and more acceptable as evidence of training on resumes.

The consumerization of higher ed in the long run will necessarily need to include its willingness to disaggregate into consumable digital learning objects or solutions to aid the consumer. A complete disregard of past forms and a favoring of  the consuming student will be an enabler for lifelong learning and new revenue paths for higher ed. It directly supports the greater business and economic model that needs rapid training on new tech for staff.

Digital online schools by every K-12 school will be problematic unless it is a local flourish to other consumerized learning objects and courses created independently. Such constructs full of customized digital curriculum will quickly be seen as a massive duplicative effort and wasteful.

Creating Digital Objects

Governments and schools love to create various meta-tagging schemas and giant repositories for learning objects, especially the “free” ones  their teachers create. Unfortunately many of which often have internal copyright  infringements.

Creating a digital object is a piece of cake with a few authoring tools or just Word documents or maybe a presentation tool. It’s maybe “doing something” technically,  but more than likely  it is not.

Who likes individual digital objects the most? Students. Individual apps, books, videos, and other sorts of disaggregated content are the way consumers are used to getting their content. It is a normal thinking pattern to seek out elements to teach themselves “X” and to cut right to the chase with only that thing they want to know. This is the great legacy of search engines, which have taught nearly everyone that a thing we want to know is only a search-engine entry away.

It’s also a great thing for the enablement of learning-by-discovery.

Teachers, again, are huge proponents of objectizing learning. Most teachers like individual learning objects and discrete elements more than courseware for the simple reason that an element can fit into a lesson plan, whereas courseware is the lesson plan.

Publishers that are app creators, lesson-plan distributors, and for-profit or not-for-profit repositories love individual digital learning objects or elements. The reduction of an entire subject into bite-sized pieces or individual books or individual apps, lessons, or tests allows for a perceived low cost to each. This allows for all levels of students, teachers, and schools to acquire without feeling like they’ve spent all that much.

The problem with elements is that they are  even  more  disconnected  from the everything-you-have-to-learn than the single-subject textbook was. In some instances, they are not even chapters in coverage for what a student needs to learn in a subject. One example might be Adaptive Curriculum’s free sample entitled "Mathematics, 2D Views of an Object Formed by Unit Cubes 1." This allows students to draw different 2D views of the 3D object formed by unit cubes. This is nifty, but does it do anything for the meeting of all the school’s goals for student learning? Well, this one element does meet a couple of Common Core State Standards, so it is a good find, but not all elements have any notation of what they do to help. Adaptive Curriculum’s website is gracious enough to offer a means of checking  their  elements  against  any  Standards in the U.S. – a very cool feature.

There are thousands of other resource sites and government repositories to go and check out, but one example is SAS Curriculum Pathways, which is unique in that it promises all of its digital learning objects are interactive. Each of the elements are “free” and certainly cool. However, they are one-offs from a company with hundreds of other products that are also for sale. It is up to a teacher to search the site and incorporate them and then test on them and see if students learned anything. In addition, the school needs to determine if this is going to feed into curriculum goals overall, or if it’s just a fun side activity that teaches some important concepts.

Other services like Knovation and Overdrive offer pre-curated digital resources that are oth- erwise scattered across the Internet and freely available but now can be consumed en-masse in one place with a subscription model.

The individual objects, while not always fully digital but only “digitized” documents, are put into an efficient consumerized model to serve teachers and learners with low-cost resources that are still pre-vetted and continuously refreshed. The reason for this type of work is that an estimated 60% of all links for free resources fail annually and a new resource must be found or the pathway to the original  reestablished.

Creating Digital Solutions

Publishers love whole courseware solutions, because they are whole systems with lots of indi- vidual learning modules in them and can be sold and supported for large numbers of users, often at different grade levels. There are two general types of courseware solutions: learning object repositories with management functions built around them (Learning Management Systems) and guided courseware systems, which are a combination of digital lessons with the functions of managing and analytics around those. These later ones, the courseware type, are not objects individually but whole journeys through a subject or many subjects that typically have gamified elements.

A courseware “solution” is by definition beyond the simple digital learning object or even a single lesson or course. It can be an entire subject like math from simple addition and subtraction all the way through various topics up to calculus.

Take for example Triumph Learning’s Waggle platform, offered students a “scaffolded” or pre-architected lesson structure they step through autonomously with some teacher interaction. In addition, teacher training and other benefits all tie together. With courseware solutions, publishers also gain from predictable subscriptions that are renewed often. Other full solution vendors, albeit sometimes for single subject areas, include Edmentum, Myon, Brainpop, Edgenuity, Thinkcera, Curriculum Associates, Scientific Learning, Inspiration Learning, Accelerate Learning, Odysseyware, Renaissance Learning, Imagine Learning, Lakeshore Learning, Britannica, Stride Academy, Reading Kingdom, Achieve3000, Copia, Active Learning, Amplify, Apex Learning, Tiggly, and hundreds of others like them which seem to usually have named their company “Something Learning,” and the “usual suspects” in the group of big publishers, like Pearson, HMH, McGraw Hill, Cengage, Follett, Voyager Sopris, etc.

District administrators and teachers love courseware solutions, because they often come with measurements and log-in counts, and they can “see” what’s going on with learning, right in the system.

Information Technology Directors like courseware solutions because there are less loose elements around to keep track of and provide support for. The only drawback is the complaints from teachers and students who don’t like to keep track of upwards of 50 different log-ins for various publisher solutions.

Another problem with courseware solutions from the school viewpoint is that they require a lot of vetting and can be pricey. They also require a lot of agreement amongst a lot of people to the solution, which is like trying to find the Holy Grail for many schools. Publishers have sometimes admitted that, while they do sell a lot of subscriptions, use is sometimes questionable unless tied to some metrics. Often this is a result of the solution not being properly intro- duced, but it could also be lack of a simple user experience.

How consumers choose digital learning objects, schools, courses, or courseware solutions is the topic of many studies yet to come. One thing is a sure bet, though – consumers will seek the best value at the lowest cost. Making a learning object something that is hard to find, making it related to having to enroll in something, or making it obscurely require something to happen, like a paper transcript getting mailed in, are all things that will derail getting learning to be consumer accessible.

Schools choosing digital learning objects, courses, or courseware solutions are an important tactic and could be an enormous part of their marketing plan and success.

Hiring a virtual school and “white-labeling” them, or basically slapping a logo on top of their courses, is a fast way to get things going for exist- ing schools. If buying a lot of digital objects, a school has to set up means to vet every app or lesson plan or video, etc.; this is very import- ant to note because of student data privacy and security issues, as well as potential exposure to inappropriate advertising.

Some other important factors to consider:

  • Make sure teachers align their lessons with apps they choose to download so they also don’t overburden the students.
  • If teachers are downloading a bunch of digital learning objects, you’re going to need a repository Learning Management System or virtual server in the cloud with a single sign on solution.
  • If it’s a solution that runs on district or local servers, there needs to be tech support and storage.
  • If it’s a solution that is in the cloud, you’re going to need some vetting security-wise, because you’ll be having students access the system as a requirement.
  • Who’s going to manage all the passwords kids are sure to lose constantly or mis- takenly share, thus creating some level of instructional design flaw for things as serious as testing results? If you do take this on, how will you explain to the State that you have adopted some acceptable level of cheating potentiality that will affect reporting because of possibly shared passwords?
  • If it’s an individual digital learning object like an app, lesson, game, video, or some- thing else, who owns it? Who is making sure there are no copyright infringements or non-licensed copies? Who keeps it if students can bring their own devices (BYOD)? Who pays for it?
  • If a school is going to bring in consumer learning objects and use a tactic of send- ing students out to “get the Shakespeare app,” some will get the “Complete Works” from Google Play, and others will get the “Sonnets” from iTunes. Having a view to different ecosystems for apps is important.

The face of consumerized learning is as varied as the app world with its millions of options, a tiny percentage of which are widely used. Beyond apps is an even larger-sized universe of online schools, courses, digital learning objects, and solutions.

The ultimate sophistication of all of  these on a technical scale regarding how well designed and interactive they are will be changing as the industry matures.


















1 Curriculum Pathways, Free Learning for K12 and Beyond,