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Mass customisation: lessons for education

Home Forums Enhancement Strategies (Week 8) Pros and cons of new models (Activity 8.0) Mass customisation: lessons for education

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    OK. I’m going to try NOT to bore the pants off you with detailed definitions of supply chain theories – and I’m no expert, I only did a 30 ECTS certificate in it… But I do think “enhancement” involves knowing a bit about the thinking in this subject area – I hate to tell the man who broke up with the edupunk, but look at the rest of the Internet disintermediation – it’s economics and productivity (aka convenience for the customer) that will change how educational institutions operate in the end. Thing is, if we want education to be based around learner needs, there are some good arguments from supply chain management that might avoid mis-steps.

    I enjoyed the videos on Udacity and the Saylor Foundation this week. But I’m really interested in sustainability, particularly in a week where Coursera’s future has been much-discussed online. And mass customisation is the concept that seems to me to have the greatest chance of sustainability.

    I’ve been interested for some time in how we could use the developments in learning technology such as OERs and some elements of MOOCs to provide the educational equivalent of mass customisation – keeping costs down yet reflecting personalised learning (think Zara or Sport Obermeyer – why will become more obvious later).

    David Jenning’s article defines agility as involving “letting learners manage, direct and adapt their learning with minimum constraint”. There are two core concepts you need to know about in supply chain management. One is the LEAN philosophy, mainly developed by Toyota, which identifies waste in a system and removes it (how is the boring bit). Crucially, LEAN defines waste in terms of what is of not of value to the customer (i.e. the learner, not the institution/business). So David’s idea is kind of LEAN for education…

    The second main supply chain concept is agility, which is a bit murkier. Christopher says it’s achieving a rapid response at global scale to constantly changing markets (think Apple or HP). It’s achieved by designing in flexibility – for example HP would create “vanilla” printer models in Asia for the European market, ship them to its European distribution centre, then localise them for specific country markets based on order information, allowing it to postpone localisation for a rapid response.

    Our main man here is Fisher who ties in the idea of functional products (soup, baked beans) versus innovative products such as elements of high fashion, and maybe some educational courses, which have a short life cycle, high profit margins but unpredictable demand. Innovative products need buffer stocks in order to be available, but the cost of keeping buffer stocks (think academic salaries) is offset by the high profit margin and lower quantity of (courses) that need to be sold.

    But a great deal of education “product” is functional. Where does your course lie? Functional or innovative? Is it changing year by year? Is the demand for it going up or down? What is the value to the learner, and how are you measuring it? My area changes month by month. I want to customise the course based on a pre-course survey to the specific group of learners who enrol. I especially want to respect the time of my learners, and provide a good user experience as well as a good learning experience (convenience). This involves a lot of content origination work on my part. And I need to think about incorporating Yusuf’s four principles alongside Fisher’s.

    Customer enrichment ahead of competitors. 
    My problem with this one is that I think I can do the sense-making and coaching parts of enriching education ok, as I’m working in area of high demand but not much product. And because I really do believe there is a huge market of people out there who cannot, for cost or location reasons, access existing face-to-face courses. Fernando’s research that people are prepared to pay is large-scale and fascinating (shame he didn’t ask how much…) . As is the lack of relationship to OU sign-up from iTunes – so that’s looking like it’s a different market to conventional education as other Octel-ers have pointed out. The appification of edification?

    However, the third pillar of education, “credentialling”, is blocking the next element, mass customisation…

    Achieving mass customisation at mass production costs (mastering change) 
    This can be done if you are a master of your subject and you have a lot of learning chunks at your fingertips (think Khan) but it takes time to build up the material in easily reusable forms despite OERs. Except for the timeframe for approving changes to courses… Academic boards. But do the learners care about credentials? Are they more bothered about having something that employers value than an institutional stamp? Or are they learning for self-development? Can the open-badge movement provide some sort of resolution for that new market Fernando found evidence of, learners who will pay  but aren’t necessarily going to sign up to a “traditional” OU course?

    [I’m delighted to say Brian Mulligan and the wonderful IT Sligo are trying a MOOC in the much-demanded Six Sigma quality training this Autumn. Complete with badges I think. I’m hoping to do that course, badged or not, as this would be of direct value to my employer.]

    Reducing uncertainty through data to support better forecasting
    Forecasting is really hard, but if the course can be made scalable, then the demand/forecasting issue is just to have demand above a paying minimum – this is why administrators like the MOOC idea… Think of all those people who sign up to evening courses and only attend the first week… and this is something that educators need to keep an eye on. If you don’t know what forecasting data your institution uses, and how it’s being collected, and why, you’re going to end up with technology enhanced baked beans courses. Use Google Analytics to look at subject area demand too – It’s free. And of course… digital marketing techniques can both contribute to as well as reduce demand volatility. If your campaign works, how will you handle the extra demand?

    Mastering change and uncertainty through creating routinely adaptable structures
    In the wider HE structure, I think “adaptable structures” involves Gilly Salmon’s eModeration skills and something not many people seem to be asking – are facilitation skills really subject specific, or is online tutoring a more general skill? We already know that TAs in the US are being asked to moderate vast online classes with little reward other than the carrot of possible tenure in a decade. I don’t think that model is sustainable for TEL. But I do think there will increased separation between content creation and course facilitation.

    Hedge against uncertainty with buffer stocks and excess capacity 
    We still have the capacity but can it be adapted to work in new ways?  Arguable…

    Leverage the impact of people across the institution through IT
    A big issue raised by several OcTEL participants over the weeks – HE IT services have to be conservative, and have to provide reliable infrastructures with old equipment and tiny budgets. Suporting recent learning technologies, despite the greater access and reduction in costs, is not trivial…

    For me, I think what this all means is that I need to somehow get my former institution to look at endorsing but not credentialling the course I want to put online, because I cannot provide mass customisation within their standard method of credentialling. So next step: more research on where the learner value lies.

    I’ll just chuck this one in to finish up. How can we get honest views from learners of what they value to guide our “supply chain” planning? Do those views of value change at the end of the course if the educators do their job in a way that does not apply to standard supply chain commodities? Is education more like IKEA – we’re such experts we can design a product so smart you don’t even know how much you want it until you’ve consumed it…? Is that why education may escape cost disease?


    Christopher 2000 cited by 974.
    Fisher 1997 cited by 2544.

    Yusuf 2004 cited by 238.

    David Jennings

    Wow, thanks, Imogen, that’s quite a weekend’s work you’ve done there.

    I really appreciate that you’ve got to grips with the possibilities of ‘enhancement’ at a deeper level than just cheaper, faster etc

    I haven’t seen supply chain theories applied to this area in this rigorous way before, and it’s enlightening. I’m no expert in those theories but I want to push back a little bit — at the risk of being accused of ‘special pleading’ — by questioning whether learning can be analysed as a supply chain in the same way that cars, printers and baked beans can. To some extent, I’m sure it can, but I think many would argue that there’s something different in the way that learning (especially in higher education) depends on interaction and negotiation with the learner. Arguably it’s more a process than a product, and a process that is co-created rather than simply supplied from producer to consumer. But you may say that some supply chain theories take account of this? I’m no expert.

    I’d also like to elaborate on the bit where you’ve drawn on my ALT newsletter article and equated my use of ‘agile learning’ with ‘lean’ philosophy and practice. I know there are special management theory uses (with their own mini-industries and literature) around terms like ‘agile’ and ‘lean’, but I prefer to use agile in the common, everyday sense. Hence I’m concerned that cutting down waste, in the lean approach you’ve identified, could actually reduce agility and flexibility in education. If you want learners to be able to change course or tailor their own learning experiences, then I think you need to accept that there is some inherent unpredictability on how they are going to do this. To cater for this unpredictability I think the system as a whole needs to have some redundancy and slack (a.k.a. waste) in it to enable it to adapt. Hence not so ‘lean’ if I’ve understood the use of that term correctly?

    There’s lots more to your post than that, but those are the couple of issues that jumped out at me.

    all the best, David


    David thanks for the response. LEAN is hard to figure out to start with, but in the end it IS about keeping what the customer/learner finds valuable and removing waste from what they don’t find valuable. So if we believe they want that agility and negotiation, then what you are doing is “leaning” out the boring bits they don’t want.

    I understand your not wanting to use jargon that may seem counter to natural language. I entirely agree! I just had this jarring feeling about the use of the word agility in the context that you used it… because it can mean something different in a bean counting context.

    In modern supply chains customers (or in our case learners) do negotiate their product, their price, their timescale, their outcome. And the supplier has to respond. There’s actually a whole branch of (mostly not very well written) supply chain literature about the bidirectional nature of the process in services such as health and education whether the customer is “transformed” by the service supplied. I do agree about transformative/transactional effect of the process of education – which definitely adds a layer of complexity.

    Some educational courses are innovative products, and some functional. It depends on the teaching, the learner’s relationship with the institution and the degree of negotiability. The approach you are pushing back against is the standard supply chain management response where a functional product is involved.

    I will précis my waffle above. I think the sort of courses we are starting to want to develop with TEL are innovative products rather than functional, and that they are probably unsustainable economically without changes that allow mass customisation. The main stumbling block is how you credential/formally assess such a course.

    Damn. I should have titled this post “The appification of edification.” It would have got more views…


    Hello – wow an amazing post and like David, an area that I had never considered before. But I can see how this approach could really help institutions develop strategic visions, not just for online learning, but learning and education in general. I agree that we need to develop a more flexible approach to course development and this is something that I think is largely hampered by existing structures – and the whole inflexible academic system in general.

    One of the key drivers around all of this is going to be the view of employers – what is it that they will regard highly as evidence of skills, knowledge, ability etc, in relation to an expected post. Will they be willing to move beyond a degree certification?

    Secondly – much of the flexible approach to learning relies on students having the skills to self-motivate and self-manage their learning. I think there will always be a market for clearly structured courses leading to a firm qualification. But of course within all of that, there is no reason why educators, cannot try and develop a flexibile approach in terms of course design and how it is delivered.

    I also agree with David’s point – to build in more flexibility is going to need more investment, especially for learning technologists and training of tutors.

    Just a few thoughts but certainly not as well informed as Imogen. But it does leave me pondering on doing the MOOC she mentions (though reminds me of economics which was never my strong point!) and should we be incorporating some of the ideas more firmly in courses such as this ocTEL MOOC.

    thanks for the contribution





    Thanks for the comment Roger!

    I think there is quite a lot of research on what employers are looking for and funnily enough what’s wanted generally ties in with what academics and students also want. The problem is how we are doing the assessment/credentialling aspect. (Example:  the teamwork/groupwork debate currently running on the HETL group on LinkedIn – we all want teamwork but the way education does it is through immensely unpopular groupwork activities that most students find scarring and unfair and that we could design better –

    I haven’t had time to reach out to friends and colleagues working in the learning and development end of HR to find out what’s happening there at the moment…

    Six Sigma – that IT Sligo course also covers the basics of LEAN too. I think revising the basic statistics involved is also great preparation for acquiring Learning Analytics skills – though I’ve failed to complete George Siemens’ LA MOOCs twice… 🙁 they are  too cMOOC for me as I can’t find the basic knowledge element to sense-make…


    Hi  Imogen and this is a really lively discussion area.I wasn’t aware of the work showing that what employers want is what academics and students want as well. Though I suppose it depends which academics you ask.  I tend to think that employers want far more generic and practical/interpersonal skills, and also an ability to use theory to then address a particular real problem. something I am trying to bring into my own online teaching, but it does raise challenges about how to try and do some of this.

    Group work – this year I introduced a group wiki activity which students addressed very well and the standard of work, albeit not that difficult, was excellent. I would however like to find ways of developing a more interactice and challenging group activity and this needs to be asynchronous too. Any ideas or examples around this would be very helpful. Public Health, which I teach, always has competing issues/perspectives/stakeholders and it woudl be great to try and bring this in as a practical project for students.

    I couldn’t access the Linkedin but am assuming it was for the group technology in teaching and learning and have requested to join.

    As for cMOOCs – yes I find them challenging as I like structured formats and find that the ‘c’ element takes up so much more time, and often dead end routes to follow which can be frustrating. But, I do see their value in a wider sense of learning, and especially one outside of an assessed course format.

    I will persuse the Sigma MOOC but haven’t tried George Siemens and never seemed to find the advert when starting. But as always not enough time and this day job somehow gets in the way!




    Great stuff Imogen and all.  It’s vital to keep the needs of our audience in mind.  I can see that some distance learning content should be easily accessible to a mass audience and requires little interactivity (LEAN), ‘discussion’ perhaps most effectively provides AGILITY needed to respond to students on a more personal need basis also required.

    I’m interested in reviewing the role of ‘discussion’ in distance learning – please see and add to our debate leading to presentation at University of Birmingham in a couple of weeks:

    I’ve already referenced a couple of papers suggested in this forum.

    Thanks again


    Hi Roger

    A former colleague of mine, Dr Catherine O’Mahony, did some great work on “what’s wanted” ie graduate competences in Ireland back in 2009:

    That HETL group on LInkedIn is great – lots of interesting ideas and discussions and a great international perspective due to the global membership.

    I hope Martin Hawksey’s going to develop a “slightly more x-” MOOC on Learning Analyticsas his next ALT project… that would be fantastic!

    Best, Imogen


    Hi Marcus

    I got that URL to work by taking the /edit off the end…

    I’ve never heard people using the term d-learning at all but I remember your linking that piece about the Lunar Society on this forum before!

    To me discussion has two basic functions: to bring in other perspectives and paths, and to provide sufficient peer pressure to keep learners motivated to complete! Perhaps that is harsh but my experience of distance learning whether e or not is that I need the feeling of  other people being on the same path to keep me going too, even when the topics are of great interest to me, such as TEL.

    Best wishes Imogen


    Hi Imogen and thanks for the link, this is helpful. Similar work has been done in England I think, well I’ve heard of it and will search another time.

    As for a xMOOC on learning analytics – yep, way to go! now we just need to encourage Martin Hawksley to run it! Though the major stumbling block I have is that we use Blackboard as our VLE and it is very difficult, and impossible in many areas to get any data out in a meaningful way. This is frustrating and I’ve already had some helpful support from Martin about trying to do some social network analysis – but sadly it can’t really be done as you can’t download the activity data.

    I found the following course curriculum on social network analysis, which I apopreciate is different in some areas to learning analytics, but still interesting. The enrolled course is finished but all the materials etc are creative commons,




    Bookmarked! Thanks Roger.


    You’re welcome. This has turned out to be a very interesting series of postings. Let me know how you get on if you do any more work on this, and also if you do anything on the social network course. I had a look last night and the first few weeks can very quickly be breezed through.





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