28 October 2014

From Lean Startup to Lean Schooling - What if Students Were "Graduated" Every 10 Weeks?

One of the central ideas of the Lean Startup by Eric Ries is the idea of Minimum Viable Product, or MVP. The purpose of a MVP is to release a product as quickly as possible in order to begin gaining market feedback. The biggest waste is making a "great" product for which there is no market, so the more rapidly a startup learns whether it should persevere or pivot (change key features, target a different market segment, etc.) the more likely its success. Product release and re-direction that might take traditional product development teams a year or two could be happen in weeks or months instead. A company practicing Ries' (and Steve Blank's) method could have made dozens or hundreds of release iterations in the time a traditional company might take to make its first release.

Think about that concept applied to education. Even just the education after high school. Our current university system - largely invented by Wilhelm Humboldt nearly 200 years ago - wastes billions in budget and costs graduates trillions in lost income. The waste is enormous.

As it now stands, an 18 year old chooses a major, a direction in which to take her life, based on some vague notions of joy in work, income, and their own interests and strengths. But for far too many students, they invest four to six years of their lives, pay tens of thousands in tuition and forego perhaps a hundred thousand in income in order to get a degree that ends up peripheral to their career. The first real feedback they get about whether this major is going to create opportunities to work with the sorts of people they enjoy, doing the sorts of tasks that engage them, creating value for markets able to reward them is after graduation. Some - many - go back to school for graduate or professional degrees after getting feedback on their bachelors degree but these, too, often result in unhappy careers. I recently had a lawyer tell me that, based on her experience, about 80% of lawyers hate their career but can't go into anything else because they are burdened with student loans that preclude a change.

What if, instead, universities practiced a variant of Minimum Viable Product? Instead of rapidly releasing products for feedback - products that are continually revised based on real market response rather than speculation - universities could rapidly "graduate" students to enter the market? What if students were put into the work place within weeks of when they started university? Say at the end of a 10-week quarter? And then returned to university 2 to 10 weeks later with real data they could use to steer their education.

One huge difference is the difference between students and products. Products don't care about what market they land in or whether they enjoy their customers or not. Students do care and deserve real-world experience in a work place to learn whether the sorts of people they'd work with (and customers they would serve) are people they'd enjoy working with or for. They'd begin to collect data based on their own experiences, from the nature of the work to the experience of the paycheck. They begin to learn whether this work was more conducive to the experience of flow or frustration.

In the world of products, the releases never stop. Ries cites examples of companies that make dozens of software releases a day, A product is continually evolving, continually changing and (hopefully) improving. Students could do something similar, going through this continual process of "graduating" into the market every 10 weeks for 2 to 10 years, depending on the nature of their study and the direction their interests, passions, and market demand take them. Just as in today's world, some would walk away with the equivalent of an AA and some a Ph.D. But the difference - and it would be a huge difference - is that their degree would be the product of continual contact with actual work experience. The possibility of disenchantment with that career would be lower - or at least would be informed by actual experience of it rather than speculation about it.

It would be easy - and reasonable - to suggest that this is impractical or that internships already exist or that students can already work part-time jobs to get such experience. But the school system is not set up to ensure such on-going contact with the experience of work. Only a few students are able to create or find such experiences. A society willing to invest billions in education and expecting young people to invest years of their life should be able to systematically create such experiences. (And if there are not enough opportunities for working in a particular field, that could work as a brake on new students entering that major. Why invest another 2 to 10 years in a career for which you can't even get a few weeks worth of work now?)

Education matters too much to defer feedback on it to the very end. By whatever means, universities need to take more responsibility for letting students learn from the market and their own experiences and not just learn from professors and textbooks.

1 comment:

Lifehiker said...

How about a system where high school grads contract with a company to sponsor them at a university in a major that the company sees might be useful to them when the student graduates? The company would provide periodic employment experiences during the years the student was at university, and likely offer a job upon graduation. The sponsorship would entail the company making student loans that would be forgiven over time if the relationship continued, but either party could terminate the relationship based on pre-defined criteria. Seems to me this would be a win-win scenario.