Monday, February 04, 2013

Lessons for ‘learning’ from Amazon’s Napsterisation of bookstores, books and every other damn thing

Jeff Bezos was named the top global CEO by Forbes. Why? Because he had the vision to not only to disintermediate expensive book distribution, he then went on to kindle the market for online books, disintermediating paper books. Not content with this he is well underway in disintermediating every other thing in retail. He’s even had a successful pop at virtualising digital storage. What lessons can we learn in education from an Amazon-like onslaught?
Bezos born to sell books
Bezos speaks of the self-reliance on the ranch of his childhood and the self-directed education at his Montessori elementary school (like Page and Brin of Google). Like Page and Brin, he was a talented programmer but more than that he was an entrepreneur with a single-minded vision: Bezos was born to sell books. He took a course on bookselling just ten months prior to setting up Amazon. What he learnt was that in the book business, customer service was the magic dust. But customer service wasn’t just about people, it’s also about brand, reliability, finding what you want quickly, ordering quickly, price, ease of use, personalisation and email communication. Busy people want to browse but they also want transactions that are simple, fast and intuitive.
Bezos loves books but what he saw was that the book is the text, not the binding and cover, those were added by the publisher. “You can’t ever outbook the book” he says, “so you have to give added value such as font size, lightness, dictionary look ups, quick downloads…” But he quite literally sees himself as having ended the “five hundred year run” of the printed book and its associated, expensive distribution. How? By creating the biggest bookstore on earth with its famous ‘One click Brand’, where you can ‘Buy now with one click’.
Personalised learning
Amazon’s contribution to the dissemination of knowledge is considerable. Learning in many contexts, formal and informal, is arguably still driven by books. They still fuel learning in schools, colleges and universities and are a mainstay in the diet of many learners. Books still matter and never before have we had convenient access to so many.
Lot’s is made of ‘personalised learning’ but Amazon gives its substance. Beyond the simple buying (or selling) of books lies the cleverness of the recommendation engine. You have access to customer reviews as well as lists of recommended books under specific topics AND personal recommendations tailored to your interests, based on data gathered from past past purchases. Some argue that this leads to an expansion of reading and interests as the buyer is given breadth and depth of information about the books available that lead to more books being bought. Amazon already provides previews in the form of a few pages before you buy. Search Inside the Book has been extended through experiments designed to change our relationship with the printed text. This also aids learning, as it prevents unnecessary purchases.
The first lesson we can learn from Amazon in the learning game is that background recommendation software, ‘adaptive’ learning, will come to bear on teaching online. T the moment most onine learning is fairly flat and linear, even the much heralded MOOCs. However, the real productivity increases come through personalised learning delivered through smart software.
Long tail and learning
Chris Anderson rightly points to Amazon as the prime example of how technology plays to ‘long tail’ selling. In a typical bookshop, stock will be limited and often controlled by behind the scene deals with publishers. On Amazon, you can find almost anything, no matter how obscure. The long tail has also been extended by allowing small book sellers to sell their goods through Amazon. This is clearly a boon to learning, as it provides depth and breadth of access to learners, students and academics, who were often limited by the contents of their local or institutional library.
The long tail in learning is a problem, as small volume courses, especially in Higher Education, are expensive to run. The way to get volume is to cluster leareners around the course, rather than the institution. This has already happened in online Universities such as the Open University in the UK but also with MOOCs.
Napsterisation of bookstores
Online access to books, has given us the ability to search, browse and buy a larger range of books than was ever possible through traditional bookshops, often at cheaper prices. Strangely, far from reducing the number of books bought, it seemed to nourish the market. Book clubs have never been more popular. However, it is now clear that some large bookshop chains have been crippled, if not murdered by Amazon. Like music stores and video rental stores, they have been disintermediated. On the other hand it has never been easier for those whom live in towns without bookstores, rural areas or countries with poor retail opportunities, to buy from the biggest bookstore in the world. You used to have to buy books somewhere, now you can buy them anywhere.
Bricks and mortar educational institutions are being Napsterised. This happened in corporate training ay back in the 80s when the large training centres were sold off. Online learning renders much of the expensive to run real-estate obsolete (in education thay have obscenely low occupancy rates anyway).
Napsterisation of books
Not content with destroying physical bookstores, he is well on his way to diminishing the role of the physical, paper book. Various versions of the Kindle have created a huge audience for online books and, with the Kindle Fire, put Amazon on the tablet map. Online books are here to stay. The book, after all is the text, not the binding and cover art, which are added by the publisher, not the author. Self-publishing has also been made easier. For some this has reduced the need to purchase lots of heavy textbooks, for others the Kindle has meant more books read on planes, trains and beaches.
Content is a rather nebulous concept in education as a school or University doesn’t own much. The research is largely in Journals owned by publishers or open source, as are textbooks, and academics rarely have much in the way of defined content beyond their expertise. MOOCs and content rich alternatives are already challenging the old model.
Napsterisation of retail’s mission: To be the Earth’s most customer-centric company where people can find and discover anything they want to buy online, is well on its way. Retail space has been in decline since 2009 and Amazon has been partly responsible. Bookstores were the first victims, then electronics stores such as Comet in the UK and Circuit City in the US. We all have nostalgic thoughts about small retailers but for those who prefer low prices and never much liked physical ‘shopping’ Amazon’s a saviour.
It is always assumed that online learning will have limited impact on a limited number of subjects but that’s what they said in retail. Turns out that is can be applied to almot any retail task – similarly, I suspect, with learning
Napsterisationof IT
And don’t forget Amazon’s low cost cloud services. This is already a boon to educational institutions who want to lower their storage costs. You can shift your data online, first for business continuity, then operationally, scaling only on demand using a pay as you go model.
Who hasn’t used Amazon? Precious few. Most of us love tearing open that cardboard box and seeing our books appear, and increasingly other goodies. In terms of learning, its increased access, lower prices and ease of use has meant more, not less learning, despite the onslaught on physical bookstores. He has changed our whole way of seeing, buying, reading and even publishing books, making many more books available to many more people.
But the big lesson for learning is - don’t build more bricks ‘n mortar solutions with expensive overheads, look at ways of making bricks and mortar redundant. It doesn’t matter how much you try to defend the old model, this overhead will cripple you. Learning must be made more responsive to need – faster, cheaper, easier to access, responsive to user data, and ONLINE. The ‘Amazons’ of learning are already here, many more are coming.
Brandt R.L. One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of, Penguin
Kalpanik S., Neha Talreja and Dr. Colin Zheng (2011) Inside the Giant machine - An Story, Center of Artificial Imagination


Matt said...

And the closing paragraph seems to totally contradict what's happening in London's east end where Stratford may become the academic outpost for institutions previously bounded to the restrictions that bricks and mortar (especially in central london) impose. Essentially; very expensive.

So universities, even right now, are thinking about building more. Estates are planning to spend hundreds of millions on these estates. How much is being spent in virtual estate? Expansion of online or distance learning? one million? probably not. Staff time to develop new courses in innovative ways? Ha ha ha, Nope.

Something's got to break, otherwise the quiet and huge organisations (Hello Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Cisco etc) are plotting; they must know that this entire model can flip around in their favour. First to innovate wins & I suspect a race began with the popularisation of MOOCs last year.

Donald Clark said...

Couldn't agree more. There's an obsession with capital budgets and monument building. We know that most University buildings have disastrously low occupancy rates - they're empty most of the time - so why build more? Sleepwalking into the future...