Online Pillar 3: #Education

Students don’t need to attend formal classes anymore – they can YouTube a tutorial, sign up for a MOOC, watch a TED talk, Google the answer to a question, or research a Wiki entry. And that’s just the free stuff. Online seminars and workshops, especially in the area of software programming and code writing, are big business; and even vocational courses are looking to deliver more content via the web.

This week is the final part in my mini-series on the Three Pillars. (See Health and Finance.) Of the three, Education has probably done the most to embrace online – it’s certainly been at the forefront of the Internet and the web, both of which have their roots in academia. Yet of the three, it is the one vertical segment that is most vulnerable to disruptive technologies and changing business models.

Lifelong learning is going to become vital in keeping ourselves informed, skilled, up-to-date, relevant and employable (whether as hired labour or as self-employed freelances). Even in retirement, services like the University of the Third Age (U3A) can help in maintaining our mental wellbeing.

Few of us establish long-term relationships with schools or educational establishments we have attended – at best, we may join an alumni group, but in my experience, many such organisations are designed around fund-raising activities, “old boy” networks, quasi-masonic rituals and/or sadomasochistic memory recall at the annual reunion; and they don’t do so well when former students become increasingly mobile in the global workplace. On the other hand, the ability to attend so many different educational establishments and be exposed to different types of education services makes for a richer learning experience.

Online academic reference and research services have been around since the 1980s, and it’s now possible to source post-grad dissertations and PhD papers via vast online library databases. Part of this is driven by the academic need to “publish or perish”, part by changes in the publishing and information industry, part by the need to foster collaboration via better dissemination of primary research.

For myself, I participated in my first online seminar about 15 years ago, and webinars are commonplace for professional development, distance learning and collaborative projects. I have also enrolled in online tutorials for one-off courses on very specific topics – less about getting a qualification, more about enhancing my knowledge.

Students today, including those in primary and secondary education, are expected to participate online, even though they may still attend daily “in person” classes:

  • tablet devices are mandatory – for access to textbooks, and for managing assignments
  • students interact with their teachers and classmates via Learning Management Systems
  • undergraduates are expected to develop online CVs as well as use dedicated social media platforms run by their colleges
  • ebooks are capable of being personalised and customised – e.g., uploading your own notes, accessing peer comments, and interacting with teachers

Mass Open Online Courses (MOOC) are a logical extension of the webinar model – but of course, you don’t get the same certificate or diploma you would receive (assuming you get one at all) if you had enrolled for the class, completed the assignments and passed the exams. Some universities and colleges license their content (syllabus and curriculum) for local delivery by another institution – a bonus for students in remote locations, or unable to access more expensive colleges. Maintaining the integrity and quality of this “distributed” learning is still a challenge, and mutual recognition of qualifications (as well as certification and authentication) may yet be a barrier to student mobility.

Recognition of prior learning is a key feature of vocational education – but I can see a demand for more services that help me validate what I know and what I have learned (in the absence of a formal qualification) as well as helping prospective employers in candidate selection. There are also challenges in monitoring mandatory Continuing Professional Development (CPD), especially in areas such as health services, where even relatively junior nursing and ancillary staff in hospitals are required to maintain an online learning diary or journal as well as evidence of training completion and competence. (Question: who would be responsible if a nurse engaged by a hospital via a labour service provider failed to maintain currency in patient care, resulting in avoidable harm?)

Ultimately, the role of lifelong learning is in helping to plan, manage and develop our careers. Just as we might have a financial plan (to prepare for the future), and we would expect to manage our health (via regular check-ups and preventative measures), why wouldn’t also have a career plan, supported by a learning pathway? And if we are increasingly comfortable accessing content via mobile apps and the web, why wouldn’t we expect to pursue our learning needs online as well?

Next week: Another #co-working space opens in #Melbourne

Online Pillar 1: #Health

When my iPhone upgraded to iOS8, and up popped a new screen icon called “Health”, was there any further proof needed of the importance of this market to Apple’s app store?

Last week, I launched a series of blogs on the Three Pillars of the Online Economy. This week, I take a look at the Health sector.

There are 10,000’s of health and fitness apps available – digital magazines, monitoring apps, relaxation tools, brain games, diet planners, exercise diaries….

It’s probably the fastest growing category for apps (outside games and social media), so no wonder Apple sees value in integration, as well as making it easier for developers to bring new apps to market.

The health sector is a natural leader in innovation – from pharmaceutical research, to e-health management. But the health industry is not so vertically integrated that it is invulnerable to market disruption – neither in its supply chain, nor in its traditional business models.

For a start, despite our lifelong need for health services, as consumers we do not rely on a single provider. We may have continuous or recurring relationships with a specific doctor, clinic, hospital or health insurer – but by and large, barriers to switching are low, and in fact we often need to change our providers at various stages of our lives.

The discontinuity of our health provider relationships, and the fragmented service delivery are key reasons for the development of digital health record management systems. Notwithstanding privacy issues, the ability to consolidate our individual health records in a single online profile makes enormous sense:

  • continuity of patient information
  • remote and/or shared access to individual records
  • trend analysis across aggregated data
  • strategic planning for service design and delivery
  • public health monitoring and awareness

An area where the health sector is potentially vulnerable is circumvention of the stringent regulations that normally create a barrier to market entry. None of the health and fitness apps I have seen in the iTunes Store carry any sort of health warning or regulatory notice, and most of them have a 4+ rating. OK, so these apps don’t actually administer drugs or direct treatment, but pharmaceuticals and other therapeutic goods usually face significant regulatory hurdles before they can be released to the general public. So, maybe regulators need to take a look at this issue to ensure consumers are better informed before they cause themselves harm.

The increase in wearable devices linked to smart phones and mobile networks offers huge benefits for the medical industry – from web-based diagnostic tools to remote-controlled administration of treatment; from early warning monitors for stroke victims, to better delivery of pharmaceutical information to patients. As we know, prevention is better than cure, and I wouldn’t be surprised if health insurers start to offer discounts to older customers who use a wearable device linked to a monitoring service for things like heart rate, body temperature, glucose levels or dehydration. While some people may balk at this “Big Brother” intervention (well, Nanny State interference), the benefits would undoubtedly accrue to everyone via cheaper medical insurance, more targeted health resources and streamlined service delivery.

In recent months I have come across numerous local startups in Melbourne within the health sector – from improved co-ordination of patient information between hospital staff, to matching carer skills to customer needs; from an epilepsy monitoring tool to remote-controlled prosthetics. This just proves the point that innovation in the industry is both leveraging off and contributing to developments in the wider online economy.

Next week: Online Pillar 2: #Finance

The “Three Pillars” Driving the #Online Economy

Games and social media apps may currently be generating the most downloads and revenue, but the real innovation in the online economy comes from the “Three Pillars”: Health, Finance and Education.

What these pillars have in common are:

  • clearly defined market verticals
  • well-established business models
  • life-long customer engagement
  • highly regulated operating environments

They are also industries that are continuously innovating, which makes them interesting bellwethers for what might emerge in other sectors of the economy.

However, they do not display closely integrated vertical markets, and despite the regulatory barriers to entry they are vulnerable to disruptive technologies and new business models.

I’m reminded of the proverb “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” – such that we cannot afford to ignore what is going on in these industries, and nor can we fail to understand the implications for each of them based on what is going on elsewhere.

From mobile payment systems to wearable fitness devices, from Apple’s new “Health” app to mass open online courses, from peer-to-peer lending to shared health alerts, these sectors are responsible for (and responding to) significant changes in the online economy, and over the next few weeks I’ll be offering some personal observations on the trends, threats, lessons and observations for each of the three pillars.

I encourage readers to contribute to the debate via this blog….

Next week: Online Pillar 1: #Health