Digital Reality Episode #12: Challenges with Remote Education | Blog

In this podcast, we explore the challenges schools face in a remote environment. Whether you believe schools should be open in person or not, there are many learnings from the new digital reality schools are facing that can be applied to the business community.

Jimit Arora (JA): Welcome, to the 12th episode of Digital Reality, Everest Group’s monthly podcast that moves beyond theory and beyond technology to discuss the realities of doing business in a digital-first world. I’m Jimit Arora.

Cecilia Edwards (CE): And I’m Cecilia Edwards. Each month, we bring you a discussion that digs into the details of what it means fundamentally to execute a digital transformation that creates real business results. Last month, after several announcements from Google and others about extending their remote working policies until well into next year, we had a debate about the feasibility and the merits of a long-term work from home model. Today, as the school year begins in the US, we’re taking a look at a similar question…what’s the feasibility of remote education models, long-term and at scale?

Our intent here is not to enter into the political fray and make judgments about whether or not schools should be opening, hence no debate format this month. Instead, we’re going to take a look at why the decision is so challenging and see what lessons business can learn, and how they need to challenge some of their assumptions in order to be part of those who are going to eventually shape whatever our new normal is going to be. So Jimit, let’s start by first taking a look at some criteria where digital channels or remote delivery work from a business perspective.

JA: Sure. This is an important question. And the way I think of this is there are three potential modes or three potential archetypes of how remote delivery can be enabled.

So I’ll kind of unpack this. The first and most obvious one is anyone who doesn’t have a consumer-facing desk job and their work is primarily conducted from a computer or over the phone. So, it’s a non-consumer facing, technology-enabled desk job. In these instances, the technology can take over and allow the same functions to be performed from essentially anywhere in the world, as long as there’s a reliable internet connection.

CE: Yes. That’s roughly what we’re doing at Everest Group, for example.

JA: Yes. And even though it’s non-consumer facing, it is customer-facing if you think of it in the B2C sense. But video enables a lot of that, so that’s really allowed us to pretty much operate from anywhere, and that seems to also be the model of the future, even for consulting professions.

Second, and this is where even if you move beyond just the knowledge worker category and think about businesses that sell products, they do need workers on-site to perform the fulfillment and shipping off orders. And yes, a lot of that has also been automated, these businesses can also rely on digital engagement and shopping experiences with their customers as a substitute for brick and mortar stores.

And if you just think about what’s really happened over the last few months with eCommerce really kind of exploding, you think about what’s been happening to Instacart, Amazon, Shopify, and even Home Depot. So traditional brick and mortar stores are seeing that there’s a pretty significant surge in the digital channels. So the digital channels have been enabled, and that’s causing a lot of value creation in this marketplace.

CE: Absolutely.

JA: The third one, this is essentially businesses that perform services that can be consumed virtually. Think of it as the world of entertainment, the world of virtual learning. So much consumption has happened for new media that’s being streamed on Netflix, Disney, and Hulu. And these are digital native companies that are essentially enabling their services to be delivered quite seamlessly. So those are the three broad archetypes, and I think the key question that we need to be asking ourselves is, are there other characteristics or assumptions that are inherent in the models that underlie these business archetypes that I just described?

And as you think about it, what becomes apparent is that these are models that are primarily buried for an adult population. And as you think about it, we’ve said, well, there are different cohorts, there are different generations of adults who behave differently. We’ve generalized and said that, “Hey, seniors might not really like the digital channels, but they do have the ability to engage digitally either autonomously or with some technical assistance with the help of someone who’s close to them.” And I think what we’ve seen during the pandemic is that the assumption that, hey, the senior population that we thought was less interested in digital seems to have gone entirely. And pretty much consumers across the spectrum have made the shift.

CE: Yeah. I mean, they did what they had to do, in other words.

JA: Exactly. Exactly. I think associated with that is the fact that hey, we are essentially dealing with an adult population is that it’s fairly straightforward, in some ways, I’m going to call this transactional approach to the nature of services being consumed or to the nature of products being purchased…all the adults really want is that the product or service that you’re providing them meets certain standards. They have the option and can deploy other methods to satisfy other aspects of their personal lives, such as friendships, social interactions, creative outlets, mental stimulation, and entertainment. So you want to make sure that the transaction with the business delivers what you need, and you’re not dependent on that business to provide you with all of these other aspects of your daily life.

And as you think about that, going back to the topic you mentioned in the beginning, Cecilia, what does this mean for schools? I think that’s where there are some inherent differences across how we think of schools and the segment of customers that they cater to, which is kids, and how they behave versus what it really means for adults.

CE: Yeah, Jimit I think that that’s really a good set up for this conversation around schools. Clayton Christensen, who unfortunately passed away earlier this year, brought forth this concept, this theory called jobs to be done. And in that, he kind of says you need to not just think about the product or service that you’re delivering as, if you sell pens, the job that the pen needs to do isn’t to be a pen, it’s to help communicate and write, and it’s comforting, et cetera. So you stop and think about, what is the job that your service needs to do? That’s his jobs-to-be-done theory. And I think that can help us frame this discussion on education pretty well.

When you think about the job that schools are to perform, most of us would, top of mind, say that they’re there to teach children, whatever your expanded version of the three Rs, your kind of reading, writing, and arithmetic, whatever your expanded version of that is, they’re there to teach your kids that. So, if that was the whole story, I think the debate on how we educate kids during this pandemic would be so much easier. Instead, schools really perform a much broader set of jobs that can include everything from the obvious teaching the kids, but we kind of support their social development and teach them coping skills. They’ve got to move and we provide their physical developments there. It’s the place where they make their friends and they get to celebrate their accomplishments.

There is a lot of entertainment going on when you think about how long their attention spans are. So you have to feed them good entertainment. Talking about feeding, especially when you have low-income families, the schools actually have to feed the children one or two meals a day. Some even send food home for dinner. They need to provide the supervision so that parents can work. They need to teach kids leadership skills. They need to help them learn how to collaborate, develop more character. When they’re a little bit older, schools need to help them make decisions about college, provide creative outlets, provide inspiration, teach them discipline. There’s a lot of things. This list could really be expanded several times over the jobs that a school is supposed to do.

JA: Yeah, it’s interesting. And this is something that really hits home. The last one, teaching them discipline.

CE: Yes.

JA: Yeah. I have a four-and-a-half year old. I mean yeah, he was four years old when they stopped and then six months passed, I can’t believe it. And it’s been rough. It’s been rough on him. It’s been rough on us. And the biggest thing that’s kind of gone away is the structure and the routine that really exists in an environment like this. And I think that’s essentially part of the debate. So how do you really make sure that you create this list of guarantees in some ways, that yes, you are going to get that meal, yes, you are going to follow a rigorous schedule. I think it’s a lot of those things and the fact that, hey, you get to hang out with your friends and don’t have to be next to him when he’s on a video call.

CE: Exactly.

JA: I think all of those are really important attributes. And we’re kind of wrestling through this decision ourselves as schools start to reopen here.

CE: Exactly. I mean, you think about the book probably telling my age, but “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” And they weren’t talking about the three Rs, they were talking about being nice and sharing and waiting your turn, having patience, taking good naps, so some self-care, empathy. They’re thinking about all of those other things that school brings to the table. So the point is, that’s a lot that a school needs to do. And it’s really, when you think about it that way, it’s much more complex than what any single business has to provide to its customers.

Only a handful of those jobs could actually easily be replicated digitally. Clearly, there’s no single technology solution that’s going to enable them to accomplish all of those jobs at the same time. So they have to start thinking about, just as most businesses do, an entire ecosystem of solutions, some of them digital and some of them physical, that are going to be required to deliver these jobs. So that’s kind of the first element of what makes it challenging for schools to do this digitally. Jimit, do you have another?

JA: Yeah. I think what’s also interesting is that as you think about it, not everything. And while we’ve kind of emphasized and thought about the community aspects of school, not all of the activities for kids, even when they’re in a classroom or group activities. What this means is that the standard Zoom or equivalent meeting interface that’s used by adults in businesses doesn’t quite replicate the experience of teachers sharing the same content with everyone. And then students need to be able to work independently under teacher supervision, ask one-on-one questions, get the individual attention and time that they need.

CE: Yeah. I was having this conversation with my college sophomore son, where it was, we were prepping for this and kind of batting this idea around about the one-on-one time. And he said, “My goodness, if I couldn’t ask my teachers questions, I don’t know that I would have been the type of good student that I was.” I mean, we had to sit him in the front of the class because he was always thinking about the next thing, the next thing, the next thing, even beyond what the assignment was. And his teachers encouraged that, but that’s a one-on-one activity that you have to do.

JA: Yeah. And in some ways it almost kind of reminds me of, hey, you’ve got Zoom calls and you’ve got webinars. Webinars are typically closed and they’re, “Hey, it’s going to be a one-way impartation of insights, stay on mute.” Most people are distracted. And so I think there are some limitations to something like this, which really we need to kind of wrestle with. Even if you think of our own video meetings, we typically think of either one-on-one sessions or one-to-many meetings, and schools also need these. So, some of them will be one-to-many, some of them will be one-to-some, one-to-few, and all of these need to be done in a largely unstructured manner.

And if you think about one of the things that we recognized in this world of Zoom meetings, usually you’re living up to a fairly scripted routine. So if it’s on the calendar, that means it exists. So the unstructured point of making sure, hey, if a student just needed to speak to a teacher separately, or a teacher needs to provide individual attention while a student is working on an assignment, stuck somewhere, that can’t be scheduled.

CE: Yeah. The teacher doesn’t have the opportunity to notice that somebody seems to be sitting with their eyes glazed over and how do I just go over and quietly help them through. That’s some of that individual time that’s missing.

JA: Yeah. Or in my case, as I reflect back on my own childhood, don’t judge me too much, having that piece of chalk thrown at me just to snap out of whatever Greenland I was in.

CE: Exactly. Whatever it takes to discipline.

JA: So, yeah. And going back to parallels with the business world, businesses often use a mix of channels to address the different customer needs. So they’ll use social media, online forums, call centers, email support. The need for a personal relationship with the individual providing the service, as is the case with students and the teachers, is usually not as important as them having the information that you need. So if you’re going into a store buying something, you might be a regular there. The level of interaction that you need with the person in the store is going to provide you that service, the level of intimacy or understanding is just not the same. So I think, yes, there are some analogies that we can draw from this, but there are other places where this totally breaks down.

CE: Yeah. I think if you think about it, the medical profession, the relationship that people might have with a therapist or their doctor, it has that, but if you’re not in those types of professions, “Oh yeah, I got a new barista. Thanks.” So I’ve got another one. Students really are not independent consumers or decision-makers. So if you think about, with the exception of some older high school students or college students, the kids who attend school don’t make the decision about what they’re going to consume, when they’re going to consume it, how they’re going to consume it and they typically need some help.

So just the other day, a friend posted on Facebook on the first day of school that she left the room where her elementary school son was working remotely. He was sitting at the table looking at his video, in class. She left him alone for about 10 minutes. When she came back into the room, he was cooking himself an egg during class, while the video was still on. It’s just like, “Oh, what are you doing?” And he’s like, “Well, I was hungry.”

JA: Hello.

CE: And so, if you think about this, these little people need some supervision, constant supervision. Additionally, they need somebody else to set them up for success. The parents have to get the computers, they have to find the space, they’ve got to make sure the environment is right. I saw another friend’s set up where she has all the extra supplies, nicely organized and that’s what teachers do for them in their classrooms. So, at home, who’s providing all of that attention to detail that the teacher is to make sure the environment and the tools, et cetera, are there?

That means that the economic buyer equivalent in education, but kind of the parent, isn’t the consumer. This creates a really interesting dynamic when you need to convince a separate buyer, convince the parent, that the service is correct for the consumer. In some of the food commercials that you see, you’ll see things like “kid-tested, mother approved.” That dynamic really does come into play when you’re thinking about educating students.

JA: Yep. I think that’s a great example. And I think that goes on to highlight how some of these decisions are different. And I actually have another important one, which is the thesis around how we think of trying to generalize and understand our population segments. So if you think about it, a school has to be able to serve everyone. They have to serve all the students that attend equally, in some ways. They don’t have the luxury that businesses have of only focusing on smaller target markets.

So, all the kinaesthetic learners, visual learners, and oral learners in the classroom must be taught potentially using similar techniques. The kids who pick things up a little faster are in the same room with those who may have to work a little harder to grasp a concept. Those who prefer physical books sit next to those who like digital copies. And then the situations where parents’ work situations make it nearly impossible for them to provide their children support during the school day, which would allow them to be educated in a manner that would be consistent with those parents whose work doesn’t have the same demands or the same pressures. And we’re kind of trying to deal with those situations.

And finally, let’s think about the digital divide. Not all children have equal access to the technology required to engage in online learning. And at the beginning of the pandemic in New York, for example, yes, there were a lot of iPads that were procured and distributed, but you do need bandwidth. And what’s to guarantee that the level of bandwidth to support the right video is available?

So, I think recognizing a lot of these differences is important. If you contrast that with how businesses think, businesses tend to think of themselves as having customer segments in which preferences are relatively similar. But if you think of a socially distanced and digital engagement model, there are other behaviors and preferences that begin to challenge this assumption of homogeneity. And I think that’s something we need to factor into the decision of how do you really make this hybrid world and back to school really happen.

As an example, are introverts and extroverts in the same customer segment as they’re both having a remote experience? Does a mobile-first experience really work well for all service delivery scenarios? Or do those with larger screens or computers, might they have an easier time engaging? I think it’s kind of factoring all of these things that becomes really important as you go back to the basic assumption that schools have to really serve everyone.

CE: Yeah. Thanks for that. So wrapping this up, regardless of where you stand on whether or not schools should be opened for in-person classes this fall, I think we can all agree that the challenges that they face are quite complex and dare we say that they’re significantly more complex than what a typical business would be required to address. So, there are some lessons that we can learn from those in the education sector, our digital reality checkpoints, that can be more broadly applicable.

The first one is that you should note all of the jobs that your company provides to your stakeholders. We spent time talking about customers, but your stakeholders are really customers, employees, and business partners. And then once you’ve noted those, determine the mix of strategies you need to deploy to perform all of those jobs. Second, make sure you understand whether the consumers of your offerings can do so independently or whether they need support from others. If they need support, make sure you’re considering the needs of their support system. And third, challenge your assumptions about how homogeneous your stakeholders really are. As you identify meaningful differences, reconsider how you engage and then support them differently.

JA: Thank you, Cecilia. I think those were great checkpoints. It’s always fascinating to see how some of these translate across sectors. So thanks again for this. And thank you for listening to this episode of digital reality. You can check us out at or follow us on LinkedIn at Jimit Arora and Cecilia Edwards. And if you’d like to share your company’s story or have a digital topic you’d like us to explore, you can reach out to us at [email protected].

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