Digital students and customers are not the same as IRL

Let´s not do the same mistake as record labels did. They did not understand their own customers. Streaming substituted piracy and iTunes, not CD-records. They should have understood that customer preferences changed. Here is an example of what easily happen in digital education. It was a great learning-event I developed. But I failed with it.

A year ago, I stumbled through Facebook over a digital city walk on Google Street View. It occurred to me: why not try the same in my own field, digital transformation? I’ve always liked study visits as a method of teaching. Physically going to interesting places is great. One reason why we love to travel, isn’t it?

This is what I learned from the attempt, that actually failed.

The guide in question was a historian, normally doing city walks. He was used to walking around Stockholm and speak about different buildings and historical events. But due to Covid, he had started trying this digital method. What else could he do?

Why only read about places when we can visit them?

The digital version that he implemented with the help of Google Street View was very successful – I was not at all alone in thinking so. There were many of us who enjoyed his city walk.

Sometimes he also took breaks, showing old black-and-white pictures of people who had lived in the different buildings. We were also able to ask questions, via the chat, which was also done.

Unfortunately, it was not possible to talk directly to him through the service he used. It still became great.

I myself sat at home with a glass of wine on the veranda in the pre-evening, connected, enjoying the walk while watching the sun go down back home, listening to his lecture and seeing buildings I have not otherwise thought about.

But I kept thinking: should I myself not be able to sharpen the concept a few more steps?

Here’s what I did:

  1. I selected a number of places in Stockholm where I knew that exciting things are connected to my own field of education: digital transformation.
  2. It became the Technical Museum, where Pirate Bay’s server is located – more about what that server can be used for in terms of learning, here. It became Spotify‘s headquarters. But it also became some offices for exciting startups where I have acquaintances working.
  3. I then made a carved path via Google Street View between all those places.
  4. Then I looked up various YouTube clips that showed interesting things from those places, such as the old BESK computer found on the Technical Museum – actually, in the 50s; the fastest computer in the world. I also looked up some interviews with people connected to the sites, for example Spotify’s CEO Daniel Ek.
  5. But I was more ambitious than that.
  6. I also pre-recorded my own interviews with certain people I personally know, such as Aage Reerslev, who ones was then CEO of Wrapp, today Meniga, the best VC-funded digital startup in Sweden to date. They were the Swedish startup that at the time had perhaps the most global digital celebrities in its board, including Reid Hoffmann, founder of PayPal and LinkedIn. The interview with Aage was about what it can be like to work with people who already have track-record – really relevant content-wise.
  7. In some cases, I went even further and booked someone up in real time, so that the students and I could jointly interview a person, live, as we passed the person’s office.
  8. ­I planned for the students to be able to stop me, ask questions, discuss, both with me, each other, and the interview subjects, during the session – orally and via chat.
  9. I also “click-tested” everything a number of times. I ensured that both Google Street View had good images and good resolution from the streets where we walked, and that my jumps between Zoom and YouTube, would not take too much time. It felt important that we could keep pace.
  10. I also ensured that I myself had a fixed connection with unusually high speed, no technical problems would arise from at least my side seen.
  11. Everything would be run via Zoom, my students are used to using Zoom.
  12. I imagined that this could be something a little different than I otherwise do. I had really prepared for a live, highly interactive, event with lot of smiles and interesting conversations.

However, it actually became mostly just silent during the actual implementation. Not what I expected.

What really happened?

Since I myself had spent a relatively large number of hours, two weeks actually, on this thing, it took me some time to get my act together. Honestly, I myself was a little sad for a while. Here I had spent a lot of time on one thing and then it became mostly flat. After a while, I realized, of course, that I had to ask the students themselves why things turned out the way they did.

I got the answer straight from them: “Henrik, sure, it was ok, and interestingly substantive too. But honestly, it got a little boring.”

How could this thing have been boring?

The street walk I myself had been through, I myself did not find it boring at all, neither did the other participants. And I myself had tried to take that concept much further than that guide had done. Here I had even brought living people, interesting ones, who hung on with us, live. What I had built wasn’t a one-way broadcasting show at all.  

Why did it get flat?

I’ve been thinking for a long time, close to a whole year actually, about what the students’ comment about boredom really came from. Finally, I think I have understood what really happened: the participants who had been there during the guided tour that the history guy had carried out were of a different kind from my students.

The further we get away from the old physical one-way communication teaching we have had IRL, the clearer it will be for ourselves how much better we need to be at digital teaching than we are right now.

Competing for attention

My students were/are a little younger, but that´s not the point – digitalization is not an “age-thing”, anymore. The point is that to my students there is nothing fascinating about being able to interact digitally in something similar to World of Warcraft, WoW. They’re used to that for a long time.

However, for participants that I joined, the comparison object is the old physical guide and in relation to that experience, which now during the COVID era does not even exist, this type of solution is surprisingly good.

I had tricked my students into comparing digital teaching to Wow, not with old classroom teaching.

We got to understand what really happen when we go digital.

The guide participants’ comparison items are to go to Stockholm and walk, physically, maybe several miles – to bring a glass of wine and watch the sunset at the same time as a guiding in Stockholm, good luck. For my students, however, the comparison object is more like; “either I play a computer game at home, or I follow Henrik’s digital education”.

We need to get to know our students/customers, again. And the preferences of the old students/customers are changing more and more.

When the student´s context change, everything changes.

Digital education is a different context than education done IRL.

Alternatively: If we want to continue with one-way-based education… then we really need to come up with more sharp, deeper, more exciting stories than we have now.

Share perhaps this post with someone that already knows that the digital world raises the bar for what is good teaching.

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