Should we be building the University equivalent of Amazon?

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“The UK has world-leading research universities, but what it doesn’t have is a higher education equivalent of Amazon or Google, with global reach and an aggressive online strategy.” The Times Higher Education

As higher education drop-out rates in the UK rise for a third successive year, universities are now under more pressure than ever to create personalised, digital experiences to improve student engagement and increase their global presence.

In recent survey of UK vice-chancellors, 90% of those surveyed said their top priority was using student data analytics for personalised services, followed by technology to transform learning experiences and student-driven flexible study modes to replace the traditional academic year. But rather than trying to re-write the academic rulebook, could universities look to one of the world’s biggest online retails for the answer?

Amazon was founded in 1994 by Jeff Bezos when he started selling books online. In 1998, the company started selling music, then in 2002, clothing before opening the 3rd party seller marketplace which opened the floodgates allowing people to sell just about anything online.

Along the way, the company introduced “1-Click” buying, giving the company an early advantage by prompting customers to buy more and allowing the company to collect their data.

They then went on to set the president for personalisation back in 2010 when they started recommending products to potential buyers. Since then, they’ve added more features like ‘Ask’ (you probably know it as the Customer Questions & Answers section) and ‘Frequently Bought Together’.

But it doesn’t stop there. Amazon now uses Deep Learning to determine which products a shopper is likely to purchase next. This technology takes into account the items customers have viewed, rated, reviewed, and bought, and uses that information to inform the Amazon search algorithm. Customer search helps determine where and when products show up on the site, and the purchases made from these searches lead to a more tailored shopping experience.

You might now be wondering how this is relevant to higher education, Afterall the retail and education sectors couldn’t be more different. But in actual fact, universities could learn a lot from Amazon.

Amazon’s success boils down to a number of key factors. Firstly, they broadened their market by branching out from just selling books. They then went on to make the buying process easier than anyone ever thought possible and most important of all – they created a truly personalised experience for customers which kept them coming back.

Universities could take a lot from this. Take Amazon’s ability to obtain data and translate this into insights which generate recommendations for customers. Universities could adopt a similar approach helping students to make better decisions on which extra-curricular activities to take based on their hobbies and passions. If a student has autism who struggles with loud, busy environments, a university app or chatbot could recommend when the library is at it’s quietist for silent study or when the student shop is less busy.

The lessons learnt from Amazon don’t end there, because it’s not just personalisation that they’ve nailed. One of Amazon’s biggest strengths lies in its ability to sell products worldwide.

Moving into new markets is a challenge for any business – especially the front-runners. When Amazon launched their Indian website in 2013, they faced a barrage of challenges – 67% of the population lived in rural areas with underdeveloped infrastructure and only 35% of the population was connected to the internet. If that wasn’t a big enough hurdle in itself, cash was, and still is, the main form of payment in the country – so what did Amazon do?

Well they sold the Amazon dream to the Indians over a cup of tea – literally! The initiative was named ‘Amazon Chai Cart’ – mobile tea carts that navigated city streets, serving refreshments to small-business owners while teaching them the virtues of e-commerce. The Chai Cart team reportedly traveled more than 9,400 miles across 31 cities and engaged with more than 10,000 sellers. To help these sellers get online quickly and address their objections to e-commerce, Amazon created Amazon Tatkal, a self-described “studio on wheels” that provides a suite of launch services, such as registration, imaging, cataloging, and sales training.

Amazon also enlisted small store owners as partners in its delivery platform. In small villages and remote areas where few people have internet access, residents can go to their local store and use the owner’s internet connection to browse and select goods from Amazon.in. Store owners record their orders, alert customers when their products are delivered to the store, collect the cash payment, and pass along the money — minus a handling fee — to Amazon. The arrangement neatly circumvents the problem of conducting e-commerce in a cash economy. And store owners report increased sales of their own while customers are on-site.

By adopting to different markets, Amazon has been able to flourish globally. Similarly, universities, by their nature, are global institutions. Typically, they are home to communities of students and scholars from all over the world, and they tackle some of the world’s most pressing problems through research.

The UK is the second most popular study destination worldwide. As of 2017/18, 458,520 international students were attending university in the UK and while this is great news for the British economy, most university courses today require students to reside in the country they study in. And as this is often the case, many students who don’t want to move away from their home country or can’t afford to relocate are denied the opportunity to access the UK education system, but this could be about to change.

Universities are starting to see the potential of reaching out to students around the world with online courses that can offer all the academic rigour and support of a face-to-face degree without the inflexibility.

Today, new technology such as virtual reality, online lectures, e-portfolios and interactive study experiences, are enhancing today’s online learning experience.

Mixed reality teaching and learning environments are being explored to enable online students to enter a real face-to-face lecture virtually and we expect this to become an increasingly popular facet of online degrees. The idea is that the online students can view the lecture, lecturer and other face-to-face students from a first-person perspective via a webcam. In the lecture hall, distance-learning students will appear either as an avatar or as themselves – via their webcam – on a large screen that the face-to-face students and the lecturer can see.

Immersive virtual reality and accurate real-time translation services are also making access to global education easier than ever before. Today’s distance learning programmes are enabling students to enroll at any university in the world, without needing to move there. Geography and time differences just add to the global study experience, as do cultural differences. If delivered well, distance learning of the future is set to be a highly interactive, rich, stimulating and rewarding experience for all students.

We already have a lot to thank Amazon for, but who knows, one day very soon we could be thanking them for providing the inspiration behind the transformation of the higher education sector. Watch this space!

To discover how universities can further improve the distance learning experience, click here.