Assessment lessons from The Lean Startup

Assessment is a hot topics in student affairs, but in most places, there may be more talk than action. I think this comes from two problems with the process: Runners Don’t Take Photos and the Dusty Binder Syndrome.

Runners Don’t Take Photos is simple. The woman running the race isn’t the one stopping to document the moment. She’s got something else on her mind. Most people who get into student affairs don’t pick the field because they love filling out reports. They’re likely relators or doers who are busy working in their area of expertise. Stopping to zoom out, plan ahead, and measure is a luxury most people don’t think they have.

The Dusty Binder Syndrome is caused by that feeling you get when you spend time on a project you suspect will just gather dust on a shelf. When we fill out forms because of a process rather than a need, it demotivates and fails to create change.

Are we assessing for accreditation or assessing so we can get better at what we do? Hopefully both, but how we set up the process matters.

You can use improvement-focused data in accreditation reports. But data gathered for accreditation won’t always lead to real change. In fact, gathering info on the same things we’ve always done may insure a lack of change.

The Lean Startup shares a process that can fix both challenges. Derek Sivers has an excellent summary of the book, but here are Derek’s quotes from the part of interest:

Too many startup business plans look more like they are planning to launch a rocket ship than drive a car. They prescribe the steps to take and the results to expect in excruciating detail, and as in planning to launch a rocket, they are set up in such a way that even tiny errors in assumptions can lead to catastrophic outcomes.

The customers failed to materialize, the company had committed itself so completely that they could not adapt in time. They had “achieved failure” – successfully, faithfully, and rigorously executing a plan that turned out to have been utterly flawed.

Instead of making complex plans that are based on a lot of assumptions, you can make constant adjustments with a steering wheel called the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop. Through this process of steering, we can learn when and if it’s time to make a sharp turn called a pivot or whether we should persevere along our current path.

The strategy may have to change (called a pivot). However, the overarching vision rarely changes. Entrepreneurs are committed to seeing the startup through to that destination. Every setback is an opportunity for learning how to get where they want to go.

Too many higher ed assessment plans make the same mistake. It makes sense. The academic mindset is more likely to tolerate forms, processes, and change that takes time. (After all, a dissertation isn’t written in a day) But that mindset is a core reason we’re struggling to innovate or change. Most assessment processes are too specific and rigid.Image

It’s the rocket ship instead of the car from above. This leads to people who spend their days filling out forms instead of leading, creating value, or connecting with students.

As student affairs begins to value assessment, we need to consider how we assess what we’re doing. We need to build a process that encourages innovation.

The Lean Startup’s Build-Measure-Learn process is a good starting point. Have a vision. Create it. Test it. Adapt. The 20-year plan is gone. The 5-year plan doesn’t work, either.

So know the “what” of your organization: Have big vision and values, and know what your department or organization stands for. But the how has to be flexible. So assessing the “learning outcomes” may need to change from year to year, too.

“The only way to win is to learn faster than anyone else.” Seems like an appropriate mindset for an educational institution, right?

Assessment lessons from The Lean Startup

Reconsidering textbooks in a digital world – or – Why a $100 ebook is crazy

I’m jumping back into the world of education as I start studies for a PhD in Higher Ed in about a week, and as I start that journey, I’m reminded of some of the joys of life as a student.

Like that some books cost $150.

Some people are outraged by this. I’m hit with a little sticker shock, but overall, I get the reasons. Publishers frequently attribute the high cost to the resale market. When you publish a textbook, it sells well the first semester then quickly drops off as students sell the book back, and the bookstore sells the used books for less than new.

But here’s what I don’t get (and one of the biggest opportunities in the publishing market). One book I purchased was $122 new and $100 for the Kindle version.

That’s crazy. That’s someone taking an old model and laying it over a new paradigm. Digital scales differently. There’s no incremental cost. And, most importantly for textbooks, it’s really, really hard to have a secondary resale market.

When you sell an ebook, you’re selling something that cannot be resold. The customer purchased the right to view the information. That should change the cost structure, but most publishers are comparing ebooks to the traditional book market and pricing them just a little below physical book pricing,

There is an opportunity here. The ebook market is renewable. Fresh income comes in every semester without demanding a new edition every few years to kill the resale market. Price a $122 textbook at $20 or $30, well below what the bookstores can sell a used hard copy for. You’ll sell more every semester at pure profit. Amazon will take a cut of the money, but even then it’s a better deal.

Or cut Amazon out of the picture and make 100% profit. Textbooks get sold to the professor, not the students. The professor makes the choice and requires (compels?) the students to purchase it. Make it clear an ebook version is for sale on your own website, and the professor can direct the students there. You have a captive audience, and for $100 savings, students will gladly click over to “randompublisherssite.com”. In the end, this benefits the students (more affordable), the teacher (happier students), and the authors (opportunities for a better royalty structure). Everyone wins – except those people buying back used books and selling them for the markup.

Reconsidering textbooks in a digital world – or – Why a $100 ebook is crazy