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The Content Trap: A Strategist's Guide to Digital Change by Bharat Anand

Published in October of 2016.

Finally. An excellent business that puts higher ed transformation at the center of the narrative. 

I would be recommending The Content Trap even if the final section of the book had not been devoted to the HBX - the Harvard Business School's (HBS) online education initiative. Anand was one of the founding faculty members behind HBX, and is able to provide the first insider account (that I know of) of the thinking behind the launch of HBX.

The central ideas behind The Content Trap will be familiar to any student of learning. The goal of every instructional designer (and Teaching and Learning Center) is to move teaching from a content-centered to a learner-centered activity. Anyone who has been paying attention to the research on learning will understand the futility of content transmission approach to teaching.  

Anand does not start with learning theory in explaining the content trap, but he could have. Rather, Anand applies to the idea of the content trap to a range of information businesses. He explains why The Economist thrives, while publications like Newsweek failed. We get a deep-dive into why the first NYTimes paywall failed, but why the Times’ second paywall iteration has been a success. 

Anand focuses on how network effects, and consumer desire for connections between products, has changed the economics of the information age. The Content Trap is an excellent companion to Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants and Geoff Parker’s The Platform Revolution.

What will probably be most interesting for our IHE community in the The Content Trap is Anand’s discussion of HBX. Through HBX, HBS was trying to pull off what many of us in digital learning (including me) believe to be impossible. That is to bring high quality education to scale.  

As Anand writes about the idea behind HBX, "We sought both engagement and scale.” 

The way HBX is trying to pull this off is to build its own digital learning platform (actually two) - platforms that offer immersive, adaptive, and social learning opportunities wrapped around star HBS professors and their content.  HBX seeks to replicate the experience of case based learning on the platform, including the experience of getting (virtually) cold called. 

The development for HBX is all front-loaded. Faculty do not interact with students in the platform - either synchronously or asynchronously. Rather, the platform is complementary to a relational model of teaching - an advance on content delivery where content is wrapped in peer feedback and peer social interactions. This model allows HBX to scale, although the number of learners that HBX can reach is limited by the need to charge tuition ($1,950 for CORe program) in order to cover the high development and production costs of the platform.

To his credit, Anand never claims that the HBX model is one that other parts of higher education should follow. An HBX like approach might make sense for a place where HBS. 

I do, however, have some objections to the lessons for higher education that Anand draws from the HBX experience.

My first objection is simply one of context and terms. Anand sometimes falls back into the mistake of conflating online education with open online education at scale. “Traditional” online education has very little in common with MOOCs. In fact, it is traditional online education programs that have pushed residential education to switch the focus away from content coverage - and towards active learning principles such as backwards course design and formative assessment.  Online learning programs brought instructional designers and research based teaching techniques to many campuses - people and methods that have spilled over to blended and face-to-face teaching.

Second, I think that Anand gets the main reason wrong why many schools are engaged in the open online learning experiment. None of us believe that MOOCs are a substitute for what we do on campus - just as no one amongst us thought that MOOCs would threaten the value of a rigorous residential (or blended) postsecondary education. The MOOC hype did not come from the schools creating the MOOCs - it was a press and not an educator phenomenon.  Most of the institutions that are are creating MOOCs are developing and teaching open online courses because they provide an unparalleled opportunity to learn about learning. MOOCs provide opportunities to experiment with new teaching methods and new techniques. To engage in R&D (research and development) about learning.  

Finally, I think that Anand gives too much credit for the quality of the platform and content in explaining the business success of HBX, and too little credit (ironically) to the power of the HBS brand. He never asks how successful HBX would be if it was exactly the same product - but offered by the University of Phoenix as opposed to HBS? My hypothesis is that the real value for HBX customers is association with the HBS brand. 

Contrary to Anand’s claims, I don’t think that HBX shows that it is possible to scale quality online learning - or at least quality that is anywhere close to when an educator builds a strong relationship to a learner. Rather, HBX shows that there is a market for a $2,000 credential with the HBS stamp. Drawing any conclusions about the scalability of high quality online learning will require different evidence than a sustainable HBX business model.

All of these complaints should not dissuade you from engaging with The Content Trap.  In fact, I would want anyone in a higher education leadership role to read this book. 

Anand closes The Content Trap with a quote that should be on the minds of every education and technology leader and emerging leader:

“..the challenges traditional classrooms face actually have nothing to do with digital technologies. They’re a result of focusing primarily on content rather than learning. That’s something we don’t need digital technologies to fix".

It is very gratifying to read a business professor - and not a learning geek - write these words.

What are you reading? 


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