Our CEO John Peebles walks us through his humble beginnings in the professional learning industry, and shares the lessons that underpin Administrate's direction and focus.
I remember my first teaching gig vividly. Like most American university students, I needed to earn money during the summer to pay for tuition and living expenses. Unlike most American university students, my home town wasn’t in America. Instead, it was a mid sized Chinese city of approximately 10 million people, situated on the Bohai Gulf roughly two hours drive from Beijing. Today, the city has grown to more than 15 million people and the trip to Beijing takes 33 minutes by bullet train. And, there’s probably a few more options for foreigners looking for work. But in the late nineties, teaching English was the only game in town.
How hard could it be?
My first class was a two hour evening block of time called “Free Talk”, designed to help students practice their conversational English. There was no syllabus, no book, no program of any kind, and students didn’t have to register. I mean, this was Free Talk! You just showed up and talked, freely, about anything. In my first class, exactly three terrified students showed up. The room was big enough to hold more than a hundred people. I quickly realised that the only conversational practice anyone would be getting that night, was me. I spent most of the time speaking in Chinese, almost begging my three victims to try to say something, anything, in English.
My students were in their thirties and forties, still in their suits from their day jobs, studying hard on their own dime, hoping the fruits of their labour would help them get ahead in an economy and labour market that was already changing extremely fast. I was a nineteen year old American, wearing a T-Shirt and jeans. I was becoming increasingly frustrated that I couldn’t make a breakthrough. Until we started talking about our dreams.
As we began discussing what we wanted out of life, more and more participation began to occur. By the time the second hour came to a close, we were conversing. Practicing. Improving. The next week, we had ten in the class. The week after, forty. We talked about politics, religion, and our favourite movies. The East, the West, our hobbies, and parenting styles. Pretty much anything that anyone could think of.
Succeeding at Scale
After a month, the senior administrator of the training centre tried explain to the crowd which had every bit of space in the classroom filled with people, including a couple dozen spilling out into the hall that we were becoming a fire hazard and in the future people would have to register for limited spaces. The mob wasn’t having it. And so we carried on, overflowing with people, brimming with enthusiasm. Never short of topics to discuss, never too far from a gentle correction on tense or grammar.
As Free Talk’s popularity soared, I received other opportunities. And I loved teaching! I loved being able to help someone achieve success and improve. It was easy! Nothing to it! Until I started wrestling with my new classes. These had books, a syllabus, I had to proctor exams, quizzes, and I had to be able to demonstrate progress over the course of the term. This wasn’t nearly as easy! The other thing that I quickly realised was although I was being paid pretty well, I was only being paid for the time I spent in class, teaching. None of the prep time was compensated or even contemplated.
Worse still, when I plowed time into prep activities and grades and reports, I sacrificed time. That's time I could have spent on thinking about the subject matter, my students, and how to engage them. I asked the administrator if they had any thoughts on how to solve this problem, and they quickly pointed out that they had hundreds of students and dozens of instructors to look after, and could barely keep things running, let alone ensure they were making a profit.
My short stint as a (for profit) educator quickly highlighted what I believe is a fundamental problem with Education and Education Technology (EdTech). This problem has been consistently reinforced by what we’ve heard from thousands of educators and administrators around the world in almost every educational setting. Oh, and they’ve also been corroborated by actual research too.
The fundamental problem with EdTech is we’re too student focused.
In motorcycle racing, they say that a win is 80% rider and 20% machine. Get the right rider on any machine, and he’ll win. This was proven in dramatic fashion by the immortal Valentino Rossi.
Having just notched his second championship, he switched from the best bike in the MotoGP field to the worst and won two more championships. This isn’t a new formula by the way, and it’s become de rigour in almost any analysis to look for an application of the Pareto Principle, but in tech we tend to have a blind spot when the 80% piece of the equation isn’t technical.
In any educational setting, the teacher is 80% (or more) of the success equation for students. We know this to be true intuitively, as everyone can remember that one special teacher in their life. Someone who took interest, challenged them, inspired them, invested in them. We all have one.
But instead of focusing on teachers and teaching, we focus on ramming more technology into the classroom. We aim technology at students, breathlessly wait to see our huge investments pay off, and then outcomes actually get worse. Why? More tech often means more distractions for both students and teachers, and distractions take away from learning and deliver poor outcomes. A term study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) concluded that the more unplugged the classroom, the better the outcomes.
The Downward Spiral
Here's the situation we usually find ourselves in:
- Teachers are the most important resource we have.
- Time for planning, preparing, grading, improving, and teaching itself is often sacrificed due to administrative burden.
- The response to this is more investment in more technology aimed at improving the classroom experience and learning outcomes.
In other words, we continue to invest in and focus on the 20%. But, just like Rossi’s motorcycle, these kinds of technology investments are a constantly moving target. Moving targets require constant investment, an expensive price when they don't quite deliver on their promise.
To truly support teachers, thus truly empowering our students and providing them with the best possible chance for success, we need to invest in strategies that reduce time and eliminate that variable that I hadn’t accounted for all those years ago in North China - administrative work.
If I’d been able to dispense with the administration burden I’d have been more focused on what actually matters. Had the administrative team at the training centre been able to reduce their workload, they’d have been able to support their teachers more. If they could've done that, they’d have been able to think about how they could have scaled their operation.
To succeed, we need to stop designing tech for students. Instead, let's focus on the administrators, teachers, and executives struggling to define, deliver, and track education with tech that hasn’t been built for them. They need a true platform from which to operate. It’s boring business software, as I like to call it, but it can produce incredible results. That's because it’s focused on and solving the right problem for the right people.
Small Gains, Big Wins
In 2010, a new GM was hired by to manage the British cycling team known as Team Sky. No Brit had ever won cycling’s toughest race, the Tour de France, but Dave Brailsford believed that making "marginal gains” in all areas, it was possible. Everywhere they looked they saw opportunities. From adjusting seat height, to optimal tyre pressure, tweaking things related to the bike weren’t that uncommon. Team Sky, however, took their attention to process improvement to another level. They tested pillows and bed linens, and even brought their own mattresses to each hotel each night so riders could get the best sleep. They even taught riders the best way to wash their hands so they’d reduce the chance for infection and sickness. All of these marginal gains compounded and meant that Team Sky won supporting British rider Sir Bradley Wiggins within three years.
I’m convinced that the marginal gains in the learning industry are rooted in liberating our teachers and admin staff from the tedious but oh so critical admin work that grows like a weed and chokes us. The great news is that we know from years of experience that the gains that can be made by the proper application of technology are anything but marginal! By investing in systems reduce manual intervention, a training organisation can easily scale their business by an order of magnitude. All of which is achievable without adding to the admin team, and while improving learning outcomes.
Don’t believe me? Download our guide below for easy to implement productivity tips that can be made to any training organisation.
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