The Educator’s Responsibility to Deliver Economic Value

Last week, I returned from a nearly four week stay in Seoul, South Korea.  As some of you know, YongoPal (the company that I run) is a service that is designed to provide live virtual conversation practice to university students in Korea by pairing them with their peers at top-tier universities in the US.  We are an English education company – or at least, that’s how we viewed ourselves prior to my trip.

Over the course of three and a half weeks, I met constantly with university students and club organizations.  I engaged them very directly about how they perceived our service, and what they wanted our service to be.

For the sake of brevity, I will spare you the details of my roller-coaster of frustration and fear which, ultimately, led to epiphany.  In short, I discovered – quite unhappily – that our appeal as an English education provider was extremely mixed, and all of the improvements suggested by students who viewed us through this lens would have been too expensive, time-consuming, and just plain outside-of-our-competency to accomplish.  We only had half a service.  And with only half a service, we didn’t have a business.

In my second week, however, I encountered a few particularly insightful students who saw value in a different way.  These students alerted me to an interesting trend among Korean companies – particularly larger companies – where employers are beginning to look up job applicants on Facebook.  This is not surprising in the West, where Facebook is ubiquitous and can serve as a quick background check on potential hires.  It is surprising, however, in a country where that service’s penetration stands at less than a third of a percent.  Having a Facebook account in Korea puts you into an extreme minority, and employers have found that it says something about your engagement with the Western world– something they desperately want.

So for the next two weeks, I reframed my conversation with students.  YongoPal wasn’t an English education company; we were a professional development company.  Conversational English improvement was merely a facet of that greater goal, but central to that goal was professional networking with foreign peers and rudimentary training on how to manage those new networks with tools like Facebook and LinkedIn.

The reaction from students, when compared to the previous week’s discussions, was night and day.  We had a business again.

But this 10 degree course correction did more than salvage our business model.  It made me reassess many things about the education system in Korea, and about the education industry in general.

All of us in the business of providing or supplementing students’ formal educations – regardless of the specific subject area – are actually in one business: professional development.  (Keep in mind that I am not discussing the TeachStreets and the eduFires that are very clearly selling education for personal enrichment.)  Students pursue their formal educations with the expectation that, at some point, the investment of time and money is going to pay for itself in higher salaries and better opportunities.  But too often this is not actually the case.

In Korea, I would argue that this has a lot to do with the way that they segment and compartmentalize their educations into extremely focused near-term objectives: getting into that competitive after-school academy, or getting into that prestigious private high school, or getting a good TOEFL score.  These objectives are viewed, in many ways, as ends in themselves and cause people to lose sight of the reality that all of the spending that these things entail (like $20,000 per year for your child’s after-school academy) will never generate enough long-term value to make that spending worthwhile.

But there is more than one way to lose sight of the larger picture, and it is a problem that we share.  Too often, we emphasize the intangible benefits of education.  In Korea, students aspire to prestige; in the US, it is personal enrichment.  The problem is that, when we lose sight of the economic benefits of education (along with the corresponding calculus that needs to be performed when we select services to purchase), and focus instead on intangibles, educational spending ceases to be an investment and becomes an addiction.

As service providers, it should be our responsibility to consider the larger picture.  We should be able to step back from our niches and think critically about how what we are providing contributes to our students’ professional development.  We should be responsible for making sure that what we sell generates economic rewards in excess of what our customers pay.

Selling formal education on the myth that it should be about personal enrichment, in my mind, borders on the unethical.  That we are personally and intangibly enriched is merely one of education’s convenient byproducts.

All that to say: I am happy to report that I believe that we have matured into a service that will truly generate economic dividends for our users, and I am eager to see our story unfold.  Stay tuned.

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  • chinamike

    Darien thank you so much for posting your experiences for us to read. Whether it is your intention or not I think you have many of us rooting for your success.

    I think your observation about the difference between present day Asian education and Western education is very accurate. School age students are very product minded in Asia (as opposed to being process minded). They expect results. And they want the results to be in a tangible form. I’m not at all surprised that in face to face meetings that students reacted with a hardnosed—“what can you do for us” attitude.

    In the face of this attitude, your business move was to refocus the service onto their needs— needs that even they didn’t see themselves (Yeah!). This is a testament to the fact that as creative businesspeople we can often see needs that our customers don’t yet recognize.

    But I also got a bit more from your discussion. Maybe I’m off track but what I think I am seeing is a reaction to the content (or lack or content) on your site. Many school age students in Asia want to see a story in the content you offer. The story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And in Asia students are focused on the end. They want to know what they will get at the end, even as they are sitting down with you in the beginning.

    I see this in my school age students all the time. When I give them graded readers the first thing many want to do is look at the end—even before they have looked at the beginning. This reflects an attitude of focusing on the end result over the process. But in their hyper-competitive atmosphere, it makes sense. Students only have so much time in the day and they want to utilize that time effectively.

    So, I am not surprised that you had to refocus on product rather than process, on a tangible good opposed to an intangible experience. School age students in Asia want more than just practice, they want to know where your program is taking them. And for this you need to develop content with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Just offering “conversation practice” isn’t enough for this demographic. In Asia, with many school age students, it can be more about the success that you promise than about the money that you charge or the experience that you offer.

    • Darien Brown

      Hi Mike, thanks for the comment (and the support!)

      I think you're right — it was a reaction to our lack of content. The reason that this was surprising is that, in the context of under-the-table interactions with conversation partners off the street, or with myself and my friends over Skype, lack of content was never an issue. It seems that there is a major perception shift that occurs when students move from the realm of under-the-table interactions to a legitimate-looking web service. Even though the service is *better* than it was before, it's now too easy for them to compare us to the other, much more well-known, web services that define consumer expectation.

      Shifting focus toward professional development and networking seems to have rebooted their expectations, since it differentiates us in the market so radically. Still, we have also decided that it makes sense to start introducing content into our service, but it is particularly challenging in our case, since if we require our American conversation partners to interact with curriculum, our service starts to feel a lot more like tutoring. And students at Ivy League universities can make a whole lot more money tutoring somewhere else.

      I'm not going to offer too many details at the moment, since we're just starting to informally pilot it now, but we are working with another company to introduce some curriculum into the service that actually satisfies our unique needs.

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  • Vikrama Dhiman

    Posts based on personal experiences are always interesting and rich. Thank you for this post.

    I think the point that you [and chinamike] make is that Asians are focused on “The End”. I'd say, that is the goal everywhere. “The End” could be different things for different people. You [as a teacher or provider], need to know that and articulate that. Also, part of the articulation should include proofs [including social proofs].

    • Darien Brown

      Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that Asian students are focused on a quantifiable benefit of your service (the perceived End), but no in the sense that they often get so caught up in these short-term goals that are distracted from actually realizing any financial benefit (the ultimate End). I feel that it's my responsibility, as a player in this broken market, to help reframe students' understanding of what they're actually working toward. (Helping them understand that the stellar TOEFL score, the prestigious academy, and the prestigious university education aren't intrinsically valuable enough to warrant the level of economic consumption that they currently draw.)

      I guess the real point is that sometimes people are confused about what they are actually working toward, and it is the responsibility of an ethical educator to provide real value — not simply cash in on a learning trend.

      • KirstenWinkler

        It's like playing around with your navigation system to plan the exact route instead of looking out of the front window of your car whilst driving. Keep your eyes on the horizon and react when something jumps in your way. As long as you are heading towards the right direction you are ok :).

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