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.