Can you Brand Learning?

When we started the Online IST project it was just a course, a set of resources, and a vision (and a collection of courses to come). It wasn’t called Online IST, I was doing what everyone else does, “This is IST 110, but for the web.” As it started to grow and we were thinking about how to get the entire faculty in our system to use the courses I wanted a way to market the whole initiative. I had come from the commercial eTraining world; so the concept was to build each course as if it were a product within a specific line … I wanted a brand name. A brand name gave us something we could all easily use to discuss all the pieces of the puzzle that makes up our version of an eLearning course — the course pages, a communication space, a roadmap, support tools, resources, etc … without a central brand I didn’t think we could mount a marketing effort. I know that sounds strange, but that’s what was going on – marketing to build utilization and adoption.

Now if you look at learning resources/materials/objects as products, you have to think that we’ve finally arrived at this point where we have access to an almost overwhelming amount of content. Some content is free, while other stuff is locked down behind authenticated walls, and others still are available from a ton of commercial vendors. It is interesting to me that we have gotten to the point where there is actually as much choice for learning materials as there is for products that sit on the shelves at Target, Wal-Mart, and in a virtual sense It seems though what we are lacking is a mechanism for powerful brand recognition … is a brand in a name or the quality … or both? And whose name matters? In my case, I chose to brand around the school in which we were building the materials for (Online IST) … or is a particular faculty member who is extremely well respected in a field a good source for a brand? Is it the University — Phoenix, PSU World Campus?

I was reading a great post over at one of my favorite blogs this morning, The Long Tail, called Brands: Think people, not products. One line that really struck me is, “the changing role of brands in an era of empowered consumers.” What got me is how savvy our students have become — savvy consumers of education if you will. What that is telling me is that we — the so called innovators in this space — really need to take the next step with our design, our environments, our ability to integrate the social components of learning, and build some seriously strong learning brands that our consumers demand

I’ve always thought that eLearning/eEducation should be powered by strong eCommerce models … it is more true now than ever. If you think of the transactional nature of learning and compare it to business it is so similar it is amazing … it really has me thinking again about how learning objects could be treated as products and take advantage of the tricks marketers use to get us to buy (in the learning world, I’ve called it adopt) — think in the e-sense what that is … ratings, people who bought this also bought this, user feedback, etc. All of this works by the way. Is it fair to say adoption of eLearning materials, methodologies, pedagogy, etc really is a matter of solid branding and marketing? Maybe, I’d like to know what you think … oh, by the way, it doesn’t hurt to have world class people behind it all.

Just some morning thoughts while listening to my favorite jazz … by the way its the people, not the products that I buy to listen to.

2 Replies to “Can you Brand Learning?”

  1. Cole,

    I agree with most of what you wrote, but is it really all that new or surprising, even for education? If you consider a brand to be the concept that people have in their minds of a certain educational experience, how is branding a course any different than what reputations universities as a whole have built over time?

    Say, “Harvard,” or “MIT” and a certain image is elicited for each. Even specific degrees within universities may carry different weight or expectations within fields. Does, “BA, Journalism, Northwestern U., ” carry the same weight among journalists as “BS, Economics, Northwestern U.” among economists?

    While your thoughts are interesting, I wonder if what you’re talking about isn’t what people have done all along and it’s simply a matter of developing the brand of the particular program you’re responsible for.

    Or am I over-generalizing and making the definition of ‘brand’ too broad?

  2. Most of my thoughts on this stem from my desire to create a brand identity around a specific initative here at PSU. I am not talking about corporate branding, or even commercial product branding — I was interested in creating a new way to look at (and drive adoption of) courseware. By treating it as a product, complete with its own support, marketing, and human structures we were able to get lots of people to buy into an idea that had largely gone ignored in the last several years — that eLearning could provide a scaleable, reliable, robust, and quality teaching and learning experience.

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