Many scholars see the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) phenomenon as the latest in a long line of disruptions that have occurred across different industries as a result of digital technology. If this is indeed the case, then we should be able to learn from the missteps made in other industries in order to avoid being the hapless victims of the changes currently affecting the higher education sector. This article will present a brief history of two companies undone by the digital revolution. By examining the ways Kodak and Blockbuster failed to react to the emergence of digital technology in their respective industries, we can learn a valuable lesson about how higher education might avoid a similar fate.
In its earliest days, Kodak actually benefitted from technological change. With the advent of its “Brownie” personal camera, Kodak democratized photography, taking it out of the realm of professionals and making it affordable for the average consumer. Accompanying this was a very astute understanding of its key audience. Kodak targeted its marketing approach to women, who drove sales in order to keep mementos of family moments. In a sense, Kodak’s genesis was brilliant on two levels: firstly, it arose out of an industry-changing technology and, secondly, it successfully identified and targeted its key audience segment and their reasons for engaging with the technology. Blockbuster also emerged from a technological advance. It was founded by a computer programmer-turned-entrepreneur who invented a new system for keeping track of stock in each store based on what people were actually renting. Like Kodak, the combination of the novel use of technology plus a deep willingness to know its customers contributed to Blockbuster’s great success.
Lack of Foresight
Fast forward to 2011, and the fortunes of these companies had surely changed. Kodak’s first mistake was to underestimate the influence of digital photography on their business. Kodak assumed people would never switch to digital cameras over film, since the quality of digital was initially inferior. They did not take the time to find out how their customers were using the technology. Thus, Kodak was not in a position to realize, until it was too late, that digital cameras were attractive despite inferior picture quality because people were using them for different reasons than they had used analog cameras.
Blockbuster made a similar error to Kodak after Netflix emerged as a competitor. Blockbuster initially assumed nobody would pay to stream video over the Internet since the quality of streaming video was initially so poor. Also like Kodak, Blockbuster didn’t really understand its customers’ usage of this new technology. Netflix was attractive to people mostly because they didn’t charge late fees. Thus, when Blockbuster finally started trying to compete with Netflix by offering a similar service, it failed because it continued to annoy customers with late charges.
The Lesson: Understand your Customers
In both cases, the trouncing these giants received at the hands of their competitors could have been avoided. David felled Goliath, not because of some quality inherent in the technology, but because the smaller (more agile) competitors were listening to what customers wanted and using the available technology to deliver it.
This was something Kodak and Blockbuster did in their early days, but once they had grown too big to listen, they were unable to recapture their initial success. Pride comes before a fall.
Applying the Lesson to Higher Education
It isn’t a stretch to think the higher education industry in North America has become somewhat of a Goliath, and may have some smaller challengers to worry about. If this industry is going to stay relevant in the face of these challenges, it has to listen and remain responsive to the needs of its customers. It’s not enough to think those of us in higher education can understand the needs of our students based on what is essentially a model of education that is more than 100 years old. Instead, we need to find out how people want to access education now and be responsive to that. It’s basic user experience design. And if we don’t do it, someone else will.
In “A Short History of the World,” published in 1922, long before the digital revolution, H. G. Wells wrote the famous axiom, “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.” Kodak and Blockbuster are two examples of companies that failed to adapt in the face of new digital technologies.
Now, higher education is faced with a similar challenge. We can either hide our heads in the sand and risk succumbing, or we can do whatever it takes — before it’s too late — to adjust to the new environment in the hope we can not only survive, but also continue to learn and grow.
After all, isn’t growth the ultimate purpose of higher education anyway?
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 Ali Heriyanto, “Kodak Marketed Cameras to Women Back in the 1900’s,” ChipChick, July 14, 2010. Accessed at http://www.chipchick.com/2010/07/kodak-cameras-women-1900s.html
”Video Venture: Taking Charge of Blockbuster,” Bloomberg Businessweek, September 22, 2010. Accessed at http://www.businessweek.com/chapter/chap0009.htm
 Chunka Mai, “How Kodak Failed,” Forbes Magazine, January 18, 2012. Accessed at http://www.forbes.com/sites/chunkamui/2012/01/18/how-kodak-failed/
 “Blockbuster Bankruptcy: How Bad Business Led to Demise,” Time Magazine, October 17, 2010. Accessed at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2022624,00.html
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