Creative Supply founder Youri Sawerschel and Frame magazine’s Tracey Ingram team up again for the second in a series on space and branding, bringing together insights from Sawerschel’s realm of brand strategy and brand design, and Ingram’s role as editor at large for one of the world’s leading interior-design publications. Here they discuss how education is shifting in a digital-oriented world.
Tracey Ingram (TI): Education has drastically changed in the last ten years. Aside from the move to online, the introduction of more technology into classrooms and the advent of lifelong learning, what are the biggest shifts you’ve noticed?
Youri Sawerschel (YS): You’re right, the obvious one is digital learning, which was there before Covid-19 with the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) phenomenon. Secondly, the arrival of new entrants. Education used to come from schools and universities, but today the barriers to entry are lower. There’s increasing competition across different levels. Thirdly, the globalisation and democratisation of knowledge. To learn about a specific topic 50 years ago, you had to speak to that one expert faculty member or get that one book from the library. I don’t know how many universities today are using Harvard’s case studies to teach business. So, when it comes to a standard education – as opposed to research – everyone has access to more or less the same knowledge. All this means that school is becoming more of a concept than only a physical place.
TI: Definitely. I also see education becoming more intertwined with daily life. You can go to your favourite brand space to learn something. Some Ikea stores host workshops on how to live more sustainably and so on. I did a micro-gardening course at the Hoxton. Brands are positioning themselves as or connected to experts and educators, specifically focusing on areas with which they want to be associated.
YS: That’s true, and in that sense, education is also a marketing instrument for brands, a pretext to attract you.
TI: If we focus on education in a more formal sense, though, we can agree that the classroom had become hybrid before the coronavirus. Then, like work for example, it was forced to move entirely online for many. Some would call the remote-office experiment of 2020 a success, in that it showed it’s possible for a lot of people to work from home at least some of the time. And while many parents want to get their kids back to school as soon as possible, the possibilities of digital learning became clearer as well, particularly for higher education and lifelong learning. I spoke to Mónica Ponce de León at Princeton, who found that moving classes to Zoom democratized her role as a teacher because she was just another square on the screen. Plus, guest lecturers could jump online from anywhere, opening access to more experts in far-flung locations. But Mónica is an architecture teacher and there are certainly teaching limitations online. There will always be a physical aspect, workshopping and labs etcetera.
YS: Exactly, and that’s why the future should be a hybrid. As for the physical aspects, I want to talk about the role of the campus, which has historically been a huge selling point for higher-education brands. Nowadays universities need fewer classrooms since people can study online. I think we’ll still need a campus, but more as a social enabler. It could be more like a hotel, club or restaurant. If you want your campus to stand out and be worth visiting, you can’t just offer a bad canteen with a poor sandwich. You need an incredible on-site experience that pulls people away from Zoom. I studied and now teach at the Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne, which is investing around €200 million in an extravagant new campus. Pre-Covid, it was criticized because it prioritized other facilities like residences and an Olympic-sized swimming pool over classrooms. Now I think it makes a lot of sense to prioritize the things you can’t do digitally.
TI: True, and in that sense universities are confronting a lot of the same questions as workplaces are. Why go to an office when we can work online? But it’s unlikely the office will die. It will, however, change its role. It will become both a space for co-creation and a brand ambassador, somewhere to build culture. Both universities and workplaces need the same drawcards: social spaces for connection, good food and so on. And they should become more flexible. The ‘classroom’ could fulfil multiple functions: the event space, whatever. What if universities were more like co-working spaces, with different areas that correspond to how different people learn and study?
YS: And the campus wouldn’t have to be just one place anymore.
TI: Absolutely, just like workplaces. There’s talk of the hub-and-spoke model: a central point supplemented by satellite spaces that form your ‘office’, with your home as one of them. The challenges are: How do you create a community? How can you bring people together? Also for rituals like graduation, which many had to miss during lockdowns. It’s not the same online, but it doesn’t have to happen on a traditional campus either.
YS: It would be interesting to market that model, offering people access to an entire city. Say you have a school in Los Angeles: there’s a location downtown, another by the beach. One for small groups, another for big gatherings. You can definitely offer different types of settings under the same brand umbrella. There’s also the opportunity for partnerships between hotels and education brands.
TI: And this is already happening to a degree, with some hospitality brands offering parents work-cations that include school-cations for their children, complete with classrooms and tutors. That’s quite a luxury model, though. How do you think education should deal with issues of inclusivity and accessibility? Even when it comes to digitization, since not everyone has access to digital tools.
YS: Fundamentally speaking, education should be accessible to all. But if you want to create a community, which is the goal of universities and ongoing learning providers, you should never be for everyone. The concept of a community is that you have insiders and outsiders. You can only be part of the Apple community because there’s Microsoft. I think each specific education brand must have a very strong identity that’s closed to the outside to an extent. That’s why people wear university hoodies with so much pride. You’ll never wear a cap from Coursera because you can’t identify with it. Even though it’s a good platform with good knowledge, you will never feel like you’re part of a strong community because Coursera is for everyone who signs up.
TI: I associate those hoodies with heritage institutions, which are so much about the name and prestige. How can they express that heritage while advancing into the future?
YS: I have a good example: a project we did with EPFL, the second biggest tech school in Switzerland. They had a programme called MOT, Management of Technology. It was a bit obscure in the sense that nobody knew exactly what it stood for: Tech? Start-up? Corporate innovation? Entrepreneurship? The programme was 20 years old but wasn’t driving enough participants. EPFL has a strong alma mater and two decades of history but is also looking ahead to the future. To attract the right people, we had to reposition the programme and change its name. Now it’s the EPFL EMBA. It’s not original, but it communicates its value. The second step was to shift the narrative towards the future, using the tagline ‘harnessing innovation’. Then the whole narrative changes from ‘We are the programme that teaches you everything, we’re not sure exactly what’ to ‘We are the programme that trains future leaders by helping them harness innovation, because whether you’re in logistics or a lawyer, you’ll need to know how to do so to be a successful leader’. The syllabus hasn’t changed much as the programme was good from the start, but by changing the communication and branding around this simple idea, the number of applicants increased by 47 per cent over four years. Perceived value is sometimes as important as real value. And you can definitely leverage heritage, but then transfer it to the future to offer something unique.
TI: And what about newer institutions that don’t have that legacy?
YS: They should be really focused, create a niche.
TI: I had exactly the same word in mind: niche.
YS: I can think of a number of good examples. French telecommunications billionaire Xavier Niel launched online platform École 42, which focuses solely on coding. We work with Sparkademy, which is about corporate transformation. The School of Life is about personal development and social improvement. Only with that kind of ultra-focus can you actually stand out. What’s paradoxical is that even these fully digital or super innovative programmes still need to use vocabulary from the old world – curriculum, accreditation, learning credits – to build trust with users.
TI: You made me think of the Green School in New Zealand, which values sustainability and wellbeing. Even though it’s for younger children, it has to appeal to their parents, those who are sustainably minded and want their children to learn green skills. It’s all there in the name, the location, the offering.
YS: You’re right, when you can align those three things – the story, including the name; the software, the actual programme you teach; and the hardware, where the school is and what it offers physically – that’s very powerful. And it makes you unique. Marketing people always talk about a unique selling point, but I don’t know if that’s possible anymore. Two different schools might both have equally good faculties. But to be unique you have to combine those elements in a way no one else does.
TI: Therein lies the challenge. Finally, let’s briefly touch on lifelong learners. I read recently that older generations often turn to physical learning spaces for the social component. They don’t necessarily need to learn more, so learning should be about enjoyment and curiosity. This could translate into social, informal spaces that drop the institutional idea.
YS: Sure, and we also need to shift the frame of reference for what a school is. It’s no longer a milestone in your life, it’s an ongoing partner. When working with the Geneva Business School we used the analogy of a harbour, a place where you prepare your boat, then sail away on an adventure, and then at some point you come back. That’s what a school should be. You’re there, you’re away, but you always have a docking point to come back to. That means the value proposition – and by definition the branding – of a school might be more like that of a selected business club or research lab. I teach several MBAs in Europe and I often go to campuses on Saturdays. It’s depressing. You arrive there, away from the centre, to a closed campus where you can’t even find a sandwich. One room is open, packed with 40 students. If we agree that schools are places for ongoing education, can’t we also imagine spaces that are open 24/7?
TI: Indeed, people going to classes outside of standard factory-model hours should have the same experience, the benefits of being in that physical space. The culture should be there 24/7.