Saturday, September 29, 2012

Value-based vs. Pain-based

This combination of two different conversations with Audrey Watters, from last week and this week, is around the "pain test" often used to frame the potential for ed tech (and other) start-ups. I believe we got to a very significant set of conclusions, and this is why I so value our weekly podcast conversations. If you wanted to listen to one conversation we have had, I humbly suggest that this might be it--both for the progression of our thinking and for the ultimate conclusion.

Addressing "pain" as the primary consideration is for a business, intriguingly, exactly that--treating a symptom, which actually means focusing on an immediate and often surface-level problem in order to maximize revenue, rather than working to treat the causes of the pain or symptom. Not unlike the U.S. health care model, which is increasingly expensive and often doesn't actually improve underlying health, and where massive profits are made from treating symptoms, there can actually be a perverse incentive to not cure the illness (I don't want to take that too far--or maybe I do--but you might dwell on that thought with regard to education and learning).

Using the "pain test" to frame the value of educational start-ups leads to a particular set of potential outcomes and activities. It is important to remember that another legitimate, potentially more beneficial, framing would be looking for a "value proposition:" to define a set of services or products that have value and and are therefore worth purchasing. Not only does this represent most of the transactions in our lives, I believe, but it requires that the person or organization providing the value must demonstrate that value and not just play on our fears or emotions.

But in the scramble to win big in the ed tech bubble, that would require more depth of actual knowledge about teaching and learning, and would likely take too long. It's not a good "monetization" strategy. I appreciate the innovation that businesses (and especially Silicon Valley) can bring to bear when focused on a sector of our culture or economy, but we should be careful not to buy the snake oil hype--or a framing of the market that encourages the manufacturing of snake oil.

Direct link:


  1. Thanks so much for this ... I look forward to listening through your conversation with Audrey.

    The good news is that I think a good-sized fraction of education entrepreneurs are in the business for something besides just "winning big." I think most of us genuinely do want to help create richer, more meaningful learning experiences. The points you've shared here are a good reminder for the "true believers" that ensuring the financial success of an educational program or product is not necessarily the same as ensuring that a program or product will contribute to a better society.

  2. Thanks, Jay. I agree, and appreciate your comment.

  3. Gary Stager wrote in a 1992 piece (I couldn't relocate the link) that Apple is not your education partner. It is trying to get people to buy stuff.

    Learning is not something that comes in a kit or arrives when you download an app. It is social (see Richard Beach's "literacy practices framework") and demands human investment. Students can smell when it's anything else and bad smells make them turn away.

    Your conversations with Audrey Waters is one of the most important ones in education today. They are so thoughtful and concise and they give words to the values I try and impart to my English Education majors.

    Todd Finley

  4. In my opinion, maybe it would help if those educational startups manage to make use of both the value-based and pain-based approaches when it comes to undertaking their programs. We can't be too strict when we want people to learn, but we don't want things to be too loose to the point that the student is just spoonfed the information he needs to learn.


I hate having to moderate comments, but have to do so because of spam... :(