Half of my business-major son’s university classes this semester focus on marketing. One is really a stats course, he says, and the other is about psychology and persuasion, but they are both marketing. On his weekends home, and in texts in between, he tells me how to attract and retain customers and maintain and read the data collected as a part of every interaction with them, the dance of love and insecurity and desire and numbers he and his cohort study on their way to becoming not peddlers but experience designers. The experience is a necessary part of the desire that leads to acquisition that leads to profit, he tells me. And on weekends when he is at university, I think about what he has said and what he is studying. I parse some of the links he texts with notes like “thot u’d like this” or “ntrstng, huh?”
One of the links, to a Motorola white paper on the retail experience, fascinates me. The insertion of a definite article distinguishes mere experience, or mere purchasing, from “the” retail experience. So what is “the” retail experience? It seems to return to a golden age of personalization, when a retailer knew the customer’s name and details, made sure they were aware of anything new that based on past purchase or browsing experience they might desire. Somewhere along the line, that golden age faded and “the personalized approach was lost” and, with it, customer loyalty. The white paper outlines an approach to rebuilding that lost golden age given the affordances of available customer data, from past purchases to demographic trends to even social network and browsing habits. What might the new golden age of personalization look like? Is it possible, even in our persistent economic downturn, to attract and train an army of alert, intuitive sales staff with the capacity to turn any storefront into a retail Mayberry? Well, maybe, or of course not, since the personalization turn focuses not on human capacity for creating experiences but technology’s affordances and adaptive retail charms. The action list for the new personalization creates not a social, but instead a customized solo, experience.
Their action list, based on a 2012 survey of 250 U.S.-based retail executives, details ways retailers can “anticipate a shopper’s buying behavior” and “rekindle that special bond” between consumer and brand so significant to the golden age of personalization. Our retail future might include companies that:
- provide personalized product details, based on previous behavior, to a shopper’s smartphone
- recognize customers in the store with geofencing or presence technology
- send coupons based on a customer’s location
- allow customers to manage purchases via their mobile device, mobile point of sale, or self checkout.
None of this is really surprising, and is actually quite familiar, to those of us who’ve followed trends in both the uses of big data and personalization of a range of user experiences and electronic environments including games. And education. Really? Education? Well, yeah. If we replace “customer” with “student” or “learner” and “store” with “school” or “classroom,” the action list could become an abstract for any education-focused conference session of the past two or three years.
Let’s try it out. The action list, based on a 2012 survey of 250 U.S.-based college administrators, details ways institutions can anticipate a student’s learning behavior and “rekindle that special bond” between learner and content so significant to the golden age of education.
To achieve this rekindling, institutions should
- provide personalized content details, based on previous behavior, to a student’s smartphone (think of activity stream apps for Canvas and Pearson)
- recognize students in the learning management system with geofencing or presence technology (think of the presence technology in Canvas, Sakai CLE, and eCollege that alerts users to another’s system presence so that chat or other real-time communication is possible at unscheduled or unannounced times)
- send early registration tokens or place-based activity possibilities based on a student’s location (think of the Meetups that have coalesced around any of the Coursera, Canvas, or Udacity MOOCs)
- allow students to manage purchases via their mobile device, mobile point of sale, or self checkout (so much depends on what we consider a purchase or transaction; certainly students can already register at some institutions via kiosk or mobile device, and if we include tests and quizzes and even discussion posts as transactions, those can also be managed by mobile device and some existing mobile apps (such as the Canvas and Pearson apps mentioned earlier)).
It is almost too easy to transfer the language of one world to the other. In the world of education, we have long resisted the language of business, shuddering at the words customer and profit and service. But what were teachers in the golden age of education but purveyors of some exotic information for which families were willing to pay? And what marked the loss of that golden age more distinctly than the homogenization of the culture of that personalized transfer of knowledge that we have long called the traditional system of schooling? Before we built warehouses for young people and the experts and semi-experts we hired to teach what we increasingly called skills and functional awareness, learning was an intimate act, a relationship based activity, as Motorola explains retail history. But we standardized, and schooling became an anonymous activity, drudgery rather than an awakening, something anyone, rather than one special person with the right expertise, could provide. And Motorola is right: in an omni-channel retail world, and an omni-channel educational world, with more product purveyors than we can really count, we are lost amongst the clamor. We do not know which to choose. So it is up to the purveyor to become both deeply rooted in brand and deeply adaptive, and it is up to the purveyor to know the consumer well enough to reach through every logical channel to offer what the consumer did not know they needed. Yet. To anticipate that next desire. It is time to buy coffee or cat litter, time to take your algebra test, time to register for the second series of Spanish lessons, time to meet your MOOC compatriots at the Starbucks just off exit 52. You’re almost to lesson 11; did you know that taking notes on ethos now will help you on your next two assignments? And so on.
The static channel has for a few years been trying to receive a strong signal for personalized learning. PLATO and other systems, and of course the great RPGs and MMORGs from Halo to World of Warcraft to Call of Duty, do an excellent job of defining, developing, and rewarding skills and skill development within the structure of their worlds and the constraints of their code. But is what we call personalized learning, as defined by these systems, really personalized? Is it really what we lost in the golden age of learning? Is the retail experience really about fun, or is there a larger, perhaps simpler, goal? Is the education experience really about fun, and can its larger goal be managed by technology alone, learning simply a series of situations and levels and badges for leveling up?
The questions tire me. So let’s just go to Walmart.
When I enter Walmart, any Walmart, from either of the main-building entrances, the doors slide open to let me in. On either side of the impersonal, usually messy, vestibule are rows of carts ready to be filled. I take one and push it through the next set of automatic doors, where a friendly, if tired, person in a company vest says hello. To me. Makes eye contact. Temporary Mayberry. I am tired, too. I do not want to be in Walmart. I identify on some small level with the greeter who, friendly as they are, possibly wants to leave soon as well. I clutch my list, determined to get out as quickly as I can. Even if I am on the opposite side of the store, and it is a huge warehouse of a place, I cannot escape the smell of Subway, the purveyor of fatty sandwiches on baked-in-store bread. It is the smell of freshly baked bread, the non-homemade freshly baked bread, bread with that twangy smell that is not yeasty really but designed to smell seductive without being real. And it is everywhere. In the WD-40 aisle, in the fishing pole and shotgun aisles, in the Triscuit and peanut butter aisles, with the Hanes t-shirts, everything smells like hot processed bread. The crux of the toasty.
My first experience after being greeted by both a person and a singular smell is my living room. Always, at Walmart, some fragment of what represents comfort to their demographic appears not in its usual department but at the entry. Walmart is not a store, not a warehouse, not a retailer, but home. Look: I cooked something homemade for you. Said hello to you, made eye contact, cared, when you came home. Had the television on to your favorite channel. Or at least today the living-room element at the entrance was an array of televisions, from smallest at 98 dollars to largest at I forget how much, arranged small to large on an eye-level shelf like the beds of Goldilocks’ bears, a sort of Cartesian horizon in reverse, so as I entered the store the televisions kept increasing in size, everything expanding, active, welcoming.
And this is what we are told to do in our physical classrooms, and now in our online classrooms, isn’t it? Make the students feel welcome from the start. Play music, bring snacks, smile at them, learn their names as instantly as you can. Give them the sense that their experiences grow while they are with you. Decorate in colors that will soon be their comforting favorites. Create a home.
It occurs to me that Walmart is a place for learning. It is a school, really. Every aisle is labeled, but not in deep detail; the aisle label announces a category, like a textbook announces a chapter on causes of the French Revolution or factoring polynomials. I am looking for file folders but must look through two aisles of office supplies before I find the box and pass the quiz. Of course, in my searching I’ve learned other things as well, so next time I’ll remember more than I thought I needed on this trip.
I walk through clots of aisles set perpendicular to other clots, a little retail maze, until I have all I came for. I stuff the crumpled list in my pocket and head toward the checkout. In the center of the long checkout array, farthest from either of the huge entrances, lonely cashiers sit waiting at their mostly-empty lanes. They gather and chat, two by two, at the tail ends of their lanes, sometimes looking for customers. On either edge of the cashiered lanes, shoppers do unpaid cashier work at the self checkout stations, scanning their own merchandise, totalling and bagging their orders, scanning their credit cards, taking their own receipts. This is the penultimate phase of Walmart education: learning to work for Walmart for free. And consumers do it, without questioning their rationale. Is it to avoid the cashiers and the inevitable small talk with people who are so late in the purchase process that they cannot influence the sale? Is it a matter of politeness, to let the cashiers carry on with their conversations without having to pause and scan merchandise the customers find so easy to scan themselves? Is it simply that we have learned to satisfy our own point of purchase needs and have become frustrated with the speed or alacrity of those who might perform that work for us? In either case, we are learning, whether to do the work or reflect on it as it is being performed for us. The cashiers are unhappy. Most of the people they see all day are unhappy. The education people get at Walmart doesn’t make them happy. It only stimulates them to return and educates them about how to be a part of the predictable Walmart demographic.
And that is what a trip to Walmart is about: learning to be a Walmart shopper. There’s none of the highminded personalization that the writers of the Motorola white paper report. None of the personalized education of games or learning software that adapts to what you have learned. No, Walmart doesn’t care who you are and what you know. Instead, they make you who are and teach you what you need to know. The education available at Walmart doesn’t change; the learners simply adapt to suit it. We arrive from our cars, in a hurry, or not, with a list, or not, coming from home or going home, or not. We walk through the vestibule, a sort of portal to the low-brow. And then we are home. The TV is on; cheap bread is baking; mom says hello, honey, how are you. We need things, and we wander through categories until we find those things. We pile things into our cart, not a fancy or clean cart but a possibly rusty cart with someone else’s debris lingering in its far corners. We can do whatever we want in this cart. Walmart teaches us not to have those fancy airs. No need to clean up before company comes over. We are always already ready for company. Come on in. Bread’s a baking.
We’re done collecting and need to pay and then leave. But where is the way out? It is on this side of the blankets, past the canning jars, farthest away from the liquor cabinet, just like at home. We see the cashiers gossiping like aunts at Thanksgiving, the smell of bread strong with each step. Do we need a sandwich? Maybe on the way out. It smells good, or so we have learned to think by now. We approach the self checkout and its small cooler of junk drinks, no unflavored water, and next to the cooler Hot Cheetos and a range of chips and candy. No vegetables or fruits, just junk food and gum. Cheap toys designed to be just within a child’s reach and at a parent’s stoop level. Celebrity gossip magazines. Magazines about hunting or trucks. Magazines with photos of thin women who weighed 200 pounds two months ago. Next to them in an unrelated article on the same cover, a huge, creamy, easy to make cake. Everything is easy at Walmart. Eating is easy, the reading is easy, you can eat mounds of cake and lose the weight later, the kids will ask for the toys but it is part of the learning experience for everyone, to want and not have, to court misbehavior and mock it or shut it down. And then comes the self checkout and working for free. Pitching in for the family. Once you pull the receipt and start walking toward the door, smell of fresh sandwich rolls sharp in the air, the kids pulling open the bag of Cool Ranch Doritos because why wait until they are in the car or in their own living room, you wonder if you remembered everything. You feel for the keys, bark at the kids one more time, before walking through the automatic doors and then exiting through the portal into the cold wind of November. The car waits for you, and so does Walmart, for that next visit, because you’ll return, and on each visit you’ll be a better trained Walmart shopper.
It might seem as though Walmart ignores the high-minded goals of Motorola or of our current state in higher education. And it does, but willfully. Because Walmart is past that personalized future. Walmart knows that personalized future is not sustainable and, furthermore, is not what the hoi polloi want. The Walmart demographic doesn’t want personalized product details. They don’t even really want sales, except on Black Friday. They want low prices every day. (This is Walmart’s actual slogan, if you did not know.) Walmart knows they do not need to recognize customers in the store with geofencing or presence technology. Walmart customers might appreciate the illusion of recognition at the door, but the rest of their transactions are goal oriented and driven by concerns of class rather than personal identity. The customers are enculturated via the Walmart retail experience to surrender their personal identity in exchange for the lowest common denominator: price over quality; convenience over health; DIY over service. The only element of the return to a retail golden age that Walmart retains is the ability of customers to manage purchases via self checkout. Even this, however, is not a bow to personalization but to a future in which service workers are replaced by the customers themselves, providing a service to themselves without compensation while allowing the company to maintain its service-era margins.
And this is really the future of retail, and the future of education, for the majority of Americans. Those who choose service, quality, and health will still have options, however limited and boutique they might become as the marketplace evolves. The educational marketplace, too, is evolving not toward personalization but toward a warehouse-like structure which emphasizes standardization, value, convenience, and a wide element of DIY. This is the future of MOOCs: a single rockstar-developed course, updated after a number of years if ever, offered to the masses at their convenience. Some students, either the DIY types or those nostalgic for the lost practices like synchronous discussion of new ideas, will create their own communities around the courses; most will not. Abandoned Walmarts and Kmarts and casinos will become vast computer labs for those who cannot afford a computer or internet access, and these learning centers will act as delivery warehouses, corrals, really, for the many disenfranchised solo learners. From Head Start to post-incarceration re-entry programs, the warehousing solution will be touted as the most value-added, budget-friendly solution for state and federal governments already overspending on the penal system, the model, along with Walmart, upon which the new schooling system will be based. Those who still value the esoteric and unsustainable in education (individualization, true personalization, expert teachers, even the idea of teachers) and can afford it will be able to provide it for themselves and their children.
But the bulk of education is slowly becoming not a marketplace of ideas and not an outgrowth of some delicious commons but rather a retail experience that addresses the lowest common denominator and the lowest aspirations we have for our publics. And that is a tragedy.