In this age of slashed higher ed budgets that demand new efficiencies, it’s not surprising that universities seek technological solutions to their challenges. However, university leaders aren’t looking to tech entrepreneurs solely for course management systems or MOOC platforms; they’re also adopting the rhetoric and thinking of Silicon Valley.

In keeping with this tech fetishism, universities are developing new offerings in ways that mirror software launches more than they do traditional higher ed marketing. One popular approach to software development calls on programmers to create a “minimum viable product,” or MVP, which Eric Ries defines as:

That product which has just those features (and no more) that allows you to ship a product that resonates with early adopters, some of whom will pay you money or give you feedback.

What, then, constitutes a university’s minimum viable product?
Kevin Learned, Director of Venture College, responds: MVP is a process, not a product.
It depends, I suppose, on whom the university sees as its customer.

If the customer is the student, then the minimum viable product is a cluster of courses that help the student acquire new skills or knowledge that will advance her professional life. (I don’t say the MVP is a degree, as many students leave the university without degrees, but still get what they need.) Of course, there are all kinds of problems, ethical and practical, in labeling students “customers.”It’s tough to sell this concept, so the university typically advertises it as a degree. In recent years, “certificates” have become more popular; maybe a middle-school teacher isn’t yet ready to invest her time and money in a master’s degree in educational technology, but she can sample that field or satisfy her more immediate vocational needs with a certificate in school technology coordination.

If, however, the customer is external to the faculty-student dyad—say, the state funding or governing agency (in Idaho’s case, the State Board of Education) or the community of employers hiring recent graduates—then the minimum viable product becomes the student herself. More specifically, in most cases, the perceived MVP is a student with a bachelor’s degree, some facility for communication, a willingness to work in a cubicle and a predilection for punctuality.

Let’s look at a real-world example. I think Boise State’s business-minded leaders may have had minimum viable products in mind when they recently launched Venture College, a two-semester program that introduces students to entrepreneurship and culminates in a badge.

But whom does Boise State see as the customer for this new product? To figure that out, we need to explore the marketing of Venture College.

In brief, Venture College is a “self-paced,” “on-demand” (which I assume is the university’s way of saying it’s mostly online), two-semester program that introduces students to the basics of entrepreneurship in the age of the start-up. Students will have mentoring from the “college’s” leaders—an entrepreneur, a former CEO and a former venture capitalist—as well as the opportunity to compete for start-up funding. A recruitment notice for the new program invites applications from students with “a bias toward action”—a phrase emerging from the tech world that means “to act or decide without customary analysis or sufficient information—‘just do it’ and contemplate later.” (This is, of course, exactly the opposite approach most of us academics advocate in student work.)

As launched, Venture College represents the classic minimum viable product. It offers the minimum number of features student-customers might desire: curriculum, mentoring, a promised relevance to future income. It also promises employer-customers a student-product that will arrive in their offices with a toolkit that incudes “the 4 C’s”: creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking. (Wait—aren’t those already features of a quality liberal arts graduate?) Finally, state board-customers will be pleased with Venture College’s insistence on its graduates’ flexibility: if the students can’t find a job, they can create their own; if students fail to create their own businesses, they’ll still be attractive to employers because they understand to some extent how businesses function.

Furthermore, its initial announcement takes the form of a classic MVP “smoke test,” described here by tech product manager Brian Lehmer:

  • Do a smoke test – Develop a landing page for your non-functional product. Make it seem seem like a legit product—it’s often far less expensive than a semi-functional version with an unprofessional image (and it’s usually a better way to assess marketability). You’ll be amazed at what gems of learning you can get for very little investment. Your first semi-functional version will be much better off for it.
  • Describe your product vision beyond its functionality – Describe what your product is supposed to do eventually. Use very concise, conversational English. Put your value proposition in a prominent place, list key features, and explain in simple terms how it works. Words are cheap compared to developing a functional product. Do this right, and people will relate to your vision—and be able to give you valuable feedback.
  • Measure with surveys – Link your MVP to a survey designed to measure user sentiment about your product vision. You’ll get a good sense for what people expect from your product before you invest in more expensive functionality.

By declaring the incentive for completing Venture College a badge rather than a certificate or degree, its leadership circumvented the usual channels for internal or external accreditation. By being vague about the Venture College curriculum—and even that curriculum’s delivery method—but accepting applications from potential participants, the university gets to test student-customer interest before actually developing the complete product. By beginning with a small cohort of current full-time Boise State students who won’t incur additional fees for the program, the university makes the launch relatively low-stakes, with lots of possibilities for iteration depending on student- and employer-customer feedback. If the program graduates aren’t bringing intellectual property or skills of sufficient quality to their new industries, then employers (or the market) will make that clear relatively quickly, and the university can iterate its offerings.

A university’s administration might adopt the MVP approach to product development because it believes faculty have failed to innovate sufficiently in the light of new economic realities. That said, the administration had better be certain the faculty aren’t already offering the kind of instruction and mentoring their new programs are claiming are so innovative. (See, for example, my latest assignment to my graduate history students, to glimpse what’s going on in some classrooms.)

Is the minimum viable product approach a good one for universities? In some contexts, yes. Of course, as a faculty member, I’d like to see faculty driving this particular innovation rather than the administration making an end-run around faculty governance. At the same time, in my sojourn through higher education, I’ve sat on many a university-wide committee that could do with a little dynamism and a good deal less bureaucratic imperative. The question becomes, then, who at a university conceives of and offers its minimum viable products. Is it appropriate for a professor to approach a new course as an MVP if it’s offered as part of an accredited degree program? Can a faculty member offer students a badge if they complete three of her courses? Can any triumvirate of business leaders be tapped by a university to form a “college”?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you think the minimum viable product approach a good one for today’s institutions of higher education?

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • TS

    While professors worry about the well-rounded liberal arts education, graduates still need to find whatever work they can. Boiseans are increasingly looking to the Portlandia model of local small business start-ups, innovating from within. Tech fetishism is certainly part of everything we do these days, but in the case of the venture college it seems to be more about old fashion learn-by-experience from people who have been there, and entrepreneurs with access to venture capital funds. I see a nod toward Ivan Illich’s great 1971 book on “deschooling society.” The most valuable lessons, says Illich, are the experiential ones we learned by taking risks. If the venture college it about risk-taking savvy, I’m wishing it every success.

    Thanks, as always, for opening the conversation.

    • Thanks for the comment, TS. I understand your perspective, but I think you’re setting up a false dichotomy between “a well-rounded liberal arts education” and transferable skills. A good liberal arts education will make students eminently employable. That said, if students can’t articulate to potential employers (or, in the case of Venture College, clients, customers, or investors) how their learning translates to the workplace or marketplace, then the students don’t yet have a complete liberal arts education, do they? What bothers me most about Venture College is that its marketing makes clear its promoters assume those of us who teach outside Venture College aren’t teaching “the 4 Cs” or entrepreneurial thinking.

      I’m not buying that Venture College is as progressive as you make it sound–the rhetoric is entirely drawn from the tech world, not from deschooling or unschooling. I do hope that students who join Venture College go in with their eyes wide open regarding intellectual property; I worry that students are going to be selling their (sometimes very good) ideas to investors for a much smaller amount than they are worth. (I have pointed a student toward Venture College because it seems right up her alley–I’m even writing a letter in support of her bid to join the program–but she is very savvy about IP issues.)