At Digital Mums we have a culture of openness and transparency and periodically our co-founders Nikki Cochrane and Kathryn Tyler like to share stories from behind the scenes, cataloguing our journey as a start up. Here Kathryn, our learning lead, shares the truth behind delivering pioneering adult learning courses.
As the concept of a job for life has disappeared and an ageing population who will work later than ever into their golden years emerges, the market for adult learning opportunities is fierce. Further Education Colleges, Private Training Providers and even private companies, like Google, are looking to capitalise on these opportunities. There are now a wealth of online training courses available. The numbers of MOOCs (massive open online courses) have skyrocketed and they've been accepted into the mainstream.
Unfortunately, many online training courses aren’t particularly innovative and tend to offer theoretical training courses, which can be good at teaching content and building knowledge but usually fail at building skills and getting people job-ready.
At Digital Mums we’ve chosen to do something unusual and run courses that focus on getting people job-ready. We don’t measure success around confidence or knowledge we measure success on whether or not our customers get a job after graduating. This is why we built our REAL Learning Programmes. Our REAL Learning Social Media Manager training, for example, sees you run a real life social media campaign where you practice all the necessary elements of the role. The end result means that you leave us with a level of experience you wouldn’t get through a content and knowledge based course and you have the confidence to go into the world to do the job for real.
We are very unusual in this approach. We haven’t been able to find any other adult learning digital courses delivered 100% online that focus on getting people job ready and publish their success data around how many people get a job in the chosen field of study afterwards. The Maker’s Academy run highly impressive classroom based coding training that is successful at getting people into jobs as developers (£8,000 for 12 weeks) but this is offline. They trialled an online version of this training but pulled it after a test run. So, Digital Mums is operating at the cutting edge. And when innovators push boundaries, inevitably there are ups as well as downs.
So we’d like to share some of the challenges we have faced and the impact this has had on our business..
1. Digital platforms are constantly changing and it’s hard to keep up
The world of digital is fast paced. Not a week goes by without a change in the functionality of at least one social media platform. Facebook in particular is constantly evolving. At Digital Mums we create all of our content so it’s designed around our learners’ needs. What this means is that we can create a piece of content on Monday and it can be out of date by Friday.
With theory based courses this is less of an issue as their content is high level enough to maintain accuracy over a long period. A content/knowledge based social media course might include a lecture on how advertising is key for social media marketing on Facebook. This lecture is likely to be accurate for a few years as this is unlikely to change any time soon. While useful to help students understand the importance of paid activity, this lecture won’t help them actually run an advert in real life - running adverts is a complex process. To feel and be job ready students need step by step instructions. This type of content is what our REAL Learning Programmes deliver.
So, while lectures tend to have a shelf life of at least a year it’s unlikely our instructional content will last more than a few weeks.
Keeping this content logged, audited and updated across all 8 major social media platforms is a huge and complex task for the team. We’ll be completely honest with you, as we are with prospective students, and admit that at any one time 10% of our Digital Mums’ instructional content could be out of date/inaccurate. This can frustrate some of our students enormously, particularly those with lower tech skills who require more hand holding. And we hate it when our mums are frustrated. It’s a challenge for us and them.
But despite our absolute best efforts there’s no way we can get around this because we simply can’t keep up with the pace of change from social media platforms that continually iterate and develop their tech, particularly when this new development will at first only be available to a sample of users. We just can’t guarantee 100% accuracy across our hundreds of pieces of content at all times - we can manage 90%.
Interestingly however, we need our students to graduate with the ability to figure out new platform updates and new tools for themselves. Practicing Social Media Managers are bombarded with updates, new tools on the market and even new social media platforms to get their heads around. We make our updated content library freely available to our graduates but that isn’t enough. Students need to learn how to roll with these changes and get to grips with new layouts and functionality quickly. So, oddly, it benefits our students to have to deal with new elements while in training. However, it won’t always feel like it when they are sat at a laptop on a Sunday night trying to get to grips with changes to an ad platform. Thankfully, our support team are there to answer any questions but we get it’s frustrating nonetheless.
2. Staffing around REAL Learning Programmes is unique
Delivering REAL Learning offline, in a classroom would be fairly straightforward but we have extra challenges when it comes to staffing our innovative learning experiences:
We deliver our training 100% online to mothers who require the most support during the evenings and at weekends.
Our REAL Learning Programmes are so complex each delivery team member requires 3-6 months of training before they can work without at least some supervision.
Our team all require significant learning and development and have to keep up to date with constant changes to digital platforms.
Our REAL Learning can’t be delivered through simple Webinars alone, there are touchpoints that involve 1:1 support.
We want to make sure our Digital Mums get the support they want just when they need it. Step forward our amazing Captains who provide expert, online Q&A support on any social media challenge Monday-Sunday day and night. They are constantly learning and developing to stay on top of changes and we are so proud to be able to offer such a unique, high level of support.
Another complex role is that of our Expert Guides. Most online courses offer expert Q&A support through Webinar lessons/lectures only. These are very straightforward to deliver and while we do offer these, to get students job ready these alone aren’t sufficient. There are touch points throughout our training where our Guides need to offer 1:1 feedback and support. So in one 2 week period 84 students will need an hour of 1:1 time from a Guide. Thanks to our #workthatworks culture most of our Guides are part time so it can be quite something from a capacity planning perspective. Online courses very rarely offer 1:1 support (none of our competitors running courses in our price range do) and trust us there’s a reason for this!
Running innovative training courses also means we haven’t had an existing blueprint to work from and so we are constantly improving our training. This means our Captains and Guides can be thrown in at the deep end to handle new changes in delivery.
I’m sure our delivery team sometimes wish they delivered theoretical training courses but they stick with us because they are passionate about the outcomes we see in our students, which I’ll cover in more detail in a moment.
3. We can’t offer our REAL Learning Programmes on a budget
The cost of online training wildly varies depending on a number of factors. Institutions like your local FE College or even University will have traditionally relied on government funding to deliver their courses but with austerity measures they will now be pursuing privately run courses where the costs are transferred directly to the learners. They can be cheaper than private companies because their basic infrastructure and overheads (whether the building they operate out of or their administration/finance teams) will be subsidised by funding gained through government funded courses, and through the benefits of economies of scale. Training run by smaller, privately run businesses such as Digital Mums, Maker’s Academy or Google Squared can be more expensive because we have to pass all our costs on to the learner. MOOCs are completely free because they don’t offer any support at all and the content isn’t updated very often, but there is a massive question mark over their quality and ability to retain students. One study showed that average completion rates for MOOCs were as low as 6.8%.
Formal regulated qualifications offered also have considerable appeal in that they tend to be well recognised amongst employers. In most cases, they too attract government funding for the providers delivering them. But what regulated qualifications offer in rigour they often lack in currency and relevance. The bureaucratic industry boards that control qualification content, with their several layers of discussion, consultation and sign-off, don’t make for the most agile of machines in the fast-paced world of digital. As mentioned above, at Digital Mums we create our own ever updating content but, of course, that means our course is more expensive to develop than it would be to deliver someone else’s qualification and it’s a cost that we shoulder without access to Government subsidies.
Also, with a practical course comes the need for practical and performance based assessment. In a theoretical, content only, online course you might be asked to complete a quiz or write an essay. That’s great for assessing your knowledge and understanding but says nothing about your skills. With our REAL Learning Programmes we also adopt a skills and performance based assessment method. Skills based assessment allows us to assess our students’ learning and achievements, how they analyse, how they problem-solve and how they make decisions - outcomes that knowledge based assessment are likely to miss. For us this means we can be confident that our graduates will make the very best Social Media Managers. But this kind of assessment comes at a cost. It takes time to critique every student’s full campaign, analyse their performance data and make judgements on students’ learning. There’s more scope for subjective judgement and so more time, again, is spent making sure our assessment team’s decisions are fair and consistent.
All of this means our REAL Learning Programmes aren’t the cheapest on the market. But they do offer exceptional value for money, compared to what our competitors provide. We do keep them as low cost as we possibly can as we want to make our training as accessible as possible. We offer bursary places for low income mothers (delivered through partners who refer potential students that qualify to us) this doesn’t help the squeezed middle and this in itself frustrates me as I am passionate about social mobility.
We totally understand that our training fees can set high expectations. Some students have expected significantly more 1:1 support from an expert Guide than we can deliver for the cost and this has caused frustrations on both sides. We quite simply can’t be at the end of the phone whenever a student needs Monday to Sunday. Likewise popping into HQ to see a Guide just isn’t an option, especially as thanks to #WorkThatWorks, most are working from home around kids. These expectations are ultimately ours to manage though and never the fault of our Digital Mums’. We know that at times, we have failed to communicate clearly what students will get, assuming prior knowledge of the market and competitor offers, which of course students don’t always have.
We now work closely with our students to understand their expectations and make changes that improve things for us and them, for example, we make sure that every single support session is clearly listed in the agreement forms and understood before customers sign up.
So why do we do it?
There is no doubt REAL Learning Programmes are a challenge to deliver but ultimately we know they work and we see the successes ALL the time. These are just a few examples:
We watched Sarah Forde, who had been a SAHM for 12 years, get her mojo back running social media platforms for a business and knowing more about Snapchat than her teenage kids!
We saw Debbie Friend, 52, hustling her way into an internship managing the social media feeds of a cool new tech start up. She is now on a returnship programme with Mediacom.
We have enabled Lucy James to find a flexible career. She has set up her own social media business which means she doesn’t have to go back to her legal career which left little time for her family.
We get emails from graduates all the time who thank us for transforming their lives. That’s a hard thing to give up on.
And it’s not just this anecdotal evidence that shows our REAL Programmes are successful. Despite all these challenges we are proud to say that a year after graduation 91% of our students are working, earning on average £21/hour. The data we have pulled from the graduates of our new Social Media Management Course aren’t as high as we’d like but are still impressive considering the difficulties that come with vocational training. Data drawn from our new graduates show that:
94% of students would have been disappointed if they hadn’t had the opportunity to train with us.
66% are working and 84% of these attribute this, at least in part, to training with us.
They earn on average £17/hour.
66% have increased their access to flexible work options.
70% increased their confidence.
91% increased their skills.
73% increased their professional support network, linking in to our community of Digital Mums graduates.
What's next for REAL Learning?
The complexity of these Programmes and the challenges we have faced means we aren’t planning on introducing new ones for the time being. Instead we are focusing on improving the existing Programmes to make them even better. Unfortunately, what this means for our Social Media Management Course is that we will have to increase the fees from January 2018 (from £1500 plus VAT to £1999 plus VAT) due partly to us misjudging how much this costs to deliver and partly to enable us to offer additional support which we feel is necessary to achieve the highest quality standard.
Thankfully, to coincide with this price increase students will be able to access Career Development Loans via the Government to pay course fees. We’ll let you know as soon as we have more details.
We know that not everyone can afford our vocational training but to build a sustainable business we quite simply can’t offer them at a lower cost without compromising the customer experience. We hope everyone can understand this.
But the good news is we are also planning on building simplified versions of our vocational training that still offer a quality training experience, for students that simply aren’t in a position to study on one of our innovative REAL Learning Programmes. More details to come on this soon.
And as for REAL Learning, we’re in it for the long haul. We know it’s way into the future (designing REAL learning courses is super complex but that’s a whole other blog!) but in 2019 we will be announcing courses in other areas of digital marketing. They will definitely be worth the wait!