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This article originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.

In the final months of 2016, Milady, a division of Cengage Learning and the unassailably dominant force in cosmetology education for 90 years, purchased 48 live-action films and 97 animated cartoons at a liquidation sale. This content, comprising roughly 40 hours of original educational film, was the core of an ingenious edtech product called the Studio Luma program, which launched a few years previously at over 75 vocational schools.

The first graduates of those schools began entering the workforce in the summer of 2015. Hiring managers across the country immediately noticed that there was something different about these new stylists.

  • “Studio Luma is dramatically different. It allows students to graduate knowing that whatever happens they have the confidence and skill to succeed.” – Salon Manager, Florida
  • “These Studio Luma graduates are people I want in my salon. They’re very professional and confident. Their integrity is strong. You can tell they’re ready to succeed.” – Salon Owner, Arizona
  • “I’m finding that the Studio Luma students have great technical skills. Plus, they come in with a strong knowledge and understanding of how we do things in the salon.” – Salon Manager, Texas
  • “Studio Luma students see professionalism modeled at its best as part of the program. Coming from any other school, students don’t see that until they do a job shadow. We can teach just about anyone how to cut hair, but people skills are what stylists need.” – Salon Hiring Manager, Minnesota
  • “I applaud Studio Luma, because it promotes consistency. We do the same thing at the salon. Recruiting from schools that promote consistency and integrity makes our job easier. It’s a dream you have there. Plus, it’s cool.” – Salon Creative and Style Director, Illinois
  • “The success of the Studio Luma program — this is going to create a mighty change. Students learning all those professional skills in school is good news for us, as salon owners.” – Salon Owner, Tennessee
  • “I think Studio Luma is a phenomenal program. It’s the future of cosmetology. This is an industry that always changes — is always changing. The way we teach must, too.” – Salon Owner, Florida

How did the Studio Luma program achieve one of the holy grails of outcome-based education technology?

So how did the Studio Luma program achieve one of the holy grails of outcome-based education technology – to engage students and effectively train them in the communication, critical thinking and emotional intelligence skills that are often lacking in the Millennial vocational workforce?

And more puzzlingly, why was Milady able to pick up the core assets of this production at a liquidation sale?

The story of the remarkable initial success and subsequent collapse of Cambio Education – a team of Minneapolis educators, software engineers, writers, graphic designers and filmmakers who created the Studio Luma program – should serve as both a guide and a warning to any edtech startup serious about taking on the daunting task of changing education.

Cosmetology School as a Model for Transforming Vocational Education? You Must Be Kidding.

Actually, no.

Cosmetology school is a perfect microcosm of the service economy in which to introduce a new way of learning to a willing audience and to quickly test the efficacy of that learning against an established, regulated set of standards.

Why? Four reasons:

  • Short: Cosmetology – the study of hairstyling – is essentially one subject, typically taught in one year.
  • Focused on service: In addition to mastering the intricate details of cutting and coloring hair, a successful stylist in the salon must also be a master at customer service, personal branding and business building.
  • Hands-on: Most cosmetology students are creative doers who prefer hands-on activities rather than a traditional learning environment with textbooks and lectures.
  • Requires licensing: Cosmetology school is highly regulated at the federal and state level. Cosmetology, like so many other vocational careers, requires a license to practice.

As the future of our economy increasingly depends on a thriving service sector, this kind of training is essential to prepare a growing segment of our population for success. These jobs aren’t going away because, no matter what global economic forces are at play, people expect great customer service across a broad range of industries. Yet employers struggle to fill their open positions with well-trained new hires, and the cost of turnover is high.

Let’s Transform Education: Remarkable Successes. Startling Failures.

In the summer of 2012, Cambio Education set out to solve that problem for the cosmetology industry by changing the way hairstylists learned their craft. An audacious goal, to say the least.

So why did it all fail?

This two-part series will begin by covering what we built, why we built it, and how we built it. You’ll see how we succeeded in transforming vocational education for students and employers.

And then you’ll see how the disruption we created – for some students and far too many teachers – set the wheels in motion for the eventual collapse of Cambio Education.

Six Design Principles

We’ll view all of this through the lens of the six core design principles that Cambio developed early on and that guided everything we did during our four-year journey:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Storytelling
  3. Discovery
  4. Repetition
  5. Measurement
  6. Feedback

The business circumstances that forced Cambio Education to shut its doors in September of 2016 will be lost to history, of little interest to anyone other than those closest to it. The purpose of this series of articles is to get at the root causes of Cambio’s remarkable successes and startling failures to help others succeed where we failed.

To Transform Education, First Transform Content

Fifty percent of IT projects fail to meet their intended objective. Imagine if 50 percent of airplanes fell out of the sky, or 50 percent of buildings were condemned shortly after completion.

Complexity is a key risk factor in a project of any scale. The founding members of the Cambio Education team were veterans of large-scale software development projects and knew the risk well. We declared simplicity as the first of our six core principles. Our goal to transform vocational education was ambitious and we knew it could collapse under its own weight if we didn’t pare things down to the essentials.

A New Learning Ecosystem, Not Another LMS

In the early R&D phase of Cambio Education, we studied MOOCs, gamification, scenario-based learning, and general learning science topics. Each of these things had something of interest to us, but they all seemed to address only part of the learner engagement problem we were trying to solve.

One thing became clear early on – much of what we saw in the eLearning realm was focused on translating content from one medium to another and then assembling that content into a hierarchical structure and making it available online.

When we looked at various LMS (Learning Management System) products, the notion of personalized learning path came up often. The underlying assumption seemed to be that if you could just tweak the arrangement of the content for each individual learner, you could increase that learner’s engagement with the material.

Well, maybe. But let’s try to apply that concept to music. If you find a genre of music to be boring, a custom playlist of that boring music will not suddenly make it more interesting to you.

We concluded that there was no learning ecosystem that attempted to transform the structural nature of the educational content to make it more engaging and effective. So we built that ecosystem.

We concluded that there was no learning ecosystem that attempted to transform the structural nature of the educational content itself in a holistic way, to make it more engaging and effective.

So we built that ecosystem, and we called it Filmbook®.



Film + Book = Filmbook

Well, that sounds simple, doesn’t it? And the Filmbook concept was simple – deceptively simple.

Unlike typical linear learning, the Filmbook experience started with the big picture – the story of the workplace as represented in film – and then allowed the learner to explore that story in increasingly minute levels of detail through the Filmbook app interface.

Imagine for a moment that you’ve decided you want to learn a new performance-based skill. Let’s say you find an expert in that skill who allows you to come to the workplace and watch him or her at work, but with other significant benefits:

  • You’re invisible, because you don’t want to intrude upon that performance.
  • You’re a mind reader, so you can not only watch the performance but you can also hear the thoughts inside the expert’s head.
  • You can pause the workplace performance at any time to dive deeper into what’s happening. When you pause the performance you’re instantly presented with a step-by-step breakdown of that precise moment in time. The breakdown is comprised of simple words and sequential pictures. The sequential pictures represent the critical inflection points, each carefully chosen to represent the most elemental component of the story unfolding in the workplace.
  • You answer questions at key moments during the performance. The questions, presented as the performance self-pauses, are intended to focus your mind on the most important things happening at that moment.

That’s what we wanted to do with the Filmbook. It was our unique take on scenario-based learning.

Data-driven Content

To transform the learning experience in this way, we had to transform the content into tiny, discrete content elements. We built the Filmbook software platform and the content that would run on it, the Studio Luma program, at the same time.

Either one of these products is a complex undertaking by itself, so it might seem counterintuitive that doing both simultaneously would be simpler. But it was, because this integrated approach allowed us to rapidly adjust the design of each system to match the other as we progressed.

The engine driving the Filmbook was a database of tens of thousands of word blocks and images, each one timecoded to a moment in the film that shows the action that the words and pictures explain.

So, the book part of the Filmbook was really an ephemeral construct from the learner’s standpoint. The pages of the book were assembled in real time, pulled from the database by a swipe of a finger on the corner of the screen at exactly the moment the learner chose to dive deeper.

It was a learning path of sorts, but one completely controlled by the learner’s instincts. Students caught on quickly, and described moving back and forth between the film and the book in various ways depending on their learning styles.

Filmbook: A New Way to Learn Any Performance-based Activity

Filmbook was a methodology for performance-based educational content creation, based on these precepts:

  • Film – moving pictures of people doing things in realistic scenarios – is inherently more effective in conveying overall context than long passages of words in a textbook
  • Sequential pictures – curated for narrative effect with the skill of a great graphic storyteller – can provide additional context a level deeper
  • Text – traditionally housed in a textbook – should be freed from the constraints of a hierarchical content management structure and allowed to be codified and synchronized directly to the images of the real-world activity it describes
  • Questions – typically focused on assessment of what’s been learned – should be designed to drive engagement and learning by highlighting the most essential moments in the film as they occur

The Filmbook team considered cosmetology to be just the first of a broad range of performance-based education that we could transform. Any filmed performance – in sports, music, medical practice, martial arts – could become the basis for a Filmbook class. 

Infuse the Curriculum with Storytelling

Plenty of ink has been spilled on how our brains react to storytelling.

So, the science behind the value of storytelling as a means of effectively transmitting knowledge is well established. You want to engage your students? Tell them a story.

The problem is, we live in a world where all the best stories ever told are available on demand. When your smartphone is your window on that world, it’s hard for a teacher in the classroom to compete.

Great storytelling is an art that most teachers aren’t skilled at. Why would they be? It’s not part of their training. And it’s unlikely that you could ever create a teacher training program for any subject that could effectively turn enough teachers into professional storytellers of a high enough caliber to make a difference.

But you don’t need to do that. The best way to create a story-based teaching methodology is to infuse the curriculum itself with great stories. This frees up the teacher to be the hands-on subject matter expert and coach.

No Small Feat

It’s no small feat to make a curriculum based on storytelling. Consider your typical Millennial student. If she’s been binge-watching Game of Thrones all weekend and then walks into a classroom on Monday morning to sit down and watch a training film, that film better have very high production values or she’s likely to zone out.

Storytelling wasn’t just a nice add-on to our curriculum. Storytelling was a fundamental principle, and we treated it that way.

Storytelling wasn’t just a nice add-on to our curriculum so we could claim it was “engaging” in our marketing material. Storytelling was a fundamental principle, and we treated it that way.

To get started, we needed to do two things.

Two Essentials: Journalists and Professional Filmmakers

First, we hired a team of journalists to write our new cosmetology curriculum from the ground up. Journalists are great storytellers. They know how to write hooks that capture your attention (that’s what a headline is) and they know how lead with the most important information. Their writing is concise and clear. The journalists’ time-honored discipline of making today’s top stories captivating for the public is exactly what we needed to bring new life to an established field of study.

Second, we hired a team of professional filmmakers. If we were serious about storytelling, we needed skilled screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, editors, actors, animators and all the other filmmaking talent required to create films that didn’t look … well, cheesy. You know, like so many corporate training videos you’ve seen.

With the storytelling talent in place, we set our sights on the story architecture.

A Purposeful Story Architecture

How do you tell a believable story of what a successful career looks like? Demonstrate all the technical procedures to be mastered? Explain all the theory needed to pass the licensing exam? Show students how to deal with the real-world situations they might encounter? Inspire them to stick with it through the inevitable ups and downs of work life?

The answer is all four things, all at once. And they all need to be connected.

This was the simple premise of how Cambio Education intended to change vocational education. We would tell the story of career success in a way that captured the imagination of a new generation of students, while covering all the necessary technical and theory details required for proficiency and licensure.

Five Character Archetypes

We produced 48 live action films, each depicting one salon service – a haircut, a hair color, a chemical service – acted out by a team of five stylists in a fictional salon called Studio Luma. Each of our stylists represented one character archetype:

  • The performer
  • The businesswoman
  • The artist
  • The practical practitioner
  • The timid newbie

In each episode, one stylist took the lead role in the story. Collectively, they presented a rich range of role models for young students.

The live action films allowed us plenty of opportunity to depict a variety of real-world scenarios as the stylists handled all kinds of tricky situations with a series of colorful – and sometimes difficult – guests.

But how do you explain the chemical properties of disulfide bonds as they relate to hair? It would be unnatural for the stylists to break the story flow to start lecturing on these complex subjects, so we needed another solution.

Fun + Memorable = Learning

For a generation raised on Schoolhouse Rock, it seemed appropriate that we tackle the tough subjects with cartoons. Cartoons have fewer storytelling boundaries than live action film, so you can easily adjust the approach to fit the subject. We produced 97 three-minute animated cartoons covering everything from the basic rules of electricity to the horror story of a healthy head of hair being ruined by the improper application of color chemicals.

By interspersing these cartoons with the live-action films, we could present the more complex theoretical information in a just-in-time fashion, perfectly synchronized with the unfolding storyline.

  • Need to explain how hydroxide relaxers can permanently straighten curly hair? Why not put a cartoon sheep into a time machine and send it back to Cleveland in 1909 when that discovery was made?
  • Need to outline the basics of a business plan for aspiring salon owners? Why not turn that boring expense spreadsheet into a creamy “French Silk pie” chart?

This kind of whimsical approach was very effective in making cosmetology theory fun and memorable for the students. 

Discover Your Professional Identity

When Leonard Nimoy died in 2015, NASA issued a statement that read, in part, “Leonard Nimoy was an inspiration to multiple generations of engineers, scientists, astronauts, and other space explorers. As Mr. Spock, he made science and technology important to the story, while never failing to show, by example, that it is the people around us who matter most.”

Imagine that. A character in a TV show having that kind of profound effect on such a serious profession as space exploration.

But that’s the power of storytelling in our culture. And that’s the power Cambio Education wanted to bring to cosmetology education with the Studio Luma stories.

Wait a minute. Comparing hairstyling to space exploration? No, not really.

But in the mind of any young person captivated by any profession, having a good role model in that profession – whether real or fictional – can make all the difference in the world.

A Good Role Model Can Lead the Way

A good role model can help you discover the essence of any learning activity. A good role model can lead you to the truth, or at least expose you to multiple paths that allow you to forge your own way in the world.

From a legal perspective, all you need to do to prepare for a styling career is complete a certain number of hours in an accredited school and then pass the licensing exam in your state. And as any cosmetologist will tell you, the licensing exam is mostly about safety and sanitation in the salon.

It is entirely appropriate that the government should enforce some rules to ensure that when you wield your shears you don’t wound your guest. But once you’ve met that basic standard, how do you keep your guests coming back, month after month and year after year?

As Mr. Spock knew, “it is the people around us who matter most.” Communication, critical thinking, emotional intelligence – these are the skills a successful stylist needs to interact daily with the people around her. And they can be learned through great storytelling.

Learning is Not Linear

Deep learning happens though discovery, another of Cambio Education’s six design principles.

By exposing our students to increasingly complex and sometimes ambiguous salon situations – difficult technical procedures, racial tension, aggressive guest behavior – we lead the student through a process of discovering how the five different stylists – each representing a different character archetype – think about and resolve these situations.

A curriculum constructed around solving complex problems can result in deeper learning than one constructed around a linear progression of subject matter.

As described in this piece on non-linear learning, a curriculum constructed around solving complex problems can result in deeper learning than one constructed around a linear progression of subject matter. This is precisely what we did in Studio Luma.

Each storyline was developed around a single question. For example:

  • How do you respond when a guest resists your advice?
  • How can you avoid making a guest feel rushed when you have a tight schedule?
  • What should you do when a guest behaves inappropriately?
  • How do you resolve a mother-daughter conflict about hair color?
  • How do you focus on guest needs when home life is competing for your attention?

Through the context of these real-world scenarios, watching the stylists discuss and solve these problems, we enabled students to discover the richness of salon life in a way they would typically get, as one salon hiring manager told us, “only by doing a job shadow for a year.”

Although our Studio Luma characters would never achieve the iconic status of Mr. Spock, we found as we traveled around the country that students did align themselves with one or the other of the characters. It validated our notion that through great storytelling with powerful role models, students can begin to discover their own professional identity.

Next, in Part 2 of this 2-part series: How the disruption we created – for some students and far too many teachers – set the wheels in motion for the eventual collapse of Cambio Education.

Neal Tillotson is a Minneapolis-based edtech innovator, IT leader and musician. He was the co-founder and Chief Product Officer of Cambio Education.