An answer to @MJFSchophuizen

Martine Schophuizen (@MJFSchophuizen) proposes a challenge on twitter:

Just a thought experiment: What if our formal education system was 100% online by default and due to a global shortage of energy the internet would not work anymore and everybody had to switch to 100% offline, face to face, campus education. What would happen?

Assume that home-schooling is the norm, with teachers communicating with their students through different channels (internet, tv, radio, telephone and postal services). Because of international pressure, the government is thinking about professionalizing education and bringing children together in large rooms, to receive face-to-face instruction, etcetera.

Thinking about the reaction of teachers, parents and educational and political lobbies, there are three reactions which spring to mind:

  • Didactical problems: distance learning is centered on the individual, whereas group work is facilitated by technical distance tools. The students influence the timing and place of their own study path. By moving towards groups, the didactical methods have to change; the attention for individuals will be less and the freedom from the students will decline. Especially the lobby group of the teachers stresses the investment of time, effort and money of the teachers to acquire different skills and competences.
  • Political groups will have several debates on the costs of building of constructions suited for this kind of education. Should these buildings be new, or is it possible to innovate old offices and shops? Who will pay for these investments, local counsels or the national government?
  • Parents want the best for their children. There will be a discussion which of the two regimes will prepare the children for a successful future? Of course others will pose the question why change is necessary? In the past everything went smoothly, so why change? Another point of concern is the costs and availability of transport. Children with well-off parents will be brought by private cars, whereas others are dependent on public transport. This can result in inequality and unsafe situations compared to the home-education.

Of course other groups will stress the positive effects of organizing education in large buildings, confronting children with other children, a more efficient and cost-effective way of organizing teaching of groups instead of individuals, the freeing of one of the parents for the labor market. If the positive effects will outweigh the larger inequality and costs of building and maintaining the schools will be the object of many future evaluations.

Open Education: time for a change??

According to Inside Higher Ed[1], the Open Education Conference ended in confusion on the goals and definitions of Open Education, resulting in the decision of founder David Wiley to quite as organizer.

Already longer there are discussions on the meaning of the word ‘open’ in several fields of education, but also over academic disciplines. In education, the European Commission commissioned a study into the different definitions of Open Education, which resulted in a description of ten dimensions of openness determining different kinds of open education. For example, open universities are about open access to formal education, no entry requirements; whereas MOOCs are both free and open.

In management, open –as in open innovation- is about opening up towards the environment. This can concentrate on the single organization: of absorbing knowledge into your own innovation process, selling knowledge which is not directly useful for the own organization. It can also result in collaboration between firms, governments or customers (co-creation), to develop new products, services or business models. However, each variation results in an appropriability regime.

Openness in the public sector, but also in health management, is about transparency, but also about participation of civilians or patients. A concept from these fields is the participation ladder.  Arnstein’s [2] “ladder of citizen participation” describes the participation of citizens from manipulation (nonparticipation) to citizen control, in eight different stages. The NHS uses an five stage ladder, from informing to devolving.

The main difference between the open innovation approach versus the participation ladders lies in the involvement of the customer, patient or citizens in the approach. In this sense the present discussion on Open Education resembles Open Innovation, as it stresses the role of the suppliers of education instead of the receivers of it. In “Sustainability of Open Education Through Collaboration (2018)”[3], I analyze several organizational models of OE, including David Wiley’s Lumen Learning. The conclusion from this research is that OE will get sustainable dynamics when it is embedded in some kind of community. Either through explicit policies of the organizing organization (MERLOT), or it could be that both senders and receivers of the OE are within the same community. In a reaction to my presentation of my results, OE providers told me that they had developed open courses for wildlife preservation, which were put into the hands of the national conservation clubs. IN such a case, the open education will be used, revised and kept alive. The reason firms like Lumen in the USA and Humuork in Spain are successful indicates that it is not evident for schools and firms how to translate open materials into useful courses.

In this sense, Open Education can learn a lot from the participation ladders.  If we take the engagement ladder of the NHS[4], this consists of five stages: Informing, Consulting, Involving, collaborating and devolving. To be(come) relevant to groups of learners, developers of Open Education should at least consult the targeted learners about their wishes and needs. It will be better when individual learners and their communities are involved in the development of courses and programs. It would be interesting to make a study of different Open Education projects to see if and in which amount users are informed or devolved in the design and development of the materials.

NHS ladder

Returning to Arnstein who in 2019[5] remarks that (1) participation equals power: it is the means by which they can induce significant social reform which enables them to share in the benefits of the affluent society”(p. 24); (2) describes the two nonparticipant phases as educating the citizens and therapy: “curing them of their “pathology” rather than changing the racism and victimization that create their pathologies” (p. 27). The participant phases end in citizens control: “People are simply demanding that degree of power (or control) which guarantees that participants or residents can govern a program or an institution, be in full charge of policy and managerial aspects, and be able to negotiate the conditions under which “outsiders” may change them”(p. 33).


In (formal) programs, faculty, committees and administrators know what students have to learn to pass exams and acquire a degree. For some groups of students and for most of the initial degrees this seems to be an adequate way: you may not like statistics, but you’ll need them later on. In commercial programs, and some skill oriented programs learners and groups like employers have influence in the program designed by the professionals. In communities which were professionals educate each other, learners are really involved and power is shared within the community. In Open Education, based on the case studies in de Langen (2018), we see Information and Manipulation return in the MOOC-platforms; Consulting ,Involving in commercial programs as SPOCS, and intermediary firms as Lumen. In communities as FemTechNet and MERLOT I, we see the higher phases as Delegation and Collaboration.

For a continues sustainability and improvement of Open Education it would be necessary to involve the learners, the users of the educational materials. It should be interested to develop a participation ladder of education as the existing ladders are sector specific, to test this proposition, This can be used to study the involvement (or the stage) of the different users (learners and other stakeholders) of Open Education.



[2] R. Arnstein  “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 35, No. 4, July 1969, pp. 216-224



[5] Sherry R. Arnstein (2019) A Ladder of Citizen Participation, Journal of the

American Planning Association, 85:1, 24-34, DOI: 10.1080/01944363.2018.1559388

The price of (distance) education

  1. Concluding
  2. Good education does not come cheap.
  3. Can education be provided in a competitive market?

1. Concluding

Good quality education, whether online or face-to-face will cost money. Which form of education, or rather which combination, is appropriate depends on the context. For 18 – 24 years old, the campus university seems optimal, although the more independent attitude of young people is reflected in a more critical approach to education. They seem to choose for a combination of work and (distance) education, adding to the more adult learners. Also, for big audiences or a large geographical spread of learners, online distance education could be more effective, but not necessary less expensive.

The transformation of costs of education into the fees of the learners is a political choice. By setting the size of the overall budget and the part spend on education, it determines the access and price of education. Of course, governments will ask organizations to organize education in an efficient and effective way. However, the usage of for-profit organizations to realize the educational goals would require that they provide the same or higher quality of education at 60% of the costs of not-for profit organizations, which seem quite a challenge.

The challenge for government agencies is to make sure that the for-profit organizations align their (profit) goal with the goals of the students and the governmental goals, preventing misuse and fraud as described by Carey.

2. Good education does not come cheap.

When someone writes:The price of college is breaking America”, the problem seems sever. Yet, Kevin Carey also has the answer: It also doesn’t explain why colleges have failed to take advantage of the best opportunity to radically drop the price of a good …………The answer is online learning.[..]. This is how universities could break the tuition cost curve—by making the price of online degrees proportional to what colleges actually spend to operate the courses.”

In a reaction to this Paul Prinsloo wrote at twitter: “[..] working in a mega public distance/blended institution with more than 350,000 students calls forth grappling with the three vectors of the “iron triangle”  – access, quality, cost. I classify under ‘quality’ the issue of student:instructor ratio […] So balancing cost, quality & access (an unholy trinity) per se means compromise. You cannot touch one of three vectors without impacting the other two. Appointing ‘cheap’ adjuncts, increasing class sizes & redefining good quality to “good enough” is the name of the game”.

In my experience, working for 30 years in distance education, there are some rules of the thumb:

  • The total costs of developing good distance learning courses (DLC) are about the same as classroom courses (F2F). However, costs in DLC mostly fall in the design and production phase, whereas F2F-courses require more efforts (and costs) in the exploitation phase.
    Two comments on this rule are (a) that many costs of F2F-courses are hidden for the administration; preparations for the September-courses often takes place in the summer or are disguised as research; (b) quality in DLC is not defined as the student:instructor ratio, but rather as the absence of instructors. Perfect (non-existing) course materials do not require any explanations. And yes, although much of the knowledge of the original designer is made explicit in the materials, it will be imperfect and adjuncts are used to help students.
  • Different courses require a different approach. We try (tried) to embed basic knowledge in courses that can be studied independent of tutors, other students and place and time. Other courses, for example advanced courses or competences courses require academic reflection and discussion, so students are grouped together and mentored when needed. In the last case, there are didactical reasons for
  • There seems to be a relationship between the number of students, their geographical location and the most costs-effective teaching style. Small groups in each other neighborhood will be best served with F2F-courses. For groups divided over large areas or large amount of students DLC may be cost effective. Two simple examples: we had a set of independent DLC-s which were taught to 300-400 students using 7 lectors. Because we added research competences into the course, it is now taught in groups of 20 students, requiring 15 tutors. When the amount of students rose towards 500 students, the amount of tutors increased to 25 (but in reality, we also increased the amount of students/group). The group of students who are writing a master thesis, meet in Utrecht, which involves train trips up to 200 km., on average students and teachers travel 50 km to attend these colleges.

Therefore, in different situations, DLC-s can be more cost-effective. However, good education does not come cheap. Just filming your classes and putting them on the internet can provide others with good educational resources, but does not creates good education. The same applies for an unrestricted increase of the number of face-to-face meetings, sometimes students have to read and work as individuals. Yet, in my opinion, there is no iron triangle; the relationship between quality (in a broad sense), access and costs is mainly a financial decision. As we experience in DLC, the decision to cut costs in the design phase has its consequences in the later phases of the course, including failing students or increasing tutoring costs. Only when the government agencies or the management of the educational organization set a fixed budget, the triangle becomes fixed. And as teachers cannot influence access or costs, it will be the quality which will be adjusting.

The idea that online learning will decrease prices of education as students only pay for the teaching (activities) and not for football, buildings and buffets, is an old one. Christensen et al. (2010) predicted the disruption of education because of distance and online learning. As we saw above, there is no necessity that good quality DLC will be cheaper than F2F education; only that it will be more cost-effective per student.

One exception is as an organization uses existing materials and competences to develop online education. For example commercial educators hire university professors to develop courses, which can be sold cheap. However, the professors are trained by and do research at institutions financed by public funds, so part of the costs are carried by the public sector. Following Carey, American universities are organizing this competition themselves with the help of socalled ‘online program managers’ (OPMs): for-profit firms taking the educational programs of these institutions and putting them online, in exchange of 50-60% of the tuition fees.

Carey then makes two important points with respect to the costs of education:

  • By comparing the fee of an online course, set at a breakeven point by Georgia Institute of Technology ($ 6,000) with the fee of similar courses, which are offered for fees up to $65,000.
  • Based on the financial rapports of 2U, an OPM, he gives a breakdown of costs, resulting in a 43% profits (divided 50:50 over 2U and the universities), 43% program costs (developing the program, subscription & administration and marketing & sales, 19%) and 14% instructional costs.

The ratio between program costs and instructional costs is a problem when quality is measured in student:instructor ratios. If the developed online materials are of good quality, our rule of the thumb says that investing in good materials can reduce the required amount of tutoring. There is not much to be said about it without any data on students’ progress, degrees awarded and student intentions.

3. Can education be provided in a competitive market?

More disturbing are the figures with respect to profits and fees as mentioned above. If profit is the only reason to offer an educational program, there seems to be an inclination to raise the fee for students up to 11 times the costs and spent more on marketing and sales than on instruction.

Whereas much of the comments on Carey focus on the costs aspect of online education (see Lederman, 2019). However, from my (European) point of view, I find the examples given of for-profit-firms who use the tax and educational policies to generate business without any regard to quality much more disturbing. Lederman (2019) interviews Terry Bates, who stated, “Certainly in the U.S.A., OPMs are sucking money out of the system, as are for-profits. However, neither of these conditions apply in Canada. Tuition fees are lower because provincial governments in Canada better support higher education institutions financially than do the state governments in the U.S.A”.

He point out two choices that influence an educational system. Firstly, the political choice to support education or not. On a budget level, educational outlays compete with other spending, whereas the overall budget depends on the amount of tax revenues. Therefore, the costs of education for students and learners are not only a design choice of teachers and educational institutions but also of national and state governments. Secondly, if for-profit organizations provide services or goods, part of the price (fee, charge) will be profit. If the quality of service a not-for profit organization is as good as the for-profit organization, society will be better off when the not-for profit organization is chosen. The reason to choose for a for-profit organization to organize online education should be in the fact that this organization can offer courses or a program at a total of costs and profit below the costs of the production by the not-for profit organization. In terms of the figures of 2U, the costs of the combined 2U/university offering should be 43% lower than the costs of the online program by the university. When we add to that, that a public financed university should not advertise as often as a for-profit organization, the total costs of the combination have to be 63% below the costs of the university.

And, perhaps Trace Urdan (Tyton Partners, cited in Lederman, 2019) is right that Carey “blames capitalism” [..] and “doesn’t like profit making in higher education” [..]. Nevertheless, as illustrated above, the positive effect of capitalism rests on the assumption that for-profit firms are about 60% cheaper than not-for profit organizations given the same level of quality.

Furthermore, a free market does only make sense if one the demand side consumers have consumers-freedom, meaning that they are free to choose. However, in (formal) education students only get to choose the once and are then locked in. Schoeni (2018, 457) shows for military expenditures that innovation through private-public partnerships are bad for innovation as: [..] “competition is once and done. It occurs early in the process, then vendor lock ensures that incumbents have a ready buyer for decades. P3s would only exacerbate that problem. By definition they lock in a single supplier for the long term”.

Urdan argues that: “But higher education pricing at the master’s level is not cost based. Among the elite schools that Carey holds up, it is value based. [some are higher priced], but because these are the prices that buyers believe these programs are worth”. Which shows that regular market-laws do not apply to education.

More disturbing are the examples Casey mentions where for-profit educational firms ignore all levels of quality and see students only as a mean to derive income from. Or as Casey describes: “There was the recruiter who described hunting for students outside welfare offices in poor, mostly black neighborhoods. A prospect was considered qualified if he could “breathe, scribble his name, had a driver’s license, and was over 18 years of age,” the recruiter explained”. Subsidy hunting is of all times and places, but it cannot be an argument for the use of for-profit organizations in education.


Carey, Kevin. (2019). The creeping capitalist takeover of higher education, Huffpost, April 1, 2019,

Christensen, C. M., Johnson, C. W., & Horn, M. B. (2010). Disrupting class. McGraw-Hill.

Lederman, Doug. (2019). What Kevin Carey Got Right (and Wrong), Inside Higher Ed, April 10, 2019.

Reed, Matt. (2019).The Assumption that Online Teaching is Cheaper, Online education, costs and the OPM debate, April 11, Inside Higher Ed,

Schoeni, L.C.D.E. (2018). Whither Innovation?: Why Open Systems Architecture May Deliver on the False Promise of Public-Private Partnerships. Administrative Law Review, 70(2), 409-458.

 “Do you think that our economic models are fit for a sustainable future?”: Green sustainability versus Financial Sustainability

The title of this blog is taken from a question on Twitter, in which Hester Jansen (@hesterjansen33) asked if the existing modern economic theories are future-proof. If we believe the “dominant” Dutch economists, economic theory is not enriched by Raworth’s work.  The qualifications of the economists range from “not going to read” towards “intellectual poverty”. However, ecologists and natural scientists are very enthusiastic about the book.

This reminded me of a presentation given by Judith Sanderse on sustainable business models for NGO’s (and other not-for-profit organizations). Afterwards, we were questioned by some disappointed natural scientists, who had attended the session because they hoped for a presentation on the way organizations can improve the environment, greening the earth and saving mankind. Alas, our research is on the way business models can help not-for-profit organizations to organize their activities aiming for long term survival, bridging the gap between financers, subsidizers and their purpose.


Judith and I did discuss the point again, thinking about a paper on the trade-off between financial sustainability, which requires stability between income and costs versus the long term mission and purpose of the not-for-profit organization, which often includes social goals, which rather cost money, instead of generating actual income.

The way Kate Raworth describes the doughnut is as the area between the social fundament (the human requirements) and the ecological ceiling (the generative capabilities of earth). This suggests a trade-off: because of the growth in consumption, air, land and seas are polluted and the climate is changing.

Without pretending to understand all scientific discussions with respect to global climate change, I think that human behaviour has had big negative effects on global warming, the plastic soup and other environmental disasters.

Yet, actual research on the doughnut in several regions show both low scores on the social fundament and high scores on pollution, above the ecological ceiling. Rethinking the relationship between social systems and the environment, we see that the (re-)emergency of ‘robber baron’ capitalism in the USA and Russia, but also the dogmatic socialist regimes, combine low scores on food, education, equality and political participation with high scores on pollution and ignoring biodiversity. Trump rejected the Paris protocols and protects oil companies which are building pipes through conservation areas. Putin also supports oil companies polluting Siberia, whereas the industrial elite in Russia squabble over the power.

This suggest a reversion of the relationship. On a national level, there is no trade-off between the social fundament and the ecological ceiling, but the social fundament is a condition on the realization of an ecological ceiling. Only in a society which satisfies the fundamental conditions and provides a sense of justice, a government can ask the population to share its wealth with others who are worse off, and to redirect part of the potential welfare growth to finance procedures which aim to keep environmental changes below the ecological ceiling. Yet, this will only be effective if all countries participate. Free-riders will not only disrupt the worldwide effect of the measurements, but will also damage the collective willingness to sacrifice part of one’s wealth, sharing and redistributing income between people and between people and the environment. As said before, there is no dynamic mechanism which will move the present economies towards a sustainable doughnut equilibrium.

Yet, this emphasise the importance of financial sustainability on an organizational level. When green sustainability meets financial sustainability, a doughnut could appear. By doing research (we do at the Open University of the Netherlands) into the conditions in which green sustainability can become a competitive advantage, we hope to stimulate the integration of the ecological ceiling into for-profit firms. By doing research into the conditions in which re-use and dismantling of materials can result in a closed loop, we hope to reduce pollution and waste. And also by doing research into the conditions in which not-for-profit organizations can realize their full purposes for longer periods we hope to increase the effectiveness of these organizations, both in the field of the social fundament as the ecological ceiling.

If governments in liberal-social capitalist economic systems, can stimulate the co-existence of green sustainability and financial sustainability, by stimulating research in new ‘green’ competitive advantages, the emergence of closed loops or survival of purpose driven organizations, in combination with honest social conditions, a movement could arise which could get an independent dynamic: profit-driven, green in purpose, adjusting to consumer demands, these ways of producing, servicing and improving will cross borders and uses the mechanics of capitalism to realize a converging of green and financial sustainability.

Returning to the question of Hester, I’m afraid that the doughnut shows that we need more than a new economic theory, but the existing theories (including Raworth’s) will not explain the mechanisms which could lead to a greener and safer future.


The Doughnut Economy: Eat it or Beat it.

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quit exempt from any intellectual influences are usually slaves of some defunct economist (Keynes, quoted in Raworth, 2017, p. 7).
By the way, the quote goes on with: Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.
In April I was asked to give a presentation after we had watched a documentary about the ideas of Kate Raworth; labelled the doughnut economy.

In a nutshell, the idea is that there are a set of human conditions which have to be fulfilled; these determine the social foundations of the world. Factors as clean water, education, food, but also energy, gender equality and a political voice have to be realized for all.
Yet, the production of the social foundation demands the usage of resources, the utilization of the earth. The maximal sustainable exploitation of the natural resources define the ecological ceiling. In some cases, we over utilize the resources: climate change, air pollution and the loss of biodiversity are signs that the resilience of earth is damaged.

Raworth postulates that there is a zone between the optimum social foundation and the resilience of nature, the ecological ceiling, humanity can realize its maximal living conditions, without depleting the natural resources beyond recovery: the donut is the dough between human needs and extermination of nature.

In this sense, the donut model is a classical economic model, based on a min-max solution trade-off, nature against human desires. However, the model misses any kind of first principles which explain a tendency towards the stable corridor. With first principles I mean certain assumptions about behaviour which cause movements in other variables, interacting and often moving an economy between ‘stable ’states.

For example, Keynes assumed that under consumption will lead to more savings, reducing the interest rate, which stimulates investment, raising income and so increasing consumption. (New) Classical economist belief the flexibility of prices and wages to correct mistakes and result in full employment and fair market prices. Marxist economist see the struggle between, workers and capitalists over income, resulting in stable cycles of prosperity and depression.

Furthermore, there are economic theories which try to explain why the world is as it is, and models which describe the world as it should be. Marx’s theory on capitalism is an example of the first kind, his theory on socialism an example of the second.

As Raworth often uses phrases as the government should……., firms have to…………. and consumers must……; I would label her model as one of the prescriptive kind. In her book see set several conditions for the existence of a doughnut economy: (1) Change the goal from growth towards sustainability (versus goals as GNP); (2) Keep in mind the big picture, economics are embedded in society and nature (versus independent markets); (3) Humans are imbedded in social networks (versus the homo economicus); (4) (Complex) System thinking (versus mechanical equilibrium); (5) Redistribution is more important than distribution: growth will not automatically result in a fair distribution of income and income differences are not necessary for growth; (6) Create to regenerate (versus trust in growth as the solution to all problems); (7) Growth is addictive, stagnation is sustainable.

Raworth via Twitter:

Of course, point 6 and 7 tackles my critique that she doesn’t postulate some kind of theory, as she does not believe in ‘mechanical’ equilibrium solutions. Yet, we know that people, when restricted by income and prices will try to maximize their possibilities, even if we may be criticizing their choices. Poor social choice can be rational from an individual point of view: t-shirts made in sweatshops may be socially shameful, but they are affordable!

Problem is that Raworth’s solution is that it requires a green dictatorship to solve free rider and other problems. As just described, there is the tension between social desirable and affordability. Living within the donut involves a redistribution of wealth, on an individual level, but also on a national and international level. Given the Dutch experience with ‘green farming’, taking place at this moment, such adjustments are very slowly and depending strongly on the sensitivity of the middleman. As there is no mechanical equilibrium, some an independent body should enforce solidarity, especially international: financial solidarity seems to decline with geographical distance, but there is also a prisoner’s dilemma: when the others do behave, and we don’t, we can harvest the fruits without paying the price.

When I compare Raworth’s ideas with Marx’s theories, I see at least one similarity. Marx’s theory on capitalism describes tendencies and dynamics which can be observed in modern time capitalism. However, his less founded ideas on the socialist state depended strongly on a vision of the worker as a solidary and social being, whereas the practical execution of his ideas has led to several kinds of dictatorships, with different outcomes, but never to the labourers paradise Marx expected.

So does Raworth describe several tendencies, as an emergent feeling of urgencies, an attitude of solidarity, the emergence of the sharing and caring economy. However, her solution is built on the same optimistic view of human nature as Marx.

On the other side, economists and environmentalists use her model in a descriptive way, concluded that in several countries and regions the social foundation lacks in several ways. In some regions free access to clean water is a problem, in other areas education is guaranteed, at least for boys and is gender equality a big issue. Also, in several aspects the natural resources are damaged. The amount of plastic in the oceans is threatening the survival of several species. Climate change threatens the existence of small islands, changing the living conditions of whole populations.

The documentary was interesting, although I think that the supporters of Raworth’s ideas miss some or the points, believing it possible does not make it possible!

Raworth, K. (2017). Doughnut economics: seven ways to think like a 21st-century economist. Chelsea Green Publishing.


Call for Papers: Capitalism, Social Science and the Platform University

Seems interesting

Culture, Politics and Global Justice

December 13th-14th, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

In recent discussions of capitalism, the notion of the ‘platform’ has come to play a prominent role in conceptualising our present circumstances and imagining our potential futures. There are criticisms which can be raised of the platform-as-metaphor, however we believe it provides a useful hook through which to make sense of how socio-technical innovations may be leading to a new phase of capitalist accumulation. To talk of ‘platform capitalism’ in this sense does not exclude consideration of parallel notions such as digital capitalism, data capitalism and surveillance capitalism but rather seeks to frame these considerations through a focus upon the platform as a novel assemblage.

While research into social media and the sharing economy is relatively advanced, the increasing centrality of platforms to the operation of the university remains understudied and undertheorised. Our conference seeks to rectify this, raising the possibility of…

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Platforms and Education: a good combination?

Education and platforms

An update:

The Networked University of Jeffrey J. Selingo

Now, a new type of alliance is emerging in higher education that is centered around the need to solve common problems rather than to simply bond around mission or geography. One early version of this new kind of partnership was used to build and deliver Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) through alliances like Coursera and edX. Now we’re seeing the development of similar alliances to rethink student success for low-income students (such as the University Innovation Alliance) or deliver technological improvements in teaching and learning (Unizen).

To survive and thrive in the changing environment for higher education, more institutions must move to form deep alliances and collaborative platforms around nearly every function on a campus—from academic affairs to career services. Imagine if a group of colleges cooperated more to provide their back-office functions of admissions (beyond just sharing a common application), so that they could focus more on recruiting students. Or what if they shared career services resources so that a group of small colleges could better compete against larger universities for the attention of companies looking to hire. On the academic side, institutions can more easily build programs in emerging disciplinary areas such as data analytics or artificial intelligence by doing it together rather than on their own.

In my former blog The Platform Economy I gave a short introduction of platforms in e-business. In my view the major points were:

  1. A platform is a broker (either acting as an intermediary in goods and serves or in financial aspects)
  2. To attract enough participants both on the consumer and supplier sides, the platform has to provide a special value offer to both.

Problem is to define what the differences are between a platform, a network or an embedded organization.Wilfred Rubens wrote a nice blog (in Dutch) on why platforms shouldn’t be applied in education.

Some views on distance learning, based on my experiences working at the Dutch Open University:

a. Good distance learning courses are more expensive to make, but less labor intensive to exploit.
b. Good blended learning is expensive to make and expensive to exploit.
c. There is a difference between information, knowledge and education.d. Even with modular educational programs, there is a build-up of knowledge.

I think there are some misunderstandings with respect to the usage of platforms in education. Rubens starts with quoting Scott DeRue, who –inspired by the large student debt in the USA- proposes a system in which rich universities develop free courses, which can be used as basic materials in less well-to-do educational institutions, making education more affordable. Of course as side-effect will be that students from a rich background will get the teachings from the man or woman itself, whereas others may watch the video. The diversion between rich and poor becomes even more explicit when he argues that the costs of an on-campus experience should depend on its (life changing) quality and destroy the programmatic structure of education by splitting it up in micro-credentials.

Higher education is not for every citizen, and it must be earned. [..] we need policy makers and business leaders to come together at the same table to help universities, families and students pay for this education in much smarter ways than we are doing today.
Scott Derue

Yet, In this sense, platforms and the “Netflix”-university will increase inequality and segregation in society, without removing the basic problem: the fact that an education has become an individual investment resulting in large debts.

Furthermore, Netflix is an intermediary between the owners of films, series on one side and viewers (end consumers) on the other side. When free courses are used as a replacement of free text books, this educational platform is a kind of B2B network, whereas the final education is delivered by the minor universities.

Amy  Ahearn points out that platforms as Spotify aren’t as successful for the artists as they might be for the investors.  She points out that also on existing educational platforms, teachers are paid badly. An additional problem, in her perception, is that teaching is by and large a female occupation, so the low earnings will enhance the income gap between male and female.

[..], platform business models undeniably have huge upsides for instructors. They let people all over the world step into the role of “teacher” for the first time, bringing their niche skills and experiences to an audience of learners. They allow educators to focus on course design instead of having to create and maintain their own digital infrastructure. A platform can also aggregate demand, allowing students who arrive looking for one type of course to organically stumble upon a related offering. These platforms also invest in advertising that drives new customers to courses [..] To contextualize this trend, it’s important to note that teaching has historically been a female-dominated industry, with correspondingly low salaries and low status.
Amy  Ahearn

In 2011, I have written about the motives of participating in Open Education, for example marketing motives for HEI’s. Generating an individual income from offering OER or MOOCs is not one of them. Most of the contributors to Open Courses do this either as a side job, or social engagement, or expected reputational gains. does state: You’re busy.  You don’t always have all the time in the world to work on you, but you still need gain new skills and get better in order to be successful in your career.  Online learning is the best way to pick up new skills and perfect those you already have, and fast.

Originally, the supply of open (distance) education was divided into two kind of platforms, the commercial, for-profit platforms (with commercial investors as Coursera) which provide free courses to learners, but try to earn a profit through additional services (assessments, certificates), by transforming the free courses into in company training, or selling the data on the students. The other platforms offer free education because of different motives, for example learning analytics and research, experimenting with distance learning, marketing, inclusion (policy) or a mix of these motives (EdX, FutureLearn, OpenupEd).

New online learning platforms (which have to be distinguished from what publishers call ‘learning platforms’) sometimes offer some free courses, temporally free trail periods, and exploit the freemium model. The earning models depend on getting the attention through the free courses, converting this interest into demand for paid courses. Examples are PluralSight, (Linkedin education), Threehouse and Udemy. Some seem to have their own teaching staff (Threehouse), others contributors (Lynda, Udemy, PuralSight), mostly paid per view.

Interestedly, there is a parallel with business models, where we can distinguish for profit organizations, social entrepreneurs, who do not aim to make a profit, but have to survive independently of new sponsors and not-for-profit foundations, which live to spend subsidies of third parties.

Also new are firms like LumenLearning (USA) and Homuork (Spain) which act as an intermediary between available free educational resources and educational institutions or learning organizations. Are these firms platforms, or not? Their earning model is based on the fact that their customers (firms or schools) do not know where the right free materials are available, nor have they the competences necessary. Instinctively, these firms are excluded from the platforms because they do more than just provide a marketspace were suppliers and consumers of education meet.

Online, Distance and E-Learning

So there is a lot of dynamic in the e-learning sector. And with that, boundaries become unclear. The diffusion between terms does complicate discussions. Some authors talk about e-learning, others about distance learning, open learning or MOOCs. I think it is important for the discussion to make explicit what kind of learning is meant.

In my view, Online and E-learning consists of all kinds of education which involve computerized education. This includes flipping the class room by offering the standard tutorials and assignments in a closed learning management system, freeing face to face time for discussion and complex topics. When online learning is part of a traditional curriculum, it will not fundamentally change education.

Open education, including freemium systems, are also delivered through the Internet (with the exception of Open Classes and Studium Generale, where people are invited to attend open f2f lectures). When it takes the form of MOOCs, the courses can be studied independent of tutors and other students. In the case of OER, some teacher has to design a course out of the resources as they often cannot be used by learners. Problem is are the awarding of degrees, the exams and other activities which require staff-student interaction.

Distance education, whether open or closed, uses a different didactical approach than traditional f2f teachings. However, it isn’t necessarily less expensive than traditional programs. Good distance education requires a larger investment in the materials than face to face programs. Both the online components as the f2f components of E-learning have to be integrated in the materials. Yet, as the additional costs of teaching are almost zero, it will be less costly in exploitation.

In the words of Christensen, distance education has the potential to disrupt the educational sector, as it can provide formal education at lower costs for students. Open Education misses the formal component, so it becomes an excellent instrument to further knowledge in specific fields, where formal acceptancy is less important. Furthermore, when learners move from the free space into the paying space of the ‘platforms’, education becomes either distance education (given the serious suppliers), or it just become MOOCs in their worst form.

Online education is just a new supplement, which can change class room education fundamentally, but does not change the system or the costs of education.

Again platforms and education

So will platforms stimulate, disturb or even damage education? Firstly, we have to define what is meant by a platform. Netflix-like platforms as FutureLearn, OpenupEd and other MOOCs-platforms will offer opportunities for learners (but no official recognition) and can function as free textbook providers reducing educational costs. In the last case, they can be disruptive for the text book publishers, but only stimulating for the educational sector.

Unaccredited (for-profit) short courses and programs, aimed at professionals, try to reduce their costs by paying low fees (income-per-view). This will reduce the income of independent tutors and authors, but as they do not replace formal educational programs within HEI’s, they will not directly influence teacher’s wages. Question is if these kind of providers can be described as platforms, or just for-profit educational organizations. They will only become real disruptors when the authorities accredited the programs and they are capable to set up a system of assessments without increasing their costs (and prices).

Another challenge is the transformation of the MOOCs-platforms from subsidy spending foundations into social entrepreneurs, so they will survive even when sponsors and subsidizers shift their attention elsewhere.

There is no doubt that MOOCs and for-profit HEI’s can impoverish higher education and deteriorate the position of teaching staff. However, it is naïve to blame educational platforms, especially because several of them provide Open Education because of social motives. The struggle between private and social entrepreneurship in education is caused by a suspicion that public organizations are inefficient and ineffective compared with private organizations, especially in the United States, but also in several European Countries. Yet, as I started out, a good quality of online or distance education demands large investments which probably will not be earned back at a profit as several investors in commercial MOOCS-platforms are experiencing.





The Platform Economy

A platform can be seen as the intermediary between service providers and consumers, whereby the service providers around the platform are complementors.

The platform ecosystem, thereby, embraces (a) the platform owner, operating the platform and core platform offerings as well as mediating between service consumers and service providers; (b) the service ecosystem of complementary product and service providers enabling the ‘whole’ customized solution as offered to (c) the consumers.

Scholten, Simone & Scholten, Ulrich. (2012).

According to Scholten and Scholten (2012), the greater the amount of complementors, the more valuable the platform becomes for the consumers, as this increases the opportunities to co-create an unique consumer-specific packet of services.

With platforms, the fundamental rules of strategy change. Strategy shifts from controlling to orchestrating resources; from optimizing internal processes to facilitating external interactions; and from increasing customer value to maximizing the value of the ecosystem.

HBR insight


Yet, according to Ludsgaard-Hansen, a platform does not necessary focus on services, but can also be The digital transformation is also a driver since it requires every organization to learn and acquire new skills that are often foreign to the traditional core business. A car manufacturer for example has great expertise when it comes to building cars, but they have no clue how to program an artificial intelligence that makes their car autonomous or they have no expertise how to create new business models with self-driving vehicles in the future. In an ecosystem, this car manufacturer can partner with start-ups, researchers, other corporations etc. to create innovations that save or even improve their business. With the right ecosystem, the car manufacturer can gain a competitive edge, create a superior customer experience, reach new markets and more

How Ecosystems Change Business, Published on May 2, 2018, Christian Lundsgaard-Hansen, Linkedin

Given these quotes, a platform is the linking pin between –on one side- different firms, which next to competing also complement each other; and consumers looking for a unique value offer of combined services. An older form is the “shops in a shop”, where brands like Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY or Armani have their own place within the larger store. Yet, the success of the marketplace depends on the several factors. Firstly, the services offered, as a clean environment, additional services as foods, security and alike. Secondly, it depends on the traffic generated, which in turn depends on the number of brands as well on the other services and products. Lastly, it depends on the trustworthiness and righteousness of the umbrella organization, especially when the cash registers are organized centrally.

prijzenVirtual networks and platforms will function in the same way. Firstly, what does the platform offer to the customers; secondly, what does it offer the suppliers? One example of a platform containing a multiple of shops, is The funny thing of this platform is that you have to search good, as the same product is offered for different prices at different shops within the platform. Looking for a wooden ring clamp, you get prices between € 3.80 and € 10.00. Some shops have a Wish-quality label, however, it is unclear what this means. Also there are customers reviews and other details available. The platform uses another firm to handle the payments and there is a clear not-received-money-back policy.

Looking into the earning models of Michael Rappa from the ‘90s of the former century, the platform primarily earns an income through its function of a broker, bringing demand and supply together, combining organizing the virtual marketplace and the transaction broker.

We see that e-commerce organizations as Amazone and Bol evolve from dedicated e-shops (in this case books) towards more general platforms, exploiting their competences in administration, technology and financial transactions moving from an earning model aimed at the final customers towards an earning model based on services to their complementors.

In the sense of the platforms above, organizations as Netflix and Spotify are less interesting as they still are dominated by one product and are not capable to enlarge the value of their service with additional complementary services and suppliers.


Alibaba Group is a Chinese private consortium based in Hangzhou dedicated to e-commerce on the Internet, including business-to-business, retail, and consumer sales portals. It also offers online payment services, a price comparison search engine, and cloud data storage services. In 2012, two Alibaba portals together handled 1.1 trillion yuan (170 000 million dollars) sales, which is more than its competitors both eBay and combined.

Another interesting feature of platforms is the possibilities they open for Makers. Makers are small one-person-one-idea inventors, who are empowered by the internet to transform their original idea into saleable products. Using producers in China, getting capital through crowdfunding sites, 3D printing for conceptualization, wrapping and postal services in Denmark and selling through Amazon or Alibaba, using Skype and Gmail for their communication. People can become more independent of large firms for capital and resources, but may become more vulnerable for (international internet) fraud and of intermediaries and platforms.

Yet, good or bad, platforms are here to stay, being part of the way the internet has entered several aspects of our lives.

Next time, platforms and eduction, why?














AI and Politics


Update 2: A free book on Privacy and the Internet of Things



Update: Microsoft Says AI Advances Will Require New Laws, Regulations

Companies making and selling AI software will need to be held responsible for potential harm caused by “unreasonable practices” – if a self-driving car program is set up in an unsafe manner that causes injury or death, for example, Microsoft said. And as AI and automation boost the number of laborers in the gig-economy or on-demand jobs, Microsoft said technology companies need to take responsibility and advocate for protections and benefits for workers, rather than passing the buck by claiming to be “just the technology platform’’ enabling all this change.


Source: AI, machine learning and marketing: a brave new world,

At the end of last week I attended a presentation about Economy 4.0 and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Idea is that all the expected improvements in services and products, the Internet of Things (IoT) depends on the intelligence of the communication of out machines.

Most of the simple repetitive tasks are already computerized; replacing workers either by smart software, or by robots. The next step, which is taken rapidly, are learning algorithms. Learning by algorithms can be described as repeating processes, games or tasks, evaluating the results and adapting the reaction to the initial input. This repetition had to be accompanied by human input, to distinguish right and wrong outcomes. Yet, the last generation algorithms can even learn from other algorithms. By computerizing simple task, so is the expectation, labour productivity will increase by 40%.

The learning process requires lots of data on inputs, procedures and desired outcomes. Therefore, Big Data is of importance and is one of the functions of the IoT to generate and analyze data. The idea is to generate so much data that every task becomes simple and repetitive. In the (nearby) future, all task will become divided in simple repetitive tasks. The presenters sketched a future in which people can enjoy a 24/7 economy where interactions are real-time, but with a robot, who can help you based on your emotional pattern, earlier request, request of similar identities and communication with other AI’s in both your and its own network.

In my view, if something is possible, in time it will be realized. However, this is true for positive and negative developments. So four remarks with respect to the Economy 4.0-future:

  • The underlying models of the algorithms determine the validity of the outcomes of the analyzes and actions. For example, criminal profiling depends on the correctness of the relationship between the chosen profiles and the probability of criminal behaviour. Another example is the fact that advertisements on Facebook and websites are determined by past behaviour. boyd and Crawford (2012) cite Bollier: “As a large mass of raw information, Big Data is not self-explanatory”.
    Often the remark is heard that after the buy of a pair of sneakers, or in my case a casserole, the algorithms for some time will offer us the same sneakers and casseroles. Learning, then, takes the form of changing the advertisements after I placed a new buy on the internet. A less sympathetic feature is the fact that if you have looked for airline tickets, the price increases with each visit to the website. Some people even reserve one computer for looking and another one for buying! The Financial Times recently asked attention for “The algorithms that seduce our children“: “The tech industry is under scrutiny for how its algorithms manipulate adults but little attention has been paid to how algorithms seduce children, who are far more susceptible than their parents. Children often lack the self-control or even the means to change the channel“.


    Illustration reproduced with permission of Pâté

  • An implicit assumption in the Big Data approach is that every task can be divided in simple tasks which can be described by an algorithm, simplifying complex activities in sets of computerized tasks. Activities which are to complex today can be solved by gathering more data. Yet, as someone remarked: finding a needle in a haystack is not made simpler by adding more and more hay to the stack.

boyd and Crawford (2012) compare the influence of Big Data with the assembly line of Ford, stating: “[..] the specialized tools of Big Data also have their own inbuilt limitations and restrictions. For example, Twitter and Facebook are examples of Big Data sources that offer very poor archiving and search functions. Consequently, researchers are much more likely to focus on something in the present or immediate past – tracking reactions to an election, TV finale, or natural disaster – because of the sheer difficulty or impossibility of accessing older data“. Kate Metzler argues that academics in social sciences either lack the access to Big Data or the capabilities for Big Data analyses. According to her, the digital age will result in a division between in company researchers and academic researchers, resulting in a majority of research aimed at selling more, and a minority of research trying to understand social processes and outcomes.

  • The gathering of data also raises issues about privacy and ownership of the data. If my behaviour is recorded by some home device, which learns to make expectations on my personal life: raising the temperature after 5, ordering pizza if I’m not home at 7; it is uncomfortable to know that this data is shared with some anonymous IT-workers in Silicon Valley. Especially when firms, but also government agencies, will use this data to forecast my behaviour and use this knowledge to influence my decisions.
    To quote boyd and Crawford (2012): “Just because it is accessible does not make it ethical”. Arguments for such actions are often found in “it is convenient for you….”, “it is only to help….”, of “it is for your/the national safety……”. Next to privacy and unwanted influences, data on your behaviour, on and of the web, is worth money. The firms pay the data collecting firms money for the data you have given them. An old internet proverb states that if you don’t pay for the product, you become the product; often followed by the remark that you agreed with the user agreements. Yet, without agreeing with a long list of conditions, you can’t use Facebook, web browsers or other ICT-applications, used for modern communication. So if I want to keep communicating with my family in our WhatsApp group, I cannot state that I agree with conditions 1 – 10, but not with 11 -121. Yet, I still think that there should be some discussion on the ownership of data on myself, or at least have a say in the way it is used and by whom.
  • The emergency of Economy 4.0 will cause serious disturbances, even if the algorithms are right, the needle is found and agreement is arrived. As the Austrian economists as Mises and Hayek already showed around the start of the last century, changes in the real economy take time. When workers become obsolete, this will result in unemployment, losses in income and human capital, with real effects. In that sense, Economy 4.0 can increase inequality and social instability.

Economy 4.0 can influence our lives in positive and negative ways. It is expected to increase the ease of use of several appliances, increase quality of life through self-learning and communicating between different machines and applications, mechanization of dirty and tedious work. On the other side, it gives the opportunity for firms, governments and others to influence our behavior in an undesirable way, can give rise to wrong or socially unacceptable decisions, for example by supporting biases etcetera.

These (potential) developments ask for a Public Management 4.0; not only in the sense that government agencies apply the new technologies, but in a way that supports the positive sides of AI and IoT, and suppresses the negative sides.

To do so, governments have to leading in the knowledge of the underlying technologies, but also make the usage of these technologies transparent. Why is a loan denied, what kind of commercials are financed by whom? And in extreme cases, governments should be able to pass laws, forbidding some kinds of usage of the Economy 4.0 technologies.

Next to direct interferences in the negative sides of the technological possibilities, is the obligation to educate the new generations in the do’s and don’ts. So they (we?) know when we are manipulated, know that ‘fake news’ exists, but also see that it requires some effort to make a distinction between good and bad.

Much is possible, much will be positive, but to enjoy the advantages of the AI/IoT developments, society has to defend itself against the negative aspects.

Business models in international education: what is possible? How local is education in your view?



In No education crisis wasted: On Bridge’s “business model in Africa (July 13, 2017), Hengeveld criticizes the way Bridge International Academies (Bridge) organizes their educational model in countries like Kenya (2009), Uganda (2014), Nigeria (2015), Liberia (2016) and India (2017). At their own website, they describe their Academy-in-a-Box: We re-engineered every part of the education system, from teacher training and support, to lesson delivery, construction and financial administration, as well as pupil and teacher feedback to monitor progress, to make it as efficient, effective – and very affordable for the communities we serve….The global education crisis means that it’s essential our education model is sustainable and scalable, that’s why we aren’t an NGO. The model includes 24/7 support of the teachers; following the national curriculum of the countries, incorporating the local context and standards, collaborate with local education ministries; personalized instructions using Wi-Fi handhelds, recording student data, freeing teachers to concentrate on teaching instead of administrative functions; streamlining managerial tasks, freeing managers to concentrate on teachers, families and communities.

According to a report of the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GIESCR),  Bridge uses “school in a box” model, employing a highly-standardized approach to education. At BIA, every school looks the same, the material used is the same in each classroom, and most importantly, the lessons are the same across all the academies of the same country. BIA uses a system of scripted lessons, and its teachers – who are mostly secondary school leavers without formal teaching qualifications – receive lesson plans on an e-tablet, which they have to follow word by word”. This report criticizes Bridge for several reasons. Firstly, they show that the tuition fees are such that poorer students cannot participate. Secondly, they dispute the compliance with local legal and educational standards. The report points towards research in Kenya(*), that “the majority of BIA students are taught by unqualifed, overworked, teachers using teaching scripts (developed in the US) read from tablets. The school infrastructure is basic and viewed by many as inadequate. [..]. Regular payments are strictly enforced and students who are behind with payments are excluded from the classroom. Both GIESCR and Hengeveld argue that public investors, as the Dutch government and the World Bank should reconsider their contributions.

Whether Bridge International Academies does violate national legal educational and labor regulations is something which I cannot determinate.  The arguments in the contra-Bridge rapports are convincing, but Bridge of course deny the observations mentioned above.

A different question is whether the business model of Bridge is viable altogether. Taking the strategic paradox De Wit and Meyer (2014**) on internationalization of organizations, they distinguish two perspectives, the global convergence perspective and the international diversity perspective. The first builds on international centralization of management, economies of scale in purchasing policies and sales, increasing efficiency. The second perspective accepts that there are fundamental differences between local markets, customers and governments.

Education is a sector which is certainly characterized by international administrative and legal diversity. So each organization which wants to operate on a global scale should take account of the local rules and regulations with respect to curricula, but also to privacy legislation and labor market regulations. react severely when –in their experiences- an organization disrespects or even violates these national laws. Especially when the organization offers formal degrees, local accreditation is essential for recognition.

Another question is how general is ‘education’. Is it possible to develop educational materials for the teachers or even for the students which can be used globally? To profit from the economies of scale, there has to be some synergy between either resources (reallocation, specialization), activities (pooling, specialization or competitive local advantages) and in the product offering (standardization, cross-border competition). For example, by designing an international oriented MOOC, the assumption is that the didactical methods are internationally usable. Whether it is an American textbook on sociology, a MOOC on global pollution or a distance course on chemistry, the designers/authors use a didactical method, specific examples and language. What makes some materials broader usable than others; what makes authors think that their materials are internationally usable? For example, starting European students of economics in the 80’s knew more about the American Federal Reserve than of the monetary systems of other European countries.

Bridge, but also MOOCs and OER implicitly assume that educational materials are broader adaptable than the development environment. Bridge even states that the material they make available through their tablets can be supplemented by the advice of central organized experts. Of course, the materials made available by Bridge are their own resources. MOOCs are available under creative common copyrights, but are often not adjustable, taking the form of a static text book for use in other environments. Only OER available under the most flexible creatives commons are adjustable and reusable by third parties (teachers). Yet, adjusting these resources, translating them in other languages, subtitling and adding local examples will be a lot of work. If the critique on Bridge’s central approach is right and local education is more effective with local teaching, this also removes the arguments of the possibility to provide less costly education, available for all social classes and incomes. If Bridge’s education isn’t more effective, more accessible and of a higher quality than the local teachings, the business model of this kind of education disappears.

But if the central globalization approach doesn’t work for Bridge, will MOOCs and OER be usable outside of the developers’ environment. Three of the shortcomings of MOOCs as listed on the website Online Course Report (OCR, 2016) are the teaching methods, the way content is presented and their Anglo-Saxon orientation. And these are listed as general limitations, not specifically because of local methodology.

I would like the opinion of teachers among my readers, How local is education in your view?

* Bridge versus Reality: A study of Bridge International Academies’ for profit schooling in Kenya; Report, Education International/Kenya National Union of Teachers, December 2016

** De Wit, B., & Meyer, R. (2014). Strategy synthesis: Resolving strategy paradoxes to create competitive advantage. Cengage Learning EMEA.