Education, let’s blow it to bits or put it back?

At the end of the last century some business theorists saw the start of a new development. The combination of technological change and an increasing competition between firms would result in a concentration on the core competencies of firms. This has two results: every firm concentrates on the tings they do best. Survivors of the competition will produce the best for the lowest costs. If every firm does so, and the B2B system is organized well, customers get the best quality for the lowest prices.

Of course, recent years showed a mixed pattern. Concentration in the banking sector, combining different financial products and services within one organization, ignoring the specific competencies necessary (including control and organization) is one of the causes  of the financial crisis. Yet, as result of this crisis, we see an increase in start-ups, employee-buy-outs and the emergence of other forms of small enterprises.

It would be interesting to see what the industry triggers are which rule concentration versus fragmentation, but also success versus failure in the different industries.

Technological change and didactic experiments have broadened the variation of digital education with the introduction of Open Educational Resources and Moocs.

In line with commercial business we have seen two trends emerging.

So let’s blow it to bits ………………………

One trend is shared by economists as Christensen and educational managers as Fred Mulder (UNESCO-chair OER). Both envisage a division within the academical sector. Christensen sees a division between research and education as a disruptive factor in the educational sector. E-learning provides a vehicle for the emergency of low costs mass education provided by organizations which concentrate on the educational process, without the burden of academic research.

Mulder goes one step further, in dividing the educational process in different stages and services. He concentrates on the division between content, which should be offered as open educational resources, and services as tutoring and grading, which should form the base of organizational income.

** Added 13-02-14: As pointed out by Ben Janssen as a comment to this post, he and Fred Mulder stop here with their analyses (also see their chapter Opening up education in Trend Report: Open Educational Resources 2013). The next text is my augmentation of their arguments, not their reasoning.**

However, if different products and services within the educational sector can be offered using different business models, there is no reason why they should take place within the same organization. If all organizations concentrate on the activities which they do best (making materials (Moocs or otherwise), tutoring, grading), the combination, the fragmented model, should produce the best and most effective and efficient education possible.

Both the individual student as society as a whole will gain as education becomes more affordable, public subsidies can decrease and quality increases. Christensen, therefore, concludes his paper with a set of advises for the public sector to realize the predicted benefits.

Of course there can be several drawbacks: in the age-group of 12 – 24 education is also about socialization, which is absent in the fragmented model. Also, there can be a discussion if academic education is possible without fundamental research; although the best researchers are not necessary the best teachers. Lastly, the advantages of the fragmented model ignore so-called transaction costs. Students have to select the best teaching organization and grading institute, but also the best combination of those two. Teaching organizations have to search for information on the grading requirements and the best (open) educational resources. The government has to inspect and accredit several institutes. In contrast to Open educational resources and Moocs, the workings of the open market are not free.

Or put it back …………………………………….

Another aspect of the fragmentation into core-competence organizations is the need to cooperate. This cooperation can result either of a spontaneous organization, as we know of complex dynamics, or it can be the result of an intermediary organization. For example, Laura Czerniewicz sees as one of the reasons to be engaged with Moocs is the fact that it  “gives us an entry to talking about online learning …. with people with whom we have not had those conversations before” and  there is room to “experiment”  with new online materials.


Another interesting point Laura makes is that there is room for niche subjects. As Anderson has pointed out in his theory of the Long Tail, is that small percentages of the total demand can generate large numbers when the materials are available electronically and world wide. Some courses cannot be organized because of the lack of local students. If different organizations work together, they can combine the local interest into a sustainable (inter)national group of students. The same can be done in the case of to few qualified teachers on a special subject: by using the new technologies it should be possible to teach in different locations without extensive travel.

Again using the conclusions of research in the field of business co-operations, an interesting phenomena is that firms who compete heavily on the consumer side, will cooperate at the backdoor. For example, beer companies do their best to convince you that their beer is the best fitting with your life style, is the cheapest or the best quality. However, in most Western European countries all beer is sold in the same bottles and crates as the distribution and retribution of the bottles is organized together.

Question for educational organization is: what do you want to be? What is the identity you try to communicate towards your students? Given this strategic identity, you can determine your core competencies and resources. You can also determine all the non-core activities and resources.

These are the things which could be outsourced or developed in a common program. Courses like mathematics, statistics or English are often just secondary to the major program, international business, European law or psychology. Resources which could be freed by cooperation with other organizations could be used to enhance the strategic profile.

To me, working together to improve the quality and efficiency of education on a international scale seems a more interesting perspective than decreasing our organizations into atomic cores which orbit the potential students without any sense of curricula or programs; being totally dependent on the authority of some external agent who sets the requirements for a degree. Yet, if education is left to the open market either because of the ruling ideology or because of the lack of public funding, there is no guarantee that cooperation will overcome competition.


3 thoughts on “Education, let’s blow it to bits or put it back?

  1. Hoi Frank,

    Interessante blog, maar met een geheel verkeerde interpretatie van het model dat Fred en ik hebben ontwikkeld. Fred moet maar voor zichzelf spreken, maar ik weet zeker dat wij in de artikelen en presentaties op geen enkele manier pleiten voor een (functionele) opdeling van onderwijs in verschillende, op zichzelf staande onderdelen of ‘stages’. Wij gaan niet ‘verder’ dan Christensen.

    Met vriendelijke groet,

    Ben Janssen

    (Verstuurd vanaf mijn iPad)

    Op 12 feb. 2014 om 23:01 heeft “About Education, Economics and Policy” <> het volgende geschreven:

    FrankOUNL posted: “At the end of the last century some business theorists saw the start of a new development. The combination of technological change and an increasing competition between firms would result in a concentration on the core competencies of firms. This has two “

    • Hoi Ben,

      As you can see above I corrected the text. The impression that you and Fred are responsible for this line of thinking is indeed not true. It is an addition of me, working out the possible consequences of fragmentation of education.
      Yet, examples already exist; think of the TOEFL-tests, or on the math-test, the Open University of the Netherlands organizes for the University of Leiden.
      Hope to further discuss these development with you,


  2. Pingback: Education, let’s blow it to bits or put it back? 2 | About Education, Economics and Policy

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