Education and platforms
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:
- A platform is a broker (either acting as an intermediary in goods and serves or in financial aspects)
- 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.
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.
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.
Elearningsherpa.com 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, Lynda.com (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.