It’s not a market if no money changes hands! An answer to David Kernohan

David Kernohan ‏@dkernohan

@IHEtech @FrankOUNL it’s not a market if no money changes hands!

Inside Higher Ed quoted Simon Nelson (CEO of Futurelearn):

“Until now, this market has been dominated by companies based in the U.S., but with 18 U.K. partners, we are determined to provide the smartest and most engaging online learning experiences and revolutionize conventional models of education”

and twittered: British #MOOC provider expands and eyes India market.

David Kernohan replied to the InsideHigerEd-tweet and my retweet with the text above.

As English is a second language to me, I first consulted some dictionaries for the meaning of market (Webster, Cambridge, Oxford). There is some consensus that it can be different things. Either a real or abstract place where people trade goods or services, or the demand for something. As a verb, it can be understood as marketing or shopping.

Taking the quote above, I would say that the CEO of Futurelearn indeed sees the learning and education as something for which is a demand, so Moocs should form a supply meeting this demand. If money will change hands directly is to be seen but that each educational offer has a financial aspect is certain.

Although I don’t think that I have to defend the CEO of Futurelearn; I found several reactions interesting in the sense that it seems to be “not done” to question the effect of Moocs (also see Cathy Davidson). In a discussion last week, every question with respect to the learning effect, the high dropout rate, the high level of lurkers; not participating in discussions, etcetera (MOOCs and the AI-Stanford like Courses: Two Successful and Distinct Course Formats for Massive Open Online Courses) were countered with the argument that Moocs are free, even when people do not participate, do not finish a course or do not learn anything from the Mooc, who cares?

MOOC

MOOC (Photo credit: Sarah_G)

Well, we should for different reasons. Firstly, if Moocs are ineffective in delivering education, the effort of teachers, multimedia specialists and administrators had been better directed in another way, providing other kinds of courses. Even if courses are offered for free, producing them involve costs and labour hours which could be put to another use.

Secondly, I think Moocs offer a very interesting alternative to Open Educational Resources and the possibility to develop sustainable (business) models in which the free provision of valuable education worldwide will be possible.

On the input side, Moocs use courses which are developed for brick-and-mortar universities. Most courses are used for the on-campus students during the regular semesters. An on-line translation of these courses is made publicly and free available. So the additional costs of the online course are only the added costs of the recording and changes made to make the course more independent of the face-to-face situation. Of course, as I have argued earlier, a full distance course would be more labour intensive and so more expensive than the online copy of a regular course. The usage of Moocs to increase the public of the original course could be seen as a more efficient use of the public subsidies which were used to develop and deliver the original course.

In several publications, earning models for Moocs are suggested and seem to be translated into contracts. Among those are data-mining using the email addresses of interested students, marketing of the offering institute, advertisement space or selling the course as an in-company training. The Moocs also offer opportunities for other institutions. Using the Moocs, they can offer degrees within their own institution or in cooperation with the original provider of the Mooc.

So both on the input as on the output side of the educational system, Moocs can help the educational system to become more effective. However, an important assumption by this is that both the original course as the online massive translation of this course are worthwhile to begin with.

If the dropout rate is high because the content or the didactical form of the course dishearten people to accomplish the course, disappointing and discourage people to participate in distance higher education later on:

  • The efficiency on the input side is gone;
  • The effect on the total level of education of a country is lost;
  • No one would be prepared to pay for a commercial usage of the Mooc.

To conclude:

  1. If there is a formal market or not; money is used in the production and exploitation of Moocs;
  2. The usage of scares resources requires that these are invested in the most effective way, whether this effect is calculated in monetary terms, social benefits or civil rights.

Education as a service: Moocs, ODL and production of knowledge.

Education As Service by Jiddu KrishnamurtiAs I have argued elsewhere, education resembles a service more than a product. The characteristics of a service are that production and consumption are simultaneously. Yet, education is special, in the sense that sharing is non rival; it has this characteristic in common with information and knowledge. When you teach something to someone, the knowledge is doubled in the sense that you both have the knowledge, whereas in the case of a rival service or product the seller transfers the use of the sold good over to the buyer. And sometimes the process of education increases the knowledge of the teacher throughout the process.

 The linkage between educational production and educational consumption is broken by the usage of distance learning. Instead of standing before a class delivering a lecture, the teacher designs a course, taking into account the perceived problems of students. In Open Education, Moocs or otherwise, students will be more diverse than in traditional education. To quote Andrew Ng

Throughout the entire MOOC creation process, educators must constantly be student-focused, figuring out what is the most useful content for their students to experience next. With no admissions office, on-line students are vastly more diverse than the students in a typical college classroom. They vary in educational background, learning ability, and culture. Students are also at different points in their life, and range from teenagers to working professionals to retirees, and may have different learning goals. Educators have to make classes accessible without underestimating student ability.

This could be interpreted as the hypothesis that good distance education requires better teachers than face-to-face education because of both the distance (making their didactical skills explicitly available) and the heterogeneity of students.

 A misunderstanding with regard to ODL is that on-line education is less expensive than face to face education. Experience shows that the costs of developing high quality distance materials is more expensive than developing a classroom lecture. However, the deliverance costs of distance education are less than those of the classroom lecture. Having made some calculations for a program we would develop in collaboration with traditional f2f-educational partners, we estimated that the break even point between the two methods was around the 60-100 students; below this amount of students, the higher development costs of ODL were not compensated by lower deliverance costs in comparison with the costs of the face to face situation. Of course each course can have a different break even point, but as a rule-of-the-thumb 100 students is a save number.

Part of these higher development costs is caused by breaking the direct linkage between teacher and student. In our experience at the Dutch Open University, the classroom teacher can partly be replace by high quality materials, partly by offering distance tutoring (email, webinars) and partly by organizing meetings between experts and students. In this sense I do not agree with the caricature Bob Samuels sketches in Inside Higher Ed, describing ODL:

The web also creates the illusion that all information is available and accessible to anyone at any time. This common view represses the real disparities of access in our world and also undermines the need for educational experts. After all, if you can get all knowledge from Wikipedia or a Google search, why do you need teachers or even colleges? In response to this attitude, we should recenter higher education away from the learning of isolated facts and theories and concentrate on teaching students how to do things with information. In other words, students need to be taught by expert educators about how to access, analyse, criticize, synthesize, and communicate knowledge from multiple perspectives and disciplines.

A Wikiversity Logo for Open Educational Resour...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we all know, there is a difference between data, information, knowledge and competences. The facts and figures resulting from web-research have to be put into a context to be understood. However, there is a world of difference between the facts and figures of the CIA Worldfactbook and ODL. And even within ODL we can make a distinction between simple components offered as Open Educational Resources (OER), full OER-courses as by Saylor.org, taped lectures and assignments (Moocs) and the distance courses as developed and offered by the Open Universities and similar institutions.

Each of these resources or courses, free or paid for, is designed within a certain didactical context, whether you agree with the chosen method or not. The free availability of information and data on the Internet should not be perceived as a treat to teaching, but as an advantage, at most a challenge when there are conflicting opinions on subjects.

I think that more free available information demands more (educational) experts to provide contexts and meaning to this avalanche of data. However, it still remains to be decided in which context the traditional teacher of Samuels is better than the on-line teachings in ODL. This does not only (and perhaps not even mostly) depend on the costs of producing education, but on the nature of the competences to be learned, but also on the economical and social situation of the learner. As Amanda Ripley showed us, ODL-courses can play a major role in the development of poor learners in developing countries/regions, or the underprivileged in richer countries.

However, as we see in the Netherlands, it are not only underprivileged or remote learners who profit from ODL. There are individuals studying degree programs to further themselves; there are also individuals and groups studying a single object or course because of a gap in their former education.

And agreed, in some situations, the “canned” teacher or peer support will not be enough. Other kinds of tutoring should and can be offered without relying on f2f support alone.

So from an international and even a national perspective on economic and social growth, distance education can be a good investment. Yet, good distance learning will not come cheap, unless there are very large groups of students interested in following the same subject at the same institution; putting the Massive in Moocs. Question is why educational institutions should participate in these programs.

Well, Kevin Kiley, in Mainstreaming MOOCs, interviews Mark Becker, Georgia State’s president. Kiley states that:

“He sees open, on-line courses as benefiting the university in three ways: by providing content — and therefore potential courses — that the university doesn’t offer, such as languages or highly specialized topics; by meeting demand that exceeds what the university has resources for, such as for some introductory classes; or by supplementing what faculty members do in the classroom. The technology could also allow for more flexible scheduling. Georgia State serves a high number of low-income students who often have to work, as well as nontraditional students who might have other demands on their times”.

So, ODL’s including but not exclusively Moocs, can be used to involve non-traditional groups in education (low-income, working). It can make education more efficient by providing education at lower costs and similar or higher quality and -assuming that more institutions participate- broaden the choices for students by collaborating in ODL, accepting each other courses and credits. However, openness may be taken equivalent to free, but it will still demand a lot of effort (and costs) to develop good quality ODL.

Another interesting feature is that open distance education either on paper or through the Internet is available for more than a quarter of a century. The correspondence education goes back to the 1800’s, the open universities were developed in the second part of the last century.

Open educational resources as a concept emerged in the 1990’s, the first projects were about the same time. Yet, the discussion on electronic and open learning as a disruptive mechanism to education is only started with the emergency of the first Moocs and their hosting companies as Edx an Coursera. From a business economics perspective, it is interesting to know if this has to do with the reputation of the providers, the acceptance of social media and openness or has their popularity to do with their commercial potential which is perceived but not yet realized?

On another note, I don’t think that Moocs are a true disruptive innovation to education as some argue; but that’s for another blog.

The Evolution of Distance Learning to the Digital Age

Moocs, social contracts and flipping classrooms: E-Learning in 2012

In 2012 the youngest branch from the online distance learning family (ODL) generated much attention. Moocs distinguish themselves from open educational resources in several ways. Moocs are full courses aimed at learners, whereas resources are often reusable parts, aimed at teachers. Openness ranges from free to participate to free to use. It is their business model, that makes them interesting. Most (M)oocs are regular courses, for which development is paid for by normal university funds.

They are recorded in some way and delivered free through some kind of collaborative platform. Some platforms discuss generating  additional incomes by licensing other institutions to offer degrees based on the courses or integrating the courses in in-company training programs. Of course there are also critiques on Moocs, ranging from McDonalisation to instructor led. Willem van Valkenburg just recently wrote: “As you can see is that most of the platforms are created by a US for-profit company. So I encourage initiative from outside the US, especially the ones that are really open”. In October 2012, U

Another of the latest trends is flipping the classroom: transferring your courses in distance learning, using the class room time for interaction instead of lecturing. Wilfred Rubens has written a number of blogs on this subject, listing among others the warning that wrong choices with respect to the distance learning can result in less educational results. During the Dutch Education Days he organized a session where he did not give a presentation. The participants had to prepare themselves beforehand, using the information sources and tasks that Rubens had published on his website. The session was completely dedicated to interaction. Next step, following the Guardian, is the flipped academy.nX has started in Spain and the British Open University announced to start their own Mooc platform some days ago. However, why van Valkenburg asks for new initiatives and if the new platforms will be different from the American platforms is not clear.

Quote 1: “Alex Bruton, associate professor in innovation and entrepreneurship at Mount Royal University in Canada, thinks so. The ‘flipped academic’, as he sees it, is an academic who informs first and publishes later, seeking usefulness as well as truth in their research and striving to publish only after having had an impact on students and society”.

Quote 2: “An academic’s success should not be measured by the number of research papers they produce, but in how they communicate their work to a wider audience, suggests Sarah Hewitt, assistant professor in the department of biology at Mount Royal University”.

This concept combines the Open Access approach with the critique on managerialism in university (Christine Teelken, see my last blog). However, working at the Open University of the Netherlands, we already flipped the classes over the last 15 year. Comparing two situations, I find that a lot of the success depends on the attitude of the students.

For a strategy course, we organize meetings with our regular students and with people only taking the strategy course as a special subject. The regular students are used to distance learning, come prepared to the meeting and most of them are interested in discussing their companies strategic decisions using the distance materials.

Although the “commercial” groups differ, a lot of the time the learners just want to pass the exam, wanting a summary of the materials. In such cases, it is hard to motivate the students and the tutor to get into a group discussion.

Lastly, following several authors, the social contract is broken because of the financial crisis. At least what they mean is that implicit relationship that more education increases your chance of more interesting work or a higher income does not exist anymore. However, the social contact as described by Rousseau, Locke, Grotius and others can be best be illustrated by the story of the stag hunt. Hunters have the choice to cooperate and hunt a stag, feeding the tribe, or individually hunt a hare, feeding their selves and their family.

In terms of the political economy, hare hunting represents capitalism, stating that my hare is bigger than yours; without ever hunting a stag. State communism is stag hunting, with the leader taking home the stag, leaving the tribe hungry. Question is if there is a third way?

In economics, the third way is represented by the Keynesian approach. Simply said, Keynes’ theory states that in good times a government has to save, so it can run a deficit in bad times. Tinbergen added to this that the best way to spend your money is to use one instrument to achieve one goal (first best solution). Theil amended this view in the way that the government often has less instruments than goals, so choices have to be made and not every solution is optimal (second best solution). In political sciences, it is accepted that, as Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” (from a House of Commons speech on Nov. 11, 1947)

The social contract as an alternative for cold capitalism or dictatorial state communism, can be described as Social Democracy; combining Theil-Keynesian economic policy with the imperfect participation of one-man-one-vote (not excluding women of course). Especially for a good functioning of social democracy, it is important that people understand the choices made. Not every target can be fully realized, there has to be a tradeoff between objectives; both in economic and in social politics. This understanding demands a good educational system; participation and social cohesion depend on understanding.

In this sense, I think education is a stag. Society is responsible for the functioning of the educational system as a whole. Business models and management theories have an important function within the sector: efficiency is important especially in a time where money is scarce.

Especially in ODL, Moocs or OER, competition will lead to reproduction of similar courses. Perhaps some courses will be better; nicer or cheaper, so in time these courses will drive out the other courses. But in the meantime resources will be wasted which will damage both the reputation and the level of education whereas cooperation and coordination could increase the efficiency and by that the level of education, the availability of good materials and give teachers over the world instruments to improve their courses sharing the resources.

I am curious which of the developments will prevail; will the introduction of Moocs lead to (international) competition or to a more open educational environment? Will we be able to flip academia? Or will the new rules of Open Access lead to more inequality between those who can pay and those who can not?

Lastly, will the economic crisis lead to a political crisis; breaking up the social contract or will people and governments work together to reinvent the third way of social democracy, accepting the imperfect workings and Theil’s second best solutions.

Till next year

Opening up: Open Innovation in a closed market?

When Paul Prinsloo asked me if Chesbrough’s funnel could be open on both sides, the economist in me cried NoNoNo!

This initial reaction is caused by schooling in traditional economic thinking. The concise version of this reasoning is as follows. Firms have to invest funds in research and development. Only 20% of the projects started will survive towards the stage of commercialization, where another part will be lost in the implementation stage. This means that, once the final product or service is on the market, the profits have to be large enough to compensate the firm for all initial investments, including failures and restarts. To generate profits of this size, the firm has to have some kind of monopoly power for a given period. This can be guaranteed through some specific competences, materials but mostly through property rights and patents.

The theory tells us that in a world without protection, the firm which makes the initial costs will not earn enough before its competitors enter the market with imitations or even improvement on the initial innovation. Innovative firms will go bankrupt, so there will be too little or even no innovation in this world.

Open innovation still depends on property rights, but it changes the situation in the sense that inventions, patents and innovations are bought and sold. Firms search externally for usable patents and supply their inventions and patents to the market if they deviate to much of the existing business model. Chesbrough assumes that through this mechanism costs will decrease and efficiency will increase as more research is used in innovations and failures will only influence the innovating firm (how these costs are influence the collective wealth is unclear in his model).

So open innovation is about increasing cooperation, but within a market setting. However, cooperation will lead to shared experiences and this can result in shared values, creating more business opportunities.

Collaboration is also necessary because on the output side of the model things are changing. Firstly, there is the influence of ict. For a lot of business, their main function was to select and stock products, produced by others. For example publishers (both of music and books), who selected the writers and bands of good quality, took care of the distribution of their work and made a living by selling these products. In essence, this is the same for super markets, which decide which goods to offer to the consumers, choosing from a large range of alternatives.

 

However, as Chris Anderson described in The Long Tail, in a web based society producers can place their products on websites, whether self published books, music or specialized goods which were normally not chosen by large risk adverse companies. Although some authors, composers, bands and small producers will act purely on their own, others search for collaboration to share sales channels; using each other traffic on the website to generate trade for themselves, see for example the Strange New Products website or Weird Music.Web.

Secondly, the tendency towards co-creation. Accepting the fact that value is created in the use of products, not in the sales transaction, the buyer plays a major role in realizing the full value of a product or a service. To give a consumer the freedom, to adapt the product or service to his or her own wishes, collaboration with other firms is almost unavoidable.

Taking those two tendencies together, the market side of firms is opening up, requiring the input side to open up. Open innovation makes co-creation and specialization possible, but market developments in their turn push collaboration (and by that open innovation): opening up one side of the process will cause the other side to open up too.

Berkeleyan, Hulda Nelson imageOpenness means different things in different fields. Open in the sense of open source means free. Open access in the sense of the British government means that the producer (author) pays for the deliverance of his product, open in open education can mean without start qualifications or gratis. Open innovation means that the research outputs are shared over the borders of the firm, caused by or stimulating co-creation on the output side of the firm; increasing access to knowledge and innovation without fundamentally changing property rights.

Another difference is that –despite the fact that all behaviour is free- the openness in innovation and co-creation is enforced by the market forces, whereas openness in software and education mostly is voluntary. Perhaps a nice subject for another blog?

Moocs and the Bottom of the Pyramid

Moocs, Massive Open Online Courses, are provided for free to large amount of participants. Tuition and assessment are peer based. They are not really Open Educational Resources as they are only offered in certain periods and the materials are not available for (re)use in different educational situations.

As a economist, I realize that what irritates me is the way these courses are labeled massive by those who offer them. A course becomes massive because a lot of people participate in the open version, not because the teacher decides to offer a massive course as Steve Downs says in the introduction to the Change Mooc. Some course have a proven track record, Artificial Intelligence of Stanford has been a success, so have the courses of George Siemens and Stephan Downes on Higher Education. Perhaps other open online courses have been less successful (in numbers of students), but also less prominent in the publicity. Of course, Moocs and other online courses will be criticized for offering a Tata Nano versus the classroom BMW (Amanda Ripley in Time US).

George Siemens’ interview on MOOCs and Open Education by Andreia Inamorato

The free offering of courses from outstanding universities as MIT, Stanford and others make good quality education available in places where otherwise no education would be accessible. Furthermore, the massive character of these courses open the possibility of applying a “Bottom of the Pyramid” kind of financing for education.

One of the more interesting business models of Moocs is the supply of a paid-for degree course, together with a free non-degree version without expert tuition. Adding to this the possibility of asking a small fee for a certificate stating that the person has participated in the program, and the possibility to sell the program to third parties, these opportunities broaden the global participation, educating the bottom of the pyramid. For example, Sui Fai John Mak shows on his blog a figure consisting of three kind of markets he expects to emerge from the present Moocs (see below).

Yet another way the philosophy of the Moocs can be combined with the philosophy of Prahalad is by asking yourself what kind of education these people need. Is it possible to rework online distance courses in such a way that institutes in the neighborhood can build programs around these ODL’s so students can take formal assignments and get formal degrees. The combination in thinking about delivering to the point courses at affordable fee, compensating the costs through the amount of students and working together with local organizations for the formal recognition of the degree.

Of course such a development has the danger of unification of education in it, the McDonaldization; “MOOC’s may provide access to a world-class education, but the product is prepackaged and standardized. And, because it is readily available, it risks diminishing both the diversification of the higher-education sector and the advancement of globally engaged students and institutions”. If Moocs become the baseline in education in developing countries, the content of education will become the same everywhere.

When there are a large amount of people interested in participating in these kind of courses, the development costs per student will be very low, whereas other institutions can use the course to offer a degree based on the Mooc, tutoring and local assessment. Again, this makes education available for people who cannot afford regular education. Another observation of Amanda Ripley, based on her experiences in Pakistan was that “ at this stage, most MOOCs work well for students who are self-motivated and already fairly well educated. Worldwide, the poorest students still don’t have the background (or the Internet bandwidth) to participate in a major way” . In the TimesHangout, Amanda Ripley remarks that it are only the higher income students in developing countries can afford to participate in Moocs.

Concluding, in themselves Moocs will not solve the differences in education level around the world. There are too much problems concerning these online courses, associated with the low success rates of students, the lack of formal degrees. But also problems with the potential participants, as a lack of money for broadband internet and other income related problems and institutional problems, for example when Pakistan closed down YouTube blocking an anti-Muslim movie, they also blocked the access of 217 students to the massive, open online physics course (again according to Ripley).

However, I think that Moocs and other ODL-courses can be instrumental in providing education in places where otherwise no good quality education is available (whether in developing or developed countries). If it will be a success depends on the conditions which will be created locally. If other institutions adopt the Moocs, if governments are supportive of these kind of educational materials it is possible that this kind of education can provide a stimulus to better education. On the side of the Moocs, they could be made available around the year as open educational resources instead of just an additional outlet for existing education.

Journalism and the Age of Free Information

I wanted to write a blog on the international effects of the golden open access by the UK government. However, I got caught in an interesting discussion between a Dutch journalist and a website owner and chief editor on the way the website uses information and articles written by the journalist. The website called Nearby.nl (Dichtbij.nl) uses amateur writers, paid writers and secondary sources to fill its website with local news.

The Dutch journalist accuses the website owner of stealing his articles by reproducing them at his own website and of robbing him of his means of living. In his own words: the reader has the choice to pay about 300 Euro to read a newspaper or read the same items onscreen for free? The owner/editor has two answers to this. Firstly, he states that they “facilitate peoples hobbies, providing a place to publish their writings”. Secondly, he states that some journalist find a paid job working for his website. 

I think both of the discussants miss the point. The emergence of internet allows people to publish their opinion on everything, everywhere, for everyone to read and react. This can be on their hobbies (cats seem to be especially interesting at least at Facebook) but also a review of the local football club or starting a discussion on books they have read. Some will chose Facebook, WordPress or another personalized website; others will join a existing website as Dichtbij.nl. It is even allowed to add external links to your own website, as Dichtbij.nl does, linking to available internet contributions of newspapers and other news agencies. When the text of the internet item is reproduced and the source is only given in small print at the end of the item, it becomes less clear if this is still allowed.

However, as the news agencies themselves put the items online, the journalist is wrong in perceiving this as a danger to his occupation. In general, news gatherers should rethink their role in society. In this they could be helped by the vision of the website owner/editor: describing simple facts and events as they appear is too simple to justify the payment of hundreds of euro’s for a newspaper. In the present society, information is, or becomes fast, free.

To deny the view that journalism is no more than reporting events, requires an alternative vision. Question is what a professional reporter adds to the plain description of the events? Taking the Business Canvas approach, it is important to determine who is the customer, what are the core resources and activities, the essential partnerships of the (freelance) reporter?

Not being a journalist myself, it is complex to answer these questions. Assuming that (world and local) events will be known through social media and free websites, the journalist could provide a context to the isolated event. Either by investigating journalism, using strategic partnerships, describing the unknown background or hidden agendas, or placing the single event in time; deterministic or unique.See for example the different models of Jeff Jarvis on sustainable journalism.

In this sense the journalist plays the role of the teacher as described in my former blog about data, information and knowledge. The journalist helps the reader to make sense of events which isolated may look insignificant or too important. Furthermore, the journalist can act as the memory of the readers, confronting politicians with former promises, acknowledging series of events leading up to this particular happening. Journalists have to become an authority, building a reputation of integrity, expertise and sensitivity to the news. Question is if every of the present day journalists can play this role of investigating reporter?

Lastly, the view of the website owner/editor reflects a post-modern approach to expertise. This approach denies the importance of experts as journalists, teachers and GP’s.  As all information is freely available on the internet, we can all make our own newspaper, become self-learners and diagnose health problems. This ignores the fact that experts have the competences to translate information and data into knowledge. A website with local facts and figures will certainly attract enough visitors to make a business model based on advertising worthwhile. It also ignores objectivity, the mentioned events can be brought to the attention of the website by enthusiastic amateurs, participators, and public but also by the organizers of an event.

Open and free access to data and information will force several types of industry to discuss their core activities. The owner/ editor of the website thinks that his core competence lies in the use of amateur journalists, because -1- they have a deeper knowledge of the local situation; -2- they are less expensive than professionals. Question is if he adds so much to the open information he copies that his website generates enough traffic to attract advertisers (his earning model in my view).

Journalists, teachers and even GP’s have to deal with the flow of free information (open resources). This may not be new (free magazines, learning on the workplace or medical columns in magazines) but the size and speed makes the supply of information different from these older examples.

Yet, it is here to stay…………………………………………….

Data – Information – Knowledge Or the future of universities

Discussing the possibilities of OER with some visiting colleagues of UNISA, we started to speculate on the threats and opportunities of universities, given the rise in Moocs and OER. For example, Popenici writes: ”Many universities slowly implode nowadays without even knowing it. Going ahead in denial with a lethal combination of old models and practices, decrepit ideas, illusory solutions and their self-confirming coteries, many universities are still playing around a stubborn refusal to change”.

Being all business economists of a kind, the question asked was what the unique offering of universities in the educational spectrum is.

If all information is freely available whether on websites, blogs or wiki’s of individuals, or of educational institutions, could learners not learn by browsing? If all important higher educational institutes provide free education through open educational resources or massive online open courses, why pay some institution to provide the same or even worse education? Some even argue that universities like Stanford and MIT damage their traditional business model by providing Moocs.

So providing data and information is not anymore the prerogative of the universities, although academic research will add to the available knowledge. However, private and semi-public research institutes also do research even when the results are less publicly available. So again, what are the unique offering, the competitive advantage of universities compared to the other suppliers of education, data and information?

One of the answers is that universities, next to research, are best equipped to help the students to process the data and the information which are freely available into knowledge. This can be done by providing a context which gives a meaning to all loosely connected data, or stimulate the student to look for such context themselves. Roughly speaking is education the capability to transfer data into knowledge, which can be translated into actions.

The second activity in which most universities are unique, either through regulations or because of their capabilities, is the possibility to take formal assessments leading to a formal certificate or degree. Most employers still see the formal degree as the proof of competences of the potential employee. This means that the majority of adolescent students and more than one third of adult long life learners see the formal degree as the main object of studying.

Another activity, which I think is unjustly ignored, is the validation of data. In the traditional definitions, data, information and knowledge are distinguished by the level of abstraction being considered (source of the next part is Wikipedia). Data is the lowest level of abstraction, information is the next level, and finally, knowledge is the highest level among all three. Data on its own carries no meaning. For data to become information, it must be interpreted and take on a meaning. Information as a concept bears a diversity of meanings, from everyday usage to technical settings. It is people who collect data and impose patterns on it. The interpretation of the patterns as true and reoccurring, basing your behavior on these patterns can be described as knowledge (not going into the discussion when knowledge becomes wisdom).

So although undoubtedly much data is available, both the traditional degree framework and the fact that people have to make an assessment if the information provided is valid, there will always be a place for educational institutes.