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.






Internet, sharing and openness; lessons from e-commerce

At the beginning of the century, the influence of the Internet on business really took off. This induced managers and scientists to reflect on the role of the Internet on the way we do business. One of the major changes was the openness and sharing. Another influence is the increasing competition. Because information flows “openly”, the possibility to compare prices, quality and other characteristics increases beyond the geographical proximity.

Education is only beginning to feel the influence of both trends. The High Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education has published a new rapport on the New Modes of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. In this report, the importance of technological progress for the widening of access of HE is stressed. As they state “Online technologies provide opportunities to learn anywhere, any time and from anyone”. Non-traditional learners have access to new forms of learning which will increase lifelong learning and ongoing professionalization.

In a world were global politics become more complex and worldwide manual labour has become a commodity, both European democracy and Europe’s competitive position require an ever increasing education of its population. Creativity and smart solutions have to take the place of mass production; not only the designers and developers have to be high educated, the average labour force also has to scale up. Another interesting observation is that “The goal should be to ensure that all publicly funded education resources are openly available”. This is not only a support of the Open Educational Resources-movement, but can be interpreted broader: education should be free as mostly all public educational institutes are mainly funded by the government.

Tony Bates (2014) concludes his review of Moocs with the observation, that “[A]t some point, institutions will need to develop a clearer, more consistent strategy for open learning, in terms of how it can best be provided, how it calibrates with formal learning, and how open learning can be accommodated within the fiscal constraints of the institution, and then where MOOCs might fit with the strategy”.

When we look into different sectors, where openness plays a role, we can distinguish:

– Open as in free to use, re-use and distribute: the open source movement in the sector of Information Technology. In general there are two different approaches. Communities develop free software, whereas companies are allowed to use the free software to sell specialized adaptations (only making the customers pay for the added value). In the other case, firms give away software or products to earn money with additions to these products and services (freemium, ranging from WinZip to razors).

– open as in open access in the publishing sector, where costs are shifted from users (readers) towards producers (researchers, writers); the intermediate firms keep the same or more income. Often open access is motivated by the fact that most research is funded by public funds, so it should be freely available for the public. Publishers are then compensated for their costs by authors’ fees.

– open as in free to participate, as the Internet opens the possibility for the public to participate in journalism or quality control. Furthermore firms use customers to improve their products and develop new products and services; labeled co-creation.

– open as in open innovation, the process whereby firms ‘spin-in’  ideas and inventions of others and ‘spin-out’ ideas and inventions which do not fit into the business models of the firm, especially in the industrial sectors. IP-rights are essential as they make it possible to trade inventions which can or will not be used internally. By selling and buying inventions, the efficiency and size of innovations in society will increase. Technology increases the possibilities for innovation on a small scale. Sharing of knowledge and resources is a major force behind the MakersMovement, in which small inventors design, prototype and -eventually- distribute their innovative products or services (see Anderson, 2012).

Wiley (2014) – in his discussion on Moocs – defines openness in education as the transition of ‘open entry’ (in the sense of no entry demands from the Open Universities) towards ‘open licenses’, as in Open Educational Resources (OER), towards a possible  ‘open educational infrastructure’.

The Open Educational Resources movement strives to generate educational resources, which are shared for free (although often developed using subsidies of national governments and private institutions).  Moocs are a part of this development, but where the majority of OER is aimed at teachers, Moocs are developed for usage by learners, opening up participation.

Moocs are also, more then OER, examples of the ‘give-part sell-part’ approach to openness. In the regulations of several Mooc-platforms, we see explicit remarks about the earning potential of alternative usage of the Moocs: licensing, assessment and certification but also use a HRM-instrument and corporate universities.

This definition of openness is consistent with the 5-components model for open education (5COE) of Mulder and Janssen [2013]. This model analyses the different activities of (open) education and it is possible to un-bundle these into three components on the supply side and two on the demand side.

On the supply side they distinguish:

  1. Open educational resources (OER)
  2. Open learning services (OLS): online and virtual activities which are available either free or for payment, including assessments, exams and communities.
  3. Open teaching efforts (OTE): all supporting activities as teaching, ict-support and other roles in (distance) teaching; these activities will generally not be free.

On the demand side they describe the following two components:

  1. Open to learners’ needs (OLN): open education should be free in the sense of time, space and tempo; however, it should also be affordable for everyone.
  2. Open to employability & capabilities development (OEC): education should be open towards new and changing demands from society and the labour market, but also promote critical thinking, creativity and personal growth.

Christensen et al. (2014) uses a similar approach to forecast a more disruptive development with respect to the (American) educational sector. Distance education, the competence based approach, the existence of high quality, accredited open educational materials offers commercial firms the opportunity to enter the educational sector, aiming at low cost segments and non-consumers (of existing education). According to them, it is only a matter of time before the last bastion of the traditional mixture of academic research and education, the accreditation organizations, will fall. So unbundling education at an organizational level could result in unbundling at a sectorial or national level and a new division between open en exclusive forms of education.

Most educational programs are not financed by their students, but subsidized by governments, churches or private enterprises. Depending on the fee, the financial barriers of participation in education are substantial to non-exsting. Contrary to the (average) openness in finances, most institutions have entry barriers in terms of quality requirements. Only the Open Universities (yet not all, and not for all programs) accept all students without a formal qualification. So, although open access in a financial way exists in some European countries, where the majority of the costs is shifted from the individual towards the collective. Yet open participation is even rarer due to qualitative restrictions for non-degree learners. This is an explanation why Moocs have attracted so much attention: it is the change for many not formally qualified learners to follow relevant academic courses.

Open innovation is based on collaboration, based on trust or contracts and on bought knowledge. HEI’s have a long tradition on working together on research projects. Yet, it seems that in the field of education, both developing and exploiting courses and programs, collaboration is less common. Still, there are large opportunities to exploit the Long Tail of Education. In Anderson’s long tail, the Internet combines two factors. The distribution and marketing costs of digital materials is approaching zero, so it’s only production costs which determine the price; furthermore is it possible to reach out to more people than locally interested. In the music business this means that a Celtic classical ensemble can distribute its music towards a global public covering costs, whereas in the traditional music industry this was only possible for hits. In education, this means that it should be possible for small audience courses to survive, provided that the teachers work together and share resources.

The success of Open Innovation depends on the right attitude. It requires a realization that the organization has to absorb external knowledge and has the competence to do so. It also requires an awareness of the strengths of the organization, as the external knowledge has to be complementary with the existing knowledge and competencies. External knowledge can destruct the existing business model and help to build a new one, but only when the competencies are available to transform the knowledge in an actual business model.

This means that opening up the supply side of the educational business model, we should ask ourselves questions like:

  1. What are our strengths and weaknesses, in the services we provide towards our students, our financiers and society?
  2. Which external knowledge can lessen our weaknesses and how do we acquire this knowledge? Are collaborations possible?
  3. How do we exploit and enlarge our strengths? Can the be of use in the collaborations to lessen the weaknesses?

For example, specific knowledge could be used to develop online courses which are taught to both our own students as students of other institutes for a fee. Even the expertise to develop online courses itself could be used to make excellent external knowledge available for our own students, by seeking combinations of our excellence in online teaching, combined with the knowledge of research institutes.

So opening up on the supply side may be a case of showing the possibilities of win-win situations by combining the strengths (or weaknesses) of the different institutions involved. Opening up on the demand side, from teacher/institution to student is perhaps both simpler and more difficult. As shown above, an Open Access-model requires a shift of costs from the users towards the producers. The simple solution is the removal of all fees for students and a full government funding of the HEI’s. This can be resisted on ideological grounds. For example, the British government finances students through loans, so they will choose the HEI’js best fitted for them, challenging HEI’js to improve their education in such a way that most students chose for them. If this is a good model to improve educational quality and the knowledge level in the economy can be discussed, however, it is one of the used models.

The second barrier to openness depicted above is the use of qualitative entry demands. Of course, there are formal restrictions on entry, but institutions are often more strict than legally required. For example, in the Netherlands, the entry demands for students with a vocational degree when entering a university are very high. That is not only because they lack research competencies, or the knowledge of specific academic subjects, but also because educational institutions in the Netherlands strive for the best students. The flexible part of their budgets depends on the success ratios of students and the amount of degrees awarded. By discouraging the lesser students, success ratios will be enhanced and for every student the “degree bonus” will be received.

Openness will increase experimentation, which will lead to a certain amount of failure. Not every (open) invention becomes a sustainable innovation and not every individual starting an academic program will become a successful student. Yet, without experimentation no successes too!

Remaining question of course is who is going to pick up the bill of the students’  “free lunch”?

Live BC – Before College / AD – After Degree according to 9GAG


Anderson , C., (2014) Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, Crown Business

Bates, T. (2014), A review of MOOCs and their assessment tools,  , accessed November 2014

European Commission (2014), Report to the European Commission on New modes of learning and teaching in higher education, October 2014, ISBN 978-92-79-39789-9, doi:10.2766/81897, , accessed November 2014

Mulder, F.,  B. Janssen (2013, in Dutch) Open (het) onderwijs, Surf Trendrapport, (accessed October 2014);
English version:

Wiley, D. (2014) The MOOC Misstep and the Open Education Infrastructure, September 18, retrieved September 30,  2014,

Wiley, D.,  (2014), The Open Education Infrastructure, and Why We Must Build It, July 15, 2014, , accessed December 18, 2014








What is Openness in Open Education??

In general, there seems to be a tendency towards openness in society.

Ilustation from Magelia WebStore,

In the sector of Information Technology, we see the Open Software movement, a movement in which people share knowledge, resources and products for free.

The Open Educational Resources movement strives to generate educational resources, which are shared for free (although often developed using subsidies of national governments and private institutions).

In the publishing sector, we see a discussion on Open Access; free access to scientific (subsidized) publication.

In industrial sectors, we see a discussion on Open Innovation (Chesbrough, 2006, de Wit and Meyer, 2014); the idea that most knowledge will be developed outside the firm. New knowledge, necessary for innovations, has to be bought, sold or shared. (Information) Technology increases the possibilities for innovation on a small scale. Sharing of knowledge and resources is a major force behind the MakersMovement, in which small inventors design, prototype and -eventually- distribute their innovative products or services (also see Anderson, 2012).

Wiley (2014) – in his discussion on Moocs – defines openness in education as the transition of ‘open entry’ (in the sense of no entry demands from the Open Universities) towards ‘open licenses’, as in Open Educational Resources (OER), towards a possible  ‘open educational infrastructure’.

Open Universities over the world (generally) accept all kinds of students, independent of the level of former education. Yet, education in this case is not free; students have to pay fees, which can become a barrier despite the formal openness. So did a member of the Open University of the UK argue that it could be seen as a social obligation to set entry tests. Given that students have to pay certain fees, it would be unfair to let them make debts for a couple of years, after which the university concludes that they are not capable of finishing their study.Since the nineties of the last century, several organizations worked on the development and distribution of free educational objects. These objects were termed Open Educational Resources in 2001 by the Unesco (1st Global OER Forum in 2002). This openness is defined over five dimensions (the 5R activities, as defined by the Unesco (2012):

  • Retain – the right to make, own, and control copies of the work (e.g., download, duplicate, store, and manage)
  • Reuse – the right to use the work in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a web site, in a video)
  • Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the work itself (e.g., translate it into another language)
  • Remix – the right to combine the original or revised work with other open works to create something new (e.g., incorporate the work into a mash up)
  • Redistribute – the right to share copies of the original work, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the work to someone else)

© Chad Anderson |

Another general model of openness is the 5-components model for open education (5COE) of Mulder and Janssen [2013, figure 2]. This model unbundles the different activities into three components on the supply side and two on the demand side.

On the supply side they distinguish:

  1. Open educational resources (OER) 2. Open learning services (OLS): online and virtual activities which are available either free or for payment, including assessments, exams and communities; 3. Open teaching efforts (OTE): all supporting activities as teaching, ict-support and other roles in (distance) teaching; these activities will generally not be free.

On the demand side they describe the following two components:

  1. Open to learners’ needs (OLN): open education should be free in the sense of time, space and tempo; however, it should also be affordable for everyone. 5. Open to employability & capabilities development (OEC): education should be open towards new and changing demands from society and the labour market, but also promote critical thinking, creativity and personal growth .

The unbundling of Janssen and Mulder (2013) had the aim to develop a potential earning model for HEI’s, combining paid activities with the supply of free resources. This was necessary because there was a feeling that the isolated development of open educational resources, as done by MIT (subsidized by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation), or (offering whole courses, subsidized by Michael Saylor ( MicroStrategy Inc.)) were too much dependent on the goodwill of a person or foundation.

Others are building on Andersons 2009) Freemium model ). For example, the Free Software Academy, which offers free courses and paid tutoring within accredited programs. The Moocs developed in recent years often use a similar business model.

With respect to the openness of this model two remarks have to be made:

  1. there is a major division between several providers of resources, whether objects or full courses. All are open in the sense that using them to learn or teach is free (costless and no entry barriers), Yet, some do apply all the Unesco R’ s, some only part (both participating under different Creative Commons Copyrights), some are not reusable or adjustable at all. Especially Moocs are static in the sense that they cannot be changed or adjusted to new usage, sometimes new usage is actively discouraged. Furthermore, Most Moocs are only open for a certain period (often the period the same course is given in the original university).
  2. as shown by economic theory, obtaining money for products or services requires the possibility to exclude others from using the service or product. Unbundling to design a business model for open education means to draw a line between activities and products which are open (exchanged for free, but not necessarily costless) and activities which are closed (exclusively available for paying participants). Janssen and Mulder (2013) did use their model to show the possibilities of traditional and open universities to participate in the OER movement. Yet, it can also be used to explain the initial enthusiasm of xxx-investors to participate in the American Mooc-platforms. The expectation was that by offering additional activities, the platforms would generate profits. To guarantee the required exclusivity, participating HEI’s had to sign contracts which restricted their freedom in usage of the material placed with the platform. Data, but also third party contracting (in-company trainings ect.) became the prerogative of the platform.

Christensen et al. (2014) uses a similar approach to forecast a more disruptive development with respect to the (American) educational sector. Distance education, the competence based approach, the existence of high quality, accredited open educational materials offers commercial firms the opportunity to enter the educational sector, aiming at low cost segments and non-consumers (of existing education). According to them, it is only a matter of time before the last bastion of the traditional mixture of academic research and education, the accreditation organizations, will fall.

So unbundling education at an organizational level could result in unbundling at a sectorial or national level and a new division between open en exclusive forms of education.

Wiley (2014) moves openness even one level higher. He sees open education as  an open education infrastructure. With this he means a “set of interconnected structural elements that provide the framework supporting education”.

He concentrates in this on competence-based education. Developing competence profiles and the accompanying programs, techniques and need is costly and complex. By offering open competence programs, more institutions can develop new experiments based on these programs, improve and change the programs, which will feed back in the education of the original developers. Such a process should improve quality and efficiency of CBE-programs and the educational infrastructure. The same applies to assessments. In a CBE-world, knowing the exams will not increase a student’s chances (a reason for secrecy in a the more traditional educational world) as the test are competence based, and will judge performance rather than reproduction. Again, opening up your assessments will improve them by increasing usage, localization and experimentation. Wiley (2014) adds open certification to his open educational structure as a logical step following the definition of competence oriented learning objectives, teaching and learning using open educational resources; being tested through open assessments and using open certificates to show for the acquired competences. Openness of this kind will increase the quality and efficiency of the national educational system.

There are two important distinctions between these approaches. First of all, we can make a distinction between free activities and free products. As Michael Saylor is quoted at the website: Education should be free. Yet, at the website, a lot of courses can be found, however if we define education as the combination of materials, teaching, assessments and feedback, it represents only part of the educational activities.

The same seems to apply to the open education of Wiley (2014). He writes about the exchange of CBE-profiles, open exchange of assessments and alike. However what will be done with these products is not discussed.

The second distinction touches this point. Mulder and Janssen (2013) distinguish between the supply and the demand side. The supply side of the educational system are the teachers and HEI’s offering education to students; competent employees to employers and engaged civilians to society; forming the demand side of the system.

Openness on the supply side seems to concentrate on educational resources, whether teaching materials, assignments or CBE-profiles. The aim of the resources is to support and improve teaching by making materials available, but also stimulating quality through discussion and improvement of existing materials.

Openness on the demand side is about the freedom to participate in education. This is about the removal of entrée barriers. These barriers can be formal (admission restrictions), financial (high fees, large additional costs) or otherwise. The OECD (2014) rapports on tuition fees . These range from non (eg. Austria, Greece, Finland) to € 1950 in the Netherlands. Outside of Europa, the average fees are higher: Canada (approx. 4,000 USD), UK and the USA (approx. 5,000 USD) .

Other barriers, however, may be even more important especially in later-in-life education, as the combination between education and work.

Open education is different from free education; yet in my opinion, openness should be about removing barriers for learners, not only on providing resources for teachers.


Anderson , C., (2009) Free: The Future of a Radical Price, Hyperion

Anderson , C., (2014) Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, Crown Business

Chesbrough, H. (2006) Open Business Models, Harvard

Christensen, C. M., M. B. Horn, L.Caldera, & L. Soares, (2011) Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation Can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education  (accessed April 4 2013)

Mulder, F.,  B. Janssen (2013, in Dutch) Open (het) onderwijs, Surf Trendrapport, (accessed October 2014)

OECD (2014) Education at a Glance, accessed December 2014.

Unesco (2012), Declaration of  Paris,, retrieved September 30, 2014

Wiley, D.,  (2014), The Open Education Infrastructure, and Why We Must Build It, July 15, 2014,, accessed December 18, 2014

Wiley, D., (2014), The MOOC Misstep and the Open Education Infrastructure,  July 15, 2014, , accessed December 18, 2014

Wit, de B., R. Meyer (2014), an international perspective, 5th edition, Cengage Learning


Moocs, education from service to product and back.

At this moment, all kinds of enterprises experiment with the change of “Product Dominant Logic” towards Service Dominant Logic”.  Value creation is seen in the usage of a product, which implies that the interaction between supplier and consumer becomes more important. We don’t sell simple products anymore, but the product is part of a consumer-experience and the firm accommodates this experience. Products become services and customers co-creators, interaction becoming a major competitive force.

In education, however, we see an opposite movement. Distance learning, whether open or not, involves the translation of the didactical interaction, the presentation of the content and the experiences of the teacher into an electronic product, which could be uses independent of the individuals who made the online course. Again, because of the required quality and completeness of the course materials, a good online distance course will be much more expensive to develop than a face-to-face course. The quality and completeness are requirements which follow from the fact that the student should be allowed to study most of this material independently from tutors or peers.

By packaging the teacher into an electronic self-sufficient educational product, education moves from a service orientated sector towards a product orientated sector. In a sense it is showing a shift seen before in the performing arts. Baumol showed that labor productivity did not rise for a long time in performing arts; a performance of King Lear did require a standard amount of actors and the amount of spectators was constrained by the physical possibilities (space and time); leaving the ration spectators/actors roughly constant. However, through movies, television and –later- internet made it possible that the same performance was seen by millions of people, over and over again. So this altered the ratio spectators/actors largely, reducing the costs per spectator to almost nil.

The same applies for ODL: whereas production costs are above the development of face-to-face education, once the product is available, the delivery costs depend largely on the amount of students interested in the course. So if the course becomes Massive in usage, the delivery costs will go towards zero, justifying a free and open supply of online courses. In this sense, ODL is the answer to stagnating marginal labor costs in education and the logical  way to increase total factor productivity through capital intensive innovations.

The declining marginal costs do not solve the problem of covering the initial cost of development. At this moment there are three models developed to cover these costs:

  • Institutions bear the costs themselves for different reasons: for example marketing motives, the universities as MIT and the OU-UK who were frontrunners in OER reported on the rise in new students; others invest in potential future earnings by selling the program to third parties.
  • Institutions and the participating individuals use materials which are developed in a different context(regular programs) for which is paid by students and the government thereby reducing   the investment in ODL or Mooc.
  • Several governments and private foundations funded initiatives in the OER-movement; for example the Hewitt foundation, the Gates foundation and at present the Obama administration.

Of course, institutions do combine the three sources of funding to reach an optimal solution. The shift from education as interaction towards education as a product does not only provide the possibilities for a commercialization of education, this shift is expected to generate new sources of income, as described by different authors [ 1, 2].

In line with the Bottom of the pyramid –approach of Prahalad and the Blue-Red Ocean approach Kim and Mauborgne Moocs are the ultimate version of this development: strip your product of every unnecessary feature, leaving the bare supply which meets the demands of the customer. The decline in costs (and price) will make the product widely available, reaching customer segments comparable products will not.

This commoditization of products results in a downward spiral, were competition brings down prices and quality in a shark infested ocean, coloring the water red as only “the strongest survive”. Yet, several thinkers have suggested a way out of this situation. By moving from the commodity towards an experience, seeing a service instead of a product, firms can add unique features to their product offerings.

It is interesting to notice that what took the private sectors decennia to develop, is adapted by the educational sector within two years. Fred Mulder, the Unesco-chair on open educational resources,  proposed a system in which the content was separated from other educational features as tutoring, assessment and  certificates; describing a kind of Mooc before it really existed, but also foreseeing that independent sustainability requires additional sources of income. Thomas Friedman implicitly describes the flipped class room:

Therefore, we have to get beyond the current system of information and delivery — the professorial “sage on the stage” and students taking notes, followed by a superficial assessment, to one in which students are asked and empowered to master more basic material online at their own pace, and the classroom becomes a place where the application of that knowledge can be honed through lab experiments and discussions with the professor. There seemed to be a strong consensus that this “blended model” combining online lectures with a teacher-led classroom experience was the ideal.

In these approaches Moocs become a kind of electronic text book, used by others in their education. It will become a matter of time for the suppliers of the Moocs to ask a contribution of either the students or the institutions which make use of their materials. Yet, if this is the only contribution of Moocs to education, this is hardly to be called disruptive.

In several publications, we can see that Coursera, edX and Udacity are thinking about alternative earning models. These models all involve some kind of service to accompany the electronic lessons within the Mooc.  So in this sense, Moocs are no disruptive innovation, nor a treat to traditional education. However, Moocs can be a change agent in the sense that they facilitate educational innovations as flipping the classroom, integrating learning and working or stimulating quality (why sit through a boring class when you can take the content from a first degree university or teacher).

Also do Moocs open up education for people who otherwise would not be in a position to attend classes. This will, however, depend on two factors:

  1. The attitude of employers to free online courses; will they have a civil effect or will employers still hold onto official degrees?
  2. Openness in Moocs should be redefined not only in terms of barriers of entry, but also in the availability of the course over the year.

Within two years, Moocs become full circle. From a publicly founded service related activity (education) towards to a free product orientated electronic course, a commodity; towards a privately funded experience by adding exclusive services to the free commodity.

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