Platforms and Education: a good combination?

Education and platforms

An update:

The Networked University of Jeffrey J. Selingo

https://www.edsurge.com/news/2017-12-21-deeper-collaboration-is-the-answer-to-higher-ed-s-challenges?utm_content=buffer9aa96&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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Disruptive versus destructive innovation: an answer to Paul Prinsloo

I think that the discussion on business models, innovation and disruptiveness will improve as we make a distinction between value and profit, and between disruptive and destructive.

In my opinion, each organization tries to deliver value to the outside world. Whether you supply a product or a service. Whether you aim to earn a profit or are a task oriented organization, someone has to belief your activities.

Whereas profit is the outcome of a monetary transaction, value is created by the usage of the offering: by using a product or using the products which result form a service. It is therefor that in modern marketing the influence of the user or receiver is so important: production determines the characteristics of a product or service, usage determines its value.

A monetary profit is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for the realization of value. Learning can add value by increasing a persons competences, by making an organization smarter or a society more egalitarian. Yet it can be very difficult to express these increases in monetary terms, necessary to determine the amount of profit.

Classical oriented economists and politicians will argue that learning will increase a person’s potential future income and that it would be justified that people would pay for their own education. This ignores the positive external effects of this education on the productivity and lives of other members of society, but it also ignores the risks of general economic factors which are as important for the realization of the potential income.

Value does not imply profits, hopefully profits do represent value.

Within the field of innovation, we often speak of Schumpeterian destructive innovation. With that economists indicate that often the creation of new things will result in the replacement of old products and services. Creativity is a source of more productive processes, of more attractive products and better services. A problem is the translation of a creative invention into a sustainable innovation. Frequently, the proof of the superiority of an innovation is backward looking. Economists can give a long list of inventions which were technically superior to other inventions, but did not survive the competition.

Disruption is something else; Christensen defines it as an invention, aimed at non-consumers and the bottom of an existing market. It becomes a successful innovation when it convinces non-consumers to use the product and slowly nibbles at the bottom of the existing market. These kind of innovations are characterized by a negative development: by removing features which are aimed at the upper part of the market, the product or service becomes less complicated and cheaper to produces. This results in a lower price. Both the decline in price as the concentration on the core features of the value offering, non-consumers will be convinced to try the new product.

Christensen predicts that the newcomer will, in time, move upwards in the market; the same propensity explains why the incumbent firms cannot counter the entry of the new firms at the bottom of the market. Given an initial position, existing customers expect the firm to add new features increasing quality and usability for the existing customers. However, this increase in quality will cause the costs of production to rise. It therefore not to be expected that incumbent firms are able to counter the entry of the new firms or even initiate a disruptive innovation in their own market.

Disruption adds additional products to total supply and can turn into a destructive force when the firm moves upwards. Creative destruction will be replacing existing products with superior competitors from the start.

Applying these concepts towards the educational sector, we have to distinguish new alternatives aimed at non-learners and alternatives replacing existing educational supply.

For example, studying physics through Youtube-movies can be inferior to an f2f education in modern laboratories. Yet, for some students it is the only way to study a subject, given their restrictions in terms of location, money or time.

Educational alternatives as Moocs can be disruptive in the sense that they offer non-learners a chance to (re)start an education by removing some of the barriers of traditional education. However, they will not be destructive in the sense that they will replace traditional education as long as they miss some of the essential features as certification and degree awarding. When they move up, for example when a firm uses Moocs as internal trainings programs, they replace part of the traditional education. Yet, they have a long way to go before free educational programs will take the place of traditional education.

(Open) Distance education is potentially more destructive than Moocs. In a world of fragmentation, where people want to find a personal mix of work, learning, personal time, there is a demand for just in time and just in case (formal and informal) learning. The supply determined approach of traditional education does not fit this modern way of life. So an open and creative approach to education could result in forms of education which will replace (destroy) the traditional 16 – 24 years oriented programs.

This depends, as Christensen et al. points out, on the way accreditation institution react. Incumberants will try to influence the quality “eisen”, to protect their own programs. So standaards can act as a barrier to entry, the same as in other sectors.

Soucrce: Christensen et al on disruption of education

So when Paul Prinslo remarks that: “In the context of Unisa, there is also ample evidence that some initiative is launched under the banner of “disruption” and “innovation” without considering the implications and impacts of these ideas on our students, staff and institutional well-being. Some of these also disrupt the core business of the institution to such an extent that the center does not hold, and that several systems cannot cope with the impact. I am OK with the idea of piloting a novel and disruptive idea alongside the main business  and then go big. But there seems to be a believe that starting small is not disruptive enough

I can sympathize with his feelings. Management at the Open university of the Netherlands also has the tendency to start developments that are criticized by the staff and students. I think that the educational sector globally is in a state of flux, ranging from financial problems of institutes to financial problems of students, from having to redefine their mission to dealing with the effects of the economic crises.

Yet, disruptive innovation has become a fashionable management term; sometimes disturbing your organization can be a good thing, often it is not. Organizations benefit from incremental changes. It shows good management: [most of the time] sudden changes indicate that management was not prepared for outside changes; incremental changes towards the new outside conditions give the opportunity to build on the existing competences and change them slowly. When the organization (management and non-management) are incapable to react to new conditions, they leave room for others to come up with creative new modes of education which better fit the new economic and social conditions. These trends could become destructive and replace educations as we know it.

Disruptive innovations are occurring in situations that traditional education ignores the potential group of non-learners increasing research efforts and raising demands on students to meet rising qualifications. The ignored group could become the target of organizations which supply a less complex and cheaper form of education.

Organizations should make a well balanced choice between stakeholders, potential students and competitors before drastically changing their existing business model.

Yet, I belief that especially the open universities of this world offer value to individual students but also to society as a whole by offering a formal education to those who otherwise would not be capable to increase their knowledge, be it a single course to increase their knowledge on a single subject, by taking several courses as lifelong learning or taking a full program as a second chance to education!!

And because a new version of something old can be beautiful:

(the original: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FaVDXyXqI9Q)

Torrents and Moocs: the paradox of sharing

Time was too short to write a blog last week. To the why I will return later in this blog.

Sometimes things take some time before you make certain combinations. A few weeks ago I saw a documentary over the process against the people of the Pirate Bay in Sweden: the Pirate Bay away from key board.

 

The last week I was working on a paper, with a colleague of mine, concerning the effects of Moocs on Higher Education: are they disruptive or not?  And suddenly, I am thinking about this paradox between Torrents and Moocs.

People invest in making things, physical or virtual objects. Growth theory tells us that property rights are very important for innovations. Given that

  • most inventions never will become more than a nice idea in the laboratory and
  •  that between the state of creativity and a commercially interesting innovation the organizations has to spend a lot of money,

it is clear that organizations have to earn a lot of money to pay back for all those investments.

So -according to the theory- this earn back period depends on the time  an organization can protect its product or service from becoming replaced by cheaper copy cats. Hence the importance of property rights.

This paradigm is adjusted in recent years, both in practice as in theory. Open innovation still builds on solid property rights but sees a lot of wasting resources because of the closed approach to research and innovation. In practice there are firms who decide against the long period of patenting their inventions, stating that the patenting process in itself increases the possibilities of competing copies and results in losing valuable marketing time (move fast before they catch up).

Yet, the entertainment sector still bases itself on the old growth paradigm. They point to the investments of artist and producers to develop books, music and movies; things that can be digitalized and copies. An interesting exception are paintings. There is a whole industry offering Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and nobody is treating to shut down my printer if I make a color print of a picture of the Rijkswacht of Rembrandt.

However, exchange of digital copies of other artistic products will result in a world where no movies are made, no books will be written and no original music will be composed.

There is something strange with respect to this attitude. When I buy a book or a cd, all rights are mine; I can resell them, give them away or donate them for a good cause. There are even organizations who buy books and leave them in trains and other public places. I can make copies for “home-use” and share those with friends. Sharing in this sense is seen as something good and socially desirable behavior. However, when I buy an electronic book, I can only resell it if I read it online at Amozone.com who put it in a vault. When I resell it, it is not the book I sell, but the combination of this vault. I have the feeling that when I buy something digitalized, I never become the owner but will always rent it in some way. Let alone that people should share on a larger scale, using P2P networks (Pirate Bay) or hosting sites (as Megaupload). The movie about the process against the Pirate Bay shows that the vision of the South Park creators is more than fiction.

So sharing with a small group of people is good, but sharing with a lot of people is bad!! At least that is the message as I read it in the behavior of society with respect to internet organizations who facilitate mega-sharing.

Yet, in the past year, I read nothing but good words about teachers, institutions and foundations who facilitate the free mass sharing of knowledge and education. Of course there are discussions on the motives and the pedagogical models, c- versus x-, definitions of free, gratis versus available and so on. Yet there is a consensus to the fact that free education perhaps not will change higher education, but at least will raise the quality with decreasing costs. The newest hype being Moocs because massive is good adn efficient. So in education Sharing is good, Big Sharing is better!

Why does society feels that big sharing in some ways is bad, whereas it is desirable in other situations? Could it be that developing (good) education does not require investments; perhaps the fact that Moocs build on existing courses and that the ‘putting online’ does require such small sums that these small sums disappear in the larger budgets of universities? Yet 55 % of the Mooc-teaching professors indicate that these activities significantly competes with other activities.

Another explanation can be that the suppliers of the Moocs are different from the owners of education; as I described elsewhere the motives of individuals to participate in OER can be different from those of the institutions involved. So a professor can offer a Mooc because he thinks that his materials are not worth anything elsewhere, or for reputational reasons; organizations often participate because of the additional subsidies, marketing reasons or as part of their corporate governance.

Partly this is recognizable, offering a successful Mooc is good for your professional reputation. Yet, most Moocs contain specially for the Mooc developed materials, no rerun of old presentations and recorded colleges. The participating institutions put a lot of effort in the presentation of the Moocs, not only because of marketing reasons. There are a lot of ideas of potential future business models including providing additional services, selling programs for in company trainings and selling the information about the Mooc-participants. So, the Mooc institutions resemble modern day pop groups who offer (part of) their songs for free at the internet because they decided that their earning potentials are in other areas as life performances or fan goods.

http://www.economist.com/node/21552574In the same sense, publications in the form of double blind peer reviewed articles, published in closed journals are seen as of a greater academic value than blogs, columns or contributions to free journals. Also, in this sense free is a disqualification, synonym to bad quality. Perhaps scientific publications have to undergo a disruptive shock, just like education.