Perhaps you’ve seen the image being shared across social media that says the following:
Uber – The world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles.
Facebook – The world’s most popular media owner, creates no content.
Alibaba – The most valuable retailer, has no inventory.
Airbnb – The world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.
Is this possible in education as well? We already have Coursera, EdX, P2PU, Udemy, and countless other collections of courses and learning experiences across learning organizations. We’ve also had people like David Schejbal of the University of Wisconsin Extension talking and writing about a storefront of higher education courses or experiences across organizations. Yet, all of these have limitations that likely keep them from gaining the sort of widespread traction that we see with the examples like Uber and Alibaba. Consider the following three.
Learning experiences are easily fragmented. For those who are seeking a full degree or more cohesive course of study, the current educational equivalents of a shared storefront tend to fall short. Universities, for example, often have their own nuances and ways of organizing learning. Getting a degree in computer science at one school is not necessarily the same as earning it at another place. How content and objectives are broken up varies from school to school. There are philosophical differences. There are differences based on the typical student. There are differences based upon signature emphases.
These are not problems if you are using Alibaba or Amazon, but they are issues when it comes to learning experiences. It is fine for a hobbyist. It even works for the minority of people who have become skilled at curating and designing their own learning experiences through disparate sources, not unlike that junkyard sculptor who can take seemingly unrelated pieces and turn them into a true piece of art. Yet, for better or worse, most learners are looking for something that is more cohesive and prepackaged. I spend quite a bit of time promoting the importance of equipping people to have that mindset and propensity for self-organizing, curating and self-directing; but a candid view of the education landscape today shows that most people are looking for some help curating and coordinating their learning experiences, even if they want a good measure of autonomy as well.
Lack of Clarity About What Works
When it comes to education, the idea of “what works” is a challenging one. That is because audience and context play such important roles. What works with struggling learners in one context might flop with advanced learners in another context. What works with one age group in a rural Midwest context might not work with a group of recent immigrants living on the Texas border. Yet, we do have some good research in education about what tends to work better than other things. Based upon philosophy and this sort of “what works” research, some schools and platforms establish guidelines, expectations, policies and the like to keep up a certain standard based on the body of research identified. This can inhibit innovation, result in methods that don’t work for some people, but it can also build some consistency and cohesiveness. Yet, the discourse and focus on these matters in the current education storefronts (even within a program at a single school) is in its infancy.
By pointing this out, please note that I am not lobbying for a long list of state or federal policies related to the matter, nor do I see wisdom in a massive consortium that becomes a restrictive regulatory unit. That could too easily turn into misguided regulations that restrict access and opportunity, or that unexpectedly and unnecessarily harms diverse learners. I’m just noting that our discourse needs to deepen if someone is going to successfully apply the Uber, Facebook or Airbnb model to education.
Going Too Many Directions
This third limitation is the one that will eventually turn into a lever and lead to thriving examples of the storefront model in education. Right now many of these storefront-esque education efforts are too broad. This is more successful when a group focuses upon a given area of education, one where there is already a generally agreed upon pedagogy and where the differences from one school to the next are minimal. This is happening. Universities are partnering for courses that can be used toward a shared program. Some state-wide and broader efforts have already created storefronts of courses that can be used across programs. There are built-in articulation agreements that allow for this to happen. As such, at least on a conceptual level, we have everything that we need to make this happen.
Now all we need is a coalition of the willing. There are accreditation and regulatory issues to work out. There are financial models to be worked out among participating educational providers. Yet, people are working on this and they will continue to do so.
There are countless pitfalls as different people seek to create this sort of future, and some of them are unrecognizable or nearly unavoidable. There will be new winners and new losers. There will be problems of access and opportunity resolved by this while creating new ones. Nonetheless, I continue to see at least a few possible futures where this can further democratize education.