Amazon Has a Chance to Do Something So Much More Than to Become Its Own University

Candace Thille, a leader in open education, is taking leave from Stanford University to work on an undisclosed project at Amazon. The blogosphere and higher education new outlets are ripe with speculations about what this means. This source suggests that it is primarily an inward facing role, focusing upon the education/training of Amazon’s employees around the world. That works, but if I were an executive at Amazon and hired someone with Thille’s knowledge and research agenda, I wouldn’t stop there. I might start there, but that would just be the beginning, and I sort of hope that this is Amazon’s plan as well.

When I heard the news and didn’t hear the part about it being inward focused, I was not surprised.

On December 22, 2016, I wrote this article, “A Likely Storefront Future for Continuing Education.” In the article I started to explain how the signs of the times indicate an emerging marketplace or platform for the education space. It would be the Uber/AirBnB/Facebook/Amazon of education opportunities and resources. Eight days later, in answer to questions and comments from readers, I published How Preferred and Trusted Platforms will Reshape Education. In it, I explained how some companies manage to establish themselves online as trusted and preferred platforms for finding what people want in one or more areas, and Amazon is a prime example.

Then, more recently, in a January 11 interview published at UncompromisingEDU, I explained how a company like Amazon was one of the best positioned platforms to help address important issues in education, even helping learners connect with colleges and learning experiences that best meet their needs. They already have an extensive community. They have a platform that could easily be expanded, adjusted, or augmented to connect learners and learning opportunities, and it would be a natural extension of what they already do in many ways.

So, maybe this is just a move to increase the competence and confidence of Amazon’s own 500,000+ employees, but it is fascinating for me to imagine the possibilities if Thille’s role was not just inward facing, it it were one that allowed Amazon to join the larger education ecosystem.

I don’t have any insider information about what Thille’s project entails, but as ,my past writing indicates, leveraging its role as a trusted platform to connect learners with what they need is a wise and obvious move. Perhaps they have something entirely different in mind, but I am excited to see where this goes. I’m working on a couple of projects to accelerate the development of new education matchmaking platforms (think of match.com for learners and learning experiences), but Amazon’s entry into this space could be a powerful thrust in that direction.

My only hope is that Amazon steps into the learning space responsibly. When you get involved in education (even if it is just internal training), I contend that you are held to a new standard, what I call the educational entrepreneur’s code. This is a chance to approach this as an opportunity to do something good for people, to join in the mission to create a better, more hopeful, humane, and empowering educational ecosystem.

How would Amazon do this?

  • Doing so means algorithmic transparency in the platform.
  • It means honoring individuals and not just maximizing employer outcomes.
  • It means inviting and building a system that amplifies learner voice, ownership, and agency.
  • It means helping people to find what best meets their needs and goals (and honoring the learner’s viewpoint on this).
  • It means recognizing that education is always values-laden, and never really just about producing learning outcomes with the greatest efficiency.
  • It means recognizing and contributing to what I consider one of the greatest strengths of the current ecosystem, namely its growing diversity of formats, models, frameworks, methods, and underlying philosophies.
  • It means resisting the temptation to let reductionist measures of success sidetrack from a deeply human and humane mission and set of values that are at the heart of the educational endeavor.

If Amazon embraces such a challenge, then I will welcome its joining us in the modern education ecosystem. I will probably even be a champion for the work, but one who is also not afraid to critically examine the affordances and limitations of the efforts.

Posted in education

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.