How Preferred and Trusted Digital Platforms Will Reshape Education

Anyone denying the shift toward preferred and trusted digital platforms might want to look at the numbers as seen here, and we are wise to consider the fact that this has implications for education as well.

Digital platforms are here and they are reshaping market share across industries. They are reshaping personal habits. They are reshaping how families and communities function. This is not new. We’ve been living in and experiencing these changes for decades, but the statistics above give us a glimpse into what can happen in education as well.

I realize this provokes mixed reactions. Some might not like it. Others might not want it to happen. Still others might be deeply concerned about it. Even others remain skeptics. I’ve experienced all of those at one point our another. However, we are in denial in if we think this shift is not reshaping education as well.

Others will look at the statistics above and point out that, while Amazon grew in shares, it is not the most profitable. In fact, it didn’t even turn a profit until 2016. Yet, I will point out that it did impact both market share and profit for some of the others in the chart as well as countless others. It actually generated more profit for storefronts who found a powerful platform in Amazon. It established its market influence. In addition, regardless of profits at the moment, it is reshaping the modern retail marketplace in ways that are noteworthy.

This trusted platform / storefront element is one of the more profitable parts of the Amazon enterprise. I wrote about this recently in an article entitled, “A Likely Storefront Future of Continuing Education.” I tried to stay modest in my speculations in the article, but the truth of the matter is that an Amazon approach to education at large is likely to emerge. We are not sure who or which organizations will take the lead, but it can and likely will happen. It may be underway and I just haven’t noticed the emerging dominance of certain platforms.

By the way, this doesn’t mean the end of face-to-face education anymore than Amazon’s success meant the need of all face-to-face storefronts, but it will have an impact, one that is potentially larger but certainly different from what most people expect. This is not a doomsday article for traditional education. It is a recognition that education and learning as we know it will be transformed by the trusted and extended services platform model.

This is about building a preferred and trusted platform. I stopped by a Best Buy recently in search of a last-minute addition to Christmas presents. When I asked about a niche product, you can probably guess what the person told me at the store. We don’t have that in this store, but you can go to our website and order it. The people at the store are constantly reinforcing that the place to really get what you want is online, and it was a fragmented customer experience. You are just taking your chances if you go to the store. My wife had a related experience when she went online to order something from Walmart that she could pick up in the store. When she arrived, they didn’t have it, even though the website indicated that all she had to do was go to the store to pick it up.

Amazon went a different direction. Order it from us (or one of our partners) and we will tell you when it will arrive. Before you order it, check out our community of customer reviews, compare prices across our products and those of other vendors who we welcome in our storefront, choose when and how you want it shipped…

Some K-12 and higher education leaders might look at that last number in the opening image and note that the answer is that we need to add an online element. Yet, while that might be important, this is not just about going online. Each of the companies in the list are online. It is just that Amazon, an almost entirely online storefront, had a 1910% growth while all but Walmart saw significant declines, and Amazon made itself a one-stop shop and destination point that extends from consumer goods to entertainment, photo storage to books in every modern format, cloud servers and storage to tracking digital subscriptions. There is something more significant at play here, and that something has enormous implications for education also. It is about the trusted and one-stop platform. People seem to like and want that.

In education, consider the examples of Coursera and Edx as MOOC providers. Both of these went the route of partnering with large, flagship, or elite institutions. You don’t find many small or niche higher education institutions even welcomed on their platform. Contrast that with Amazon who partners with even the smallest niche boutiques who can meet their standards, follow their policies, and deliver quality products on time. Notice the community built around Amazon that extends across providers and services, anticipating questions and needs, and then expanding the platform to address them.

The future is unclear but the impact is apparent to anyone who will take the took to study the trends. Some of the MOOC providers might pivot and try this. LinkedIn seems to be trying to do it. Blackboard is trying to do it through a B2B strategy as a provider of ever-expanding services for educational institutions, but it still does not prove to be a true and easy-to-work-with partner for many vendors (at least not from several direct personal experiences on that front). Plenty of others opted for more niche approaches that will likely be sustaining over the upcoming years. Those who are growing online are often doing so with incredibly narrow ways of thinking about education or training. Yet, I’m still waiting for those two or three preferred and trusted platforms to emerge. Perhaps they are already here and will show themselves as such. Maybe they will be an expanded aspects of an existing and widely trusted and used social platform. They could come from new startups. There is even a chance that they will come from the non-profit education space through a single leader or a strong consortium (but I’m skeptical at the moment). This might take a few years. This might take a decade or more. Regardless, it will happen.

Why I Signed the Bologna Open Recognition Declaration

Just returning from the EPIC Conference in Bologna Italy, we finished this year with a revealing of the Open Recognition Declaration, a document that I proudly signed and endorse. In Bologna, Italy, where the Bologna Declaration was released in 1999, a new group of scholars and practitioners gathered to explore the role of recognition in a connected age. We discussed open badges, e-portfolios, blockchain, identity, trust, the future of education, and much more. We examined these topics across contexts, from higher education to supporting refugees to turning entire cities into ecosystems of learning and the recognition of that learning. Yet, the culminating moment of our three days together occurred on that final morning with the unveiling of a document that outlines the critical role of recognition in a contemporary world. As noted in the declaration, this is, “a call for a universal open architecture for the recognition of lifelong and lifewide learning achievements.”

This is about the recognition of learning across organizations and contexts. Open badges are a current expression of this effort, something that I’ve written dozens of articles about over the years, but we’ve only started to see the promise of such efforts. I write about this so much because it is increasingly apparent to me that our dominant approaches to the recognition of learning are not adequate for life in a connected world, and because our current systems limit and restrict too much and too many. In reality, these current approaches were probably not adequate for past ages either.

Yet, we are at a crossroads. We must decide whether we are willing to re-imagine a learning ecosystem that is founded upon principles of openness and transparency, one that respects the fact that there is usually more than one valid way to learning something. We must recognize that this may or may not happen within the confines of a traditional school.

We have a learning ecosystem today that is arguably more about establishing gateways for people than providing and honoring multiple pathways to learning. While I appreciate the appropriate use of gateways for some credentials, I contend that this has become such a focus that we have unintentionally dis-empowered too many people. As I wrote in my article about the Lincoln Test, there are more ways to mastery, learning, and competence than what is often presented to us in a given schooling context. When the provided pathways is not adequate, we’ve too often remained unmoved and inflexible, even if it is not best for that learner.

If we are going to value the inherent ability of each person to learn, grow, and contribute to society; we are wise to create a learning ecosystem and recognition system that reflects as much. Among other things, it means schools willfully giving up their claim to a monopoly of recognition for learning. This is not to diminish the value of schools, it is just a declaration that it is no longer morally defensible for schools to claim some sort of inherent right to decide what learning should or should not be recognized. There will still be gateways in some contexts, but it need not be the case for most. We much celebrate schools, but do so in a way that does not diminish other pathways to learning and ways of recognizing learning beyond what is currently in place within schools.

A great start is to move toward a more open form of recognition for learning and growth. This can be used in and out of schooling contexts. It can extend across the lifespan and the many contexts of life and learning. Many argue that education is a critical human right of our age. As such, they argue for tuition-free or debt-free educational options. They argue for sending as many people as possible through schools. Yet, we often fail to recognize that schools themselves can be barriers to education. Our vision is one of education and opportunity, and schooling is only one piece of that. Now is the time for us to expand our collective commitment to education and the recognition of learning, not just schooling; and we see that at work in the open recognition movement.

In fact, the Open Recognition Declaration points out that this is even more significant when we recognize that learning is not just within the confines of school, even for those who choose that pathway. Learning is lifelong, lifewide…across the many contexts in our lives. Recognition for that broader learning is often absent. Yet, the open badge and open recognition movement is about creating a means by which the breadth of one’s learning and growth can be recognized, displayed, celebrated and shared. In doing so, we empower people to have greater agency, to better represent their identity in the connected age, to build meaningful connections with people and organizations (even employers) on the basis of this recognition.

I contend that we are wise to invest even greater energy in a recognition system for learning that empowers individuals, increases access and opportunity for the recognition of learning regardless of one’s means, and one that does not depend upon formal credentialing  organizations to manage this effort.

This is about creating a more open currency for the recognition of learning and it is why I signed and support the Bologna Open Recognition Declaration. I encourage you to read it and consider whether you can join me in supporting this good and important work.

The Hidden Value of MOOCs as Intellectual Gold Mines

We are walking through an intellectual gold mine and most have not even realized it. Even as the number of MOOC participants continue to grow around the world, much of the initial media buzz with MOOCs has settled. Early rhetoric about MOOCs replacing the traditional University have largely subsided, bringing us back to the more important questions.

  • How can MOOCs increase access and opportunity?
  • Where do they fit into the larger and diverse selection of educational opportunities?
  • What affordances do MOOCs add to the broader educational ecosystem?

That last question is, I contend, is the most important one to explore, and one that will open our eyes to the hidden value of MOOCs. Koller, President and Founder of Coursera, frequently explains that Coursera does not exist to replace the traditional higher education experience. Those spontaneous and sometimes serendipitous moments in a traditional face-to-face class remain as valuable as ever. Coursera doesn’t seek to diminish or replicate that. It does, however, exist to expand access and opportunity to valuable (as deemed by the participants) learning experiences for an audience that will likely never step foot (or have to opportunity to) on a campus like Stanford University. It doesn’t solve problems of equity, access and opportunity. It does offer to help with such problems, but even when failing to do so, that doesn’t mean that MOOCs lack value. People sometimes focus on the limitations of MOOCs and how they are not equivalent to other forms of teaching and learning, but MOOCs do give more access to those who have nothing, and they clearly offer value, as evidence by the massive enrollments. It is hard to deny the significance of something that garners registrations in the tens and hundreds of thousands.

Coursera doesn’t replace the value or experience of a traditional undergraduate education. However, how many students sitting in Stanford and many other University courses have the self-direction, curiosity, will-power and follow through to identify a MOOC of interest, sign up for it, commit to using it for a robust learning experience, and walk away from the course having gained something of value? In other words, could it be that being a MOOC participant and completer is a sign of certain traits and abilities in a person, traits that are highly desirable in life and work? Studies of MOOC participants have shown that they largely consist of people who already have at least a bachelor’s degree, although there are growing efforts to draw the interest of more underserved populations.

Reaching underserved populations is a commendable aspiration, but let’s not overlook what we have identified. MOOC participant are largely people who elect to learn something on their own time, most often inspired by personal and professional goals. This is a population of people who demonstrate high levels of curiosity, a love of learning, and ownership for their growth and development.

These are engaged people. In one report, they found that 61% of MOOC participants took a MOOC to help them do their jobs better or to get a new job. These are not people who are just clocking their hours at work, living for the weekends. For one reason or another, they want to get better at what they do or they are committed to becoming competent and confident at something new.

As such, perhaps we need to start looking at MOOCs differently. If you had a group of hundreds of thousands of engaged people with curiosity and a love of learning, what might you do?

  • This is a great place for job postings, especially for employers who care about having engaged, curious self-starters.
  • It is certainly a prime place for advertisements to populations with an intellectual, self-directed bent; although many MOOC providers have opted not to go the route of paid advertisements.
  • It is an excellent place to draw people into a larger ecosystem of educational offerings ranging from coaching services and webinars to conferences, degree programs, workshops, and even subscription to newsletters.
  • It is a prime spot to share news and information that you want to spread in the social world.
  • It is a promising community to find people who value knowledge and understanding.
  • This is also a great place to stage competitions and gateways that can lead to new jobs and opportunities for committed and qualified people. Imagine a company that is expanding and plans to have 50 openings that need motivated and qualified people. Why not build a competition or course in a MOOC platform where completers are guaranteed at least an interview? This is a largely new and untapped space for identifying top talent (although the Udemy pivot partly gets at this).

I am not just talking about the marketing and financial benefits. I’m looking at this in terms of having an online space/community that is dense with engaged, lifelong learners. We are looking at an intellectual gold mine. If you care about talent management, then  MOOCs might not fix massive problems of inequity, access and opportunity at the moment; but they are providing a way to identify a population of people who are good at leveraging the power of the connected world for lifelong learning. Perhaps we’ve been so focused on the value of the MOOCs themselves that we’ve largely missed the true value, the people participating in the MOOCs.

Will #OpenBadges Remain Open? That is up to us.

Reviewing a critique presented by Dr. Michael Olneck at the pre-conference event on Open Badges at the Learning Analytics 2015 Conference, I was reminded of a 2012 quote from Tim O’Reilly, something that haunts me because I know it to be true with technology after technology over the past 200 years. Before I share the quote, I’ll set it up with a short introduction.

There is democratizing technology and authoritarian technology. I’ve written about that in the past. However, there is more than one way to approach this. You can look at the technology itself, its inherent features and how they are likely to lead one toward more authoritarian or democratizing structures. That, for example, is present in debates about gun control. Some argue that guns, by their nature, are designed to shoot things, including people. As such, people might push for more regulation and control around them, resulting in a more authoritarian ecosystem within which guns reside. Others look at the social landscape and argue that there are plenty of examples where guns are present, but violence with guns is low or absent. They are not necessarily looking at the affordances and limitations of the technology directly, but they are instead examining how it developed in a give context. As a result of their approach, they may argue for maintaining a larger democratizing ecosystem for the technology of guns. In reality, both of these factors are constantly at work with the assimilation of a technology in a new context. There are inherent affordances and limitations to the technology that make some things possible and other things more likely. At the same time, there are complex individual and societal forces that impact how it develops, especially the power structures that develop alongside a given technology.

As such, what happens if we shift the conversation, not looking at the technology, but examining the technologists themselves and the organizations that offer or benefit from the technologies? With this question in mind, consider the previously mentioned quote from Tim O’Reilly.

So many technologies start out with a burst of idealism, democratization, and opportunity, and over time they close down and become less friendly to entrepreneurship, to innovation, to new ideas. Over time the companies that become dominant take more out of the ecosystem than they put back in. –

As we commoditize technologies, there is a competitive lever that starts to shape the ecosystem around that technology. As there become winners in the marketplace, companies that maintain control over a technology’s development and implementation begin to shape it in ways that amplify the company’s control and benefits. In the extreme, this is what we get with a monopoly, but there are less radical examples as well. Consider that there are largely two dominant operating systems in the computer ecosystem today. In the same article cited above, O’ Reilly stated,

We saw this happen with Microsoft. It started out with a big vision: How do we get a PC on every desk and in every home? It was profoundly democratizing. But when Microsoft got on top, it slowly started choking off the pathways to success for everybody else. It stopped creating more value than it captured.

Is or was Microsoft a monopoly? That has certainly been debated in and out of the courtroom. It started with a grand democratization of access to computers and eventually the Internet. Over time, it turned into two main companies controlling the system used on those devices. There remain democratizing affordances of these devices and the associated connectivity, but now people are largely compelled to comply with the standards and interface established by a couple of key players.

In his introduction to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote about two possible futures. One grew out of Orwell’s 1984, where we become oppressed due to our fears. The other came from Huxley’s Brave New World, a future where we are oppressed by our pleasures. Either can lead to similar ends, more authoritarian control with the promise of some other value: safety, pleasure, efficiency, etc.

How do we resist such a future on a smaller level as we see the development of new and potentially disruptive concepts like micro-credentials? O’ Reilly continues by arguing for ecosystems of innovation where participants “create more value than [they] capture.” He explained,

Everybody wants to foster entrepreneurship, but we have to think about the preconditions for entrepreneurship. You grow great crops in great soil. And the soil is the commons. Increasingly, we have monopolistic companies that try to take as much as they can for themselves. And we have a patent and copyright regime that makes sure that nothing goes back into the commons unless by an extraordinary act of generosity. This is not fertile soil for innovation.

This is easier said than done. Open Badges are open and that feeds the commons. However, maintaining a commons requires commitments from those in the commons. It seems to me that as badges expand, there are a growing number of emergent and maturing business models that will either feed this openness and spirit of innovation or will seek to control it for market share and financial gain. Business models obviously need to include consideration about such things, but for this openness to continue, ROI has to be about more than financial, especially in the education sector. It is an interesting challenge to navigate because we likely need scalable and robust solution to grow the badge ecosystem, but we also need the leads of those scalable solutions to commit to a spirit of openness and cooperation as much as competition. One thing seems clear to me at this point in the development. There will be winners and losers, and the losers may not even recognize when or what they have lost until later.

This does not mean that I lack hope about the open badge and micro-credential movement. I see great promise, possibility and opportunity. Yet, these are not certain, and the future of the ecosystem as I hope to shape it depends upon a growing core of influencers who are genuinely committed to and uncompromising about the value of the commons.