Why Higher Ed Must Resist the ‘Platform Revolution’

Be very worried if your president/provost/dean gives you this book.

July 12, 2016

Platform Revolution: How Networked Markets Are Transforming the Economy--And How to Make Them Work for You by Geoffrey G. Parker, Sangeet Paul Choudary and Marshall W. Van Alstyne

Published in March of 2016.

The day when your president/provost/dean proclaims that your institution is not a university - but a platform - is a day when you should be deeply worried.

This day will happen.  It may have happened to you already.

The bad thinking that will lead to higher ed leaders wanting to turn their schools into platforms should not be blamed on the authors of this excellent book.  Platforms are changing the world of business, and business writers (and academics that study business) have every obligation to explain this trend.

Where the authors of Platform Revolution get themselves in trouble - and the reason that you should preemptively read the book before your president/provost/dean can get their hands on it - is when they claim that higher education is ripe for transformation by platform.

Some quotes from the book:

"Education is perhaps the prime example of a major industry that is ripe for platform disruption. Information-intensive? Check. In fact, the fundamental product being sold by schools, colleges, and universities is information of various kinds”.  Page 263.

Wrong.  If information is what we “sold” in postsecondary institutions than we would quickly be out of business.

Information is certainly part of our bundle, but I know of no college or university that puts “information transmission” as their central value proposition.

It is the confounding of learning with information consumption that lies at the heart many of our public policy challenges in postsecondary education.  The message that if information delivery can only get more efficient - can be put on more screens and tracked by more analytics - is constantly pushed by those edtech companies and investors looking to capture some share of the education dollar.  The inconvenient truth about learning, however, is that authentic learning does not lend itself to the digital (and platform) imperatives of scale, efficiency, and productivity. 

Learning is hard, and best accomplished in the context of a (human) relationship between a well-supported / experienced educator and a motivated student.

Technology, even platform technologies, can (and should) be an assistive tool for educators.

"Eager to avoid being rendered irrelevant or obsolete by upstart platform companies, a number of the world’s greatest universities are moving to position themselves as leaders in this educational revolution. Institutions including Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, and many others are offering online versions of some of their most popular classes in the form of “massive open online courses” (MOOCs)— many in partnership with companies like Coursera”.  Page 265

Wrong.  As someone part of the team working to bring open online education (edX) to my institution, I can testify firsthand that worries of irrelevance or obsolescence were never part of our calculus.

We feel pretty good about the value of a liberal arts education, and we believe that a scholar/educator model of teaching and learning will endure.  The reason that my school - and the schools that the authors mention - are participating in MOOCs is that we see open online learning as an opportunity to learn about learning.  We are committed to both improving the quality of an intimate residential, and to providing educational opportunities to the world of lifelong learners. 

Open online courses are in no way substitutes for our traditional courses, as our education is built around the development of a relationship between a scholar-educator and our learners.

"The long-term implications of the coming explosion in educational experimentation are difficult to predict with certainty. But it wouldn’t be surprising if many of the 3,000 colleges and universities that currently dominate the U.S. higher education market were to fail, their economic rationale fatally undercut by the vastly better economics of platforms”.  Page 267

Wrong again.  Any university that can be replaced by a platform deserves to be replaced.

If the value unit that a college offers is the certification that some discrete content has been successfully transmitted from mind (or adaptive learning platform) to another mind - then that college offers no real value.  The days of thinking of students as empty vessels to be filled up (once) with information, and then sent out into the world for lifetime employment, are over.  (If these days ever existed - they certainly are not part of the history or heritage of our liberal arts institutions).

Our colleges and universities are not tomorrow’s MySpace’s or Blockbuster Videos.  To the extent that colleges focus on the centrality of the educator / learner relationship - a relationship that can’t be scaled or substituted by technology - will be the extent to which today’s postsecondary institutions continue to thrive.

Platforms are remaking much of the economy.  Anyone who does not think that Uber is changing the world of transportation, or that Amazon is not changing the world of retailing and content dissemination, is simply not paying attention.   At some point, however, those of us working in education (and especially us edtech people) need to resist the language, values, and practices of the new technology elite.

All of this is not to say that platforms will not - and should not - play an important role in higher education.  For my money, the edX platform has a shot at changing the fundamentals of the admission funnel (especially to specialized masters programs).  The reason that my money is on edX (despite the fact that my school is an edX partner), is that being a non-profit and coming out of higher education - the values and mission of edX are aligned with both its partner schools and with the learners that the platform serves.

I also believe that the smartest acquisition that Microsoft, Google, Facebook (or Baidu, Tata, or Alibaba) could make now is to purchase Coursera.  Education will be the business of the 21st century, and Coursera is poised to be a central platform for postsecondary learning at scale across emerging economies.

Nor should this review leave you with the impression that Platform Revolution is not worth your investment in time. This is the best book that I’ve read on why platforms, as opposed to industries built on pipelines, are re-ordering large sectors of the economy.  Reading about Facebook, Uber, and many other companies is good fun - and this book is particularly well argued and carefully reasoned.

Just make sure to get your hands on Platform Revolution before your president, provost, or dean.

What are you reading?



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