Companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google have relationships with higher education that are so complicated and confusing that many campus leaders view them with wariness as well as fascination, wondering if they might at some point be competitors rather than collaborators. When Amazon hires a high-profile researcher from Stanford, Google begins offering credentials through community colleges or Facebook produces a digital advertising curriculum, colleges pay attention.
LinkedIn is another such company: beyond the pages it offers to help colleges and universities promote themselves, LinkedIn -- as a leading place for workers and would-be workers to show off their credentials and competencies -- has been viewed by some observers as a potential alternative way for people to get the skills they need to succeed in the workplace (and by extension in life). LinkedIn officials have hinted as much in past comments, and the company's 2015 purchase of Lynda.com, an online course portal focused on building career-focused skills, accelerated its transition into a "provider" of education and training.
Those watching LinkedIn's evolution now have a little bit more grist for the mill. LinkedIn Learning, which is what Lynda.com has morphed into, on Nov. 9 announced a series of developments that show the company to be gradually expanding its footprint in the education and training space.
Over the last 18 months, LinkedIn Learning, to which many companies, government agencies and colleges subscribe to provide technical and other skills to their workers and students, has been letting those clients add their own content (say, an internal training video or short course a company has created) to the LinkedIn platform so their workers or students can view it alongside the LinkedIn content (which numbers roughly 13,000 courses now).
On Friday, LinkedIn Learning announced that it would also make available to its customers content from five outside providers, as long as the customers independently have subscription deals with those providers. The five entities (see box below), which include the publishing arm of Harvard Business School, could get a shot in the arm from their association with LinkedIn and, potentially, their visibility in front of LinkedIn's 600 million users worldwide.
- Harvard Business Publishing: digital learning experiences and leadership development content including Harvard ManageMentor and LeadingEdge
- getAbstract: 18,000-plus book summaries as well TED talks
- Big Think: 500 short-form video lessons
- Treehouse: coding courses for beginners
- CreativeLive for Business: Classes on topics such as creativity, design thinking, entrepreneurship
LinkedIn Learning, meanwhile, significantly expands its library of content, amid increasing competition with other content providers focused on the workplace, including Pluralsight and Degreed.
James Raybould, director of product for LinkedIn Learning, said in a telephone interview that the company had identified the first five content providers (to which more will be added) based on data and recommendations from its clients about the sources they considered most valuable. LinkedIn hopes to be able to bring "more engagement" to strong content that too few people may be seeing, he said.
"We believe that by giving our partners the best of our content, the customers' own content and now this content from other providers, we can help them arm their teams -- either students or employees -- with the latest skills," Raybould said. He noted that LinkedIn is also expanding its tools for users, adding a service called Q&A to let subscribers pose questions about videos and other content to other students and the instructor.
Ryan Carson, CEO of Treehouse, which he says has taught coding online to 850,000 novices, said the arrangement with LinkedIn was a "no-brainer," resulting in "free traffic" to its site. (He did acknowledge the possibility, though, that users could get in the habit of going to LinkedIn to find his content like his, which could have ill effects in the long term.)
Raybould insisted -- as LinkedIn officials consistently have -- that the company has no interest in offering degrees or credentials in ways that would turn it into a direct competitor of colleges and universities. But as the lines between traditional higher education and work-force training continue to blur, major providers of skills training and colleges historically focused on academic learning inevitably move closer together.
"The single destination for learners to engage around content and also with each other" is how Raybould describes LinkedIn Learning's ambition. That may not be exactly how many colleges and universities would characterize themselves, but it's not too terribly different, either.