Subscription Models for Lifelong Students

Earlier today, the OU VC and other assorted dignitaries took place in a session on Preventing a funding crisis in higher education: addressing the outcomes of the spending review and Browne review. A live stream of the event was available, and encouraged the participation of a small number of interested parties on the #unifundingdebate Twitter hashtag backchannel. About two thirds of the way through the event, I managed to grab this overview of the Twitter echo-chamber that resulted:

unifunding debate twitterers

The nodes represent individuals who used the hashtag and the lines correspond to arrows that go from an individual to the people they follow on Twitter. The nodes are sized according to the number of other hashtaggers following them, the colour (blue to red) show how many other hashtaggers that person follows. So small red means you follow lots but aren’t followed by many, and large blue suggests lots follow you but you aren’t following them back.

Anyway, the debate (not that it really was a debate, from what I could tell?), touched in part on the role of both widening participation, and part-time study. And whilst there was some consideration of how the part-time, distance ed approach represented an alternative way of doing a degree, there seemed to be widespread, implicit agreement that the current degree model is still an appropriate one.

I’m not so sure…

The following is a bit of a ramble, and is largely off the top of my head… but it’s something that’s been in mind for a bit, and I need to start trying to articulate it and develop it a little further than random thoughts on occasional dog walks….one of which I just happen to have come back from…

A model I’m trying to pull together at them moment is based more on a situation where a a student spends one or two years of quite intense, formal study getting into the swing of what independent learning might mean, albeit independent learning in the sense of no-one making you work through structured teaching materials, rather than folk learning informally from unstructured materials in an autodidactic way.

This short, intense period gives the provider an opportunity to hook the student into a subscription package (for a fee…) that will contain to provide them with educational support, training, and current awareness about dominant trends and ideas in a subject area for the rest of their career, and maybe beyond.

Other packages might support the serious hobbiest, or ‘leisure learner’, particularly in subjects such as arts appreciation (art history, for example) or ‘expert amateur’ subject areas such as astronomy.

The package will taken mainly open content, but with added value from the way it is packaged and how it can be made available in a timely way for the subscriber. The content will also flow to the subscriber through the subscription channel from the host institution. Subscription upgrades will provide the subscriber with additional benefits, such as access to structured/vertical search contexts, or commercial academic content.

Top-up learning delivery then creates a new distribution context to support learning, where the academic passes on current awareness knowledge about an area that keeps the subscriber student informed about their subject area. It helps them keep on top of it and up to date with it. The university subscription becomes a channel for the professional updating of subscribers. Like Independent Radio News syndicates news to commercial radio stations, professional societies might also push content through the universities’ subscription channels.

Supporting such a model would require a shift in the way that the academy engages with perpetual (‘lifelong learning’?!) subscription students. Distance education models can help, but there is also the opportunity for bespoke events (lectures, public talks, privileged access to university members, evenings with…) and specialist conferences. It is noticeable that media providers such as the Guardian are already exploring such models in the news media domain.

Which is maybe where the sort of thing I try to do every day fits in? I live, by and large, through a screen, with occasional presentations at workshops, conferences and hackdays. Every day, I try to learn something new, or ask a not-obvious-to-me/Emperor’s-new-clothes type question of something I’ve come across, and use my notebook blog to record what I’ve learned.

Two or three times a week, I get a comment, tweet or email about an old post, or a current one, from someone who’s tried to make something of what I’ve done, or someone asking for an opinion about, or guidance on, something loosely related the topics covered in These request may come from within the OU, or without. Sometimes, these are quickly answered, sometimes they set a new challenge or puzzle to solve, which in turn results in another blog post/notebook entry. By posting in public, these posts become discoverable by other people who are interested in similar topics, or are faced with similar problems/puzzles.

Through services like Twitter – which is usually open on my desktop most of the day – I often (several times a week) participate in what might be termed “distributed flash consultancy”, picking up on “anyone know…?” type questions, or coming together for a short amount of time with two or three others to tackle some easily stated puzzle or problem. I am an active participant in the LazyWeb. I treat my cognitive as surplus. Of course, my employer may take issue with that. But whenever I see emails coming round about things like “knowledge transfer”, I take heart, because I engage with knowledge transfer, albeit at the microtransaction level, several times a day, with folk from diverse professional and governmental, as well as academic, communities. THis always make people laugh, but I think it’s true: to paraphrase William Gibson, I believe that I catch glimpses of the future that is already around us, (and maybe even invent additional tiny pieces of it), and try to help distribute it a little more evenly.

Thinking back to subscription models of continual top-up, drip fed education, that’s likely to be at the micro-level too. Not the macro-degree level. Maybe not even the meso-course/module level, though the provision of 20-100 hour top-up courses, or evening, half-day, or one- or two-day training courses might also fit into this scale. But the micro-level. The question you get stuck on you need the lecturer’s help on. The question other people might get stuck on. The question the academic might turn their “always on cognitive surplus” to, to help you solve your problem, and in return generate another example, another case, for a growing body of really fine grained open-educational materials. (The micro-meso boundary can blur, of course… some problems may take a day or two to work through.) And for the subscriber, after a few years of engaging with drips in a trackable way, maybe their undergraduate degree can get an upgrade (for a small, additional fee) to a Masters? (Hmmm, now where does that remind me of…?)

So here’s what I do… I participate in a knowledge sharing, creating and sharing again network. Every day. An open network. I help solve problems, and I also create new ones (often with the intent that their solutions might become good teaching or learning examples). It’s just that the transactions I do in the network, I haven’t found a way of monetising yet, which is what I suspect my employer will be increasingly keen on… But in the world of open knowledge, cash isn’t the only indicator, is it? (Journal publications are another, for example… hmmm ;-)

For all the talk in the funding crisis debate today about what new models might emerge around university funding, I think the point that there’s a global network of knowledgeable folk and open information resources has been missed. I’m not a team player, I’m a network player. And whilst some might argue that we may always need teams, I think we’ll increasingly make use of networks and ad hoc comings together too. The thing is, our higher ed institutions haven’t yet figured out how to play a pivotal role in the distribution of sound academic knowledge in a network that’s open to all. Remember when the libraries were the access point for knowledge…? I wonder when someone will come along to give HE a similar wake up call…? By which time, of course, it will be too late…

PS in passing, I just spotted this: Adrian Hon on Why free online lectures will destroy universities – unless they get their act together fast

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

8 thoughts on “Subscription Models for Lifelong Students”

  1. Off the top of your head you make some very good points. I think it is a fascinating time to live in and see how the learning model will evolve. In open models is it up to the community to sift out false information, theories, facts, etc? This seems like one area of concern in truly open models.

    1. In a network, it is possible for untruths and false information to propagate quickly; but it’s also up to the network to maintain its own integrity, not pass on things that are untrusted, call out the mistakes, even prune nodes that are destructive…

  2. Within the context of many universities, alumni clubs offer a rough approximation of the model that you describe. Following a highly-structured formal course of study, they act as a life-long subscription-based service providing access to local lectures, courses, and networking events. The social component is more central than the educational component (at most schools, anyhow), but there is certainly the opportunity to build on this existing structure as a basis for a lifelong learning model. If membership/subscription at my university included (1.) access to the university library’s electronic journal subscriptions, and (2.) access to recordings of on-campus courses and talks, I’d pay for a subscription for years.

  3. “I’m not a team player, I’m a network player”
    This really stuck in my mind, here. I can really relate to the networks thing – forming, changing, adapting – like some really complex turbulent flow. And I get a lot out of it – because I know how to use it (or am learning how to use it, or am watching others and learning from that – brown nose Skillz(+1)…but true).
    Basically, I have re-learned how to learn in many ways. I know (enough of) the theory of education to be able to recognise when I need information (and how to get it), when I need conceptual understanding (slightly harder to find, but some really good online lectures do this and there’s always CutTheKnot like ), and when I need to just sit down and work at it in application (the hard bit for me…).
    So I think the point about intensive learning (perhaps of ‘scholarship’ itself) is well made, tailored to suit the student’s needs.
    Some people will need direction in all 3 of the above (there’s probably more categories than this, but I can safely leave the detail to proper educationalists :D); some will need 2; some only 1.
    But this does rather depend on lecturers being educators – not scholars. The scholar bit is good to have, but only if it is ‘self-aware’ scholarship – i.e. is scholarship that is bootstrapped by itself – sort of self-referential, if that makes sense. They need to know where to find the good information, the good concept demonstrations, and to advise and help students when they need to do stuff with it.
    To give you a (possibly horrible) example, I thoroughly enjoyed doing the course T151 (!) Don’t remember me as a student? That’s because I technically wasn’t. But I did go through most of the material and thoroughly enjoyed re-creating some of the classic C64 games from my childhood (which mostly ended up looking like zx81 games, and didn’t play very well).
    So that’s the danger with having a more nebulous course – you have to have some rock hard discipline. I missed out on the most important part of that course – the design and feedback community, hence ending up with games that looked like ASCII art. I didn’t go through the structure of the course, building the bits up slowly. And I didn’t get my ‘Evil Genius’ game finished because I ran out of self-discipline.
    But maybe that doesn’t matter. I could also list what I did get out of it: both my sons can now create games using GameMaker, I learned that ‘things’ in the big games I play exist in little games (important concept btw), and I make regular use of the sprites from GameMaker in Elluminate sessions with my students (really – give it a try. Chess, draughts, design your own board game).
    What you didn’t get, was any recognition or reward for this (I feel quite guilty now…). As recent events have shown, those who get benefit from what you do, do not necessarily have an effect on those who *officially* recognise what you do. So I will need to send some beer tokens :D
    Sorry – starting to ramble now, been snowed in for 6 days.
    I *think* what I’m trying to say is that I get the new ‘shapes’ of eduction online, but still also recognise some of the good things about traditional education. Making sure we get all the good bits will be difficult, but solvable – if (and only if) there is the will to do it (i.e. financial or other incentive…).

    1. Hi Derek

      Thanks for your comments/thoughts… The T151 example is a really interesting one. The course was originally drafted as a ‘live uncourse’ at on the Digital Worlds blog and was in part a documentation of my own learning pathway through the basic elements of game design. The open structure of the course as presented was an exploration of how we could mesh community and resources in a certain amount of scaffolding. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve quite got the community bit right, but that seems to be an issue with other online open courses (such as the PLENK2010 experiment by Siemens, Downes et al earlier this year.

      That your take home from the course was a couple of really good insights, some practical skills and family involvement is, for me, a win. I’ve long thought that education’s job is, in part, to do itself out of a job – that is, if we can help folk learn to learn for themselves in unstructured environments as and when the need or opportunity arises, we’ve done the equivalent of ‘teaching a man to fish’.

      As to the unstructured/open course model, I think we don’t know (yet) how to make the most of networked ways of learning to help provide structure and as you say, discipline, but I do think that it is something worth exploring. One thing we’re going to pitch next year is a container course that could be used to wrap open courses so it’ll be interesting to see: a) if we can get approval for it; b) get anyone to take it up!

      Of course, there are many cases where a formal course model with a single, strong narrative line through a curriculum is useful; but there are plenty of educators doing that, doing it well, and doing it at a distance, at scale, and in a quality controlled way… But 40 years ago, when the OU was just starting out, I think there was a certain amount of just making up from scratch the things we have now set in stone…;-) But 40 years ago, we didn’t have the internet, the web, the portable networked devices and the socially fragmented attention we have now.

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