“Student for Life” – A Lifelong Learning Relationship With Your University… Or Linked In?

I’ve posted several times over the years wondering why universities don’t try to reimagine themselves as see undergrad degrees as the starting point for a lifelong relationship as an educational service provider with their first-degree alumni.

A paragraph in an recent Educause Review article Data, Technology, and the Great Unbundling of Higher Education (via @Downes [commentary]) caught my eye this morning:

In an era of unbundling, when colleges and universities need to move from selling degrees to selling EaaS subscriptions, the winners will be those that can turn their students into “students for life” — providing the right educational programs and experiences at the right time.

On a quick read, there’s a lot in the article I don’t like, even though it sounds eminently reasonable, positing a competency based “full-stack model to higher education” in which providers will (1) develop and deliver specific high-quality educational experiences that produce graduates with capabilities that specific employers desperately want; (2) work with students to solve financing problems; and (3) connect students with employers during and following the educational experience and make sure students get a job.

The disruption that HE faces, then, is not one about course delivery, but rather one about life-as-career management?

What if … the software that will disrupt higher education isn’t courseware at all? What if the software is, instead, an online marketplace? Uber (market cap $40 billion) owns no vehicles. Airbnb (market cap $10 billion) owns no hotel rooms. What they do have are marketplaces with consumer-friendly interfaces. By positioning their interfaces between millions of consumers and sophisticated supply systems, Uber and Airbnb have significantly changed consumer behavior and disrupted these supply systems.

Is there a similar marketplace in the higher education arena? There is, and it has 40 million college students and recent graduates on its platform. It is called LinkedIn.

Competency marketplaces will profile the competencies (or capabilities) of students and job seekers, allow them to identify the requirements of employers, evaluate the gap, and follow the educational path that gets them to their destination quickly and cost-effectively. Although this may sound like science fiction, the gap between the demands of labor markets and the outputs of our educational system is both a complex sociopolitical challenge and a data problem that software, like LinkedIn, is in the process of solving. …

(I’m not sure if I don’t like the article because I disagree with it, or because it imagines a future that is one that I’d rather not see play out: the idea that learners don’t develop a longstanding relationship with a particular university, and consequently miss out on the social and cultural memories and relationships that develop therein, but instead taking occasional offerings from a wide a variety of providers and instead having their long term relationship with someone like LinkedIn, feels like something will be lost to me. Martin Weller captures some of it, I think, in his reflection yesterday on Product and process in higher ed in terms of how the “who knows?!” answer to the “what job are you going to do with that?” question about a particular degree becomes a nonsense answer, because the point of the degree has become just that: getting a particular job. Rather than taking a degree to widen your options, the degree becomes one of narrowing them down?! Maybe the first degree should be about setting yourself up to becoming a specialist over the course of occasional and extended education over a lifetime? UPDATE: related, this quote from an article on the “death of Twitter”: When a technology is used to shrink people’s possibilities, more than to expand them, it cannot create value for them. And so people will simply tune it out, ignore it, walk away from it if they can. In the sense that universities are a technology… hmmm…)

Furthermore, I get twitchy about this being another example of a situation where it’s tradable personal data that’s the valuable bargaining chip:

To avoid marginalization, colleges and universities need to insist that individuals own their competencies. Ensuring that ownership lies with the individual could make the competency profile portable and could facilitate movement across marketplaces, as well as to higher education institutions.

(As for how competencies are recognised, and fraud avoided in terms of folk claiming a competency that hasn’t be formally qualified, I’ve pondered this before, eg in the context of Time to build trust with an open achievements API?, or this idea for a Qualification Verification Service. It seems to me that universities don’t see it as their business proving that folk have the qualifications or certificates they’ve been awarded – which presumably means that if it does become yet another part of the EaaS marketplace, it’ll be purely corporate commercial interests that manage it.)

We’ll see….


  1. benthamfish

    Re your last sentence: I agree – evidenced by the comparatively slow take up of HEDD in the sector, as well as some ambivalence about the HEAR, European Diploma Supplement and EuroPass.

    • Tony Hirst

      @martin I wonder if there are different strategies for different subject areas? eg an IT or engineering degree as eg a 2-1-1-1 offering where you do basic academic and skills stuff in first two years, have a year out on placement 0.8FTE but with a couple of theory courses while you’re there as 0.2FTE distance ed student, then come back in final year for theory top up, contextualised by seeing how the world works and why theoretical basis can sometimes help you make better sense of world, or better decisions about it?

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