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A case against closed ecosystems for online learning

A case against closed ecosystems for online learning

Most online courses behave like intranet sites that are accessible without a VPN. For example, if you’re not an Udemy user, you can’t do much on the site, even if the course you are interested in is free. Against the backdrop of an increasingly open Internet, is this the right way to democratise online learning?

Over the last few years, Twitter has rapidly risen to prominence in any journalists’ reporting toolkit. Journalists are more likely to use tweets in their reports, especially if they can use them as news sources or quote them.

In embedding tweets from Twitter, journalists engage in a unique form of quoting that gives them access to real-time statistics such as likes and retweets. It also offers substantial other levels of potentially newsworthy information, such as the level of public support or decry for the tweet, along with the amount of debate it has stimulated.

As expected, this has opened the door for strategic “persons of influence” to influence the media’s agenda by crafting quotable tweets. Recent studies suggest that coverage of Trump’s tweets during the 2016 US election cycle generated billions of dollars of free media advertising. Insiders to the campaign even credited Twitter as “one reason we won this thing”.

Nonetheless, this does not detract from the point we want to make.

Tweets, as they stand, are an atomised unit of the Internet. Tweets are embeddable and can go anywhere on the Internet. They can contain video, photos and audio. Simply defining a tweet as “280 characters” barely scratches the surface.

We can make the argument that Twitter is a public service. The company thrives on the following mantra: “the more information is public, the more new tools can attach themselves to that system and improve it, either by making it easier to add information or find it”.

Unfortunately, most online courses currently exist in silos and lack the embeddable nature of tweets.

It is not always entirely the instructor’s fault. Online courses might not be embeddable because of technical limitations that are beyond an instructor’s control. It might be a constraint at a platform level.

In our view, adding content to a private, walled garden is reminiscent of the old-world AOL ideology.

How did that end? Not well.

Faced with competition from the open Internet, AOL lost. In competitive markets, “open and messy” always trumps “closed and controlled”. AOL running a service with closed interfaces was no match for the wild frontier of the Internet.

Let’s clear something up before proceeding.

Being able to embed a YouTube video of your Python course on several websites is a relatively small step forward. A 0-1 moment looks like being able to share online courses across multiple platforms with minimal friction, providing learners with:

  • Self-contained experiences with limited interactivity that continue indefinitely, which can act as a funnel to a more comprehensive learning opportunity (free or paid);
  • Chances to amplify the content, either by embedding it onto a personal website or sharing it on a social media platform; and
  • Access to user-generated interactions that a wide range of individuals would have contributed to over some time to give a sense of ongoing presence.

Why haven’t we done this yet?

Well, there is an issue of standards, specifically if someone builds this as a protocol. Instructors wanting to migrate their learning content to this open infrastructure might also need access to a validation platform that gives their online course a “readiness for sharing” rating.

But this doesn’t stop us from making a strong case against closed ecosystems for online learning.

The number of things to see and do on the Internet vastly outnumbers the number of things you can see and do on a closed platform by several orders of magnitude - and always will.

Isn’t it about time that our online learning experiences opened up to embrace the open web?


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