Platforms for education and learning

A digital platform is in many ways the ideal tool to manage inflow, storage and outflow of knowledge. Data, information, news, knowledge and other types of content can be produced and collected on a platform. A platform also serves as a mediator and broker of these contents, providing access and enabling algorithmic or collaborative means to process it. Furthermore, a platform provides an interface for absorbing knowledge, i.e. to learn, study and be informed.

In this signal post we will have a look at some examples of platform economy entering the world of education and learning. The two topics under analysis are: (1) e-learning platforms in formal education and (2) online education resources and degrees.

E-learning platforms in formal education

Online platforms have been adopted in formal education on levels. Schools and universities manage their curriculum, learning materials, assignments, distance education, etc. in platforms. These e-learning platforms help the educational establishments and teachers to organise their work as well as the students to organise theirs. In a way, you could think of the platform being the teachers’ room, classroom and personal study space in one. Online environment additionally facilitates collaboration, for example between students in projects or between teachers, students and parents. E-learning platforms have replaced some of the previously ‘manual’ functions, but they have also provided completely new opportunities. In the big picture, they do nevertheless support and complement traditional classroom-type formal education rather than fully replace it.

One of the best known e-learning platforms is Moodle. It belongs to the tradition of open source software, and it is popular all over the world. The key traits of the system include the opportunity to scale, adapt and modify it and the flexibility to create personalised learning environments under one umbrella.

Online education resources and degrees

Another type of application of the platform economy is the fully online education and learning platforms such as Khan Academy (free online learning resource) and Udacity (free online classes and commercial nanodegrees). Suchlike platforms can provide programs similar to those by formal educational institutions or smaller study entities for vocational or personal learning. Online education resources and degrees are typically open for all, enabling worldwide attendance, and targeting mainly adults. Some function as free non-profit initiatives while others are run as profitable businesses, much like open universities and municipal or commercial education centres.

For example, Khan Academy provides a free, no-ad online education platform that partners with respected institutions such as NASA and MIT. The offering stretches from kindergarten level to science and programming.  Udacity, on the other hand, has developed a so-called online nanodegree program product, where industry leaders and expert instructors offer a personalised learning experience. These intensive programs of 6-12 months even guarantee the graduates to land a job within six months of graduation or their tuition is refunded.

Things to keep an eye on

While the platform economy is employing digitalisation to make education and learning more efficient and accessible, there are also factors of uncertainty and risk. One question of uncertainty is what will be the future balance of formal and informal education. New types of education platforms may in fact have a significant role as the timely provider of new skills and competences required at different career stages. Another issue is the risks involved in the online environment, where it is difficult to verify quality or address ethical and cultural aspects of the vast flow of new information and new services.

Regarding advanced technologies linked to the platform economy, such as blockchain and artificial intelligence (AI), the education sector among others is likely to be affected. For example, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre’s (JRC) recently published a study on blockchain in education, and the report describes promising opportunities to involve blockchain technologies in student information systems and granting or verifying certificates, etc. And according to cloud platform company Tokbox, AI may further transform the education experience by bringing along for example smart content, intelligent tutoring systems, 3D environments and universal online learning.

Selected articles and websites

Grech, A. and Camilleri, A. F. (2017). Blockchain in Education. Inamorato dos Santos, A. (ed.)
Liu, H. Men and J. Han (2009). Comparative Study of Open-Source E-Learning Management Platform. 2009 International Conference on Computational Intelligence and Software Engineering, Wuhan, pp. 1-4
Khan Academy: A personalized learning resource for all ages
Moodle: Moodle learning platform
TokBox: The Edge of Automation: Artificial Intelligence in Education
Udacity: Free online classes and Nanodegrees

Heidi Auvinen

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
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