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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Finland’s master plan for platform economy

A couple of weeks ago (October 2017) the Prime Minister’s Office, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment and Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation Tekes published the national roadmap for digital platform economy for Finland. The first half of the report paints the present picture of the platform economy as a global phenomenon and Finland’s position in it.  The second half drills into the national future aspirations for success and growth and introduces a vision and roadmap for Finland. Furthermore, an atlas of ten sector-specific roadmaps is presented and an action plan to fulfil the vision is outlined.

Top-down meets bottom-up

Finland is a pioneer in launching such a comprehensive national vision, roadmap and implementation plan for digital platform economy. Germany, Japan, Singapore and even the EU have touched upon the topic in their industrial or STI (science, technology and innovation) policies, but not with such focused dedication as Finland. The Finnish strategy is to harness platform economy as an enabling tool that has potential to generate growth for businesses as well as enhance productivity of the entire society. A key element of the vision is to develop national competitive edge out of the platform economy.

But why the choice of national and collective approach, when the leading platforms (from the US) have typically emerged as market-based business innovations? The Finnish initiative seems to embrace the platform economy as a wider phenomenon that covers the potential for value creation and capture not just for companies but for citizens and the state alike. Platform ecosystems therefore extend to all actors in the society, and governmental institutions can step up to take active part. According to the report, the foreseen role of public sector includes for example:

  • facilitating society-wide dialogue and aligned national vision
  • implementing a competitiveness partnership between public and private sectors
  • strengthening the development and business environment for platforms
  • developing the knowledge base, resources and tools
  • showing example by open public data and platforms launched by the public sector
  • other enabling support such as regulative measures.

In short, the Finnish hypothesis for how to accelerate and benefit from the platform economy is to activate both the bottom-up (innovators, businesses, individuals, etc.) and top-down (governments, authorities, regulators, etc.) stakeholders. No getting stuck in the chicken-and-egg dilemma, but getting started on all levels and in a nationwide public-private-partnership.

Other interesting messages

Strengthening of the knowledge base and education to support skills in the platform economy has received a lot of attention in the Finnish roadmap report. This covers both formal education as well as further training along the career path. What is especially highlighted is software design skills, but what about entrepreneurial mindset, data-driven innovativeness and cross-sectoral service thinking?

The value of data and the vast potential for its usage is also emphasized in the report. Data economy as a concept is being mentioned, and especially the role of the public sector is explored in terms of developing rules, providing common technical specifications as well as showing the way with public data resources.

Selected articles and websites

National roadmap report: Digitaalisen alustatalouden tiekartasto
Videos from the launching event (October 23, 2017): Suomi ja tekoäly alustatalouden aikakaudella
Further information: Suomi ja tekoäly alustatalouden aikakaudella

Heidi Auvinen

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
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Demographic factors in the platform economy: Age

Intuitively thinking online platforms seem to be all about empowerment, hands-on innovation and equal opportunities. In the digital world, anyone can become an entrepreneur, transform ideas into business and, on the other hand, benefit from innovations, products and services provided by others. But how accessible is the platform economy for people of different age? And how evenly are the opportunities and created value distributed? Some fear that platforms are only for the young and enabling the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.

In this signal post, we discuss age in the context of the platform economy. In future postings, we will explore other factors such as gender and educational background.

Why is this important?

When it comes to ICT (Information and Communication Technology) skills and adoption, the young typically are forerunners. For example, social media platforms were in the beginning almost exclusively populated by young adults. But studies show that older generations do follow, and at the moment there is little difference in the percentage of adults in their twenties or thirties using social media in the US. And those in their fifties are not too far behind either!

Along with the megatrend of aging, it makes sense that not only the young but also the middle-aged and above are taking an active part in the platform economy. Some platform companies already acknowledge this, and tailored offering and campaigns to attract older generations have been launched for example in the US. In Australia, the growing number of baby boomers and pre-retirees in the sharing economy platforms, such as online marketplaces and ride-sourcing, has been notable. Explanatory factors include the fact that regulation and transparency around platform business have matured and sense of trust has been boosted.

One peculiar thing to be taken into account is that many platforms actually benefit from attracting diverse user segments, also in terms of age. This shows especially in peer-to-peer sharing platforms. The user population of a platform is typically heavy with millennials, who are less likely to own expensive assets such as cars or real estate. Instead, their values and financial situations favour access to ownership. But the peer-to-peer economy cannot function with only demand, so also supply is needed. It is often the older population that owns the sought-after assets, and they are growingly willing to join sharing platforms. Fascinating statistics are available, for example, of Uber. As much as 65% of Uber users are aged under 35, and less than 10% have passed their 45th birthday. The demographics of Uber drivers tell a different story: adults in their thirties cover no more than 30%, and those aged 40 or more represent half of all drivers. In a nutshell, this means that the older generation provides the service and their offspring uses it.

Things to keep an eye on

In the future, we expect to see more statistics and analysis on user and producer populations of different types of platforms. These will show what demographic segments are attracted by which applications of the platform economy as well as which age groups are possibly missing. The information will help platforms to improve and develop but also address distortion, hindrances and barriers.

It may also be of interest to the public sector to design stronger measures in support of promoting productive and fair participation in the platform economy for people of all ages. Clear and straightforward regulation and other frameworks will be important to build trust and establish common rules.

Selected articles and websites

GlobalWebIndex: The Demographics of Uber’s US Users
Growthology: Millennials and the Platform Economy
Harvard Business Review: The On-Demand Economy Is Growing, and Not Just for the Young and Wealthy
INTHEBLACK: The surprising demographic capitalising on the sharing economy
Pew Research Center: Social Media Fact Sheet
Pipes to platforms: How Digital Platforms Increase Inequality
Uber: The Driver Roadmap

Heidi Auvinen

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
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Social impacts of the platform economy

Platforms create value well beyond economic profits, and the topic of social and societal impacts resulting from the emerging platform economy has been getting more and more attention lately. Platform economy undoubtedly has both positive and negative impacts on individuals and families as well as wider communities and entire societies. However, the range and depth of these impacts can only be speculated, as only very early evidence and research on the topic has been produced. After all, the platform economy is only in its infancy.

Why is this important?

Platforms have potential to address major societal challenges such as those connected to health, transport, demographics, resource efficiency and security. They could massively improve our individual daily lives as well as contribute to equal opportunities and progress in developing economies. On the other hand, platform economy can result in negative impacts in the form of disruptions and new threats. Privacy and safety concerns have deservedly been acknowledged, and other possible risks include those related to social exclusion, discrimination and the ability of policies and regulations to manage with whatever platform economy may bring about.

Some examples of positive and negative social impact categories of the platform economy include the following, which may distribute equally, create further division or bridge the gap among various social segments:

  • employment and unemployment
  • livelihood and wealth
  • education and training
  • skills, knowledge and competences
  • health and physical wellbeing
  • mental health and wellbeing
  • privacy, safety and security
  • social inclusion or exclusion, access to services, etc.
  • new social ties and networks, social mixing
  • social interaction and communication: families, communities, etc.
  • behaviour and daily routines
  • living, accommodation and habitat
  • personal identity and empowerment
  • equality, equity and equal opportunities or discrimination
  • citizen participation, democracy
  • sufficiency or lack of political and regulatory frameworks.

Platforms may have very different impacts on different social groups, for example, based on age, gender, religion, ethnicity and nationality. Socioeconomic status, i.e. income, education and occupation, may also play an important role in determining what the impacts are, although it is also possible that platform economy balances out the significance of suchlike factors. One important aspect requiring special attention is how to make sure that vulnerable groups, such as the elderly or those with disabilities or suffering from poverty, can be included to benefit from the platform economy.

Things to keep an eye on

Value captured and created by platforms is at the core of our Platform Value Now (PVN) project, and there are several other on-going research strands addressing social and societal impacts of the platform economy. One key topic will be to analyse and assess impacts of the already established platform companies and initiatives, which necessitates opening the data for research purposes. To better understand the impacts and how they may develop as platform economy matures is of upmost importance to support positive progress and to enable steering, governance and regulatory measures to prevent and mitigate negative impacts.

Selected articles and websites

Koen Frenken, Juliet Schor, Putting the sharing economy into perspective, Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, (2017)
The Rise of the Platform Economy
Uber and the economic impact of sharing economy platforms
VTT Blog: Openness is the key to the platform economy
SUSY project: Solidarity economy

Heidi Auvinen

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
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Skills for platform economy

Why is this important?

Platform economy requires a new set of skills. Understanding the big picture, interpreting information in the right context, networking and collaborating with people with diverse backgrounds in growing in importance. In addition, while being able to code and understand code is needed, it is more important to understand the consequences of digitalization and have the competence to design platforms that benefit the society.

Things to keep an eye on

The shift in skills needed may easily lead to growing inequalities between different regions but also between the old and young. Learning new skills related to platforms is not just for young students, but also for those in work life. In addition, platform thinking is not disrupting all industries at once, so there are differences between different fields. Educational platforms also challenge existing educational institutions.

Selected articles and websites

Design It Like Our Livelihoods Depend on It: 8 Principles for creating on-demand platforms for better work futures
Learning is earning in the national learning economy
The 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Mikko Dufva

Research Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
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