Yesterday, I attended Martin Weller’s presentation on SocialLearn, hosted by George Siemens, with the recording now available online. SocialLearn is a project of The Open University and takes Weinberger’s concept of small pieces loosely joined and applies it to higher education. I wrote about Small (learning) pieces loosely joined three ago and have long been a proponent of getting outside the LMS box set of constraints. In the case of SocialLearn, I think that they have the right concept for social learning on the Web and now have to clarify their own business model (yes, even universities must have business models).

The basic model is to provide the interface (API) that enables learners to connect with other systems and platforms. This strategy allows the “connector agency”, in this case the university, to quickly adopt new applications as they are used by students and teachers. Check out the diagrams on the SocialLearn blog for examples.

I see this approach as enabling critical thinking tools for each learner, as the situation warrants, and I strongly support this model.

Changing the role of The Open University from main content and application provider to a more facilitative role, with constantly changing technologies, will require a new business model and that is what Martin and his peers are looking at. The real money in higher education has almost always been around certification. That’s why Harvard can charge more, because Harvard certification is worth more on the market. Universities charge more than community colleges and for the most part, on-line degrees aren’t valued as much in-place ones. Certification, or how many degrees are granted, also drives the funding model for many state-subsidized institutions. Control the valued certification and you control the money flow. Just remember that the market may change its mind on what is valued.

Here is an excerpt from a proposal that Rob Paterson and I wrote this year:

Organizations that are decisively moving to the web are doing well. For example, iTunes is the second largest music store in the world, and the BBC have so much action online now, that some ISP’s in the UK are having bandwidth problems. NPR in the US is decisively moving to the Web and has a number of pilots out in the market and tools in development. Organisations that only partially moved to the open Web are doing less well – Barnes & Noble is really a bookstore with a web presence that fears that if its web presence was successful it would damage its store business.  The New York Times has the same issue. It has more web subscribers than paper subscribers but all its costs are tied into the paper. The music business tried to stop downloading and to hold onto bundling where its main revenues were derived. But in working to protect its current model it killed its future.

This is the problem. In this revolution, the old model is where the current revenues are located. Going to the new has to threaten this model. So leaders in the old hesitate or act half heartedly. They cannot put the new inside the old.

The answer to this paradox is to locate the new in a separate unit and to go after customers who are not served by the current model. This way you can hold onto the value of your existing franchise for as long as possible while building up the new in parallel.

Perhaps the best way for SocialLearn to go forward is to create a completely new playing field for the millions of non-consumers of higher education and become the de facto leader in a new space, much as the OU did in the 1960’s. It will be interesting to see if there is room for several players in this space and who else is moving into it.

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