HOW THESE THREE BIG PLAYERS ARE CHANGING THE HIGHER EDUCATION LANDSCAPE
In the same week that Amazon acquired an e-learning company and announced that it intended to strengthen the value of its Kindle device by offering e-learning for schools, colleges and universities, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) became the largest company in the world by revenue. Google offers education supports from a free version of office products, through thousands of applications which run on any device to the devices themselves. And then there is Apple, which dominates the mobile device market and is extensively engaged in supporting open educational resources (OER) for learning through iTunes University.
Three questions come to mind when considering these developments:
- What are the plans and strategic intentions of these companies?
- How disruptive might they be?
- Will their growth and development change the post-secondary landscape?
When it comes to learning, Amazon is just getting started.
Amazon is a disrupter. It began by disrupting the book business – offering a vast catalogue of books and a quality service. Initially, this focused on print books delivered to homes, but Amazon quickly responded to the emergence of mobile devices – tablets and smartphones – and built a powerful business delivering books and other reading materials directly to hand-held devices. Its strategy was simple: every book in the world could be available and it would make money on volume sales, enabling it to support the “long tail” of books, some of which would rarely be purchased. By 2014, Amazon had 35 times the market share of Canadian bookseller Chapters Indigo.
From books it soon moved into electrical goods, baggage and other items. In 2013, it offered an online grocery store for Canada and seeks further opportunities for growth. More recently it has opened a pet store, an automotive store and a toys and games store.
It is also disrupting television and film industry. Mirroring developments at Netflix, Amazon is acquiring exclusive programming for Amazon Prime. Such programs as Golden Globe winner Mozart in The Jungle or the new Top Gear can only be seen by Amazon Prime subscribers. At the recent Sundance Film festival, Amazon Prime made several distribution deals, including exclusives for six films, such Love and Friendship and Manchester by the Sea. Given its enormous financial resources, Amazon is not afraid to spend its way into new markets and opportunities, especially if it can see a long-term, disruptive opportunity.
When it comes to learning, Amazon is just getting started. It began with the obvious – finding ways to leverage its book business. Purdue University’s storefront with Amazon went live in 2014 as a “co-branded experience” for the rental and sales of textbooks and other school supplies. There is an Amazon webpage which serves as Purdue’s storefront, and there is a significant Amazon presence within the campus bookstore. It’s hard to miss, with Amazon-staffed service centres and the yellow, very large Amazon storage lockers where students can drop off and pick up textbooks.
More recently, Amazon has acquired: (a) the video solutions company Elemental Solutions, which enables video to be appropriately displayed on any screen of any size; (b) a rapid language translation company Safaba, enabling it to translate a variety of media quickly and efficiently; and (c) Ten-Marks – a math e-learning company which aims to make its products and services available on the Kindle. The armory for Amazon’s move into e-learning is being assembled. What it is looking to do is leverage its Kindle mobile device and its expertise in e-commerce to disrupt the dominance of current players in e-learning.
Amazon does have other things to offer educational institutions, such as its Web and Cloud Services or partnerships aimed at continuous learning for its substantial world-wide workforce where it pays up to 95% of the costs of programs. It is also pioneering the use of competency-based badges, using the Mozilla Protocols, to certify the skills of its employees. But it has a long way to go. It will take time and a commitment of significant capital to dent this $55 billion market.
Google is already a major player in learning.
Google is already a major player in learning. Its Chromebook dominates the low-cost device market for laptops, its Office-like applications (Google docs, slides, drawings, sheets, forms, translate, keep, books and hangouts) are widely used by learners and Google owned YouTube is the video finding and viewing system of choice for a great many schools, colleges and universities. Google Drive is also being used to store and share lessons, learning resources and materials.
In 2014, Google offered teachers and instructional designers a free to use, “stripped down” learning management system (LMS), known as Google Classroom. Like most LMS systems, this product enables instructors to grade student assignments, provide real-time feedback on student work, announcements and a variety of ways of commenting on student progress. While most do not see this as a product that effectively competes with existing LMS systems, such as Desire2Learn, Moodle or Blackboard, it does enable individual instructors to “get up and running” quickly.
- “Here at Google we’re committed to bringing the best of technology to education. We’re investing heavily in Chromebooks and you can expect to see many new Chromebooks created for you in education. You’ll also see new management features for administrators, interactive educator support in our new Training Center and pioneering Chrome tools, like this year’s Share to Classroom extension. And we’ll continue to bring Google innovations to the classroom as we did in September with the Expeditions Pioneer Program — already more than 100,000 students have taken virtual field trips to places like the Great Wall of China and Chichen Itza using Google Cardboard and a phone.
- Giving back to education is important to us. Along with offering the GAFE suite and unlimited Drive storage at no cost to schools. This year we contributed more than $50 million, including more than $14M to education non-profits, $1.3M in scholarships and $21.7M funding new research. With programs like Google Science Fair, Made with Code, CS First and Doodle4Google, we’re working to inspire and encourage young people to solve tomorrow’s problems through curiosity, creativity and code”.
They are not seeking to be a disrupter, more of an agency organization providing the tools teachers and learners seek for effective blended and online learning.
Apple is already a disrupter.
Apple is already a disrupter with a long history of engagement with schools, colleges and universities. Their devices – smartphones, tablets and computers – can be found in schools and in the hands of a great many learners. Their app store is full of educational apps, particularly geared for younger learners and iTunes University is full of open education and pay-for resources from full courses to learning materials, video and audio for learning.
Since its 2007 inception, iTunes U has morphed from its sole university focus into a much more inclusive database with resources for primary and secondary school students and instructors. Apple has been heavily pushing classroom iPad learning initiatives for a variety of curriculum initiatives, encouraging teachers to use the iTunes U platform to integrate technology into the classroom.
An instructor can create a course on iTunes U using the course manager, which now works on iPad as well. Within the course manager, there are two different types of courses an instructor can create: in-session and self-paced. In-session courses are taught in real time with calendar-based posts and assignments. Instructors provide specific start and end dates for the course. Self-paced courses allow students to begin and end a course at any time. Instructors provide a course outline and a suggested duration for the course, but it is up to the student to take the initiative to get it done.
Credit is not yet available for iTunes U courses. However, as more professions and educational institutions move away from courses to competency-based learning where assessment is independent of the way in which a student acquires knowledge and skills, iTunes U can only grow in value and importance.
Towards more public-private partnerships in higher education?
All three of these firms are engaged in education directly and indirectly. They are seeking alliances and partnerships rather than replacing the existing infrastructure or institutions. Each brings a different value proposition: for Google, it is a delivery and support platform; for Apple it is the same plus a great deal of highly valuable content; and for Amazon, it is too soon to know just how they will play in the marketplace, but play they will.
College and university planners and public policy makers could start actively explore potential public-private partnerships with these companies to make quality learning more accessible, more affordable and more likely to lead to success.