The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) last week published an article on the possibility of Facebook, Google and other tech companies offering degrees in the UK. Not as outlandish as you might expect, because the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills white paper Success as a Knowledge Economy sets out plans to “make it quicker and easier for new high quality challenger institutions to enter the [higher education] market and award their own degrees”. THES suggests media reports claim that companies such as Facebook might like to enter this market, although when asked to comment Facebook declined.
Despite being the world’s biggest social media network, Facebook never really struck me as a platform for education. That doesn’t mean that the company’s founder Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t been thinking about it. I found an article he wrote last year introducing a Facebook side project to develop a Personalized Learning Platform in partnership with Summit Public Schools. Granted, K12 in the US is a world away from HE in the UK, but in terms of an underpinning technology platform? Maybe not so far away. At least one major provider of online courses, Futurelearn, sees that the future of online learning at scale is social.
In a timely related piece last week, the Economist reported on some of the concerns and challenges around regulating big international technology platforms including Google and Facebook. A platform provider typically connects consumers with services, and services with other services. The specific content and services on offer, however, are selected, and so reflect the value proposition of the platform provider. A couple of weeks ago there’s was a minor flap when it was alleged that Facebook censors its news feed to present a biased political view. Odd that anyone should be surprised, as some believe that all media are biased, one way or another, even if they claim that they are not.
Could Facebook and others enter the UK HE market, and if they did would it be so bad, or any different to what’s currently on offer in HE? The precedent has already been set, as Pearson PLC, a FTSE 100 company, already offers degrees through Pearson College London. In the words of HM Government’s white paper, “Competition between providers in any market incentivises them to raise their game, offering consumers a greater choice of more innovative and better quality products and services at lower cost. Higher education is no exception.” I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.