To what extent is education a digital product?

This is an obvious, even old-fashioned question. I was thinking about it the other day, and I realised that not only is it actually the question I’ve been answering on this blog for the past 8 years or so, it is the key question for education. Having been to numerous ed tech conferences, it is also the overarching question each of them is really addressing.

The “to what extent” is the important element, because that doesn’t mean “it is”. The answer can be “not at all”, “some bits” or “completely”, depending on your perspective. If you look at many ed tech developments, and the reactions to them, they can be boiled down to different interpretations of this question. MOOCs are an obvious example, for the MOOC hypers, Clay Shirky, Thrun, et al, the answer to this question was pretty near 100%. For many MOOC critics, the answer would be nearer 0% (education isn’t a product, and the components you can make digital are the least important).

You could take issue with the “product” part, and can replace that with “service”, and you could make a case against the underlying neoliberalism inherent in the question. But I would contend that even if this is the case, then being able to defend and articulate a position against this question is what you will be doing for much of the next decade, because this is the question everyone else is implicitly, or explicitly, seeking to answer.

If you have a new Vice Chancellor, boss, colleague or whatever, I would suggest that asking them this one question might be quite illuminating. And more importantly, ask the question of yourself. As for me, I think it’s…



  • tjhunt

    I am reminded of this parallel:

    Gym membership is a service/product people sell. A healthy life-style is what everyone wants/should have. How many gym memberships lapse unused? Conversely, from your Twitter stream I know that you stay healthy by going out for runs for free, only occasionally paying to enter races.

    So, university or other courses, and life-long learning …

  • reedp

    Hi Martin,

    Thoughtful question.
    I guess as I think about it, I come to some reasonably obvious questions:

    How are you defining education? Of course we could class a series of Youtube tutorials as a digital product of informal learning, and ultimately, digital education. So the answer is ‘up to 100%’.

    Probably more philosophical – Is education something that is ‘done to us’, akin to the way in which Neo learns martial arts in the Matrix? If so, then yes education can be a digital product. But depending on your espoused teaching and learning philosophy, you could argue the real ‘education’ takes place not in the reading of a book or the watching of a video, but in the cognitive processes and/or the social connections that form new understanding/meaning/knowledge. In which case, education cannot be a digital product because it lies in these analogue external phenomena. I think.

    I really shouldn’t read your posts on a Sunday evening….

    “This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth, nothing more.” (Morpheus, 1999)

    • admin

      Hi Peter, thanks for the comment. I guess I mean “the education industry” (or sector, or whatever), rather than individual learning. So to what extent can the components of that sector be “digitised”? And what is there that remains distinct?

  • Mark Smithers (@marksmithers)

    Isn’t it just a question of how this product or service (if you want to use those terms) is mediated? Thirty years ago you might have asked to what extent education is a classroom product? In reality education happens everywhere. If we try and constrain it to a location or delivery method then we’re probably heading down the wrong track.

    • admin

      Hi Mark, I think it’s a bit more than that. ie you could say the same about the music industry but the implications were immense. So I guess what I’m asking is what elements of education can be digitised to the extent that people aren’t required? All of it? None of it? These bits, but not these bits?

  • Jon Harman

    I can see how education gets commodotised, it’s history seems to always follow those narratives and I banged my head against a brick wall every time colleagues talked about our market, product and units in the University. So I’ve come to accept education products, but I feel different about learning. This may be semantic, but I feel learning is the purer element that I seek not to be capitalised and framed in these ways, yet the corp training world has hijacked the word without understanding it’s meaning. Now I’m rambling…..

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