e-learning,  Long tail,  web 2.0

New university model

I was at a meeting yesterday hosted by the OU which was exploring new models for the OU, and by implication higher education in general. There were some big hitters there including Stephen Heppell, Stowe Boyd, Jamais Cascio and Stuart Sim.

The resulting suggestion was a social space, with the emphasis on helping others to learn. Such a space is populated by remixable, flexible content and also by learning narratives that guide learners and a range of social connections such as mentors, peers, experts, etc. None of this is particularly surprising given the people there – the solution wasn’t going to be a physical campus with lectures now was it.

The critical mass issue was significant for me. Such a system is very long tail – it meets the needs of the few people who want to learn about Ukrainian knitting patterns, radio programmes of the 1950s, the novels of William Boyd and the influence of Krazy Kat cartoons on modern culture. This is good, because such needs aren’t met in any current system, but it really needs a large mass to support. And this is where the Catch 22 is – if you have the critical mass the system works well, but the system doesn’t function until you get the critical mass. Sites such as YouTube could afford to be a bit more experimental, and just let their system grow since the investment on the part of the user was small. They could also populate it reasonably quickly with a mass of music videos. Learning is more complex, and thus getting the good content and the right connections is more difficult to establish.

Also, although the social networking stuff is important, I think the significance of content is underplayed in such a vision (I even got to use my ‘content may not be everything’ jibe I mentioned yesterday). For a lot of social networking sites, such as LastFM people don’t go there primarily for the social networking, what they go for is the content (ie to be able to listen to a good range of music). This is enhanced (and to some extent enabled) by the network effects. In short they go for the content and stay for the social networking.

Anyway, I noticed a strange thing happening during the meeting. Normally my role is to be web 2.0/elearning/new technology evangelist, but in a room where I was an amateur at the evangelism stuff, I took on the ‘devils advocate’ role. Sometimes to my horror I found myself offering obstacles to the realisation of such a system. Why does this happen? So just for the record, I do believe such a system is viable (I just have a list of ‘buts’).


  • Stephen Heppell

    Thanks – useful comments (and I chuckled at the “in a room where I was an amateur at the evangelism stuff, I took on the ‘devils advocate’ role” – partly because I’m not really sure any of us are much good at evengelism to be honest – but we do have good track records of making effective, large scale social spaces work. It is curious really that learning doesn’t properly have such a space – and interesting to see people trying hard to build learning into YouTube, MyArtSpace (even WebCT lol) etc etc.
    I’m excited about the progress we made – very very faithful to the original, radical, OU philosophy, but very 21st century too; driving past Walton hall I’m sure i could see the ghoost of Jennie Lee dncing on the (old) library roof…

  • Martin

    Thanks Stephen – I think it’s exciting too. I think it is important that we have external involvement from people such as yourself to avoid it becoming too OU-centric.

  • AJ Cann

    But your rational scepticism is why I read this blog Martin 🙂
    The same arguments apply to wikis – the critical mass for success is very large, and I have not encountered an example other than Wikipedia which works for that reason.

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