Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Thomson Corporation in Major Online Learning Initiative

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Nov 28, 2000

This is actually a compilation of several posts on another list, but I thought DEOS readers might be interested in the whole package.

This is a huge (yet completely unreported) story: The Thomson Corporation <> - best known in  Canada as the owner of the country's major newspaper chains  (but also as an educational publisher Nelson <> - is making a major play in the field  of online learning and content distribution...

Stamford, CN, based Thomson Learning  <> last week announced a plan to build a global e-university with Universitas21. <>

On the same day, Petersen's, a division of Thomson Learning,  announced an alliance with Making It Count, a division of online  pre-college services provider, Inc. <>

Meanwhile parent Thomson Corporation last month acquired all of Harcourt's Higher Education group: the NETglobal, Assessment  Systems, Inc (ASI), and Drake Beam Morin businesses from  Harcourt's Corporate & Professional Services group; and the Higher Education portion of Harcourt Publishers. <>

Thomson also announced today (Monday) that it has acquired  Greenhaven Press, Inc. and Lucent Books, Inc., privately-held  book publishers of social issues and other nonfiction series for  middle and high school students.>, is working with Web CT <>, a well known  online learning delivery platform, to develop a series of what they  call e-learning resource packs (more than 75 have been produced  so far).>, a subsidiary specializing in technology and trades, acquired Jamsa Press, an electronics  and technical learning publishing company. <>

And the last piece of the puzzle, an easy-to-use set-top  viewer, comes with Thomson's announcement, also today (Monday),  of a partnership with Microsoft to launch a product for interactive television that will offer enhanced TV content and Web access over analogue phone lines. <>

The list of activities goes on... all in all, this represents a major initiative, which when viewed as a whole, represents the development  of an educational institution which dwarfs even the largest university...  and one which, if managed with vision and cohesion (as the list of acquisitions and alliances seems to suggest) stands to  reshape the future of learning in general, from kindergarten to  professional development...

In a reply posted on WWW-DEV, Vicky Phillips added:

Not quite completely unreported .. What Thomson is doing in the world of e-learning is our cover interview for the Virtual University Business Digest, Nov-Dec., due out next week. One thing you missed: Thomson also acquired Harcourt University, from Harcourt last week. This new DETC accredited degree-granting university is also up for accreditation from the regional board in New England. Thomson's deal with Universitas 21 follows Worldwide Learning (Murdoch News'  e-learning division) pull out from a similar agreement last month (reported in the September VUBD).  If anyone on the list does not get the VUBD and you want to receive a free copy this month please email me with your address and we'll send one out to you.

Then, in response to another post, I wrote what amounted  (in retrospect) to a manefesto for public learning:

SPENCE Don wrote:

> The question of course is ... which direction this "controlled learning " > will take? > >. and one which, if managed with vision and cohesion > > (as the list of acquisitions and alliances seems to suggest)

> > stands to reshape the > > future of learning in general, > > from kindergarten to professional development...

Um, I don't recall saying "controlled learning"...

In any case, the agenda, I think, is pretty clear: - online learning materials, from kindergarten through    university and beyond, become commodities, paid for    on a per-student license basis, and are widely available    on demand - post-secondary education becomes almost exclusively    the domain of private enterprise - primary and secondary education gradually moves    out of the public sphere, replaced by charter schools,    home schooling, and similar enterprises (these are made    possible by widely available teaching materials,    available at reasonable cost from Thomson)

In a more extreme scenario, I think we could see: - advertising materials distributed widely through all    levels of the curriculum as a fund raising measure - learning tailored to meet the needs of specific employers    (as is already the case in much corporate learning),    even to the point of corporate universities - learning materials crafted in such a way as to promote    consumerism and corporate sovereignty, much in the    way that the press today reflects a pro-corporate    agenda

I have long urged academics in post secondary institutions    to recognize and adapt to the culture of online learning.    In my view, professors' and administrators' resistance    in certain key areas is accelerating the trend toward    corporate online learning.

For example: - despite the concept of each course being individually    crafted by the gifted hand of a professor, course content    in the future will have to be produced in re-usable form,    and courses will have to be assembled 'on the fly' from    pre-existing components - despite the concept of university instruction being thoughtfully   delivered in person by a respected professor, the role of teaching   staff will have to shift from that of imparter of information to that   of a coach or mentor on the sidelines

Why do I say this? Because online learning components, if mass produced, will easily undersell traditional hand-crafted education. Corporate universities can make major inroads into the traditional system if they offer courses at even half the cost of today's offering, and they would make very large profits doing so.

Professors and administrators continually say that contemporary universities will continue to thrive and survive. The evidence speaks to the contrary. Once the number of private institutions reaches a threshold, significant political pressure will be brought to bear to reduce and eventually eliminate the government subsidies for post-secondary (and over time, even primary and secondary) learning.

At this point the crisis for the traditional system will appear 'out of nowhere' and we will see provincial (or state) governments sell their institutions to the private sector. This is a pattern which has happened repeatedly in the past, especially in Canada, with such hallowed institutions as the telephone service and electrical utilities.

Now let me say a couple of possible controversial things:

First, if we take care at the outset, the privatization of education won't matter.

It won't matter because education will be widely available and well within the means of every citizen. Government stewardship over a resource, even one so basic as education, is necessary only if the resource is in short supply. The marketplace is an effective distributor (and manager) of resources when they are sufficient; it is only when demand outstrips supply that we enter into a 'failure of the marketplace' and require a government intervention.

Historically, the marketplace has failed miserably in the provision of education, the cost of a tutor or classroom being well beyond the means of most people, and the cost of a university education being even more so. If we anticipate a significant reduction in the cost of education, however, education and learning becomes as widespread and available as telephone service, water and sewage, or electricity (these parallels are very deliberately drawn, with  a recognition that none are available in many areas of the world - but this represents a different failure of the marketplace, one I address elsewhere - see, for example, <>).

Second, professors and academics will have to give up their proprietary right to own information.

Academics today retain rights to their published works (which they dutifully sign over to publishers, in order to see their words in print at all, this in turn in order to obtain tenure) and their lectures.

This grip on information represents the single largest cost in education today. It is represented in the cost of textbooks, which students must still purchase (even in many 'online' courses) and in the overhead accumulated by university libraries. It is represented in course lectures, still the dominant form of instruction at all levels of schooling. Indeed, the non-content cost of an education, whether it be primary, secondary, post secondary or professional, is trivial when compared to the cost of content delivery. Only a small proportion of a professor's time, for example, is spent actually answering questions (the other major cost, grading assignments, has largely been mitigated through mechanical grading or by being pawned off to graduate students).

So long as an environment persists where there may be an effective government-sanctioned monopoly on the distribution of information, the cost of an education will remain relatively high. Conversely, once the cost of information is reduced significantly, so also is the cost of an education reduced.

Professors and other academics who agitate for the retention of 'their' copyright are (unwittingly) abetting corporate universities, such as would be launched by Thomson, in their efforts to maintain as high a cost for learning materials as possible. The Thomsons of the world see themselves as akin to book publishers or record labels - indeed, they are book publishers - and are working hard to maintain these copyrights for themselves.

In a corporate academic world - and even to a significant degree in the current world - academics will not retain these copyrigths in any case. As the music and publishing industries have shown us, such work can be contracted on a "work for hire" basis. It will not be possible for academics to tap into the corporate learning distribution system unless they 'play by the rules'.

For more on this, see <>

Third, we need to promote education as a social good, and not only as an economic good.

So long as education is primarily and only an economic good, the marketplace (assuming sufficient conditions of supply) will be sufficient to meet our needs.

It is - as Rousseau so long ago pointed out - because education is a social good that the marketplace cannot be left completely to its own devices in this regard. Because the marketplace will serve itself, and the promotion of social values does not generate inherent profit, and so will be ignored in a private learning system.

What social values?

The primary glue that holds society together is the trust which enables people to interact without fear. This trust is manifest in many ways: in respect for rule of law and of the democratic process, in fair and accurate weights, measures and accounting, in the safety and reliability of products and services, in the expectation of a helping hand when in distress, a support system if injured, ill or destitute, and in the good graces and politeness needed in order to walk along a sidewalk without being bumped.

These social values are promoted in an educational system through the teaching of respect for other people and other cultures, through the fostering of empathy and awareness of others' feelings, through the implantation of honesty, charity and other moral virtues, though an awareness of history, geography and psychology, and through the fundamental skills of literacy, numeracy, and reason.

There must be a place where these are taught, and they must be taught at all levels of education, for without these values we lose the benefits and the pleasures of being a part of a civilization.

As I said, the marketplace sees no inherent value in these teachings. They are - like more tangible infrastructure such as roads, airports and communications systems - long term investments in a society as a whole, from which no short term profit may be gained, and from which no direct return on investment is ever realized.

Society must take it upon itself to teach these things, which means that public institutions as well as private institutions

Fourth, we need to create a distributed learning system.

Education today is highly centralized around traditional institutions. If left unchecked, this centralization will simply move from the traditional institution to the new and evolving corporate institution. We will have one or a few educational service providers, much in the same way we have a few major publishers, film and recording studios, utilities or telephone companies.

This is unwanted because the best way to ensure that the values discussed above are represented and propogated in education is to ensure that there is a diversity of learning opportunities, to ensure that no entity (and especially no corporate entity) can monopolize education.

In online music and other publishing a series of initiatives - represented most visibly by Napster and Gnutella - have demonstrated an alternative form of publishing, one which allows artists to reach their markets directly, and one which - incidentally - also dramatically lowers the cost of these productions.

I have promoted elsewhere a 'learning marketplace', open to all providers of learning materials, to deliver a wide range of 'learning objects', from which courses or individual learning opportunities may be assembled. Such systems are in development today, but such systems - such as Merlot - are centralized and non-distributed.

We don't need gatekeepers. We need enablers.

For more on this, see <>,

<>, and <>

And fifth, we need to produce a freely accessible 'information layer' of online learning materials.

The contents of such an information layer may be defined as that learning which is essential to capable and responsible participation in a post-industrial society.

It would include the essentials of literacy, numeracy, geopgraphy, history, the arts, and a number of other curriculum areas needed to foster the social values discussed above.

My own "Stephen's Guide to the Logical Fallacies" is an example of what I mean: an essential resource, provided freely to all who ask, which may be inserted or used in any secondary or university curriculum. See <>

Canada's Schoolnet, which provides a wide variety of resources through, for example, its Media Awareness Network, is another example of what I mean. Such materials are high-risk and low-profit, meaning that the traditional marketplace is unlikely to provide them at low or no cost. Such materials must be created by society for society, in order to foster the knowledge and values needed to be a society. See <>

That ends my list of controversial things.

But now we ask: so where does this leave the traditional university, or even the traditional school?

I think that if schools and universities simply try to replicate their in-class offerings in an online environment, that they will fail. They will fail because it's an inefficient mode of production, and because the learning they provide in this model will be inferior in quality to that which can be produced by a Thomson, a Microsoft, or a Disney.

I think that universities especially may even have to get used to the idea that they are moving out of the teaching business altogether, and that they should focus on three major areas:

1. Content production - universities, if they focussed their staff and resources on the production of high quality content (as opposed to courses) could rival and even exceed the publishers. Such content would have to be structured with re-use in mind; there would also have to be a rationalization of resources (the days of *every* university producing an online Business 101 from scratch are rapidly nearing an end).

Universities could produce a wide range of content. Drawing on government and other social funding, they could (and should) build and maintain a basic information layer as described above, for the common good of society.

2. Consulting - universities should get out of the business of trying to 'teach' because there are better ways to do it. University professors, however, should make their skills and experience available in an informal fashion on an as needed basis to students, colleagues, and professionals.

The consulting function I am describing replaces the old 'personal interaction' we hear much of (but never see) in traditional institutions. Professors, instead of inefficiently delivering lectures, should work on a personal basis with groups and individuals on an as- needed basis.

Many professors may resist this idea, but I urge readers to see the other side of it: it is, is it not, the professors dream? No more classes - just seminars, discussions, conferences and forums. Some online work, of course, but also a lot of in person work as well. The human touch for those who need it, skillfully and precisely applied.

3. Research - government funding to universities is putatively for the purpose of education, but much government funding, and even much other funding, is directed specifically to the needs of research.

As in other cases, there will be a mix of private and public research, and for the same reasons: there is a social value, as well as an economic value, to research. Much of the work which is produced in universities (I might even include this post among those items) has no immediate or tangible benefit, and yet provides good for society as a whole.

Academics sometimes call this 'curiosity based' research, a terrible name if there ever was one. I prefer to think of such socially mandated research as providing a knowledge infrastructure, or providing a basic foundation for the other activities of society, just as does the information layer mentioned above, and indeed just as do the social values described above.

The challenge facing traditional academia should be clear, and clear in a way today as never before. We must adapt, not only the content and methodology of traditional learning, but even the very purpose of traditional institutions, in order to preserve the social values which make civilization worth the effort.


Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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