Commentary

A ‘Netflix for Education’? Why LinkedIn’s New Product Should Give Us Pause

November 22, 2016

This fall LinkedIn introduced a new product that brings together courses from Lynda.com, an online-training company it purchased last year, and LinkedIn’s rich data on job needs and job seekers. LinkedIn Learning, as it’s called, essentially provides a recommendation engine for Lynda.com courses and video segments. As described in a company blog post: "We have a unique view of how jobs, industries, organizations and skills evolve over time. From this, we can identify the skills you need and deliver expert-led courses to help you obtain those skills. We’re taking the guesswork out of learning."

That’s a grand vision. To LinkedIn’s credit, the company has not fallen for the "we’re going to displace higher education" fantasies that powered the worst of the MOOC craze. But it’s still stuck on the idea that idealized chunks of content are equivalent to learning.

Yes, the primary audience for LinkedIn Learning is job seekers and corporate trainers. But those of us in higher education should care. The challenges of better preparing students for their working lives and filling in skill gaps are ones that colleges and universities are also trying to meet, often through graduate schools or continuing-education departments. Lifelong learning is particularly important to alumni.

The New Education Landscape

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Re:Learning project provides stories and analysis about this changing moment for learning.

In addition, LinkedIn Learning is targeting higher education as a secondary market. It intends to provide skills training (how to use a learning-management system, for example) to faculty and staff members, and to provide content that can be used in flipped classrooms. More broadly, LinkedIn’s vision is to build what it calls the Economic Graph — an attempt to create profiles for every member of the work force, every company, and "every job and every skill required to obtain those jobs." If the company succeeds, then higher education in general will feel enormous pressure to play within these concepts.

A standard LinkedIn Learning course consists of a list of chapters, each containing short video segments with synchronized transcripts. Sometimes, but not always, there will be a short multiple-choice quiz. A learner who misses a quiz question receives a suggestion to rewatch the relevant video segment. Many courses also provide downloadable suggestions for exercises the learner can perform on their own. That’s it. No additional assignments, no interactivity, no readings. (A course designer could take that video content and pull it into a richer environment, flipped-classroom-style, but that usage goes outside of the data-and-recommendations-engine model.)

Executives at LinkedIn and Lynda.com have described LinkedIn Learning as a cornerstone of the Economic Graph — a service that ties other aspects of their grand plan together. But they acknowledge that the roughly 9,000 courses on Lynda.com are not sufficient to achieve that goal. When I asked a company representative whether LinkedIn would take on other types of content from outside Lynda.com, the answer was no. Instead, the plan would be to use LinkedIn data — the job skills that the Economic Graph determines are necessary, based on corporate or local needs — to guide Lynda.com to create missing content. In other words, LinkedIn believes that one type of course — based on short video segments and short multiple-choice quizzes — is what it needs to develop knowledge and skills.

From a pedagogical standpoint, the LinkedIn Learning platform is a very limiting one. How, for example, would teachers take the content and adapt it to the learning experience best suited for their region? How would companies apply their own learning design to the material? LinkedIn makes some nods to customization — it allows its enterprise customers to create their own playlists of Lynda.com courses and video segments, for example — but it can’t offer flexibility when it comes to the overall pedagogical approach.

The company doesn’t explicitly make this claim, but LinkedIn Learning has the look of an effort to be another Netflix of education. If we can just create consumable content chunks and then apply data science to deliver the right chunk at the right time to the right person, the thinking goes, then we’ll achieve nirvana.

We’ve seen this before in the MOOC world. We also see it in many instances of adaptive-learning software. That software, which attempts to respond to the needs of individual students, often winds up turning the platform into yet another recommendation engine for content and playlists. LinkedIn Learning, despite the best of intentions, has fallen prey to the Netflix concept without questioning the underlying assumptions — without first trying to understand how learning occurs and how best to support it.

This is the missing piece for LinkedIn. The company is based on creating networks and data to connect and share descriptions of jobs and job seekers. But LinkedIn Learning has another goal: to create skills. Using descriptive data to model and create network connections is fundamentally different from using content to teach those skills.

LinkedIn’s mistake, in my opinion, is not in thinking that Lynda.com courses are useful. They are, for the right topics, which are generally based on lower-order skills. The mistake is in generalizing this pedagogical approach as the solution for job-skills training.

I am quite confident that LinkedIn’s data and user base of 450 million people across the world can expand the usage of Lynda.com courses. I am also quite confident that including the courses in premium memberships can expand the number of paying LinkedIn customers. Those are both incremental wins, but what about the broader goal LinkedIn has said it wants to meet? As LinkedIn’s CEO, Jeff Weiner, said upon the purchase of Lynda.com, the acquisition was "incredibly important in terms of realizing our vision to create economic opportunity to every member of the global workforce."

In order to meet that goal, LinkedIn should re-examine its underlying assumptions about ideal, one-size-fits-all content being equivalent to learning. And colleges and universities should care about whether the company makes that change.

Phil Hill is a partner at MindWires Consulting, co-publisher of the e-Literate blog, and co-producer of e-Literate TV.