University or Technology Company?

Are online learning providers educators or technology companies?

In the 40 years since its formation the Open University has become a world leader in distance learning. It has been pioneering its use of technology. Delivering quality education through supported open learning.

And it has done this as a university.

But, with the dawning of the internet age, should it consider itself a technology company?

I read an interesting article from Paul Graham. Paul spent time during the late nineties at Yahoo. Yahoo are the Internet company who have never really fulfilled their potential. For me, there was one particularly interesting, and pertinent, aspect of this article. And that was that Yahoo were ambivalent about considering themselves a technology company.

They insisted on calling themselves a media company.

They had developers writing code and product managers thinking about features and release dates. They had all the constituent parts of a technology company.

But they sold ads.

That wasn’t how technology companies made money in 1995. Media companies made money by selling ads. Therefore, in their eyes, they were a media company.

The result was that they didn’t take technology seriously enough. Coding was a commodity rather than central to their culture. They didn’t attract the best programmers. Good coders want to work with good coders. As a result their products simply weren’t great.

Then Google started to make their presence felt. And they most definitely are a technology company. Yahoo just couldn’t compete.

Google, with their ‘hacker culture’ had top class staff actively looking to solve problems. Yahoo had mediocre staff delivering the products they were asked to deliver.

And it isn’t just Google who have this attitude.

Amazon aims to be ‘the everything store’. But it considers itself to be a tech company more than a retailer.

Uber (official name — Uber Technologies Inc) is disrupting the taxi market. But it states it is a technology company.

The list goes on.

Having the culture of a technology company is beneficial in the rapidly changing environment. It helps keep the organisation up to date with technologies and methodologies. It increases the chance of hiring the best talent. But equally importantly, it allows the organisation freedom. Freedom to expand their offerings to meet emerging customer needs. It removes constraints, conscious or unconscious. Constraints relating to the perceptions of what should be delivered.

And this leads me to the situation the Open University faces now. The nature of the traditional higher education market is changing. And we now see the encroachment of technology companies into the distance/online learning sphere.

Does being a university first and foremost constrain thinking about how to best address these challenges?

So, that’s my question. To what extent should the Open University, and other distance learning providers, consider themselves a technology company?

I’d be really interested in your views.

Let me know your thoughts here, or give me a shout on Twitter @steve_p_uk

This post first appeared on my blog