How LinkedIn’s Latest Move May Matter to Colleges (CHE)

April 17, 2015

By Goldie Blumenstyk

LinkedIn’s purchase of the online-course company Lynda.com has the potential to do to higher education what Airbnb has done to the hotel industry, says one observer.

Whether or not college leaders realize it, last week’s announcement by LinkedIn that it would spend $1.5 billion to buy Lynda.com, a provider of consumer-focused online courses, carries notable consequences for higher education.

At the very least, it’s a sign of the growing interest in making academic and other educational credentials more visible and transparent to employers and others with reason to see them.

It could also be, in the words of one observer, a sharp reminder to colleges that if they don’t up their game in helping students and alumni with career transitions, there are many other organizations — giants like LinkedIn among them — that stand ready to fill that void.

“Institutions can and should own the arc of this, but they’ve got to sort of wake up,” says Adam Newman, a founder of Tyton Partners, a research and consulting firm that works in education.

LinkedIn already offers college rankings, university pages, and tools to allow its 350 million members to crowdsource advice on where to attend college or take a course. A company spokeswoman calls those resources a way “to help future generations of workers.”

By dint of the data those members provide, it is also, at least according tothe technology consultant and blogger Michael Feldstein, the only public or private organization “that has the data to study long-term career outcomes of education in a broad and meaningful way.”

When LinkedIn announced the Lynda.com deal, some observers were quick to declare it a further sign of the professional-networking giant’s growing ambition to dominate the education market. One of them, Ryan Craig, an education investor and author, even declared, “LinkedIn Eats the University” in an op-ed, warning that what Uber and Airbnb have done to disrupt the taxi and hotel businesses, LinkedIn could do to colleges.

Mr. Craig’s new book, College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education (Palgrave Macmillan), argues that the most fundamental disruption facing colleges will come once a “digital marketplace for human capital” takes hold. In other words, he says in an interview, once an organization comes along that can communicate students’ competencies and skills to employers and others, and also communicate to those students what they need for a job or a career, it will have the upper hand over colleges with their “opaque degrees.”

Mr. Craig notes that a less-heralded 2014 acquisition by LinkedIn — of a company called Bright, which uses algorithms to match applicants with jobs based on their skills and experience — strengthened LinkedIn’s ability to act as a marketplace that can serve as an alternative to traditional degrees or credentials. Its acquisition of Lynda, he says, shows it now wants to be a direct provider of education as well.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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