I'm surprised to have seen so little thoughtful analysis of the LinkedIn acquisition of Lynda.com, particularly as Michael Feldstein put it: the deal suggests that LinkedIn might just be "the most interesting company in ed tech."
Maybe I shouldn't be.
There was a rash of “hot takes” from tech industry blogs, of course – reports of the deal hurriedly typed up after reading the press release, barely rewriting the companies’ blog posts. Such are the pressures of real-time publishing these days – writers are supposed to offer commentary quickly, sometimes within minutes of news breaking.
I am still amazed that while the current boom in education technology companies has been going on now for over seven years, few technology writers or publications have made ed-tech a formal beat; as such few are able to offer much insight at all when something important happens in the industry. Instead, the common response to any development in ed-tech – whether it’s a product launch, an investment, or an acquisition – is to throw the names of every education-related startup into the story and pronounce that “this changes everything.”
Here’s the headline on the embarrassingly abysmal analysis from Pando: “Did LinkedIn's acquisition of Lynda just kill the ed tech space?”
The article is, as Feldstein describes it, "a laughable piece of link bait garbage," cramming the Chegg and 2U IPOs, last year’s record-setting VC investment figures, Lynda.com’s competitor online training company Pluralsight, the offline tech training Flatiron School, the MOOC startup Udacity, Panorama Education (which provides a platform for K–12 schools to run surveys), Chinese mobile development company NetDragon Education, English-language learning site Open English, LMS provider Desire2Learn, and K–12 messaging app Remind into the story in order to pronounce the ed-tech sector "unicorn-free." "Now, the focus will shift to the traditional education companies like Pearson, Cengage, and publishers like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who are under pressure to innovate or acquire new technologies to keep up with each other," writes Pando’s Dennis Keohane. "But none of the traditional powers fighting in that space have the financial wherewithal of LinkedIn, nor the desire to get into an acquisition arms race like the kind that happens all the time in Silicon Valley."
(For what it’s worth, Pearson and those other “traditional powers” have been the most active acquirers of ed-tech startups for a good long while now.)
Rather than predicting that the acquisition of Lynda.com spells “doom” for the sector, Edsurge (no surprise) describes it as a positive indicator: "the deal will be hailed as evidence that companies devoted to learning will be worth billions of dollars” and “the deal is huge and will be a signal that there will be rich rewards for investors who support high-quality education-related work.” (Lynda.com founder Lynda Weinman is an investor in Edsurge.)
By focusing on the implications of the deal itself – whether good or bad – for other deals, that is for ed-tech investors and investments, most coverage has completely missed out on exploring, as Feldstein does in his analysis of the acquisition, “Why LinkedIn Matters” for education.
And I agree with him: it matters a lot.
LinkedIn is an Education Data Company
There is only one place in the world I know of where bazillions of people voluntarily enter their longitudinal college and career information, keep it up-to-date, and actually want it to be public.
LinkedIn is the only organization I know of, public or private, that has the data to study long-term career outcomes of education in a broad and meaningful way. Nobody else comes close. Not even the government. Their data set is enormous, fairly comprehensive, and probably reasonably accurate. Which also means that they are increasingly in a position to recommend colleges, majors, and individual courses and competencies. An acquisition like Lynda.com gives them an ability to sell an add-on service – “People who are in your career track advanced faster when they took a course like this one, which is available to you for only X dollars” – but it also feeds their data set. Right now, schools are not reporting individual courses to the company, and it’s really too much to expect individuals to fill out comprehensive lists of courses that they took. The more that LinkedIn can capture that information automatically, the more the company can start searching for evidence that enables them to reliably make more fine-grained recommendations to job seekers (like which skills or competencies they should acquire) as well as to employers (like what kinds of credentials to look for in a job candidate). Will the data actually provide credible evidence to make such recommendations? I don't know. But if it does, LinkedIn is really the only organization that's in a position to find that evidence right now.
As federal and state governments look to create ratings systems for colleges and universities, based in part on graduates' employability, this sort of data is going to be increasingly valuable - financially and politically.
Like Feldstein, I’d also made a prediction back in 2012 that LinkedIn would enter the ed-tech space via an acquisition. He picked Coursera as the target buy; I picked Edmodo. Here’s what I wrote then (in a blog post speculating about Edmodo’s future after raising VC round after round and wondering who, if anyone, would acquire it):
LinkedIn's [co-founder] Reid Hoffman sits on the board of Edmodo as an investor, and I do think this would be an interesting (but perhaps surprising) acquisition. Although LinkedIn describes itself as a professional social network – something that makes it a parallel perhaps to Edmodo’s educational social network – I see LinkedIn as a big data company. Who’s hired. Who’s looking for work. Who updates their profile. Who you’re connected to. Where you went to school. What your skills are. All this incredible data about our professional skills and experiences can offer huge insights for other companies. And all that data – all our data – is what makes LinkedIn such a valuable company. It is possible that LinkedIn could make a move into the education space – particularly as we start to rethink certification and degrees – and Edmodo certainly has a lot of data which, in aggregate, could certainly provide interesting signals about careers, curriculum, certification, connections, and so on.
So, I was wrong about Edmodo; but I think my description of LinkedIn remains pretty accurate, and it helps explain how Lynda.com might fit into the company’s strategy.
According to LinkedIn’s latest quarterly report, revenue from its “Talent Solutions” division (that includes its recruiting tools and services) totaled $369 million in the fourth quarter of 2014 – 57% of total revenue. “Marketing Solutions” (that is, advertising) totaled $153 million – 24% of total revenue. Revenue from Premium Subscriptions products totaled $121 million – 19% of total revenue.
It’s certainly possible to see the Lynda.com acquisition as part of efforts to keep users – premium subscribers, even – returning to the site. (That’s one of the “Three Reasons LinkedIn Broke the Bank for Lynda.com” given by Re/Code.) But despite LinkedIn’s efforts at expanding its content offerings – becoming a long-form publishing platform, for example – I don’t think the Lynda.com buy was really about “content.”
“Disrupting the Diploma”
The business play in this acquisition involves education-related data, but I think it’s connected to a broader political play too.
In September 2013, Reid Hoffman wrote a blog post titled “Disrupting the Diploma,” outlining what has become quite a familiar refrain in Silicon Valley: the purpose of college is to get a degree; the purpose of a degree is to get a job; degrees are too expensive and do not offer employers a sufficiently granular understanding of what a job applicant knows, what skills s/he possesses. But technologies – technologies like LinkedIn, argues Hoffman – can now “make certification faster, cheaper, and more effective too.”
I explored both this framing of school as “skills” and the push towards new forms of certification in my year-end series on the top ed-tech trends of 2014; the acquisition of Lynda.com by LinkedIn bolsters both of these. Even before this deal, the company had been inching towards this vision, making it easier for people to add certifications from MOOCs to their profiles for example.
What happens next to the other MOOC providers – Coursera, Udacity, edX – will be interesting to watch. Again, it’s not simply because they’re now competing content providers with LinkedIn. It’s because these three have been relying on paid certification and recruitment as their revenue streams. And now they’re competing with LinkedIn there as well. I don’t think this necessarily spells the downfall of the MOOCs. To the contrary, LinkedIn might provide them more legitimacy if it can help convince employers their certificates are actually credible. “Disrupting the diploma,” as Hoffman puts it.
According to Hoffman, a “21st century diploma” would do the following:
It should accommodate a completely unbundled approach to education, allowing students to easily apply credits obtained from a wide range of sources, including internships, peer to peer learning, online classes, and more, to the same certification.
It should be dynamic and upgradeable, so individuals can add new credentials to it as they pursue new goals and educational opportunities and so that the underlying system itself is improvable.
It should help reduce the costs of higher education and increase overall value.
It should allow a person to convey the full scope of his or her skills and expertise with greater comprehensiveness and nuance, in part to enable better matching with jobs.
It should be machine-readable and discoverable, so employers can easily evaluate it in numerous ways as part of a larger “certification platform.”
No doubt, LinkedIn aims to become precisely that – a “certification platform.” (Can it? I do not know.)
A Final Thought: (Education) Data Portability
It’s a question I’ve asked again and again and again: who owns your education data? Do you? Does your school? Do the software providers your school has contracted with? Does your employer? Do the software providers your employer has contracted with?
Late last year, LinkedIn added the ability to export your data, including registration information; login history including IP records; email address history and statuses; account history including account closures and reopens; name information including the current name on your account and any previous name changes; a list of your 1st degree connections; photos that have been uploaded to your account; endorsements you’ve received; list of skills on your profile; recommendations given and received; group contributions; your search history; content you’ve posted, shared, liked, or commented on; mobile apps you’ve installed; ads you’ve clicked on; and the targeting criteria LinkedIn uses to show you ads.
I can’t think of many (any?!) education technology companies – learning management systems, MOOC providers, textbook publishers, testing companies – that offer this sort of data portability to their users. Hell, I’m not sure many (any?!) schools do.
Instead education data is often trapped in silos – inaccessible to and uncontrolled by learners. Students are compelled to use ed-tech software, but have little say in what happens to their content and your data. Now, I don’t think LinkedIn users have a lot of say in what happens to their content and data there; but hey, at least they can export it if they want to.
Hopefully that feature won’t disappear as LinkedIn moves to become a new “certification platform.” (But I'm not going to hold my breath.)