Three Questions for MILLA

MILLA has been causing a stir in educational policy. The German abbreviation stands for modular interactive lifelong learning for all and describes the concept of a state-funded online learning platform. It has been developed by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) under the direction of Thomas Heilmann, internet entrepreneur and member of the German parliament. It is supposed to become something like “Netflix for learning” and is the subject of controversial discussion in many places, be it on Twitter, at conferences, in the daily press or in certain online forums such as wb-web. There, the heading of a current discussion reads “Kopfgeburt oder ernstzunehmender Reformvorschlag?” (Brainchild or serious proposal for reform?). Granted, the sober pro and con discussion is often intermingled with political back-and-forth. But generally, commenters seem rather pleasantly surprised by the CDU’s innovative educational-political project. I have the impression that the fact that a political party dares approach such a project in concrete terms and does not merely stick to the usual soapboxing and publishing of papers is definitely acknowledged in all parts of the debate. “First of all,” writes Jochen Robe in his wb-web posting “I am happy about any initiative that finally focuses on learning and development and intends to walk the walk after talking the talk.”

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to cooperate with Volker Zimmermann (neocosmo) on a feasibility study for an (inter)national platform for university education on behalf of the Hochschulforum Digitalisierung which I also wrote about. In view of the results of this study, I ask myself at least three questions about MILLA:

  1. How to deal with the heterogeneity of digital learning?

Unlike Netflix – which offers many different genres, but only two core formats (movies and serials) –, the world of online learning is extremely diverse. It ranges from plain, PowerPoint-based webinars to so-called micro-learning and smart shows to elaborately produced video tutorials, simulations, business games and 3D applications. Some of them offer support by tutors, others include all sorts of assessments, tests and gamified elements or virtual group work. The learning concepts are just as heterogeneous and include traditional self-paced learning as well as flipped-classroom approaches and virtual mass learning via MOOCs. As if that weren’t enough, it is also the case that the existing solutions are mostly firmly connected to proprietary platforms or learning, data management, and e-commerce systems. They are far from using common standards but instead are based on different concepts with regard to authentication, rights and roles. And if we also think of the differences in license and copyright frameworks, we get an idea of the complexities of today’s digital learning and have to ask ourselves: How can a range of services with this level of heterogeneity both technologically and pedagogically be represented on one single platform in a way that makes sense (and is easy to use)? And this is then supposed to feel like Netflix? I’m afraid that this problem cannot be solved in a satisfactory manner. Potential users of MILLA will likely have to jump from one proprietary application to another and will constantly face new requirements, usage rules, formats, operating concepts and layouts.

  1. What if there are too few or too many items on certain topics?

My second question concerns quantity and quality of the content of such a platform. It is not unlikely that too few courses are offered for some subject areas and too many for others. Both can be problematic. If content is missing on important topics, users will turn away quickly and the platform’s range and reputation will suffer. Right now, for example, there are few to no online training solutions for IT professionals available on important innovation topics such as IT security, microservices or cloud technology – at least in Germany and Europe. If, on the other hand, there are too many courses of similar design and quality available, as is the case for the topics compliance and data protection, then the question is how they can be presented and made available in a fair and comprehensive way. Both app developers and providers of Udemy courses know these difficulties only too well: those who are listed on top by curators or rating algorithms on the relevant platforms and stores can count themselves lucky. The others disappear, mostly unnoticed, as also-rans. But the success of any established platform relies primarily on the quality, suitability and diversity of its content. I don’t believe that a platform – especially a centralized, state-run one – which confronts its users either with “cannot be found” notifications or with a confusing number of courses with five-star ratings and positive reviews will be widely accepted. It is therefore essential that the makers of MILLA also have the capability to promote or even develop specific solutions.

  1. Who can use MILLA (free of charge) and what does this mean for the learning and development market?

Finally, there is the fundamental question about the consequences a tax-funded, free-for-users learning platform would have for the (increasingly global) education market. Firstly: Who would be able to use MILLA free of charge anyway? Only German taxpayers, all EU citizens, or users beyond this as well? How could authorized users prove their identity and how simple or difficult would that be? What does MILLA mean for providers such as universities, adult education centers and educational providers but also for civil servants such as teachers and professors who are already paid or funded by the state? Do they have to set their MILLA earnings off against their public funding and even pay them back at the end? And last but not least: How can such a state-run educational platform be justified with regard to economic and regulatory policies? What does MILLA mean for the commercial stakeholders from Germany and Europe, from Asia and the USA, if they cannot, may not or don’t want to be on the state platform? Who gives access to the portal according to which criteria, and how can rejected suppliers fight back?

Some of these questions can probably be solved but others are so fundamental that it seems likely that ever new hurdles will come up during the implementation of such a platform. But even though it is an ambitious and commendable goal: the current concept of MILLA does not make it seem likely that it will become a Netflix or Spotify for education. If anything, I fear that it will result in something reminiscent of the eGovernment website of an average German city.

Links:

Feasibility Study (German): https://hochschulforumdigitalisierung.de/de/machbarkeitsstudie-hochschulplattform
Blog about the study (German): https://www.digitalisierung-bildung.de/2018/06/07/studium-digital-brauchen-wir-eine-nationale-hochschulplattform-fuer-lehre-und-weiterbildung/
Post on wb-web (German): https://forum.wb-web.de/

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Three Questions for MILLA

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About The Author
- Dr. Ulrich Schmid is the managing director of MMB institute. He has dealt with the digitization of learning throughout his career - as a researcher, in universities, in publishing houses and in software companies.

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