Yes. That is quite a click baity title. To avoid thrashing around in sound bites and misunderstandings, I will open by stating what this post is not about:
- The next big thing for learning. TikTok is the current big thing for almost anything you can think of and is well used for many learning applications already
- TikTok and similar tools will not work for all needs – nothing works for all needs – but it’s very handy for some
- Learning platforms adopting TikTokesque features
- My kids using TikTok
This post was provoked by this piece in Wired magazine, exploring where TikTok parent company, ByteDance may go next having built almost unstoppable user growth momentum. Three billion downloads worth of momentum, in fact. In short, the author suggests that there is an opportunity and desire to become the next Facebook having restructured the business. Whilst I don’t really want the current Facebook, let alone another one, there is reason for pause.
There is interesting business strategy thinking in the article and some useful observations about how a Chinese owned global phenomenon can steer a political course, as well as a commercial one, avoiding the train wrecks Zuckerberg seems to have a habit for. One of the important signals of intent is the creation of an online learning division amongst other new units. As a data driven organisation, they are alive to the most popular and valuable applications of their most succesful product.
Somewhere in the algorithmic secret sauce is a powerfully uncanny recommendation experience. That engine not only encourages and shapes our usage but supports creators in adding to the body of content. This is an impressive trick to pull off. So far, to my eye, there is also an encouraging acceptance of a range of styles and production polish, keeping the barriers to content sharing low.
The size of the user base and the frequency of activity allows for smaller interest areas and niches to show commercial potential. YouTube has shown the way here for learning and education. TikTok looks like it might further push the potential of surfacing experts to worldwide audiences and extending the definition of what ‘expert’ means into ever less traditional areas. Institutions beware (again).
For learning in an educational context, there is a clear route to reaching young learners via a new channel. Again, YouTube has beaten this path over a number of years, gaining acceptance as a natural choice of learning content for both creators and users. I imagine some sniffy responses in corners of academia and other disciplines, but that bird seems to have flown now.
Finally and most importantly, is the observation that ByteDance, and TikTok by inference, is not a social media business but an AI business. That is the core expertise of the organisation, it has been applied and developed with startling success. So, the idea that TikTok is the route to the future of learning is probably an incomplete prediction. It will be part of what ByteDance develop for the learning industries, with other products also arriving or emerging from China, perhaps. Short form video is unlikely to be the whole solution, after all. Whatever it is, though, will be designed around and by vast swathes of data and evidence. That probably is a big new thing for learning.