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Will the future of Education be Online, Open and Massive?

A massive shift is occurring in education.

This results in an unprecedented change: we have gone from analog to digital, from isolated to connected, from standardized to customized, from fixed to mobile. The world has changed … and so will education? At least that is what the buzz around Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, seems to tell us. MOOCs are forms of online learning that offer high quality education that is free and open to the public. One of the first examples was the Stanford Artificial Intelligence (AI) class taught in October 2011 with 160, 000 students that enrolled. Since then, the quantity of startups and projects has flourished bringing along with them many hopes and doubts.

This shift in education concerns the way content is being created, distributed and used. It also affects traditional publishers, intermediaries and the public. New technologies are bringing online tools that are completely reshaping the industry. For all these different reasons, education institutions need to rethink their business model and adapt to this new reality.

Does this evolution mean we are witnessing progress? Some argue that open educational resources (OER) will democratize education since they hold the promise of equitable access to knowledge and learning. Others predict an education bubble fuelled by huge hopes and large venture capital (VC) investments that are not solidly founded. Before going any further let’s describe and analyze this (not so) new phenomenon, and understand what could be the direct consequences.


Around 2000, David Wiley introduced the concept of Open Content to apply the same approach as open source software to the production of learning. As he described in “Connecting learning objects to instructional design theory” the open education movement comes from three main sources: the open source software movement, the open licenses and the granularity of learning objects (which are teaching materials that can be broken down into self-contained units). The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was the first university to publish its learning materials online. This project, called “OpenCourseWare,” increased their visibility significantly and was followed by other free sharing initiatives such as Connexions by Rice University. Since then the phenomenon has widely expanded worldwide. Some skeptics have deplored the inherent cultural imperialism of such projects, while others saw a fantastic opportunity for anyone with an Internet connection to assist some of the world’s best teachers’ classes.

The latest manifestations of this trend took root last year with the emergence of online education start-ups that offer the general public a set of freely available online courses.  This is what we call Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC).  The access to those courses is free (open) to anyone (massive) via internet (online). MOOCs come as short segments of lessons (10 to 20 minutes) with sets of quiz questions every now and then to make sure the viewer is following. This is still an experimental approach. MOOCs apply crowd-source technology to discussion forums and peer-to-peer ratings. As John Daniel puts it in Making Sense of MOOCs: “while the hype about MOOCs presaging a revolution in higher education has focused on their scale, the real revolution is that universities with scarcity at the heart of their business models are embracing openness.”

(Nota Bene: those MOOCs that are being offered are more precisely xMOOC compared to the cMOOC, where the c stands for connectivism, a participatory approach where each participant performs her own research, takes part in an exchange of ideas with peers, and publishes his own conclusions. In other words, xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication whereas cMOOCS are more about knowledge generation)[1].

MOOCs arrive at a time when dissatisfaction with the way the courses are taught in higher education is growing. The cost of education is going up, the quality is not really increasing, and all the while dropout rates are climbing. A MOOC is neither a school nor an online course. It’s rather a participatory and distributed way to connect and collaborate with individuals who are interested in the same kind of subjects.

There are different kinds of MOOC providers:

Some of them are completely non-profit organizations such as Khan Academy. Created by a former financial advisor, the Khan Academy was started on YouTube by Salman Khan as a way to tutor his cousins in math. It has now grown into a mammoth video learning database. During the last year people have spoken often of “flipping the classroom” by using Khan-type videos to teach students at home, which then allows more one-on-one time with the teacher in the classroom.

Online courses are certainly not new. Open educational resources, online textbooks and even online universities have been around for more than a decade. Many esteemed universities have conducted much of their work online, and companies like 2tor have been helping universities offer online graduate degree programs since 2008. Since 2007, Apple’s iTunes U has made it easier for institutions and even individual teachers to provide access to their educational content online.  However, this is the first time we see such a mass offering of free courses from elite universities.

Indeed, three companies are getting the most buzz in the MOOC world: Coursera, Udacity, and edX. The excitement lies in the perfect mix of open, free and high quality education these companies represent.  In addition, these companies are aiming for a wide range of courses.

There have been many open for-profit degree-granting universities for years now – think University of Phoenix and Virginia College Online — but these colleges are not free and they are not competing with Harvard and Yale.  One online university, Minerva, is touting high quality courses online and limiting them to highly qualified students as it aims to be the most elite online university. Minerva is not open and it is not free.

Most MOOCs are offering a certificate of completion for their online courses.  However, none are currently offering full degrees in their areas of study.  Let’s take a closer look at three of the MOOCs: Udacity, Coursera and EdX.

  • Udacity was launched by Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun (who taught the aforementioned extremely popular online course about Artificial Intelligence in 2011 from Stanford). At publication, Udacity offered or planned to offer 22 courses and had $15 million in financing.[2] The courses are free and a certificate of completion is free as well. Some courses are offered in conjunction with partner organizations and may require a fee in order for students to receive credit. Students may also “opt in” for a fee for a final exam proctored electronically by Pearson VUE.
  • Coursera was founded shortly after Udacity by Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, also of Stanford University. Initially launched with Stanford, University of Michigan, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, further partner institutions have joined. Coursera has more than 200 courses with 33 universities across 20 categories listed on its website including such diverse offerings as Statistics, Energy 101, Equine Nutrition, Game Theory, and Principles of Economics for Scientists. As of publication their website announces that more than 2.5 million “Courserians” are enrolled. According to TechCrunch in July 2012 Coursera had $22 million in total funding and had no immediate plans for monetization.
  • Launched after Udacity and Coursera, edX is a nonprofit founded as a joint venture between Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, each of which contributed $30 million.  In July 2012, the University of Berkeley was added as a partner. Their interactive platform is being developed as open source software.

Other related projects also appeared.

  • Udemy is a new venture that helps individual professors put their courses online. The site offers more than 5,000 courses to 500,000 students, “with the top 10 instructors combined having earned over $1.6 million.” in course sales  https://www.udemy.com/blog/top-ten-earners-on-udemy/
  • Likewise, Canvas Network offers a platform to share knowledge with 4.5 million users (teachers, learners and institutions).

All in all the two great benefits of Open Education are the possible cost reductions, and impact on scale and quality of course.

Indeed, access to education has been a real problem. Costs of universities and of textbooks are often discussed. The Book Industry Study Group’s Student Attitudes Toward Content in Higher Education survey shows that students are rebelling against the rising costs of textbooks in a variety of ways. In fact, less than 60 percent of surveyed students purchased current print editions – new or used. Digital learning represents one of the most promising avenues for education reform, delivering a more relevant, personalized experience for students online and offline, in and out of the classroom. To adapt to this new reality, we should have more choice; adaptive learning; engagement by developing new means of educating that are close to what the new generation knows (which is a more connected and mobile world); collaboration; customization; learning by doing; learner centric instead of teacher centric; and blended learning (a mix of print and technology offerings).

Nonetheless those promises come with some current drawbacks.

First of all, there is, at the time we write, no proven business model for MOOCs. Coursera is trying to support its financing by licensing and creating potential certification fees or providing recruitment data to employers. Other possibilities could include: secure assessments; a subscription fee when the class has finished to continue feedback; human tutoring; advertising; licensing the MOOC platform to other entities, like firms, for training courses; and sponsorship. However there is no guarantee that any of these possibilities will work, whereas right now each course costs about $50,000.

Secondly, some people have asked if this model is really open. Is a MOOC still open if you need to pay for it? According to Wiley’s 4 Rs Framework[3]: learning materials can be considered open if their license allows “Reuse, Redistribution, Revision and Remix.” Still, fees would radically decrease the interest in such courses.

Other doubts surround the possibility of cheating, the feasibility of grading, and the way partner universities will share revenue streams with professors who teach and develop the classes.

More importantly it’s not sure that MOOCs will actually provide progress in the way students are learning. Indeed, as we already said, learning has to be interactive. Yet the massive aspect of MOOCs makes it quite difficult to answer every student individually. Sure, classmates can organize to meet in real places or in online forums, but there still won’t be the same level of interaction and positive feedback. As Dominique Boullier explains[4] MOOCs are missing the three methods (explore, publish, debate) of training developed by Bruno Latour and known as active learning methods. “Watching, listening, obeying, memorizing were the key methods of old times education: putting them on line will not change anything to the tremendous weakness of responsibility skills that today leaders are demonstrating and that we, as educators, are supposed to enhance”.

So maybe MOOCs are an exciting form of publishing content rather than teaching it. Most of the current users are people who have the luxury to learn for the sake of learning, which not everybody can afford.

In this world of information overload those initiatives could also be interpreted as a way for elite universities to dominate the global field of education. Indeed, Sebastian Thurn, founder of Udacity, predicts in 50 years there will no more than 10 higher education institutions[5] – and his Udacity just might be one of them. What we might witness is a race towards attractiveness. But we should also keep in mind that a university brand comes mainly from research, which doesn’t necessarily suggest that it is the best for teaching. The same remains true online.

Like a lot of tech businesses today, everything could end up being all about brand and reputation status. Education is indeed now a big trend. Or as Peter Thiel puts it, « We’re in a Bubble and it’s not the Internet. It’s Higher Education »[6]. Like the publishing industry, and coming with it, the education field is starting to look more and more like the software industry. Indeed, as we explained earlier in this article, this shift in education concerns the way content is being created, distributed and used. It also concerns the tools and platforms that will enable the content.

One obvious example is the number of partnerships during the past year that have been signed between publishers and MOOC platforms. In February 2012, MIT OpenCourseWare teamed up with Flat World Knowledge (FWK), a commercial open textbook publisher, to combine free texts and free course materials. Pearson, which partnered with Knewton’s adaptive learning platform, is currently pondering developing a new end-to-end publishing platform for its education content and courses. 20 Million Minds Foundation has joined Connexions to launch an open source textbook creation platform (20MMix). TED teamed up with publisher John Wiley & Sons to create multi-platform based content that can be used to support lessons. In September 2012 Google released as an experiment Course Builder, an open source MOOCs software[7]). Meanwhile, Stanford unveiled Class2Go with two courses. We are witnessing a real convergence of traditional publishers, software companies, and elite universities at every step of the process.

What’s more, Pearson, the first educational publishing company in the world with a turnover[8] of more than $7 billion dollars, can be considered more like a software company as shown by all the Application Programming Interfaces they use[9] . Pearson claims it was the first publisher, in September 2011, to release its content in API format to be re-used by other publishers and developers.

Bertelsmann has also initiated a long-term reshaping. Digital transformation is now one of its four strategic approaches (with consolidation, growth platforms and growth regions). It wished to enter the rapidly growing global education business. At the same time, it is widening its footprint in countries like India, China and Brazil. Like in the music industry, where Bertelsmann joined forces with private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR) to create a new rights licensing body, Bertelsmann is making its long-awaited foray into education as anchor-investor in a $100 million fund that aims to form partnerships with universities and vocational schools to offer online study and other types of courses worldwide. It is pouring $50 million into University Ventures Fund, run by a group of U.S. private-equity specialists who hope to tap a growing market through six to 10 joint ventures with European and U.S. higher-education institutions in its first few years[10].

By way of conclusion, we notice that Universities, traditional publishing companies and also more recent tech companies have changed their approach. The reason being online education represents a $60 billion industry, and it has been estimated that more than half of courses will be provided online by 2019. And if the number of university students is expected to double in the next 10
years, there seems to be a paradox between the expectation of personalized education and mass education. What MOOCs might be best for is enticing public and private universities to follow the trend and develop online learning and more open educational resources. MOOCs are unlikely to solve the major issues around expanding higher education in the developing world but they are a step in the right direction.

Article originally published by @AdrienBasdevant  &  @Julia_Brannon in Social Media Montly, April 2013  (Here is the link to their website)

[3] http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/1123

[6] http://techcrunch.com/2011/04/10/peter-thiel-were-in-a-bubble-and-its-not-the-internet-its-higher-education/

[7] http://www.openculture.com/2012/09/google_releases_course_builder.html

[8] http://www.pearson.com/investors/financial-information/reports-and-results.html

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