The Year of the MOOC - Part 1 of 2
2012 may well be known as the year for disruption in the education space. Ever since the formal establishment of education systems, learning was primarily a physical activity where a student visited a school to listen to the lectures, interact with fellow classmates, complete group projects , and finally clear an exam for earning credits and a degree. The whole activity required a student to dedicate significant amount of time and money. The first entry of technology into the education space was by companies such as Blackboard Inc. which started building enterprise software to improve efficiency and streamline processes in educational institutions. However, the consumer side of the education did not witness any disruption until after the financial crisis.
The financial crisis, was in one way, a key trigger which led to revolutionizing the consumer side of the education business. Millions of people lost jobs and were looking to ride the recession by going back to school which would put them in a good position when the economy bounced back. At the same time, the cost of education was rising as universities faced budget cuts and saw decreasing enrollments from foreign students due to a weak job market while crisis ridden banks pulled the plug on student loans. The time seemed ripe for a revolution in higher education which would offer high quality content at zero cost.
Companies such as Coursera and Udacity leveraged technology and built platforms for massive open online courses (MOOC). Coursera founded last year by two Stanford profs Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller has partnered with 33 universities to offer educational content to over 2M registered users who can complete courses online to earn a certificate of merit. In the education industry, the three important factors that make up the heart of the system are content and its delivery, interaction among fellow students, and assessment and grading. The MOOC companies have effectively leveraged technology to scale up on these three factors
- Course design and Content Delivery: In the education space, content and delivery is the king and technology has played a key role in the design and delivery of the course content thus making it accessible to millions of users across the globe. The courses are designed to be interactive with easy to follow and understand videos containing pauses for quizzes. Today, anyone with a computer/smartphone and an internet connection can earn a certificate by enrolling in a course and spending approx. 4-8 hrs per week reviewing video content. Each video focusses on a particular topic and is approximately 10 min long. The audio content is primarily in english but eager students from across the world are adding sub titles to make the content usable to fellow students for whom english is not a primary language.
- Collaboration: A hallmark of the traditional class room system is the collaboration between students and with the faculty. To bridge this gap in the online world, MOOC companies have created virtual collaboration spaces where students can pose questions that are answered by fellow students. Every participating individual can vote threads which will help the top rated threads to bubble up. Moreover each thread is monitored by teaching associates to ensure the accuracy of the content. Global student base ensures that answers and comments flow in rapidly making time zones irrelevant thus making student interactions pervasive and real time
- Grading: In a traditional class room setup, grading is typically done by the professors or teaching assistants. However, in MOOC, due to large number of participating students, it is impossible for a professor/TA to grade every student individually. The online peer grading system has helped solve this challenge. In Coursera, the platform randomly assigns each student, 5 peer students whose work needs to be graded. Only if the student grades a minimum of 5 students, will his work be graded. To address the issue of a particular student giving bad grades to fellow students because of a misunderstood assignment, the system considers an average score rather than a single score.
The MOOC companies are a classic example of how young businesses can leverage technology to build scale and take their services to the masses at low cost. Along with building scale, technology has helped remove important roadblocks in the digital distribution and consumption of high quality educational content and has disrupted an industry where innovation has virtually been absent. From the consumer perspective, any individual from any corner of the world with a computer/smartphone and an internet connection can now learn from the best teachers and be part of a global classroom at zero cost.
By intelligently adopting emerging technologies around collaboration, media, and social, traditional colleges can easily scale their course content delivery and attract students and professionals from all corners of the globe. By charging a nominal fee for giving credits, this can be converted into a successful revenue generating model. Unless the college get their act right now, MOOCs will displace traditional education systems and colleges will be a thing of the past.
An important challenge that yet remains unaddressed is the business model for MOOCs. In my next blog, I'll shed some light on how MOOCs can build a sustainable business model.