The Democratization of Education = Open Online Courses + Startups

By Wladimir Hinz, Altitude Accelerator Tech Blogger.

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In the last couple of years, the surge of Open Educational Resources (OERs) and Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) has moved education to more open spaces. And although both of these platforms are thriving as scalable technologies, the revolution in education that was supposed to be the end of private institutions didn’t take place as some thought it would. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that today education is incredibly more accessible and interactive for learners all over the world.

Incentives Matter

In 2011, there was immense hype in the online education market. Signs of an educational revolution began to materialize around the promising and disruptive technology of MOOCs and OERs. But we were left waiting, because the revolution didn’t come. This prominent industry was still faced with the same problems as traditional classroom training. In particular, they were – and still are – struggling with student engagement.

One of the most attractive features that MOOCs and OERs offer is their format. It’s able to tackle some of the problems that students encounter when sitting in a classroom, like the speed at which the instruction is provided.

Yet, the data is still quite staggering. Only 4% of the students that start MOOCs actually finish them. We could blame the course material for not being engaging enough, but in most cases the root of the problem lies in that the courses are free – there’s no real commitment to actually finish them, even in a world with rising education costs. The truth is that incentives do matter.

One of the prime goals of these projects is to offer quality material that can be used to reduce the educational gap. Free access to quality information should be helpful, right?  Well, the interest and participation of that key demographic is yet to be seen. Most of the individuals that use MOOCs and OERs already have a high level of education.

Agents of Mass Disruption

These weak statistics should discourage tech startups in the education and e-learning industry, but this doesn’t appear to be the case. There seems to be an uncovered market opportunity hiding somewhere amidst all the noise.

Actually, the potential payoff is very high. The market size of the global education market is calculated to be around US$ 5.4 trillion and the market of online learning is at US$ 91 billion. It’s a huge industry that’s expected to grow at a very fast rate, 7.4% CARG between 2012 and 2017.

The MOOC market has seen an exponential rise in recent years with the coming of major e-learning platforms like Coursera, Edx, and Udacity. They have undoubtedly disrupted the online education market, but this effect hasn’t really been felt in classrooms where this technology is used more as an aid than a substitute.

There are also other smaller education tech startups worth mentioning like Accredible, Course Hero, and Quizlet, which look very promising and potentially disrupting. Accredible is an online startup that provides badge-type certification services for other startups, looking to fill the void of recognizable credentials. Course Hero and Quizlet are companies that provide learning material shared by students worldwide. Their databases are immense and so is their growing user base.

New Credentialing: It’s all about credentials

It’s quite interesting to observe what MOOCs are doing to further legitimize themselves as educational institutions. The surge and evolution of recognizable credentials is vital, especially for any education that’s completely provided over the internet. Credentials such as badges, certificates and other assessments, are beginning to be widely used. This was the key element that was missing from the first wave of the revolution.

The trend appears to be gaining strength. One example is Open Badges, which is an attempt to standardize online learning. However, several startups are starting to adopt credentialing as well: Coursera has started offering several certificates for its courses, Udacity has a nano-degree program and General Assembly has developed a certificate program as well. If these credentials begin to be widely recognized, it could allow MOOCs and OERs to grow substantially and have a real impact on the workforce.

Universities of the World, Unite!

OERs are also of special interest. These are platforms put together by private institutions that offer free educational content for pedagogic/research purposes. These courses include independent lectures, modules, journals and other free educational resources. The number of OER initiatives is also growing quite fast:

  • Over 150 universities in China are currently participating, providing more than 450 courses
  • 12 French universities have united to form the ParisTech OCW project, offering more than 150 courses
  • 9 Japanese universities have also united to form the Japanese OCW Alliance providing access to more than 250 courses
  • 7 universities from the United States have their own OER programs (MIT, Rice, Johns Hopkins, Tufts, Carnegie Mellon, and Utah SU)

Including other important universities around the world, there are currently thousands of free resources out there for people who wish to train themselves. Other resources worth mentioning are MERLOT, ARIADNE, Textbook Revolution, and Universia. A more thorough list can be found at the Open Education Consortium.

Student Engagement

In this article, several techniques for student engagement are considered. Among the key takeaways is that, of the known techniques and methods that can be applied to MOOCs and OERs to keep students engaged, direct mentorship, retention marketing, and the “learn by doing” method are the most effective.

It’s important to integrate the tools that are known to work in these learning platforms. This is why it’s safe to say that private education won’t stop any time soon and that the old-school techniques are still the most effective ways of transmitting knowledge in a scalable manner. But this also gives rise to new interesting combinations like what Dev Bootcamp, The Minerva Project and The Uncollge movement are doing. They’re basically a mix of private education and MOOCs, and although their services and products are not free, they offer an alternative option that provides the best of both worlds.

Communication and Interaction

The essence of this debate lies mostly around how learners communicate and interact with each other. Ideally, this should be personalized, since some people learn more by listening, others by seeing, and others by doing. It’s this interaction between the senses that needs to be addressed, otherwise problems with engagement will remain. And this will still hold true even if online education is made completely accessible.

Significant advances have been made thanks to new technology implemented by startups. What’s missing in MOOCs and OERs, other than recognizable credentials, is the implementation of tools that are known to work in traditional schooling. This could very well be the future of education.