What is the Future of Online Education? Let’s Find Out.

A brief history lesson

Online education has long promised to bring massive change to the way we learn and, to some extent, it has. Since the early days of the web, universities have embraced virtual learning environments like Blackboard and WebCT to supplement traditional lectures and assignments. Then, led by for-profit schools serving non-traditional students, schools began offering courses and degrees in an entirely online environment (using similar technology). MIT made history in 2002 by starting the OpenCourseWare project, which made lecture notes, videos, problem sets and exams for 32 courses available online, for free, to anyone with a curious mind. In the last 10 years, that number has grown to over 2000 MIT courses, and 250 other schools have followed suit.

What’s next?

Stop and ask yourself: what are schools really for? I think it’s fair to say that, at their most utilitarian level, schools serve three basic functions:

  1. Provide access to information
  2. Help people learn
  3. Certify that people have learned the things you’ve taught them

In a world where you can access 2000 MIT courses for free, providing access to information doesn’t add much value. The opportunity to differentiate becomes delivery. Even for a bright mind, it can be hard to learn without the motivation and perspective you get from interacting with faculty and other students. Many college courses are basically one-way (think: huge lectures), so a well-designed interactive learning experience have some advantages, such as tailored experiences for individual students, over a traditional classroom. To me, that points in one direction: I think the players in the online education space are going to start acting a lot more like consumer internet companies.

When method of delivery becomes an online school’s primary product, UX/UI will become an intense focus. When there’s no physical limit on seats, attracting more users trumps sending out rejection letters. Schools will need to understand their users and find out how to provide the right experience for them. The experience will be defined by split testing, web analytics, and user surveys instead of the vision of a single professor or departmental committee. Schools will hire great engineers, build killer features, constantly refine their products and compete aggressively for users. Does that sound more like Silicon Valley, or the Ivy League?

It’s already happening, too. Coursera, Udacity and edX are putting courses from world-class universities online, on their own platforms, and inviting anyone to join, for free. In a world where education costs and student debt are spiraling out of control, the companies above (or new market entrants) could make a world-class education attainable for anyone with the desire to learn.

My Angle

For personal/professional reasons, I’m interested in picking up basic software development skills, and I decided to go the free online route. But, I had a hard time choosing between edX, Coursera and Udacity. When I started thinking about the online education world as a platform race (one that my company will be a participant in, by the way), I thought it might fun and professionally useful to understand each of these emerging platforms. So, today I’m going to kick off a long journey: in my spare time I’m going to take a full computer science/software development course on each of the three leading platforms and write about what it’s like. For the sake of my sanity, it’s going to be linear (one platform at a time). It’s not intended to be scientific, just an ongoing chronicle of what I see as I see it. My only goals are to learn software development, better understand what makes an effective interactive learning environment, and help others decide which education platform is right for them.

The missing piece

I haven’t addressed the question of certification in this new world. It’s truly the million billion-dollar question. Currently, taking a bunch of Harvard courses online doesn’t open nearly the same doors that earning a 4-year Harvard degree does. But what if we could narrow that gap? Figuring out how to prove student success is one of the ways that the new class of online schools/education platforms will end up making money. If a full Harvard degree costs almost $225,000, how much would you pay to show a prospective employer that you’ve aced 3 levels of Harvard’s computer science curriculum?* None of these companies can prove or value positive student outcomes right now, but if they can, it’s going to change everything.


* If you’re Harvard, where’s the sweet spot of this equation?

(# of online students * fee per student)+(value of fulfilling your education mission)-(costs incurred)-(dilution of your brand)

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