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Coursera, edX, Khan Academy, UoPeople – Are the Floodgates for Free Education Finally Open?

It’s all but a secret these days that online education has developed itself into a hot market as founders, developers and investors get attracted to the vertical and now take it more serious than some 2 years ago. 

What many people have criticized so far was a reluctance from most of the top universities to have serious ambitions and invest in innovative online programs both paid and free. 

Personally, I have always been careful of judging them too quickly. My point of view was that they were simply waiting for the right moment. Understandably, top universities have a reputation to maintain and their bread and butter are their graduate programs. Costly, for sure, but still almost a guarantee to find a good job later on. 

The reasoning is complex, but it is obvious that those institutions won’t play around with online courses just for the sake of having a program online, unless they are very sure how to set it up and what they want to achieve. 

It seems that this moment has finally come. Just a few days ago, we thought the $16 million Higher Education startup Coursera scored were so cool, to paraphrase the Social Network here. 

Coursera is the brainchild of Stanford professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng who have built a platform to the world for free. Their high quality courses are developed in partnerships with some of the world’s leading schools and universities, e.g. Stanford, Princeton, University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania. If you are interested in learning more about the founders’ motivation to take their teaching outside of the traditional auditorium I recommend you listen to the interview I and my colleague Christopher Dawson of ZDNet had the pleasure to do with Ng and Koller. 

Events are moving fast these days in online higher ed. If $16 million were cool just some days ago, now $60 million are. 

Harvard and MIT announced their collaboration on the open-source edX project to potentially educate a billion of people from around the world. The well-known MITx technology will serve as the platform for the new and free online courses set to start next fall. The initiative is set up as a not-for-profit, Harvard and MIT both committed to invest $ 30 million each.

It is interesting to see that now as these top universities decided the time has come to go online, a considerable financial commitment probably was the least of a problem. $ 60 million show seriousness and dedication, to finance the partnership completely out of their own pockets guarantees that all decision-making is only going to come out of MIT and Harvard themselves and independency is always a good thing. 

The new free courses are not going to eat the existing business-models as students will “only” get a certificate of mastery not a real degree. 

You can find a good article with all details on GigaOm.

In the announcement the much hyped (and rightfully so) Khan Academy is named as an inspiration. Also a not-for-profit I would agree to see Khan himself and the academy he has built as a pioneer of this movement to teach the world through online video along with quizzes and other features, may it be K12 focused like the Khan Academy is or more recently the new initiatives in higher education.

What I see as an interesting point is the immediate success of these online classes coming out of Stanford, MIT and Harvard with hundreds of thousands of people signing up in just a few days or weeks. It took Salman Khan significantly longer to get to those numbers in video views what tells us that attraction to a big name along with the quality of teaching it promises is still unbowed, with or without a certificate. 

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An interesting study comes to my mind. Glenda Morgan of the University of Illinois did research on how students search for educational content on the internet. 

The results are highly interesting and somewhat surprising. Students prefer content from a recognized brand such as such Stanford or MIT largely over content from the Khan Academy. I invite you to read the full article here

I will leave you with one more thought about the money. Admittedly, a little over-simplified but what MIT and Harvard basically say is that it takes $60 million to teach one billion people. Coursera took $16 million as initial venture funding which will likely not be their only round of funding as Daphne Koller told me at the end of our interview that there were many more VCs who wanted to offer them money and the challenge was more to pick the right ones than experiencing difficulties to get funding at all. 

Opposite to that I would like to make you aware of article on the University of the People and its founder Shai Reshef in which he states that it was possible to educate the world with just $ 6 million.

Whether it is going to be $6, $16, $60 million or a completely different number, in the end what really matters is that access to quality courses and teaching has finally started to become a reality for the masses.

Photo: via Shutterstock


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