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Human Learning #27: Can Online Get Students into Jobs? Is College Worth It?

The latest on the word of EdTech

Human Learning (previously known as Education Intelligence) is a newsletter curated by Chris Fellingham. You can signup for it here.

Welcome to issue #27. There was a brief hiatus last fortnight due to a four-day wedding (not mine). This week sees a retrenchment of the online “last mile” business model (i.e. education into jobs) with the closure of Udacity Blitz, and MiríadaX’s new owners may shake up their business strategy.

I’ve written two articles this issue. The first is a response to a reader’s comments last issue: “What price is the right price for a MOOC subscription” — which you can find here.

The second: Bryan Caplan, Economics Professor at George Mason University, has asked whether college is worth it. Find my take here.

State of the MOOCS


MOOCs for Masters — 2018 Predictions: Joshua Kim, Director of Digital Learning at Dartmouth, lays out his predictions (based mostly, it seems, on edX’s MicroMasters). Kim argues the MicroMaster model has a bright future. Firstly, Masters are the new Bachelors, so demand should be strong. Secondly, Kim argues that MOOC performance could replace metrics such as GPA for entry — he’s referring to the way students who successfully complete MicroMasters are nominally considered for a Masters even if they wouldn’t otherwise be eligible. This last part has considerable merit. Many students put significant hours into master the GMAT or equivalent, which has questionable predictive value of their subsequent performance. However, taking an online course in a subject they are interested in ought to benefit both sides: the student learns material that they are already interested in and which can transfer to the Masters if successful, and the university gains a more valid predictive metric. Plus it weeds out students who find they actually don’t like the subject. Read more here.

Miríadax taken over by Telefónica: Telefónica, the Spanish telco, have bought out Banco Santander and Universeria network (i.e. the group of universities who part-owned the Spanish language MOOC platform) to take control. It’s unknown what their intentions are, but one suspects a tilt to either B2B or professional training. The Spanish-speaking world is well suited to this due to (a) strong primary and secondary education, (b) generally mediocre youth employment, and (c) relatively weak competition, because EdTech offering tends to focus on English or Chinese language markets. Read more here.

Udacity gives up on “project work/recruitment program” Blitz: Class Central report that Udacity’s Blitz program, which allowed graduates to do paid work for companies that could then hire them, has been shut down. Dhawal Shah of Class Central argues Blitz didn’t scale to sufficiently cover the costs and, as a result, Udacity will divert resources to career support. Udacity is unlikely to give up — online may not have worked, but a version that works through Udacity Connect (their premium blended learning option) might be more feasible. Bootcamps integrate employers into their proposition for careers fairs and presentations, and allow students to meet directly. Udacity has many of the biggest corporate brands already, so at least within certain cities this ought to be feasible. Read more here.

  • Udacity has formally opened in MENA: Udacity will translate more of their Nanodegrees into Arabic (there are currently only three) and have government partnerships in place to help market their courses. Sixty percent of the MENA population is under 25 with high youth unemployment.
  • Udacity launches design sprint Nanodegree ($299) and Google Adwords Nanodegree ($699): Udacity has been tentatively going beyond its programming core into other in-demand areas. The “magic formula” is newer tech skills with shortages, and where the brand value lies more with the corporate than with a university. There is also a logic in that sprint planning is a leadership role for programmers, so this incorporates a vertical path for learners to progress upon. Read more here and here.
  • Udacity is anticipating 100% year-on-year revenue: a good year then. Read more here.

Udemy launches new B2B product “Team Plan”: Udemy already has Udemy for Business, but each deal is somewhat bespoke and requires a contract. This new plan allows for smaller companies or units in a company (defined as 5–20 employees) with their own budget to purchase on the spot. Logical, because a bespoke deal for such small numbers is scarcely worth it for the operational cost. Read more here.

Class Central release their user survey: Class Central surveyed its users, garnering 2.5K responses. With the caveats around sampling, it still provides some noteworthy points (users could select multiple answers): most users (80%) took MOOCs for personal reasons, and 52% took them for career benefits; meanwhile, 57% didn’t record any benefit from MOOCs (perhaps because they were taking the MOOC(s) for leisure?) but 28% did. Americans were by far the most willing to pay for certificates, while the UK was remarkably low. Read more here.

Coursera for Business now has 600 companies, including Indian telco Bharti Airtel. Read more here.

Ed’s Tech

VR’s threat to MOOCs is some way off: I’ve been meaning to write a post on the threat of VR for some time, and this post can serve as a prelude to that. The straw man is that VR is a total game changer which will sweep all other learning products by combining the best of both worlds: the advantages of digital (access, scale) with reality (humans, social, etc.). That seems entirely plausible, but the obvious catch is that at present VR is still an early adopter technology with a hefty price point. That said, the educational use cases for VR are slowly expanding. The latest is Strivr, which Walmart is using to train employees to deal with Black Friday crowds. Fittingly, Strivr was originally created by a Stanford football coach who wanted to train quarterbacks for “Blitz” attacks. This is great news for VR. Although it’s a narrow use case, every employee could benefit from the training, making it a worthwhile investment. Crucially for VR, it provides a stable source of revenue as the technology matures. Read more here.

The business of EdTech

Penn State to launch bootcamp: Jumping on the bandwagon, Penn State is working with bootcamp provider Trilogy to create a coding bootcamp that will cost $12,000. The bootcamp market is projected to grow 11% per year globally. Penn State has already tripled its Computer Science intake since 2007, but bootcamps are about “the last mile” (i.e. getting a job), and apply to CS and non-CS grads alike. It can’t be too long before universities do to bootcamps what they did to OPM providers, namely: hire one, learn from them, and then — if they are confident of the business model — terminate the contract and set up their own. They’d have a captive market (their students), the real estate (their campus), and corporate contacts (their career service). If done well, it would contribute to their employability metrics, all of which ought to make them a formidable competitor. Read more here and here.

EdTech investor Ryan Craig argues EdTech’s next innovation will be offline: Ryan Craig argues that online has failed to deliver the “last mile” (i.e. bridging the gap between education and jobs), and that only offline can do this. Craig argues that while MOOCs have been excellent in expanding access, Udacity’s failure in the job placement market (10% placement rate) demonstrates the limits of an online approach. Craig argues that to succeed you need a meaningful goal, intensity (i.e. working intensively), and personal contact with employers. In short, a bootcamp. He notes an MIT course on edX, Entrepreneurship 101, that then offered students a one-week residential to create a business. That model, which has since been continued, has seen considerable investment in startup ideas and the hiring of the students. That these are insurmountable obstacles feels far-fetched; Andela in Africa already combine training with outsourced agency work, and others are experimenting. Read more here.

Knewton — caught between a product and a business model: Knewton, an adaptive learning company, is having a mixed year. The good news is that its products appear effective: adaptive learning trials of their maths and statistics packages have raised completion rates (although no control was used), and students were broadly supportive. However, many faculty are unsure whether they’ll continue with them. The problem for Knewton is it’s competing in the publishing business. Most publishers offer large bundle deals to universities rather than a la carte. Knewton has a very limited range of products at this point, which means a university would have to pay for it in addition to the main bundle. Knewton is then betting it can expand its portfolio and demonstrate its added value faster than other publishers can incorporate adaptive. Read more here.

Graduway raises $12.7m in a Series B funding round: The British-based startup helps universities manage their alumni (a cross between CRM and community management), with clients including the University of Oxford, John Hopkins, and 500 others. This is particularly useful for universities with large international alumni communities, which many administrators admit they neglect. Read more here.

Team Human vs Machine

Lumina Foundation are launching “Credential Engine” — a search engine for worker skills: It’s being launched in conjunction with J.P Morgan, Microsoft, and AFL-CIO. The platform aims to help employers navigate the jungle of different credentials, and help workers with the right skills to find the right jobs. The tool is open-source and the foundation hopes industries — in particular, those such as Healthcare — can set out which credentials they require, and then find the workers. This is effectively the nut LinkedIn is trying to crack with their Economic graph. With their considerable resources, it would be fair to say LinkedIn are still in the trial stage. I’d be skeptical that Credential Engine will gain the adoption rate required for critical mass. Read more here.

Global Higher Education

A liberal education without the liberalism?: Two universities are due to set up degrees in China teaching “liberal arts”: Duke Kunshan (of Duke University) and University of Nottingham’s Ningo. China sees value in liberal arts education. Namely it sees a way to help the Chinese understand history, and understand how the world (at least that of it which studies liberal arts) sees China; a way to develop skills that are resilient to automation in its workforce (e.g. critical thinking); to develop more well-rounded workers (e.g. “socially conscious engineer”); and, finally, to equip employees better for a more international work environment. Can the Chinese government have its cake and eat it? Probably. China has consistently defied Western predictions of the necessity of democracy, and there is little evidence that “liberal education” has a direct impact on a country’s government (Goldstone 1991). Indeed it may well work as they intend — that is, to raise a more perceptive and thus resilient generation of bureaucrats and workers. Read more here.

Online Degrees

2U announce a new MBA from UC Davis: 2U’s “secret sauce” is to target students who don’t get into one of their more elite MBAs and push them into one of their easier MBAs (effectively recycling the cost per acquisition value), but a quick count reveals six MBAs on their site; one wonders if they aren’t seeing diminishing returns to marketing their online MBAs. Read more here.


Which countries prepare their children best for the future? The OECD (a think tank sponsored by rich countries) can answer that definitively for you, and in order: Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Canada, Estonia, Finland, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, and the USA (with the UK just behind). These are part of the OECD’s PISA test, one of the only standardised tests between countries. They were measuring to what extent children collaborate (including communication, networks, negotiation, team building, and problem solving). Some countries are moving to actively encourage this; in Finland, for example, collaboration is now a regular part of the curriculum. That said, these results roughly reflect the best countries for education in general (according to PISA), creating a correlation-causation issue to be teased out. Read more here.

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All views expressed in these reports are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of FutureLearn.

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Chris Fellingham

To stop himself dying of boredom in a former job Chris discovered MOOCs. It was a short hop to working in Strategy and Insights for FutureLearn from which he was inescapably drawn to to trying to understand the macro forces at work. Otherwise Chris is a policy wonk, a political geek and a long suffering fan of Tottenham Hotspur.

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