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Edtech Intelligence #17 – Chris Fellingham’s Roundup on What’s Happening

Coursera on the final lap for an IPO? Udacity to become an incubator VC? Read on

Hello again Class Central Readers!

I’m Chris Fellingham, I work for FutureLearn and as a way to help people understand the world of Edtech (not least myself) I began writing updates on some of the trends and stories in the Edtech world – with a focus on MOOCs.

These reports are largely an annotated summary of the news in a fortnight and reflect my own, sometimes blunt views on what’s happening, what’s good, what’s exciting and what sucks.

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I hope you enjoy it


The big story this week was Coursera’s appointment of a new CEO, Jeff Maggioncalda after Rick Levin passed on the baton to what is expected to be the final leg of their relay for an IPO. Udacity may be about to undergo their boldest venture yet (no pun intended), as an incubator/VC and automation is chipping away at the Indian IT industry.

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

State of the MOOCS

Coursera CEO Rick Levin stands down to be replaced by Jeff Maggioncalda — Rick Levin, who originally came out of retirement to lead Coursera had always planned a limited tenure and will now stay on as a Senior Advisor. Jeff Maggioncalda was CEO of Financial Engines — a financial advice company that aided employees with retirement — and crucially took them public. Although Jeff maintains he wasn’t brought on to take Coursera to an IPO he didn’t rule it out. The move seems appropriate, Coursera have aggressively commercialised their platform as well as taking in what is anticipated to be the final funding round, with an understanding that an IPO might be the end game. Levin whose primary goal was to develop the university relationships has likely matured them such that someone with a pure business background can now lead the push to an IPO without risking those same relationships.

Coursera also have a reputation for delivering fascinating and insightful press releases and it seems likely that Jeff will take that to a new level. Jeff got the ball rolling in what we can only hope becomes Coursera’s new tagline by noting that his previous company and Coursera had the same mission to ‘provide universal access to important information’. Reassuringly Jeff concluded “I’m sort of a life-long learner…including learning how to be the best CEO that I can.” Mmm hmm — here and here

Udacity: Education, Recruitment, Venture Capital? — Udacity have pushed the online education model the furthest by generating profit out of their Nanodegrees and establishing an internship/recruitment program but their recent self-driving car spin off suggests a more intriguing role. I previously covered the spin-off here but at the time felt it was a one-off. This hypothesis may need revisiting after Thrun who was going to sit on the board of the startup had to recuse himself due to conflict of interest with Waymo, the Google self-driving car spin-off which he helped establish. Udacity will still retain an equity stake in the spin-off. The point being that talent in key areas such as self-driving is very scarce and the recusal demonstrates Google took this spin-off seriously.

Thrun established Udacity in part because he felt there were insufficient people able to work on projects like self-driving cars. Nanodegrees in self-driving cars, along with AI, Robotics and VR means his vision is being fulfilled at scale, as he intended. Udacity may now also be thinking about becoming an incubator/venture capital fund. They have courses that are highly in-demand and as such a talent pipeline that may generate future spin-offs in key areas. Like Universities who often have their own incubators and funds, Udacity may go down the same route to capitalise on the talent coming through their platform. This spin-off maybe the test balloon — here

edX update

  • 1100 complete MIT Micromasters in Supply Chain Management — of those 622 took the final exam netting $839K in revenue — here
  • edX note their partners did well in the latest QS rankings — It’s understandable but also a bit passé, a rankings based predominantly on research is a poor indicator of what makes for good MOOCs e.g. Class-Central top 50here
  • edX sign Open source company Red Hat — It’s their second major Open Source partner acquisition after their hugely successful Linux Foundation collaboration — here


Are social networks the future of online learning? The question has been there since LinkedIn acquired Lynda and moreso after Facebook revealed it will enable learning in their groups.

Facebook’s ‘Developer Circles’ (including a partnership with Udacity) are a way to support developers integrating their software with Facebook. Developer Circles will be Facebook’s first trial of how Facebook groups support education, initially they will be fairly basic without any assessment functionality etc.

Meanwhile, LinkedIn is enabling custom content creation for premium users, including an organisation option which can restrict content to just their employees. In parallel, LinkedIn has been ramping up their own content, with 200 instructional designers and a developer team that is working on a) identifying the new courses to develop based on job skill data on LinkedIn and b) improving the matching of skills and jobs. LinkedIn argue their learning and matching is not just for people looking to switch jobs, retention is critical for companies as the cost of replacing an employee is 50–250% of the employee’s annual salary.

Facebook’s advantage is obvious, they already have the eyeballs and most people stop learning to peruse Facebook so why not do both? It’s either the ultimate distraction or a novel solution to it. LinkedIn are as ever chasing the economic graph but the questions are: do they have the right courses? Is the platform any good for learning? Will they ever be the goto medium for recruitment? LinkedIn need to be compelling on the first two and has yet to prove the latter despite their vast size, making you wonder if they’ll ever quite do it — herehere and here

University of Michigan trials automated essay marking — Automated marking usually only applies to multiple choice assessments but Michigan have created an AI tool that combines peer review with automated assessment. The description implies it’s main skill is to study written answers and detect at risk students rather than judge their worth but it’s a promising step forward in automated assessment — here

Team Human vs Machine

Indian IT workers feel the nascent pangs of automation — While many emerging market success stories were built on cheap manufacturing, India built its middle class from IT software development and outsourcing. The industry employs 4m people and was critical in the formation of India’s present day middle class. However, just as manufacturing in East Asia faces automation so too does India’s IT industry. 20K lay offs have been made in 2017 and are forecast to rise in coming years to hundreds of thousands. The layoffs are being driven by the big tech firms like WiPro and Infosys who are facing nimbler startups in new technology areas that require less people; AI, Cloud and robotic automation. To keep profit margins up they are dumping labour.

Timing has been critical for industrialisation, the likes of China and Taiwan were able to capitalise on it to develop a middle class whose educated children could take on jobs less vulnerable to automation. For newer countries, automation will limit the efficacy of industrialisation as a path to prosperity — what Harvard Economist Dani Rodrik refers to as premature industrialisation. India is a halfway house, it has been able to grow a middle class but still retains an average living standard far below the likes of China. The mantra of neoliberal economics is that such workers can retrain, but many workers will have gone through a substandard education system that may stymie to what extent they can be retrained — here

‘Education as a Benefit’ — Amazon, Chipotle and Starbucks demo the latest recruitment and retention tool — Amazon’s Career Choice which pays for up to 95% of tuition at colleges for its staff if they take an ‘in-demand’ course (not one necessarily relevant to their job) has passed 10K. Amazon even hosts classes at 25 of their fulfillment centres. At the same time Chipotle, the Burrito chain, is working with Guild Education to offer tuition discounts to staff wishing to take a degree at a community college. Guild Education note that 87% of Fortune 1000 have tuition reimbursement but many lack the operations to get staff to systematically use it — which is where they step in.

Like LinkedIn, Guild note that Education is an excellent recruitment and retention tool, given replacing an employee is expensive. Guild also points to an underlying anxiety for workers which is whether they will be automated — especially in low-pay service sector or warehouse jobs such as Starbucks, Chipotle and Amazon. Amazon’s requirement that the skill be ‘in-demand’ points to such companies underlying message; work for us now and we’ll prepare you for the future [in which we may replace you] — here and here

OPM (Online Programme Management)

Stanford study indicates weaker students perform worse on online courses — Two professors from Stanford University ran a study with DeVry University, a for-profit that is mostly online. The study showed that while high achieving students performed similarly for online and on campus, weaker students tended to drop 0.44 of their GPA (B- to a C) when they took an online course vs an on campus course. Subject to caveats, the study has echoes of Udacity’s failure to teach Remedial maths one that in part led Udacity to pivot to professionals. The key question the study raises is how far online can replace offline for learners who require more support. Online is often touted as the silver bullet for countries with constrained Education capacity because it scales. However, many of the same countries also lack robust K-12 education systems which means their students may have more in common with the weaker students in this study. If online wants to take on this challenge evidently greater pedagogical support and innovation will be required — here

2U extends its partnership with George Washington University’s Milken Institute of Public Health to 2034 — This will continue their evidently profitable masters in the health vertical of Masters in: Health Administration, Public Health and Health Informatics –here

Edtech Finance

TopHat secures further funding to disrupt the academic textbook market — TopHat secured $7.5m in funding, an extension to their $22.5m Series C funding round that brings their total to ~$50m. Who are TopHat I hear you ask? TopHat are a digital publisher whose stated aim is to turn the $10bn academic publishing industry into a $2bn industry (which they would dominate). They have a few tricks to do this. Firstly, academics create ‘Coursepacks’ (essentially digital textbooks) liek Educators on Udemy or Lynda create courses. Like Udemy and Lynda the academic takes a revenue share. TopHat’s ‘Coursepacks’ cost $80 each vs ~$400 for a typical textbook, with the catch that students also have to subscribe to access it ($26 for a term, 28$ annually and $75 for lifetime access) — here

UKHE (UK Higher Education)

LEO arrives, WonkHE unpacks — The Longitudinal Earnings Outcome data is now fully published. The data is a joint effort by Nuffield Foundation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies and approved by former Minister of Universities David Willetts. In essence, it’s a survey dataset that tracks graduates by institution, degree and then earnings over time. It’s a big deal for issues such as social mobility, HE funding and degree choice. Some headline results:

  • Top subjects to study — Medicine, Veterinary Science, Architecture, Engineering, Education, Mathematics, Economics and Computer Science (in order) have the highest earnings after graduation
  • Bottom subjects: Creative Arts, Humanities, Communication and Languages are associated with the lowest earnings
  • Gender disparity — A depressing statistics was that the gender pay gap — almost agnostic of institution or degree — started immediately on graduation with only English as the exception. In particular, the more male dominated a subject (e.g. Engineering) the worse the subsequent pay gap

While it raises far more questions than it answers, LEO will start to layout the contours of where further research is required such as the causes of gender pay gap and how institutions should charge for subjects with poor financial returns — for this and much more see WonkHE’s extensive coverage — here and here

UKHE slips in QS world rankings — UK universities dropped down the QS rankings which were produced back in May but some rather different opinions as to why have emerged. The most likely reason is simply that as other major countries strategically prioritised rankings (especially China) they would take some of the spots dominated by the UK and US. Some have also suggested Brexit namely because it’s been harder to recruit and retain top EU research staff who are concerned about their working rights and UKHE access to research funding. These are all plausible, less plausible is the Telegraph’s lamentable piece suggesting ‘social mobility efforts’ i.e. policies designed to open university to applicants from poorer backgrounds is to blame — Professor Andrew McRae of Exeter disembowels the argument — here

UKHE’s Brexit priorities — UKHE, home of the experts, was not in favour of Brexit. Still, they are on a damage limitation exercise (on expertise and Brexit). The top priorities are: secure residency and working rights for EU nationals and their dependents (17% of staff are EU nationals), secure access to Horizon 2020 and subsequent research funding, Secure access to Erasmus, maintain regulatory standards and equivalence — here

International Education

US Universities prepare for an evermore international future — American Council on Education released its latest survey of 1100 US universities’ internationalisation efforts (defined as receiving and sending students abroad, academic collaboration and exchanges etc). Internationalisation is increasingly seen as a selling point; it attracts students, it attracts academic staff and it bolsters the bottom line (here)

  • 72% said internationalisation initiatives were increasing with the main reason ‘preparing students for a global world’ increased revenue was 4th
  • 70% were increasing funding for internationalisation efforts
  • 30% now used recruitment agents for international students (up from 11% in 2011) — they are banned for US domestic students
  • 49% planned to have English language preparation pathways
  • 44% had or were planning international university partnerships


Jason Palmer of New Tech Ventures writes the history of Edtech and why he’s optimistic- Palmer who has worked as an administrator in Education, a CEO of an Edtech company and with the Gates foundation argues that 2011–2020 will be a great period of change as Edtech finally move to the mainstream built off ubiquitous mobile, internet and advances in analytics and business models — here

Chris Fellingham Profile Image

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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