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Edtech intelligence – A roundup by Chris Fellingham on what’s happening

This issue looks at Udacity’s endgame, the role of the private sector in education (via Adaptive Learning) as well as some sloppy scholarship from the Clayton Christensen Institute.

Hello 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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State of the MOOCS

Will Udacity become the blended university for tech? Udacity announced their latest ‘Udacity Connect’, this time in Reno in coordination with the city government which is looking to continue its rejuvenation as a low cost tech hub. Udacity Connect and Udacity Connect Intensive are blended learning classrooms. Udacity Connect is the ‘add on’, it offers Nanodegree students a weekly offline class with an instructor for an additional $100 p/m. Udacity argued that the offline element significantly increased completion rates. Udacity Connect Intensive is a ‘part-time boot camp’ with fixed start and end dates. Applicants attend a 5 hour class on a weekend and then are expected to do an additional 5 hours in their own time.

Why does Udacity need to create an offline option? Partly as mentioned, it adds to their core metrics through higher completion rates. Secondly, Udacity’s primary competition is as much Coding Bootcamps as other MOOC/Coding platforms. Coding Bootcamps offer fast track study of coding with the promise of jobs – an area Udacity now competes in with its Blitz programme. Udacity’s advantage is they should be able to do it at a lower cost, as a blended format they need only rent for short periods of time rather than permanent office space.

At the same time as their Reno announcement, Udacity have also launched their ‘Business Analyst’ Nanodegree, marking Udacity’s second non-coding based degree. As with other Nanodegrees, Udacity’s USP is their industry partnerships, first as course creators latterly as recruiters. There were rumours of Coursera trying to create a white-label online university awhile back, corporates however make for easier bedfellows than universities, their core competency isn’t being threatened and they get a supply of potential recruits from Udacity’s Blitz programme. Where next for Udacity? If they’re creating a blended university then alumni might be their next stop, their ever rising number of graduates coupled with some creative use of online space and Udacity Connect as offline could be paving the way to add a further membership model or just use it as another value-add to their core Nanodegree proposition – Here, here here and here


Finding the balance between the private sector and Universities in adaptive learning – Candace Thille, of Stanford Graduate School of Education and a pioneer of adaptive learning at Carnegie Mellon is interviewed by EdSurge. Thille argues that teaching and the learning paths of each student are a ‘core business process’ for educators. Thille fears too many universities are outsourcing this to adaptive learning providers who use ‘blackbox’ algorithms to guide students. Furthermore, while educators are accountable for student success, private companies are not and their incentives are ultimately geared more towards shareholder value. Thille is ultimately sanguine that a balance can be struck between private sector ingenuity and the public good of education, so long as adaptive learning algorithms empower the educator by showing their decision making rather than masking it. Smart Sparrow, the adaptive learning provider, will feel vindicated – here

Pearson end partnership  with Knewton to develop in-house adaptive learning – Pearson’s deep relationship with Adaptive Learning provider Knewton is coming to a close. Pearson actually led Knewton’s Series D funding round. Knewton however also supported many Pearson competitors some of whom have also built in-house capacity such as McGraw-Hill (primarily through acquisitions). Adaptive learning is increasingly required technology for textbook providers and other areas of education, hence Pearson’s decision to go in-house as well partnering with IBM’s Watson – here

Khan Academy for Medical Students – MEDSKL, founded by Dr Sanjay Sharma, a Clinical Epidemiologist is the latest example of an industry specific online provider. The platform has 200 faculty from 70 universities contributing short videos 15-18 minutes each, with supporting animations of key concepts. At present it’s free and used for revision by medical students however the aim is to monetise via additional content and certificates (this business model may sound familiar). MEDSKL should look to Lynda as the model; focus on institutional subscriptions for medical schools coupled with a B2C subscription offer – here

Online proctoring, here for the foreseeable future – Inside Higher Ed’s review of the Online Proctoring market notes the number of companies has doubled to 15 in 5 years and that ‘tens of thousands’ of online exams are taken each month in the US. Despite concerns by academics that students can cheat too easily, online proctoring’s future is rosy. The proliferation of online courses necessitates a concomitant growth in online exams. Students also expect exams to be as flexible as online learning, with some taking online exams at 3am, something only online proctoring can really achieve – here

Is Edtech a fridge or a washing machine? – That’s the question posed by Julia Freedland Fisher of the Clayton Christensen Institute. Hold the vomit for a moment. The argument is that fridges were adopted much faster than washing machines in households because you only need a socket for the former, while the latter requires more complex plumbing. In an Edtech context that would explain why the Khan Academy is widely used – it’s easy to assign it as homework, while adaptive learning is not – you have to redesign classes, curriculum’s and possible the role of the teacher. Fisher advocates more teacher professional development to expedite adaptive and other less easy to implement Edtech.

Hold your horses! Hanging your entire argument off an analogous example requires that example to be correct. Alas for the Clayton Institute, a scholar was on hand to demonstrate that this was not the case. Step forward Professor Jonathan Rees, whose expertise cover Edtech and household appliances in the twentieth century. Rees demonstrates that the driver was not convenience but access. While 90% of US households had fridges by the late 1950s only 10% of French/British households did, both needed access to food but Americans lacked the foodmarkets that British and French could shop at each day, so they had to refrigerate. Washing machines by contrast could be shared – as laundromats – which is why, rather than plumbing issues, they didn’t reach adoption until much later.

Rees’ conclusion is that much as not all countries adopted fridges and washing machines at the same time because they had alternatives, so too should Edtech be adopted as and when it’s needed by the educator. While Rees is a tad too polite to fully put the boot into the Clayton Christensen Institute, others suggested this lazy, self-promoting scholarship was not atypical of them – here and here

University of South California and Zynga partner up – Zynga has made a ‘substantial gift’ to USC which will create courses for students to learn how to develop social and mobile games. TUSC get an industry partner to help students get jobs, Zynga get recruitment opportunities – here

LinkedIn now advertising learning direct to profiles – Logical, why wait for someone to apply for a job – here

Team human vs Automation

IBM partners with Maryland Association of Certified Public Accountants (CPAS) to deliver AI for accounting – IBM will offer a mixture of new and existing courses from their Big Data University on; Big Data, AI and Cognitive Computing. The aim of the partnership is to enable existing accounting practitioners to apply these disruptive tools themselves rather than be disrupted by outsiders. Accountancy has long been seen as vulnerable to automation due to its high volumes of routinised work (e.g. tax, financial statements). Many of the bigger firms are already acquiring startups and diversifying services as a result

IBM’s USP in this area is their ownership of both the education and a tool for disruption in this space. The tool in question is Watson, their ‘AI as a service’. IBM’s Big Data University has 700K+ students to date – here, here and here

Edtech Finance

CreativeLive close $25m in funding – The platform offers streamed (and increasingly on-demand) video classes covering Photo, video, art, craft etc courses from professionals. Intriguingly the brand aims to expand into the enterprise segment and already works with Microsoft, Adobe and GoPro. The platform has 10m students and is pursuing business courses such as leadership and public speaking – here

Intel Educator Accelerator won’t run in 2017 – The Accelerator which offered up to $100K plus mentorship to successful startup applicants will halt operations, possibly returning in 2018. Intel is still an active investor in 16 previous beneficiaries of the accelerator and will remain so – here

OPM (Online Programme Management)

Online degree market continues to grow – Eduventures have launched their CHLOE Survey (Changing Landscape of Online Education). The study of 106 colleges shows a median 9% increase in online program provision, 79% of those surveyed also said the market had become more crowded and 95% had plans to launch further online programs.

However, as Inside Higher Ed noted, 2 year online degree demand is slowing and this could be an early indicator of slowdown for the sector as a whole, something Eduventures themselves have forecast given that growth in online programs has for several years outstripped growth in demand –here and here and here

Donald Graham, former owner of KaplanU explains why he sold it to Purdue – In an interview with EdSurge (for which he is an investor) Donald Graham, who owns the holding company which owns Kaplan argues that KaplanU had plateaued (enrolments were falling) and that it would need Purdue’s brand and expertise to take it further.

Graham hints at two factors. Firstly political risk, under the Obama administration, there was a crackdown on for-profit colleges, even though Trump will likely relax regulations the risk post-Trump could make the whole venture less feasible. Secondly, as noted above, the OPM market is growing as more Universities create their own offering. Indeed, Purdue will likely first target in-state students who haven’t finished their degrees. Traditional universities’ brand and expertise may make the market harder for for-profits. If Graham is right, then moving to consultancy as Kaplan seem to be doing is logical, they can gain a first mover advantage in the new equilibrium – here

International Education

Business Schools need to do more to stimulate Alumni engagement – The delightfully named consultancy CarringtonCrisp, like a 1950s comic book villain, make a return with their annual Business School graduate survey. While generally positive, a key complaint among graduates was that Business Schools do not invest sufficiently in their alumni network. The implication was that simply setting up a LinkedIn group was insufficient and Business schools needed to create engaging content, events etc to stimulate engagement and thus the network’s value to its alumni –here

Liberal market economies look to rebalance tertiary education towards high skill ‘technical’ labour – The Conservative manifesto, and very likely next UK government, wants to diversity tertiary education, including establishing ‘Institutes of Technology’ in ‘every major city’. These will not be MIT style universities but more geared towards STEM apprenticeships. At the same time, Virginia Foxx a Republican representative and the Centre for American Progress (a liberal think tank) are looking at a similar idea in the US around increasing technical tertiary education .

The underlying premise is that liberal economies, such as the US and the UK, focused too much on universities as a route to a well paid job and neglected technical education. In fact, the valuable parts of the economy are at the high skill end of both knowledge economy and manufacturing – with both low-skill ends being eroded by globalisation and automation. Germany is the counterpoint, where a strong technical education system has enabled highly skilled manufacturing jobs that pay well – here and here

UKHE (UK Higher Education)

Conservative Manifesto will boost UKHE research funding – The Conservative manifesto promises to bring research to 2.4% of GDP over 10 years and then higher. It also aims to increase the number of UK universities with seed funds and incubators. The Conservatives would also like the UK to become the most innovative country in the world, which is nice – here

 University of Aberdeen opens first UK branch campus in South Korea – The campus will specialise in postgraduate masters and PhDs in Petroleum Engineering. Demand for such courses is likely dwindling in Aberdeen as the North Sea Oil wells decline, South Korea however has made Petroleum Engineering an industrial priority, so the University of Aberdeen has moved to where demand is – here

English language teaching declines for third straight year – Students coming to the UK to study English language have declined for the third straight year (it began before Brexit). School age learners also now outnumber adults. Top sending countries are: Italy, Saudi Arabia, Spain, France and China – here


Google’s classrooms – A New York Times article underlines the tremendous growth of Google Classroom, the tech giant’s cloud suite for schools, and asks ‘Who is helping who?’. From 2012, Google went from an outsider in school computer and services provision to capturing over 50% of the K-12 market share. Google achieved this by offering low-cost chromebooks and free cloud products (Classroom) making their money on the support services. Schools were able to drive down IT costs as well as gain easy to use office tools and email that were convenient for collaboration and accessible for students outside of schools.

What is the problem? The article cites the Silicon Valley saying ‘If you don’t pay for the product, you are the product’. Google are collecting large amount of data on schoolchildren, not least through their email, on graduation Google unsurprisingly offers free upgrades to Gmail. Google can use that data to market to to them on consumer google products. Parents, privacy advocates and many in education argue schools have bartered away children’s personal data and privacy for cheaper IT. Read the full article – 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.

Comments 2

  1. Tony Jones

    Great review. Thank you. I particularly liked the quote ‘If you don’t pay for the product, you are the product’.

  2. Yogi Berra

    MOOC is slowly becoming paid medium to deliver education. Good teachers are looking at it to massively reach out to millions of paying students and make millions…like writers, musicians, film stars r sports people. I hope at least EDX retains its original charter and not succumb and become another Lynda or Udacity or what not.


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