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Human Learning #36 – MOOCs have graduated but can they scale the degree market?

And in other news – Edtech IPOs are coming

Welcome to issue 36. Show your love by sharing, no really.

I swapped the top Story at the last minute, Pluralsight’s IPO seemed a bigger deal than Coursera graduating students. MOOC platforms getting into degrees is a big deal but a new IPO for the Edtech sector is more novel. Yes 2U IPO’d but they were at the time just a superior twist on the existing OPM model. Pluralsight’s successful IPO demonstrates the financial viability of digital platforms that aspire to serve highly skilled professional sectors (like Coding). More will follow such as Coursera and Udacity, as well as some strategic acquisitions. Joshua Kim, in this otherwise dismal article suggests Microsoft could buy Coursera (prima facie that would be a logical move, Microsoft would have an end to end education offering but integrating Microsoft-Lynda-LinkedIn and Coursera could be nightmarish). Read on! 

Top story 

Pluralsight have IPO’d – Pluralsight, a primarily enterprise, technologically focused online learning platform raised $310 from their IPO. It’s a long way off unicorn but nevertheless heralds the arrival of Edtech as a serious player on the tech scene. Pluralsight cite their 1,300 experts as their USP – that they can pivot to changing market demand for skills quickly, a theme I’ve riffed on in the past.

This isn’t however just about an Edtech player making it big, a successful IPO and subsequent performance will have a positive feedback loop, enabling investors to better understand how Edtech business models work allowing them to value and invest in them accordingly. It will also bring Edtech platforms under more scrutiny from the media, issues such as how well they cater to people with different learning needs could force MOOC platforms to offer more support. Of more explosive importance is personal data, in a crude sort of way MOOCs have a handle on something extremely valuable; How smart people are, what problems they struggle with and what they find easy. Hopefully the double act of Cambridge Analytica and GDPR will ensure MOOC platforms guard this data with the utmost care – here

State of the MOOCS

Graduation day for MOOCs (too easy a title) – 76 iMBA graduates and 15 Masters of Computer Science in Data Science clustered at University of Illinois as the first cohort to graduate from the Coursera hosted online degree, 1,100 have enrolled overall. Dhawal Shah of Class Central reckons this is already an $80m per year market for MOOC platforms. The major question is whether MOOC platforms can really scale in this market or just be a better player in what was the classic OPM market. Maggioncalda, in an interview with Class Central thinks they will crack scalability with better learning design based around cohorts and automated marking.

I’m less sure, Udacity’s approach seems more feasible whereby they leverage graduates to act as tutors. It’s not that Udacity have a better product, it’s that by being in control of their product, they have less restrictions on how a ‘degree’ should be taught, that in theory enables them to push boundaries and compete on cost. How many universities will be willing to bend towards a light-touch/automated degree?  Here, here and here

edX launches 5 new professional certificates – edX have launched 5 professional certificates; FinTech, Innovation, Entrepreneurship, Mandarin and Electric Cars. Professional certificates though, are Udacity-lite (a modest offering without the conviction that they are truly offering an alternative to the Masters degree). MOOC platforms’ success will not be built on such modesty – here

Edtech’s Business

2U plan major spending round – 2U aim to raise $300m through the sale of stocks – Their recently appointed COO, Mark Chernis, states 2U will use the funds to expand internationally and develop their short course offerings. 2U will want to do for MOOCs what they did to OPMs, seize the high ground/high margin part of the market with what they perceive to be a high touch offering. This isn’t exactly the space MOOCs sit in – it’s more ‘Executive Education’ but the lines are blurred. 2U will find it harder to demonstrate added value for shorter courses, yes they can offer a more high-touch version such as coaching and Educator time but unlike degrees where their USP has been in offering prestigious brands like Yale, MOOCs are predominantly created by top universities.  Will more contact time be worth the additional cost? For longer courses its likely a big factor for retention and motivation but for shorter courses that’s questionable, 2U may find their USP loses its lustre when compared with MOOCs – here

  • Tufts university to create 2 new Masters with 2U one in Global business and the other in Education

Ed’s Tech

Yellowdig – an online discussion forum and community-building platform raises $800k (H/T Audrey Watters) – No one’s cracked this yet, Coursera and edX use fairly bog standard forums – dull, FutureLearn has comments under the learning material – better and some leverage Slack (also a good idea). The winner may not come from Edtech – cracking ‘Social’ would have huge implications for office productivity (i.e , a far a larger market with deeper pockets so expect the innovation to come from there  – here


Hiring managers look to a future beyond degrees and CVs – Look to, rather than see, it’s not here yet. HackerRank surveyed 973 recruiters. Mostly they confirmed what is already known – work experience trumps degrees – but recruiters also hoped that AI would help them de-bias recruitment and look beyond degrees. Many found their best hires look ‘poor’ on paper and wanted  a more systematic method to identify the hidden gems – here

Deprioritised by rankings, are Humanities and Social Sciences returning to prominence? – Managerial theory was once enamoured with targets until it realised that if targets were not carefully crafted, a rational actor would align all their efforts to the target rather than the broader aim for which the target was trying to incentivise. University rankings have had the same effect, writes The Economist. Since their proliferation in 2003, governments and by extension universities have been under pressure to retain or obtain the best possible position in tables such as THE, QS or the Shanghai index. This has led to a favouring of research over teaching and sciences over Humanities and Social sciences.

That may be about to change, the UK’s Teaching Excellence Framework aims to give Teaching a rank-able priority – it’s not perfect but it is the first attempt to quantify it. Harder still will be reviving the priorities of Humanities and Social Sciences, their impact is much harder to quantify – How do you know if a policymaker was thinking of an ethics class as they proposed a policy? –  but technology’s increasing control over society, its scale and its blunders, such as in data and privacy and skewing elections, make the need for Humanities and Social Sciences all the more pressing as society begins to ask what kind of technology it doesn’t want – here


AI needs more women – Women make up only 25% of Computer Scientists and an estimated 17% of those working in Artificial Intelligence (defined in the broader sense of the field). If AI is to be the defining technology of our generation then exclusion from it will lock out those from gaining the rewards of this skill in the job market but more importantly will mean exclusion from its outputs. Put another way, sexbots may have been less of a priority if the AI workforce was more diverse. It’s not just sexual preferences but other biases, AI-informed processes such as algorithms are proliferating with occasionally racist and sexist results. Governments will need to push much harder for inclusion so the fruits and goals of AI benefit every sector of society –here

Wework are productising the co-working space – Wework’s Chief Product Officer is using sensor data to try and optimise how people use co-working spaces, this comes after WeWork also acquired Danish star architect, Bjarke Ingels.  WeWork ought to be able to leverage their 223 labs/offices to generate some actionable insights on how to improve co-working spaces to enable them to differentiate further – here

Human Learning is a newsletter written by Chris Fellingham. You can signup for it here and find other Edtech articles by Chris Fellingham on his medium page

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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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