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Knewton Co-Authors New Book on Innovation in Education

Posted in Ed Tech on May 20, 2014 by

We are proud to announce the launch of Education and Skills 2.0: New Targets and Innovative Approaches, a forward-thinking book that examines innovative approaches in education that will accelerate global economic development. Knewton CEO Jose Ferreira is one of the authors of the book, along with members of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Education & Skills, Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) Professor David E. Bloom, Mercer Regional President, Pat Milligan, and 2U, Inc. CEO Chip Paucek.


With 2U, our CEO, Jose authored the chapter, Online Education: From Novelty to Necessity which covers the revolution in online education, as played out in two main areas: distribution and big data. It assess the disruptive innovation occurring in higher education today and describes its ramifications for the future of universities.

Here’s the first section from our chapter:

“Today, digital innovation is driving unprecedented change across the education sector. In doing so, it has the potential both to improve student learning outcomes and expand access to high- quality education opportunities in ways that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago. Because this revolution is taking place online, it is globally accessible and able to leverage the lower distribution costs afforded by the Internet. These digital innovations will transform both what happens in the classroom as well as broader educational policy in the years to come.

There is no shortage of alarming statistics that reflect the wasted potential of human capital owing to lack of access to quality education: in the United States alone, 30% of students fail out of high school; 33% of college students require remediation; and 46% of college students fail to graduate. (All this is to say nothing of education in the global economy and the social ills that have pervaded the world as a result.) Because of escalating tuition rates, unemployment and a massive student debt burden in the United States – which has now reached more than US$ 1 trillion – there is tremendous momentum to disrupt education as we know it and provide an alternative, or at least a complement, to the traditional and largely one-size-fits-all bricks-and-mortar school system.

On the business side, the potential is enormous. Education is a US$ 7 trillion industry. In other words, the total amount of money (both public and private) spent annually on education exceeds all spending, both online and offline, of every other information industry combined – i.e. all media, entertainment, games, news, software, Internet and mobile media and e-tailing.

Technological innovation has finally caught up to the potential at hand. Digital open content, cloud computing, mobile and tablet technology, game-based learning, machine learning and big data technology are sweeping through education and its associated industries. As a result, education is undergoing a monumental shift, from a factory model to a digital, personalized model.

The shifting of education from analogue to digital is a one-time event in the history of the human race. At scale, it may have as big an effect on the world as indoor plumbing or electricity. The consequence of nearly every human being receiving as much education as she wants and her ability permits will likely transform the quality of life and global GDP within one generation. Massive pools of human talent will be unlocked. Better-educated people will raise better-educated kids. How many more great minds – future Einsteins, Curies, Da Vincis, Pasteurs, Martin Luther Kings and McCartneys – will the world produce when we can quadruple the number of high school graduates?

This chapter will cover the revolution in online education, as played out in two main areas: distribution and data-mining. It will also assess the disruptive innovation occurring in higher education today and describe its ramifications for the future of universities. So how quickly will this revolution occur and which institutions and nations will reap the benefits of getting these first? The authors believe the answer lies in the ability to surmount two hurdles: (a) expanding credit acceptance policies for online courses; and (b) overcoming the digital divide, a result of insufficient adequate infrastructure and too little digital literacy.

Revolution in Distribution

The widespread growth and acceptance of online classes – whether primary, secondary or higher education; credit- bearing or not-for-credit; private or open; paid or free; delivered by for-profit institution or not-for-profit – reflect a seismic shift in the education universe.

According to The New York Times, 2012 is the “year of the MOOC” (massive open online course), but they easily could have called it the “year elite colleges embraced online courses”. Reflecting public senti- ment, Tom Friedman of The New York Times wrote about MOOCs that “nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty – by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have”. However, online courses offered by prestigious universities are not new. In fact, orders of magnitude more students have paid for and completed online university courses for credit than all those who have completed a MOOC.

The MOOC Landscape 

The MOOC ecosystem today provides free online courses in nearly every higher education field of study. Some MOOC providers, like Coursera, are for-profit and venture-funded – they will one day be forced to pursue revenue and liquidation opportunities for their investors. Others, like EdX and Khan Academy, are not-for- profit – meaning they will be perpetually capital-constrained versus any for-profit players that figures out a successful revenue model.

Though Khan Academy is not technically a MOOC platform, it serves much the same purpose. The not-for-profit provides an open online content repository that students can navigate at their own pace. Khan Academy’s video library draws approximately six million unique visitors a month and contains a collection of more than 4,000 free micro-lectures on subjects ranging from maths to history to American civics. Their maths assessment material is lightly adaptive and self-paced; the system will serve up questions that escalate in difficulty. A badge system gamifies the learning process, with the most “legendary” badges (“sun” and “black hole”) requiring years of work.

EdX, by contrast, is a MOOC platform founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, which offers online, college-level courses free of charge to the public. As of May 2013, the platform offers courses from 27 participating universities, including Georgetown University, the University of California at Berkeley, Cornell University, Wellesley College and Rice University.

To date, MOOCs and Khan Academy offer only part of what constitutes a course. They offer lectures with top teachers. This is certainly revolutionary, but it is also incomplete. For all the massive size and bureaucracy of the global education system, students primar- ily do just two things to drive their learning: (a) attend classes; and (b) read or interact with texts and other materials. MOOCs offer very large and impersonal – but free – classes, sometimes supported with very light textbooks and materials. Professors generally contribute notes and suggest free materials to students, but to date the focus of MOOCs has been almost entirely on lectures. Almost all of the additional learning that students normally are expected to do on their own – by studying a carefully curated textbook, with profes- sionally created scope and sequence, instructional design, assessment items and production values – is missing. The other supporting services that universities provide, both academic services like libraries and tutors, as well as other nonacademic services, are also missing.

Small wonder then that MOOCs have struggled with course quality and retention. Take Udacity. First, it announced a pioneering partnership with San Jose State. The partnership was front-page news in January 2013, but six months later San Jose State announced it would “pause” the partnership after trial courses reported failure rates ranging from 56 to 76%. Six months later, Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun announced the company would “pivot” to focus on corporate training rather than academic courses. “We have a lousy product”, Thrun admitted.

At the time of this writing, Udacity is the MOOC provider most in the spotlight. But completion rates for MOOCs as a whole have been similarly problematic. One study found the average churn rate (or amount of customers who cut ties with a service or company during a given time period) for MOOCs to be 93%.1

Of course, given the large numbers of registrants some MOOCs attract, it is statistically inevitable that they will also produce a few heartwarming stories, like that of Khadijah Niazi, the 11-year-old Pakistani girl who completed Udacity’s physics class with highest distinction. Offering unsupported but free classes to students dogged enough to complete them is certainly a great social good and will be a game-changer where the alterna- tive is no classes at all. But MOOCs’ promise of widespread disruption will go unfulfilled until the product is completed and the churn rate goes down.

The NonMOOC Landscape 

The improvements – such as high quality textbooks, materials and supporting servic- es – needed to turn MOOCs from just free classes into fully developed courses cost money, a fact that is unlikely to change soon. In response, some MOOC providers are beginning to offer nonMOOCs. Prior to its pivot, Udacity partnered with Georgia Tech to offer a masters in computer science priced at around US$ 7,000. The programme is neither “massive” nor “open”. It is, however, showing early signs of traction and the sphere in which future trends will likely play out.

Given present trends, virtually every large university in the United States, and many elsewhere as well, will within 10 years, offer online courses – for credit and for a fee. For-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix, Education Management Corporation (EDMC), Kaplan University and others have been doing this for years, as have large public institutions such as Arizona State University, Penn State and the University of Maryland. Even institutions that were once slow to innovate are now rapidly following suit. According to a study by the Babson Survey Research Group, as of 2012 all but 13.5% of institutions had some online offerings. Furthermore, many schools that once offered only online courses now offer complete online degree programmes – 62.4% in 2012, sharply up from 34.5% in 2002. And it is not just public and for-profit universities increasing their presence in the online space. From 2002 to 2012, the fraction of private nonprofit institutions with online degree programmes more than doubled from 22.1% to 48.4%.2

Into this new landscape has come a wealth of new educational opportunities and models. Some small schools, like Southern New Hampshire State University, adapted early, focusing on assembling the best educational experience possible while maintaining ties to bricks-and-mortar community and regional businesses. Meanwhile, large flagship institutions like SUNY, Arizona State University and Penn State have chosen to offer a relatively low-cost education in order to serve hundreds of thousands and eventually perhaps millions of students. Elite institutions, most of which now offer online credits only, will begin offering online degrees (especially to overseas students) once it becomes clear that it will not dilute their brand (e.g. because enough of their competitors are already doing so).

A variety of third-party, mostly for-profit companies have emerged to help facilitate these courses. The for-profit company 2U (formerly “2tor”), which already facilitated masters degrees in partnership with schools like Georgetown and the University of Southern California, recently launched “Semester Online” – a self- governing consortium of elite undergraduate institutions (including Northwestern University, Washington University in St Louis, Emory University, Notre Dame, Boston College, Brandeis University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) that allows students to take for-credit classes online. As a higher price-point provider, 2U and others like it provide higher-end solutions involving considerable custom content and technical development as well as logistical support to their university partners and students. Meanwhile, Udacity’s partnership with Georgia Tech is an example of a low price-point provider teaming with an elite university to offer a lower-price point product.

Read about the future of MOOCs and the revolution in data-mining in the full pdf of the book available here.

Tweet your reactions to the book using #WEFedu.