Silicon Valley Business Journal, December 16, 2013
Education entrepreneurship can be a grueling gig these days.
Just ask Salman Khan — the founder of nonprofit online education provider Khan Academy — who by 9 a.m. on Monday had already recorded eight videos for his site’s 10 million monthly users.
“I got up early today,” Khan said at The Atlantic magazine’s inaugural Silicon Valley Summit held in Mountain View on Dec. 16.
Since founding Khan Academy in 2006, Khan estimates that he has made about 3,000 educational videos. In that same period, however, the education technology market has gotten a lot more crowded; startups, universities and large education companies are all targeting online students.
Andrew Ng, the co-founder of Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) provider Coursera, also talked ed tech at the event, which brought tech and civic leaders together to chat hot tech trends, from Big Data to e-commerce.
While largely steering clear of nagging questions about the long-term viability of predominate ed tech business models, Ng and Khan did cover other major challenges in the field, from technological accessibility to subjects not-well-suited for online learning. Those challenges are outlined here.
1. Expanding access to education… for real
Online courses have been heralded as an opportunity to open access to quality education for anyone with a web connection. But getting classes in front of anyone besides a fairly wealthy, technologically savvy demographic has proved challenging.
At the event on Monday, Khan revealed that his organization has inked a “multi-year, multimillion-dollar” partnership with Comcast aimed at expanding access to broadband Internet and online education for low-income people.
Under the deal, Comcast will promote Khan Academy to users of its Internet Essentials service, which provides Internet access for $10 a month to those who qualify, as well as discounts on computers. Long term, the move also positions both companies to win new repeat customers.
Khan and Comcast Executive Vice President David L. Cohen said broadband and online courses could work well together to increase "digital literacy."
2. Going mobile
Another possibility for expanding access to online courses: Improving mobile interfaces to help education providers reach potential users who don't have easy access to computers.
That concept is especially relevant for Coursera after recent studies showed that the company's courses reach mostly wealthy, educated males.
"We're very committed to making this work for lower-income individuals," Ng said, highlighting an initial iOS app released last week.
He added that Coursera has also evaluated research that shows lower-income individuals average longer commute times. With the prices of consumer electronics like smartphones and tablets falling, he hopes mobile learning during long commutes (or at other times) could provide time to take online courses.
3. Finding MOOC motivation
Assuming that people can get access to quality online courses, there is the issue of ensuring that they complete online courses, a challenge for most ed tech companies.
Khan said Khan Academy's short video segments make it easy for users to learn one concept and then move on. Coursera, meanwhile, is experimenting with ways to keep users engaged for longer courses.
"One of the things the Internet is doing is making content much more modular," Ng said, adding that Coursera is working with university partners to make course content "more on-demand."
He said Coursera is also learning that emails nagging students about upcoming assignments don't actually spur students to participate. They are actually more likely to engage after receiving positive feedback.
"If we tell you that you did well, you're more likely to take the next step," Ng said.
4. Melding with the classroom
University of California faculty members are just one group who have pushed back against increasing school reliance on education technology. Khan said he understands where critics are coming from, especially after Khan Academy and similar companies received glowing press about their potential to upend schools.
"You can imagine how that would make teachers feel," Khan said. "These people are working with students on a day-to-day basis.”
While Khan said he sees education technology working in tandem with existing schools, the relationship looks likely to get more complicated with the looming implementation of new Common Core education standards. The proposed reforms are already spurring a flurry of startup activity sure to confront skepticism.
“The first few years are going to be painful," Khan said of Common Core implementation, adding that the reforms should still "bring the U.S. much more in line” with other countries' more rigorous standards.
Ng, meanwhile, said Coursera classes are also designed to augment offline education.
“Coursera is not a university," he said. "We will not offer degrees.”
5. MOOCs as job credentials
Whether or not employers believe that employees derive value from online courses is a hot topic of late.
LinkedIn, for example, is piloting new ways to highlight online courses in professional profiles. Coursera is also one of many online education providers experimenting with new corporate training offerings.
However, even Ng admits that MOOCs still have major short comings when moving beyond highly structured "skill-based courses," like building a marketing plan or learning to code.
He cited one estimate that 80 percent of employee income is based on employer perception of more abstract traits like teamwork, ethics and ability to cope with stress. While some ed tech providers are building more social learning platforms that they hope will integrate these skills, Ng said it remains an area of weakness.
"This is a shortcoming," Ng said. "Universities do a much better job."