by Peter High
I would like to introduce a new series, which I refer to as “Education Technology Innovation.” It will includes interviews and strategy discussions with some of the leading names in the field:
- Sebastian Thrun, Co-Founder and CEO of Udacity
- Daphne Koller, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Coursera
- Mike Feerick, CEO of ALISON
- Sal Khan, Executive Director and Founder of Khan Academy
- Simon Nelson, CEO of FutureLearn
- Anant Agarwal, President of edX
- Dan Huttonlocher, Dean of Cornell NYC Tech
- Umar Saif, Vice Chancellor of Information Technology University, Pakistan
- Nic Borg, Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer of Edmodo
- Shai Reshef, President of the University of the People
In the kick-off article to the series, I set the stage for some of the questions that will be explored in the interviews in the series:
“What does the future hold for these innovative companies, and how will it change the way in which our children and their children are educated? Will it serve to lower the costs of education? Will it create pressure on high cost private universities with less prestigious brands, as one can spend much less and learn from the top professors from Ivy Leagues schools?“
Below are the Education Technology Innovation Series’ most recent posts:
Shai Reshef is an Israeli-born entrepreneur who now lives in Pasadena, California. Although his master’s degree is in Chinese politics, he has made his name professionally in private education. He served as chairman and CEO of the Kidum Group, an Israeli test preparation which he sold to Kaplan, Inc. in 2005. He also led KIT eLearning, a subsidiary of Kidum and the eLearning partner of the University of Liverpool. KIT provided MBAs and Master in IT degrees, and was eventually acquired by Laureate Online Education.
In 2009, Reshef founded the University of the People, which in February 2014 received accreditation from the Distance and Education Training Council, a U.S. Department of Education authorized accrediting agency. This made it the world’s first non-proﬁt, tuition-Free, accredited, online university.
This is the tenth article in the Education Technology Innovation series, and it is fair to say that Nic Borg’s background is unlike any of the other entrepreneurs featured in the series. Like others, he comes from academe, but rather than being a former Stanford professor like Sebastian Thrun or Daphne Koller, or an MIT professor like Anant Agarwal, Borg spent seven years at Kaneland High School in Maple Park, Illinois building web-based tools and learning management solutions. The small-scale innovation that he introduced proved to be a pilot for something bigger to come.
Armed with his practical experience at a Kaneland High School, Borg co-founded Edmodo five and a half years ago. Edmodo is the largest K-12 social learning network, which provides teachers and students a safe and easy way to connect and collaborate; it has been called “the Facebook of education.” It is used heavily in the classroom, but also extends that classroom environment. The mission of the organization is to help all learners reach their full potential, and he believes that by connecting them to the resources and concepts they need, they achieve that goal. It has already had profound implications on students, teachers, parents, and content providers, as he explains herein. He was recently honored by this publication as “30 Under 30” winner.
Umar Saif has done a lot in his 35 years. A Pakistani, he earned his PhD in computer science from the University of Cambridge at 22. He began a post doctorate degree at MIT at an age when most of his peers – age wise – had not completed their bachelor’s degrees. He worked at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory where he was part of the core team that developed system technologies for the $50 million Project Oxygen. He collaborated with Anant Agarwal, now the president of edX, among other legendary computer science and artificial intelligence professors. After spending years away from his native Pakistan, he found that he enjoyed the entrepreneurial spirit of MIT and of the US more generally. However, it was a conversation with a colleague about what he wanted to achieve in his life that got him to rethink his plans for the future. He decided that he wanted to help establish a comparable entrepreneurial hot-bed like the one he found at MIT back in Pakistan.
He returned to the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), where he found that his top students were the equivalent of the top students at MIT, but they did not realize the potential they had. His own story became an inspiration for a series of entrepreneurs, many of whom he has started businesses with. He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2010, selected as one of top 35 young innovators in the world by MIT Technology Review in 2011 and received a Google faculty research award in 2011.
In late 2010, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration put out a request for proposal for a new kind of university program. Recognizing the importance of establishing New York City as a technology hub, he hoped to attract a leading university to establish a graduate school in engineering and computer science in Manhattan, and proposed that it be built on Roosevelt Island.
The proposal submitted by Cornell University was the winner, and though the permanent campus will not be ready until 2017, Cornell NYC Tech has set up shop in Google’s Manhattan offices in Chelsea. Daniel Huttenlocher is dean of the program, and he has an ambitious vision that befits an academic who has experience in the business world. He has hired a Chief Entrepreneurial Officer, and the school has already established deep ties with the start-up community in New York. Huttenlocher measures the success of his program on the number of people who start and who join high growth organizations. Establishing a program with ready access to major corporations, start-ups, and even City Hall means that Cornell NYC Tech is in an enviable position, and will likely be a key player in pushing New York to be the tech start-up hub that has longed to be for some time.
MIT Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Professor Anant Agarwal has personified the educator-entrepreneur, as he has had a foot in academe and a foot in new ventures for more than a decade. He has led CSAIL, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, just as he was a founder of Tilera Corporation, which created the Tile multicore processor. He led the development of Raw, an early tiled multicore processor, Sparcle, an early multi-threaded microprocessor, and Alewife, a scalable multiprocessor. He also led the VirtualWires project at MIT and was the founder of Virtual Machine Works. His start-ups have largely been focused on his areas of research and areas of interest, but he had not focused on the education space itself until late 2011.
It was at that point that Agarwal taught what would become MITX’s first massive open online course (MOOC) on circuits and electronics, which drew 155,000 students from 162 countries. This overwhelming response showed the promise of having his academic and his entrepreneurial pursuits coincide. Agarwal developed a partnership between MIT and nearby Harvard to establish edX. Unlike rivals Coursera and Udacity, edX is a not-for-profit. Therefore, when Agarwal thinks about the competitive landscape among the MOOCs, his perspective is “the more the merrier.” In fact, in June of last year, edX became open sourced, and the source code, OpenedX, has led to interesting collaborations with Google, Stanford University, and even with countries such as France and China.
Much time and attention has been given to the MOOCs started in the US, but as I have mentioned in my interview with Mike Feerick of ALISON, the phenomenon actually first emerged in Europe. Another more recent entry to the MOOC field out of the United Kingdom is FutureLearn. Unlike other prominent MOOCs like Udacity, Coursera, and edX that feature university content, FutureLearn is not led by a former academic. Simon Nelson is a businessman, but he was a logical choice to head FutureLearn given his experience working in a variety of media fields that have been threatened and transformed by technology. As a result, Nelson has been programmed to see opportunity in the chaos.
FutureLearn also has the advantage of a 44 year old pre-cursor to the MOOCs: Open University. The university has many things in common with the MOOCs — it has an open entry policy, and the majority of courses are taken off-campus anywhere in the world. As such, Nelson has been able to work with Open University Vice Chancellor Martin Bean to learn from the decades of experiences and experiments forged, and many of them have translated well to the new format. Therefore, while FutureLearn is a new entrant to this marketplace, it stands to become a formidable one.
I have had the a good fortune of speaking with good number of the leaders in education technology today. Since so many of these players have emerged from academe, the competition between companies is fierce certainly, but there is also a collegial willingness to acknowledge the successes of other companies. In the case of non-profits like edX, CEO Anant Agarawal says, the more companies that enter this space, the merrier. (Stay tuned for my interview with Agarwal on January 20th.) Several of these leaders acknowledge that the most influential person to the MOOC landscape has been Salman Khan. As Agarwal lists the genesis of the MOOCs, he lists Khan and his Khan Academy first among the major players. Sebastian Thrun acknowledged in my interview with him that “I stumbled into this after listening to a gentleman named Sal Khan of Khan Academy. In his speech he noted that he had tens of millions of students in his classes. I was teaching at Stanford at the time and had tens of dozens of students in my classes, and I felt I should try something different and see if we could do what I do and scale it to many people.” In fact, in my podcast interview with Thrun, as he listed those who had been most influential to him over the course of his career, he listed Khan on the short list.
There has been much press for the massive open online courses or MOOCs, including in my series of interviews to date with Sebastian Thrun and Daphne Koller, CEOs of Udacity and Coursera respectively. If one is new to these companies, one might be under the impression that the MOOC phenomenon is less than two years old. That is not the case. The company that many credit as being the first ever MOOC is Advance Learning Interactive Systems ONline, better known as ALISON. Irish-American entrepreneur, Mike Feerick founded that company in 2007, and whereas many other companies in this industry are still trying to determine the business models, Feerick has nearly seven years of testing, experimenting, and succeeding behind him. In this interview, Feerick talks about the genesis of the idea, his rationale for focusing on vocational training, and his vision for the future of the company.
Last week, I kicked off a series on education technology with an interview with Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity. Daphne Koller who co-founded and is the co-CEO of Coursera, by some measures the largest of the for-profit educational technology companies offering massive open online courses or MOOCs with over five million students across most countries, has much in common with Thrun. They both were foreign-born Stanford professors with backgrounds in artificial intelligence when they started the companies they currently lead. Each has also taken a leave of absence from Stanford in order to pursue their current opportunities.
Though their companies compete, they have chosen very different areas of focus. Udacity, like several other companies that provide MOOCs has chosen to focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses. Coursera has chosen a much broader offering, including many disciplines in the humanities. This breadth of offering has been a strength of the company in building a broad student-base, and it has signed up over 60 universities as partners. That said, it has required particularly creative approaches both process and technology-wise in order to facilitate learning, collaboration, and grading.
There are few entrepreneurs who can compete with Sebastian Thrun in terms of creativity and breadth of innovation. He led the development of Stanley, a robotic vehicle on the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. He was a founder of the Google X Lab, and parlayed his earlier success with Stanley into the Google driverless car system. He also was among the leaders who developed Google Glass. All the while he was a professor first at Carnegie Mellon and then at Stanford.
In early 2012, based on inspiration from Salman Khan of Khan Academy, he co-founded Udacity, a for-profit education company offering massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Thrun’s Stanford course “CS 373: Programming a Robotic Car” was among the first couple of courses offered through Udacity, and it attracted 160,000 students in 190 countries. The youngest was ten and the oldest was 70. Moreover, none of the top-400 students were Stanford students. He was so excited about what he learned, that he gave up his post at Stanford to focus on Udacity full-time.
Education Technology is in its Infancy, but it is Growing-up FastMuch has been written of late about the need for healthcare reform in our country. Whether one is a fan of the Affordable Care Act or not, the case for change is quite clear. The fact that healthcare makes up such a high proportion of our gross domestic product (north of 17 percent), and has grown at such a fast clip relative to the consumer-price index (one and a half times) underscores the need for change. However, there is an industry the fundamentals of which have not dramatically changed in hundreds of years, and yet its costs have risen at a rate three times as fast as the consumer-price index. That field is education.
The classroom setting with a professor standing at the head of a class talking at a roomful of students is largely the same model that existed when the first universities were established in the United States. It is no wonder that some creative people have stepped forward with truly innovative ideas in the education space to attempt to turn the traditional model upside down.