The Changing Framework of Online Learning
As web courses are growing in popularity, the platforms behind them are becoming more sophisticated, too
The online learning landscape has long been dominated by Blackboard, Pearson, and other large corporate platforms, which have provided virtual classrooms, hosted online course content, and supported discussion features for various on- and off-line colleges and universities. In the past several years, however, many new platforms — some reinventing the traditional pay model, and others providing free content — have arrived on the scene, taking root in their own right and changing the face of web-based education.
As higher-education writer Justin Pope noted in MIT’s Technology Review, options for online learning are forever expanding; for-profit platform Coursera and edX, the Harvard- and MIT-led nonprofit consortium, for example, “are up to nearly 13 million users and more than 1,200 courses between them.” Content from free online learning platform Khan Academy — borne of humble beginnings as a YouTube series — is now being incorporated into classroom learning worldwide, and made Lifehack’s list of its top 25 preferred sites for free online courses alongside Udemy, which also offers material from various sources, and Harvard Extension, one example of institution-specific course platforms. The New York Institute of Finance (NYIF), too, recently announced its plans to transition all of its test-prep courses into an online-only format as of January 2015 using the Open edX platform, making it one more in a long line of traditional institutions to take the online learning plunge.
Although an increasing number of online learning platform styles are becoming available, it remains that there are just as many types of learners and educators — if not more –who need tailored support. As a result, many start-ups are working to find the perfect balance of control, customer support, and accessibility for their platforms, hoping to court the ‘average’ online educator but also the range of new-to-sophisticated users on either side of the curve’s central bell.
One such next-generation online learning platform courting new users by challenging the status quo is SchoolKeep, a for-profit service (comfortably in the ‘economy’ price range) which recently promoted its new features and growing client base at The Next Web’s TNWUSA 2014 conference. In an event press release, SchoolKeep CEO Steve Cornwell explained, “We’re on a mission to become the world’s most widely adopted teaching platform and bring every educator and student online.”
Cornwell founded the company in 2013 after “[noticing] that independent educators and boutique training businesses were having a tough time powering online teaching operations.” Since then, the bootstrapped start-up has connected with over 2,000 educators and professionals, and plans to officially launch its platform in the first half of 2015. In addition to extant course layouts, curricula-builders, and a variety of course-building tools, the newly launched 2015 version will include flexible pricing plans and “more sophisticated templates and a code editor,” thereby making courses more customize-able for, and available to, users with varying means and levels of online expertise.
What will set SchoolKeep apart in this ballooning industry, the team explained, are its comprehensive feature set and growing list of self-service features, “giving [their] educators autonomy around branding and marketing” and making for a more intuitive, easier-to-use experience. Unlike open source LMS hosts like Moodle, SchoolKeep staff noted, their platform is not an open code database, “thus making it easier for non-coding educators to build schools.”
The start-up team also stressed that SchoolKeep provides one-on-one support in the areas of marketing, eCommerce, content, and design, which “open source solutions do not,” as well as general customer assistance. Cornwell added that his team “has reached remarkable milestones in customer service and product development,” and has already secured strong client relationships with The Economist, IDEO, and Mediabistro, among others. As opposed to sites like Udemy, too, SchoolKeep stated that it allows users to “brand their schools, keep 100% of earnings, [and] retain ownership of data.” Overall, reps explained, offering a clearly defined (and definable) sense of user identity and control, coupled with full-spectrum company support, will make all the difference.
One agreed-upon, principle advantage to online learning sites is that they often allow curious parties to easily access a broad educational landscape — whether they want to sample a field before committing to a possibly costly credential program or simply need a one-off intro to a new hobby — in a more interactive way. To Technology Review, Pope noted,
For all the hype, MOOCs are really just content—the latest iteration of the textbook. And just like a book on a library shelf, they can be useful to a curious passerby thumbing through a few pages—or they can be the centerpiece to a well-taught course. On their own, MOOCs are hardly more likely than textbooks to re-create a quality college education in all its dimensions.
Regardless, perhaps, of which platform an educator chooses, the question of how effective online learning strategies are remains pivotal to both educators and platform suppliers. Addressing the online learning industry as a whole, recent studies do indicate growing student success rates with online platforms, whether used as supplementary tools or self-contained courses.
Earlier this year, MIT physicist David Pritchard and a team of researchers released their findings from a study of Pritchard’s online Mechanics ReView course, which he taught parallel to a traditional, in-person version. As Pope noted, the study concluded that the MOOC version was effective at communicating such difficult material as Newtonian mechanics, “even to students who weren’t MIT caliber,” and that progress from online students mirrored the curve of in-person learners. “They may have started with an F and finished with an F,” Pritchard stated, “but they rose with the whole class.”
In the case of several hundred-person lectures, educators are also finding that many students would prefer to receive the same information online when possible, and that in-person lecture attendees are better engaged when online learning material and tools are offered as supplements. “We’re nearing the point where it’s a superior educational experience, as far as the lectures are concerned, to engage with them online,” said a Harvard professor to Technology Review. Pope noted that, if this proves to be true, “traditional universities will have to show that most of the other things they offer on campus can’t be replaced by technology.”