Monday, August 27, 2012

Education, but not as we know it

The market place for free online higher education has become rather crowded during the last 9 months or so. Established actors like Peer2Peer University and University of the People have been joined by heavyweights like Coursera and EdX with the clout of some of the world's most prestigious universities behind them. Throw in other players like Udacity, Saylor Foundation, Course Hero and Faculty project and you have a vast range of online learning available for free. Then there are numerous  "free-range" MOOCs run by comitted professors on the principles of collaborative, student-driven learning. Each of these actors has their own approach to learning, their own interpretation of concepts like free, open and learner-centred and are run on varying business models.

So just when you think the room is pretty crowded, in comes another major initiative to stir things up even more. Enter World Education University! Known to friends as WEU (We-you) they have an interesting new angle on providing free education to the world. The basic concept is familiar with content being pulled in from open sources as well as custom-made content from teachers belonging to estblished universities. Students can do a self-test of learning preferences and content can be adapted to suit different styles. Mentors are available to provide support but, as always, students are expected to do a lot of self-study and peer review of each other's work.

However one interesting feature is that WEU aims to offer real qualifications by teaming up with or acquiring existing colleges. They also aim to offer tailor-made degree programmes in association with companies of professional bodies to ensure that students get the skills they need for careers in those organisations.

The twist in the tail, as always, is how all this is financed. Obviously the founders are investing heavily and they are also attracting sponsorship from large companies too. But if the courses are free where's the revenue coming from? As ever on the net the answer is advertising. According to an article in Campus Technology, New Global University To Be Both Free and For-Profit, there are plans to allow advertising on the course site that will be adapted to the students' interests. The advertisers will be subsidising the students' education in return for the opportunity to advertise direct to their target group. Another avenue is making students available for marketing research and surveys. Students can, say, win points for tests on their course or responding to marketing surveys and then qualify for discounts and free merchandise. A third potential revenue stream is to encourage course material authors whereby their e-books can be published, marketed and sold by WEU with a revenue share scheme as incentive.

It's education, but not as we know it. Academics may be very sceptical about the commercial aspects of WEU but for millions of people around the world without any prospect of raising the money needed to go to a regular university this will be an enormous opportunity. The presence of a few adverts is a minor irritation if you can study for credible qualifications without debt. It's already certain that no matter how many universities are founded in the next few years they can never keep pace with the exploding demand for higher education. New avenues are needed. Watch this space.

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