Veronique van Cruchten

Learning with the pioneers of online education



We catch up with the original MOOC pioneers from Georgia Tech to bring insight into the future of online learning

Back in 2014, Udacity launched the world’s first Massive Open Online Courses on behalf of the Georgia Institute of Technology. This game-changing programme would pave the way for nine years of rapid innovation in the higher education space.

Studyportals were privileged to have the chance to speak to the pioneers of that original course. In this fantastic webinar, we were joined by Dr. Zvi Galil, Dean of the College of Computing over at Georgia Tech, and Sebastian Thrun, Chairman and Co-founder of Udacity. They shared their insights with Studportals CEO Edwin van Rest and Senior Consultant Carmen Neghina.

Make sure to watch the webinar recording

The race to digitise higher education, spurred on by the global pandemic, is now reaching its peak here in 2021. Today, we learn key insights into digital learning from the team that have been doing it longer than anybody else in the business – the “Wright Brothers” of online learning. Let’s explore some of their fantastic insights.

Quality means everything

In 2014, there was considerable scepticism around what many considered to be the dissociation of higher education from the university experience via online learning platforms.

“MOOCs were largely believed to be destroying higher education as we know it. People were viscerally angry about the idea.” – Sebastian Thrun

Even today, online learning advocates still struggle against a culture of campus-first thinking. Many still believe online courses simply can’t reach the same levels of personalisation and interactivity as on-campus teaching.

Zvi and Sebastian worked hard to assuage these doubts from the outset by scaling slowly and thoughtfully, leaving enough room to ensure feedback matched their high standards for the course:

“First of all, we scaled but we scaled slowly. So we never had to stop the growth. And we tested if we could handle it.” – Dr Galil

Moreover, they used the model of campus learning to offer a comprehensive experience to users, building in all of the services you’d expect to find at any top-rate university:

“Office hours, virtual job fairs – everything we tried to provide online…everything is the same.” – Dr Galil

An extensive a high-quality team of experienced TA’s was also essential to ensuring a smooth experience for users. Even though the department would eventually go on to add AI chatbots to its offering, they never lost that personal touch, accounting for much of the department’s success to date.

Digital is a new frontier in business opportunities

Online learning provides us all with an opportunity to rethink higher education with a focus on accessibility. As Dr Galil mentions, “this is a revolutionary shift from the prevailing paradigm for education in which brand is bolstered through exclusion and high tuition.”

For Georgia Tech, the new CS masters was a chance to bring learning opportunities to new prospects. Places on the course were no longer limited by beds on campus. That meant that anyone that was qualified for the course could be admitted, raising admission rates to an incredible 74%. With such massive gains in recruitment, they were able to undercut competitor prices – whose courses often exceed $40,000 – at a price point of only $6,600. Today, each class has upwards of a thousand students learning simultaneously.

What’s fascinating is that analysis into course demographics found that the new online courses didn’t cannibalise demand for offline study. That’s because online creates a unique learning environment for under-served audiences.

If you’re looking for clues on the future of online learning, you’ll find them with audiences that are currently under-served by today’s higher education provision. Even though we now have over 12,000 online courses globally, there remains untapped demand hidden across new geographies and demographics.

Ditch the zero-sum mindset and focus on access

The struggle to make online learning a reality comes with serious lessons for the future of the industry. As Sebastian mentioned:

“The mindset was like a zero-sum game; if you do something cheap, you destroy the expensive one. And that means destroying jobs…The reality has proved the opposite. It’s been about access…bringing great education to the world.” – Sebastian Thrun

On that premise, the team foresees a future in which qualifications become increasingly lightweight and mobile, whilst retaining the quality and support options of the best universities. The pandemic has shown that little can stem the flow of students determined to study on-campus degrees, with most students choosing to relocate their study plans rather than defer or cancel them even in times of crisis. Universities will look to build their brands outside of this traditional space in growing sectors like continuing professional development and career change.

Crucially, though, leadership teams that aren’t able to take risks and venture into new territory will find themselves with less competitive brands.

“You can’t learn from what you don’t try,” says Dr Galil, “never say never. Try it. You may fail…and you may fail and realise how to fix it, and how new technology can help you.”

That, after all, is the starting point for all innovation.


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