In education also, users come first!

Panel discussion

Panel discussion with Pierre-Antoine Ullmo, P.A.U. Education, Spain; Johannes Heinlein, EdX, USA; Andrew Ng, Coursera, USA; Simon Nelson, FutureLearn, UK at the EMOOCs 2014 conference.

The most retweeted tweet of the EMOOCs 2014 conference was from Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera: “We hope to get to that future where students that’re so hungry, so eager, so desperate to get an education can get one.”

In the last few months, Coursera has been looking into how they can monetise their user base by launching Career Services, a recruiting service that matches students with employers, and by entering into the certification business by allowing students to verify the work they complete on Coursera for a fee.

So, is it right for Coursera to advertise its mission as a global commitment to making education available to the largest number of people, whilst at the same time developing a business model on top of this increasing ‘user base’? Is it ethically correct to, at the same time, advocate for education for all and develop paid services for a minority? My answer is YES, so long as Coursera recognises and openly discusses that it is pursuing both goals.

Innovation in education requires a mix of public and private initiatives that should all focus ultimately on enabling individuals to get the education they need. This is why Coursera, Edx, Iversity and FUN, for example, can develop similar MOOC platforms with different legal structures and investment schemes. All these platforms must develop a sustainable business model even though the final objectives might be to generate profit (or not), or to benefit private investors (or not).

Sustainability means that any innovative solutions in the field of education must respond to real needs, and be able to reach the targeted users. A MOOC platform without students or/and enough universities simply won’t be sustainable. An educative app without users will be useless. A university that doesn’t enable its students to access the job market is not fulfilling its mission.

Ultimately, learners will decide whether an innovation is sustainable. This is the reason why the Open Education Challenge was created to boost education start-ups in Europe. It has been designed with the involvement of private investors from the very beginning: it aims to create a framework in which the overall educative mission can openly coexist with an objective evaluation of the cost-effectiveness of any innovative product or service in the field of education.

Innovation in education is not a choice between a public and a private approach. It is about prioritising users’ needs and investors’ return. It doesn’t matter, after all, if investors are tax payers or venture capitalists. We all want a return on our expectations.

And education is the greatest expectation of all!

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