In recent talks in our conferences and other events about the growth of technology in higher educaiton, the most talked about topic is MOOCs and online learning.
With this growth in MOOCs, the world of aggregators gave birth to many MOOC aggregation platforms including Class Central. To know more about the reasons behind the success of such platforms, we spoke to Mr. Dhawal Shah, Founder of Class Central. Here’s what he has to share!
Class Central recently became the #1 search engine for online courses out-competing its heavily funded competitors, what distinguishes it mainly?
The simplest way to summarize would be that we focus on what actually matters to learners and not what sounds like it matters. In EdTech, there is a lot of preaching on how the future of learning should work. It focuses more on how people want learners to behave, instead of actually understanding our needs.
Being a learner myself, I am building a product that I want to use. In fact that’s how Class Central started. I built Class Central over a weekend in November 2011 to help me decide which course to take. I never had the intention of starting a company.
One concrete example of how we approach things differently would be our aggregation philosophy. Conventional wisdom says a search engine for online courses needs to search everything that’s out there.
But being a learner, I knew I cared more about the quality of courses than about the quantity of them. So to this day we curate our courses manually for quality and keep the catalog intentionally small.
Our competitors, on the other hand, took the path of conventional wisdom, and have tried to aggregate as many courses (and, in some cases, articles, ebooks, etc.) as possible.
This meant learners using those other websites are left with the daunting task of sorting through these tens of thousands of resources.
How is Class Central funded?
After maintaining Class Central for almost a couple of years as a side-project, I felt that MOOCS were here to stay and started looking for funding so I could work on it full time.
I applied to and got funded by Imagine K12, a popular EdTech incubator based out of Silicon Valley. But that was three years ago, and now we are a bootstrapped company relying on our ad revenues to support ourselves.
What do you think has been the reason behind rise in number of MOOC?
It’s easy to criticize MOOCs and I agree they are not perfect, but they are currently the best way to teach millions of people around the world.
At Class Central, we have interviewed over 50 MOOC professors. Many of the professors had heard stories from their learners about how their MOOCs have impacted their students’ lives. Many of the professors have even been recognized in public places due to their MOOCs. One example of this is Professor Oakley’s daughter being recognized in her on-campus lectures because of her appearance in the LHTL MOOC videos!
Critics might focus on low completion rates in MOOCs, but universities are recognizing how much impact MOOCs can have on learners. Some providers like Coursera have become really efficient at monetizing, which means that many universities are able to re-coup their costs.
An increasing number of universities are also using the content they’ve developed for MOOCs to improve residential education by using the flipped classroom or blended learning model.
With over 650 universities and colleges currently offering MOOCs, universities are feeling the pressure of competition and don’t want to be left out.
All these factors mean that universities have been incentivized to create new MOOCs.
But why do you think forum activity and interactions in MOOCs have declined drastically? Is this the reason MOOCs being launched today are not being able to scale?
It has more to do with the scheduling frequency of the courses, than it has to do with the course itself. Originally any given MOOC was offered once or twice a year. It was quite common to encounter a course you liked the look of, only to discover it was already finished. MOOCs had no predictable schedule.
But now most are offered in a self-paced format or, in the case of Coursera courses, switched to a regular schedule, with new sessions starting automatically on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly basis. This has led to a significant increase in the number of courses students can register for and start almost immediately, as you can see in the graph below. (The graph shows the number of courses that a learner could start in September each year between 2013–2016. I chose September because it’s usually the biggest month for MOOCs.)
This means that instead of one or two large cohorts, students are now learning year-round in much smaller cohorts. Hence the significant drop in activity for any given cohort.
What are some of the categories/area of study with most popular MOOCs?
Recently we published a list of the Top 50 MOOCs of all time based on reviews written by Class Central users. Twenty courses out of the top fifty were in the field of technology — specifically in computer science, programming, and data science.
Surprisingly, business had only five courses in the top fifty, despite being the largest category on Class Central with close to 1,000 courses. Humanities is another category that has many highly rated courses.
How does Class Central help student decide “Is this the right course for me”?
First of all we help the student make a decision by limiting the number of courses in our catalog. Instead of scaring them away with tens of thousands of courses, we curate all of our courses and only list the ones that meet our quality criteria. This helps avoid choice paralysis.
Secondly, we provide as much information as possible for the courses we list — we rank by fifteen different attributes (as opposed to five for our competitors). We collect the data for many of these attributes by hand.
Along with the 20,000 reviews written by Class Central users, students have as much information as possible to decide if a course is right for them.
We know our approach works because, according to SimilarWeb, we are the #1 source of referral traffic to Coursera.
MOOC providers are currently making major investments in the Indian market, how do you see it growing in a country like India?
India is an obvious market with its large population and Youth Bulge. India’s current education system cannot support this bulge.
So MOOCs seem like an obvious solution to the Youth Bulge. Unfortunately it hasn’t panned out like that. I think infrastructure issues like internet speed still makes MOOCs unviable in India. Even though India is the second largest market for many MOOC providers, it is a distant second to the US.
Our ability to pay is even lower.That is why MOOC providers are focusing on working with businesses in India who already have huge training budgets. (E.g. Udacity’s FastTrack Program with Infosys.)
This doesn’t benefit the common man. This is why I am excited that the Indian government has adopted the MOOC model and has launched SWAYAM.
Under SWAYAM, IITs, IIMs, and central universities will offer free online courses to citizens (i.e. they’ll offer MOOCS). SWAYAM is expected to host 2,000 courses and over 250,000 hours of content.
Students across India will be able to earn credits for completing courses on SWAYAM. The government of India has already passed legislation for this to happen. According to this legislation (which we covered in depth here), local universities and colleges in India will have to provide the necessary infrastructure for students to take these courses.
MOOCS (via SWAYAM) have the potential to shape the next generation of Indian youth by scaling quality education and making it accessible to everyone.
What is the one tip of improvement you would like to share with MOOC providers across the globe?
My tip would be to focus on building a community.
There are course-specific forums (which, as we discussed above, are dying), but there isn’t a single place where learners can discuss or ask questions about MOOCs. This lack of community means MOOCs will only work for a small subset of self-motivated individuals.