How Open edX Plans to Reach 1 Billion Learners

How Open edX Plans to Reach 1 Billion Learners


Critiques about MOOCs, centered around low completion rates, may be fair and valid. But these concerns are framed in the traditional benchmarks for what makes a college course successful.

In June 2013, edX open sourced its MOOC platform, dubbed “Open edX” and invited companies, organizations, universities and governments to adopt the platform. So far over 70 organizations have joined, according to GitHub where the sites are tracked. The move led to “more dialogue about what could be done with the platform, a new perspective, and that has colored the roadmap,” said Beth Porter, vice president of product at edX who manages Open edX and the edX consortium.

Speaking at the “Open edX in the Spotlight: The Future of Online Education” Meetup on April 9, Porter was joined by three power users from McKinsey Academy, George Washington University and the Public Consulting Group, who shared how this open source MOOC platform is being used from K-12 professional development to corporate training.

“Position Yourselves for the Next EdTech Model” – McKinsey Academy

McKinsey Academy operates as an edtech startup within the consultancy and offers its clients “education as a service.” Their first Open edX courses went live in September 2014. According to the Academy’s General Manager, Michael Kearny, his team was looking for a platform that would enable delivery of highly interactive, cohort-driven, social learning and which could allow for continuous course and UX optimization. Six months into their adoption of Open edX, they had taken the core of the platform, added their own front end, authoring tools and custom content.

For Kearney, the challenges of working with an open-source platform in its infancy demanded that the team test early and select early adopters with a tolerance for risk. The team tested with 100 companies (that included 2,000 students from 12 countries) and yielded completion rates of over 90%. The group offers digital programs in management and leadership curated from a series of existing courses including Business Strategy, Structured Business Communications, Program Management & Motivation.

“Online Learning is More Than MOOCs” – George Washington University

Paul Schiff Berman, GWU’s Vice Provost of Online Education and Academic Innovation, positioned their Open edX courses as just one component among a mature online offering that includes over 60 online programs.

GWU is not new to online courseware offerings. While it currently offers three free courses via Open edX, its credit-bearing and degree offerings are delivered through the Blackboard platform. One reason for sticking with Blackboard is the LMS’s integration with the Banner enrollment system, which GWU uses. History buffs may also remember that GWU invented Prometheus, the courseware management system that merged with Blackboard in early 2002.

GWU offers considerable technical support to facilitate the design of online courses. It boasts its own in-house eDesign Shop, run by Berman, staffed with instructional designers and multimedia and video experts. Schiff maintains that this capability has served in getting buy-in for online learning from otherwise skeptical faculty. GWU’s Open edX instance is also powered by IBL Studios Education, an educational consultancy that specializes in high quality video production and Open edX implementations.

GWU strives to include synchronous instruction within their online programs, maintaining some element of the seminar experience even online. Another criterion Berman stresses is offering online content or expertise unique to the university. The newly-released “The Past, Present and Future of the Federal Reserve” MOOC is one example of how GWU has leveraged their D.C. connections to offer unique content.

In summing up GWU’s MOOC offerings, Berman says “We see MOOCs as service to the world, something we offer because it is part of our mission.”

“5,000 School Districts and 44,000 Schools” – The Public Consulting Group

Education is among several market sectors where the PCG consulting group. Jack McLaughlin, Manager of PSG education, says his group needed an open-source platform to facilitate a professional learning community to support “a network of Common Core specialists.” After looking at Moodle and others, they settled on Open edX about a year ago.

The platform, rebranded as Pepper, features professional development content developed by WestEd, a not-for-profit research and development organization. In addition to the self-paced professional development material, Pepper enables portfolio development, and access to community discussions. PSG also customized the platform to enable teachers to find and connect with others in the system and create “chunks” of content that other users can share and rate according to the metrics of quality, engagement and applicability.

After launching in the Los Angeles school district with 5,000 teachers in 30 districts, Pepper’s user base has grown to 5,000 school districts and 44,000 schools. Partnerships with Common Sense Media and Quality Matters are helping to grow content and users. By the fall of 2015, according to McLaughlin, they expect to have 750,000 users in Pepper.

Roadmap to One Billion

edX hopes to reach one billion people within 10 years. It’s a noble ambition, but one that may only be possible if the Open edX feature roadmap goes according to plan. In terms of mobile, edX is looking at making learning more accessible by:

  1. Making content more “munchable” (i.e. more consumable in smaller bits and pieces);
  2. Serving a global audience looking for apps more effectively; and
  3. Getting students to contribute more in order to make learning more interactive and engaging.

As Porter notes, the Open edX platform also allows researchers access to a potentially rich set of data on how students learn and how teachers teach. While this information can be valuable to test pedagogical strategy and content effectiveness, the panel was mindful over current concerns over student data in K-12 and higher-ed. Berman cautioned that “There are a lot of minefields out there when pulling out data, even when it is anonymized.”

With a growing set of partners across academic, social and professional learning organizations, Open edX could help broaden our expectations and standards for the value and impact of online learning. And perhaps more so impressive than numbers alone are the creative ways in which teachers and learners are redesigning the learning experience.

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