Saturday, November 17, 2012

Online education

The latest craze in education seems to be online education. Several startups focused in this area. Some of these are the so-called MOOCs (massively open online courses).

A list of the ones i know currently are

  • 2U : This is not a MOOC; rather it provides live interaction with the instructors.  Just that the students do not need to be in the same geographical location as the instructor. The cost is comparable to the cost of sitting in a real classroom. 
  • Minerva Project; This is not a MOOC again. 
  • UniversityNOW: They charge a flat fee per month and in return you can take as many courses as you want. They provide the textbooks as well as access to the faculty. Could not access the list of courses offered. 
  • edX; This is a MOOC but not many courses offered at the site. 
  • MIT OpenCourseware : Many of the courses taught at MIT available at this site. Some of them also have video recordings. Did see a few courses on basic programming, SaaS etc. 
  • CodeAcademy : Focused on teaching people how to code. 
  • Coursera; They have a large number of courses.
  • Udacity : Lots of courses with video recordings and lectures available here. 
  • Udemy: The choices of courses seems quite varied at this site. 
  • Khan Academy : Different topics are addressed here. 
Update on Jan 1st: Added a few more links below

Now along with the above efforts at online education we are also seeing efforts towards keeping the students honest. This involves use of tools such as computer webcams to monitor students, browser lockdowns to prevent access to any other sites when taking tests online, keystroke pattern recognition software to detect when a different person is answering questions online, plagiarism detection software etc.  I am not optimistic about these efforts at all. I would definitely not invest in any such efforts since they do not achieve their objectives. 

In fact I believe that the efforts towards keeping students honest are missing the point. The point of online education should be to democratize education making it easier for people to understand concepts since they can do so at their own pace. These online tools should not focus on awarding certificates. 

These online tools could be used by the "brick and mortar" universities or organizations to complement the teaching/training activities. And of course these could also be used by groups of students to ensure that the students go to the next level in terms of understanding the concepts. And these MOOCs can tie up with the Prometrics of the world to deliver exams and verify the skills for those students who are willing to pay extra to be certified. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Something to learn from reddit

What happens when the web site you are operating starts getting a phenomenal increase in user traffic? Of course, the costs to operate the site increase since now you are serving out more bits resulting in increased bandwidth usage.

How do you increase the revenue to balance this rise in costs? An easier approach seems to be to load up on the ads and start showing more of these. But that is not what the folks at Reddit did.

Seems counterintuitive? Not really.  To understand check out this comment of the CEO of which i have reproduced a small portion below

See, the problem is that if your site is funded primarily with advertising, then you are beholden to your advertisers. If your users choose to post something politically or culturally controversial, you come under editorial pressure from advertisers to remove or modify it, because advertisers like bland, well-lit spaces. This eventually results in a watering down of the true, authentic content on the site (remember Sears?). It's one of the reasons Digg failed. And personally, I feel that's not the best way to serve the community. It's not the right thing to do for the users who have faithfully contributed to reddit all these years.

Of course to fix this, the CEO wants the readers to become subscribers of their service. This will enable them to preserve the user experience. Seems fair.

So this is what I call a Systems approach to solving the problem as opposed to throwing in the band aid. So in the systems approach you got to understand how the complete system behaves and then figure out a solution keeping the entire system in mind as opposed to focusing on just a few components of the system.