Up-skilling for Today’s Workforce: a Perspective from Lisa Stephens, SUNY

Zoe Mackay, Mikel Amigot | IBL News

Lisa Stephens, Assistant Dean for Digital Education at the University of Buffalo School of Engineering and Applied Science and Senior Strategist in academic innovation for the State University of New York, shared her views on the necessity of upskilling modern workforces with IBL News at the 2019 Open edX conference in San Diego.

Online learning provides the opportunity for lifelong education catered to career professions who want to stay up to date, she says, and for traditional universities to fill this space and provide these programs.

There are a lot of people who need to up-skill in order to stay current and competitive in the job market…I think there is a huge opportunity for continuing and professional education, and MicroMasters and stackable credentials in particular.”

The SUNY system is a pioneer in open education resources (OER) production, such as their open textbook initiative, which she says leads to a “natural extension to then look at online education and opening up education in general.”

SUNY is interested in “data science, providing degree-based and continuing education.” Recently, the SUNY system launched a pilot instance of Open edX at the University of Buffalo — “we are experimenting and we are learning.”

In the process of experimenting with their pilot instance, Stephens finds that “there is an opportunity within [Open edX] for customization that we don’t see available to us in other platforms. Of course with that ability to be open and to be customized comes with it a lot of responsibility.”


Watch the full interview with Lisa Stephens in the video below.



“Transparent AI Will Revolutionize Online Learning”

Leveraging What Makes Us Human to Benefit the Learning Process: An Interview with Walter Bender

Zoe Mackay | IBL News

Walter Bender, the Chief Learning Architect at Sorcero and the founder of Sugar Labs and One Laptop One Child, shared with IBL News how transparent AI will revolutionize online learning following his talk at the Open edX conference last month in San Diego. The main goal, he posits, is to leverage what makes us human to become part of the learning process.

His talk, “Beyond the Black Box: How Transparent AI can Transform Learning,” focused on the strides that Sorcero is making with AI and online learning. With his extensive experience in academia and accessible and open online education, he says his experiences were “a case study for transparency, for providing tools and a framework.”

The natural extension from this was to switch gears and talk about AI, the “tool du jour in machine learning these days.”

One of the largest issues with machine learning, says Bender, is that “it’s completely opaque. The people using these tools don’t know how they work, they don’t know the consequences of what they are doing and there is no way to really relate to these tools.”

At Sorcero, they are taking a different approach, he says, by building “a hybrid AI that uses natural language processing in a much more structured way that is more similar to the way people understand the language… When it fails, it fails in a very human way…as opposed to having some strictly statistical model.”

He exemplifies the benefits of Sorcero’s approach while discussing the tools they’ve built for learner’s to ask questions. The AI first attempts to understand the questions, which may include a back and forth between the learner. If the question can be answered by the AI, it will answer, but if it cannot, it will consult the subject matter expert.

“One of the things that have happened repeatedly in our pilots is that the subject matter expert will say, ‘well why are they asking that?’ Well, they’re asking that because that’s the question that [the student] got, and that’s not what you taught them. So maybe you should think about teaching them that because that’s the kind of thing that they are bumping up against. So it is exposing these gaps. It’s providing some structure, feedback, and guidance to the SME as well in the mentoring process.”

A great benefit, he adds, is that “it’s really easy to drop into Open edX and use outside of Open edX as well.”

Watch the full interview with Walter Bender in the video below.

Harvard’s Blockstore Technology Will Enable Personalized Learning on Open edX

Zoe Mackay | IBL News

Robert Lue, the Faculty Director and Principal investigator for LabXchange at Harvard has envisioned an advanced way to create personalized learning paths through community engagement on Open edX with the upcoming release of Blockstore.

“The hope is that what Blockstore on Open edX will allow us to do is truly create an environment for learning that is extremely flexible,” he said.

LabXchange, which launches in September 2019, “represents a real effort to see if we can move Open edX to the next stage of evolution where we’ll be able to create much more flexible learning experiences that can be personalized.”

Personalized learning started with MOOCs, and while there are vast libraries of open educational resources, these learning assets are locked within specific learning sequences — or courses.

This is the issue LabXchange wants to fix, by proposing a single dynamic repository called the Blockstore. “Instead of [learning assets] being locked into courses, they are broken up at the asset level — to individual videos, problems, text documents, HTML pages, etc,” which are meta-tagged and searchable.

Lue shows how you will be able to build a new learning pathway, by utilizing individual learning assets, remixing them and creating customized content.

“What we’ve done is created a new environment where content can be used in a variety of different ways…this allows, for the first time, the ability to remix it and issue it with a unique URL that let’s say a teacher can share with her class free of charge.”

LabXchange has also created a learning network to share “what [people] have learned from,” which allows others to share the learning pathways that can be built, have personal profiles, and the ability to mentor.

“The hope is that what Blockstore on Open edX will allow us to do is truly create an environment for learning that is extremely flexible, that will [allow people] to work with an entirely different set of data around how content is used and reused by instructors, by learners, how are things clustered, how that aligns with performance, how that aligns with building proposals, to solve problems and what sort of networks can now form on a platform that allows you to network through learning and trying to solve problems.”

LabXchange will launch in September 2019, and Blockstore plans on being rolled out over the next two releases of Open edX.

Watch the Robert Lue’s full talk at the Open edX conference in the video below.



Open edX | April 2019: A Successful Conference, NVIDIA, MIT, UC San Diego, Ironwood…

Newsletter format  |  Click here to subscribe ]


APRIL 2019 – NEWSLETTER #15  |  More breaking news at IBL News 



• A successful Open edX conference in San Diego. 2020’s will be in Portugal

• edX says that it’s committed to advance mass personalization

• edX plans to change the economics of customer acquisition and retention in the OPM industry



• NVIDIA’s DLI reaches 120,000 learners and launches new courses on Data Science

• MIT’s ‘Intro to CS Using Python’ on edX reaches 1.2 million enrollments

• NYU Engineering offers a MicroMasters in Integrated Media on edX



• The Open edX platform will allow accessing course content without registration

• UC San Diego announces its Caliper Analytics integration with Open edX

• The Open edX Ironwood version is out

• Jupyter Cloud XBlock for Open edX via Google Colab



• “We are moving towards a more inclusive, comprehensive Open edX community”

• Open edX starts a series of podcasts interviewing leaders in online education



• Education Calendar  –   APRIL  |  MAY  |  JUNE  |  JULY  |  AUG – DEC 2019



This newsletter about Open edX is a monthly report compiled by the IBL News staff, in collaboration with IBL Education, a New York City-based company that builds AI analytics-driven, revenue-oriented learning ecosystems, and courses with Open edX and other educational software. 

Holy Cross and Notre Dame Start a New Model Around an Online Master’s

The University of Notre Dame and the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, have announced a Bachelor of Arts/Master of Science degree collaboration, opening a new educational model.

After graduation from Holy Cross, students participating in the program continue in Notre Dame’s online M.S., receiving their graduate degree the following spring.

“Integrating online professional-graduate education with an undergraduate liberal arts experience is a new frontier,” said Elliott Visconsi, associate provost and chief academic digital officer at Notre Dame.

 “This partnership helps Holy Cross to expand our curriculum in a high-demand field and connect our liberal arts model with professional graduate training, all while maintaining the deeply residential quality of the undergraduate experience. We are delighted to collaborate with Notre Dame to support our students in achieving their post-graduate goals and to cultivate ‘three-dimensional’ data scientists,” said Margaret Freije, provost, and dean of the faculty at College of the Holy Cross.

“Moving Towards a More Inclusive, Comprehensive Open edX Community”

Chris Dowhan, Zoe Mackay | IBL News

John Mark Walker, Open edX Community Lead, said in an interview with IBL News that “we are moving towards a more inclusive, comprehensive [Open edX] community, where we hope to be the home for learning practitioners in an open source collaborative way.

He reflects after the 2019 Open edX conference, which took place during the last week of March in San Diego.

With 5 years of progress, Walked reminisces on the community that edX has fostered, and looks to the future of growing this community.

Over time, we found a lot of companies, like IBM, Microsoft, Redis Labs, Mongo DB…these are all joining the party because they are seeing the power of online learning.” These companies, says Walker, utilize Open edX because of the deeper engagement with their communities, customers, and partners. “It becomes a key component of a community and marketing strategy.

The idea of offering training to everyone who uses software as a service is relatively new, but now with things like Open edX, with an open source platform, and a growing number of people that know how to use it… you’re now getting this convergence of practitioners that are expanding the universe of online learning.”

With 20 years of experience in open source software, Walker identifies the different approaches taken by edX. These other companies were very circular, in that “it was technologists creating technology for other technologists.” When he came to edX, he found that edX incorporated their community, and strived for collaboration.

There is a lot of demand for this combined world where technologists and course designers and educators can come together and collaborate with each other, and that’s what we are focusing on.

edX aims to tailor its future approach toward instructional designers and researchers. With each Open edX conference, Walker says he realizes the need to expand and give these different groups of the edX community the attention they deserve. The Open edX community “really is the most positive community I’ve ever worked in. It is the most inclusive…and you feel that energy.”

To watch John Mark Walkers full comments following the 2019 Open edX Conference, please see the interview below.



NYU Engineering Offers a MicroMasters in Integrated Media on edX

The NYU Tandon School of Engineering joined the edX Consortium, and its first offering will be a MicroMasters in Integrated Media.

This program, which is open for enrollment, consists of three courses followed by a capstone project (for a total of $900).

  • Creative Coding – It introduces the fundamentals of object-oriented programming, and allows the use of code as a method of self-expression in a variety of media, including 2D graphics, animation, and video processing. This course starts on September 2, 2019.
  • Theories of Media and Technology, – It examines a range of historical and contemporary trends in the theoretical analysis of media and enables students to critically describe and discuss media concepts and projects, helps gain an understanding of how people create and consume media. This course starts on December 9, 2019.
  • Media Law, – It consists of an advanced seminar that explores media and communications principles and regulations and fosters an understanding of the legal and ethical framework surrounding issues in digital media. This course starts on March 16, 2020

“Our partnership with edX allows us to offer yet another pathway to becoming a lifelong learner,” said NYU Tandon Dean Jelena Kovačević.

“The road to an advanced degree is not always conventional or linear, and we are proud to offer a new entry point for motivated students, from mortarboard to beyond. We know that science, technology, and engineering are vital and enriching subjects, whether you are a K-12 student or a mid-career professional, and we are committed to offering learning opportunities to those at every stage.”

“At NYU Tandon, we are finding novel ways to engage nontraditional students, such as our online Bridge Program, which we created to provide individuals with non-engineering backgrounds with the tools needed to embark on graduate-level studies here, and our MicroMasters program on edX is a welcome addition in our efforts to bridge the gap between aspiration and attainment,” she added.

“NYU Tandon’s Integrated Digital Media program provides a wholly unique combination of theory and practice that sets it apart from other digital media offerings,” said R. Luke DuBois and Scott Fitzgerald, co-directors of the school’s IDM program.

“We consider this MicroMaster’s to be only the beginning, and look forward to partnering with edX in the future,” stated Nasir Memon, NYU Tandon’s associate dean for online learning.


Michael Crow at ASU GSV: Technologies and Policies We Need to Transform Education

Michael M. Crow, President at Arizona State University (ASU), talked today on a keynote during the ASU GSV Conference in San Diego about the importance of connecting the workforce with lifelong learning opportunities. He elaborated on ASU’s model and mentioned the “technologies we need” to achieve a maximum impact in education. He listed those technologies in the following six categories. Personalized learning at scale will be one of the requirements.

Mr. Crow, who has transformed ASU into one of the nation’s leading public metropolitan research universities, explained that “there are some policies as well as cultural norms and expectations we need to accomplish”, as reflected in these slides.



The President of ASU stated that workplace partners are like “legos”, while “learning systems have multiple potential configurations”.

At the kickoff of his talk, Michael M. Crow elaborated about how a universal learning system should be designed and what building blocks would be needed to create a new university.

In this view, these are the three existing clusters:

Exploring how corporations should help employees attain higher education, Crow highlighted ASU’s partnership with Starbucks, Adidas, and Uber.

Kevin Johnson, CEO of Starbucks, revealed on Monday that about 12,000 Starbucks employees are taking ASU classes through the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, with about 3,000 graduates so far.

“We find now that 50 percent of the graduates stay at Starbucks and get promoted faster and about 50 percent move on,” he said.  “In new applicants for jobs at Starbucks, nearly 20 percent indicate their primary reason is to get an education in partnership with ASU.”  

Steve Ellis, Managing Partner at TPG Growth and the Rise Fund, said that a new model of education accessed via the workplace could help ease income inequality.

“What would it take for us to create a movement that would make this a responsibility of all corporations and organizations? There was more than $800 billion of company stock bought back in 2018. What if we spent a tiny fraction of that to create programs like the Starbucks College Achievement Plan?”




Ray Schroeder: “Universities Have to Change To Meet Students’ Needs”

Ray Schroeder Discusses The Plight of Small Colleges in the Age of Online Learning and the Promise of AI in Personalized Learning


Henry Kronk | IBL News

Professor Emeritus Ray Schroder finds it difficult to stop working. As the Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield and the founding director of the National Council for Online Education at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), he has a lot on his plate.

IBL News recently got in touch with Professor Schroder to discuss his current work and a few trends in online learning.

The interview occurred on the afternoon of March 12th, and the first topic of conversation had to be the admissions scandal that had come to light that morning.

Ray Schroeder
: I think it has more than anything to do with the egos of parents. My older daughter was a National Merit Scholar, which meant she had admission to just about any place with full rides. But she chose a little place, Bradley University, and it fulfilled her dream of teaching. She’s quite successful.

I’m a believer in the idea that going to the top-ranked schools doesn’t necessarily get you much more than the first job. After that, you really do have to prove yourself.


Henry Kronk: A lot of the professional world has shifted its focus away from degrees and towards competencies. [Venture capitalist and entrepreneur] Peter Thiel was paying people a few years ago to drop out of college.

Ray Schroeder: The variables include the fact that state funding to state universities has not risen. In Illinois, for two years, we had no budget. It’s difficult now, but we had no state dollars and we had to live off tuition, grants, and all that. Now tuition is going up. Students can’t afford it; they don’t think it’s worthwhile. We’re at $1.5 something trillion dollars in debt. I understand the tuition challenge. In our case, we try to make it as affordable as possible.


Henry Kronk: I don’t want to get too political, but I wonder about the state funding question. A typical public institution takes roughly 17% of its total revenue from state appropriations. When half of that goes away, it’s a big deal. But it’s also not the entire story. Yet, so many education experts put all their chips on this one issue. It’s not that I don’t think states should increase their appropriations for higher ed, but the argument also strikes me as reductive. There’s more to the story of rising tuition than state funding going away.

Ray Schroeder: I’ve written a little bit about this issue for Inside Higher Ed and the Association for Professional, Continuing, and Online Education (UPCEA). I started long, long ago. I was a reporter in the late ‘60s–the 1960s that is. I retired in ‘01 but came back the next day and started to work for this association at 1 Dupont Circle in D.C.

We’re selling day-old doughnuts, maybe week-old doughnuts. We sell it like a doughnut maker, and it’s take it or leave it. That doesn’t work anymore. We’re so high-priced, and competition has gone so crazy with online learning. Anyone can enroll in any place. You have to have a product that is 1) relevant and 2) affordable. Our model is not in tune with what students and employers need. It used to be that we, that is, the professoriate, would decide, “You need to know Greek history,” or “You need to know this and that.”

That’s all well and good, but we’re not the ones paying the bill. Society and times have changed. So we have to change. We have to be more relevant to meet their needs.

I went to a small liberal arts school–Augustana College. Again, this was the ‘60s. It was great for me to get a broad education and then specialize at the graduate level. I don’t see that as being a large-scale model anymore.

When we look at the at-scale models, like Georgia Tech’s computer science program, that’s affecting everybody. They found an efficient way to deliver a degree and they’re leveraging AI to give–I use this term cautiously–a personalized approach to serving students. An individualized approach would probably be the better term. Professor Ashok Goel there developed Jill Watson (an AI teaching assistant) and he continues to refine it.

These are pieces of progress that we’re seeing. One of the questions I pose is: “What about University of Illinois Springfield?” We’re a little school, about 4,500-5,000 students. We’re losing students to at-scale universities like Southern New Hampshire University and Georgia Tech and Arizona State. I love the people there. They’re great; they’re innovative. I see UMass Online is just launching a new initiative as well. We lose students to these institutions. We’re not price competitive.

You see every day a growing list of small colleges that have met their demise. It’s just like newspapers, right?


Henry Kronk: I think that analogy works on certain levels. But in other ways, it doesn’t hold up. There can’t be a large volume of SNHUs, of ASUs, of Georgia Techs, in the online space. The amount of first time undergraduate students are dropping and projected to keep falling. It won’t be possible to keep every small U.S. college alive online.

Ray Schroeder: I agree–if we imagine the institutions as they are now. If we adapt, if we provide micro certifications, if we allow for agile just-in-time learning, if we were to focus on areas where micro markets, perhaps even international markets, that isn’t the case. I was surprised to learn recently that Nigeria will have more people than the U.S. by 2030. Sub-Saharan Africa is growing like crazy. Look at China and India. There will be markets there to serve. There is potential.

But we have to change. It’s very difficult in higher ed. I started teaching as an instructor at the [University of Illinois] Urbana campus in the College of Communication in 1971. I’ve been at this for close to half a century now. I’ve seen a lot of changes. But I haven’t seen anything like we’re seeing now, and for the past five years.

Certainly, I was there in the mid-‘90s with the beginning of online learning, and that was very exciting as it disrupted higher ed. But it’s a lot less pleasant to be disrupted.


Henry Kronk: When online learning started to become viable, a lot of people believed it would improve equity in higher education. The idea is, “We’re removing one more barrier.” Do you think that has played out, and to what degree?

Ray Schroeder: I think it has among certain populations: single parents, motivated learners, mid-30s professionals. They all have a fairly successful track record online. But there are other populations it has not served.

Online learning is far less effective for developmental students. These are the students who didn’t do well in Algebra, who didn’t do well in writing and literature, who don’t start college as competent writers. They have been failed by their middle schools and high schools. There are cultural issues there too, but these are students who have not developed the abilities that generally are expected at the university level.

What we find, generally, is that community college students are less successful online than are, for example, our [UIS] students. We have 25 degrees online. Roughly half of them are degree completion programs. We require 30 credit hours to be completed before you can enter them. The hard work, with our students who have been incompletely taught, takes place at community colleges. Once they’ve developed to that ability, online works well.

There’s also a loose observation that I would make–take it for what it is. The 35-year-old who’s paying out of pocket, who is a single parent, and whose job advancement depends upon completing the degree, is more motivated than an 18-year-old who is just coming out of high school, and for whom someone else is paying tuition. They just don’t have the same life experience. It takes self-motivation online because you don’t have a whole dormful of cohort saying, come on let’s go to school, let’s go to class.

We have not successfully served those students who were not given the opportunity to meet certain standards in elementary and secondary school. That’s our challenge.

This leads into one of the questions you posed [via email before the interview], which is, “How can artificial intelligence be used to customize and individualize learning for students?” It can quickly and individually diagnose what shortcomings there may be. It can know “this student didn’t learn about Greek philosophers, didn’t learn a certain level of vocabulary, didn’t reach a certain writing ability or this or that.” AI can respond to each of the students in a composition class of 30. It can say, “Take this module, go to this lesson in Khan Academy, before you begin working on this project.” If you have a class of 30, it’s very difficult for a faculty member to do that kind of individualized work. And so, commonly, we aim at the middle of course. It’s boredom for the advanced, and it’s a struggle for the less experienced students at the bottom.


Henry Kronk: My response has to be: What makes you so sure AI can do that effectively?

Ray Schroeder: Well, we’re seeing some of it already, but it is very early. AI is all about being given lots of examples. Deep learning takes those examples and begins to build algorithms. “If a student misuses this or does this, we know they tend to succeed when given this module.” It develops over time.

It’s the same with AI making medical diagnoses. You have to feed in every new published study. There are about 700,000 peer-reviewed articles published every year in the field of medicine. My doctor doesn’t read all 700,000, but a computer can assimilate that in a few minutes and then go through a process of applying those to complaints, symptoms, lab results, etc. At the end, it can make a diagnosis and prescribe treatment.

It’s the same in education. It’s about being able to collect all this data.


Henry Kronk: I’m on board with the fact that AI bots can do a few things well. They do well with the assessment and diagnosis of students. They can also potentially do well in leading them on to the next step based on the steps that other successful students have taken in the past. But this is only getting at part of the process. It assumes that a student will be receptive to this kind of instruction. It’s going to involve at least some time on the computer and significantly less interaction with their instructor. Are you confident that it can be deployed successfully?

Ray Schroeder: I’m confident that it will be. We’ll see incrementally more over the next decade. Candace Thille has done some pioneering work in the area of adaptive learning. Adaptive learning is the core–we used to do that in the ‘70s with PLATO. It was branching. Depending upon which wrong answer the student gave, it took them to the corresponding module. I think there’s a great advantage to high-touch faculty intervention. A faculty member wouldn’t stand away from the course, they would be there daily giving reinforcement. You know, ‘Great job, it’s so great that you learned that, what a creative response you gave.’ Getting a personal reinforcement is very positive. But the path tends to be drawn from a wide array of options from the computer.

The computer can provide the reinforcement too. As I’m sure you’ve read about Jill Watson, people didn’t suspect she was a computer, it was all natural language–I said ‘she’–it was a computer program.

But I digress. Yes, I’m confident it can work. I think it works best if there is human faculty oversight and engagement with the student. It takes both to be most successful.


Henry Kronk: Let’s talk about the recent Personal Data Protection Commission’s recent AI governance framework. This document obviously wouldn’t have been produced if people didn’t have concerns about AI. Walk me through some concerns you have and let me know whether or not they are adequately addressed by this document.

Ray Schroeder: It’s a beginning. Their attitude during their release in January was, “Test this out, get back to us with your thoughts, and we’ll revise it.” The late Stephen Hawking, [Steve] Wozniak, [Bill] Gates, Elon Musk–they all are worried about AI. They’re worried it will take control. It is very powerful. If it becomes self-cognizant–it already is to some extent–it can take over systems if we let it. There are many, many other smaller concerns along the way on how it might infringe on privacy, and the like.

But the question becomes ultimately: Will we see a conflict of interest where the computer says, “I know what’s best for you, human, and therefore, I will do it”?

To highlight this, I’ll use an example of self-driving cars. Let’s say an autonomous car is driving along and it comes to a predicament where there are two older people like me cutting across the road and it has two options: hit them or run up over the sidewalk and hit three children. How do you value that decision? Do you let the computer? Of course, you need to. The computer is driving the car. But how do you instill values? Who has the right to decide those values? What are those values?

That’s a real scenario. There are a million others I’m sure.

Applied to universities, it’s the same. Do we apply resources to the developing students or to the advanced? Do we put it in labs or social sciences? Colleges and universities will need to make these decisions. We need to have controls. Or at least we have to set standards and values.


Henry Kronk: So how is quantum computing going to change the use of AI in personalized learning?

Ray Schroeder: Quantum computing is going to speed up the process, perhaps by 10,000 times. What now takes 10,000 hours will take an hour. It will also give us the ultimate security. Normally, we would transmit information with a stream of data. That data goes from one place to another. If we use entangled Q-bits (as in bits, but quantum bits) information transfer will happen instantly with nothing in between. There’s no way to intercept it. If you do something to one particle, it happens to the other particle, even if it is 10,000 miles out in space.

Those qualities are going to enhance security and enhance speed. That’s going to allow us to do more complex and more sophisticated functions.

2U Acquires Trilogy Education and Duplicates Its Portfolio of Universities

2U, the leading OPM, is paying $750 million to acquire Trilogy Education, a New York City-based boot camp specialized in building programs on coding, data analytics, UX/UI and cybersecurity.

The deal — $400 million in cash and $350 million in 2U stock — will allow 2U to bump up its university portfolio, to 68 institutions from the existing 36, and expand into the continuing education market (around $366 billion).

2U has currently a market cap of $3.85 billion and is publicly traded on Nasdaq.

Trilogy has to date provided courses for 20,000 people and 1,200 instructors across 120 programs.

“We expect the addition of Trilogy to accelerate our path to $1 billion in revenue by one year from 2022 to 2021,” 2U co-founder and CEO Christopher “Chip” Paucek said in a statement.

This transaction fuels the controversy about commercial corporations and nonprofit universities partnering to build educational courses while making money.