Afghanistan’s Ministry of Higher Education Creates AfghanX and Joins the edX Consortium

EdX-style education will now reach Afghanistanis.

Six universities have joined efforts to scale higher education and deliver quality courses for learners throughout Afghanistan.

These institutions, managed by the Central e-Learning committee of the Ministry of Higher Education, have created AfghanX, an initiative which has just joined the edX Consortium.

The Ministry of Education’s goal is to incorporate digital technologies into teaching, learning and research and ultimately increase the employability of Afghan men and women in the workplace.

The first offering from AfghanX is Contemporary Manuscript Illumination of Herat, a 6-week course on, designed to teach learners various ways to create an illuminated manuscript. This practice is considered a national art in Afghanistan and is used primarily for religious, scholarly and historical manuscripts.

This class is currently open for enrollment and starts on May 29.

A Fascinating Free Course About Beethoven’s Music from Stanford University

John G. Paul | IBL News

Stanford University has launched this spring a new online, free course on Beethoven, his music and development as a composer.

The class, led by music historian Stephen Hinton, is designed for any level of musical literacy, with the aim of enhancing people’s understanding of Beethoven’s music through the study of his string quartets –a genre of music involving two violins, a viola, and a cello. It features performances by and discussions with the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Stanford’s ensemble-in-residence.
“His last five string quartets are widely considered to be the pinnacle of Western art music,” said Professor Stephen Hinton.

Defining the String Quartet II: Beethoven, a seven-week course, now open for enrollment, has attracted nearly 800 participants so far. Many of them share their interpretation and experience with Beethoven’s music in the course’s online forums. Students who successfully complete the full course can receive a statement of accomplishment that reflects their level of participation and achievement. After June 11, the class will reopen on a self-paced modality.

This course –which is included on Stanford Online’s Open edX-based platform, with over 10 million learners– is a sequel to Stanford’s first free online course on classical music appreciation, called Defining the String Quartet: Haydn, that launched in 2016.



Chatbots Gain Traction Among Businesses – Now a Course About Them on edX

Mikel Amigot | IBL News

Chatbot–based customer services are increasingly in demand. Advancements in AI technology, natural language processing, neural networks and speech recognition are making chatbots more effective and affordable. However, they are still in an early phase of development.

These revolutionary applications – which allow users to engage in interactive conversations using text or natural voice – have the potential to save businesses a fortune – over 8 billion annually by 2020 according to Juniper.

Artificial Intelligence Chatbot technology is not ready to replace top customers agents when assisting customers yet, but is advancing rapidly. A well-performed human experience is unbeatable.

Trying to trick customers by making them think that an AI chatbot is a real person only speaks poorly about that company. Customers get easily annoyed if they are asked the same information repeatedly. If they feel that an algorithm is in the works trying to match the best response, they will inevitably feel played.

Antonio Cangiano, an IBM manager who teaches a class on chatbots on edX, highlights that these tools “augment humans, not replace them.” Despite being imperfect, they represent a growing business opportunity.

The mentioned course helps to build, analyze, and deploy chatbots powered by IBM’s Watson. In addition, it teaches how to make money by selling chatbot services to clients, even by deploying them in WordPress sites.


Carnegie Mellon’s Massive Open Source Initiative – Interview With the Leader Behind It

As an Alternative to the Tech Transfer Approach, Carnegie Mellon Will Open-Source Dozens of Internally Developed EdTech Tools


Henry Kronk | IBL News

In March, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) announced an unprecedented initiative. Over the course of the year, they plan to release dozens of digital learning tools they have developed over the past decade on an open-source license. These include the learning analytics platform LearnSphere and their pioneering adaptive learning project the Open Learning Initiative (OLI). In all, CMU estimates $100 million in grants and university funding went into these efforts. The effort was spearheaded by the Simon Initiative, which continues the legacy of Nobel Laureate, Turing Award recipient, and CMU professor Herbert Simon.

Simon made numerous contributions in various fields throughout his lifetime. But in education, he is remembered for the concept of learning engineering. As Simon wrote on the subject, “Most of us were trained as teachers by serving as TA’s in a couple of classes when we were graduate students; and our students, with rare exceptions, have never received any systematic and consistent instruction in how to learn. Yet that is the skill they have been exercising every working day of their lives for more years than they would like to remember. So students don’t study the skills of learning, and university teachers don’t study the skills of teaching.”

By promoting learning engineering, Simon hoped to both study the process of teaching and learning as academics do their own fields and disciplines, and then apply what they’ve learned to improve their own classrooms.

Norman Bier is the director of both the Simon Initiative and the OLI. He has a unique perspective on university-created edtech products. Besides being on campus while other CMU edtech efforts such as Acrobatiq were developed and brought to market, he used to work for iCarnegie. While not strictly a software company, iCarnegie sought to train software developers much like coding bootcamps do today.

IBL News reached Bier to hear more about CMU’s massive open-source effort.

Henry Kronk
Naturally, the main thing I’d like to know is why do this open-source initiative in the first place?

Norman Bier: So Carnegie Mellon doesn’t have a college of education. At the same time, we’ve got a really rich tradition of interesting work at the place where psychology, cognitive science, human-computer interaction, and computer science intersect. We’ve got a rich tradition of building sort of weird cross-discipline teams that you don’t always see in other institutions. Particularly from Herb Simon’s influence, we’ve got this deep tradition of thinking seriously about how to improve learning.

So no, we don’t have a college of education. But what we’ve had from these collaborations are some really exciting and impactful individual projects that range from things like our work in cognitive tutors (in the algebra space, we’ve seen use of the tutors can help K-12 students get an additional year’s worth of training compared to their traditional peers) There’s also the OLI. The OLI is probably best known for its work in statistics where we saw roughly twice the learning outcomes in half the time. But there are a whole host of other things as well from virtual chemistry labs to new tutoring approaches in second language acquisition to educational data mining—lots and lots of work in this space that we’re really proud of.

Henry Kronk
: How is CMU education research applied?

Norman Bier: We don’t always see this work being used here on campus for CMU students’ benefit. Despite some of the impressive numbers I’ve just cited, we don’t always see this work getting out into the world in a way that has a real impact in terms of improving learning. Although I do think we collaborate as well as anyone, even here, we often see that projects don’t always integrate well. Sometimes we see replication of effort. So the Simon Initiative was launched to better interconnect and accelerate the work that is happening in this space to position it in a way so that we can really use these tools but also these techniques and approaches we have been developing to transform the learning experience for Carnegie Mellon students, to also get it out into the world in ways that have a broader impact and improve learning outcomes more globally.

In a lot of ways, we follow Herb Simon’s challenge to his colleagues at the end of his career—that if we want to improve learning, we need to stop thinking about it as teaching and start creating it as a community-based research activity … In some ways, our charge is if we don’t have a college of education, we should treat the entire university as a college of education and make the classroom a learning laboratory.

With this diversity of approaches and tools, we need to think about what is common across the work. This is where we really emphasize the ‘learning engineering approach.’

Over the years, we’ve been thinking about how to position these tools and approaches in a way that will have the greatest amount of impact. How do we get more people to engage with them?


Henry Kronk: Why take this approach compared to a more traditional, for-profit go-to-market strategy?

Norman Bier: Particularly in the educational technology space, there are some real challenges in the traditional tech transfer approach. I think that, broadly speaking, the edtech market is not one that broadly emphasizes or rewards effectiveness. Too often, we see these really effective approaches get pushed out into the market and then they end up needing to pivot to focus on the things that are going to help them sell, rather than the things that made the product effective in the first place.

Most of this work still needs to be embedded in its research. We’re not at a point where any of this is mature and the research is finished. But rather, when we think about this as part of an engineering effort, we see this real need to staying close to this ongoing research, recognizing where we have new questions that we’re asking, and if we start to really push on this notion that every new learning experience that we’re designing represents a hypothesis, staying close to the toolset, staying close to the approach becomes really important.

As we’ve investigated new ways towards getting this learning engineering approach broadly used, more broadly accepted, it became increasingly clear that we didn’t have a perfect existing model to tie into.

The tech transfer approach wasn’t going to work. We started saying, ‘Maybe we’ll think about CMU just building this stuff for the world. We can build the world’s best statistics course, everyone can use that.’


Henry Kronk: So then, what specifically is attractive about the open-sourcing model?

Norman Bier: Our ongoing research keeps showing us that 1) there is no perfect statistics course for the world and 2) cultural context is so important for learning that what we really need to do (if we think these tools and approaches are important) is position them in ways such that folks can deploy them in their own context with their own learners’ needs in mind. And if we were going to learn from that approach, we need to position this work in a way that the results coming back from those efforts can come back in a way that we and the rest of the community can see them.

This really started pushing us to more of a community-based approach and that in turn led us to this notion that we need to be more open about our work.

By opening up these tools and opening up the software, I’m not sure that I’m trying to encourage every institution out there to spin up their own instance of the DataShop platform. That’s 1) not very efficient and 2) for a lot of the folks we’re trying to see impacted, they don’t have the resources or expertise to do this. But in order to encourage this use of some of the centralized tools and centralized approaches, that code base was sort of table stakes. It was a way of saying, ‘Look, you can count on the fact that this stuff won’t disappear because it’s out here for you.’


Henry KronkA lot of existing coverage of OLI’s open-source initiative is saying something like, ‘Carnegie Mellon is giving these digital tools away.’ Now, this is a purposefully imperfect metaphor, but let’s say I developed a tool to fix my bike. I could hand that tool to somebody else so that they could fix their bike. But that’s not exactly what’s going on here, is it?

Norman Bier: No, I think it’s different in two ways. What we are providing is a garage where you can come, bring your bike, and, to push the metaphor, you need to bring your own data or your own grease or your own brake pads. But what we have is a community-supported bike garage where you can go in and take advantage of some of the tools there.

But if you have the resources, we’re also handing you the tools to go and open your own bike garage. If engaging with this centrally-supported garage isn’t going to work for you, then you have the opportunity to go home and build your own. Take the case of LearnSphere (an iteration of an earlier version of DataShop, which was intended as that one central educational data mining and warehousing infrastructure for the community. A lot of folks had been consistent users over the years, but we were consistently hearing that, though they were comfortable with the notion of sharing their data, and though they were comfortable with the notion of sharing techniques, they weren’t necessarily comfortable with taking their data and sticking it on CMU servers.

So one piece of the LearnSphere project has been to create a more distributed infrastructure so that, if the University of Memphis stands up their own LearnSphere data, they’re now completely in control of their own data. They’re able to expose that so that if others need to use that data for secondary analysis, they can still get access. They participate in some of the larger sharing of analytic methods and some of the visualizations.


Henry Kronk: And then, there’s also the data-sharing aspect.

Norman Bier: Yes. This is starting to take the bike shop metaphor in weird places, but if you want to go off and stand up your own workspace, it can still connect with and share some of the resources with the original bike shop or any other one in a way that should be mutually beneficial to everyone. That’s a really important piece in this. When we talk about the learning engineering approach, we also talk about, in the aggregate, that data feeding fresh discoveries in the learning sciences. A model where everyone goes off, stands up their own DataShop, stands up their own OLI, and only uses that information internally really limits our ability to learn from what is happening, to identify what is working, and to see that pushed out to a larger group of students.

Some piece of this is saying, ‘You don’t need to become dependent on our bike shop and worry that we’re going to close the doors or start charging for it. You could go build your own if you need it. But there is a benefit with engaging and contributing to this work as part of a larger community.’


Henry KronkBased on your time spent with other edtech tools and services that have gone the for-profit proprietary route, are you moving forward with this open-source initiative with any specific lessons learned?

Norman Bier: I think when I combine my experience at iCarnegie with some more recent work here at OLI, it’s become increasingly important to find ways to let individuals revise and re-contextualize the learning materials that are getting pushed out. If we are serious about leveraging learning data to improve that learning experience, and we’re serious about faculty needing to be able to make these changes, then we really need to focus on putting tools in their hands that exposes them to the data, makes that information actionable, and gives them that chance to engage in their own closed-loop cycle of review, analysis, design, development, and deployment.

That was a piece that we didn’t have at all at iCarnegie. Again, this was prior to the existence of the concept of open education. Maybe that’s not fair. I have some colleagues at the Open University who would hunt me down and beat me up for saying that. This is prior to the Creative Commons license existing before we were talking about OER. We never got faculty to a place where we were asking, ‘How can we equip faculty to make changes to this?’ let alone, ‘How can we more deeply involve them in this improvement process?’

That’s been a lesson that stretched into OLI. We have a process that has historically produced some really remarkable and effective courseware. But at the same time, to get faculty to engage with the larger course development team … for a lot of faculty, this notion that I don’t need to build a full course, I’ve got this one specific learning challenge I need to address, and I’ve got some ideas about what can be effective—it seemed pretty important to include that population in this work. We’ve been spending a lot of attention and making some deep investments in the kind of authoring and improvement tools that really should allow anyone to come in and make some changes to an existing course or test out their hypothesis but also making sure that there’s going to be data coming back.


Analysis: Sebastian Thrun, Creates the University of Silicon Valley and the Fourth Degree

Mikel Amigot | IBL News


Sebastian Thrun, Founder, and CEO at Udacity, is not shy when he claims, in a recent post, that his company will become the “University of Silicon Valley”. “Every student will now have technical mentors, expert reviewers, career coaches, and personalized learning plans on their side, in every Nanodegree program,” he writes before welcoming everyone “to the future of e-learning”.

Class Central criticizes Sebastian Thrun’s missteps with its restructuring plan, initiated in late 2018, with three rounds of layoffs of 40% of its employees, and offices around the world closed or downscaled. In addition, Vishal Makhijani stepped down as CEO and the Founder stepped in at the company he created in 2012. The startup, with over $90 million in revenue, now employs 300 full-time equivalent employees and about 60 contractors.

Sebastian Thrun, 52-years old and born in Solingen, Germany, is a tough entrepreneur, who completed his Ph.D. in computer science and statistics in 1995 at the University of Bonn. He taught computer science at Carnegie Mellon and Stanford University and worked at Google as VP, founding Google X and Google’s self-driving car team. He led the development of the robotic vehicle Stanley which won the 2015 DARPA Grand Challenge. Thurn is also the CEO of Kitty Hawk Corp, a flying-car startup. He is known for his work on probabilistic algorithms for robotics. At the age of 39, he was elected into the National Academy of Engineering in DC.

He describes himself as “a scientist, educator, inventor, and entrepreneur”. What Sebastian Thrun doesn’t highlight, however, is the fact that he is running a company with the iron rod of a Wall-Street CEO –which isn’t that cool in elitist Academia. Instead,
he claims that his “mission is to democratize education by providing lifelong learning to millions of students worldwide.”

A scientist whose company has achieved the status of a unicorn of $1 billion is certainly not an easy sell in higher education. Being a billionaire and a genius scientist only happens in a Hollywood play. And superheroes as Tony Stark in Iron Man, are fictitious.

What everyone we talked to agrees on is that Sebastian is a relentless innovator in online learning.

He is convinced that more support results in improved outcomes for students and helps them to find better jobs.

“Only 4% of students ever complete a MOOC. At present, our Nanodegree programs have a 34% graduation rate, thanks to the tireless efforts of the hard-charging Udacity team. When paired with our new personalized mentorship programs in past experiments, cohorts have commonly exceeded 60% graduation rates.” (…) “For our Nanodegree Plus pilot, an independent accounting firm verified that among our career-seeking and job-ready graduates, 84% found a new, better job within six months of graduation. And for that 84 %, the salaries went up, by an average of $24,000 per person. So much that on average, those students recouped their entire Udacity tuition fee in just three weeks.” (…) “No other online learning platform provides this level of end-to-end personalized mentorship.”

Along with tutoring and mentoring, another signature area of innovation at Udacity is credentialing.

Sebastian Thrun states that Udacity’s Nanodegree program –with 75,000 graduates and 200 industry partners– is “the new fourth degree”, beyond “the three common university degrees — the Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD.”

“The Nanodegree program is well on its way to becoming a de-facto standard for hiring and corporate training in the tech industry. This is in no small part because partners like Google, Amazon, Facebook, AT&T, IBM, Mercedes, and so many others help us develop our curricula, and hire our graduates. If Udacity was an actual university, we would be “accredited by industry.” Who would know better what it takes to get a job at your dream company than our own corporate partners?”

Grand statements. It would be interesting to know what Stanford University, and other elite schools and platforms like Coursera and edX think about all of this.

View: Instructional Designers Forget What Makes a Course Successful


Mikel Amigot |  IBL News

When we create courses, we follow the latest pedagogical innovations along with Backwards design rules, and this seems to be the right approach. The problem arises when our online courses get few enrollments and the economics of the course put our project in danger.

What we are doing wrong? What needs to be fixed?

As instructional designers, we forget what motivates enrollment and purchase’s decisions.

Learners want real outcomes. How the online class they are enrolling in is going to change their life.

It is all about career advancement. It is all about a direct impact on their earnings, income, and job promotion.

If the promised transformation is not convincing, we won’t attract enough students to make the course or the program sustainable.

A second requirement: we need to establish trust.

Our instructor, or staff or instructors, need to prove that they are the right fit for the job. They should be authorities in that instructional field. They must be committed to teach you and deliver a transformational experience, too.A welcome trailer will prove all of it. Additionally, video testimonials from learners will be helpful.

Third, we need to avoid unnecessary material and present a compelling, content outline. We will feature only the lessons required to achieve the goal. Long programs usually discourage learners.

To make sure, it’s key we collect continuous feedback from reviewers prior to the launch, in order to validate the concept and the outline. Redo what needs to be redone, including videos and animations, and remove whatever seems redundant.

Refining the course will ensure a great performance when it goes public.

Let’s follow all of these ideas when we engineer a program!

The Open edX Software Ranks #36 on GitHub’s Top 100 Projects

Open edX is one of the GitHub’s top 100 projects that is shaping our technology world, according to U.Today.

This website has run an algorithm to list the most valuable repositories on GitHub, noting that there are over 96 million repositories and two million organizations, including big players with open source projects, such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Baidu.

The Open edX software ranks number 36. On the top 100 list there three more educational open source software: freeCodeCamp, Oppia, and

The “reputation algorithm” created by U°OS network allows to score at any individual contribution in GitHub.

Udacity Offers Two Programs to Train Cloud Engineers on AWS

John G. Paul | IBL News introduced this week its School of Cloud Computing, which will be focused on two training programs offering learners to become cloud developers and DevOps engineers on AWS (Amazon Web Services). The two courses (4-month, 10 hours/week) will start on June 11 and cost $1,436 per course.

Developers in this field are in high demand. There are over 50,000 jobs available in the US with a median salary of $146K, according to Forbes. Cloud tech services, which allow companies to innovate at a faster pace and reduce costs, are projected to grow to $206 billion in 2019, an increase of 17.3%, according to Gartner.

“The cloud brings unlimited access to computing power, security, storage, networking, messaging, and management services to large organizations and everyday builders. When you no longer need to maintain data centers, your engineers can focus on that which differentiates your business from the competition. The cloud provides high availability, on-demand scalability and elasticity, and you pay only for what you use,” explained Kesha Williams, Software Engineering Manager, at Chick-fil-A and Udacity Cloud Computing Instructor., a MOOC-platform that competes with Coursera, edX, and FutureLearn, highlights the employability of its programs (called Nanodegrees), offering them at a significantly higher price than rivals, at $1,436 per course. This platform prefers to produce their own online courses and feature industry experts as instructors rather than rely on college professors.

“We are taking a huge step towards becoming the University of Silicon Valley (…) Going forward, Udacity will now provide one-on-one technical mentorship, along with expert feedback to student projects and individual career coaching to help students advance their careers (…) Our team of expert reviewers is available to give individual constructive feedback to every student project, with a median turnaround time of just 3.9 hours,” recently announced Sebastian Thrun, Founder at Udacity.

“With more than 75,000 Nanodegree program graduates and over 200 industry partners, the Nanodegree program is well on its way to becoming a de-facto standard for hiring and corporate training in the tech industry,” he claimed.

• Udacity Blog: Introducing Udacity’s School of Cloud Computing
• Syllabus of Become a Cloud Developer (PDF)
• Syllabus of Become a Cloud Dev Ops Engineer (PDF)

Mark Haseltine Moves from edX and Joins Reputation Institute

Mark Haseltine, a top executive at edX, announced his departure from this nonprofit organization and joined Reputation Institute as Chief Product and Technology Officer, the same role he performed at edX.

Mr. Haseltine left edX two weeks after the Open edX conference in San Diego, at the end of March.

I’m so proud of the amazing team we built and what we were able to accomplish together. I will be an enthusiastic supporter from the outside now,” he said today on his Linkedin account. He worked on edX for four years in three positions: Chief Product Officer, CTO and President and COO as interim.

In Reputation Institute, Mark Haseltine will help to “guide the company through a significant digital transformation”. This organization, a 20-year old data and insights company specialized in helping top companies to build credibility, announced today the appointment.

“The addition of Mark to our executive team will further accelerate our growth and pioneering culture across our ten global offices through tech-enabled offerings with a focus on becoming predictive and with greater visualization capabilities,” said Kylie Wright-Ford, CEO at Reputation Institute.


View: Reaching the Right Audience for Your Courses on Twitter

Mikel Amigot

Twitter outranks YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram in online marketing effectiveness among businesses in the U.S. Around 75% of B2B business and 65% of B2C business use Twitter, according to

To gain effectiveness on Twitter, there is just one single rule: create high-quality content for your target audience.

However, getting real followers is a tough business. A fast way to grow organically is by paying for a Twitter Ads campaign; naturally, after having great content.

The practice of buying fake followers and interactions on sites such as or is dangerous. This can damage your reputation. Twitter warns that it can result in an account suspension.

With a Twitter Ads Campaign, note that the acquisition of followers is not guaranteed. Truly, you are paying for the opportunity to reach the right people for your business.

These campaigns enable you to use a variety of methods to identify your target audience, reach engagement and pursue business conversions.

There are two ways to begin advertising on Twitter: click on “View Tweet Activity” and “Promote your Tweet”, or go on your profile to “Twitter Ads” and “Create Campaign”.

In your promotional effort to drive engagement and revenues for your online courses, keep in mind that Twitter is a medium designed to encourage meaningful conversations and connections among users. Adjusting your marketing to this reality, while being authentic, is the way to go.