The Next Evolutionary Step in MOOCs Will Be ‘Blockstore’, Says Robert Lue, from Harvard

It Takes a Network to Teach a Learner: Robert Lue Believes Blockstore Will Bring About the Next Step for Open edX

Henry Kronk | IBL News

When massive open online courses (MOOCs) (re)emerged in 2012 as an incredibly popular educational phenomenon, they understandably took the ‘course’ as their base unit. To this day, learning material on edX, Coursera, and FutureLearn is organized, tagged, and searched via course.

Professor Robert Lue, the Richard L. Menschel Faculty Director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University, was involved in the creation of edX. He now believes that, for the full potential of MOOCs and open educational resources (OER) to be realized, the reign of the ‘course’ in open education needs to come to an end. The next step, he believes, will be the Blockstore.

“We have been thinking about what the next evolutionary step in online learning platform would look like that’s open-source and that’s at scale,” Lue says to IBL News.

“What is so often talked about over and over again is: some large number of students will enroll in an online course, but only a tiny percentage will actually complete it. There is much carrying on about how terrible that is and how MOOCs are a failure. In my view, that is a complete misunderstanding of how people are actually using the materials.”

“Quite often, someone has a particular question. There is some aspect they want to know about chemistry, or about some Shakespeare play, they go into the course, they get what they need, and they come back out. So unless you’re looking for a credential of some kind, you go in to get exactly what you want.”


Blockstore Will Break Up edX Courses Into Discrete Assets

Currently on Open edX, courses are housed in a framework known as the Modulestore. Its successor, the Blockstore, will break up courses into smaller, discrete pieces of learning content. Lue likes to refer to these as ‘assets.’ 

Once fully implemented, learners will be able to search the edX platform for specific videos and texts (each of which will be meta-tagged in a detailed manner), instead of needing to progress through the entire course to get what they’re looking for. All of this material will only be available if those who created it give their permission to share it. 

“Better yet, a teacher will be able to pull those out, maybe assemble them with other things, and use them as they see fit,” Lue said. 

Teachers will also be able to access the open quizzes, homework, and other course supplements on edX.

“I think learning is one of the fundamental rising tides that will lift all boats in terms of progress, in terms of people being able to lead a better life, in terms of society actually improving,” Lue said.

“But if we don’t focus on what online learning can do, we’ll never get to scale. Even if we had all the money in the universe, we can’t build enough universities, we can’t build enough schools, we can’t train enough teachers, etc. to reach the many hundreds of millions who need it.”

The Potential of the Blockstore

Lue sees a huge amount of potential with Blockstore. He believes it will significantly increase teachers’ ability to employ flipped learning and OER resources. He also believes Blockstore will pave the way for open AI-delivered personalized learning at scale. 

“There are a whole bunch of companies out there making claims about personalized learning,” Lue said. “They’re all proprietary. It’s all a black box. You don’t get to see the algorithms, and you have to pay for it.” 

“I have nothing against folks who have revenue-generating business plans, but ultimately what I’m focused on is what’s going to help the most people in the world. For me, having access to a potentially personalized learning experience that’s free is absolutely of critical importance.”

Another application of the Blockstore will be realized this year. LabXchange will bring together the science ‘assets’ available on edX and elsewhere on the internet and repackage them into various learning ‘pathways,’ as Lue calls them. It will essentially form a consolidated corner of the Blockstore that focuses on science education. It will also double as a lightweight learning management system (LMS) that will allow teachers to author their own modules or entire courses.

This library of content and tools, furthermore, will be hosted remotely and require only a sufficient Wi-Fi signal to use. LabXchange is set to launch in September of this year and, according to Lue, everything is on schedule.


A Commitment to Open-ness in Education

At a time when the barriers of entry to MOOCs are, in many cases, growing higher, Lue remains committed to free and open educational resources. As a part of the Open edX architecture, Blockstore will be open-source. According to Lue, LabXchange will be free and there are no plans to monetize it, even in the name of sustainability. 

“A lot of people have asked me, ‘Oh, so edX is turning into a completely paid platform?’” Lue said. “You have to realize that edX is the only MOOC provider where the entire software code is open-source. There are roughly 130 named institution partners on the edX site. But there are 1300 organizations that use Open edX for free for whatever they want.”

“Do I have objections to other organizations using LabXchange and charging for certification or credentialing or something? That’s up to other folks to figure out. But LabXchange content, the learning experience, all of those things, will remain free and open.”


Though Inspiring, Many Issues with OER Remain

This is, of course, not the first time a brilliant Ivy League professor has laid plans to make the world a better place with free and open educational initiatives. When MOOCs first deployed en masse, many focused on the poor completion rates as their failings. But many education stakeholders also realized that successful North American courses don’t always work so well in an international context. 

What’s more, OER requires sufficient devices and data infrastructures to access. And takes work to maintain. Open learning content needs to be vetted, moderated, and updated on a consistent basis. Lue, however, is optimistic that these problems can be overcome.

“I think those arguments are perfectly reasonable,” he said. “What they underscore is a lack of systemic, networked coordination in the OER universe. My feeling is that one of the reasons we run into those issues is because, quite often, big OER efforts tend to operate in silos. Many efforts miss opportunities to work with institutions, with governments, with other NGOs and partners—all around this common mission of what open education can do for society. In my view, if you connect all the dots in a network, the network will support and flourish.”

In that regard, Lue and LabXchange have begun to put their money where their mouth is. As he revealed during a speech he gave at the 2019 Open edX Conference, the Harvard Global Institute of Health has already volunteered to moderate all of the public health content on LabXchange.

“Am I saying that OER will replace everything? No, I don’t think so,” Lue said. “Because there will always be different kinds of experiences that will require the level of updating, the level of services, etc. that need to be paid for. I always talk about the rising tide. We need to think about what will make that rising tide lift the baseline level of education and learning materials available to hundreds of millions of people a significant distance up from where it is now.”

“I think that OER is absolutely the way to go for that. This idea that OER will die a quiet death—that’s a grave risk. But it’s only a grave risk if we keep siloing our efforts. That’s why LabXchange is very interested in partnerships. We’re partnering with organizations that have similar interests and trying to make sure that we create more of a network that allows overall effort to succeed. I do believe there is an issue, but I don’t think it’s an inherent issue. OER needs to get its act together.”

Lue, furthermore, that there are other areas where OER can be put to use.

“I’ve always had a longstanding interest in lifelong learning,” he said. “Quite often, lifelong learning is sort of piggybacked on top of the materials that are developed for colleges, for undergraduate education, as well as perhaps for high school education. And then, separate from that is the executive education universe, which is nearly always closed and paid. I think that in the lifelong learning realm, there are certainly some huge opportunities for OER, on a free basis, to allow individuals to think about the evolution of their careers, changes in their careers that they might be thinking about making, so on and so forth. I think there’s a lot of possibilities there as well.”


An English Course to Teach Foreigners on Career Development Reaches 320K Learners

IBL News | New York

The “English for Career Development” course has become a remarkable success after reaching 320,000 learners on

This free, two-week online class, created by the University of Pennsylvania, and funded by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Office of English Language Programs, is designed for non-native English speakers. It is distributed under a Creative Commons 4.0 Attribution license, meaning that all course materials are available for re-use, repurpose and free distribution.

Two English language specialists, Brian McManus, and Robyn Turner, teach about the job search, application, and interview process in the United States.

“This course will also give you the opportunity to explore your global career path while building your vocabulary and improving your language skills to achieve your professional goals. The first unit in this course will introduce the U.S. job application process and provide strategies for identifying the jobs that match your interests and skills. Unit 2 will take you through the steps necessary to produce a professional-looking resume. In unit 3, you will work to develop a clear and concise cover letter. The final unit of the course focuses on networking and interview skills,” the instructors explain.

The estimated effort required to complete the course is 21 hours, after 10 hours/week study time.


Ideas to Boost Your Course Completion Rate

Mikel Amigot | IBL News

Completion rates of free massive online courses have traditionally been low, at an average of 5%. This is mostly because these online classes are not offering an appealing benefit in career advancement and do not include tutoring to follow up with learners.

In addition, requiring students to make an upfront payment, often with a minimal fee, show their commitment to the class. It is like in brick-and-mortar colleges: those who pay their own tuition are more likely to continue.

As an instructional designer, a good technique to increase engagement is to place a survey at the beginning of the course asking students how they will apply their new knowledge and what their expectations are.

It is also very helpful to feature the materials available for certain course intervals and include synchronous sessions and live office hours. Whatsapp, Slack, Twitter, Facebook or even Google Hangouts are efficient tools for a face-to-face conference.

This can be combined with group projects and peer assessments ––Open edX includes those two functionalities.

Naturally, discussion forums and problem submissions must be managed. Having at least one teaching assistant who interacts with students via forums, Piazza-style boards or email will end up motivating learners.

Chatbot agents and AI-Teaching AssistantsGeorgia Tech-style, which are able to personalize experiences are also an option.

Economic incentives, such as AWS’ or IBM’s cloud free-credit for young entrepreneurs, are smart approaches.

Imposing deadlines for course completion tends to work well but it could also discourage enrollment. A solution can be to keep parts of the course open without registration. (This possibility –available on Open edX, too– is beneficial for SEO purposes, since Google and other search crawlers can index your public courses.)

Finally, consider adaptive learning. AI-driven adaptive or personalized courses are becoming a reality. Behavioral Sciences and predictive analytics help learners succeed. New learning ecosystems are being designed with this requirement.


Open edX Posts Videos of All Talks from Their Recent Conference

IBL News | New York

The edX team has posted videos of all talks pertaining to the 2019 Open edX Conference in San Diego on its YouTube channel. [Watch the playlist below].

There are 63 total videos discussing software engineering, instructional design, learning initiatives, and discoveries. Most of the scheduled speakers are featured in these videos.

The theme of the conference revolved around collaborative learning, and how Open edX enables technologists, educators and learners to collaborate, innovate, and move the state of teaching and learning forward.  

Today there are over 2,400 instances using this software, with more than 25,000 courses and 45 million learners in 70 countries.

AI Education: Penn State Will Use a Virtual Assistant in Academic Advising

IBL News | New York

Penn State World Campus has partnered with Google Cloud and the subcontractor Quantiphi to build an AI-based virtual assistant to help academic advisers answer e-mails. It will be ready for the start of Penn State’s spring 2020 semester in January, the institution reported.

“The goal is to automate processes that are time-consuming for the academic advisers, allowing students to get answers more quickly and freeing up the advisers to work closely with students on other matters,” said Renata Engel, Vice Provost for online education at Penn State.

This AI agent will screen e-mails for certain keywords and phrases, and then automatically pull relevant information for the advisers to send to students. For example, it will be trained to assist advisers when students inquire how to change their major, change their Penn State campus, re-enroll in the university or defer their semester enrollment date –explained Dawn Coder, director of academic advising and student disability services for World Campus.

Coder [in the video picture above] said her staff of 48 full-time advisers collectively spends more than 5,000 hours a year assisting students with these common requests. In 2018-19, their staff advised more than 11,000 undergraduates, a 55 percent increase in the number of students over the past five years.



Coursera Matches Its Global Skills Index Research With Courses and Specialists

IBL News | New York

A report from Coursera has found that two-thirds of the world’s population is falling behind in critical skills, including 90% of developing economies.  Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum has pointed to a “growing skills instability” and estimates that the core skills required to perform most roles will change by 42% by 2022.

One of the main conclusions of both organizations is that due to the rapid advance of automation and AI, the skills required to do most jobs are evolving quickly, and therefore businesses and governments must upskill their workforces and populations.

With 38 million learners, over 3,000 courses, and one of the largest skill databases, Coursera has come up with a Global Skills Index. Its first edition ranks 60 countries and 10 industries across Business, Technology, and Data Science.

Developing a commercial application, Coursera has matched its index with courses on its catalog and specialized skills experts.

“For example, the top skills for Engineering include Leadership, Agile Management, and Machine Learning, so we recommend the following courses: Foundations of Everyday LeadershipDigital Product Management: Modern Fundamentals, and Neural Networks and Deep Learning,” writes a content strategists in the company blog.

Global Skills Index


Degreed Raises an Additional $75M to Expand Its Career Development Business

IBL News | New York

Degreed, a San Francisco-based start-up aimed to help employees develop their skills, has raised an additional $35 million in an equity round and $40 million in debt financing.

Owl Ventures, Jump Capital, Signal Peak Ventures, GSV Accelerate, and Alliance Bernstein have subscribed the equity and Alliance Bernstein Growth Stage Capital the debt.

Last March Degreed raised $78.2 million. In June Degreed acquired Pathgather, one of its biggest competitors.

Degreed’s SaaS app asks users about the specific skills they’re looking to develop and serves up access to courses, videos, books, podcasts, articles, and other resources. It provides analytics and feedback as employees progress.

“This additional capital will allow us to further execute on the roadmap we laid out at the beginning of the year. We are doubling down on our skills product and the data science and machine learning capabilities to support it,” said Degreed CEO Chris McCarthy.

Career development, coaching, and “upskilling” market is estimated to be worth $190 billion today and can surpass $300 billion by 2025, according to Global Market Insights.


Teachers, Administrators or Students? What Sector Should Data Focus On?

Zoe Mackay | IBL News

“Data” is the buzzword we hear in every field and in every tech conference. Especially in online education, data is everything. A panel at the IMS Global Learning Consortium offered valuable insight into the steps we need to take in order to make data work for teachers and students. The panel was moderated by Mike Sharkey, and featured Steve Liffick, Sean DeMonner, Dwayne Alton, Joel Hames and Phil Miller.

There is disagreement on what sectors of the education community should be focused on first when it comes to data. Is it the teachers, administrators, students? While Miller says the focus needs to be on administrators, as they are the key stakeholder for making faculty and students successful, Alton stresses that with the transition to digital learning, “the teachers are challenged to know [at what level] their students are” and require data support.

Within academia, there are many levels that necessitate varying types of support, said Johnston. Specifically, with students, there needs to be a focus on the efficacy of allowing access to data and how it changes student relationships with the instructor.

Hames, who focuses on younger academic populations, finds parents to be a key element of the community that supports and fosters growth with their children, where data has a role to play. “Turning the data into something that guides and supports, redirects and creates those small changes in behavior and actions that can produce the positive outcomes that we expect.

The core principle we talk about at Microsoft,” says Liffick, “is data dignity. We hope to provide an incentive, through a little bit of extra insight, that helps the people who are the educators, educate.” There may never be enough data for everyone that wants it, but those in the community who are trying to make the data work for educators and students, as Liffick claims, must never forget their role.

To watch the full panel discussion, please click on the video below.




View: Are the Golden Years of Education Entrepreneurship Gone?

Mikel Amigot | IBL News

The push to launch start-ups is certainly over. In 2013, nearly 768 education companies were founded. Today that number has dropped below 125.

Within 18 months, from late 2011, we saw the launch of MOOC platforms Coursera, edX, Udacity and FutureLearn. In addition, in 2012, three more lifelong learning organizations were founded: Degreed, Minerva and Flatiron School.

After many tweaks, those companies finally found successful revenue models.

Looking today, something strange is happening. Creativity and entrepreneurial spirit haven’t decreased. But monetization is tougher, and investors do not have the patience they showed a decade ago.

Colleges and universities have mostly behaved as anti-innovation engines, mainly because of traditionalists within the faculty and administrators’ exclusive concern with revenue generation. Large corporations have concentrated on their core businesses, paying little attention to new forms of training and education. Non-profits and philanthropist-driven organizations have played it safe, too, promoting partnerships with traditional universities.

There is much to fix and new times will arrive. Higher ed institutions and businesses need to think differently in order to adequately respond to the new demands of lifelong learners.

Facebook Teams Up With Community Colleges to Offer Certificate Programs on Digital Marketing

IBL News | New York

Harold Washington College of Chicago has teamed up with Facebook to offer a 24-week digital marketing certificate program for students seeking technical skills employers want.

The program, starting this July 29, costs $1,500. It’s comprised of six, four-week courses, and includes credits from Facebook to build ad campaigns for free on its platform.

“We’ve created 22 new, free courses on topics like ‘How Instagram Can Help Your Business’ and ‘Facebook Ads and Your Business Goals.’ The new curriculum features 40% video content and 80 new lessons, each condensed to five minutes or less to maximize efficiency. These lessons will be available at at the end of the month in English, and in 33 additional languages by the end of the year,” Facebook explained.

This community college, one of the seven City Colleges of Chicago, participated in the initiative after finding 3,000 marketing openings in Chicago.

In addition to Facebook, other major tech employers such as AWS and Google are working with institutions to offer technical training to learners.

Another one of Facebook’s digital marketing certificate partners, Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC), has enrolled 84 people in its program since last October, EducationDive reports.

Facebook provided scholarships to partially cover the cost of attendance, which is $299.