“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.

Coursera Announces Two MOOC-Based Degrees from the University of Colorado Boulder

Coursera, the leading MOOC platform, announced during its 2019 Partners Conference in London the launch of two more online degrees, both from the University of Colorado Boulder: a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering (MS-EE) and a Master of Science in Data Science (MS-DS). This brings the total number of degrees announced on Coursera’s platform to 14.

Admission to both degrees will be performance-based, and there will be no prerequisites or an application. Students will need to pass a series of courses and obtain stackable credentials. The pathway to enrollment for the MS-EE is expected to open in 2019.

Last week, Imperial College London announced a Master of Science in Machine Learning on Coursera. It will be one of the world’s first online master’s degrees in Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence. [Research: Top Online Artificial Intelligence Courses and Programs].

“Degrees continue to be the most valuable credential for career and economic mobility. In an era of rapid change and evolving skills, degrees and credentials are key to career advancement. The Coursera platform has been able to provide access to top quality degrees at a highly affordable cost,” said Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of Coursera during the annual Conference (in the picture).

Coursera.org, which competes with edX, Udacity, and FutureLearn, works with 190 top universities and industry partners and has accumulated 40 million registered learners, according to its latest data. Its Coursera for Business division has reported the launch of 97 new courses in February and March of this year, including 13 courses in Arabic, 10 in Spanish, and 11 in Russian.

Here is a selection of tweets of the London Conference:


MIT’s ‘Intro to CS Using Python’ On EdX Reaches 1.2 Million Enrollments

The “Introduction to Computer Science Using Python” course on edX has reached 1.2 million enrollments to date, becoming the most popular MOOC in MIT’s history, the institution reported.

Launched as an online offering in 2012, this course was derived from a campus-based and Open CourseWare subject at MIT developed and originally taught by John Guttag, the Dugald C. Jackson Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. It was initially developed as a 13-week course, but in 2014 it was separated into two courses, 6.00.1x and 6.00.2x.

Also, it was one of the very first MOOCs offered by MIT on the edX platform.

“This course is about teaching students to use computation, in this case described by Python, to build models and explore broader questions of what can be done with computation to understand the world,” said John Guttag.

“It is designed to help students begin to think like a computer scientist,” says Grimson. “By the end of it, the student should feel very confident that given a problem, whether it’s something from work or their personal life, they could use computation to solve that problem.”

“At its core, the 6.00 series teaches computational thinking,” adds Bell. “It does this using the Python programming language, but the course also teaches programming concepts that can be applied in any other programming language.”



Analysis: Certifications to Grow Your Developer Community

By Miguel Amigot II


The Problem

We all have too much information to process, too many things to do, and too many libraries, frameworks, and languages to learn. Moreover, everything has an opportunity cost… but not everything has an equal return.

In order to grow an open source community, it’s not enough to release great software, blog posts, and videos, if the truly relevant KPI’s have to do with developer engagements and statistics on GitHub like how many people interact with our repositories by starring, creating issues and submitting pull requests.

Since we compete for engineers’ very limited attention and time, we have to make it worth it for them to learn and benefit from our software.

From an incentive analysis standpoint, what can we do to attract and retain engineers’ attention? What is the real reason that they would choose to invest four hours of their time learning about some tools out of the many others that flood Hacker News every week?


The Solution: Certifications

Engineers need to learn the latest technology in order to advance their careers and establish with their employers, peers, and recruiters that they’ve learned it.

Consequently, if they have to choose between spending four hours per week learning X as opposed to Y, they’re going to focus on the tool that has the highest rate of return for their careers. All else being equal, if they can get some sort of certificate or credential from one of them, then that’s going to make it that more compelling. Especially if it’s one that can be posted on LinkedIn or another channel.

From the educator’s perspective, sharing certificates on social media is also going to viralize the offering and lead to a positive feedback loop, as peers are going to view and wonder what it takes to earn it.

The level of effort that goes into earning that certificate or microcredential can vary: sometimes it can be indicative of an understanding of the fundamentals of a topic while other times it can represent true mastery. The important thing is that the learners be able to obtain some sort of credit or recognition for the time they invest.

Case Study: NVIDIA Deep Learning Institute

In less than a year, the NVIDIA Deep Learning Institute at courses.nvidia.com surpassed 100k users following a simple idea: in order to attract users, you have to make their time worth it.

NVIDIA launched a catalog of high-quality deep learning courses and provided learners with tangible, verifiable and visible certificates that they could post on LinkedIn and Twitter.

This allowed learners to go to their employers and prove that they know the topics since NVIDIA’s certificates cannot be earned unless students train models sufficiently well.

From a market standpoint, NVIDIA’s deep learning education program has become much more valuable than any other which does not issue a certificate.

Needless to say, many other organizations such as Udacity, Coursera, edX, IBM, Red Hat, Databricks and others have also followed this mantra, evidenced by the frequency with which their learners share their credentials on social media.

Next Steps: Certify Your Open Source Community

Grow your open source community by issuing certificates that explicitly make it worthwhile for engineers to learn your technologies.

Implement an online learning platform which compiles documentation, readings, videos and multimedia materials (most of which likely exist from conferences and blog posts, anyway) into attractive online courses which, ideally, won’t last for longer than four hours.

These courses will culminate in certifications or microcredentials, which can correspond to any of the following: understanding the fundamental use cases and codebase, maintenance, unit testing, extensions or applications to a certain industry.

They will also provide developers with a “how to” venue to get answers, collaborate with each other and, potentially, benefit from mentor support.

If you want to implement a high level of rigor in your courses then, like NVIDIA, issue labs that provide learners with programming environments where they must achieve certain outcomes in order to pass assignments.

In any case, the argument is clear: if you want engineers to invest time learning about your technologies, then you have to make it worth it for them.

EdX as a New OPM: “We Can Change the Economics of Customer Acquisition and Retention”

Adam Medros, President and CCO at edX, explained in a video-interview with IBL News the new business model that edX Inc is adding to its strategy to become financially sustainable.

Medros elaborated on the B2B, the edX For Business initiative, which he defined as “a natural extension of selling in bulk what is already available for B2C”.

He also referred to edX’s new “Lean OPM” model. “Online Master’s is a fantastic market opportunity: we can change affordability,  accessibility, and the cost of offering a degree,” he explained.

“Together, with schools, we can change the economics of customer acquisition and retention”. “Our approach starts with stackability and modularity of courses”, added Mr. Medros.

The determination to offer its services as a “Lean OPM” (Online Program Manager) was one of the relevant announcements at the 2019 Open edX conference last week in San Diego.“We are doing it differently from other OPMs. We give universities more control, and we are the only non-for-profit OPM”, said Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX.

The main value of the edX (and Coursera, too) offer in this area is the cost of acquisition per learner. Usually, with 2U and other traditional OPMs the cost of getting a student goes beyond $5,000, experts told IBL.


Philanthropy University’s CEO Says MOOCs Are About Social ROI

With Capacity Building MOOCs, It’s About Social ROI: Philanthropy University’s Connor Diemand-Yauman in Conversation


Henry Kronk | IBL News

Online education is often billed as a means to open up avenues of learning to people and communities around the world who lack it. More often than not, however, online enrollments are filled by members of the developed world. That is not the case with Philanthropy University. The organization’s MOOCs, which focus on capacity building in the global south, have counted 75,000 enrollees from 13 different countries since launching in 2015. IBL News got in touch with CEO Connor Diemand-Yauman to learn more about the benefits and challenges of applying online learning to capacity building.

Henry Kronk: When many people hear about MOOCs on Coursera, edX, FutureLearn or other platforms, they think North American or European professionals upskilling to get a raise or a better job. From what I know about Philanthropy U MOOCs, that’s not the case. Could you tell me a little about the target demographic or Philanthropy U MOOCs and what skills they impart?

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Broadly speaking, we are focused on supporting the crucial, local layer of development. The local actors who are on the ground, solving challenges that they often have experienced themselves for the communities they are a part of. We see a particular opportunity to not only serve the local layer and these local actors world-wide but particularly in the global south. There is an incredible amount of crucial work that’s going on in the global south in the development sector. The success of these initiatives so often rests on the back of the local organizations.

If you look at them, if you trace the social supply chain, the local layer is often the foundational piece of that work. So we’re serving typically non-profit social enterprise leaders that are in smaller, more nascent, locally led organizations.

To make it a little more concrete, one of our users is Dawn Brochenin. She opened up a preschool in an Eastern Cape village, citing that there weren’t any preschool or early childhood education services within a 50 km radius. When Dawn diagnosed this problem in her community, she stepped up and formed a local preschool called Ncinci One Montessori and started supporting 14 local children. Within 6 months, this grew to 30 children and she continued to meet this pressing local need. But Dawn, like so many of these local actors, hit constraints in her capacity. Her challenge wasn’t knowing what to do, but rater, how to do it better. In order for her to effectively grow her organization’s impact, she had to effectively grow her skills.

With Philanthropy University, Dawn had the opportunity to take free online courses in measurement evaluation, project management, and fundraising. Through our platform, not only did she build these competencies, not only did she gain crucial skills that local leaders need, but she was also able to raise $6,000 in local crowdfunding that was enabled by our platform.

These are the types of users that we are so excited to serve. These users and these organizations have proven time and time again to be more effective and more enduring than their non-local counterparts, and they’re so often neglected in terms of their capacity building needs. So everything we do is focused on serving that local layer and those leaders like Dawn.


Henry Kronk: Building MOOCs and fostering capacity building are two distinct efforts. How did the idea emerge to combine them at Philanthropy U?

Connor Diemand-Yauman: So what do we mean by capacity building? The term has been around for a while, but, when you say it, it can mean totally different things to different people. When we say capacity building, we’re referring to an increase in the knowledge, output, management, skills, and other capabilities of an organization. It’s about the non-profit’s ability to deliver its mission more effectively. There are a lot of different forms that capacity building can take, but that is what we’re focused on.

When you look at the history of capacity building and you understand broadly the landscape of different initiatives, it leads you pretty quickly to a lot of opportunity around more scalable education models, namely, MOOCs. So capacity building historically has been very high-touch and very high-cost. Specifically, the high cost is a high variable cost, meaning that every single individual you want to serve incurs an incremental cost to the provider. And this is typically in the form of individual experts being sent to work with NGOs on site for days or weeks.

This works, but the problem is very few organizations actually get this white glove, high-touch support. In addition to that, we saw that the sector as a whole was very fragmented and siloed in their various approaches to capacity building. You would have dozens, even hundreds of organizations that would be teaching their own project management course or their own measurement and evaluation course to local actors. We saw significant inefficiencies at the sector level with this approach. So we thought, instead of creating dozens of siloed courses that were only available in these isolated encounters, let’s scale those to the world. What if, instead of creating dozens of static management courses, we created the highest quality course that could be accessible to anyone and would continuously be updated in response to feedback and needs? And what if we allowed different providers to not have to worry about reinventing the wheel and instead layer on additional supports when needed to an engaging, robust technology platform? All of these realizations led us to pursue a more scalable, technology-driven capacity building approach. And with our approach, we have gone in the other direction of the high variable cost. We have invested in significant fixed costs of standing up our platform and creating these courses, but have incurred minuscule variable costs, which allows us to serve organizations at scale.

At the end of the day, when you think about Philanthropy University’s value to the sector, it’s about ROI. It’s about social ROI. We, as a society, invest billions of dollars in the development sector. By building the capacity of these organizations, we are building the ROI of that social investment. We are ensuring the money that goes into these organizations is better spent.


Henry Kronk: You and Philanthropy University recently attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In a LinkedIn post reflecting on the experience, you wrote: “We also had an intriguing conversation about new frontiers in capacity building and learning, chief among them artificial intelligence and machine learning. One participant remarked on the incredible talent and innovation concentrated within the largest technology firms, and the potential to direct this innovation toward learning and program development.”

Could you flesh this idea out a little more and tell me what opportunities you see that could bring enhance learning and program development with AI?

Connor Diemand-Yauman: I think the technology sector can often get very excited about the application of new technologies in ways that are often not grounded in reality or productive. I think there can be a lot of hubris in the tech sector around the opportunities and difficulties that local leaders face every day. You hear this trope often of Silicon Valley’s ability to transform development by ensuring that people can access everything they need through an app or that you can upskill every man, woman, and child by giving them a tablet. While these technologies can be instrumental tools and accelerants in our broader efforts to support the actors on the ground, it’s myopic to think that technology alone is what’s needed to give them the support that they require.

With that said, I think there is tremendous opportunity to leverage technology to support this segment. With AI and machine learning, I think it comes down to, ‘how are we leveraging these innovations to better analyze, understand, and act upon the data that we’re collecting from our learners?’ We collect a tremendous amount of data about our users: what they’re learning, what they’re saying to one another, what they need, where they’re hitting pain points or blockers. AI presents a tremendous opportunity for us to continuously analyze these data in actionable ways in the service of the end user. How can we use these data to generate more tailored learning opportunities? How can we use these data to glean trends in the sector that key stakeholders need to be aware of? I think these are some of the most immediate and practical applications of AI.

There is this holy grail of adaptive learning. But it is very complex. I think that true 100% adaptive learning modalities are further off than people think.


Henry Kronk: In a lot of regions, especially in the global south, streaming an hour-long video might cost as much as a meal. What are some of the data infrastructure problems you run into delivering synchronous MOOCs to developing communities?

Connor Diemand-Yauman: From the beginning, when we decided to orient our work around social change makers in the global south, we knew we needed to make a product that was optimized for accessibility. We knew that our users would be dealing with a unique set of challenges that we would have to work around. I bucket how we have addressed this issue of accessibility into three different buckets.

First, we prioritized building a responsive web app, which allows us to deliver a learning experience to anyone on any device. This is really important considering the diversity of technology used across countries in our learner base. You need to be able to flex and adjust based on any number of different devices being used. So having a responsive web app has been very valuable in that sense.

Second, we designed an Android mobile app that was designed to be an extension of the desktop app. This Android app allows users to download course materials when they have access to Wi-Fi and then consume that content on the go. One thing that we found in our user research was that, while most of our users are consuming content on mobile devices, and therefore often using limited data, the majority also have access to Wi-Fi at different points throughout the day that they can use.

Finally, we have designed the courses themselves to be lightweight, meaning that not much bandwidth is needed in order to view or engage with the content. We’re also in the process of experimenting with ultra lightweight content, which has most of the video and interactive elements stripped out. We’re starting with the absolute bare bones to maximize the opportunities for consumption.

And then there are other things we have done for data infrastructure. For example, we run all of our servers through AWS in Europe. That allows us to be closer to our users. I would say that the main data challenges we’re facing right now are around analysis. We’re in the process of rearchitecting our infrastructure in order to create a data warehouse. This change will decrease the level of effort needed for internal reporting and allow us to spend more time answering important questions about how best to serve our learners. We’re in the process of making greater investments in that infrastructure to ultimately free up more resources to serve our learners on the ground.


Philanthropy University is involved in numerous capacity building efforts outside of online courses. One can learn more at their website.