Recap: Last Night’s “Open and Social Education” Meetup and Panel

We’re thrilled to share our first New York City edtech meetup and panel, “Open and Social Education,” was a big hit! We want to extend a huge thanks to all participants and attendees who came to Wix Lounge last night and helped make the event a success.

To recap, Laura Pappano, award-winning journalist, author and blogger served as our moderator for the discussion. She kept the conversation moving and wasn’t afraid to ask tough questions to our panel. Our panelists included Nihal Parthasarathi, co-founder of CourseHorse, Hunter Horsely, marketing and operations lead at Lore, Skillshare engineer Eric Ma, and Jeremy Johnson, 2U cofounder and president of undergraduate programs.

Photo courtesy of Galo Delgado and Wix Lounge

Photo courtesy of Galo Delgado and Wix Lounge

Below we’ve provided a full recap of last night’s discussion. Continue to check Technapex next week, where we’ll post a full video recording of the discussion.

About the companies:

  • 2U: Formerly known as 2tor, the company is partnering with some of America’s top universities–including USC, Georgetown, Washington University in St. Louis and UNC-Chapel Hill–enabling them to create and market online degree programs.
  • Lore: Lore’s goal is to connect the world’s learners and teachers as the platform for education. Since they’ve launched in December 2011, the company is being actively used at over 600 schools
  • CourseHorse: CourseHorse partners with established providers of personal and professional classes (ranging from Spanish to cooking to continuing education) and centralizes their offerings to make it easier for consumers to find classes, and for professional educators to sell their seats.
  • Skillshare: Skillshare is a global marketplace for classes where students can learn real-world skills from anyone, anywhere. The company powers thousands of creative, collaborative classes on everything from programming to design to crafts.

Laura opened the discussion by acknowledging how quickly innovations in education are occurring right now, and then challenged the idea of measuring success in education not by number of hits, number of users, or how big a site could be, but rather by asking what all this change means, where is the future of education heading, and how we can make it better.

She then went on to ask the panelists how they started out and where the ideas for their startups came about. Jeremy explained that the idea for 2U came when he and co-founders asked themselves — given the fact that many people considered online education as being in the realm of subpar– “Could there be an online experience that was as great as going to a traditional campus?” And they found that the answer, as it turns out, is yes. Now 2U is focusing their efforts on their new Semester Online, in which students around the world can take a semester’s worth of classes for credit in some of the nation’s top universities, including Duke, Northwestern, and Notre Dame.

Hunter talked about the idea behind Lore, which started with the founders wanting to extend class and learning beyond the lecture. Lore’s founders dropped out of Penn to fix a problem that they saw in universities, and set out to build a class companion that would extend the learning process outside the lecture hall. Now the company’s focus it on the future of learning, which can take place outside the classroom. “The foundation of education,” Hunter stated, “is communication.” Lore is committed to helping students and professors communicate better outside the classroom to facilitate learning.

Photo courtesy of Galo Delgado and Wix Lounge

Photo courtesy of Galo Delgado and Wix Lounge

Eric then went on to explain the fundamental beliefs of Skillshare’s founders, which is that while the tradition of university educations can be great, there needs to be a greater focus on learning real world skills, such as programming and design. The best way to learn is by doing, Eric stated, and Skillshare is focused on building a community marketplace in which everyone can learn from each other. “Everyone is inherently a teacher,” he said.

Nihal explained that the idea for CourseHorse stemmed from a question he received from a parent while he was consulting at the Princeton Review: with so many well-recommended SAT programs out there, she wanted to know if there a website that compared the different programs to find one that fit a particular student’s needs best. “It was as if a light bulb went off,” said Nihal. He realized that there wasn’t a discovery engine for local education — because while there are thousands of educators whose life ambition is to go out and teach people skills, these educators aren’t marketers. So CourseHorse launched as an easy way to connect students with high-quality, professional educators “to fill those empty seats in the back of the classroom,” he said.

A topic that came up in last night’s discussion was the hype surrounding the edtech market. “Is anyone else sick of the word disruption?” quipped Laura. She made the point that unlike innovation in technology, innovation in education brings about practical concerns — one being cost, for example. When MOOCs and other forms of open education become available, what becomes the currency — university credits? she asked. She then went on to ask the panelist what they think makes education technology different than innovation in other forms of tech.

Hunter answered first, explaining two reasons why he thinks it’s exciting to be working in education right now. “The first is that the people you’re doing it for are really smart!” he said. Because professors and students are paying attention to edtech tools and have ideas for the best ways to design them, edtech companies get to deal with a much smarter audience than other companies. The second reason that education is exciting right now, he explained, is because education is the perfect problem for the internet to solve. “Information and people are the foundation of education,” said Hunter. The internet both facilitates communication by connecting people and also provides almost infinite amounts of information to the masses.

Jeremy agreed with Hunter that education is wildly exciting right now. “Some of the challenges in education are defined by the system,” he said. “Fortunately or unfortunately, education is inherently a well-defined system.” Therefore, companies are seeking to innovate both inside and out of it, and he made the point that there is not a right or a wrong approach. 2U, for example, is working from inside the system, so the key to succeeding from within is to deal with the politics in order to effect change from within. Skillshare, on the other hand, is a company working from outside the system, and Eric made the point that learning is lifelong, and that there’s a huge demographic of people that want to learn real world skills, ranging from digital media to computer programming. Because there are so many different subjects matters people want to learn about, companies in education technology don’t have to compete against each other, but rather can work together in order to serve different learners.

Nihal brought up a challenge that he found in working with CourseHorse. “We’ve found that there are a lot of disparate roles for why people want to learn,” he said, “whether that’s wanting to learn something to get a job, to get better at my job, or because it’s fun and I like learning or because it helps me get to know myself better.” What’s tough, he says, can be building for users who have different stories and have different reasons for learning. People want companies and platforms to fit their needs, so the challenge is to communicate and find a platform that will organize data coming from users to better define their experiences and help people parse what courses suit their needs.

Laura then hit on perhaps the most important aspect of edtech innovation: the key issue of quality. “A lot of websites sound great, and everything looks terrific — until you try to use it,” she said. “Everyone talks quality. But I had an experience taking a MOOC where I realized I could not learn because the system didn’t tell me the right answer when I got the wrong one. So, what does quality mean in each of your realms?”

Nihal explained that within CourseHorse, their educators have to rely on their own brands to stay in the system. Students then post reviews on these teachers, akin to restaurant reviews, so given the goal of the user and the content they want to learn, they can see which courses are best suited to their needs. At Skillshare, Eric said, their users similarly post endorsements of teachers, so this in effect serves to ensure quality so students can see what skills they will build as a result of taking a certain class.

“Reviews are great,” Jeremy refuted, “but outcomes actually matter.” He made the argument that to the extent that companies can, they should create metrics to measure outcomes (whether that’s through assessments or finding the number of people that get jobs), in order to start defining quality and success. Actual metrics, while they can be supplemented by reviews, are the only way to prove quality long term, he said. Another way to ensure quality is by making the best online experience possible. He compared creating online courses to making a movie out of a play. “So imagine if you filmed a play and then played it as a movie — it’s an inferior experience to attending a play, and it’s also a crappy movie.” Thus, companies turning physical courses into online experiences need to make use of the medium. 2U has in effect become a massive production company by investing in creating high-quality, interactive videos that not only take the classroom experience onto the internet, but also enhance it.

Hunter then explained how Lore is different from other edtech companies in assuring quality: “Lore isn’t a marketplace for cars,” he said. “We are the car.” Their responsibility then, is to create a tool that will help professors do their jobs best. Lore is successful because they make it easy for professors and students to connect — professors can not only post course content and collect assignments, but they can also engage and interact with students. And the key, he explained, is convincing professors that Lore’s platform is the best. But they found that particularly in education, once they do find adopters and advocates, word tends to spread quickly in a tight-knit community.

Laura brought up the fact that within education technology, companies don’t seem to compete with each other but rather work together. Because there’s so much work to be done, when one company innovates, it opens up more space for other companies with new ideas. She then asked her final question for the panelists: “What areas would each of you like to see a company innovate around to solve some of your biggest challenges?”

Eric brought up the idea of a platform for a flipped classroom that’s easy for teachers to use as a way to keep students engaged while they’re still online. Jeremy said that  he’d like to see a company build a gaming engine within education that makes gamification within education easier to implement. “Engagement is the top factor in education,” Jeremy said, and asserted that when you gamify education, you can fundamentally transform the way people engage with each other in the classroom. So with a gaming engine that created games professors could use within their courses, the courses themselves, in effect, become games.

Nihal said that what he’d like to see is a better classification system in describing courses. Because there might be 100 different courses a student could take on a given subject with 100 different paragraph-long descriptions, it can be difficult for students to communicate what a class is about. If there was a classification system that educators and students could agree upon, sites like CourseHorse could provide a students a quick impression of a class so they have a better idea of what they’ll get out of a course. Hunter closed the conversation by saying that he’d like to see better assessment tools, especially with new classes and learning platforms such as Skillshare, General Assembly ,and different MOOCs sprouting up. Hunter then imagined a way to see a student’s entire academic history — almost like electronic medical records — that could show not only their undergraduate and graduate degrees and credentials, but also the online courses they’ve taken to answer questions about prerequisites that show a more comprehensive representation of a student’s academic experience.

Laura opened up the discussion to the audience, where they engaged with a Q&A with the panelists. Check back in next week, where we’ll post a video of the entire discussion, including the Q&A session between the audience and the panelists.

Caity Doyle

Caity is a former English teacher and the editor of Technapex. Caity is extremely passionate about education and is TriplePoint PR's resident edtech expert. When not researching education policy and edtech, she enjoys running along the Bay Trail while blaring the Boss through her headphones, watching the Giants beat the Dodgers, and meeting fellow Italians in North Beach.

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About Caity Doyle

Caity is a former English teacher and the editor of Technapex. Caity is extremely passionate about education and is TriplePoint PR's resident edtech expert. When not researching education policy and edtech, she enjoys running along the Bay Trail while blaring the Boss through her headphones, watching the Giants beat the Dodgers, and meeting fellow Italians in North Beach.