Instructional Technology Council recently released a report on the trends in distance education and online learning at community colleges. Among its findings: Enrollment in distance education courses increased by over 20%, while overall community college enrollment increased by less than 2%. Clearly online learning offers many opportunities to students, teachers and academic institutions. But what are the opportunities for entrepreneurs?The
The Case for OpenCourseWare
Of course, entrepreneurs can benefit themselves from taking online classes. As Bill Gates said in a recent speech at M.I.T., he's a "super happy user" of the university's OpenCourseWare program, which offers free online courses, noting that he "retook physics" along with over a dozen of the other online offerings. Gates praised OpenCourseWare for offering a blend of the best of video technology, professional instruction and testing, and argued that accreditation too should be separated from place-based learning. Gates stated that "What's been done so far has had very modest funding. This is an area we need more resources, more bright minds, and certainly one that I want to see how the foundation could make a contribution to this."
Gates noted that work needs to be done in order to make teaching and learning online easier and that OpenCourseWare is currently highly fragmented.
Innovation and OCWSearch
Pierre Far found this fragmentation when he was looking online for a statistics course. As he browsed course catalogs and reviewed the course descriptions he found online, Far discovered that he often had to download the entire course packages and sift through the lectures before ascertaining whether or not a class contained the materials he was interested in learning.
Far created OCWSearch.com, a search engine that indexes not just course offerings, but course content. Launched two weeks ago, OCWSearch.com contains OpenCourseWare offerings from M.I.T., Stanford and Open University, and Far hopes to add the University of Massachusetts within the next day or so.
Far describes the OCWSearch engine as a "labor of love" at this stage. While Far's work is a personal project, he worries that without any way to make money from tools like the one he's devised, innovation in the field may be limited. Far also wonders how entrepreneurs and others who seek to add value to OCW content will fit into this system.
In an interview with Timothy Vollmer of Creative Commons, Karen Fasimpaur, creator of the Kids Open Dictionary, and co-founder of K12 Open Ed, argues that there can be sustainable business models around building open-education resources. She says, "Having worked in both commercial textbook and software publishing myself, I understand the business challenges and believe that there are exciting new business models around OER. In particular, income can be generated around customization services, professional development, and premium add-ons."
Currently, the OpenCourseWare movement is funded in large part by large foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundations. As more and more students turn to online learning, Far and other are hoping that OpenCourseWare can be both sustainable and innovative and provide opportunities for ed-tech entrepreneurs.