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A MOOC Platform Based on Engagement

Eschewing the talking-head approach of mainstream MOOCs, NovoEd stakes its claim on MOOCs that emphasize student-centered learning and collaboration.

One of the biggest criticisms of the type of MOOCs produced by edX, Coursera, and Udacity is that they tend to replicate at scale a centuries-old pedagogy: the sage on the stage. It was not always thus with MOOCs. Indeed, the earliest MOOC experiments conducted by George Siemens and Stephen Downes in 2008 emphasized participation and collaboration (such courses are now known as connectivist MOOCs or cMOOCs).

Now a recent entrant to the MOOC scene, NovoEd, is revisiting the original concept by focusing on student-centered learning. Launched in April by Amin Saberi, an associate professor of engineering at Stanford University (CA), the company is the latest in a series of MOOC startups that trace their lineage to the Silicon Valley school.

"The problem right now with most MOOCs out there is that they are focusing on the most boring part of education--the talking head and multiple-choice questions," said Saberi, who is currently on leave from Stanford to focus on his startup. "Education is not the content, it's what you take with you when you forget the content."

It's a message echoed by Anne Trumbore, the company's senior course designer, who laments the continuing acceptance in higher education of the one-dimensional classroom. "Especially in higher education, professors present their knowledge," she said. "But now everything has changed. Instead of teachers demonstrating what they know and students spitting it back, we need teachers not only to show students what they need to know, but also to show them how to use it."

To address this need at scale, the company has created its own MOOC platform to encourage student interaction and participation, using aspects of social media to foster collaboration and specially developed algorithms to organize students into working groups.

Entrepreneurship Roots
Saberi traces the genesis of NovoEd to a colleague's need for a better way to engage students for a course on entrepreneurship. "We created an environment for the students to form teams," he explained. "Each team would work on their own project and their own startup idea. They developed a business model. We taught them how to look at each other's work [online] and how to give feedback to each other. For the top 20 teams, we helped them pitch to venture capitalists in the United States, Germany, Malaysia, India, Chile, and other countries."

Since then, NovoEd has produced nearly 30 courses in partnership with universities, consulting groups, and fellowships. Course topics range from everyday mathematics (Carnegie Foundation) to anatomy (Stanford), but the company has devoted the bulk of its attention to entrepreneurship, including a significant partnership with Babson Global, a subsidiary of Babson College (MA) that aims to extend the school's leadership position in entrepreneurship education worldwide.

Early results from NovoEd's team-centered approach to MOOCs are encouraging. In an August interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Saberi indicated that some 350,000 students had studied entrepreneurship using the NovoEd platform, with some courses seeing completion rates as high as 47 percent--a huge improvement over mainstream MOOCs, which typically see completion rates of 10 percent or less. In addition, student teams using the NovoEd platform have launched more than 7,000 new businesses.

Key to the high completion rates, believes Trumbore, is the platform's ability to bring together on a global scale people who share a collective interest. "MOOCs will destroy geographical boundaries," she noted. "People who are passionately interested in a topic but spread out across the world will finally be able to collaborate in a real way and form communities around their interests."

Indeed, Trumbore believes the global nature of MOOCs is, in many ways, their greatest advantage over traditional teaching methods. "If you are working on a project about something like decision making or strategy or entrepreneurship, and you're on a team with people all around the world, you're confronting all kinds of different and rich questions--questions of culture," she noted. "What does business look like in France or China versus Silicon Valley? That has the potential to be far more meaningful than sitting in a classroom with 15 other people who look a lot like you. Moving education back into the real world, by way of the virtual world, has a huge potential to engage students in meaningful learning experiences."

Hybrid Possibilities
NovoEd courses (free to $249) are offered as standalones to anyone who wants to take them, but indications are that the company sees greater potential in partnering with schools, institutions, and corporations to create hybrid courses that marry an online component with face-to-face instruction.

"University professors will begin to incorporate MOOCs into their classrooms and their curriculum, but they should have a say in how they are used," said Trumbore. "MOOCs won't displace teaching, but they will enhance teaching. More college students will have an online experience in their on-campus classroom, and that will be a sea change in how we view online education."

For this model to succeed, though, Trumbore believes that the online component must engage students rather than simply lecturing at them. "At NovoEd, we have the collaboration factor," stressed Trumbore. "People can actually work together, and we encourage instructors to think differently about the way they teach--put the student first and assign projects instead of students watching an hour lecture."

This approach will certainly be tested in NovoEd's partnership with Babson. The school plans to develop nearly three dozen entrepreneurship courses on the NovoEd platform that can then be licensed to other schools as part of a blended model, with local instructors receiving training from Babson on handling the face-to-face component.

For Trumbore, this kind of blended approach is further evidence that MOOCs are more likely to supplement traditional education than replace it. "When MOOCs first came out, everyone said they are going to put teachers out of business," she recalled. "That is 180 degrees not the case. Teachers can use this technology thoughtfully to expand the classroom experience and engage students in the classroom."

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