For most of us, an education from one of the world’s leading universities is inaccessible and unaffordable. The dreams of securing a place at an Ivy League, Imperial College face the harsh reality of unrivalled selectivity, while the prohibitive cost of pursuing full-time studies at MIT, LBS or NYU limits access to a privileged few.
For much of the last decade, MOOCs were heralded as the way to democratize learning and open up education to the masses. The New York Times declared that 2012 was the ‘Year of the MOOC’, and universities and business schools rushed to put their faculty in front a camera to record Massive Open Online Courses that anyone could follow – for free. Today, many MOOC providers charge a fee, and offer more than ten thousand courses from nearly a thousand universities. But the number of courses added is slowing, as is the number of new learners.
One of the biggest disappointments of MOOCs has been the low rate at which students completed the courses. In their article “The MOOC Pivot”, Justin Reich and Jose A. Ruipeerez-Valiente from MIT’s Teaching Systems Lab shared an analysis of data from all the courses taught on edX by MIT and Harvard from 2012 to 2018. Only 3.13% of MOOC participants completed their courses in 2017/18, down from 6% in 2014/15, and this despite major investment in course development and learning research.
But the year ahead heralds a new decade, and with it SPOCs from players who are rethinking the role that online pedagogy can play to bring the world’s most reputable universities to global markets. Among them is Emeritus, co-founded by Harvard Business School MBA, Ashwin Damera in collaboration with the executive education divisions of MIT Sloan, Columbia Business School and Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. Recently named the ‘EdTech Company of the Year’ by Entrepreneur Magazine, Emeritus secured $40 million in Series C funding in January 2019 led by Sequoia India and Bertelsmann and is growing – fast.
The company is adding to the list of leading universities and business school partners to now include UC Berkeley, NYU and the University of Cambridge, and in three years has gone from offering seven courses for 450 students to offering 50 courses to almost 30,000 students from over 80 countries. With offices across Asia and North America, Emeritus is reaching a global audience, with 70% of enrolments from outside the US. And growth is set to boom with courses offered not only in English, but also in Spanish and Portuguese and soon in Chinese.
“Latin America, where we offer courses in Spanish and Portuguese comprises 15% of our enrolment,” explains Ashwin Damera. “We believe China will also get to that number based on courses delivered in Mandarin. We hope to reach 500,000 participants in 5 years, based on our mission is to make high quality education more accessible and affordable.”
With INSEAD MBA Chaitanya Kalipatnapu, the founders of Emeritus and its sister company Eruditus Executive Education were beneficiaries of high quality education that transformed their own lives. By collaborating with top ranked universities and their faculty, they are committed to providing an affordable education where learning matters, and where outcomes matter. And it is the focus on SPOCs – Small Private Online Courses – rather than MOOCs that is making the difference to learning outcomes. In 2019, the average online course completion rate at Emeritus is over 80%, with weekly ratings average of 4.5/5. And 88% of students saying the course met their learning outcomes.
Why are SPOCS more compelling than MOOCs? For Damera the much higher learning outcomes speak for themselves. “For a serious learner who actually wants to learn and apply knowledge SPOCs provide a much better alternative than MOOCs. If someone just wanted to browse a content library, and not really learn, a MOOC could suffice.”
Like brick-and-mortar universities and business schools, SPOCs work with faculty and have classmates interacting with one another in small groups, on forum discussions, and in live sessions with world class faculty. “By following a cohort based learning approach, we allow participants to learn socially, from each other and from the faculty. They get grading and feedback and even career services. The courses are designed with a mix on theory and application. Its no wonder that students learn a lot and enjoy the learning journey.
The focus on Small SPOCs versus Massive MOOCs resonates with the leading institutions that have partnered with Emeritus. For Joshua Kim, Director of Digital Learning Initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL), the Emeritus’ business model designs its processes around the goals and values of the schools in which they collaborate. “In the case of Dartmouth College, our focus is completely around providing learners with an intimate, rigorous, and immersive educational experience. Any educational effort, regardless of the modality in which it occurs, needs to fully align with the brand promise of a Dartmouth education.”
SPOCs are filling a need for additional training, especially when it comes to new technology many Emeritus programs are related to managing artificial intelligence, blockchain, and Data Science topics. Dartmouth has launched a non-degree professional certificate in Applied Data Science in partnership with Emeritus. For Kim this is a change to explore how the Dartmouth philosophy of education may translate into opportunities for learners who are unable to participate in traditional (and mostly campus-based) degree programs. “At Dartmouth, we believe that the core capabilities of creating the learning experience can never be outsourced. For us, partnering with Emeritus is a way to build up our internal capacities and to learn new things in the realm of digital educational delivery.”
Many Emeritus SPOCs are related to new technologies, such as managing artificial intelligence, blockchain, and Data Science topics. For Ashwin Damera, curriculum design plays a key role to achieve such high completion rates. “Our courses are designed keeping in mind working professionals who have many demands on their time. Hence we try to restrict weekly learning effort to 4-5 hours. We ensure the course concepts can be applied to the participant’s current role, industry and career goals. Hence this is very relevant and ready to use knowledge.”
Mike Rielly, CEO of UC Berkeley Executive Education at the Haas School of Business believes that short-form certificate programs offer an ideal opportunity to support continuous learning and career advancement that complements, but does not replace, the traditional campus-based two year business education model. “At Berkeley Haas, we have the unique opportunity to directly impact business and society through learning development and programs that span undergraduate, graduate, alumni and executive levels. It is a core value built into our Berkeley Haas Defining Leadership Principals – Students Always! We are firm believers that a learning journey never ends, we can always be better, acquire new skills and mindsets, and innovate ourselves as much as we aim to innovate our organizations, industries and society.”
Dartmouth’s Joshua Kim believes that short-form certificate and other non-degree programs will not substitute for traditional degree granting educational programs at top colleges and universities. “These alternative education credentials will complement degree programs. The risk, I think, is to regional institutions that rely on master’s programs to help fund their residential undergraduate programs. Almost all the growth in higher education over the past couple of decades has been at the master’s level. Demographic trends will make it even more difficult for schools, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, to attract new undergraduates. The worry is that working adults will choose to invest in alternative credential online programs from schools with national or international brand recognition, as opposed to master’s degrees at institutions with a regional brand. I expect that the growth of alternative credential online programs from top 50 universities will push those in the top 500 to accelerate the shift in master’s degree programs away from high-priced residential programs, and towards new lower-cost online degree offerings.”
At a time when immigration policies are making it more difficult to recruit international students, and the ROI of graduate programs are top of mind with applicants, SPOCs that connect top universities and business schools with emerging markets and international students could be the big edtech story of the coming decade. If Ashwin Damera completes 80% of his own development goals for Emeritus, and maintains a 4.5/5 ratings average from investors, a big part of that story might be his.