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Interview. Staying On Coursmos

As hyped as MOOCs may be, according to recent stats (see TIME magazine) fewer than 10 percent of people actually finish their massive open online course, a massive problem says Pavel Dmitriev, co-founder of Coursmos, a recently launched education startup and creator of an an iOS app aiming to vanquish that problem. Students using Coursera, Udemy, Khan Academy, and any one of a number of MOOC platforms are the target. A lot of hype surrounding the prospects and repercussions of widespread MOOC adoption may have been nice, but these predictions seem unwarranted when so few people actually complete the courses they sign up for, according to Pavel. Coursmos aims to solve this problem by redefining what online education looks like. It’ll also launch on Android and as a web app soon.

A venture-funded startup out of Russia, Coursmos’s app focuses on what it calls ‘micro-courses’ — a platform for anyone to create courses in digestible installments (lessons are around three minutes, unlike the 30-minutes or longer classes in MOOCs). People can more easily fit these courses into their busy lives, while waiting for a bus say. However, these courses still provide a basic structure for courses, follow a lesson plan, and aren’t the fly-by-night instruction videos on YouTube. So users can get a quality educational experience broken down into digestible pieces. Co-founder Pavel Dmitriev answers questions helpful to understanding the goals and background of Coursmos.

Victor: What problem were you trying to solve?

Pavel: Online courses are great stride forward in providing quality, instant educational opportunities to more people—especially as Internet access continues to become more widespread in more countries. But for as excited as people get about the MOOCs they sign up for, only around 6% end up completing the course. We think that’s because the time commitment with most MOOCs is substantial (and as people get behind on the course schedule, it becomes even more daunting to try and catch up). People have a desire to learn, but most MOOCs are set up similar to offline, classroom-held courses. We think the answer is providing a platform for the same quality of online courses, but in smaller, more manageable chunks that learners can do on their own time without the intimidating time commitment that comes with most MOOCs. Coursmos’ micro-course formats provide quick-to-digest, low-commitment lessons that course takers can complete when they have three free minutes, not thirty.

Victor: Who are your most direct or main competitors? What makes you different/better?

Pavel: We see two types of competitors that perhaps aren’t fully direct, but do certainly overlap with us. Those would be 1) Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs, like Coursera), and 2) YouTube. We’re different than MOOCs in that we provide micro-courses that aim for a much higher completion rate (while still providing valuable lessons across a breadth of subject matters). YouTube also offers tutorial-related videos on many subjects, but we think the Coursmos organization and singularly-focused commitment to learning in short bursts of related course videos make for a much more robust learning environment.

Victor: How do you make money?

Pavel: Course instructors have the option to charge for their courses. We expect many instructors to offer their courses for free, but some will certainly have the opportunity to profit from their expertise in a given area. For instructors who do charge for courses, Coursmos will take 9% of that.

Victor: What are the major barriers to MOOCs being widely adopted?

Pavel: With all those benefits offered by MOOCs, they implement an offline model for the learning process. A topic has to be studied from start to end in consecutive order. The instructor defines the content and the order. But online, it does not work as well, as courses are so long that students lack motivation to fully pass them. If we take a look at statistics it’s obvious that the way MOOCs educate does not correspond to the way people want to study. The majority of people have very small attention span and lots of other issues to pay attention to—this is what MOOCs cannot yet handle.

Victor: How do you see your product changing how we approach online education?

Pavel: Let’s take a look at an ordinary online course. They are broken into parts. The lesson is a knowledge volume sufficient to proceed to the next lesson and so on until the course is completed. Micro-course gives knowledge a sufficient amount to want more. Can you see the difference? A person wants more only when he completes something because it gives him satisfaction that motivates to continue. We create a short engagement loop. That’s the reason people spend so much time in video games and YouTube, why not use this time for learning?

Victor: Do you believe your model could be used to cover the same topics as MOOCs?

Pavel: In fact we do not compete with MOOCs and definitely we are not imagining micro-learning as substitution to them. Remember that story about a jar filled with stones, thought it’s seems to be full it can still hold some more sand. We can fill spare time with learning at those moments when it’s possible and needed. And, I believe, almost in every subject there is such part of material that can be learned in micro-course format. My sister teaches acting, which definitely cannot be learned online and still there are lots of topics that would be perfectly covered with micro-courses.

From the other hand, the simplicity of content creation combined with an ability to request more detailed information, which is as simple as “liking,” allows students to literally extract knowledge from those who posses it. We provide students with an unprecedented freedom in forming their knowledge. They can be driving force of their own education without any obstacles and difficulties.

Victor: Could “micro-courses” address other arenas of online education outside of MOOCs or continuing education? For instance, do you think micro-courses could be applicable to K-12 education?

Pavel: Probably in K-12, this is even more urgent. Kids and teenagers are even more distracted and less motivated to study. They are the ones that want to learn faster. Our task is to catch them into the engagement loop and release them when all the possible energy is spent for knowledge acquisition.

Victor: What is your take on both the current and future relationship between online education and more “traditional” forms of education?

Pavel: Nowadays the development of technology gave a boost to development of new learning forms but there are still some gaps in understanding of how all these forms can be used with maximum effectiveness. Technologies should not only affect the method of knowledge delivery but also the way of thinking with education. Most likely a basic ratio of education forms will be established that will give the best output. Adaptive programs will be created that will adapt to peculiarities of perception. But what is most important is role of student. Freedom that gives inspiration. Ability not only to decide whether to take or not to take a course but also to chose when another portion of knowledge is digested in which direction to go.

Victor: Any thoughts on the state of higher education in general in these days of mobile technology and social networking?

Pavel: From all the problems in higher education that are mentioned, we are mostly concerned with students’ engagement. At this time mobile technology and social networking are most likely to distract from learning process rather than assist. But that’s while educators are learning how to use them in the right way. Learning should become as easy and habitual as reading news thread in Twitter or Facebook.

Victor: Advice, guidance, or words of wisdom to a postsecondary technologist looking to make the right choices for their organization?

Pavel: There is no universal solution for everyone. It’s obvious that various methods will be most effective depending on domains, organization, size, and corporate culture. Implementation of new learning technologies is a sort of startup and startup has to make maximum amount of mistakes within shortest time frame and with minimal expenses. You can try and do that quickly and with expenses next to nothing. We are also developing corporate micro-learning solution, and organizations will be able to try it for free.

Victor: Anything else we haven’t covered that you’d like to add or emphasize?

Pavel: I’m always happy to discuss and receive a feedback to develop micro-learning concepts with your help. Join us.