MASSIVE open online courses, or MOOCs, offered by universities have the potential to shake up education. People yearn to learn, but many enroll on MOOC courses only to flunk out after a few lessons. MOOCs are ill-suited to their medium: they are long and lack interaction. That is why less formal alternatives are doing well. TED Talks have thrived. The video lectures, less than 20 minutes long and given by sharp suited penseurs, are devoured by a large audience keen to learn superficial facts about their world (Malcolm Gladwell, the pop science author recently savaged in our paper edition, is a star in the TED firmament). On the average commuter train, chances are that the young man in the flannel shirt and ankle boots peering at his iPhone is plugged into the latest TED Talk.
Coursmos offers videos that are shorter still, generally less than a minute in length and no more than three, which can be combined into several modules to produce a course that can be completed quicker than an entire TED Talk. The month-old Russian start-up’s offerings are sparse at the moment. A grand total of 12 micro-courses, one of which is a six second video of a still computer screen, are all that prospective learners have to choose from. But courses are user-generated and free to access, so if the concept picks up it has the potential to improve.
Certainly Russian venture capitalists believe Coursmos could be big: a pre-seed funding round raised $150,000. The firm is courting academics to provide more courses, promising most of the income from a new paid-course system (Coursmos will take a share, expected to be 9%, of the charge). Coursmos hopes to host 20,000 micro-courses in six months’ time.
Mindsy’s website hosts more than 5,000 courses provided by vendors, many of whom are specialised in e-learning. Tens of thousands of users pay $29 a month to access as many courses as they would like in that time, a model some have compared to Netflix, a popular online film-rental service. Users pick and choose their courses, says Christian Owens, Mindsy’s founder, with many preferring to watch short modular videos on one topic before moving on to another area. Whereas TED provides lofty academia in easily-digestible formats, Mindsy prefers to focus on the practical. One of the most popular courses explains how to build a website. Swap the ankle boots on our TED Talks commuter for winklepickers, and the flannel shirt for a well-cut suit, and you have the young professional who makes up most of Mindsy’s user base.
They seek ruminations on global poverty from TED, and pay Mindsy to learn new yoga moves. A portion of the subscription fee is divided among course suppliers, weighted by how much time was spent viewing each course.
Many people no longer read newspapers; they learn the news from tweets. Television programmes can be timeshifted and called up on demand, rather than viewed when first broadcast. And though attrition rates on MOOCs may be high, enthusiasm to learn new things is still strong, which is ideal for less formal learning platforms. After all, who doesn’t dream of speaking up and standing out when pressed up against a fellow passenger’s armpit on a busy train?