Andrew Ng, co-founder of the leading massively open online course (MOOC) provider Coursera, recently attended an IBM Research event on cognitive computing. Speaking at the event, Ng gave a concrete example of not just A/B testing at work but what he called A/B/C/D/E/F/G testing to see what sort of contact gets the best results from the site's students.
Like social networks websites, MOOCs have the advantage of generating data on performance and engagement. Computer engineers get data to scrutinize, and they can adjust operations to improve outcomes. "That's exactly what's going on at Coursera," writes Jordan Novet of Venture Beat.
"It turns out that if every week we send out an email that says, âDear student — friendly reminder — next homework is due Saturday,'" the level of engagement typically falls, Ng said. Better engagement, he said, came from this messaging: "Dear student — we noticed you logged in to watch five videos. Good job on that. Check mark," Ng said. The same goes for recognizing and praising participation in discussion forum.
Ng, who also is the director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, said "it sounds natural in hindsight, but we didn't have this insight ourselves."
When asked how IBM's Watson learning and question-answering computer could improve Coursera, Ng said "it would be fascinating to see Watson technology provide a better tool for auto-grading of free text".
Watson could also study the course material through transcripts and then offer more direct tutoring support for students, according to Ng. Also, Watson could identify the most informative threads within Coursera's discussion forums, he said.
Ng, however, said it is just the beginning of free online courses and there is plenty of room to make improvement.
"I hope within a couple of years, MOOCs will look very different than they do today," he said. And data should help get from here to there, Ng said.
Revenue generation is a serious challenge for all MOOC providers. Coursera is planning to target the corporate education market to drum up sustainable dollars. The company has yet to formally launch a competing corporate training program, but co-founder Ng said that the company has been working with partners including Yahoo Inc. to define a strategy in the field.
Recently, Udacity launched a program, called the Open Education Alliance, for corporate training. The company is now getting paid by companies like Google Inc. and Intuit Inc. to help produce courses for employee training and recruiting.
Coursera now has partnerships with more than 100 academic institutions from all over the world. The online education provider now offers 500 courses and boasts five million students. It recently formed partnerships with 13 new institutions representing 11 countries, bringing its total number of partners to 107.
LinkedIn teamed up with seven online education providers – Coursera, edX, Lynda.com, Pearson, Skillsoft, Udacity, and Udemy – to allow to users to add certification and courses to their profiles. The new partnership allows LinkedIn users to include educational accomplishments that go beyond the traditional institutions. LinkedIn's pilot program called Direct-to-Profile Certifications will show off online study achievements.