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Posted: May 27, 2011

Education as an app

Ideas once considered far-fetched are now doable

Thomas Frey

In March 2007, I posted my original paper on the Future of Education, where I talked about a system based on an iTunes-like approach where experts around the world could use a "rapid courseware-builder" to produce bite-sized courses and send them to a global distribution center. Students from around world could plug-in and learn whatever class matched their interests.

When I first presented this approach, the education community was quick to dismiss the idea out of hand, citing the rigors of course design and the vast limitations of online learning.

I recently had the pleasure of working with an inspired leadership team from Maricopa Community College in Phoenix (currently boasting over 260,000 students) and the reception couldn't have been more different. Each of the ideas presented was carefully scrutinized and placed within the context of "How can we adapt this to work within our system?"

So what's changed? Even though the message was similar, radical shifts in connection speeds and new technology, coupled with ever-tightening fiscal budgets in an increasingly fluid society, have made ideas that once sounded far-fetched just four years ago seem much more doable today.

But here is something I haven't talked about before. In the midst of our sea-change of attitudes and tectonic shifts in technology comes a fascinating new idea, an idea that has kept me up for the past week with unusual ways of stirring the imagination. And it all has to do with education as an app for mobile devices.

I wasn't the first one to advance this kind of thinking.

• April 2001 - OpenCourseWare - MIT President Charles Vest made the bold move to make its courses freely available on the Internet. This was the beginning of the OpenCourseWare movement, a movement that has enabled anyone around the world to listen and read what is being taught at MIT. Both Yale and Stanford were quick to follow and even Harvard has entered the fray in the past two years.

• March 2006 - Open Culture was launched by Dr. Dan Colman and is one of the largest databases of free cultural and educational media in existence. Open Culture is edited by Colman who now runs Stanford's continuing education program and works on Open Culture in his spare time.

• September 2006 - The Khan Academy was launched by the visionary Salman Khan with the mission of "providing a high quality education to anyone, anywhere." Their website now hosts an online collection of some 2,300 micro lectures using video tutorials on YouTube that teach a wide range of topics including mathematics, history, finance, physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, and economics.

• May 2007 - iTunes U was first launched as a pilot project between Apple and six colleges that includes Brown University, Duke University, Stanford University, University of Michigan (School of Dentistry), University of Missouri (School of Journalism), and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. This is when Apple first made iTunes U available on its iTunes Store, allowing the user community search to publicly available courses. Currently over 250 higher ed institutions participate in what has become the largest collection of courses in the world.

• October 2007 - UC Berkeley launched its own YouTube channel. According to Benjamin Hubbard the Manager of Webcast at UC Berkeley, the school has had well over 120 million downloads since first sharing videos online, which they first began in 2001.

• March 2009 - Academic Earth - As a project launched in 2009 by Richard Ludlow, Academic Earth is working its way towards becoming the Hulu of academic videos and courses.

• September 2009 - P2PU was launched by John Britton, a developer evangelist at Twilio. After forming the company in 2008, they launched 6 peer-based free courses in September 2009. The courses had 15-20 people enrolled for 6 weeks. With each subsequent cycle, the number of courses has nearly doubled. The most recent, 4th cycle had 60 courses with 20 people in each course. They had to turn down nearly 70,000 additional people who applied.

• April 2010 - Learnable.com - Spawned from work done at SitePoint, founder Leni Mayo formed a team and launched Learnable.com, a company based in Melbourne, Australia. Learnable allows anyone to create and charge for online courses with a simple authoring tool the makes each new course something that is simple and easy to create.

• May 2010 - udemy - Incubated at the Founder Institute, udemy, billing itself as an "academy of you" was launched by Eren Bali and Gagan Biyani. Udemy's goal has been to disrupt and democratize the world of education by enabling anyone to teach and learn online. Just as blogging democratized the publishing industry (enabling anyone to instantly become a journalist), Udemy seeks to dramatically change education by empowering millions of experts around the world to teach & share what they know.

• November 2010 - Skillshare was founded in November 2010 by Michael Karnjanaprakorn and Malcolm Ong as a community marketplace that enables users to learn anything from anyone. It's a company with a rather unusual starting point. As Michael Karnjanaprakorn explains, "Last year, I played in the 2010 World Series of Poker (yes, completely random) for charity. I donated 100% of my poker winnings and got coached by some of the top professional poker players in the world. When I got back to NYC, my friends asked me to teach a class on what I learned, which is when everything clicked." As a result, Skillshare was born.

• March 2011 - Sophia - Social learning is part of the idea behind Minneapolis-based Sophia, a new online platform launched by founder and CEO Don Smithmier that offers free academic content to everyone. Describing itself as "a mashup of Facebook, Wikipedia, and YouTube," Sophia lets users to create and share short lessons on specific academic topics. These "learning packets" can be created and uploaded to the site by anyone, using text, images, presentations, video, audio, and more. The quality of the learning packet's content is evaluated by users within the Sophia community as well as by academic experts.
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Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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