The idea of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) is well meaning in that it looks to democratize learning for the masses. However, the issues, as New York Magazine highlights, are glaring. The MOOC industry, as the piece discusses and history has proven, is dogged by the issue that you can change the way that students learn, but you have to find a way to get them to complete the course. Hence the cited UPenn study shows, in a 2013 study of University of Pennsylvania Coursera classes, only 5% of students even finished. In a normal school this would be impossible to avoid; not finishing would be a failure students can't afford, but a web browser can be easily closed.
That's why education tech has increasingly moved toward enhancing the current format. For example, Top Hat, a teaching platform built for in-classroom use and used in over 500 colleges, creates a hardware-agnostic system that can measure attendance, assess students, give presentations and at the same time connect to legacy technology like Blackboard, used in schools nationwide. The system is free for professors to use, charging students a small fee ($36 a term or $36 a year for their courses) to use it in a classroom that a teacher has integrated it with. The important strength of Top Hat is that they want to change the delivery and execution of activities that already take place in a classroom instead of changing the classroom itself. This means that they don't have to overhaul the entire school system to succeed, which has helped them raise over $20 million in venture capital.
"There's certainly a lot of activity around innovation in the educational technology and content space these days. A lot of it doesn't bear fruit. I think that's because often new education products developed by start-ups come at the market from the outside, under a belief that interesting and smart products can generate their own market space," said Vikram Savkar, Vice President & General Manager, Legal Education at Wolters Kluwer. The 29-year-old legal education company owns a vast part of the law school textbook market, and in September 2014 launched the Connected Casebook. The growing number of Wolters Kluwer textbooks integrating the online Connected Casebook allow students to interact with their textbooks, both in simple ways (highlighting, note taking, searching) as well as access common study aids and testing materials throughout the textbook. The books also can connect directly to specific classrooms to measure progress against other students. Students are generally very engaged, spending an average of 51 minutes a session with Connected Casebook.
"Education is not a pure consumer space...real and lasting educational innovation has to happen where education happens: within schools," said Savkar. "That's why we've focused on what I think of as collaborative innovation: we engage with law professors and students to understand what kinds of new workflows we can design that would genuinely and substantively improve their work, and that would also fit inside the educational structure that they have to operate within."
This may be in part why the Kno tablet failed. It focused on the classroom in the sense that students still use textbooks, but required (unlike Connected Casebook) the purchase of a giant, single or dual screen tablet. Despites $100 million in capital, the company stumbled by forcing the purchase of both textbooks and a device, adding another weight and another piece to a student's life in a way that didn't make sense as Apple's first iPad rolled onto the scene as they priced their device. Three years later, as the iPad Air announced, Kno was acquired by Intel.
It may be that fundamental change will happen in the classroom, but it will not happen by changing where the classroom is, or creating an entirely new device that you'd expect students to buy. There's a reason that universities still require textbooks, even interactive ones, available in standard ways (paper or digitally ubiquitous), and still require you to go to class; that's how people learn.