Who owns the Data will win the Educational Race

I am on a trip with swissuniversities to the USA and visit educational technology companies and institutions who use or innovate education technologies. This trip brought me to Boston and to San Francisco. This article is about the group's visit to Google and Coursera, where we discussed their global MOOC activities. The night before, Christian Simm and Benjamin Bellmann welcomed us at Swissnex San Francisco. Christian highlighted in his short reception speech that Big Data is the main trend at the US West Coast.

Google Open Online Education

Google has launched recently its own MOOC service called Course Creator. It is a highly content-centric delivery engine for Google's App Engine. Google Course Creator is Open Source and is customizable to the needs of an organization. The key concepts of Course Creator are courses, units of learning, lessons, links, and assessments. In addition to this basic content management it also includes identity management as well as an analytics engine for student monitoring.

Course Creator has been geared towards scalability, structured learning, and real time data availability. The Google team uses Course Creator for their internal training and it is used by approx. 3.5 million users worldwide because the platform is open source organisations can use, customize, and adapt Googles Course Creator to their own needs. Such customized versions of Course Creator can run on Google App Engine, which means that all analytics data of course creator belong to the organization and can be exported and even removed from the engine.


Disclaimer: Coursera asked us to sign a pretty strict NDA before they talked to us. These lines are parts of the reflection on the discussion that are closely tied to the insights that we also had at other visits. Therefore, there is nothing specific about what Coursera does or does differently than I do in my daily job or saw elsewhere.

Coursera was very different compared to Google. The young company's motto is to change people lives through education. It achieves this by offering top quality MOOCs, for which it provides a online platform. Just like we saw at edX in Boston, Coursera strives to offer university-level courses. edX puts the organizational use of the courses into the center by focussing on finer granularity, so MOOCs can be used in blended learning settings in the institutions. Instead of going smaller just as edX, Coursera follows the accumulation approach by allowing students to combine selected MOOCs into special certificates that the students can buy after having completed the required courses.

A lot of the discussion at Coursera was guided around quality content and strategic investments of universities into online learning. If institutions decide to go for online education their move should be guided by more than just putting courses online, but they need to have a strategy about what they want to achieve with these courses. Coursera partner universities have very diverse interests in MOOCs, ranging from revenue generation to student awareness, just as we heard in Boston, too. Depending on the strategy the universities choose different approaches to their courses. However, the having a strategy is important, because high quality MOOCs require substantial investments by the institutions and a strategy helps to guide how the institutions approach the course development and deployment.

The Role of Learner Data

Both Coursera and Google are data-centric companies. Therefore as one can easily expect, the data question suggested by Christian Simm is high on the agenda for both companies.

Coursera's approach is centered around dashboards, that give organizations access to their course data and make it easy to work with this data. However, "data protection" limits the amount of data lecturers and organizations can actually access. At the same time, the new Coursera specializations may cover data from more than one organisation at the time. Obviously, sharing data across organizations is neither in the interests of the partners nor of Coursera.

Google approach to data is very different and more subtle. Their Course Builder platform is actually very basic and highly content centric when it comes to functions and analytics. Standard functions such as group management, upload assignments and discussion forums are clearly missing. In order to achieve these functions one has to integrate tools from other platforms. While Course Builder is extensible, it integrates just nicely with Google's own tools suite by default. However, once switching into the other platforms the students are no longer working within the scope of the course and consequently the related data is also not.

The Strategic Level

The visit at Coursera and Google emphasized once more that universities need a clear digitalization strategy. Between the lines both companies suggest, that this strategy has to include an educational aspect, a content aspect, a technological aspect and a data aspect. While educational organizations have good experiences with the former three aspects, the data dimension is often subsumed under technology. However, a data strategy is not just related to data storage and archiving. In today's digital world data is an active element of all processes. Therefore, organizations need to have a clear vision of what role data plays within their practices.