According to Ryan Craig from University Ventures, many trends from popular initiatives and names in the current landscape of educational technologies look uncomfortably similar to experiences the sector has been through in previous decades, in part because of the paradoxical possibility that there are not a lot of “lessons learnt” in EdTech.
He brings the case of UNext back to our attention. It was a pre-dotcom company pushed by the founder of Oracle, a Chicago professor, and a renowned financier (who would later be convicted for violating US securities laws.) But before hindsight would strike, the unstoppable team, which counted within its faculty a couple of Nobel laureates, seemed on pace to reach their dream of a “purely Internet-based university” that would replicate for all the experience students might get at Columbia, Stanford, or the London School of Economics. Talent, partnerships, and reputation were all as great as they could be and, in the exuberance of the time, there was no reason why UNext would not end up owning the entire global online education market.
The MBA-level case study about the demise of UNext is too complex to discuss at length. Craig does point to one factor, on the pedagogical level, that factored into the change of heart towards the ambitious idea, and something he believes is creeping up again. Just like the lecture format has evolved very little in centuries, despite its track record of ineffectiveness, he fears the structure of online-based teaching has little to show in the way of growth over the last 20 years.
The field does look different today than it did in 1999, and initiatives like UNext might deserve some credit, particularly for their role in opening up the landscape of online learning products to corporate customers and setting in motion the now unavoidable concept of “Professional Development.” While at the turn of the millennium revenues from online training were estimated to reach $11 billion USD by 2003, today the market value is set on its way to surpass the $300 billion mark before the half of the next decade. But Craig believes the writing is on the wall, and not even the hottest players around, the Courseras and the Udacities, are exempt. Just like in the last cycle, there has been a change of heart toward a world-changing idea without a reason not to succeed: MOOCs.
Once again, we are within a complex and turbulent landscape, but Craig suggests that an honest focus on efficacy might be the way forward. By honest, he means companies must be willing to deal with some of the hard facts of online education. For example, the likelihood that self-paced learning may not be a road worth pursuing.