Lessons from the iversity Launch

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Yesterday iversity, the German player in the international MOOC space, officially launched its platform with 24 courses. As I briefly mentioned in my article about the French MOOC player FUN on Friday, the launch further cements Germany’s position as one of the top three countries in the European Union when it comes to the number of MOOCs offered.

iversity is not targeting a single market but is offering courses in a variety of European languages. As of yesterday, over 115,000 students subscribed with the most popular courses attracting between 17,000 and 29,000 students. While those numbers are low compared to what we are used to from edX, Coursera and Udacity, they are pretty decent compared to the numbers from other European MOOCs.

I think that the most interesting part of iversity’s story is how they prepared yesterday’s launch. It is clear that the iversity team is running the project like a “classic” tech startup, and I think that institutions in higher education can actually learn quite a bit from how iversity managed to become one of the leading players in the European MOOC scene right from the (re)start.

Market Research

I know this may sound a bit odd, but as MOOC platforms have financial interests baked into them, for better or worse, market research was a key element in today’s launch. Instead of going the classic way of creating and offering courses based on what faculty feel is needed, iversity flipped the process and let the students decide what they wanted to learn.

This is part of a bigger discussion around the problem that companies, especially in the tech space, feel universities are not providing them with the employees they need to run their business. A month ago I wrote about Google getting involved in mooc.org and the Open Education Alliance which both aim to offer courses that are more suited to the needs of tech giants like Google, Facebook and others.

Asking students what they want (and need) to learn goes in the same direction and also assures that there is an interest to use the platform as soon as the course will be offered. If students actually know what skills they will need for their careers is of course a different question.

Kickstarting the Ecosystem

Another problem platforms/marketplaces in the education space usually have is the chicken and egg problem. Students only come when there are enough courses to choose from, educators only create courses for a platform when there are enough students. In order to start with an interesting selection of courses iversity teamed up with the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft and launched the MOOC Production Fellowship.

Professors were invited to pitch their MOOC ideas to the jury and students were invited to vote for their favorite concepts. The ten winners then each received €25,000 ($34,000) to create the MOOC.

Quality Control

Besides the monetary boost, the ten winners also received hands-on support from the iversity team during the creation process. This included workshops, technical as well as marketing support.

As we know from the past few months, production quality can become a big issue in the MOOC world, especially when your students are tech savvy enough to notice the obvious and not-so-obvious flaws. It also helps iversity to establish themselves as a brand in the MOOC space.

Community

Last but not least, the whole process helped to create a community around the courses that started yesterday long before they officially launched. The MOOC creators shared their experiences and updates from the creation process with their followers via social media which helped iversity and its other course creators as a whole. This also introduces a new concept that professors now move in the position of a marketer. It’s a similar shift journalists see with the proclaimed idea of “entrepreneurial journalism”, leading towards the decoupling of the classic relationship of professors and universities.

As the students were invited to vote on their favorite courses they now also had a vested interest in the development of the MOOCs, they were part of the whole experience of launching a new course. If this results in higher completion rates down the line will be interesting to see.

And that’s the main point of today’s launch. iversity now has to prove that its MOOCs perform as well as those of bigger players in the market when it comes so quality, retention and completion.

One essential part in iversity’s offering might be the implementation of ECTS points. Two of the courses that launched today already offer them and iversity is planning to expand the offering to other courses in the near future.

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