What Amazon Shows Us About the Future of Online Learning

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Last week, Jeff Bezos introduced the tech press to the new Kindle Fire. Besides the impressive hardware specs and an at-cost selling price, there was one feature Bezos is particularly excited about: Mayday.

Mayday connects Kindle HD users with a remote helpdesk via video chat. The tech support representative can then guide you through a problem or even take control of the tablet and fix the issue remotely. Though the idea behind remote tech support is hardly new, having this service included in a device and offering it at-scale is. Amazon is targeting a response time of 15 seconds max.

If you are a regular edCetera reader, this concept might remind you of InstaEDU, a startup that offers on demand help for college students. The problem with that platform is that the support system is outside of the specific learning environment in which the problem occurs. The student still needs to open up a new tab, find a matching tutor, initiate the session, upload material into the virtual classroom, and so on.

Now, I know this might sound like one of the constructed “problems” we see in infomercials, but I do believe that the future of on demand tutoring will look more like Mayday.

Most newer browsers already support WebRTC, a protocol that enables video chats directly in the browser. Imagine that you are working on a problem on your computer or tablet and could press a “call a tutor” button. The app already knows what you are working on at that moment, and automatically selects a tutor from its list. This opens up a chat window. The tutor can see your screen, use markers to virtually write on it, or can open a new window with a Wikipedia article  or similar.

A second interesting feature Amazon seems to be working on is a smart, human-powered search alternative for people who cannot easily find what they are looking for on the e-commerce portal. I suppose Amazon will be tapping into its experiences with Mechanical Turk here, opening small tasks to find relevant items based on the description the client typed in the search bar.

There will be a similar service for students who get stuck in their research — they can open tasks for finding specific information and other students can and get paid for completing them. Of course, these tasks will probably be priced around the $1 mark but as Mechanical Turk proves, that’s enough incentive to get things done.

But those models won’t be limited to the edtech startup space. A new report by the Observatory on Borderless Education titled “Horizon Scanning: What will higher education look like in 2020?” suggests that more and more academic staff is going to work remotely.

Certainly, one of the main ideas behind that is cutting cost which could force junior lecturers to take on the role of remote mentors, working for several employers across the globe.

So, the fear of some in the academic space that MOOCs and related movements are merely an excuse to further reduce cost may seem to be justified.

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