By Kash Reid-Bashir
Despite an almost relentless appetite for knowledge generally fulfilled by books, reports, presentations, blogs, podcasts, video, and commentators, it has been some time since I have sought out a completely new area to explore.
Of course, I do use some of the learning platforms to refresh current knowledge and move towards adjacent areas but this generally involves staying within a very narrow learning ecosystem and a predefined set of subject areas, mainly finance and business strategy. In general, the vast majority of my most enjoyable learning experiences have been within a university or corporate settings. To a large degree, these experiences have both informed and enriched my existence as well as providing me with a set of friends and acquaintances whom I can call on to this day. So as they say, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
Not so fast.
In the time since I was at business school, things have moved on considerably. Online learning has not only become the norm but is now considered a core feature of virtually all learning. I do remember reading about the introduction of MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) by Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) a number of years ago. I recall getting quite excited about the potential for academic institutions to deliver a parallel learning ecosystem. This even extended to the rather naïve, utopian thought that now everyone with some motivation could go online and gain a near top tier MBA learning experience without having to leave the comfort of their home or study environment. As ever, the innovation has not been quite as exponential as one would expect but things have changed somewhat.
So, what is all the fuss about?
Learning or Education is big business with an annual global spend of over $4.4 trillion and a growth (CAGR) rate of 7.4%  since 2000. The Global Online electronic learning market, a subset, was forecast to generate $107 Billion  in 2015 with annual growth (CAGR) of around 23%  achieved since 2000. Although the revenue mix is likely to alter somewhat with the introduction of mobile, cognitive, game-based, and collaborative learning, the broad direction of travel is unlikely to shift into negative territory if all platforms are considered together. This is contrary to reports of a declining revenue base by some commentators  so it is worth taking a cautious view if investing within certain subsets of the online learning universe.
Finding a spot
So after gleaning a bit of knowledge about the online learning sector, it was with the mindset of the intrepid explorer that I went in search of new platforms offering an interesting new academic pursuit which would be vaguely related to my sector biases. Of course, my new fascination would also have to provide the opportunity to either advise, launch or be involved in the sector in some way over the coming years. My platform of choice became edX. I enrolled on to the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Micro Masters program delivered by Columbia University. After making this choice, I was pleased to wake up to a Credit Suisse report predicting an expected compound growth rate of 46% out to 2020 for Robotics on Tuesday morning. The fact that the robotics generally requires the application of Artificial Intelligence confirmed my instinct that this is likely to be an interesting, high growth area with a wide array of applications over the coming years. So I was pleased to have settled on Artificial Intelligence, an area I have found conceptually fascinating for some time.
As for emerging platforms, I found a number of new additions. The most interesting of these was the Harvard / MIT platform, now called edX. Though I do acknowledge that I could be biased based on previous exposure and familiarity. Over recent years, a number of new and interesting platforms have emerged.
Out with solutions aimed at organisations, generally referred to as the Learning Management Systems (LMS) market, notable emerging platforms include the following:
· edX – As mentioned, this was initially a Harvard / Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) initiative which now includes courses offered by a number of highly regarded institutions including Berkeley and Columbia. edX is further distinguished by the fact that it is a non-profit organisation based on an open source platform.
· Coursera – A privately funded, for-profit, educational technology company which has a good presence with recognisable institutions including Stanford, Princeton and the University of London contributing content.
· Udacity – This platform provides a set of courses created by reputed organisations including Google, Facebook & Salesforce which aim to deliver training and credentials for highly sought after technology skills.
· Futurelearn – This is a hybrid platform created by the Open University with a combination of respected institutions and businesses contributing content.
· Other providers which aim to engender technical skills required on a day to day basis include Lynda (now Linkedin) and Udemy.
This list is not exhaustive but provides an indication of the reputable platforms available today. As a note of warning, these platforms make some attempt to address the requirements executive education aims to fulfil but the quality of the material is incredibly variable. And to some extent, it is difficult to imagine a time when these providers will compete with learning environments which involve program delivery in person by highly respected academic leaders. The barriers seem insurmountable today. However, with progress in conferencing technology, augmented and virtual reality there may well be a time when conventional providers are viewed as rather antiquated but we should not hold our breath over the short to medium term.
On a positive note
On the plus side, the most positive aspect of online learning is the fact that it is flexible and can fit around contemporary lifestyles seamlessly. Where online learning really excels is when a hybrid model is introduced as learners can benefit from the social aspects of learning in synch with the knowledge transfer which occurs. This also results in a significant saving in terms of time, effort and fees for learners. From an academic institutions perspective, the platforms are scalable and efficient. Not to mention the fact that tracking progress is simplified with programs delivered on a consistent basis with generally higher levels of knowledge retention. In summary, there are many positive aspects to delivering programs using the online channel but learners should be wary of the variation in quality.
The Differences: Online versus On Campus Learning
On the distinctions between online and on-campus learning, I was recently listening to a Stanford entrepreneurial series podcast which detailed the results of a study on how teaching could change in order to address situations which graduates face in the real world. The main argument centred on the fact that knowledge transfer, which has arguably been a mainstay of academic institutions to date, is becoming increasingly outdated. Any individual can produce results via a Google search which would provide information on the most recent contributions in a field. And this is the main difficulty with learning delivered online today. It is devoid of a large part of the value delivered by on-campus learning. The softer more social aspects cannot be addressed effectively. Particularly, issues concerning leadership, effective management of teams, peer group learning or navigating social dynamics. Given the findings of the study centred on teaching at Stanford suggest these softer skills require more attention, one can assume that this is an even more significant challenge for courses purely delivered online.
A personal note
Personally, I also have a concern around the fact that serendipity is completely sacrificed. There is no way one could walk into an interesting lecture by someone in a completely unrelated field just because one happens to be on campus that day or indeed strike up a conversation with a lecturer who suggests connecting with someone they know. Obviously, this exists to some degree with messaging boards and video calling but is far from an on-campus experience. Needless to say, you are highly unlikely to meet like-minded individuals who become lifelong friends. Or indeed, others who you may work with to launch interesting ventures due to the inherent constraints with online delivery of education. Given the recent success of teams who initially met at academic institutions, this would be a real loss to both society and business.
So despite the fact that we desperately need to have a rich and varied learning ecosystem, not least because of the fact that we are creating a significant level of student debt which may eventually result in a number of issues, one should not automatically move to a position where online learning becomes a panacea. It is not. It is merely a strong complement to the learning experience.
Converge Advisors and Associates was founded by Kash Reid-Bashir an independent, corporate financier with extensive strategy and finance experience within the media, technology and telecoms sectors. Kash has previously been part of Booz Allen Hamilton, Thomson Reuters and FTSE (a Pearson / London Stock Exchange joint venture). Kash graduated with an MBA from Cranfield School of Management.
1. IBIS Capital, Global e-Learning Investment review, 2013
2. Global Industry Analysts Inc, 2015
3. The 2016-2021 Worldwide Self-Paced Electronic Learning Market: Global Electronic Learning Market in Steep Decline, 2016