When I did my initial lineup of course providers earlier this year, I only included ones I was familiar with from having enrolled in classes on their platforms (including the big MOOC names of Coursera, edX and Udacity). But now that I’m enrolled in classes on two additional platforms (Canvas.net and Udemy), it’s time to take a look at what these two contenders in the free-learning space have to offer.
As usual, I’ll review the courses I’m taking on these two platforms (Understanding Cheating in Online Courses on Canvas, Art History Survey: 1300 to Present on Udemy) in the Degree of Freedom newsletter once those courses are completed next month.
But just looking at the technology that serves up those classes, these two contenders are both different from each other, and are moving with a different trajectory than the “Big Three” MOOC providers.
The Canvas Network, for example, is a service offered by Instructure, the company behind the increasingly popular Canvas Learning Management System.
One can think of all the platforms used by learning vendors as variants on Learning Management System (LMS) technology, but companies like Instructure have traditionally provided tools and services to institutions that need to manage a hierarchy of users (students, instructors and administrators) across an institution.
For students, LMS systems provide access to course components (syllabi, reading material, lecture notes or videos), as well a portal for accessing or submitting homework and other assignments. Teachers use LMSs to manage their courses (including consolidating grading information in an online gradebook) while administrators can use dashboard functionality to better track what is happening across the campus.
Instructure decided to open up its platform to allow schools to provide certain classes to the public at large, and today their course offerings include 30 free classes on a variety of disciplines (101-level courses on math and writing, classes on educational topics such as how to design hybrid courses or my cheating class, and humanities/social sciences classes in art and history).
The experience I’m having while working inside the Canvas system is very similar to the one I had when taking a graduate-level education course offered through a major university which used a subset of the extensive LMS functionality within their internal systems to deliver the course. And because the underlying system is so feature rich, it can take a little time getting used to (unlike simpler MOOC platforms that have a somewhat shallower learning curve).
One benefit of delivering a class inside a live LMS system is that the professor can make changes on the fly (as my Cheating professor has done by adding guest lectures by outside experts since the course began). And one of the reasons why such courses can work as works in progress is that enrollment in Canvas classes is mostly limited to under 1000 students (at least during this early phase of a program that just began in November of last year).
Udemy is more akin to the major MOOC providers in offering courses in a wide range of disciplines to any number of learners (with some of their most popular classes topping 30,000 enrollments). Like Udacity, Udemy offers asynchronous access to its courses, which means you can start any time and move at your own pace. And like Coursera (which provides tools to institutions, but lets them make most of the course design decisions), Udemy places content choices in the hands of their instructors.
But Udemy content providers are not limited to name-brand institutions. Instead, the company offers its platform to anyone interested in creating a course for widespread public consumption. And their business model allows instructors to set their own prices for courses, taking a share of revenue only for classes attached to a fee.
This has led to Udemy’s content skewing towards subjects that people have traditionally paid money to learn (such as technology or professional design) which range in price from under $10 (to learn how to create interactive PDFs with Indesign, for example) to $500 (the price for some of their computer game design courses).
Social sciences and humanities courses (like my Art History class) have a smaller footprint on the Udemy site. And keeping with my theory that people are willing to pay to learn something that will help them professionally, but would rather get their general edification for free, most non-professional courses are offered at no cost.
Regarding student experience, the art history class I’m taking is primarily driven by video lectures (although a simple note-taking system is also available, as is an underutilized message board). But while features such as quizzing or peer grading don’t seem to be part of my Udemy experience, I have been impressed with one bit of technology they have invested in: a mobile App for course delivery.
Given that I tend to bounce between a laptop, tablet and mobile phone when consuming courseware, it’s been nice to be able to access lectures on any of those devices and have my progress tracked within the centralized Udemy application. And the ability to download lectures for offline viewing means I can watch my 16th century painting class on the subway, without the need to be perpetually online.
Given the number of institutions and instructors interested in getting into the MOOC game, only a small percentage of which can be serviced by major MOOC players like edX and Coursera, I expect additional players to show up over the next twelve months providing more entrance points for students looking for free (as well as paid) education.
It’s an open question where any of this will settle (as well as who will survive as the market becomes more crowded and competitive – and business models get tested in the real world). But in the meantime, those of us interested in learning high-level stuff for little to no cost can continue to benefit from the investment and invention companies and their benefactors are pouring into online learning.