The technology world is flat


A decade ago, in his book ‘The World is Flat’, Thomas L. Friedman argues that the world was becoming a level playing field for commerce, citing ten driving forces such as

  • Breakdown of political division : collapse of the Berlin Wall
  • Internet ubiquitous allows information, content, work to flow, and the possibility of uploading and collaborating of online projects
  • Business model: outsourcing and offshoring

Top 10 technology companies by market cap 1995As of today, all of them are proved true especially in the world of technology.

In 1995 world’s top 15 technology company list (by market capitalization, source: Mary Meeker, ‘Internet Trend’ 2015) told us a few things:

  1. Companies were all from North America territory and Europe (1 from Germany)
  2. They were still largely operating in their home base.

Looking back it felt the world was living in another life.

Top 10 technology companies by market cap 200520 years after, situation largely changed. Among the top 15 list, 4 of them come from China. All of them are global brands aiming for the world’s lion share.

Most of them also did not exist in year 1995, such as Facebook (USA), Alibaba (China), Tencent (China).

These technology unicorns are young, ambitious and global known.

In year 2016, technology continues to disrupt all industries including taxi (Uber of USA, Didi of China), hotel (Airbnb of USA), personal finance (Ant financial of China). They entered into the world’s league table with equal ambition to face the flat world.

The question is – how does our formal and informal education respond to this new world?

Top 10 technology companies by 2016


Sweat together and bond after


Recently I did a talk about learning and collaborating online in small groups with slides HERE.

Main storyline goes as

  • Higher education is shifting from location/culture based towards objective/interest based. My undergraduate education was totally immersed by Chinese culture. But the situation is much different when I take a MOOC course or even doing an online degree program which was designed by a Canadian university.
  • A diversified learner population decreases the chance of marginalising minorities (in terms of races and professions). Being marginalised is not some experience I am familiar with as a child but something I had to deal with as a grown up. A carefully designed international program usually balances its student background mix so there will be no dominant culture. Naturally so does a MOOC course.
  • A good team communicates and works together to overcome a shared challenge.
  • Network formed from a good small group experience goes beyond course duration and course content. 

teamworkA good team and network formed after can be a result from either a MOOC course or an online degree course. The prerequisite is that the team shall be motivated intrinsically and have certain collaboration skills. So that they are prepared to spend time communicating, negotiating, sweating altogether in the same boat and know how to do that.

Isn’t that the same with all our human experience? You share a challenging journey together and bond after.

The Openness


This is another piece of learning experience comparison between MOOCs and online degree program courses – Openness. The further I explore into these two worlds, the more thorough I got to understand the meaning of openness, in terms of content, peer interaction, assignment and cohort community.

google catContent openness – It is a no brainer that you need to enrol in a degree program or in a MOOC course to interact with content. What is worth noticing is that some MOOC courses make their content open by uploading their videos on Youtube. All that means, you don’t need to register before you engage with content. And more importantly, the content is Googlable. That is a vital step to make educational resources truly open.

Interaction openness – In both cases, you cannot view peer to peer interaction unless you sign up for a course. But my question would be – why is that? Would it be ultimately thinkable that discussion of a certain subject be open to anyone? That means, people can Google about what others talk about when they learn basic algebra or biology. Would the pros overshadow the cons?

Assignment openness – For a couple of NovoEd  (NovoEd began as a social learning MOOC platform but pivoted towards a corporate training platform over time) courses I took, the best fun I had was to review others’ assignments. That is when creativity really exploded by viewing  and reflecting on what others think and do. In an accredited online course, the design is less so. One of my instructor did provide a very sound rational – since it is graded you can only view others assignments after you complete your own. That is very fair. I reflected on these two experiences and think – does it mean MOOC is for fun and accredited course is for external recognition? What are the implications and consequences of that? And would it be possible these two trespass one day?

Cohort community openness – I had a mentor from my NovoEd course ‘Technology Entrepreneurship’. He contacted me recently to introduce a current learner group to pick up my brain. Happily I accepted. Because I had fun in that course. The course design was superb, my group members worked really well together.  My mentor was very supportive and encouraging. You can feel everyone puts their heart into teaching, learning and mentoring. That engaging experience left me with no hesitance to be connected to future cohorts.

I keep my mind open when I felt openness.

No pay, no pain


This is an attempt to touch upon learning experience, as part of my blog series to compare MOOCs with online degree programs. 

A friend of mine went to pursue a full-time master’s program after more than a decade in corporate world. Burying his head into reading endless papers and writing more, he jokingly said – “I used to be paid to enjoy life. Now I paid my tuition to suffer.”

That is bizarrely true. For consumer business, customers pay to satisfy their needs or craves. For entertainment business, movie-goers pay to have a pleasant time. Continuous education is something quite different – people pay their tuition to work (and suffer). At least, from their point of view.

I hardworking catam the online version of him. A couple of times I wanted to drop out my current online degree program. The workload was a bit intimidating. It is far from being fun to stay at home at night doing the reading and assignments. Especially after you hear the what others are going at night – party, social meetup, dinner, movie, play, talk. It feels like the whole world is having a great time, except me.

But I have invested heavily in doing the application work, I have paid my tuition (US$1000 per course). The sunk cost became quite high for me to shrug off the burden. I had to persist.

It is not the same with a MOOC course. For all the courses I signed up for, there is no entry barrier, no initial financial cost, I could exit any time I would like to (which I did in many occasions, shame on me).

But for those I persisted are those which are truly taught well or I had superior peer support. The entry barrier was close to zero (I just needed to sign up for the platform and for the course), I paid no money for them. The only thing that kepe me going was it was simply so much fun to do it. In reflection, these courses do share some commonality – the videos are fun; reading load is light; a lot of assignments ask me to DO things; I felt strong presence of my peers, either I meet them in local meet-up events, or I worked with them as mentor-mentee or small group peer. hollywood cat

I still cannot get my head around one question – where should online learning experience go between a commitment game and an entertainment game. Shall we attempt to lock learners with heavy initial investment so they have to stay, or shall we allue them with a Hollywood model – it is so light, enthrilling and engaging, that they would not want to leave?

Different Englishness


After looking into the economic incentives for both learners and universities, I am moving to the second part of my effort to compare MOOCs with Online degree program, addressing culture inclusion/exclusion. I will start with a platform experience – different Englishness, followed by learning experience and community experience.

Any learners taking a MOOC course or an online degree program in an international context would naturally assume an English language environment. Does it make an indiscriminating climate for everyone when English – a universal language is anointed?

cat speaks english

Payment – money can’t buy you inclusiveness. I have issues paying my online degree tuition. The payment system requires me to either send a check of a Canadian bank or transfer online with a Canadian bank card. I have Unionpay card issued in China, master card issued in Hong Kong and visa card issued in UK but that does not help. This makes me further ponder, for cultures which are more cash driven, how easy it is to make money travel. 

At the same time, I have to awkwardly acknowledge my ignorance in payment process for any MOOC platforms.

Platform – please don’t say of course. 

For many websites, there is a house icon to indicate that this leads  you back to homepage. A colleague cited this example to show how a culture assumption is made that everyone’s home will be like a house.  He further asked if red is a merry color and white indicates death in Chinese culture. Without hesitation, I responded ‘ of course’. He looked into my eyes and said seriously ‘ please don’t say of course.’

It was that moment of truth,  I realised how many cultural assumptions I still make even I thought I am well-travelled. So do web platforms.

A culturally neutral learning platform means that anyone coming to virtual place to teach and to learn will gain the same understanding, no matter where they come from.

My experience with my online degree platform is that learning mostly takes place within the platform (Blackboard in my case). At the same time, a wider system is provided in order to give us a taste of campus environment. This comes in forms of a virtual access to university library or emails about national insurance card. It is an interesting taste of venturing into another culture, halfway.

My learning of MOOC courses usually extend to tools beyond the platform itself. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Google hangout, Youtube are used widely. In places like China these tools are not available. People engage tools such as wechat (a combination of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, medium, name it) to organize learning outside the platform. The separation of Facebook and Wechat world is there.We don’t know what we don’t know. Neither is fully aware how fascinatingly green grass at the other side is.

You think a platform in English naturally serves global. But when it comes to how you pay, what reading resources you access, which insurance scheme covers you and which social tool you base your community on: there are different Englishness.

To grow the cash cow for tomorrow – why MOOCs?


This is a second piece of economic analysis for my series of MOOCs vs. Online Degree Program, from university point of view. MOOC courses require higher development cost and lower delivery cost, compared to an online degree program course. A return on investment analysis shows an online degree program recoups money must easier much faster. So why on earth, so many universities got into MOOCs? 

According to Wharton School’s 2014 study, an average MOOC course takes 

  • Development cost of US$70,000 (US$20,000 goes to production cost)
  • Delivery cost of US$7,000

Another study by North Carolina General Assembly study in 2010 shows that to run a distance learning program course, the cost pattern reverses

  • Development cost of US$5,387
  • Delivery cost of US$17,564

It costs much more to develop a MOOC course but much less to deliver one. There are several reasons to explain the situation. 

Firstly, during course development stage, a MOOC course requires pedagogical redesign and production. Most educators will have to re-think the whole experience of designing a massive open course, which probably includes significant chunk of video materials. At the same time, an online degree program course might be based on existing campus course which does not necessarily require videos as part of the content materials. 

Secondly, during course delivery stage an online degree program student demands more support and handholding services. Since students are paying tuition, universities might be obliged to provide extra tutoring or administration services. Meanwhile since a MOOC course learner is not paying, they most likely would not expect the same level of support.  

What is the return for investment for universities to deliver a course online?

Let us take a look at variable cost first- the cost to deliver a course. 

To cover the delivery cost, a MOOC course shall have at least 350 learners purchasing a certificate (assuming a certificate charges US$20), to reach breakeven point. If 5% of a MOOC course learner buys a certificate, a course shall expect 7,000 learners to make the number work.

To cover a delivery cost for distance, for credit online course, a program needs 18 students (assuming a student pays US$1,000 per course, see my previous analysis for learner cost analysis blog. For a prestige university, getting 18 students for an online degree program is not an unreasonably goal. An online degree program, therefore, can be a cash cow.


A MOOC course requires higher upfront investment to develop, has less prospect to generate positive cash when it is delivered. Why, then, does the university get into MOOC business especially if it already has a cash cow – online degree program?

I believe a lot of it is due to the emerging global nature of education and a cash cow program needs to be further groomed for tomorrow’s higher education. MOOC is a way for programs to market to a global audience, for university to experiment what works in a more diversified classroom and to develop research based on a global database. My blogs will continue this discussion, by comparing the many differences between these two and their increasing blurring between them.

Sachet education – buy less, more often


To pay for the tuition of my current online degree program , a teacher in Kenya has to work for five full years, not spending money elsewhere at all. 

I am starting my series of MOOC vs. Online Degree program blog with learner cost analysis. To put things in perspective, I created my own index- how many years a teacher needs to work for to pay for continuous learning in educational technology. The teacher can be in London, California, Shanghai, Delhi and Kenya. The options for this continuous learning are (1) an online degree program (2) a campus full time degree program (3) a selection of relevant MOOC courses.

First, I was searching for a ballpark figure of annual salary of a school teacher (US$) in these places. A teacher in California has the highest annual income (US$54,552), London (US$42,402), Shanghai (US$6,000), Delhi (US$3,600). A teacher in Kenya earns the lowest absolute dollar value of salary (US$2,257) .

If the teacher wants to continue a journey in educational technology, the existing choices are limited but widening at least. Stanford’s Learning, Design and Technology campus degree program costs US$31,000 tuition alone (approximately US$2,000 per course). My purely online degree program of educational technology charges tuition for over US$11,000 (10 courses, US$1,000 per course). A Coursera (MOOC platform) specialisation track for 9 courses in teaching costs US$428 (9 courses, US$48 per course). (Note, it is not exactly educational technology, but I would expect sooner or later, this will improve)

In summary:

  • A campus program by a prestige university, US$2,000 per course, bundled offering.
  • A purely online program by a reputable university, US1,000 per course, bundled offering.
  • A MOOC specialisation track, US$48 per course, unbundled.

The situation is not bad for a teacher in a developed economy but quite unattainable for a teacher in developing countries. 

Going to Stanford will cost a teacher in California 7 months of his/her salary, a teacher in London 9 months salary. The same education costs a teacher in Shanghai over 5 years’ salary, almost 9 years for a teacher in Delhi. This is the worst for a teacher in Kenya, tuition alone eats almost 14 years of his/her salary.

How about doing this via an online degree program? The tuition will still cost a Kenya teacher 5 years of salary, (close to) 2 years’ salary for a Shanghai teacher and 3 years for someone in Delhi.

The next option can be Coursera’s specialisation track – Foundations of Teaching for Learning.This 9 course collection is provided by Common Wealth Education Trust. I have to say it is not exactly educational technology. But I am hoping that sooner or later something more relevant will be there. A teacher in Kenya will only need to put 2 months of his/her salary to pay for that whole program. He/she would also be able to pay an unbundled price, a US$48 unit price per course. That US$48 per course rate, is a quarter of his monthly salary. 

Sachet marketing shampoo

Sachet marketing is a concept that consumers buy less but more often. For example, instead of buying a shampoo bottle, consumers go to grandpa grocery shop and get shampoo in small package size. They are also more convenient to carry and transport, more flexible. The concept is proved a huge success in developing markets such as India.

Would we, one day, have a sachet education?