The emergence of Mass Online Tutoring Systems

Until recently there was great excitement in education circles surrounding MIT's OpenCourseWare project and similar OER sites from other institutions. Among the benefits was the release of knowledge from the confines of the lecture theater to a mass global audience. However providing course materials alone, while still valuable, already seems like old hat.

The reason is the emergence of the MOTS, the mass online tutoring systems. These systems also aim to provide education to a mass audience but do so while providing a far richer educational experience. The first such system to come to prominence was Udacity but this was quickly followed by Coursera, OLI and most recently the announcement of MIT and Harvard's edX project. I imagine there will be more to follow.


What are these systems?

Like OpenCourseWare, these systems present course materials but add a sophisticated software-based delivery system that provides many of the additional components of a traditional university experience such as administration, communication with peers, tutoring, and assessment.

These delivery systems adopt technologies from a range of sources. CRM-type functionality from the corporate world enables registration, the delivery of course news and deadline reminders. Functionality from internet forums facilitates peer-to-peer discussion and rewards those who contribute most. Techniques from the field of learning analytics survey students' interactions with the system and, for example, identify those students requiring additional support. Tutoring varies in sophistication; however, the most ambitious, Carnegie Mellon's OLI, adopts techniques from cognitive tutoring to provide personal instruction and feedback to each student.

Human instructors are present but the delivery system allows them to operate largely at a meta level and therefore reach many more students than is possible via more traditional methods. Sebastian Thrun, a founder of Udacity, famously taught a course on artificial-intelligence to more than 160,000 students.

As anyone who has taken a course on these systems will attest, the learning experience does not feel impersonal. The effect is a rich, engaging experience far removed from the solitary browsing experience provided by OpenCourseWare.


These systems are expensive. I have heard that the cost of building the delivery infrastructure alone ranges from millions to tens of millions of dollars. The cost of creating individual courses varies depending on the sophistication employed but can also stretch to millions of dollars. Then, there are significant ongoing costs relating to maintenance, course delivery and supporting operations. These figures explain why MIT and Harvard each invested a hefty $30 million to launch edX.

Historically, OpenCourseWare projects and sites such as the Khan Academy have been supported by charitable donations, notably from the Gates Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation. Education will always be seen as a worthwhile target of charitable efforts, but funding such large-scale projects solely on charitable donations can carry unacceptable uncertainty and risk for providers.

There are hints that a more commercial model will emerge. EdX has stated its intention to charge for 'certificates of completion'. Coursera is yet to reveal its business model but is funded by Venture Capitalists who will clearly be seeking a return on their investment; the obvious revenue stream will be to charge for certification.

Universities embarking on such projects will be keen to distinguish these low cost 'certificates of completion' from their core and high-cost 'degree certificate' programs and we may see the emergence of a two-tier education offering. The long-term success of this strategy will rely on the higher-cost courses having significantly higher value, both in the eyes of students and of employers in the market. As technology inevitably improves, the experience provided by the mass online tutoring systems will continually improve. This will put pressure on universities to increase the quality of their core degree programs at the same pace. The end result should be better educational experiences for all.

The importance of content

So where does Epigeum fit in to all this activity? Well, content lies at the heart of such systems and we produce great content. Our courses are traditionally delivered to comparatively small groups of students through an institutional LMS/VLE. The emergence of mass online tutoring systems will provide additional channels through which Epigeum's courses can reach new and much larger audiences.


About the Author

Dr. David Lefevre

Dr. David Lefevre Co-Founder and Chairman

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