Sydney start-up OpenLearning to go up against Coursera

Sydney start-up OpenLearning will go up against online education heavyweight Coursera as it prepares to launch a range of free and paid courses, but with a much greater focus on student collaboration.


OpenLearning was founded by Richard Buckland, a senior lecturer at the University of NSW, along with developer Theo Julienne and software engineer Adam Brimo.


Every member of the team – which also includes John Garland, Ricky Setiawan and David Collien – studied at UNSW.


OpenLearning, which is currently in beta, will officially launch on October 15.


Brimo says it has already been trialled by more than 1,200 UNSW students, and is partnering with the computer science and engineering department to run its online computing course.


“It’s been quite awhile in the making. We’ve been working with Richard, who is quite a well-known and fun lecturer. He likes motivating the students and keeping them engaged,” he says.


“None of them [the existing educational technologies] focus on the learning experience he really wants, so that’s why OpenLearning came about.”


“It’s a combination of Facebook and Wikipedia – it’s very collaborative and very social – but it has a number of things in there that let students contribute.”


Brimo says OpenLearning courses are based around a wiki – a website that allows its users to add, modify or delete its content via a web browser. Most wikis are created collaboratively.


“In many online learning settings, you’re sitting there and someone’s talking to you… It’s like you’re watching a TV,” he says.


“You always learn best when you’re doing stuff and when you’re engaged. [With OpenLearning,] students can work together on the wiki.”


“They can go out and create their own content, activities and blog posts, and share and talk about what they’re doing.”


OpenLearning also offers rewards to students as a way of motivating them.


“If you make a nice page or post and people like what you’ve done, you earn karma points. It’s a fun way of keeping track of the quality of content rather than just the quantity,” Brimo says.


“Instead of focusing on [students’] marks, we just focus on a progress bar. If your progress bar is green, it means you’re keeping up to date with everything.”


Brimo points out OpenLearning has a public-private model, which is how it generates revenue.


“If you want to create a public course you’re not charging for, you can do that for free,” he says.


“If you run a private course where you want to set who can take it, such as a school or a university, then we charge for that,” he says.


“We have a few different ways of charging. One is for the software – between $5 and $10 per student per course.”


While Brimo admits there has been a lot of attention on Coursera, which recently partnered with the University of Melbourne, OpenLearning offers something different.


“The big difference is Coursera focuses more on broadcast education, where you’re just consuming content,” he says.


“You’re not really contributing back to the course – you’re not as engaged as much and you’re not helping others.”


This could explain why Coursera has a dropout rate of up to 90%, Brimo says.


“With OpenLearning, students use it more as they go through the course. It’s that sort of engagement that is probably the big thing and the big difference,” he says.


“We really want OpenLearning to be a place where you go to learn things. The goal is to get more people on board with this way of teaching.”


“We see that naturally spreading overseas and already have interest from universities overseas… and partnering with other universities in Australia.”


“We’ve been contacted by universities in Canada and the US. But the focus is Australian universities because that’s what we understand very well.”


“We think Australia is well placed because of the large focus on education here.”


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