The business of distance education

13 Aug 2015

Author: Brad Howarth

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The opportunity for education technology is truly a global one, and Australian entrepreneurs are at the forefront of fast-growing markets for education content and delivery.
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The world market for eLearning is booming: the Australian market is estimated by IBISWorld to be worth A$5.9 billion, with an annual growth rate of 14.4 per cent between 2009 and 2014. 

Among the Australians leading the field is Martin Dougiamas, the brains behind the open source online learning platform Moodle. 

“Moodle is the default learning platform in many countries, with more than 90 per cent penetration in a lot of South American countries,” Dougiamas says. “The highest usage of Moodle is in Spain, where it is pretty much the default package.”

The platform has been translated into more than 110 languages, with users ranging from educators from the world’s top universities to giant oil and gas companies, and even Google, which uses it to train new workers.

Dougiamas was an early entrant to the market and given his upbringing, that’s not surprising. He grew up in the Australian Outback, where his early learning was via the School of the Air, using short wave radio telephones. 

Dougiamas first connected to the Internet in 1987.  

“When the World Wide Web came to the Internet in 1993 it was very much a broadcast medium, and I felt there was a lot of potential there for it to be more interactive,” Dougiamas says.

Armed with that belief, Dougiamas undertook a Masters and PhD at Western Australia’s Curtin University in education and built his own online learning platform. By late 2001 the first Moodle prototype was released online, and within 24 hours had been downloaded by a school in Canada.

Word spread quickly, and soon the platform had 70 clients, including the California-based investment firm Silicon Valley Bank, as well as numerous universities.

“I had a very supportive community from the beginning, with people encouraging me and helping with testing and translating,” Dougiamas says. “And soon people were writing modules and helping to build it.”

 “It was designed from the beginning to be something that was easy to use and get going. People can modify it and change it, they can make it what they need. And they can fit it into any niche that they need to.”

Dougiamas developed Moodle using an open source licensing model, meaning it is free to use. The Moodle development team earns money by licencing the Moodle trademark and right to provide official service.

Dougiamas says there are currently more than 60,000 registered sites, but may be as little as 10 per cent of all the active users worldwide.

Content is critical

Critical to the success of any eLearning platform is having the right content, and that was the philosophy behind the online learning resource service Edrolo, founded by Australian Jeremy Cox and his business partners in 2010.

“We wanted to work with master teachers in their specific subject areas, and help them build curriculum-specific video based content,” Cox says.

In 2011 Edrolo launched rich content to support 10 subjects from the Victorian final year VCE school program, providing instructional content from expert teachers delivered online in video format. 

Edrolo soon started receiving calls from schools. 

“They were trying to build their own digital resources, and teachers were finding that enormously painful,” Cox says. “We don’t ask teachers to write text books, so why are we expecting them to build online video content? That’s where the niche was found.”

Today Edrolo is used by 145 Australian schools and plans to double that next year. It has also launched ExamMaster, which helps students pinpoint their weaknesses. That product has been adapted for the US market, where it is helping students prepare for their SAT exams.

 “I would say in 12 months we would be looking to additional international opportunities in Asia or the UK,” Cox says.

Learning through collaboration

“The main way people learn is by working together in groups, forming teams, doing projects and interesting activities,” says the cofounder and CEO of OpenLearning, Adam Brimo. “It is all activity-based. And OpenLearning creates an environment that makes activity-based learning possible.”

Unlike other Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platforms where eLearning often focuses on replicating the university structure with marking, grading and assessment, Brimo says OpenLearning focuses on creating a social learning experience to create a community amongst students to allow them to communicate in a personal and collaborative way.“Students are doing courses and learning because they want to do it,” Brimo says.

More than 430 publicly accessible courses are offered on the platform and over 1,000 private courses have been created.

 “Most of our work is in Australia and Malaysia, although we have courses and users coming from almost every country,” Brimo says.

OpenLearning has been selected as the official MOOC platform for Malaysia’s 20 public universities, with four MOOC courses now on offer and another 60 MOOCs planned for launch this year.

“They see MOOCs as a way to increase access to education, and also to improve collaboration between students across the universities,” Brimo says.

In June 2015 OpenLearning was contracted by the Australian Federal Government to deliver its first MOOC, for the Office of Best Practice Regulation. OpenLearning will deliver a Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) MOOC that will train thousands of public servants and members of the public over the next four years.

Brimo says OpenLearning’s success has stemmed from the ease with which MOOCs can be created.

“It’s very easy to create activities and engage with students and add different things,” Brimo says. “The key is creativity. You have to work much harder online than you would in the classroom to get students interacting.” 

Amongst Australian universities offering more than MOOCs is Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology, which four years ago launched a joint venture with the online job market and education provider SEEK to create Swinburne Online and offer undergraduate and postgraduate degrees fully online.

Chief executive officer Denice Pitt says Swinburne Online’s goal is to reach ‘non-traditional’ students who may have left high school and entered the workforce without completing an undergraduate degree. Her cohort of 6000 students has an average age of 32, and are generally either working or raising a family, or both. The curriculum is set by academic staff from Swinburne University and translated to the online environment by Swinburne Online.

“The offerings we have are very much linked to career outcomes,” Pitt says. “It is still the same degrees, same exams and same qualifications as the university, and our role is to adapt that so it can be digested in an online format.”

“MOOCs have opened people’s minds as to what is possible, and has pushed forward the acceptance of people undertaking full degrees online. It makes education more accessible and increases equity.”

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