2U –Mobile Cloud Revolutionizing Education

Offering cloud-based education courses to university grad students over mobile is “a necessity – it is a no-brainer to offer education over mobile,” states James Kenigsberg, CTO of 2U. The company, which provides cloud-based courses and related services to grad schools, describes itself as offering a “learning platform and bundled technology-enabled services” as “SaaS solutions that enable leading nonprofit colleges and universities to deliver their high quality education to qualified students anywhere.”

We are “a complete cloud shop,” Kenigsberg states. The objective is to make “great education available everywhere.” The company motto is, “No back row,” i.e., that the mobile online medium makes the learning experience and opportunity equal for every participant in the classroom. Their mantra is that their offerings must “match or exceed” the educational value of the schools’ on-campus programs.

Growth has been extremely impressive, leading to its recent IPO (March 2014). Revenues grew from $29 million in 2011 to $83 million in 2013 (a 69% CAGR), and Q1 2014 revenues were up 38% over the prior year quarter.

Kenigsberg explains that mobile has been a key factor in this growth. He set out to build a native app (iOS) three years ago. They found that they had to redefine the learning management system for online degrees. It had been done on a web platform, but had to be re-thought for mobile. Others had just tried to fit what they were already doing on the web onto a smaller screen.

Asked what are the hardest challenges in dealing with mobile, he points to the fact that mobile adds different capabilities. While there are constraints, such as screen size and battery life, there are added factors, such as a camera, GPS capabilities, ready access to other apps. He states that they “use mobile tools to re-think learning.”

Could this lead to a mobile-specific curriculum in the future? He states that they do have such a development in the planning stages and gives an example of an assignment that could involve individual students’ descriptions (including photos) that are based on where they are at a given moment.

2U is mainly focused on providing graduate degree programs. This year they expanded to supporting their first bachelor program with Simmons College, in nursing, and announced they will support their first doctorate degree with USC (University of Southern California) as well. USC has been their primary client. They have a total of ten universities as clients and may add more in 2014.

He cites mobile as delivering “pervasive learning opportunities.” The company has students that are on oil rigs, as well as marines in Afghanistan.

Their students are full university students and get the same type of degree as on-campus students. However, 2U can lead to a huge expansion in enrollment. He cites a graduate teaching program at USC where the average graduating class was 80-100 students. They now have over 1000 in the program.

2U presents live learning, or “synchronous” sessions. They have done over 97,000 of these and are now doing about 1300 per week. The faculty is from the universities, but they can be remotely located – he mentioned one teacher who had retired to Singapore and now can still teach his courses in the program.

They have a lead faculty member from the school who works with the 2U content team – to lay out the “asynchronous” (non-live time) curriculum. There are also section professors working on the courses.

They have to do a certain amount of customization of the curriculums because of different content requirements at different schools, or different teaching methods – e.g., Socratic for legal at some schools, more physical for some programs, more video in some. He says, however, the 2U platform is quickly adaptable. The platform is hosted on Amazon’s AWS.

Regarding the teachers, Kenigsberg says that they had to adjust somewhat to teaching the mobile sessions. He points proudly to one who said “I’m learning to teach again.”

2U provides tech-enabled services through their Post Enrollment Services Group. They actually have advisors who sit in on the first few sessions of a course and give suggestions to faculty. They also help teachers and students with tech issues in using the service, such as use of devices.

Another benefit of mobile, Kenigsberg states, is that they develop a “fairly strong social network”. The social aspect comes from the live sessions among a small group – live class sizes of 11 on average. Thus all the students are equally involved (no one in the “back row”). He also referred to the impact of rich media and text discussion and “crowdsourced” info shared among the group. But he said 2U learned from other social networks and didn’t intend to create their own.

Regarding the technology used in live sessions, Kenigsberg thinks that, while tablets are better suited to longer sessions the smartphone experience, is nonetheless, “fairly equal” to a tablet. Asked for limitations he cites a session they offer with a video linked to an HTML page with slides. On the smartphone they can’t show the two side by side, so the student has to pick one and see that while hearing the audio. He also mentioned that navigation symbols might disappear from the smartphone screen during the session but can be recalled by swiping.

He believes cloud takes the complexity away regarding hardware and the need to build a lot of things from scratch. Now you can use SaaS services and focus on what you do best. He foresees more and more mobile usage, including wearables. Asked about how wearables might influence their products, he mentions some AR type of add-ons, such as an Oculus Rift mask that can enable walking through architectural spaces, from blueprints. He believes these will eventually add dimensions to the learning experience.

Photo element by Nick Keppol from Brooklyn, planet rock (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons