Is Upgrad an Upgrade of Online Learning?

Online learning is hardly a new thing. But new startups entering this space continue to be news. I saw a mention of one recently that is based in India - a market I know almost nothing about. Apparently, it is an extremely fragmented space in India. The first article I read lists test prep startups that I have never heard of (Toppr, Embibe, Plancess) and e-learning startups (Edukart, Simplilearn,, Purple Squirrel Eduventures) that I also have never encountered. 

I know from my MOOC work that India is a big user of MOOCs, so the country is a bubbling ecosystem for startups who want to be the next one to disrupt the online education space.

The newest one I have encountered comes from a media mogul with money to venture named Ronnie Screwvala. He is a serial entrepreneur and this latest shot is new enough to not appear yet on his LinkedIn page.

In January 2015, he announced his plans to launch an online company focused on higher education, called U Education. Then, he said the two biggest challenges he saw were a lack of credibility attached to online learning and also employment generation post degrees.

logoThat venture seems to have evolved into UpGrad which launched its first course. Appropriate to Screwvala, it is on entrepreneurship. The 15 week program received 1,600 applications, out of which 500 have been shortlisted.

There is an interesting payment model. The course is priced at $754 and about 100 of these participants have prepaid the course amount. But the first three weeks of the course are being offered to all 500 for free, and interested applicants from the remaining 400 will have an option of paying the amount after the end of three weeks. Test-drive the course.

The course description on the website will not surprise anyone who has taught online: "StartUp with UpGrad - 15-week rigorous online entrepreneurship program providing you with the clarity of thought for your entrepreneurial journey through live lectures, case studies, group assignments, guidance and insights from India’s leading entrepreneurs."

An "angel" investing website describes UpGrad this way: "UpGrad empowers professionals to reach their full potential through rigorous online programs, taught and developed by the world-class faculty and industry. UpGrad is a new education technology company focused on bringing quality online programs for working professionals in India and over time, in rest of Asia in new industries such as Big Data Analytics and E-commerce. The founding team comprises IIT and ISB alumni and we are backed by Ronnie Screwvala (founder of UTV) with a $16M committed capital."

And the site also includes this dig at higher education (apparently written by the UpGrad team): "The university system has not kept with the changing needs of the industry. Our approach is to significantly leverage technology to offer flexible, adaptive and personalised higher degree/ diploma education and to bring the academic rigour from our partnerships with Universities and industry relevant expertise from our partnership with corporates."

Is UpGrad an upgrade on what is already happening in the online learning space?

The Disconnected

I've been thinking lately about a group of people I call "The Disconnected." They include some sub-groups, such as the "cord-cutters." Cord cutting, in a telecommunications context, is the practice of stopping your cable or satellite television service or getting rid of a landline phone. When it comes to cable and satellite services and phone carriers, cord cutters drop them in favor of less expensive options (individual channels like HBO Go, packages like Hulu or TV and video on the Net) and just owning a cell phone or using VoIP (voice over IP).

The main goal of cord cutting seems to be saving money. But there is also a lot dissatisfaction with what is offered on traditional TV services. 

This is a broader trend in technology us, but because I am also interested in education, I am wondering if there is some overlap here.

The disconnected aren't only disconnected from TV and phone lines. They are a group that rents and leases and don’t want to own. They don’t want to own a car or shelves of CDs or physical books and magazines. They are building a sharing economy.

They comprise about 25% of Americans, and according to Forrester Research that number will double in the next ten years.

I bet you are thinking that these are the Millennials. Yes, Millennials are certainly a good number of "The Disconnected," but the age group is widening up and down.

The disconnected encompass the potential students in our undergraduate and graduate programs. The younger age group is being labeled the "cord nevers" because they have never been connected to these traditional forms of media consumption and services and have no plan to ever be connected to them. Forrester Research reports that "By 2025, 50% of all TV viewers under age 32 will not pay for TV as we understand it today."

Will cord-nevers and cord cutters also have a different attitude towards college? I think so.

MOOCs, alternative degrees, self-determined learning and other movements are already ways of cutting cords to traditional education.

More to come on this, as I prepare this topic for a keynote at the Rutgers Online Learning Conference in January 2016.  #RUOnlineCon

Your comments?

Making Space for DIY Innovation on Campus

This week I will be at the NJEDge.Net Annual Conference whose theme this year is Rethink Refresh Reboot.- three things you should get from any good conference. NJEDge.Net is a non-profit technology consortium of academic and research institutions in New Jersey. It supports its members in their institutional teaching and learning; scholarship; research and development; outreach programs; public service, and economic development, and provides our broadband statewide network.

I'll be doing a 2-hour workshop on "Making Space for DIY Innovation on Campus" with Danielle Mirliss from Seton Hall University and Emily Witkowski, from the Maplewood Public Library.

We deliberately avoided saying "makerspaces" in the session title for two reasons. One, people who have heard of the term immediately envision a very techy room with a 3D printer and scanner and lots of computer parts, and although that does sound like a makerspace, that's not all the spaces we are talking about. These spaces can have hand tools, wood and fabrics, sewing machines, laser cutters and many other devices and tools. And they might be called innovation spaces, fabrication labs, rapid prototyping centers or hackerspaces.

These places over the past decade have increasingly increased as community spaces offering public, shared access to high-end equipment and guidance to using them.

You can work with technologies like desktop fabrication, physical computing, and augmented reality in these do-it-yourself workspaces. Naturally, the first subject areas to build and use makerspaces in schools were the STEM areas, but we are also interested in the way they are being used in for applications and research in the humanities and arts.

Our workshop will offer information on creating, branding and maintaining spaces on campus, in libraries or in the community. We will also show examples of DIY projects and discuss their applications to the classroom, and participants will try a hands-on activity.


What Google’s New Open-Source Software Means for Artificial-Intelligence Research

"Google wants the artificial-intelligence software that drives the company’s Internet searches to become the standard platform for computer-science scholars in their own experiments.
On Monday, Google announced it would turn its machine-learning software, called TensorFlow, into open-source code, so anyone can use it.
“We hope this will let the machine-learning community — everyone from academic researchers, to engineers, to hobbyists — exchange ideas much more quickly, through working code rather than just research papers,” Google announced on its website.
Until now, researchers have had access to similar open-source software: Torch, built by researchers at New York University, as well as Caffe and Theano, are also open to everyone. TensorFlow is meant to combine the best of the three, Jeff Dean, a top engineer at Google, told Wired."


Zoom Into Deep Learning Technology

Facebook moves towards being more than just your social graph center, Pinterest wants to be more than a image social-sharing site. More Google than Facebook, even though Facebook seems to want to be Google sometimes.

Pinterest has more than 100 million users and was the early leader in having people share images and tag and categorize them for others to find.

But what if you see something you're interested in on Pinterest, but you don’t know how to find it in real life, or you don't even what that item is called. Examples that Pinterest gives on their blog are that "perfect lamp hiding in a Pin of someone’s living room, or maybe a random street style shot with the exact shoes you’re looking for."

Unlike Facebook's similar technology, Pinterest is not looking to recognize people/faces. This is all about things.

If you see something in a Pin that you want to learn more about, you tap the search tool in the corner, select the part you’re interested in and it will go to other Pins just like it.

The obvious monetizing aspect to this is to allow you to zoom in on that lamp, find out its name and where you can buy it. 

Pinterest's fledgling visual search engine (it calls it “a discovery engine”) pushes us further towards the our visual interactions with devices and perhaps with the world. 

I do like that Michael Lopp, Pinterest’s head of engineering, has said that “This is building serendipity,” 

For the near future, I would expect this new feature to help Pinterest sell advertising via the 50 billion images/pins on the site. They have only indexed about a billion of those images so far. 

But what else might this technology be used for? Does it have educational applications?