Human Learning #41 – Of Language, Chatbots and Ethics

Human Learning #41 – Of Language, Chatbots and Ethics

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November 14, 2018

5 minute read


Welcome to issue #41, the two thrusts of which drill down on the tech of Edtech. The first part is my article on Duolingo, which argues MOOC platforms will find it difficult in some key areas to compete with specialised platforms who develop technology that caters to their subject area. The second is on chatbots, arguably one of the areas where MOOC platforms could be innovating. The key advantage of chatbots is improving user experience (instant answers) in turn improving retention and reducing the rerun cost of a MOOC as staff time is reduced.

Top Story

Coursera launch Online Masters in Computer Science and Information Technology – Key points – the Masters is from University of Pennsylvania (i.e. Ivy League) and has no prerequisites, making it unique among Ivy League Masters in Computer Science. The course will cost $23,600 (a third of the on campus price) and is partially self-paced taking 20-40 months to complete, the first cohort will be 100 people in January. Coursera now have 10 degrees (mostly Masters) making for a formidable competitor to 2U. As I’ve mentioned previously Coursera’s advantages should be a lower cost of acquisition (they recruit just over half their graduates from the MOOC platform). A key question is how they structure the deals – 2U make a typical OPM upfront investment which they recoup back via ⅔ revenue share over a 10 year contract, which universities are hesitant to enter. If Coursera offer something more versatile and can leverage their existing relationships that should make them a more compelling option than 2U. – here and here 

State of the MOOCS

Israeli Government launches its own MOOC platform – The platform will be built off Open edX #brutalist.  The platform will be in Hebrew and Arabic, the former is a first with MOOC participating Israeli universities currently publishing in English – here

Edtech’s Business 

Skillshare raises $28m($42m to date) as it seeks profitability – The platform has 22K clases and works via a subscription model of $15 per month of $99 a year.  As the name suggests it puts students and teachers together for online courses – originally it aimed to allow them to coordinate for in-person classes. It has 5m users and 6K classes. Skillshare will use the money to drive product development and international expansion. Their ‘moat’ is not good, Udemy compete in this space and they can really only differentiate on product or on the deal they offer teachers  – here

Ed’s Tech

Imperial’s Edtech lab deploys chatbots to their MBA programme –  These work in a similar way to the Georgia Tech chatbots, they focus on FAQs and have a bank of previous Q&As (3K in total and expanded with each programme), using fuzzy matching the chatbot finds the closest answer and returns that to the student. At present this isn’t much more than a glorified FAQ but it’s iterating rapidly. Firstly FAQs alone can save the academics and support staff a lot of time that could be better spent elsewhere or reduce the operating labour cost of the MOOC. Secondly, if the student is asking an academic question e.g. ‘How does a price mechanism work?’ The bot can ask follow up questions to support understanding e.g. What are the factors that could affect the price mechanism demand/supply side – here 


More Social Source Code

Whether they will be sufficient is yet to be decided but in both business and now in technology, ethics and social good are being given rising prominence. Featured in this newsletter previously was Larry Fink’s now famous letter. Larry Fink is CEO of Blackrock investment, the world’s largest investment fund ($6.3 trillion) Fink’s letter in effect said Blackrock would require companies it invested in to live up to social standards be they environmental, worker protection, taxes etc.

Although Fink has yet to define what those standards are and it could just be clever PR it could also represent a more structural shift in the way businesses operate. The dominant model prior to this was that governments and businesses operate antagonistically – businesses will seek to maximise the profit and governments will regulate the space they can do so (e.g. preventing environmental abuse, labour laws to protect employees rights etc).  Fink’s letter implies that now they expect companies to not simply operate to the limits set by government but to incorporate social goals into the DNA of the company itself. Fink’s letter was likely driven by a perceived failure of the government to sufficiently regulate company excesses in an era of Climate Change, the financial crisis and wealth inequality – issues which left unchecked could destabilise the global economic system – a sub-optimal outcome for all concerned.

What has any of this got to do with coding? As has been widely documented, coding (and specifically Silicon Valley) is going through its own moral crisis. Facebook, Google and Twitter have become critical infrastructure in society and their role in both Brexit but more acutely, Trump, has created a crisis of conscience in the valley with Facebook employees quitting over Cambridge Analytica and Google being forced to reconsider military contracts.

One Computer Science graduate at Stanford has taken this a step further and sought to bake social good into the education itself. Vicki Niu, a Stanford Computer Science graduate created CS + Social Good – an extracurricular club that discuss ethics and social projects for Computer Scientists. The club doesn’t just focus on using CS for social problems, they diversity in tech employment and management as well as ethical behaviour. The club is now a supplemental module as well as providing fellowships for Computer Scientists to do summer placements on social projects. It’s influence is spreading to Harvard, MIT and UC Berkeley among others – here

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Human Learning is a newsletter written by Chris Fellingham. You can signup for it here and find other Edtech articles by Chris Fellingham on his medium page