EdX, Facebook, Rwanda, and WhatsApp

The really important story.

March 3, 2014

In 5 years we will look back on February 2014 as important moment in the evolution of technology.

The edX announcement of its partnership with Facebook to collaborate on SocialEDU will mark the beginning of an era when the tech world finally woke up to the edtech potential of the emerging world.

The Facebook $19 billion purchase of WhatsApp, most of which paid for in Facebook stock, will be remembered as part of a larger story of disconnected valuations from business models.   

Of the two Facebook stories, SocialEDU and WhatsApp, I choose to see the SocialEDU news as being more important.

WhatsApp will never be worth $19 billion. But the Facebook stock price that underwrote the purchase will never reflect future profits, so the amount that Zuckerberg and company paid doesn’t really matter.

Facebook’s collaboration with edX to build SocialEDU, however, could have a real impact.

Details about the edX and Facebook partnership to build SocialEDU are still pretty scarce, but here is what I understand.

The goal of the pilot SocialEDU project will be to students in Rwanda with free access to learning materials on a new collaborative mobile learning platform. The vision, as I understand it, is to leverage the power of social interaction and the ubiquity (and affordability) of mobile devices to facilitate impactful and authentic learning.

In the deal, edX is serving as the content provider, and will be working to collaborate on the development of high quality localized educational content. Facebook will be contributing engineering expertise to work with edX (and other partners such as Airtel and Nokia) to build the mobile SocialEDU app. This app will integrate seamlessly with the Facebook mobile platform.

This partnership seems to get a number of things right.  

The incentive for Facebook, (besides doing good things for the world, which I do think was important in entraining into this partnership), is to bring more people into the Facebook ecosystem.  Educational materials are a great way to command the attention of consumers.   It is not necessary for Facebook to even advertise directly in the mobile courses or materials. All Facebook needs to do is to understand the behaviors of the learners, and then leverage this understanding to build compelling services that are amendable to advertising.   

Keeping the Rwandan consumer in the Facebook ecosystem will make it much easier to build loyalty and connectivity to services that can be directly monetized.

Facebook is doubly smart to do this deal with edX, and to focus the development work on the mobile platform.

This is an instance where edX can leverage its experience in partnering with local institutions to develop local educational content. This partnership is fully consistent with edX’s mission to extend new model of learning, and perhaps accreditation, to lifelong learners who have been excluded by legacy systems.

Finally, both edX and Facebook are smart to understand that the real secret sauce here will be the social element.   

Learning is not about transfer of information but about collaboration, sharing, creating and building relationships. 

Leveraging the mobile platform to move learning towards a multi-nodal networked (many-to-many) architecture, and away from a centralized (one-to-many) design, will be essential if postsecondary education is going to scale to meet the demand in the developing world.

We should applaud edX and Facebook on this collaboration, and follow the progress of SocialEDU closely.

The WhatsApp acquisition got all the ink, but it was not real Facebook story in February.


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