The online education platform provider EdCast, Silicon Valley’s latest contribution to the ed-tech space, wants to be simultaneously massive and intimate, private and public -- and preferably to stay out of the spotlight.
In simple terms, EdCast is a service provider built on top of Open edX, the Cambridge, Mass.-based MOOC provider’s open-source initiative. The company will help institutions -- and particularly groups of institutions working together -- build their own online education platforms where they can run multiple instances of the same courses, removing the need for institutions to do the coding themselves.
On Wednesday, the United Nations-backed Sustainable Development Solutions Network unveiled one example of what an EdCast-powered platform may look like. The network, which has more than 200 university and organizational members, now has its own online education portal: SDSN.edu.
Jeffrey D. Sachs, the Columbia University professor of health policy and management who directs the network, will teach the first of three planned courses, titled “The Age of Sustainable Development.” The course launched on Coursera this January, and will be offered again on that platform this fall.
Comparing the Coursera and SDSN.edu signup pages side by side, it would be easy to confuse EdCast for yet another MOOC platform. But in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Karl Mehta, the entrepreneur and venture capitalist behind the company, distanced himself from that comparison.
“Current platforms out there have not been able to support multiple university efforts of the same course,” Mehta said. “They are individual destination sites where institutions put up a course, but they don’t allow multiple institutions to collaborate on one course.... We haven’t seen anyone doing that -- or even the vision of -- connecting both the public and the on-campus.”
Sachs’s course, for example, will be offered as a free, open course to anyone with an internet connection, but also as a credit-bearing course at 38 of the network’s member institutions this fall. Those 38 instances of the course will all be private to allow them to talk to the universities’ learning management systems, yet also open for the students to interact with the thousands who enroll in the public course.
EdCast, Mehta said, wants to be the connective tissue between universities and the software they run on their campuses and “destination sites” such as edX. The company’s branding is all but absent from the sustainability network’s platform, which Mehta said demonstrates that the institutions, not the company, are in charge of the content.
“People don’t come to EdCast.com; people come to SDSNedu.org,” Mehta said. “What you need is an enabling platform that you, not vendors, control. You decide the use cases. You decide the business models. There is no one size fits all.”
That means EdCast won't place a claim on any content that universities upload to their platforms. The policy is meant to encourage institutions to monetize their intellectual property, Mehta said.
Mehta founded the microtransaction company PlaySpan in 2006, then sold it to Visa five years later for more than $200 million. Since 2013, Mehta has been a partner with Menlo Ventures, one of the firms that have invested in EdCast.
While Mehta may not come from a higher education background, he said EdCast’s strategy is a response to the ongoing conversation about online education, which has proven a divisive topic on many college campuses.
“I think there is a legitimate reason for some of the instructors and institutions to be skeptical about online, because it has been attempted to use online to basically take away their IP and their content and make them redundant,” Mehta said. “If I was an instructor, sure, I’d feel concerned about my job. If you’d put my work on some website that aggregated eyeballs, then at some point I would no longer be needed.”
Since EdCast is built on an open-source project, the company won’t sell any software, only services. The company and its 25-person team will charge for hosting and support services, scaling its pricing based on how many students a platform enrolls.
In that sense, EdCast is adopting a business model embraced by other ed-tech companies such as Instructure and, more recently, Kuali.
“It is absolutely a trend toward openness,” Mehta said. “The real focus becomes not on trying to make money on the software, but on really engaging the users and the effectiveness.”
Mehta said EdCast is finalizing deals with “dozens” of groups of institutions, the number of which “may total in the hundreds.” New platform announcements will be spaced out in the coming weeks.