Abu Dhabi Media Summit panellists say that interactivity and empowerment are key to online learning.

Ben Nelson, founder of new high-end, for-profit online university Minerva, told the Abu Dhabi Media Summit that education companies need the media industry to evolve so that educators can occupy a different sort of role.

“We believe the world of media and technology merged can do a far better job than a small format classroom. [Media companies] should evolve and look at new markets and opportunities to better enable new ways of communication,” he said.

That will enable universities “to pick up where media leaves off.”

Nelson pointed to the University of California’s system offering Psychology 101 to 95,000 students per year. “That’s about a $200m business just for one course at one institution,” he said.

If a media company could “create the greatest psychology course ever” then it could generate billions of dollars across the globe for something that would probably cost less than $1m to create, he predicted.

Online learning

Of course, online learning is already growing. Ed Bice noted that Coursera now has 4 million registered users, which prompted him to say that there is no worry about business models as long as that level of consumer engagement is hit.

“If we’re able to deliver education to the world, there is probably a business model in there,” he added.

The first entrepreneurial boom in online education might come when “the guy who creates engineers making good money because they went through his course. That’s the proof point.”

Students teaching students

Bice said that future education processes could look less like traditional courses. “It can look a lot less like a sage on stage or a professor at a chalkboard, and more like a distribution network of 300,000 students.”

That would enable “students to teach other students,” particularly at a level below higher education. “Students can feel empowered to teach each other.”

Badr Ward, CEO of Lamsa, said: “With media, one of the key components is interactivity and engagement. It’s not one-way media and I think the same applies to education.”


Ward suggested that localisation is key to success, especially in the Middle East. “When you offer something in Arabic, it’s not just one language. It’s different dialects and different regions and different cultural sensitivities.”

Coursera is offering its first full course in Arabic, a 30-hour offering which will be available “soon.” Bice said: “As we start to localise and translate more of this content, there will be an appetite for it, especially computer science and sciences.”

Long before the university level, Ward pointed out that there is great desire for pre-school education service. “That’s when parents are willing to spend more money, before their children go to school.”

Media/Education evolution

Anant Agarwal, president of edX, the global online learning initiative of MIT and Harvard University, said there are many similarities between media evolution and education evolution.

“The news media 30 or 40 years ago was a black and white television, now it’s an immersive experience. With online learning that’s something we can learn from the media.”

He said edX was exciting because it was “highly interactive,” pointing to discussion forums, videos, game-like experiences and sketching. “It’s like how the news media has evolved from talking heads to the modern news approach.”