When 12-year-old Mathieu Nebra wanted to learn how to build websites, he hit a wall. None of the books then available were any good, he says, because they contained poorly written explanations and the authors had clearly failed to understand their audience of coding beginners.
So he did what any self-respecting teenager would do: he taught himself as best he could. But he also did something unusual, building his own educational website to pass on what he had learned.
That was in 1999, and now that site has grown into OpenClassrooms, by some measures the largest non-US massive open online course (Mooc), with 3.5 million people seeking out the site for its vocational programmes in IT and digital skills.
So far, most of these students are based in France and Francophone countries. But OpenClassrooms wants to change that, by tailoring its courses to the UK market.
Attracting large numbers of students has never been difficult for Moocs: they were designed from the start to be open to all and to easily accommodate huge enrolments using their video lectures and online materials. The largest, Coursera, had an estimated 17 million students in 2015.
But where OpenClassrooms’ vocational courses are succeeding – and others are struggling – is in completion rates: at least 74 per cent of its premium subscribers finish the course, compared with 5 per cent on average for free Moocs.
Its completion rates are also significantly higher than for other paid-for Moocs, which see an average of 59 per cent finishing, according to a study by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Part of that may be down to its slow and steady evolution, which contrasts with the US sites’ focus on explosive growth. “My friends went to the website and talked to their friends and their friends, and many years later, we have a lot of people coming to the website,” says co-founder Nebra (pictured, inset), speaking on a visit to the UK to discuss digital skills with business and government representatives. “Along the years, it’s evolved a lot.”
Having launched it as a simple, static web page, Nebra and his co-founder Pierre Dubuc added new courses and opened up course creation to users, with moderation undertaken by OpenClassrooms staff (only about 20 per cent of submissions make the cut).
There are now 1,000 courses available, which are organised into paths intended to lead to a particular job in digital industries, ranging from web development to entrepreneurship. “What we want ultimately is for people to find a job in a digital world,” says Nebra. “Even if they’re not programmers, they need to understand and navigate the seas of this new world. We want people to understand this world and learn throughout their lives.”
Key to that understanding, and to the high rates of course completion, is the site’s use of online mentors – a perk of its premium service, which costs £70 or £230 a month, depending on the level of support. Professionals with expertise are paid to help students when they’re struggling and offer advice and encouragement via a weekly video chat.
“The human relationship has been forgotten a lot online; people are expected to learn alone magically and we tend to forget that learning is a fundamentally social process,” says Nebra. “You need to speak with people and you learn with people. So that’s what we try to do online with mentors but also with virtual classrooms, so you have your fellow peers and you learn with them.”
Nebra says that mentors may be working professionals who take a few hours a week to help pass on skills or they may be working more than 30 hours a week mentoring for OpenClassrooms, earning more than £3,000 a month, rivalling salaries in face-to-face teaching.
“We’ve only been growing naturally with mentors recruiting other mentors right now. What we’ve discovered is we can do the same as Uber has been doing for driving,” he says.
“I think there’s a big, big opportunity for us in doing that, because there are a lot of IT-skilled workers that want to give away some time and earn money like that.”
A disruptive vision
OpenClassrooms has received endorsements from the state, with praise from president François Hollande and funding from the government employment agency to provide premium courses to unemployed people for free. It also offers a fully accredited degree in multimedia project management, which provides a level II professional qualification – equivalent to a BA – from IESA Multimedia, a Parisian HE institution that focuses on preparing students for careers in the art world, culture and multimedia.
But Nebra’s vision is, fundamentally, more “disruptive”, as the tech industry likes to put it. “It’s strange, we’ve been working so hard to get state-recognised diplomas because we think that it’s important for the country, but we think ultimately it’s not that important,” he says. “What’s important is your skill set and how you can improve it.”
He wants OpenClassrooms to build a reputation for providing skills that employers want, and jobs that students want. So far, though, the company doesn’t have destination figures that can prove its effectiveness at this, although Nebra is working on it. He says that examples of student success come through from day to day.
“When I got to Google’s offices in Paris, a student was being interviewed by Google the same day and said, ‘Everything I learned, I learned thanks to OpenClassrooms’ – and he got the job. I think he’s a YouTube developer now,” he adds.
The rise of Voocs
While massive open online courses (Moocs) have traditionally focused on academic education led by universities, two British providers have been vocal in advocating an alternative they call “Voocs”: vocational open online courses.
UfI (University for Industry) is using its £50 million trust fund to support vocational education using digital tools, and has developed two Voocs, inspired by data showing that the most enthusiast adoptees of Moocs aren’t school leavers, but instead adult learners and professionals wanting to develop their skills.
The first, Citizen Maths, offers real-world, functional maths, school-delivered through an adaptive system that personalises the course according to the student’s own progress.
Its second is targeted at teachers in FE and adult learning, aimed at developing their skills in combining online learning with face-to-face classroom work.
Virtual College is an e-learning company that has been running for more than 20 years and has partnerships with six FE colleges. It’s older than the concept of Moocs but it has enthusiastically adopted the idea for its online courses in subjects ranging from food hygiene to health and safety, and has trained more than 2 million people.