Inside e-education with a co-founder of Udemy

Inside e-education with a co-founder of Udemy

I’m one of the co-founders of Udemy, an online learning platform with more than 150 thousand courses and 50 million users. I hold the roles of CTO and CPO and have witnessed how a small idea started, evolved and became a multibillion-dollar company. Let me give a quick history of Udemy with some of my insights. Udemy’s roots are going back to Turkey 2008 when we started a project to create a live classroom application to help Middle East Technical University Technopark, a technology development special zone supported by Turkish government, to connect the local tech entrepreneurs with experts and angel investors across Europe and help them learn more about entrepreneurship. Yes, I was one of these entrepreneurs. I remember myself attending those live sessions and taking notes.

We designed and created a live classroom application that has features like video conferencing, presentation sharing, interactive whiteboards, polls and quizzes. It has a responsive design layout and modular app structure where every piece can talk to another one independently with an API which gives a chance to create different modules, such as a chess board module to enable participants to play chess live, or a chemistry set to do experiments in the classroom app. It gave us an unlimited space so we can create new tools and simulations for every kind of education material. This was one of the first insights I found interesting about how technology can enhance education by enabling us to create new tools without physical borders. You don’t need to mimic the classroom, but you can reimagine it. I believe there will be lots of successful companies in the future with the focus on reimagining the teaching and learning techniques with the use of technology. But it was still 2008 and there were important fallbacks about the project like low internet speed, latency problems and ugly web cameras. Even supporting more than twenty people to go live was a big issue, streaming technologies were very basic, and the users’ connections were slow and unreliable. The live sessions were really limited to a small number of people and the quality of the sessions were not good enough. The idea was there, having experts sharing their knowledge with the other people, but the timing of it and the tool was not quite there yet.

How could we reach more people to show this content now? As an obvious choice, we started to record live sessions so it can be served to more people later. Right? We implemented and even created the first version of Udemy that you can schedule live classrooms, record them and serve them for a bigger audience. In theory it sounded great but there was one critical aspect about it. Why do you want to serve a live classroom record if you can serve video lectures prepared by the same experts? Is the content more important or the interaction? Actually, these two media were different. If you want to serve the content live with the focus on interaction with the participants, the live classroom is more suitable, but if you want to serve high quality content only to share the knowledge, video lectures are the way to go. At that time, we were focusing more on helping experts reach more people, but we started to see another important part of the problem. More audience means you need more structured and higher quality content. So how can we do this?

There wasn’t really a good place on the internet at that time that gave people the basic tools like video streaming, curriculum editor, assessment tools, student communication and content sharing to create an online course. That was one of the main areas that we need to focus on more. Yes, technology can enhance education, but online education still had one primary problem, there wasn’t a good easy-to-use free platform that you can teach. So here is the new plan. Let’s create this platform.

Meanwhile we, me and my cofounder Eren Bali, were working on this platform and trying to have a living with the side projects in Turkey which was not going well. We couldn’t find enough investor interest, so we decided to move to Silicon Valley. We started to work in a startup as software engineers and gained a great understanding of how the startups work and learned about our previous mistakes. We realized that we were focusing more on features we want than the users’ needs. This is still one of the biggest mistakes most of the startups are doing, and almost every successful entrepreneur gives the same advice for the new ones: ask and listen to your user. We also teamed up with Gagan Biyani, our cofounder, and we were ready to try it in the US.

Our goal was to give the best and easiest tool to the instructors so they can create a well-designed online course for free. So, we started to develop Udemy’s first course creation platform and course taking experience while pitching to the investors and doing fund-raising.

After we got funded, the next and harder problem started, showing all these plans work correctly. We encountered lots of problems and tried to find solutions, some of them work and some of them, even the most promising ones, didn’t work. As we get more and more courses created by the instructors, we became the biggest education platform on the internet. Today you can find any subject on Udemy to learn.

When Udemy started in 2009, there were not enough players focusing on online education. Nowadays the online education market is not only just getting better in terms of quality of the platforms but also creating more and more niche companies focusing on one type of subject like coding or art training or only university level education. This is very promising, vertical growth is going to make the market bigger and even open new horizons.

The internet and technology started to change education as same as how it changed all the other industries. First, it creates the fastest highway that the information flows freely. Then it enabled a vast market by connecting virtually everyone. And finally, it changes and enhances the industry. We saw this is happening in lots of industry, and the change is already happening in education too. We couldn’t reach lots of experts from any of the subjects easily before. We were limited with what we have and had to stick with it. Today we passed this step already and we can find very well-structured online courses in any subject from any expert we are looking for. Now what we are seeing everyday is more experts, more instructors going online and creating courses. When we create more advanced tools, they will create more deep, more engaging, more personalized education material. I believe the next decade is going to be very big for online education.

There are a few pain points about online education today. First of all, there is not enough collaboration in the learner side. We don’t have tools to connect the learners easily. The communication tools available today are not designed for the learning experience. Our learning experiences are deeply embedded into interactions. Schools are not only places to learn but also to socialize. This socializing aspect is one of the main reasons to make them successful enough. Second, in a well-designed education system you need to have a feedback loop. Today we are seeing instructors with millions of students taking their courses. It is almost impossible that one instructor can answer all the questions. We need to create new technologies that can support learners by imitating and even enhancing the feedback loop. And lastly, we need to reimagine our education systems as it has a bad image on the majority of humanity that it is hard, boring and not efficient. We are still mimicking in-class education. We are not changing it yet but make the current knowledge accessible to everyone. This is a good step, but we have more advanced technology and tools today. We have amazing production tools today but still don’t use them enough. Think about wearing your VR glasses and live an historical war and experience it firsthand. Why not? We know how to entertain people. Why is our education content still boring? Why don’t we have Netflix for education which is globally very successful? We know more about ourselves. The big data and the machine learning enable us to know more about ourselves but our education material is still the same for every other person. Why?

Epidemic has changed the world a lot and one of the main industries it shakes was education. We had schools closed, and the students stay at home. They experience a very different way of learning now and the majority of the people are not happy about it.

We were not ready for it technologically and psychologically. For instance, we tried to use the communication tools designed for the companies to have meetings. We need more appropriate tools and I believe we will start seeing new products designed for only education purposes.

After the epidemic I am sure we are going to see the schools use more online tools and integrate into their education systems. We are not going to think about any school system that doesn’t have online elements in it. Technology enables and enhances, and the schools are realizing it more now. In the future schools will be more hub-like places that enable the students to interact with each other, collaborate together and establish their feedback loops with the teachers and other students.

I think one of the coolest online courses I took was a mindfulness class. It was a great course that opened a new door for me. There were good lectures from a great instructor. Content was very well designed, and I highly enjoyed it. But is it good for everyone? For this specific subject I liked the video lectures. You can today go to app stores for your mobile phone and install an app designed specifically to teach you mindfulness by creating a great experience by using technology. This is where online education is going today. Well designed reimagined personalized education material in any subject.

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