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Thought Leaders in Online Education: Sean Brown, SVP of Education, Sonic Foundry (Part 6)

Posted on Saturday, Jun 7th 2014

Sean Brown: My personal belief is that we are in the early days of what education content can do for entrepreneurs worldwide. I believe it is a bonanza – a green field – of opportunity to sit down and think about the education that they have received, what they think is valuable, the parts of the world that they want to change.

Sramana Mitra: I’m going to synthesize for my audience a few things that come to my mind. It’s not actually a big of a bonanza for entrepreneurs as you’re saying because entrepreneurs have to solve specific problems. Where you’re actually right is that if institutions go in this direction, they do have the opportunity to do distance learning. Not every institution does distance learning today although more and more are doing it. That is potentially a business. Some do it from a more non-profit community service point of view and some do it as a business opportunity. That business opportunity is in the educational institutions not the entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs can provide the shovels to run those businesses but the opportunity is not necessarily with entrepreneurs. As a matter of fact, Coursera and Udacity don’t have very good business models.

Sean Brown: I have to agree with you. You’re probably right, it’s not a bonanza but I look at the other side and I go, “There’re huge opportunities with this content.”

Sramana Mitra: There’s a huge opportunity in democratizing education – that I’m in full agreement with you. But when it comes to how entrepreneurs take advantage of that opportunity, that is a more constrained problem.

Sean Brown: I believe that what I’m saying, and it sounds very arrogant on my part, is that the best business ideas of what to do with education content by entrepreneurs have yet to be tried. I do not hold Khan academy, Udacity, or Coursera as very sophisticated attempts.

Sramana Mitra: Of course not because, first and foremost, Khan Academy is non-profit. They don’t have to make money. My definition of entrepreneurship is we are building a business. My organization is a business. We have to make money. Coursera and Udacity are heavily venture-funded companies without a solid business model. To me, that is a square peg trying to fit in a round hole.

Sean Brown: You and I are in violent agreement. You just made my point far more articulately than me. What I am saying is that I believe and I have faith that there are great opportunities to make money that uses education content as its source.

 Sramana Mitra: I’m going to be in full agreement with you on that. The question is who’s going to make that money. I think the intellectual property on that content sits mostly on the university’s side. There are a bunch of for-profit businesses that are doing very well if you look at the whole category of online programming learning. Codecademy, Pluralsight, TrainSignal, these guys are making good money. We run an entrepreneurship online including a Khan Academy-style video lectures and case studies kind of program. There’s a lot of innovation in that model. That’s a for-profit business. There are for-profit business models that are working and Khan Academy is not one of them.

Sean Brown: Then we do agree. I probably am just hyperbolic in saying it’s a bonanza, but we both agree that there is a modest to good opportunity out there.

Sramana Mitra: Yes. I think the whole user experience of online learning is still in the very early stages. For our program, every week we do online mentoring sessions over Webex. We run them like reality shows. Your discussion about the fusion of education and entertainment is like a reality show-style education. Yes, we are experimenting with all these different constructs and formats. That stuff is still up in the air because it’s new.

Sean Brown: I couldn’t agree with you more. I look at situations that are still starting out. I see opportunities to go by a class that I want to watch. I see opportunities to register. I believe this is a case that you talked about for your entrepreneurs, a member, and pay dues. I’ll replace that regularly with online education that I might be interested in.

This segment is part 6 in the series : Thought Leaders in Online Education: Sean Brown, SVP of Education, Sonic Foundry
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