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High-quality data is important to growth of online education

Rachel Wheeler Archive

Online education startups are rapidly changing the way people learn. If you want to broaden your intellectual horizons and add knowledge to your repertoire from a wide range of different subjects - ranging from computer programming to Victorian poetry - you no longer need to get into an exclusive college or university. You can learn simply by logging on to a website.

Massive open online courses, or "moocs," are a recent development that's taken the world by storm. Thanks to the availability of online education, intellectually curious people can sidestep the arduous application process and massive expense of enrolling in college. They can simply log on and learn.

The New York Times famously dubbed 2012 the "Year of the Mooc," as startups such as Coursera enabled people to learn from their computers in record numbers. But according to National Public Radio, 2013 was the year online education fell back to earth. The fad began to die out, and faculty members at some universities began to rebel against the rapid expansion of online learning. Without good people, the mooc trend began to dwindle.

So what's to come in 2014 on this front? It's hard to say, but here's one guess - the trend of Web-based learning will rebound, thanks in no small part to an increased level of emphasis on data quality. If they can learn more about what subjects people are passionate about, they can deliver the right services.

Finding the data
NPR reported that while online education may have regressed in 2013, one reason for the decline was a lack of accurate data about how to personalize education and meet students' demands. In other words, there is room to shore up the system's current weaknesses.

"We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don't educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product," said Sebastian Thrun, co-founder of education startup Udacity. "We look back at our early work and realize it wasn't quite as good as it should have been. We had so many moments for improvement."

In the years ahead, education innovators will need to find precise data about the people who use their services. Where are they from? What are they interested in? What factors motivate them to learn?

The more information these leaders have, the more they can improve their practices.

"It's certainly an iteration," Thrun told NPR. "And the truth is, look, this is Silicon Valley. We try things out, we look at the data, and we learn from it."