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Blackboard, Amplify Deals Reflect Shifting Landscape for 'MOOCs'

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A pair of efforts by companies to become more involved in the world of "MOOCs" reflect the extent to which the landscape of "massive, open, online courses" is shifting, with potential implications for the K-12 market.

Blackboard, a provider of learning management systems and other products, announced plans recently to create a free platform for all of its clients to run MOOCs.

The company, founded in 1997 and based in Washington, currently has a client list that includes not only colleges but also districts and schools, said Katie Blot, president of education services for Blackboard. Blackboard officials believe many colleges and schools will choose the company as their MOOC provider because they are already familiar with the company's learning management systems, and have confidence in them, she said.

The company says that institutions that partner with Blackboard on the venture will get to keep "all current and future revenue" associated with their MOOCs that are offered for-pay or for credit. That would appear to distinguish Blackboard's effort from another MOOC provider, Coursera, whose leaders have said that the company is exploring the possibility of generating revenue through fees on MOOC participants who want certificates showing that they have completed those courses. Those revenues would be shared with insitutions, Coursera officials have said.

Any financial benefits to Blackboard from the project are likely to be indirect, and come about if, as Blot put it, "our relationships with our clients grow," and they become increasingly committed to using the company's technology.

Blackboard already supports some MOOCs through existing platforms, Blot said. But the new effort will meet the interests of clients who want separate learning management systems for their MOOCs and other parts of their operations, creating a sort of "walled garden," Blot said. Doing so offers several benefits, such as allowing a school or college to maintain separate systems for enrolled and non-enrolled students, she said.

Meanwhile, another company, Amplify, recently said it is launching its first MOOC, a free, two-semester program focused on Advanced Placement computer science. The course, which will focus on programming and the foundations of computer science, begins in August.

Amplify was launched in 2012 as a re-branded education division of News Corp., of which it is a subsidary. (Disclosure: Larry Berger, the president of Amplify Learning, a division of Amplify, serves on the board of Editorial Projects in Education. EPE is the nonprofit that oversees Education Week.)

"There are potentially hundreds of thousands of high school students who could be successful at AP Computer Science if only they had the chance to take the class," said Amplify CEO Joel Klein, who is also a former chancellor of the New York City school system, in a statement. "We've created something to fix that problem and help get them college credit for little to no cost."

All schools and online providers wanting to offer an AP course have to gain approval from the College Board, the New York-based nonprofit that sponsors the program, said Deborah Davis, the College Board's director of college readiness communications. While the AP program has received interest from universities and AP teachers interested in creating MOOCs for AP courses, Amplify has been the only MOOC provider so far to have been approved through that process, she said.

In this case, the College Board is defining a MOOC as a course that is "entirely free to the student as well as open to any student that wishes to take it," Davis said.

Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for Amplify, declined to speculate on whether the company would launch other MOOCs in Advanced Placement or other areas, but said the reasoning behind choosing computer science as a point of entry was clear: It's a high-demand course in a high-demand field.

Amplify's MOOC will be presented online by Rebecca Dovi, a longtime computer science teacher from Hanover County, Virginia.

In addition to the main MOOC, which is offered for free, Amplify will also launch a program called "MOOC Local," that is expected to produce revenue. MOOC Local is meant to serve students who want or need extra, in-person support while taking the AP computer science course. Amplify will train teachers to work on site as "coaches" in schools with participating students, and will offer additional instructional materials to students taking the course. MOOC Local will be free for its first year of operation, then given to school districts at a cost of $100 per semester, per student, after that.

"We want to see how it goes and see that we have the model and stucture right," Hamilton said.


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