Blog post 2A: Competitive review
Odem, an on-demand marketplace that positions itself as a departure from old-world where educators can craft their own curriculum and sell it to prospective students via an exchange of cryptocurrency “Odem Tokens”, and also offers the ability to award students with a certificate recorded in the Ethereum blockchain for later proof of completion.
Repl.it Classroom is a fairly new offering from Repl.it, an online programming environment that supports many programming languages while also offering a cloud environment for building and deploying frameworks to the web. Classroom offers features like assignment building, grading and notifications for students and has pricing plans that range from free to $1/student/month.
Mentive, an online student-mentor connector that focuses on promoting subject matter experts into guiding small student classes across the globe with comprehensive courses scheduled to fit the student’s time zones. Mentive positions itself as introductory learning platform organized around providing guidance to students as well as “boot camp” style courses.
I do not have an accurate picture of this ecosystem to be able to provide a guess as to how much market size my identified competitors have. The online education industry is very fluid at the moment with players of all sizes and forecasts that the market will reach a size of ~$300B/yr by 2023, up from ~$160B in 2017. There are companies in the space that feature prominent names such as Apple, Microsoft and Adobe, the “Big Three”: Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, to medium players I’ve never heard of and the smaller upstarts like the three I’ve listed above. Further segmentation will lead to providers of synchronous, asynchronous and hybrid solutions, specialized niches like test preparation and remedial education, corporate training providers and others who target specific markets in both the US and worldwide.
In terms of language, Odem appears to be targeting a segment of the population who find affinity with non-traditional approaches to the establishment such as fans of cryptocurrencies and “the blockchain.” Both of these concepts are good in themselves and I would lying if I hadn’t thought of how to use both in the context of providing online education but the prospective student should at least be able to grasp the essential concepts of what the currencies and recording systems are and how they would benefit them in the longer term versus being just a foil against currently established norms and methodologies in the education space. Repl.it doesn’t really do a great job of communicating what they offer beyond a brief explanation of what their tools are and how they work. I’ve been using their tools for a year now and I love them, but they were something I understood already whereas an educator might need something stronger than what they currently have in order to teach a programming language on it’s own without having to deal with integrating yet another third part tool into their school’s offering, Canvas in the case of the Extension School. Mentive uses a more community oriented language, very similar to what one can expect from bootcamp-style operators. They’re usually smart people in their field who’ve set off to circumvent the traditional education process and provide what amounts to timed vocational training in the hopes that the student will have absorbed enough knowledge during the course to become proficient enough to land a job in the technology sector. Mentive aims to provide guidance to students following MOOC courses, so it seems like a weird combination of unaligned activities.
I feel like what I’m trying to achieve is to provide students with tools they can use in their existing workflow backed up by a network of educators who have a vested interest in the outcome of the education they provide and not one where they have to manage the tedious administrative tasks that come along with online courseware. In a perfect world I build a company that would feature the best of my three competitors: the tools from Repl.it, Odem’s certification and payment strategy and Mentive’s network of education providers. Everyone in this industry is chasing after market segments of their own choosing, whether that be non-traditional, remote, remedial or returning students but at some point the focus needs to be tuned into providing services for students and educators who are already enrolled and employed by the traditional institutions of higher learning. The marketplace may be changing in how we deliver education but the reality remains that these students will need be prepared to enter the workforce with more skills than just excelling at online quizzes and I feel that by simply boiling a course down to its essentials and offering it as a service at a substantial discount is not a long-term strategy. I see my project more as an adjunct to how students are using their tools for learning versus a standalone offering competing with a traditional college-level institution.
While all three of my competitors are fairly new, if I know one thing to be true it’s that people love Repl.it. It seems like they’re adding new features and languages every month, have a great community vibe where their small team engages with users online and communicates changes and issues very well. It helps that they’re a small team but in the developer community many a success has been found through word-of-mouth and the Repl.it is surely taking advantage of that. Unfortunately for Odem, they seem to attract folks with more of interest in cryptocurrencies and blockchain than education. I get the feel that this is an opportunity play for the VC crowd to get into something/anything related to the hype in cryptocurrencies and once the money is really burned down there will be a clearing of the decks in the industry and those folks who focuses on just making money won’t survive. Mentive itself has not generated a lot of press and looks to be just starting to find its legs. Their offerings do not yet appear to be as solid as one would expect from similar offerings like Pluralsight, Udemy or Codeacademy but as I mentioned before, this is a rather young company in terms of experience although they have similar offerings as Google Helpouts, which was eventually shut down as it was unable to generate the revenues thatGoogle would’ve desired.
As a criterion, if I were to establish what I would consider to be the differentiator between what my project would have and what my competitors possess it would have to be that my tools can be used by both teachers and students in their normal workflow outside of the classroom. As of right now, only Repl.it does that but they do it in the context of a web-based IDE. Yes, I use it all the time as tool for quick problem solving without having to set up an environment on my own machine but they’re not going to complete replace the IDE that I use for school or work. Odem is strictly a marketplace where educators and students come together and hash out a deal. As of now, there appears to no back office tools for teachers and one would guess that outside of collecting a transaction fee and selling their own branded tokens, all parties are on their own. Mentive does offer live video sessions but these do not go beyond the basics of using a third party tool to facilitate them, and their scheduling features would not be something that would enter my particular workflow however there are certain job descriptions where calendar management is or would be the preeminent task.
Looking at my own project, I think the core opportunity that I identified was finding success in making life easier for both the teacher and the student. To set out and say that I’m going to build X because everyone I surveyed said X is what they wanted is taking a clown car approach that while good enough is probably going to be mismatched if not obsolete when launched. Looking at Mentive, they align very well with the person-to-person approach that I see as a positive in the tutoring aspects of the project but if I’m to be honest, success would come sooner if an institution were to adopt my tools and incorporate them into their courseware versus me having to build a separate business recruiting, training and retaining tutors, which I don’t identify with being a core feature of my project. As I said before, Repl.it has a lot of strength in the tools their building and from the looks of it they’re trying to align themselves with an education provider of some sort but they may still be looking to do it all on their own, before they are bought by a bigger company.
Blog post 2B: Self-reflection
The essential strengths that I bring to this project are the twenty years of experience I have designing, building and testing web applications. While the details may not be apparent to the layperson, this includes project management, information architecture, visual design, user interaction, HTML-CSS-JS development, framework and database development, mobile application development, and probably some other skillsets that may not even be apparent to myself.
In thinking about how I would want to build this project, my initial thoughts are that at its core it would consist of a Node/Express/Graphql driven API for the back end, complete with authentication and session management that could be powered on the front end by either a React or React Native application for both desktop and mobile. The desktop version would be the most featured and the mobile application would be pared back somewhat as we currently see in our versions of Canvas. Essentially it is a Canvas clone but hopefully will provide each customer with a better experience. I also spent two recent years doing this very same kind of work for Cengage Learning, a digital education publisher, so I have some understanding of the industry.
There are a couple of key items in that setup where I would learn to acquire new skills or at least update those that I already have and that is in database design, mastering the Graphql specification and implementation, and my old nemesis: authentication. I think that I’m proficient enough in the remainder of the skilled areas to make a good effort at it without too much trouble on my part.
Opportunity wise, there are a lot of players both giant and microscopic in the space that it is quite daunting but when you look at how large the market is in financial terms, ~$200B will attract people of many talents and there is no way that every area is going to be rightfully covered, so it may come out that I discover an underserved niche and pivot in that direction. Looking at the landscape now is somewhat anxiety-producing but we’ll see where I go with it.
The main project risk is that I completely miss the market in terms of tool integration. This is an initial experiment so I doubt that I’ll be able to generate a hit in one go, but the point is to capture enough audience to generate feedback that can be used constructively further down the road. Outside of Graphql, my technology selection is fairly conservative in terms of market acceptance so in that sense I don’t foresee any limitations other than my skillset.
Life does happen when you’re in grad school and therefore I have been lucky enough to find myself positioned to not experience sudden impacts to my schedule outside of any unexpected tragedy that we’re all susceptible to. I have a steady job that doesn’t require engagement beyond forty hours, my lease is timed to expire after the course if over (I pat myself on the back for unconsciously planning that one) and as a single person with no kids my duties outside of work and school are very casual and not time consuming in the least.
All in all I feel good about the technological approach to my project, which in itself would make for a good capstone, but the only piece where I’m not that confident is in making it a business service and the possibility that my selection for an initial tools set will miss the mark completely. It would not be the end of the world if this were the case but at the moment I have to put aside any feelings of being David versus Goliath and simply focus on delivering a well designed and built product instead of worrying about pivoting while I’m still sane enough to do it.