Into Classrooms, and Beyond


classThe next big business opportunity for biotech researchers may be quite close to the classroom. The Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) revolution is here and it is bringing with it many new possibilities.

As organizations like the Coursera consortium have already shown, there is a huge potential for reaching a mass market through on-line learning. Coursera is a private, for-profit entity that partners with universities and organizations to offer educations courses online, for free. It was founded about a year and a half ago, and since then Coursera-affiliated educators have taught more than 300 courses to more than 4 million students around the world, including one course that attracted a whopping 180,000 students.

Its main source of revenue is tuition fees from students who take the courses for credit (without credit, courses are free). But these are the early days. There are already a number of additional revenue generators such as affiliate marketing with publishers and other organizations. One can expect many innovative business models to emerge as this unprecedentedly large, global and internet-savvy market becomes more and more engaged.

One new life sciences course being offered by Coursera is a good indicator of the kind of subject material that has both great educational value and entrepreneurial potential – What A Plant Knows. This course is being offered by Tel Aviv University Prof. Daniel Chamovitz, starting October 1, and is expected to reach 30,000 students.

It’s based on the bestselling book of the same name written by Chamovitz, a well-known plant genetics researcher, who was the first to discover that the COP9 Signalosome protein complex found in plants is also essential for development of animals and thereby may be involved in a number of human diseases, including cancer.

Prof. Chamovitz’s MOOC course promises to offer a kind of added value that neither readers of his book nor participants in his regular TAU course would receive: Working with a TAU video crew, Prof. Chamovitz will enable students to make virtual visits to his lab and observe on-going experiments. Future plans include actually involving the students in the research – the prospect of accessing 30,000 or so participants suggesting all kinds of tantalizing new research paradigms.

In addition to students, the course organizers, based on past experience, expect a significant number of university lecturers and researchers to also enroll, giving them a chance to see a colleague in action and to learn from his methodology. This type of demographic opens up marketing possibilities, as does information about the students’ country of origin.

In the case of What A Plant Knows, the majority of students are expected to not be local Israelis. The top four countries with students showing interest in the course are the US, India, Canada and Brazil.

Researchers who may have felt that it would be necessary to move away from teaching in order to get into the business world, may now find that being involved in this new form of  teaching brings business opportunities right into their classroom.

It is worth noting that many of the Coursera courses aren’t given by university lecturers – museum curators, for example, are teaching art-related topics. So researchers may be able to leverage this platform to teach subjects that don’t fit a normal university curriculum.

Better yet, they may find that completely new avenues are opened up to them by being able to access such a large number of people in a single virtual classroom.

And because those taking these courses without credit can do so for free, both the world of education and business stand to benefit.

Bernard Dichek

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