Top Tier vs Low Cost in Education

Top Tier vs Low Cost in Education

Online education only seems to know two markets these days. Whether you look at companies who offer solutions for individual or lifelong learners, but also in the K-12 space and higher education you’ll basically see a ton of free or very low-cost products and solutions, and then there are the offers positioned at the complete opposite of the spectrum, top tier and cost-intensive.

The market in the middle seems to struggle increasingly if it is still existent at all. Let’s take a look at some examples from the different segments within online education.

When we look into learning languages on the Internet we have had the high-priced solutions such as Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone. And they did very well for years with their approach of catering to learners who could either simply afford that software or CD Roms or who saw it as an investment in their future and career and therefore paid the price.

For some time at least there was obviously also missing competition. This eventually changed a great deal with the emerging space of language learning communities such as Livemocha, busuu and some other players on the web some four years ago. Not only did they offer a more modern understanding of what users language learners on the Internet want these days, namely instant feedback, social interaction with other learners, game elements and a reward system, but they also shook up the established players. Their business models are almost the complete opposite. A good amount of the features can be used completely for free, so some users may never pay a dime but the majority will buy one or the other vocabulary package or application in addition to the free community features.

I’m not saying that a Rosetta Stone wouldn’t make good products, I even frequently read good ratings from happy users. There is still a market for these high-priced solutions. What these new players have caused them is to innovate, to bring out new versions with new features faster which I essentially see as a good thing. Their customers benefit from that. On the other hand, we could learn that there is money to be made at the other end of the scale. With their millions of users language learning communities are able to make money even if they only convert a small percentage of their learners into paid customers.

My second example are so called student or learning management systems (LMS), a market that had long been reigned by Blackboard with an almost ubiquitous presence in schools worldwide and putting lots of effort (and money) into marketing.

Certainly, the system doesn’t make the freshest impression from a design standpoint and users have to learn how to use it which suggests that the user experience must not be great, but it has had its success (and quite a bit of it) over the years. In a time when developing technology solutions becomes less cost intensive and where you don’t necessarily need an army of marketing people anymore to get into schools, this market was clearly ready for disruption. It has almost got a bit crowded. New competitors are popping up like mushrooms and want their piece of Blackboard’s pie. Most of them are specialized in either offering a solution for K-12 or higher ed, but what they all have in common is that teachers, professors or even students act as their ambassadors and recommend the products, not marketing people.

Again, if we Blackboard as the top tier solution here, names like Moodle as the open source alternative, but also Edmodo or Coursekit, the social LMS, come to mind. Now, Blackboard has the money and also intelligence to react toward these new dynamics in the market. Their recent acquisition of Moodlerooms, a company that offers solutions for Moodle and thus makes it more accessible for the average user might have been only the beginning.

Similar to my first example, the established player had to innovate but this also seems to leave no room for a fair-priced solution in the middle. You either offer your solution completely for free, what most of the startups in that space decided to do until now at least or you go for a very low price. The only other alternative is to go for premium pricing.

To round this picture, my last example comes from higher education, a very interesting part of education where lots of things are going on. I may not be the first one to consider this, but it caught my eye that they average college or university seems to vanish somehow.

As education online is my field of expertise, I’m going to concentrate on some of the dynamics in this emerging field rather than traditional higher education.

For some years now, we see the Open University (OU) and more recently also the University of the People (UoPeople) building and growing their offer for very reasonable prices to avoid the word low-cost in this context because of its negative connotation. In the case of UoPeople we even speak of a tuition-free university which means that depending on where the student comes from he/she has to pay a reasonable fee whose amount varies due to the country of residence for the administration only. The academic body works benevolent. Both strong in the developing world, although it wouldn’t be fair to reduce them to that, particularly in the case of the Open University as it was funded by Royal Charter in the UK. Both offer attractive solutions for people to get a degree online who would otherwise not likely have the chance to study.

Contrary to that we see the Minerva University develop. With its aim to become the home for elite students from around the globe and recently closing a funding round of $25 million we still have to see what exactly it will be. At the moment, their communication is not yet very elaborate though the team is impressive. Minerva wants to admit their first class in 2014 giving students the opportunity to learn from the best professors aiming to disrupt the elite higher education market.

It looks as if it’s going to result in the question low-cost or top tier once again. The average university seems to get lost.

Picture: George Washington via Shutterstock

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Credit: Gerald Schömbs / Unsplash
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
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