After the first wave of massively open online courses (MOOCs) failed to deliver a revolution in online education through static video content, new providers are emerging. But they are all solving the wrong problem.

When it comes to appealing directly to learners, these offerings tend to focus on edutainment-style delivery of video content by celebrities (such as MasterClass) or optimization for mobile-friendly microlearning (for example, Grovo). In a world with reality TV politicians and a smartphone in every pocket, it makes sense to respond to perceived learner interest with optimizing the who, where, and when of online learning. However, the how is the same as the early days of Coursera and short videos and quizzes with little real feedback for the learner.

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Feedback for practical training has significantly advanced, but only on skills where there are obvious right and wrong answers. Duolingo and Code School deliver high-quality gamified experiences to provide instant feedback, but few opportunities for classroom discussion or paired programming, which tend to be the primary method for expertise at higher levels, respectively. This means that when feedback is provided, it’s still heavily regulated by what is being learned, with more fluid learning experiences left ignored. While it may simulate elements of “learning by doing” as experiential learning in the absence of an educator, currently, the topics are tightly limited.

Ultimately, these two dominant paths for online learning stem from the same assumptions about why a learner is engaging: to be entertained or to practice easily definable skills. Unfortunately, this leaves out the vast majority of human learning experiences. It’s as though saying the only ways to complete college are to attend only 3,000-person lectures by celebrities on your phone or to play an entertaining video game alone.

Here at TechChange, we believe that learning can be micro. And mobile. And it can even be delivered by a celebrity. But most importantly, learning needs to be social. And social learning theory assumptions differ from the two other methods in the following two ways:

  • Learning is active. Cognition, environment, and behavior are all reinforcing. Taking quizzes after consuming a video can only ever be part of the learner experience.
  • Reinforcement is incomplete. While gamification of activities can be valuable, such as for language or programming, they can never fulfill all the needed roles for learning.

Most online learning platforms stop at one or the other: learning is either a lecture/quiz or a video game. Even at TechChange, we award TechPoints for online participation and thoughtful instructional design for self-paced courses. But that’s often not enough.

These are a few other methods we utilize:

  • Small group webinars. To hold discussions with facilitators and share experiences, as well as extract information most relevant for adult learners.
  • Forum posts. To ask and answer questions as well as observe active threads on topics of relevance.
  • Intentional community management. Across multiple platforms, including LinkedIn badging, Facebook alumni groups, and email coordination to center on the platform.
  • Real-world identity. To connect with others.

AI Course Intro GIF

Intro to AI for International Development

But such a learning format, as well as in real life, tend to only work well in small, intentional groups of learners. Short even of Dunbar’s number of 150 individuals, the typical real-world workshop of 50 learners at once is closer to ideal.

In conclusion, education technology is finally reaching the mainstream. And that is a positive development for lifelong learning. But in rushing to make learning easy and entertaining, other providers are failing to make learning social. And that’s problematic for the advancement of the field.

A veteran web developer with the TechChange team, Josh Antonson recently relocated to Mexico City and is working remotely for the next year. Josh, along with our awesome tech team, has helped push our TechChange platform to the next level. We were able to sit down with him before his trip, where he shared some of his experiences over the last year with us.

Q: Could you share a little bit about your background? What originally interested you in TechChange?

I was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. After my 18 years in Illinois, I decided to go to Pittsburgh to study Electrical and Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. During my last year at Carnegie Mellon, I was fortunate enough to spend the summer consulting for a financial organization in the beautiful Micronesian nation of Palau, through a program at my university called Technology and Consulting in the Global Community. After seeing the impact of my work on the organization and the country as a whole, I knew that I had to continue to seek out meaningful work in Technology for Development. Once I discovered TechChange, I knew that it would be a perfect fit and would allow me to continue to do cutting edge work as a software developer.

Josh gonging a successful completion of a user interface project.

At TechChange, we love to celebrate accomplishments. Here is Josh gonging a successful completion of a user interface project.


Q: What are some of your favorite projects that you’ve worked on? Has there been anything in particular that you’ve enjoyed or found interesting?

I feel very fortunate to have worked on a lot of really cool and challenging projects here at TechChange. My favorite project would probably be updating our web application to use Server-Side Rendering in order to improve performance and allow pages to be shared via social media. I won’t get into the technical details too much, but it was really cool to be working with cutting edge technology. It was a pretty substantial endeavor over the course of a few months and I’m very proud of the fact that we were able to roll it out to production without any downtime and without introducing additional errors into the platform. We like to joke that “if we are doing our jobs correctly, the users shouldn’t even notice,” so it was great to actually achieve that with a major feature release.

Q: What’s the team like? What are your favorite parts about working at TechChange?

The team at TechChange is awesome! Not only is the work that I get to do so much fun, but the people that I get to work with are equally as fun. My favorite part of being on a such a small tech team is the opportunity to play a major role in decision making and to constantly be learning new things as a Software Developer. For the most part, I don’t really work directly with people on the Creative or Instructional Design teams, but it’s really cool to see all the awesome work that they are doing on a day-to-day basis. We take food very seriously here at TechChange, so going out to lunch with the rest of the team is something I look forward to on most days. I am also a big fan of board game nights, happy hours, and the amount of effort Nick puts into celebrating birthdays. I couldn’t really imagine a better group of people to work with.

TechChange team watching the eclipse this past August from our office!

TechChange team watching the eclipse this past August from our office!


Q: What is one thing that you’d love to learn or do in the next year?

One of the first things that fascinated me about software development is how web applications are able to scale with an increasing amount of users. As we continue to grow the number of people using our education platform, I’m very excited to take on the challenge of making sure that the performance and reliability of the underlying technology is up to speed. I feel very fortunate to be in a position to play a major role in TechChange’s growth and am looking forward to the next year.

Q: Lastly, what’s something that not a lot of people know about you?

I have a major fear of stickers. I can’t really tell you why or how it started, but I can say that it’s a big-time struggle when I try to eat certain fruits.