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Get Your Small Business Onboard the 2012 Online Learning Revolution


The year 2012 likely will go down in history as the year that changed everything in the world of online education. While many forms of distance education certainly existed long before 2012, what was significant about this year was the emerging ubiquity of the “massive open online course” or MOOC. This form of online course is usually credit-less, offers open access via the web, and is, well, massive in terms of the numbers of learners that participate. 2012 has been described as the year of the MOOC and so we may well ask ourselves the practical question of how this trend can benefit the small business owner in today’s competitive technology market?


Surveying the Online Learning Landscape

While the MOOC had existed previously, a defining moment came in Fall 2011 when over 160,000 people from around the world signed up for a course in artificial intelligence offered by 2 Google computer scientists, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, which was offered through Thrun’s start-up Know Labs (now Udacity). Because of the huge appeal of the initial Udacity AI course, two Stanford University computer scientists launched Coursera in January 2012 with a course each in machine learning and databases. Suddenly the revolution was launched and it seemed like everyone was getting on this bandwagon. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which had long been an innovator in online learning through its OpenCourseWare initiative, saw the potential in the market of online education and launched the MITx not-for-profit in December 2011 as an effort to develop a free and open platform for online education. The inaugural course for MIT, 6.002x, Circuits and Electronics, launched in March 2012. Due to the amazing inertia and market potential in this new niche, Harvard joined with MIT in the spring of 2012, rebranded the initiative as edX. UC Berkeley joined edX in the summer and University of Texas has recently announced its participation as well.


Learning portals like Udacity, Coursera, and edX offer a wide range of reputable courses in everything from Neural Networks for Machine Learning to Circuits and Electronics to Solid State Chemistry to practical courses like Software Debugging. All courses are free and taught by experts and world-class faculty, and easily accessible by all who have a passion for knowledge and learning. Some of these portals like Coursera and edX are associated with academic powerhouses like UC Berkeley, Stanford, MIT, and Harvard, whereas other forums like Udacity are not directly associated with a university but offer courses from trained university professors targeted to the technology startup/entrepreneurial minded individual who may be already running a small business.


What an MOOC can mean for your Business Success

The defining character of the online learning revolution over the past 12 months has been the democratization of technology education. The center of gravity of this movement has definitely favored a world audience intrigued with technology innovations . . . one wishing to leverage the knowledge of science and engineering towards building better societies. Courses cross the technological spectrum, with everything from web programming to robotics and machine learning. But for the practical business owner, whose specialization may or may not be technology-related, and whose time is very limited, what can be done to embrace this new learning revolution? One thing is to keep a close eye out for courses that can directly impact your business success. For example, in September 2012 Udacity launched a course on How to Build a Startup which is available on an ongoing basis to help budding entrepreneurs jumpstart their business idea. The value-add of the course is that it’s taught by Steve Blank, a Silicon-Valley serial entrepreneur, who really co-started the Lean Startup methodology. Therefore, the class should prove beneficial to anyone who has either started a business or is contemplating doing so. As a primer, here are the major subject areas covered in the course, as described on the Udacity site:


  • Lecture 1: What We Now Know
  • Why startups are not smaller versions of large companies
  • Lecture 2: Business Models and Customer Development
  • How to articulate and test hypotheses
  • Lecture 3: Value Proposition
  • How do you find your minimum viable product?
  • Lecture 4: Customer Segments
  • How do you find your customer archetype?
  • Lecture 5: Channels
  • How does your product get to customers?
  • Lecture 6: Customer Relations
  • How do you get, keep and grow customers?
  • Lecture 7: Revenue Models
  • How do you make your money?
  • Lecture 8: Partners
  • Who are your partners and suppliers?
  • Lecture 9: Resources, Activities and Costs
  • What is most important for the business?


Knowledge Connections that can Transform your Business

Perhaps the greatest value-add of taking an online learning course is not the course content but the connections you make with other peers. Udacity, for instance, offers meetups in a growing global landscape of cities around the world. “Udacians” as they’ve come to be known, meet to discuss the courses they are taking, exchange ideas, encourage other classmates, and build communities that can be forums for innovation and design partnerships. The same applies to Coursera, where “Courserians” meet virtually and locally around the world to extend their online learning experience further. Imagine taking the “How to Build a Startup” course above and then actually meeting someone in the course that you can collaborate with to spin a cool idea into an innovative new business.



The online learning revolution that has unfolded in the last 12 months provides a pivotal way to enable anyone, anywhere to gain knowledge, skills, and experiences relevant to their field of expertise, without leaving the comfort of the home or place of business. You can also meet new people and develop potential partnerships that can significantly influence and grow your business. It’s now up to you to take the next step . . . enroll in that technology or engineering course that you’ve always been wanting to pursue. If you’ve ever dreamt of starting your own business, now is your chance to learn what it takes to successfully run a Startup from a world expert . . . without mortgaging your home to finance an MBA degree. The democratization of technology and entrepreneurial knowledge is truly revolutionary because it provides free and accessible education to everyone who has a desire to learn. With the new skills you gain online, follow your passion and maybe you too will spark the next technology revolution!


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About Jeffrey Walker

Jeff is a business development consultant who specializes in helping businesses grow through technology innovations and solutions. He holds multiple master’s degrees from institutions such as Andrews University and Columbia University, and leverages this background towards empowering people in today’s digital world. He currently works as a research specialist for a Fortune 100 firm in Boston. When not writing on the latest technology trends, Jeff runs a robotics startup called virtupresence.com, along with oversight and leadership of startuplabs.co - an emerging market assistance company that helps businesses grow through innovation.