European MOOCs focus on Quality, US MOOCs on Cost – Interview with iversity’s Hannes Klöpper

iversity which had started as a “collaboration network for academia” back in 2008 soon pivoted to become one of the emerging European MOOCs. And though the German startup cannot compete with the massive funding rounds of US-based platforms like Coursera, Udacity or edX, iversity’s co-founder and CMO Hannes Klöpper sees some distinct differences that give European MOOCs advantages in their local markets.

As iversity is currently working on the launch of its 10 MOOC Fellowship courses, I wanted to catch up with Hannes and see where iversity is headed in the coming months.

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Germany: Baden Württemberg declares Social Media Ban in Schools over Privacy Concerns

In Germany data privacy protection is taken very seriously. With the NSA leaks it has become once again one of the hot topics of the upcoming Bundestagswahl (federal elections) but discussions around the topic are basically held on a monthly basis.

Yesterday the ministry of education in Baden Württemberg sent out a letter to all teachers in the state in which it explained that the use of social media in education is banned. Needless to say that this decisions has stirred up some passionate discussions. Today the ministry underlined that the letter does not set up new rules but simply clarifies already existing rules and regulations for the use of social media in the public education system of the state.

There are three main issues. The first one has to do with the location of the servers that host the social networks and therefore also host the data of teachers and students. Those servers are for the most part outside of Germany and hence usually in countries that have a less strict approach to data privacy.

Secondly, social networks tend to be advertising supported, hence the user pays for the service through sharing her personal data. Especially Facebook seems to breach a couple of terms in the German Telemediengesetz according to Jörg Klingbeil, appointee for data privacy protection in Baden Württemberg.

Last but not least, the ministry and teachers who also took part in the creation of the guidelines fear that students who are not using social networks like Facebook might get disadvantaged when teachers and students use those platforms to create study groups or use them to coordinate school related events and such.

Of course, this letter of advice leaves open a lot of questions and creates new grey areas. For example, is it OK for teachers to use Twitter to have an #edchat after school in which they naturally talk about school related topics. The only way teachers were on the safe side would then be to not use social networks at all which is also the worst of options.

The only approved option of using social media in the classroom now is to cover it as a topic and talk about the functions, opportunities and risks but without forcing the students to join one of the networks.

This story shows the differences we have in the European Union when it comes to data protection vs. facing the reality of technology taking over our daily life. The UK-based Education Foundation just published a Facebook Guide for Educators in which teachers find case studies and examples of how to use the social network in a school setting.

All of the above might leave an interesting option for the creation of a new education startup open, a German Edmodo, if you will. This network needed to be hosted entirely in Germany and complies with the data privacy protection laws. Of course, it needed to be paid or financed by the state as ad-based revenue would not be allowed. Looking at the success of Edmodo in the US it is somewhat astonishing that nobody has cloned it so far. Maybe based on the bad experiences with Studi-VZ.


BYOD – Why not an Ubuntu Edge or an Ethical Fairphone?

Today the makers of the Ubuntu operating system launched a ballsy campaign on Indiegogo. They are aiming to raise $32 million for the Ubuntu Edge, a prototype smartphone that the Ubuntu team sees as a proof of concept.

The promo video starts with the Ubuntu mantra

“Convergence is the future of computing.”

This essentially means that one operating system is going to be the basis of all devices you might want to own. For example the Ubuntu Edge smartphone will be so powerful that it has the same computing power as a desktop computer. Hence in the convergence scenario instead of switching from your smartphone to a computer at your workplace you would simply dock your Ubuntu Edge to a bigger screen and keyboard. This is also the strategy that Microsoft is more or less following with its “Metro” design of Windows Mobile Phone, Windows RT and Windows 8, but instead of one operating system Microsoft is running three.

Of course, there is the question if we really need another (mobile) operating system besides iOS, Android, Blackberry and Windows Phone. But as most Ubuntu users are enthusiasts of the operating system there might be a sizeable market, something Ubuntu is trying to find out with the Indiegogo campaign.

The project already raised more money than the most successful Indiegogo campaign today. With more than $2 million and 30 days left Ubuntu might be able to reach the $32 million goal. What I find particularly ballsy is the fixed campaign model they chose. If Ubuntu Edge does not reach the $32 million goal all money is going back to the funders.

I think the Ubuntu Edge has some great features and you should watch the promo video in order to get a good overview. The price for the device is of course a bit hefty. On day one of the campaign you can preorder a Ubuntu Edge for $600, about the price of an unlocked iPhone 5. After the first batch of 5000 phones is gone the price for an Ubuntu Edge is going to be $830. And you have to wait until May 2014 for the first devices to be shipped. But all that won’t scare away real tech geeks and Ubuntu enthusiasts.

This campaign also reminded me of another smartphone that raised money via crowdfunding. The Dutch Fairphone wants to be the first ethically sourced smartphone. Many components and minerals used in smartphones come from regions where people suffer in order to provide us in the developed world with our favorite gadgets.

Fairphone’s premise is to only use “fair” components in order to create the first truly ethical device. And the price is right, as well. Other than the high end glitzy Ubuntu Edge a Fairphone is priced at €350 and the tech specs aren’t that bad, either.

The first batch is limited to 20.000 Fairphone devices, 11.648 have been sold until today. So the choice is yours. Do you want to have the next iPhone 5S, a new Google Nexus, a one of a kind Ubuntu phone, an ethical smartphone or none of the above?

France overtakes UK in number of Follow-on Fundings

NEW: Get our latest EdTech Funding Report Europe 2016.

While the European funding landscape is healthy at the seed stage, there seem to be issues with the so called Series A Crunch in some European markets. According to some number crunching on the latest Dow Jones VentureSource done by DFJ Esprit and Go4Venture Advisers there was more scarcity of follow-on funding in the UK compared to France and Germany in the first half of 2013.

There have been a total of 28 follow-on investments over $5 million in France, 25 in the UK and 18 in Germany, but the average sum of money invested is higher in the UK with $23m compared to $11 million in France. France and Germany are also catching up in terms of smaller deals with 49 in the UK, 46 in France and 18 in Germany.

Still, the UK remains on top in terms of overall funding. From the $1.8 billion invested in European startups during the first six months the UK received $656 million, France $399 million and DACH (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) $343 million.

Commenting on the DFJ Esprit report, Simon Cook, CEO of DFJ Esprit says

“What this data clearly shows us is that Europe is successfully launching fledgling businesses but there is a scarcity of available capital for the follow-on funding to get them to the next stage. In Silicon Valley the ratio of large investment rounds compared with smaller ones is over 1 to 1 – in this latest data for Europe it is less than half that level.”

During the Edtech Europe Summit in early May I had the chance to talk with Charles McIntire, co-founder of IBIS Capital, about the funding landscape for European edtech startups. He pointed out to me that

“… the real challenge in Europe is the fact that we don’t have a very good culture of investing in earlier stage businesses. And we see that in the US there is much more active investment as we talked about in the session this morning. Both deal sizes and amounts are dramatically different. And that obviously has a long term impact on what will happen in the e-learning industry in Europe.”

In general, European startups are not limited by market size or talent, they are often limited by their ability to raise money. Tax incentives seem to have a positive effect on early stage investments. The report closes with the following statement.

“The success of European Venture depends on more large and globally successful new companies being created from Europe.

For UK, the imperative now is to expand the level of private investment beyond early-stage funding. The EIS scheme has the key elements in place with EIS Approved Funds but these are not used in practice as they have fallen behind other changes in legislation. This is the area to focus attention to coordinate the investment power of private individuals to increase the availability of follow-on funding in UK.”

You can find the entire report on Sourcewire.

Picture by sfluehnsdorf via Morguefile

Lernstift – A Smart Pen that corrects Spelling and Handwriting

It’s not often that you come across a startup in the education space that isn’t building a SaaS product or platform but an actual device. Lernstift (learning pen) from Germany is one of the few that do. In order to create their first batch of products the founders are currently aiming to raise £120k via Kickstarter.

Though there is a lot of discussion going on about teaching handwriting or cursive on both sides of the Atlantic, pen and paper are still the dominant “education tool” in today’s classroom. Hence it probably makes sense to augment the process of learning how to write with some technology.

Lernstift is going to feature two modes. One that corrects the spelling and one that helps to develop better handwriting. If the student makes a spelling mistake or writes a letter that is not really recognizable, the pen will vibrate and therefore help the learner to recognize a mistake the moment she made it.

Lernstift technology

Of course, this is not the end but just the beginning. The inbuilt technology in form of a mini Linux computer will enable the pen to connect to smartphones and computers, opening a whole new set of possibilities like learning applications for grammar, social learning features and so on.

Developers will be able to write custom applications, accessing Lernstift over an open API. Lernstift will also get software updates over the air which means that even the earliest versions will always be up-to-date, similar to Android devices like the Nexus 4 or 7 by Google.

Another nifty feature: Lernstift also comes with exchangeable writing tips: pencil, fountain pen and ballpoint. At launch Lernstift is going to support two languages, English and German, but the team plans to expand the languages as soon as possible.

If you want to get one of the first Lernstifts make sure to pledge £99 on Kickstarter before Friday, August 9th. Remember, Kickstarter will only charge you if Lernstift reaches its funding goal of £120.000 – they are currently at £20.000 with 19 days left. The team estimates that early backers of the project are going to receive their Lernstift in December 2013.

The retail price of Lernstift once it hits the shelves is going to be £125. If you want to learn more about the technology behind the project, visit the Lernstift website or the Kickstarter page.