Are MOOCs here to stay? The business model.

In a previous post, I gushed (more than a bit) about the potential mind-blowing impact that I believe MOOCs will have on innovation and evolution. And about how darn cool they are. But today, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Cool is fine, but how will it be financed? These things cost money, in some cases quite a lot, and I seriously doubt that the participating institutions relish the idea of continuing this investment with no return in sight. So, are we seeing the beginning of an education revolution? Or are MOOCs a brief fad that will fade away as the participants drop out?

I’m sure that it comes as no surprise that I am certain that they are here to stay, although I do believe that the format will undergo a few mutations. The benefits today and in the short-term of free online education are more than enough to justify the effort, and I’m not just talking about altruistic value to society. But they do require a re-think of how we educate and collaborate.

moocs are here to stay

At the moment, in general there is not a lot of revenue. And the benefits are intangible. They are, however, at the same time really important, and will become more so.

For the university, the benefits include extension of its brand, just like some bands put their songs online for free, to get more attendance at their revenue-earning concerts. Universities in the US and the UK are facing declining enrolment figures, and an outreach effort like the MOOCs is likely to encourage students to choose tech-savvy and “generous” institutions for their location-based education.

Also, more students online = more intellectual resources, both now and in the future. More alumni to include in future initiatives.

Participating professors benefit from getting their name out there, increasing their communication power and academic cachet.  We are already starting to see the rise of the “rock star” professor, whose fame and reach can be magnified by MOOCs, benefitting both him or her personally, as well as the university. And both universities and professors get the opportunity to join the education revolution, to learn from it and to help shape its future. Those that miss out will struggle to come up with an excuse as to why, and the “we don’t think MOOCs are worth the investment” line could well end up looking like the “Internet is just a passing fad” chorus of a couple of decades ago.

moocs are here to stay

If you want something more tangible, let’s think about the data benefits. We can learn more about how people learn. With tens of millions of people enrolled in online education, we finally have access to concrete data, and lots of it, about study methods, time invested, speed and absorption. This can tell us what works and what doesn’t, which can make teaching more efficient. We can become better teachers. Better teachers reaching more students… It sounds like a good combination to me.

More efficient teaching can also lower universities’ operating costs, which could bring down high tuition fees, a significant barrier to entry to an on-site university education.

For the individual professors, more efficient teaching can also free up time to write, research, spend more time with students… Best of all, according to some teachers: the option of automatic grading!

But no direct return on investment whatsoever? Some platforms are already starting to implement some revenue-generating services, which will maintain the almost-universal access while counting on scale to generate enough income to cover the (decreasing) costs of creating and distributing the courses. Official certificates, for example: the course is free, but to get certification, you will need to pay something. In-depth critiquing: peer grading is often offered on the free courses, but to get an experienced professor to critique your work, that will cost a bit extra. Content revenue: the MOOC could include the required texts in the free package, while selling additional and related material, online and/or offline, either on its own site or through an affiliate program. Corporate affiliations: I see no obvious reason why courses couldn’t have sponsors, assuming there’s no conflict of interest or possibility of influence – a course on Medieval Britain, for example, sponsored by British Airways. Course revenue: maybe not all courses will be free, perhaps some or even most can soon start to charge a nominal amount. 10€ or 20$ is not enough money to be considered a significant barrier to entry, especially as online payments get easier. But multiplied by tens of thousands of students, it can produce some very attractive revenues. Also, MOOC licensing could become a “thing”: other universities could licence your MOOCs to use as part of their on-location classes, a good option for them if they don’t have specialised faculty in your area. They would pay a licensing fee.

New businesses could spring up around MOOCs, proto-universities if you will, offering degrees for completion of curated MOOCs, with study groups, live discussion, maybe even a job placement program. These degrees may not have the same cachet as one from a top business school, obviously, but they could eventually earn a shine of their own. After all, only the truly motivated and disciplined see a MOOC all the way through to the end!

So, yes, I believe that MOOCs are here to stay. They will mature, as will we, the users. The business model will evolve. Meanwhile, more and more people around the world can enjoy access to information and ideas that will in turn generate more ideas and innovation. And along the way, we can learn so much about ourselves.

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For more on online education, check out my Flipboard “Internet and Education”:

flipboard education

In case you were wondering… (Silly website)

Now, it’s Easter weekend, and just in case you got confused and thought it might be Christmas, this is the website for you: “Is It Christmas?”. With the address Really. So, if ever you wake up wondering if it could be Christmas, just go to this website and it will clear up all doubts.

Easter eggs(By the way, the answer is “NO”. There, I just saved you some time.)


In-image advertising – take that, banners!

Raise your hand if you love banner ads…. Ok, not very many of you. And raise your hand if you love those horribly annoying video ads usually stuck on the right-hand side of your computer screen… Right, even fewer (yes, it’s possible the question was biased). Even the sprinkling of Google Ads on a content website is seen as damagingly irritating. Let’s face it, times are stressful for brands looking for innovative ways to hook the online audience, and for content sites struggling to make a living…

Enter the new-new thing in online marketing: in-image advertising. Ok, technically it’s not new-new, it’s been around since 2008. But it’s starting to gain traction, and software and data developments are making the platforms even smarter. Personally, I think it’s really cool.

But what is it? There are various formats, but basically it’s an ad embedded into an image. Usually it’s unobtrusive, in the form of a little logo or circle that you click on to see the additional information. Sometimes it’s a banner along the bottom of the picture (probably somewhat annoying, but I suppose it depends, and from the point of view of the advertiser and the publisher, at least it’s noticeable).

example of embedded ecommerce kiosked

(image via

And we’re not just talking about commercial catalogue pictures with embedded text. Even mainstream news sites are applying this technology to their report images.

Imagine, for instance, you’re reading an article about movie stars and you just must have those sunglasses that Brad Pitt is wearing in the accompanying picture. Click on the sunglasses and up pops a little window that allows you to buy them then and there. Or across the bottom of the image, an ad for Brad’s new movie…

(click here to see the animated example – I can’t figure out how to get WordPress to allow me to download the animated image, so all the images I show you here will be static but with links to the real thing, sorry!)

in-image advertising

(image via Gumgum demos and OK!)

Or, you’re checking out your favourite cooking site and the picture you’re looking at has such beautiful serving plates that you just have to have them. One click and you can either order them online, or find out where they are sold. Another click will take you to the recipe for the cocktail in the picture.

Or, you’re reading an article on the peace and beauty of the Amalfi coast. One click on the image and you can book a hotel room, or buy a book on Italy, or get a nice sunhat…

(this is a static example, click here to see the interactive image)

example of embedding links in pictures

 (image via Taggstar)

It sounds clever, doesn’t it? Interactive images and the possibilities for non-commercial uses are also very interesting. One image can contain embedded links to another article, a video, even a survey… And in this inter-connected world in which we live, what about the social uses? A photocall of a corporate conference can contain links to the Twitter accounts of all the people in the photo. Or a photo posted on one of the many wedding social sites can contain links to Facebook profiles, the wedding playlist, who did the dress, even the wedding gift registry… Or, enrich family photos with voices, home movies, favourite songs… Embeds can add so much texture and dimension to a flat image.

The new platforms are opening up a new income stream for media publishers. They’re giving brands a fresh opportunity to get their message across. They’re providing e-commerce sites a smarter form of affiliate marketing. And they allow consumers to enjoy an impulse purchase.

Even more spectacular are the videos with embeds. You can actually click on a video and buy the highlighted product, and it’s done quite subtly, your enjoyment of the video is not really affected. So far it’s been used in branding videos, such as for Barney’s New York and Gucci… I imagine that it’s also possible to buy band merchandise or concert tickets directly from music videos….

videos with ecommerce embeds

(video via

So, while not exactly completely unobtrusive, shoppable images and videos do seem an encouraging step away from the in-your-face ads, pop-ups and pre-videos that we have to put up with (I’ll talk about ad blockers another day!).

But how is it done? There are currently various platforms out there that make it quite easy, each with slightly different priorities:


One of the leaders of the sector is Kiosked, a Finnish company that partners with brands and with content sites to embed commercial links in stock images. Basically, it´s a cross between affiliate marketing and in-house e-commerce. And it’s not just images, text can also be Kiosked. That could be interesting for cooking or DIY sites, and definitely for company blogs… It’s location-sensitive, so the links change according to where you are. And, it’s not very intrusive; you only see the links when you hover over the picture.

example of embedding kiosked

(image via Kiosked)

Kiosked recently signed a deal with Getty Images in which Kiosked e-commerce is overlaid on any image from the huge Getty library. Imagine any photo of the actor Daniel Craig with embedded links to the latest Bond film or to a set of martini glasses. Or being able to buy tennis rackets directly from any image of Rafa Nadal. Every time a sale is made, the publisher gets part of the commission. Their algorithm analyses the image, the content and the context, so that different users get different links, according to their profile.


Thinglink is more creative than Kiosked in that it helps you to create “rich” images, with embedded links to music, social sharing, information, videos, Twitter accounts, Facebook profile, e-commerce, even surveys! One image can contain several links of different types, like the example I made using Thinglink that I showed you earlier in the report. With Thinglink the publisher has creative control, which broadens its use. Thinglink is being increasingly used as an educational tool – imagine doing a report on the Roman Empire by embedding detail and even multimedia in a map of Italy. Businesses pay, but it’s free for individuals.

(click here to see the interactive version of the left image, and here for the image on the right)

example of embedding images with Thinglink

I made this one, just for fun (again, a static image, click here to see my nifty links…)

a thinglink example I made


Very similar to Kiosked, Stipple automatically embeds links in tagged images. For instance, Capitol Records might want links to Katy Perry’s new album or upcoming concerts included in all Katy Perry pictures on affiliated publishers. Or politicians’ embeds could overlay their most recent tweets or posts on their images. Or pictures of Jennifer Garner could have links to her latest movie. And Stipple can also show who designed her jacket and where you can get one.

(not an interactive image, but you can see the interactivity here)

examples of data embedded in media images

 (image via People Magazine)

As with Kiosked and Thinglink, it’s unobtrusive, the links only appear when you hover or tap on the photo, and even then, they’re quite subtle.


The Luminate icon in the corner means that the users can mouse-over to see links to e-commerce, to share the image, to get access to more information…

(the image below is static, click here to see the interactive version)

in-image advertising with Luminate

(image via Luminate)


Taggstar automatically adds a selection of similar products to images in mainstream media, which not only gives users a choice but also increases the possibility of a commission-earning sale for the publishers. For example, if you happen to like the Duchess of Cambridge’s blue dress, here’s a selection for you to choose from:

(not an interactive image, but you can see the interactivity here)

example of embedded e-commerce(image via msn)


Gumgum also have in-image ads, of both the embedded link and the banner type. One thing that they do that I haven’t seen on the others yet is the “take-over” ad, where an ad takes over a photograph for a few seconds before settling into a standard in-image banner. Obtrusive, perhaps, but in my opinion, bearable, and relatively effective.

(not an interactive image, click here for the working example)

example of ad with Gumgum

(image via Gumgum demos and Lovelyish)

* * *

Banner ads are notoriously ineffective and getting cheaper by the day, and if embedded images are more effective on computer-viewed websites, they could only be even more so on mobile platforms, when a large image is often all we see… With this innovative form of affiliate marketing, brands and services get a new way to reach jaded audiences, web publishers can develop a complementary income stream, and the user gets a fresh  e-commerce experience, with almost instant gratification. Will these platforms revolutionise e-commerce? No, but they will broaden its scope significantly. I think that the biggest effect lies in the increasing interactivity of online information. The moving newspapers from the Harry Potter films? Not so far off.

Heartbleed: the unsurprising and the unexpected

The virus with the very evocative name has wreaked havoc on personal passwords, made security paranoids tremble and left the general internet population somewhat perplexed. I’m not an encryption expert, and in fact I have a serious problem remembering passwords (if I tell you my method for remembering them, my security-conscious friends will be screaming in horror and bashing my door down all weekend). But I was curious and a little bit worried, so I did some research. And what I discovered was in part unsurprising and in part unexpected.

heartbleed logo

The unsurprising part is the conflicting advice. Change all your passwords, now. Don’t change your passwords, not yet. A mixture of overreaction and better-safe-than-sorry led to a few somewhat frightening articles, while the security gurus understandably tried to maintain our faith in the system. I mean, just imagine if we never trusted Internet security again: businesses would fail, the e-economy would slump and a lot of hip people would be very depressed.

So why the confusion? Because it is, unsurprisingly, quite complicated and techy, but at the same time very important. Ironically, the bug lives in the security encryption software that was built to make the internet safer. Any url that starts with “https” instead of “http” is protected by something called Secure Socket Layer, which means that anything you type in anywhere on that webpage is encrypted before it is transmitted. So, in theory, your information cannot be intercepted and re-used.

OpenSSL is an open source encryption software (ie., anyone can use it, help yourself). Even though it may not be a familiar name to you, as many as two out of three servers use it. One version of this software, available since March 2012, contains a coding glitch through which hackers can pull a chunk of data from secure webs. (If you’re interested in a really technical explanation, here you go…). From that the hackers can not only get passwords, but, even more dangerous, the encryption keys, which means that they can intercept all future data from that website. So, while all affected sites are updating and patching to protect future transmissions, the hackers may already have your passwords, hence the recommendation to change them anyway.

Talk about having a bad weekend. A researcher at Google (or the testing company Codenomicon, it’s unclear) noticed the bug and right away informed the OpenSSL team. Sensibly, they didn’t go public with it right away, to avoid a large-scale panic. Instead, they started working around the clock to get the fixes in place, so that when the news broke, a solution was already available.

OpenSSL has released a fixed update, and only servers using the vulnerable version (versions 1.0.1 and 1.0.2beta, if you’re interested) need to be updated. Non-secure servers are unaffected, they’re as un-secure as they always were.  If you’re in doubt, you can use this web to check the server you want to log into, although apparently it does return some false negatives. If you’re not sure if a site you use is vulnerable, ask them. And if they haven’t patched their OpenSSL code yet, don’t change your passwords until they do – the hackers could see those, too.  Mashable published a useful list of sites for which you should change the password right away.

The transparency with which this is being dealt with is also unsurprising in this day of instant communication. A major mess-up like this, you would expect blame-passing and hiding. But no, I think that credit is due to the team at OpenSSL for being open about it and for fixing it as fast as they could. It is how all business should be conducted, not just Internet businesses, and they have set a good example.

So, on to the unexpected part: the depth and scale of this particular software glitch. The unsuspecting public generally trusts the security software. We’re all taught that the “s” in “https” means that the site is secure. So it is hard to digest that, guess what, your passwords may have been compromised.

Another unexpected and disconcerting aspect is that the vulnerability has been in place for about two years now. And the attacks leave no trace on the server, so there’s no way of knowing if your data has been extracted.  Feeling worried yet? Change your passwords on the vulnerable sites, and you’ll be fine. It is extremely unlikely that the same glitch will happen again, and I imagine that the testing procedures will be improved after this.

But for me the most unexpected aspect of this whole drama is that here we have a software bug with a logo. Has there ever before been a bug so famous and with such a catchy name that it gets its own logo? It could well end up becoming a brand. With T-shirts and memes (“I heartbleed you”) and maybe even coffee cups.

I mentioned before that I am incapable of remembering passwords. So I have LastPass installed on my computer. If you don’t know it, LastPass remembers all of your passwords for you, so that all you need to try to remember is your LastPass key phrase (I use a phrase from a book on my bookshelf, ‘cos I figured that if I lose the book – highly possible given the chaotic state of my study – I could always get another one… assuming I remember which book). It’s convenient, although I do get angry at it sometimes when it doesn’t remember a password I am sure I put in. And it’s free, with a payment option if you also want to use it on your mobile devices (I’m thinking about it, for the iPad). It sounds safe and convenient, no? Well, LastPass has announced that they are vulnerable to Heartbleed, but that no encrypted data was exposed because our passwords are also encrypted with another key that’s not on the LastPass servers. Don’t worry, you’re not the only one confused. On LastPass, your data is encrypted before being encrypted. Which, in retrospect, is pretty clever.

So are we safe now? No doubt very smart programmers are scrambling to find ways to avoid this kind of bug happening again. But, as in nature, viruses have a way of mutating and adapting, and we should always be aware that our data could be vulnerable. Me, I’m going to stick with LastPass and my scribbled-on piece of paper which I hide under the carpet (there, I told you, and now I have to go and change the hiding place since no doubt all the hackers reading this are going to try to break into my apartment in spite of my many impenetrable alarm systems).

unbeatable alarm system

MOOCs and how they will change the world

You most likely are already familiar with MOOCs, that very unsexy acronym for an education revolution that will probably affect your life, and will certainly affect the lives of your children. MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course, and basically it means free education for anyone with an Internet connection. About anything you want. All you need to do is find the time.

Obviously, online education is not the same as a university degree (at least not for now), just as Facebook is not the same as a social life (and may that always be the case). But, it does put your education completely in your hands. No more watching helplessly as companies shift and downsize and outsource. Anticipate. Participate. Re-educate.


According to Jeff Jarvis, the director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of the New York Graduate School of Journalism: “The real need for education in the economy will be re-education.” This is especially relevant for anyone over 25. You’ve most likely already had an education, probably even a university degree or equivalent. But now you want more, maybe because you feel you need to for economic reasons (job change, career shift, skill reinforcement), or because you want to know more about history, science or culture… Or because you’re just plain curious and you love learning.

Now, online learning is nothing new, but the scope of what is available now has not been seen before. The breadth of choice is amazing! And the number of platforms is growing all the time. Coursera is just one example of the many MOOC platforms, and it offers online courses from over 100 universities, including Stanford, Princeton, Yale… It has 7 million students, enrolled in over 600 courses ranging from Astrophysics to the music of the Beatles. FutureLearn is part of Open University, the pioneer of online education (I remember watching Open Univeristy programs on TV when I was a little girl living in London, and believe me, that was a long time ago!), and has partnerships with over 25 UK institutions, including The British Museum. edX offers free online courses from such renowned institutions as MIT, Harvard, Berkeley and many more, from all over the world!

moocs examples

Let me show you some really cool examples, just in case you thought that MOOCs were only for technical people (I’m not recommending these, I haven’t taken them, I’m just saying that they sound like a lot of fun and are definitely on my wish list):

“The Fiction of Relationship”, from Brown University, about how literature and art portray how we relate to others;

“Imagining other earths”, from Princeton University, in which you learn how to design a solar system;

“Music’s Big Bang: the Genesis of Rock and Roll”, from the University of Florida, in which I imagine it’s ok to wiggle your hips;

“The Science of Irrational Behaviour”, from Duke University, about why we care about some things and not others…

In two weeks I start one called Technology and Ethics, and then I have Understanding Media by Understanding Google to look forward to. I feel like a university student again, and what I wouldn’t give to have more hours in the day… I introduced a good friend to MOOCs the other day, and he hasn’t forgiven me yet. It really is like a free candy bar for adults with curiosity.

“But where’s the business model?” I hear you ask. I’ll go into this more in another post, because there’s so much to say about it, today I just want to gush a bit about what moocs mean for us and for the next generation.

impact of moocs

Hal Varian, the chief economist at Google, said recently: “The biggest impact on the world will be universal access to all human knowledge.” Just think what that can do. A world of better educated people, smarter people, getting new skills or studying things they are passionate about, talking to other people who are passionate about the same things, on the other side of the world. Coming up with new ideas together, new inventions, new concepts. Getting jobs. No matter what you think about the current state of the education system where you’re from, nobody can deny that education generates wealth. It’s not just that better education leads to more innovation which leads to more jobs which helps economic recovery. It’s also the potential of collective ideas. Combine a smarter world with the power of crowdsourcing, and you have incredible brain power solving big problems.

the impact of moocs(photo by Chiara Goia for The New York Times)

One of the first people to get a perfect score in MIT’s online Circuits and Electronics course was Battushig Myanganbayar, a 15-year-old boy from Ulan Bator in Mongolia. This boy is now enrolled as an undergraduate at MIT, and his ambition, he says, is to “make good things for humans.” Now imagine many more gifted individuals like Battushig, all getting access to an education their parents never dreamed of, for the cost of an Internet connection. And imagine his peers, from all over the world, putting their considerable intelligence to work on innovation, creativity and the problem-solving that this planet needs. Good things for humans, indeed.


— x —

For more on online education, check out my Flipboard “Internet and Education”:

flipboard education


It’s about time that I set a general outline for this blog, that I laid out what I really want to write about, what fascinates me, what can get me talking for hours (just ask my friends…). In a nutshell, it’s the impact that communication technology has on the way we work and live. I’m not an academic, but I have spent 14 years working in e-commerce in Spain, and while that gave me a privileged position from which to witness and experience the technological and cultural changes Spain is still… um, enjoying?, it also made me realise how little I know. And how much there is to learn.

a café for thinking(image via Unsplash)

I sold my business at the end of last year, and after a few months of clearing my head and my computer files and the cupboards in my house, I started reading… As all entrepreneurs know, we don’t get a lot of time to read, and I confess that a lot of the new ideas and trends had passed me by somewhat unnoticed… (Yes, I’ll happily go into how not to get too absorbed in your work at another time, not that I know much about that…). Now I spend my time looking at the forest, not the trees, and while I do still love the detail (I’m a statistician by training), it’s the big changes that fascinate me. And there’s so many of them.

Things have changed so much since I started working in the Internet 14 years ago. Back then, when I was setting up the business (an e-commerce portal), seasoned investors and financial advisers said, and I’m really not joking, “But nobody buys on the Internet…” We couldn’t find a logistics provider willing to work with an e-commerce company because they didn’t think it had much future. And strangely enough, I still hear similar statements today, obviously about different things. “I don’t understand Facebook”. “Snapchat is just a fad”. “The sharing economy will never work.” And who knows, maybe they’re right, but one thing we have to have learnt over the past 15 years is that our collective mindset has huge capacity for change.

nostalgic inspiration


(image via Death to the Stock Photo)

Back then, who would have thought that the largest encyclopaedia would be written by us, without being paid? Or that we would want to take photos of our lives and share them with the world, several times a day? Or that we would have access to top-level university courses, for free? Obviously these things no longer surprise us, and I love dwelling on what will cease to surprise us in the years to come. And how the increasing use of wireless technology will continue to bring down barriers, create efficiencies and generate cultural wealth, while forcing us to re-think jobs, copyright and what the definition of freedom is.

So this blog will document my journey of discovery, my arguments with myself and others, the debates, the surprises, the “you gotta be kiddings”, and the awe in which I hold human ingenuity, creativity and adaptability.