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Google Introduces Course Builder, an Open Source Project Targeted at MOOCs (but the Real Competitor Might Be Amazon)

        This article was originally posted at e-Literate

Google quietly made an educational technology announcement yesterday about the release of Course Builder, an “open source project” targeted at massive open online courses (MOOCs). This platform follows on the heels of Google’s own MOOC this summer. We should find out more information over the coming months, but here are my initial observations after reading the Research Blog on Google’s site:

In July, Research at Google ran a large open online course, Power Searching with Google, taught by search expert, Dan Russell. The course was successful, with 155,000 registered students. Through this experiment, we learned that Google technologies can help bring education to a global audience. So we packaged up the technology we used to build Power Searching and are providing it as an open source project called Course Builder. We want to make this technology available so that others can experiment with online learning.

We really shouldn’t be surprised at Google’s interest in the MOOC movement, since Peter Norvig, their Director of Research making the announcement, was one of the two professors at Stanford, alongside Sebastian Thrun, to develop and teach the influential Artificial Intelligence course (CS221). This course started the Stanford branch of MOOCs (also known as xMOOCs). Coursera and Udacity spun out as venture-funded startup companies based on the internal Stanford MOOC courses.

To understand Course Builder, it is important to realize that it is not a finished software application, and it will not (directly) compete with the existing LMS providers. Course Builder is an “open source code base” that sits on top of Google’s App Engine – their Platform as a Service (PaaS) offering that competes with Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure.

The Course Builder project and code base is for software developers and instructional designers aiming to create MOOC or online learning platforms. As called out in the Getting Started page, implementation requires knowledge of HTML, Javascript, the Google App Engine, and ideally Python.

Therefore, this is not appropriate in most cases for faculty or instructional designers developing a single online course. A better way to understand Course Builder is to view it as a cloud-based kickstart to developing a do-it-yourself (DIY) online learning platform for large online courses.

Educational Technology and MOOCs

My guess is that the real goal for Google is to have their App Engine become the underlying platform (Platform as a Service, or PaaS) for organizations (institutions and companies) looking to jump on the MOOC bandwagon, while expanding their education footprint.

It is typical for Google to not commit to the end-user market and to put out the technology and see what happens. This approach is consistent for educational technology, as we have seen with Google Wave,  Google Apps for EducationGoogle in Education, and even their relationship with Pearson on the OpenClass platform. They do seem to care about education, but many of their technology offerings are experimental in nature, to see what others will make of the technology.

As Peter Norvig stated:

The Course Builder open source project is an experimental early step for us in the world of online education. It is a snapshot of an approach we found useful and an indication of our future direction. We hope to continue development along these lines, but we wanted to make this limited code base available now, to see what early adopters will do with it, and to explore the future of learning technology. We will be hosting a community building event in the upcoming months to help more people get started using this software. edX shares in the open source vision for online learning platforms, and Google and the edX team are in discussions about open standards and technology sharing for course platforms.

Cloud Computing and Hosting Services

Google has been somewhat behind the curve in developing a cloud services strategy, following the lead of Amazon Web Services (AWS, which might better be described as Infrasture-as-a-Service) and Microsoft Azure.

Consider some of the existing xMOOC and cloud-based learning platforms:

Here you have Google’s App Engine PaaS along with one of the co-founders of xMOOCs. If you truly believe in cloud technology and that MOOCs can help revolutionize education, and I have to assume that Norvig believes so, then Google has to want to service more of the MOOC and learning platform markets.

All of the companies above, however, have already developed their own platforms (although I’m sure Google would love for some of them to switch from Amazon). Many universities are considering what their online strategy should be in light of the MOOC movement, and these universities are the near-term targets for Course Builder. These are schools that might be willing to develop DIY learning platforms custom-built for their own online course needs. From the announcement:

We are excited that Stanford University, Indiana University, UC San Diego, Saylor.orgLearningByGivingFoundation.org, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), and a group of universities in Spain led by Universia, CRUE, and Banco Santander-Universidades are considering how this experimental technology might work for some of their online courses.

In my opinion Google doesn’t want to compete with Coursera or Udacity. Google doesn’t want to compete with Blackboard or Desire2Learn or Instructure or Moodle. Google wants to compete with Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure. This release of Course Builder open source code base is most likely a strategy to entice online learning initiatives, current and future, to develop a DIY platforms on top of Google App Engine – and take the business from Amazon where possible.

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