More than 3-billion people around the globe have access to the internet. Billions more will gain access to this incredible resource in the coming years. Many of them will be thirsty for new knowledge and have dreams of empowering themselves.
Those two things should go hand in hand. Thing is, online education isn’t anywhere near as good as it could be. Many online education providers simply digitise existing curricula. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a service that used online technologies to their full technology and actually made learning fun?
Founded by Chris Rawlinson, former director of Group Innovation at leading advertising agency Ogilvy South Africa, the site has partnered up with some of the world’s smartest brands and most interesting thought leaders to help users learn the basics about a range of subjects. These range from behavioural economics to fintech and the internet of things.
We recently got the chance to talk to Rawlinson about what inspired him to start 42Courses, the importance of corporate partners, and the decision to build for the web rather than launching an app.
Inspired by advertising
At first glance, the idea of someone from an ad agency getting into the online education space might seem a little odd. But according to Rawlinson, it’s actually a natural fit.
“I realised the key attributes required to be a marvellous advertiser are the same skills required to be a marvellous teacher,” he told us.
“To make great advertising you need understand your audience, then take often complex information and translate it into something that those people can understand, have an emotional reaction to, and ideally chat with their friends about,” he added.
According to Rawlinson, “the best teachers do the same, they take complex information and translate it to the students in a way they can understand, feel something for, and then go discuss with their friends”.
Advertising, he believes, needs a revolution, not an evolution. And, he says, the education world needs the same.
This realisation, Rawlinson told us, along with some “learning inspiration gained from results and feedback” from his work with the Ogilvy Digital Marketing Academy (an internal training course created for Ogilvy) inspired him to create 42Courses.
Using the tech properly
The need for that revolution, Rawlinson told us, is especially evident when you look at the online education space.
“The problem is online learning right now is at about the same stage in its digital evolution as the music and print industry were in the early 2000’s…basically not great,” he said.
That’s not just Rawlinson’s perception either. He’s got numbers to back it up too:
“The current average completion rate of e-learning courses is only six percent! If you want to empower people you’re not going to get far with those results. The industry report card would currently read ‘must try harder’”.
The problem, he believes, is that most online course providers have forgotten how many distractions the average person has today and how impatient they are for results.
Moreover, he says, most of these courses are “created by academics, for academics. The problem is most people are not academics! The content is long, often dry, sometimes boring, and the feedback loops are slow.”
In other words, why have the technology if all you’re going to do is replicate traditional learning methods?
Injecting a little fun
Why not use those tools to make learning fun? After all, Rawlinson points out, “you can’t bore people into learning things long term”.
“We realised that if people are engaged and having fun, they learn much better and retain that knowledge longer,” the 42Courses founder told us. “One of our main guiding goals is simply to make learning as fun as playing your favourite game”.
To achieve this, he explained, 42Courses keeps things “short and interesting.”
How does it do this? Rawlinson explains:
We tell stories not just facts, we give people immediate feedback, and have used smart design and gamification throughout the courses. As you progress you earn points, badges and can climb global leader boards.
If 42Courses hadn’t adapted to this and other aspects of human behaviour, Rawlinson believes, it would never have gotten off the ground.
“If you don’t understand and adapt to human behaviour, you get left behind,” he told us.
The right partner
Another thing critical to the 42Courses’ journey has been having the right partners onboard. Ogilvy in particular has played a significant role in the startup’s early growth.
Not only did Rawlinson’s own experiences at the advertising giant inspire him to start the company, it was 42Courses’ first partner (It has a Behavioural Economics course with Rory Sutherland and OgilvyChange).
In a world where most online education services go out of their way to partner with big-name universities that might, again, seem strange.
But for Rawlinson it makes perfect sense.
“Big brands have all this incredible information they have picked up over the year, but they rarely share it,” he told us.
“In a world where people are hungry for empowerment and knowledge,” he asks, “why not use this to a brand’s advantage?”
Rawlinson is betting that people would love to learn about things like Advertising from Ogilvy, or Artificial
Intelligence from Google.
“Why not?” he asks. “They are already the best and brightest in their relevant field, normally you wouldn’t get to that knowledge unless you worked for the company”.
In return, brands get the chance to be perceived more positively.
“If you learn something from a brand or person,” Rawlinson points out, “you’re generally thankful, and place them on a pedestal, you become a fan, it’s possibly one of the best advertising moves you can make”.
That’s the consumer side covered, but as many businesses have found out, there’s real opportunity in the business market.
42Courses is no different. In fact, it recently signed a deal to trial out an internal offering with a big global bank in London.
That does not, however, mean that it’s going to start offering boring, ultra-corporate courses.
Instead, Rawlinson tells us, 42Courses has been testing new gamification methods. Internal teams can, for instance play against each other for points and people can even see how well they are doing as an individual compared to their peers.
“I believe one of every successful company’s goals should be to out educate their competition, we would love to help with that”, he says.
One step at a time
If that sounds ambitious, it’s probably because 42Courses isn’t short on ambition. That said, Rawlinson is realistic about what it’ll take for the company to achieve everything it wants to.
“At the moment,” he tells us, “our main push is to get another bunch of courses out so we have a fuller offering. We will soon have a Social Media course from Ogilvy, a fintech course from Barclays and there are other courses coming very soon on Innovation, Service Design, and Entrepreneurship.”
Encouragingly, the ad-man and entrepreneur is obsessed less with how 42Courses can make money than with making education affordable and accessible.
“The feature I am most excited about,” he says “is that for every course bought, we will give one away for free to people that are unable to afford it.”
“We believe this is simply the right thing to do”.