Friday, 28 September 2012



While people have been sharing more and more of their knowledge and the amount of available information has been continuously exploding, this knowledge is truly only available to those capable of understanding it. There is a strong need for complementary educational resources that would unlock the full information potential to all readers.

Edupedia is a kind of Wikipedia, where concepts are not simply described, but explained. Many complementary explanations are provided, varying in language, level (e.g., novice, expert), media (e.g., video, text, slides), mode (e.g., conceptual, by example, through a story, via a game), degree of detail (e.g., overview, short, long), and usage rights.  The explanations would come from two sources : 1) semi-automated aggregation of online educational materials, and 2) direct contributions from people as in Wikipedia.


As the saying goes, « live and learn ». Indeed, education, in the large sense of the word, transcends all our lives. Before we even embark on a project, we need to have learned enough to choose one. And once we chose it, its success clearly depends on our know-how, or in other words, on the level of our « education ». By education I don’t mean just formal schooling or training. I mean everything we have learned, both in our professional and personal lives.

There’s lots of online educational content already and the domain of e-learning has been booming. However, if one wants to understand or learn a particular concept, it’s not easy to find just the right lesson for the desired level of expertise, learning mode, and quality. Moreover, there are a lot of things to learn, and much of the educational content is not online. Yet, there is no centralized coordinated way for people to contribute new educational material.

For example, if someone reads a Wikipedia description of a mathematical derivative without already knowing what it is, they would have a very hard time understanding or learning it. Yet, there are many simple and fun ways to explain what it is and why it is interesting (the « why » part is crucial but is missing from most explanations). So if we can get a set of explanations that can be categorized and rated, then people can quickly find an explanation suitable for them.


What’s needed is a platform for 1) semi-automatically identifying and processing all of the available educational content (aggregating, interlinking, classifying, evaluating, and indexing), and 2) people to contribute new educational materials in a Wikipedia-like fashion.

The goal of Edupedia is to provide explanations, not facts. The line is quite blurry, and so it’s very important to define it as precisely as possible to constrain Edupedia’s scope. The challenge here is similar to the one faced by Wikipedia which provides detailed criteria for admission of an article into its collection.

The technology underlying Edupedia is similar to that of Freebase. Freebase was acquired by Google and is the basis for Google’s new product Knowledge Graph. Freebase aggregated open databases from the Web into a single semantic repository, where people could also contribute directly. This approach would have to be customized for Edupedia to support :
  • Education-specific data model
  • Specific functionalities such as material ranking and generation of personalized lessons
  • Specific business model (see below)
Note that Edupedia will not store content from other websites. It will only store the content metadata, such as its type, language, rating, comments, etc. These metadata will then be linked to the original content.

Here’s a rough outline of how Edupedia can be built :

Stage 1 : Bootstrapping the system with metadata
  1. Identify websites that offer free educational materials and allow users to suggest new ones. Organize them into several top-level categories for higher search precision.
  2. On the basis of the collected URLs, create several Google Custom Search Engines (CSEs) that will provide a unified access to these websites (this would be a new service in and of itself).
  3. Ingest  CSE search results into a Learning Management System (e.g., the open-source LMS provided by
  4. Use the standard education-related vocabularies (terminologies, taxonomies, etc) to automatically organize the content.
  5. Auto-detect other parameters such as user rating, material type, and presentation length.

Stage 2 : Collaboration and refinement
  1. Allow registered users to rate content, propose classification changes, and contribute new material (new material could be as simple as a good example that explains why a given concept is of interest).
  2. Generate custom courses based on what people already know.
  3. Request and import richer metadata from content providers.
  4. Improve the auto-classification quality by using text mining and metadata alignment algorithms.
If the crowdsourcing approach worked for Wikipedia, it should work even better for Edupedia. First of all, there is a huge motivated community of teachers and students out there who would be happy to contribute. Second, it will be in the interest of content publishers to make sure that their content in Edupedia is well organized for easy access.

Note that explanations can often be contradictory, which can lead to structured debates as described in another post. Edupedia would also benefit from the free tagging approach described in another post.

Market overview

There are several platforms that aggregate educational content.  The most notable one is YouTube for Schools which gives access to “hundreds of thousands of free educational videos … from well-known organizations like Stanford, PBS and TED as well as from up-and-coming YouTube partners with millions of views, like Khan Academy, Steve Spangler Science and Numberphile.” Of course, You Tube for Schools remains extremely limited in terms of the type of material (video lectures), its scope (only from partner organizations), and the level of its organization (very basic hierarchy without search).

Another interesting service, Udemy, adopts a Wikipedia-like approach by allowing anyone to submit educational materials. It remains limited since it’s organized into courses (as opposed to explanations), does not attempt to reference the wealth of educational materials already available on the Web, and has weak search and navigation. Note that Udemy raised millions in venture capital and has sold over 2 million $ worth of courses.

Another notable attempt at aggregating educational materials was made by iSEEK Education, which is “a targeted search engine that compiles hundreds of thousands of authoritative resources from university, government, and established noncommercial providers.” iSEEK indexes not only video but also other types of materials. However, it remains very limited, its design is poor, and it seems to have stopped development.

It's certainly also important to mention Wikipedia's sister site Wikiversity. This site's goal is to assemble educational materials Wikipedia style. However, this approach is unfortunately failing: 10 randomly chosen schools (out of 60) got the grade F for failing to meet Wikiversity's own standards. Firstly, the Media Wiki platform is not the right system for managing and displaying multimedia materials that permeate online learning. Secondly, the task at hand is much more complex than a simple encyclopedia, and without a business model it is difficult to have enough resources to manage this complexity and meaningfully coordinate the community's efforts. Nevertherless, the project shows that there is a willing community of contributors that managed to create hundreds of thousands of articles in multiple languages.

Finally, the Open Educational Resource (OER) initiative is an important movement to provide standardized and open access to educational resources. OER Commons catalogues over 40 thousand OERs. OERs are well-organized accoding to usage rights, media type, level, etc. Standards, however, are notoriously difficult to put in place. OER Commons exists since 2007 yet its collection is far inferior in quantity in comparison to the portals cited above. Lack of a business model (and hence, sufficient resources) does not help either.

Business model

Similarly to Udemy, Edupedia would reference not only free public content, but also content that requires a fee to access. Edupedia would keep a percentage of the collected revenue and would also make money from targeted advertisement (similarly to YouTube).

Go-to-market strategy

As suggested in the Solution section, the first step is to create comprehensive, education-specific Google Custom Search Engines on several high-level topics (science, technology, etc), and promote them in education communities. This is the Minimal Viable Product which can later be substantially improved as outlined earlier.

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