SA’s 42courses aims to improve ed-tech with “branded learning”

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South African startup 42courses, an e-learning platform launched this week, is looking to boost the impact of online education by pioneering the concept of “branded learning”.

The man behind 42courses is Chris Rawlinson, innovation director at Ogilvy & Mather South Africa and co-founder of the Ogilvy Digital Marketing Academy (ODMA), which offers customised training in digital marketing.

Rawlinson told Disrupt Africa the concept for 42courses had been conceived while building the ODMA, which adopted more of a storytelling and hands-on approach to learning, in contrast to the more academic style of other academies and e-learning platforms.

“We found that people like to learn through doing. If you make them feel comfortable enough to make mistakes that’s fine,” he said.

The success of the ODMA approach was such that other companies began asking if they could take the course, including other agencies. Rawlinson said the academy became an excellent brand exercise for Ogilvy, but the physical approach had made it impossible to scale.

“It was incredibly frustrating that we couldn’t scale this. We had to limit classes to be able to make them effective,” he said. “We spent a lot of time talking about ways we could scale this online.”

It was during this time that Rawlinson came to see the flaws with existing e-learning platforms.

“E-learning companies have done what the music industry did, they have digitalised their real-life content. That’s fine if you’re an academic person, but 99 per cent of the population probably isn’t,” he said.

“There’s not a lot of depth. Online courses are either too long, too boring, or they’re too short with not enough depth or reward.”

The average completion rate of courses on existing e-learning platforms globally is five per cent, a figure Rawlinson said speaks to the fact e-learning is not yet tailored to the requirements of users.

“That’s not sustainable. If you want to empower people and make e-learning a reality you cannot succeed with rates that low. There has got to be another way,” he said.

“I had this idea in my head about how it could work.”

He drew upon his experience at Ogilvy when designing 42courses, focusing on capturing and keeping people’s attention.

“In advertising your job is to get people’s attention and get across quite complicated information in a short period of time,” Rawlinson said.

“When we were doing ODMA we started figuring out what captured people’s attention in education, and the two are really related.”

42courses combines these lessons learnt with gamification.

“Imagine a world where people were as addicted to learning as they were to playing their favourite game. That’s probably our mission. If you could do that, amazing things could happen,” he said.

The gamification aspect is achieved on 42courses by three different types of questions. Firstly, it tells a story and then asks a multiple choice question that requires learners to go and look for the answer online.

“If you have a look at the way different people search for something, it’s funny. Some people go to Wikipedia, some to blogs, some to videos. The way people like to consume their knowledge is very different, and there’s no right or wrong,” he said.

“You know what the end goal is but how you get to it is totally up to you.”

Users are immediately told whether they are right or wrong, which Rawlinson says speaks to the desire of people for faster feedback loops. The second type of question is designed to help people learn by doing. Say the user is taking a social media course, they may be required to set up a Twitter account. This aspect is marked by a human, though Rawlinson said the startup was considering adding two step authentication or machine learning to make it more automatic.

Finally, users are required to give an opinion-based answer. They are then able to look at answers given by other people that have taken the course, and pick their favourites. This is designed to humanise the online learning experience, something Rawlinson said is missing from other platforms.

“One of the things you miss most when doing digital learning is the human interaction part. Probably the best way that we learn is when we talk to our peers and our friends,” he said.

“Everyone in the world is different, we all look at the world in a different way. Putting in opinion-based questions allows you to see the solution to the problem from another perspective that you didn’t know existed. It helps humanise the course and it helps you learn a lot more.”

Key target groups for 42courses are pre-university students getting some background on possible courses, and individuals looking to make themselves more competitive in the job market. By awarding users with a certificate from the brand behind the course, and allowing this to be automatically integrated with LinkedIn qualifications, 42courses looks to add a reward element Rawlinson said is missing elsewhere.

The first course on the platform is in behavioural economics, provided by Ogilvy, but there are a number of other courses in the pipeline in areas such as fintech, entrepreneurship and social media. Rawlinson initially plans to launch a course per month, before gradually moving on to three per month.

“There’s no point rushing otherwise we will skip on the quality of the courses,” he said.

Aside from the benefit to learners, he said brands can also gain from the concept of “branded learning” by building greater trust with consumers by imparting their knowledge.

“As a human we trust brands naturally, even though we think we don’t. For us there’s a value to it, which is why people are willing to pay for it. It’s in our heads that we can trust them,” Rawlinson said.

“There’s something really magical about the lessons coming from the people that actually do the job day in, day out, rather than those teaching the academic theory. The lessons you can learn from the people on the coal face are much bigger.”

As an affordable marketing tool for brands this is not to be underestimated.

“Brands will spend millions of dollars to capture 30 seconds of someone’s attention. This way they can capture more and not pay at all. They just have to share their knowledge and wisdom. If this goes right we could have a world where we don’t actually need any advertising,” Rawlinson said.

“If you as a brand can empower someone to be better, you will be loved and admired much, much more. You’ll have a fan for life.”

Readers of Disrupt Africa can use the code “DisruptAfrica” to obtain a 20 per cent discount on 42courses.com.

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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