Behind iversity: The Path to Online Education

The New York Times declared 2012 to be The Year of the MOOC, and rightfully so. Without a doubt, online learning has developed into an invaluable appendage of education over the past few years, and as MOOCs erupted in 2012 with particular force, it brought along with it hype, buzz and debate. But now that the dust has settled, we see that it wasn’t just a fad, but just the beginning of the imminent transformation of education through technology. As online courses bring the lecture hall into the living room, the possibility to earn ECTS credits through MOOCs on iversity.org, creates many new exciting opportunities for students, faculty and institutions of higher education. 

However, the story began long before the platform existed in its current form.

Jonas Liepmann, the founder of iversity, originally started the project as a student by writing an application for the EXIST-programme, a government scholarship for aspiring student entrepreneurs, in late 2008. His initiative was driven by a simple idea: the Internet has been invented to facilitate the communication and publication within academia. Afterwards, it went on to revolutionise society in many ways. Just the workings of the academy had largely been left untouched. He secured a 100,000€ in public funding and started to work on the prototype of a platform that was a blend of a social network and an online work space for academic group work – be it in classes, research or study groups. In the application for the funding he wrote what would later become a core of MOOCs: publishing recorded lectures and presentations in audio and videocasts in combination with discussion forums that serve as preparations for and processing after the lectures.

At the same time, iversity's current Managing Director Hannes Klöpper and his friends were also thinking possibilities offered by online education. In the fall of 2008, they won a student idea award. Hannes and his three friends, Jan Barth, Ralph Müller-Eiselt and Simon Lange, felt that publishing university lectures online would be a great way to make higher education more accessible. Unlike existing portals such as the the University Channel of Princeton University and TIMMS at the Universität Tübingen, they envisioned their "YouTube for academic content" (the working title was "bildungsrepublik.de") to have a social layer that would allow for student interaction online. An idea that in hindsight is very much reminiscent of the MOOCs that we know today. 

The educational pioneers today
 

In mid-2011, Jonas and Hannes managed to raise the first round of funding for iversity and transformed Jonas' existing business into a GmbH. Simon Lange, from the bildungsrepublik.de crew, became the company's founding COO. In 2012, Simon left the company to pursue a career in th field of educational research at the SVR-Forschungsbereichs (Sachverständigenrat deutscher Stiftungen für Integration und Migration), continuing to apply his expertise in educational inequality, recruitment of skilled labour abroad and demographic change. Ralph Müller-Eiselt went on to become first executive assistant and later senior advisor to Jörg Dräger at the Bertelsmann Stiftung. As such he made major contributions to the widely acclaimed book Dichter, Denker, Schulversager. Jan Barth is the last of the four still enrolled, currently pursuing a Ph.D. in law at the Ludwig-Maximilians Universität München. 

In October 2012, Hannes co-authored Die Universität im 21. Jahrhundert (The University in the 21st Century) with the renowned late Professor Yehuda Elkana, a book that explores what it is universities should be teaching as well as how they should go about teaching it. Together with Jonas Liepmann and supported by business angel Marcus Riecke, he managed to refocus the company on the emergent online education opportunity in early 2013. While Jonas left the company and Marcus transitioned into the advisory board within the course of 2013, Hannes remains on board as Managing Director, hoping to realise the enormous potential of the iversity idea: to tear down institutional boundaries and to make higher education available online.

In short: the successful MOOC platform that you see today did not spring up overnight. Nor is it a copy cat. Rather it is the culmination of a lasting commitment to bring education into the digital age.