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Online Learning and Upheavals in Social Networks

This year, the Web was dominated by online education, shifting social networks, and the continued march toward mobile.
December 28, 2012

For all the attention lavished on the Web’s growth on mobile devices this year, one of the most interesting Internet trends is still best experienced on a desktop computer: online education.

Live and learn: Everybody went mobile in 2012 (or so it seemed), but the most groundbreaking movement on the Web may have been the rise of digital education.

The rising cost of higher education (the average bachelor’s degree now costs more than $100,000), combined with increasing access to high-speed Internet service and a desire for more efficient and flexible learning methods, brought new prominence to websites offering free or low-priced courses in everything from programming to literature.

Free online code-learning startup Codecademy’s effort to teach novices to code snagged more than 400,000 participants for its weekly lessons in JavaScript, HTML, and CSS. Harvard and MIT joined forces to create edX, a $60 million nonprofit company that streams free college courses online, while nearly three dozen schools—including Stanford and Princeton—formed their own free online course site, Coursera, which has more than 1.5 million users so far.

Udacity, cofounded by Sebastian Thrun, a Google Fellow and former Stanford researcher, started out by offering a single Stanford artificial intelligence class online for free. It has since grown and now offers 19 different free courses, mostly geared toward computer science and math. And Duolingo, a free crowdsourced language-learning startup cocreated by Carnegie Mellon University professor Luis von Ahn, has about 300,000 users per week learning French, Spanish, English, Italian, German, and Portuguese.

Perhaps the most ambitious (and highly funded) online education offering unveiled in the last year was the Minerva Project, which raised $25 million from Benchmark Capital for its plan to offer a completely online college education for about $25,000 a year. We’ll have to wait to gauge the Minerva Project’s impact, though: it’s not starting classes until 2015.

Despite the initial wave of enthusiasm, it’s not yet clear whether many of these startups or universities will be able to form sustainable business models, or if online classes can really work well on a large scale (many of the students that sign up for classes don’t actually complete them).

Fortunately, because they operate on the Web, these education efforts are able to gather lots of data about how their students are learning—potentially useful for tweaking lessons and improving performance.

Another segment of the Web that experienced major changes in 2012 was social networking. More than eight years after it began in Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room, Facebook crossed the billion-user milestone in October.

The leading social network also became a publicly traded company, albeit not a particularly successful one; the stock began trading on May 18 at $42; as of Wednesday, it had declined to $26.51. This move means that Facebook, which is constantly gathering more data about our lives, is now facing even greater pressure to find ways to profit from this information. Facebook bought the popular photo-sharing service Instagram in a bid to beef up its own photo-sharing offerings and capitalize on Instagram’s influence as a standalone app. Facebook set the acquisition price at $1 billion in April, but the stock and cash deal was worth about $715 million when it closed in August due to the drop in Facebook’s share price.

Pinterest, a social-curation site founded by Ben Silbermann that lets you “pin” interesting items found online to virtual pinboards, emerged in 2012 as one of the most popular social networking sites. Though Pinterest launched back in 2010, it suddenly ascended early this year. In April, a report from Experian Marketing Services named it the third most popular social network behind Facebook and Twitter.

Of course, more and more of the Web was experienced on smartphones and tablets in 2012. The first time smartphones and tablets outsold personal computers was 2011, and that trend continued in 2012. Mobile Internet usage has been rising quickly—it accounted for 13 percent of Web traffic in November—and it’s expected to grow more dramatically. According to IDC, the number of mobile users is expected to climb from 174 million this year to 265 million in 2016, with more of us accessing the Web with a mobile device than with a PC in 2015. So if you’re not already reading this story on a smartphone or tablet, chances are you will be soon.

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