Every iPhone has an iTunes U app. Sebastian Thrun, CEO and cofounder of online education company Udacity, is a Stanford professor and former Google X executive. Adaptive-learning company Knewton refers to itself as the "Amazon Web Services of online education." Reid Hoffman, cofounder of LinkedIn, was an early investor in Knewton, too. Amazon acquired online math education start-up TenMarks to make education apps. What's to stop the giants among tech pure plays from ultimately dominating in the rapidly evolving online education space? Student certifications for course completions being offered by Coursera and others are being used to pad LinkedIn profiles, so how much of a leap is it to LinkedIn University?
One thing is certain: As online education becomes big business, it will also be one of the biggest data grabs that exists for Silicon Valley—and it will be interesting to see how the tech pure plays capitalize on the advances being made today by the education-tech pure plays.
Jose Ferreira, CEO of Knewton, said education is the most "data-mine-able" of all big data industries. "Education produces far more data per users than any other industry—vastly more data each day than Google and Netflix," he said. Ferreira believes that as more courses go online—whether through massive open online courses (MOOCs) that compete with his company, or blended learning like Knewton offers through publishers and partner institutions—individuals will carry around lifetime profiles based on every course they have ever taken. The data will "know" what you know about each concept and how and when you learn best.
(Read more: The biggest data grab is education: Commentary)
"Is it science in 23-minute bites, math best in the morning?" Ferreira speculated. "If a course knows you will struggle next Thursday because it builds on concepts you are already weak at, we know that in advance, and in our world, maybe we never let you get to the point where you struggle on Thursday," the Knewton CEO said.
Ferreira said that is very valuable information to universities, but it's also intriguing to Silicon Valley's biggest platforms.