One of MIT Technology Review’s Top 10 Innovators Under 35 in France for 2015, Mathieu Nebra incorporates community interaction into his online training platform with a view to abolishing the divide between college and company in the longer term.

An innovator? Mathieu spent his childhood with a family where the atmosphere was certainly conducive to innovation:  his mother was a primary school teacher and his father an entrepreneur – a combination which the young engineer says ‟probably influenced me”.

It was in fact a problem he ran into during his teenage years in 1999 that led him to set up his own website: ‟At the time, I was 13 or 14 and I wanted to create a website. The Internet was very limited in terms of information and the books I found in bookshops were all written for professionals.”  Mathieu overcame these obstacles and – like a true self-starter – managed to train himself up using one of those not-so-suitable books.  ‟I was so frustrated at having to learn that way that I decided to set up a website to help others to create one,” he explains. This online platform was at first only of use to his friends and family, but it then became a lucky victim of word-of-mouth recommendations.

After obtaining his baccalauréat (school-leaving diploma) specialising in mathematics and science subjects and then studying for three years at the French School of Electronics and Computer Science (EFREI) in the Greater Paris region, Mathieu decided to set up his own company two years before receiving his degree. ‟The site had begun to grow and I could no longer feed it all on my own, so I got people to help out on a voluntary basis both by writing courses and correcting course participants’ homework.” The current platform – OpenClassrooms – was co-created with a developer friend, Pierre Dubuc, and launched in 2007.

The disruptive idea? Anyone can register free of charge on the platform at any time of the year to follow courses which have been written by all types of people – learners as well as professionals. You can get the site to check your level in your chosen subject on an ongoing basis. ‟On our platform we have a peer review mechanism,” explains Mathieu. It is precisely this community aspect that differentiates OpenClassrooms from rival providers. ‟When a student submits a piece of work, three others correct it, including at least one who has a higher level of knowledge than the person submitting the work.” The person whose work has been corrected is expected to make a similar effort: ‟You only get your mark when you yourself have corrected three other pieces of work,” he stresses.

Nebra admits that this give-and-take approach to learning might be destined to fail. ‟We didn’t think we could make this work. But in the end as soon as we put our trust in the people who register, most prove to be totally worthy of this trust.”

Some examples of the courses on offer to all on the OpenClassrooms platform

So what impact is the platform having? Mathieu Nebra claims that, contrary to what you most often read in the media, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are far from ‘revolutionising ‘ the education system: ‟People would like to believe there’s a revolution whereas in fact it’s all about small evolutionary steps.” But the impact of some MOOCs, both on the education system and on the entrepreneurial front, certainly cannot be denied. ‟We really believe that the boundaries are going to fade away and that both school teaching and professional training will make increasing use of online platforms.” Moreover, why should people abruptly stop learning as soon as they obtain their diploma? ‟People need to keep learning, especially those who gained their diplomas a few years ago and want to keep abreast of innovation. The digital world is evolving very fast and new concepts have to be taken on board on an ongoing basis. So we need more education inside companies and vice versa, i.e. more business orientation inside schools,” argues Mathieu Nebra. In fact his stated goal is to end the divide between the business world and the world of formal education. Even at startups, training is essential: ‟When it comes to online acquisition, I’m the first to be surprised at the speed at which knowledge is accelerating. The first people to be impacted by this fast increase in knowhow are the developers, who consequently need to be continually learning.”   

MOOCs definitely have the potential to transform the way we learn. As Nebra explains: ‟Every year 120,000 people complete our courses on creating a website in HTML,” a total which few universities and schools could aspire to. But can a course followed online compare with a teacher-led face-to-face programme? Mathieu Nebra believes so, and thinks that it is more about the person than the course structure. ‟We can see a certain disconnect on the part of university lecturers vis-à-vis new technologies.” However, MOOCs can help to reconnect teachers with their students and make teaching easier. ‟Some lecturers recommend MOOCs and run supervised work sessions to help their students use them. This is a smart way to work,” argues the OpenClassrooms CEO.

And what does the future hold? Nebra is well aware that his platform cannot cover all subjects. ‟Instead of aiming to have courses on all subjects we want to specialise in certain fields,” so as to keep quality high, he reveals. In addition, the tech entrepreneur wants to maintain and even step up the community interaction aspect: ‟The idea is to bring students closer together, on a human as well as physical level, for example by working in ‘blended learning mode.” He is far from thinking that digital tools should entirely replace face-to-face learning: ‟There’s a place for face-to-face education and also for online training; it’s a combination of the two that will be really successful,” he insists.

In the near future, Nebra wants OpenClassrooms platform development to follow a strategy of tailoring information closely to users’ needs: ‟Rather than setting an overall timetable and deadlines, we’re planning to offer a model which suits the person following the course.” The team’s main goal is not so much a huge increase in the number of users – today there are already a million people registered – but rather to ‟find a viable balanced business model for all the parties involved.” The OpenClassrooms team is also in the process of making the website more international, as Mathieu Nebra explains: ‟Today the site is available in English, German, and Chinese, as well as French, but we’re still at the very beginning of this process.”

The team has recently made a number of improvements to keep the focus on the learner as a priority, given that ‟OpenClassrooms has a large B2C user segment to serve before looking at the B2B side.” And it is worth remembering that the startup itself is also constantly innovating: ‟We’re constantly experimenting to find the most effective model, and this means that the ideas we put forward have quite a high failure rate. But these failures always teach us something, and the margin of error we allow ourselves generates the sort of team spirit which we’re trying to help foster inside companies,” underlines the MIT Technology Review award winner.

By Anthéa Delpuech