Udemy Reinvents Itself With a Focus on Q&A, Personalized Discovery

Online education startup Udemy today unveiled major changes to its web-based platform, including several new features and an overhaul of the site. Aside from a new responsive design intended to feel at home regardless of the size of your browser, and to provide a speedy experience for Udemy users, the site now offers a number of new features, including a Q&A section attached to every class, and personalized content recommendations to help users find more courses they might be interested in taking.

The Netflix-style recommendations are a particularly useful addition for Udemy, since they’ll help the company drive discovery and share some of the love their top instructors are receiving with the rest of the class. Recommendations are drawn from the current and past class subscriptions of students, as well as manual input solicited from them by the website about what types of things they’re interested in.

Not using a fully automated approach will help Udemy hone its suggestions, whereas completely machine-powered suggestions often miss the mark, especially with something as potentially complex as what skillsets a person might like to learn. Factors like personal taste and history could be influenced by unpredictable elements like job requirements, so it’s a smart strategy on the part of Udemy. And founder and CEO Eren Bali said in an interview that in the future, they’ll also introduce a way to provide negative feedback, so they’ll know exactly what kind of content students aren’t interested in, too.

As for the Q&A features, Bali said that the company was seeing a clear opportunity for this kind of tool based on student behavior on the site. There was already a lot of Q&A activity going on, especially between and among students themselves, but there wasn’t really a for-purpose area dedicated to that activity.

“In the comments, people have been asking questions and sometimes students are helping each other,” Bali explained about the development of the feature. “So we looked at that and realized it’s a huge element of the program, because if you’re taking a course with 5,000 other people, other students are likely to be helping you. It’s not just the instructor that’s able to help you. We wanted to take that behavior and make it more focused.”

Instructors can also use the Q&A feature to clarify points and interact directly with their students. Bali said that there are clear incentives on the site to do so, since  it’ll affect students’ perceptions of the course and its quality, driving up ratings and helping instructors reach larger audiences. But the Q&A section also automatically becomes a searchable database, offering up answer suggestions from previously asked questions based on what you input, so that you can easily see if your issue’s already been addressed and avoid unnecessary rework, for both the community and the instructor.

Other features, including time-tagged note taking to make it easier to check when in a lesson you wanted to flag something, help make this a fairly top-to-bottom overhaul of the website and its mechanics. The formula that helped Udemy earn big paydays for its top instructors is still there (the top 10 earned a combined $1.6 million in one year), but now it’s supported by more in-depth features surrounding the main course delivery product. For the startup, iterating based on student feedback will be a key driver of growth, especially as other ways for people to sell their knowledge online emerge, and the pool of talented experts who populate these sites with content have their attention pulled in multiple directions, giving them less time to spend on any one endeavor.

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