It is been nearly four years since that infamous Stanford MOOC, Introducing AI, that saw over 160,000 students signing up, was offered. Since then we have seen a tremendous amount of buzz around MOOCs and digital courses. Initially the buzz was all positive – NYT even called 2012 the year of the MOOC – and then it seemed MOOCs could do nothing right, as the world discovered their low completion rates and that most of the enrollees were not bright third-world kids but well-off graduates from developed countries.

In these years, we have also seen the launch of Minerva and AltSchool, two post-digital institutions, one in Higher Ed and the other in K12, that seem designed from birth to take advantage of the internet and latest in edtech. We have also seen a maturing of the MOOC business model, with initiatives such as edX-ASU Global Freshman Academy and UIUC-Coursera’s iMBA, that aim to marry real-world credentials and pathways with the latest in online learning.

This thus seems an apt time to take stock of how MOOCs and digital learning have impacted pedagogy and the online learning model. In this post I will talk about five innovations – or greatest hits, or design principles – that have emerged in the area of digital learning models. These innovations include pedagogical innovations, business model innovations and lastly technological innovations.

A new player entering the arena of digital learning can adopt these innovations to enhance learning and mastery amongst students, increase completion rates and lay the foundation for a robust business model.

Let us look at these five innovations –

1) Coursera’s Signature Track uses the unique biometric signature generated by your typing pattern (similar to fingerprints) to help verify that the work submitted is indeed your own. The Signature Track not only brings in revenue for Coursera ($4m in Apr’14 alone), but also helps students signal commitment to themselves, thereby enhancing completion rate. (Over 90% of Signature Track learners complete vs 4-5% in general!)  The signature track is the digital learning world’s equivalent of skin in the game.

2) Minerva’s Online learning platform which the Atlantic labels “good but fascistic”. Minerva follows a unique ‘hoteling’ model. All students (only 28 of them in the founding batch) stay together in the same dorm in San Francisco, but attend classes online. The professors could be anywhere – San Francisco or Siberia. The online platform is designed for intense interactivity and engagement. More importantly it is able to create pedagogical breakthroughs that wouldn’t be possible in its offline, physical counterpart, such as a professor being able to see the list of answers submitted online and select the most interesting one for a discussion, which he cant always do in a physical setting.

3) Harvard Business School’s online education initiative (HBX) has designed its program around collaborative learning, incentivizing it through carrots such as linking grading to participation and collaboration, and sticks such as not allowing students to view course content if they had not filled their profiles, designed to foster greater interaction. Another interesting design principle was “rough synchronization”, making sure “that participants were never more than a few days ahead of or behind other participants”. HBX’s Bharat Anand says “Social learning was one the major bets we made at HBX. When students asked a question on the platform or struggled with a concept, we resisted the urge to jump in, instead leaving it to peers to do so. The results were remarkable (and somewhat humbling if you’re an expert): in more than 90% of cases, questions were precisely and accurately answered by the peer group.“

4) AltSchool’s playlists and cards – Students “get their own weekly ‘playlists’, queues of individual and group activities tailored to the specific strengths and weaknesses of each kid”. Each playlist is “built around a set of ‘cards’, displaying on the tablet screen a particular educational goal, personalized for the student, along with a list of assignments the student needs to complete in order to meet the goal. In any given week, students have 15 to 25 personal cards active in the system, and these determine what they study.

5) edX-ASU’s flipped credit (my term) approach – This approach which was presented as a key element of the Global Freshman Academy initiative.  It inverts the sequence of sign up for credit (pay up front) and then hopefully complete the course to complete the course and then obtain the credit (pay later). Education policy wonk Kevin Carey said it aptly when he tweeted “One of the most interesting things about the new ASU / edX partnership is how it rearranges the order of things to minimize student risk”. A related innovation is ASU’s offer to extend credits to courses offered by other universities as well.