Adding Collaboration to Massive Online Courses

column | MOOCs

Adding Collaboration to Massive Online Courses

Startup aims to make online learning a more social experience

By Betsy Corcoran (Columnist)     Apr 15, 2013

Adding Collaboration to Massive  Online Courses

The MOOC craze is barely 18 months old and it continues to inspire concern and hope among investors and educators.

Although many investors worry that the business models for online education seem speculative, entrepreneurs continue to explore refinements on the idea of using the power of the Internet to connect people--no matter where they really live--to quality education.

Add to the list of possible disruptors a 14-month old startup, NovoEd, born out of Stanford University. It celebrated its coming out on Monday at the Education Innovation Summit meeting this week in Phoenix. NovoEd comes with a hefty dose of technological and pedagogical talent. And although its cofounder and chief executive Amin Saberi says he expects to support some classes for free, he intends for the group to devote more time supporting universities that will pay for the privilege of using the NovoEd platform.

NovoEd has already won over a top-notch cast of venture and angel funders including Costanoa Ventures, Foundation Capital, Kapor Capital, Learn Capital, Maveron, Ulu Ventures and angel investors. Saberi declines to say how much NovoEd has raised but it's a safe bet that it's north of $2 million.

NovoEd aims to create a social learning environment for online programs. Whereas many MOOCs were inspired by the success of Sal Khan's record-it-once-and-play-it-again-Sam approach to pedagogy, NovoEd aims to support classes that stress collaboration and projects that are impossible to assess through multiple-choice quizzes. It is the brainchild of Stanford computer science professor, Saberi, who specializes in social networks and Phd student, Farnaz Ronaghi.

The platform that they are building lets participants create their own teams to tackle projects, submit their work and review what those teams--and even the team members--are doing. It also gives teachers opportunities to share not just lectures and reference materials but a process for training students to evaluate one another's work.

The platform reflects the problem it was originally designed to solve--how to conduct an outrageously large number of sophisticated students on a class that demands creativity and collaboration. (The flip side is that NovoEd is not a natural tool for content-heavy classes where teachers need to measure how well students absorb material.)

Saberi and Ronaghi got involved when Stanford University colleague, Chuck Eesley, was considering putting his course on entrepreneurship on Coursera. Eesley's course stressed collaboration, however, and so Saberi and Ronaghi threw together a structure to support such work. When the class was offered in March 2012, 78,000 students from 150 countries signed up. Some 37,000 students said they wanted to participate in a project and an impressive 10,000 finished their projects, Saberi says. (That 12% completion rate beats many "conventional" MOOCs, where barely 5% of the students who start the program finish.)

What also amazed Saberi and Eesley were the number of students who organically formed their own teams to work on projects. As other Stanford faculty caught wind of the project, they expressed interest in teaching classes via the program (originally called Venture Lab) as well. "Our focus is on pedagogy," says Saberi.

The team saw a similar trend when other Stanford profs offered their classes via the platform. For instance, Stanford professor Tina Seelig offered her course on creativity via the platform in the autumn 2012 semester. About 40,000 students signed up. Of the 2,000 people who filled out the end-of-class survey, 74% indicated that the online program was an effective way to teach creativity--and that it was similar or better to a traditional class.

So far six classes have been offered via NovoEd.

In January 2013, Saberi, already on a sabbatical, extended his leave and spun Venture Lab out of Stanford into a stand-alone company, rechristened NovoEd. The team now has a full-time team of seven (no more current Stanford students, however), a handful of part-time contributors and an office in Menlo Park.

Beginning next week, seven Stanford courses will be offered for free to the general public via NovoEd.

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