A couple years ago, I sat in on a "Technology in the Classroom" course. We spent the early part of the day talking about new tools that were available. The discussion turned into a litany of complaints: IT policies that prevented the installation of new software, draconian site-blocking measures, thimble-sized storage allowances. At every turn, each new tool that a teacher wanted to try out would require a fight with administration. The frustration was palpable. "Why are the IT people making pedagogical decisions?" lamented one teacher, "Why do they get the final say about what does and does not happen in my classroom?"
Joseph Cohen, cofounder and CEO of Coursekit, agrees. The problem, he says, is that most educational software is bought and sold at the enterprise level. The people deciding what to acquire are not the people using it and that disconnect has allowed unusable software to flourish. It’s a situation he likens to RIM vs. the iPhone. When companies were in charge of picking and distributing PDAs, BlackBerry reigned. Now, Apple’s strategy of going directly to the user is ascendant, and more and more IT departments are supporting personally owned devices on the corporate network.In the educational market, the role of BlackBerry is played by Blackboard, the dominant player in learning management systems. It was created in the '90s, and though it was groundbreaking at the time, Cohen says, it’s mostly a file locker, and that’s a commodity service now, provided by companies such as Dropbox. Coursekit is intended to be a well-designed alternative (we’ll get to the UI in a second) but the problem is the go-to-market strategy. With Blackboard owning the (typically more conservative) administration and IT departments, getting traction is a huge challenge.
To solve this, Coursekit is going straight to the users—teachers and students. They’re giving it away for free directly to teachers who can then give out codes to their students. As a result of this classroom-first focus, Coursekit is iconoclastically uninterested in talking to administration. (The FAQ politely explains that while they’re happy to have administrator support, Coursekit can only be set up on a class-by-class basis.) For Cohen, these business decisions are just as much a part of the design of the product.
"Everyone’s a designer, whether or not they know they’re in design," he told me, "The business design is just as important as the product if we want to do any damage in this space."
On the product design side of things, Coursekit is focused on a user experience that is as simple and elegant as possible. This means that all the basics are there: a calendar, file sharing, submitting assignments, and grading work, but in ways that are stripped down to what Coursekit’s user testing has shown them to be the essentials.
Cohen says that the more important thing is the integration of social elements. "A class is a group of people, it is an inherently social situation."
Of course, many people are already using other social platforms for organizing themselves in educational environments, but Cohen says that the problem with them is that they weren’t designed for an educational context.
Take the Facebook wall. Coursekit has something very much like it (called the Stream) and this similarity is no coincidence. "People are already familiar with that language," says Cohen. But the problem with the Facebook wall is that it really only wants short updates. Long posts don’t work on it at all. When it comes to education, postings might range in length from a photo or link, to the multi-page first draft of a term paper.
To deal with this, the team took inspiration from (the old) #newTwitter interface. Each element in the stream brings up a side panel when you click on it, showing the full-length item and any responses to it. "The result is that it turns short stuff into long stuff," says Cohen, as people are more comfortable discussing something when the interface is roomy enough to encourage it.
Coursekit is full of these small enhancements, says Cohen, with subtle feedback mechanisms, small fades, automatic pulling of books covers from Amazon, and a UI written in Coffeescript, which allows them to never have to refresh the page. The goal is that the site should be as responsive as an app, with UI elements that are stripped down and as lightweight as possible, so that they get out of the way of the content.
"We are always asking 'how can we make it feel living and human?'" he says.Equally important are the elements that they left out. Normally, the first thing you see when you log into a social network is a personal dashboard of all things that relate to you. Coursekit omits this. Earlier versions of the service had one, but after testing they decided that it was too abstract, taking people away from the core of the experience, which is being in class. Now, when you log in you go directly to the class you’re taking, starting with the stream. The feeling is that you are on the instructor’s turf, but socializing with other students.
"The reality for now is that you’re probably only taking a single class in Coursekit anyway," he told me, "so having a dashboard was redundant."
In time, Cohen hopes to change that, as word of the service spreads across campuses from students to instructors and back again. Despite the fact that there are many Blackboard competitors, many instructors don’t even know that there are alternatives. They don’t get to choose what they use, so why bother learning about what else is out there? Cohen says that by reaching out to students and instructors, they have a better chance of encouraging someone to make the attempt. This may seem like a risky model for educational selling, but the textbook market is direct to instructor, he points out. In a lot of ways, it’s using the enterprise model for educational software that’s the exception.
Speaking of textbooks, you may be wondering what the business model is for giving away a comprehensive learning management system for free. Coursekit is pursuing the "build a userbase and then work out how to monetize that" route. The obvious option might seem to be ads, but Cohen sees a better way. Beyond the broken business model for learning management systems, Cohen sees a big shift coming in the way that textbooks are made, sold, and distributed. The days of dead tree editions that are slightly updated every few years are numbered. You can catch a glimpse of what might be coming in the Kindle, the App Store and products like Inkling.
"The textbooks of the future will not be textbooks," he says. But there will be a need for educational content, and much of that will be bought (remember, direct-to-instructor is already at the heart of that businesses). If all goes well, Coursekit is the seed of the storefront of the future for educational products, with a ready-made group of customers who are already logging in.
"There are personal social networks (Facebook and Twitter) and there are business networks (LinkedIn) but there’s no learning network yet," says Cohen. "We want to be that."