Versal CEO: Building online courses should be easy [CES 2014]
A lack of coding or programming skills can be a deterrent for some educators when it comes to creating an online course. Fortunately, Versal, a nonprofit online learning platform, has set out to remedy that.
With Versal, educators wishing to create an online course or module can do so with little to no technical skills required. The course creator's interface lets users see the course as their students would see it, as they're creating it — no filling out a form and clicking "preview" required. Best of all, headers, images, videos, and more can be easily dragged and dropped into place, while gadgets like Sketchfab allow the embedding of complex 3D models.
"The idea was to create a very clean and simple interface for anyone to be able to create a course," says Versal CEO Gregor Freund. By the looks of things, the company succeeded.
Recently, Versal, which awards grants for course creation via its Versal Foundation, announced new tools for group collaboration, allowing a primary course author to grant access to others wishing to contribute to the course. Among the tools are the ability for authors to comment on various pieces of a course and administrate how much access collaborators have when altering content.
Education Dive caught up with Freund and VP of Marketing Allison Wagda at CES 2014, where Freund was scheduled to speak on a TransformingEDU panel about the power of co-creation and collaboration. The CEO told us about his vision for online learning, his company's biggest challenges, and the two awards Versal won at the show.
Versal's booth at the Venetian. (Photo credit: Versal)
So Versal just launched its new group collaboration tool. Can you tell me more about that?
FREUND: Sure. When we launched Versal, one of the things we found very, very quickly is it’s very, very hard for one person alone to build a course. So that was the basics. And we had planned to put collaboration in from the beginning. It turned out that the overall model of how you author a Versal course actually really helped for collaboration, because you have already this learning gadget and you can just say you created one, you own it, you can edit it, and so the whole complication with having multiple authors — it’s just like a technical complication, actually — posed a really big problem for us.
But the cool thing about it is that out of that, we actually started to find all kinds of amazing different models on how we now can use Versal beyond the original vision. It starts out that we actually—that you can build almost like wiki kind of courses, that you can have a complete open collaboration and say, “Well, I really would like to have a course on, I don’t know, some aspect of organic chemistry.” And we can invite other people to work with that, but you also can make it completely open. So you can have hundreds of people work on the same course, almost like a Wikipedia entry, because all those things, for example, where a professor or a couple of professors in the U.S. can work together with teachers in Senegal to build courses for underprivileged that are appropriate for the local communities. So it creates a worldwide model that we actually hadn’t thought would be possible, and that’s really why we made such a big fuss about collaboration.
It’s just the ability for people to work together on courses. So our first step really was anybody can do courses, now anybody can do courses together.
Do you see Versal as part of the overall MOOC movement?
FREUND: Not really. What we are is strictly a technology provider. We build technology for MOOCs, but we build also technologies for educational startups in other areas and so on. But we really found that educators are not used to building technologies themselves, and they get into a lot of troubles because they have to hire developers. And developers do some things well, some things not well. Often, the process takes too long and so on.
So by providing a platform where everybody without programming experience can build courses, that’s really what our role is. Our role is not to tell people what kind of content they should build on top of it. A MOOC kind of builds this exclusive relationship. “We own the content. We own the platform.” And it really reduces, in many cases, teachers and professors to glorified TAs, and I don’t think that’s right. I think every teacher should be able to build their own course.
We see French teachers put together a quick quiz for irregular verbs, kind of like a practice course, in half an hour and present them to the class the next day. So we see a lot more participation from teachers, from professors in building these courses, that are necessary courses, for a million people.
One other thing that the MOOC movement has found out, and there’s actually pretty interesting materials on that, is that the way they were set up was not very effective. So yes, millions of people are learning it, but maybe 5,000 of those actually graduated, and of those, 2,000 passed the final test. The problem for a lot of MOOCs was that the courses weren’t very good. The courses were not interactive. They didn’t draw the people into it, as opposed to what you can build on Versal, which has really interactive things.
Collaboration in Versal. (Photo credit: Versal)
I also saw that you all were honorees for two awards: Tech for a Better World and Software and Mobile Apps. Can you tell me what that means for Versal?
ALLISON WAGDA: It was a significant validation because we knew we were up against some pretty tough competition, and we actually wrote the award submissions together. We spent a lot of time really trying to articulate who we are and what we’re doing, because it’s a big story and it’s a broad platform. It’s not a single app with a single function — it’s solving a big problem. And it does. Especially at this stage, it’s harder to explain. And so, it’s a completely blind process where you have somebody who reads your applications and goes through your product and looks at it all from their perspective — and I believe it’s journalists and all sorts of industry people. When we got the notifications — we were hopeful that we might get one. Getting both, we only submitted for the two, just really felt like — we’ve been so heads down on everything, we almost live in this little bubble right now. We talked to a lot of teachers, but beyond that, we haven’t gone out and talked to a lot of industry people and we haven’t spent a lot of time with the media. And it really was a validation.
FREUND: We worked a year and a half on the project, which we felt really, really good about. But still, because there’s so much core technology in there that it’s — I mean, you really don’t know what the outcome is. Can you actually pull it off? Sure. It looks very elegant and it looks very simple, but it’s an amazing technology challenge. It’s not just a content challenge or a challenge of a good design. There’s a huge amount of really hard core technology behind Versal. So once you kind of get your head up and kind of start getting feedback and stuff like that, it’s a huge relief that what you did not only gets validated by teachers and professors, but also gets validated by industry peers.
In particular, the “Better World” award was really important. The company’s very largely motivated by the fact that education in many parts of the world is inaccessible and/or too expensive. If you go to India, the public schools tend to be sub-par and the people who have enough money then hire tutors to actually hire tutors to bring their kids up to the level that they actually can enter prestigious universities. That’s just one example for many parts of the world, and that just exasperates social inequity.
At the very, very beginning, everyone should start out with the same kind of chance. By having an educational platform where anybody can publish anything, we hope to create a more even playing field.
How do the Versal grants work with the new collaborative tool?
FREUND: One of the grants we’ve given is already to a group of people, and it actually makes a lot of things more easy. Because that was one of the limitations of the grants. It makes it a lot easier for people to actually build courses and build groups around courses. It actually helps, if anything. We are giving grants no longer to individuals, but actually much rather to groups of people. So it works perfectly well. When we started to do the foundation, we knew that collaboration would come — we just didn’t know exactly when.
WAGDA: This “Basic Biology for Everyone” course was one of the winners and was done by a doctoral student from Michigan State, a guy who’s the southern regional director for Wikipedia’s education outreach program, and a dual masters at the University of Connecticut. The three of them wanted to team up, so in the beginning, in our initial conversations with them, they were planning to create the content offline and then upload it under one account and give each other the credentials. This way, all three of them can use their individual accounts. They comment inside the course creator. It takes it to a truly online collaborative environment where they’re all in different locations. It just makes it easy.
Gamified keyboard in a Versal. (Photo credit: Versal)
What is your biggest challenge?
FREUND: Our biggest challenge, really, right now, is if I went to talk to a teacher, they might automatically assume creating online courses is out of their reach, it’s out of their capability, and so on. Even when I tell them we have a course creation platform, they automatically assume it’s not for him or her. To actually tell people, “No. You can go on the website, sign up, create your own courses, give them to your class, give them to your students, publish them, embed them on your website, whatever you want to do with them,” it’s an amazing mental switch. Once they get it, it’s great, because it’s kind of like, “Hey, this is a whole new world of teaching, a new way of teaching.” But it really takes a lot of conversations with people like you to say, “Hey, listen. This is for everybody. Online courses are not just for the elite few that get selected by Coursera to do this specific course. It’s for everybody to do, and they can do a better job than most other people.”
Do you see Versal as a tool to help facilitate university learning or are you more interested in the lifelong learning applications?
FREUND: Any. We have a fairly significant number of actually companies that use it to train new employees. Two open-source companies actually use it to train programmers and developers to understand how their open-source software works. In that case, they actually build a window within the course that allows them to interact with the software. So instead of telling you, “oh, well this is a screenshot,” or, “this is how the command might work,” you just interact with the actual product, which is unheard of in this kind of a content. We are really agnostic. We are as good a platform for a MOOC with millions of users as we are for an individual teacher with a bunch of seventh graders, and it’s just as simple to do. And that’s really the cool thing about the company.
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