The Ingenious Business Model Behind Coursekit, A Tumblr For Higher Education

At universities, educational software largely means enterprise-scale, expensive, feature-stuffed "learning management systems." Blackboard has the majority of the market, but professors and students are about as enthusiastic about its various updates, crashes, and bugs as people are with the latest version of Windows (Blackboard scores a whopping 93% "hated" rating on website Amplicate).

Last week, a new alternative was launched—built by students—that looks and works a lot more like the social platforms people actually choose to use in their spare time. The core of the site is a constantly updated social Stream where instructors and students can conduct discussions or easily post rich media. Picture a cleaner-looking Facebook news feed, centered on a single academic theme, or a group Tumblr blog where each picture, question, or video can accumulate its own discussion in the attached comment thread.

"We wanted to create a simple, elegant LMS that covers 95% of instructors' needs, like grading, file management, calendaring, submitting assignments, and emailing with the class," says Joseph Cohen, 20, who left Wharton after his sophomore year when he scored $1 million in seed funding this past June to start Coursekit. "Blackboard covers 100%— that’s why it’s such a cluttered platform."

Since its launch this fall, Coursekit has drawn an unusual amount of buzz in edtech circles not only for the sleekness of its design but the ingenuity of its business model. Blackboard, and other LMS, are like the BlackBerry—they rely on wholesale adoption by large organizations, much as the PDA was once approved by corporations and issued en masse to their employees for free or at a discount. Coursekit is more like the iPhone: designed to appeal directly to the end consumer. In this case, Coursekit is betting that individual professors will find it more streamlined and easier to use than the reviled Blackboard. They piloted with profs at 30 campuses this fall, including Stanford, and currently have students serving as evangelists at 82 campuses.

The second ingenious part of their pitch may also turn out to be a pitfall. "We want to build this social network that spans multiple academic communities," says Cohen. "We want academic publishers to distribute through Coursekit, and software developers to use our API." The vision here is one that many in the edtech world have raised: a platform that can stay constant for students throughout their academic life, from grade school to grad school and beyond. Keep up with former classmates and professors and showcase the development of your learning on an accumulated profile of your participation in various courses that goes far beyond the flatness of a transcript.

When you look at Coursekit as a potential Facebook or LinkedIn for education, it's not just a piece of the $500 million LMS market they're gunning for; it's a chunk of the $500 billion higher education market. Online institutions could operate entirely through the site; brick and mortars could use it to enhance recruitment, retention, and student services.

That said, social networks must also monetize their users, usually through advertising. Educators will be especially sensitive to the commercialization and privacy concerns that come with that. Right now the platform is free for professors to adopt, and it will remain ad-free for at least a year, but after that anything could be fair game. 

[Image: Flickr user garybirnie]

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  • Jan Kraus

    I agree with Allan Yu. As a long-term faculty member at a large College, I know I speak for many other faculty there when I say that the interface needs "help" and I dislike using it.

    George Kroner, Technical Lead, Developer Programs at Blackboard commented "... not accurate to use one measure from a random web site..." However, it's not one measure, it's over 4,000 measures of user opinion that happen to be on one popular public opinion site. Obviously, something is wrong -- and obviously it would be much better to have 4000+ users loving it enough to put that on the same site.

    Where's the Emphasis on User Interface?
    Not to knock George personally, but in reply to an enthusiastic spokesperson for Blackboard, who is in a position to make a difference -- on George's website, the "keynote statement" emphasizes how important  the platform, plugin-ins, developers and the community are to success and the future, but no mention of  interface design or user experience. 

    Yes, those other factors are important, but to most end users, the faculty and students, (the customers/clients) -- those who ultimately, in the long term, generally determine the future of a product -- the interface, usability and user experience (next to features) are everything. Prime example: Apple.

    If Blackboard were to put a competent, current-minded interface designer in a major decision making position, with actual power to implement those decisions, the company would be moving in the right direction. A "Steve Jobs" for Blackboard. But from my perspective the company appears to be more developer, marketing, investor driven.

    Length of Time to Learn
    Tom Durkin who has been using it for 10 years, has commented that it only takes 1/2 hour to learn to use  (i'm assuming 10 years ago it took 1/2 an hour -- so today it should take 10 minutes ; ) 

    What's difficult about using Blackboard is not the "learning", anything can be learned, but it's remembering the series of unintuitive steps that need to be taken to achieve a simple task. Or deciphering and remembering illogical location or naming schemes and locations of tasks and functions. Plus the time taken to acknowledge input and selection processes along each step, leads to an overall unpleasant experience.

    Comparisons Kill
    Maybe it's 1/2 hour of solid focus to "learn" simple basics (at what level is the learning defined?)  but it takes constant, long term use to remember unintuitive actions -- bad news when those users are switching back & forth between their drag & drop or finger swipe and pinch Mac OS or iOS, Android or Blackberry and then Blackboard. In product side-by-side comparisons lesser products always stands out like an orange in a basket of Apples. Although with that comparison, it's more like an Ugli fruit (Google it ; )  in a basket of Apples (sorry Blackboard -- truth is often brutal)

    Limited Time
    Another consideration at our campus is that there are many sessional or part-time faculty who currently work in the Communication Arts industry and who only occasionally need to use Blackboard -- perhaps once a week. 

    Sessional faculty  who drive 45 minutes to get to the campus to teach a 2 hour class and 45 minutes back to their production facility, don't have time to waste deciphering what should be an intuitive interface especially when they compare it's use to their iOS, Android or Blackberry GUIs or Mac or Windows OS which they are using constantly daily. Most will use MS Excel, or any of the number of 3rd party, cross-platform grading programs available. These folks aren't the "lazy" ones, that Tom comments about, (we have them too) to the contrary, they work harder and longer than most full-time academic faculty, they value efficiency highly.

    Again, if the system was totally intuitive and fast and easy to use, any "lazy" academics would flock to it too.

    CourseKit vs Blackboard
    During a break in writing this, I signed up on Coursekit and ran through the demo.  My first impression: intuitive, fast & easy to use - not bad for a new product. Almost an instantaneous learn time, rarely did I have to pause to wonder what to do next or where was something I was looking for. Less is (often) more. Never a  lag or delay in system response which depends on server loads, network connections & loads etc. of course -- not a fair comparison to a fully loaded down server test. 

    I'm impressed enough to use it in conjunction with my self-hosted WordPress subject blogs and phpBB forums and online gradebook and my app. Since I teach web design and development and user interface design. I can use CourseKit vs Blackboard as interface & usability comparison examples in my classes. Perfect, since my students will be using each one during the coming semester.

    The Future is in the Interface
    Apple's & Microsoft's success and future is based primarily on interface design. It's a problem when the developers, software programmers and engineers are steering the design, as seems to be the case with Version 9 of Blackboard that my College uses with its archaic framesets & server refreshes every time data is entered. Maybe it's customized for use on our legacy equipment, if so that would be another lesson; Apple controls & standardizes what the developers can do to the interface for a consistent experience.

    When You're at the Top There's Only One Direction to Go
    As for the large installed base of Blackboard, at one time; Novell, WordPerfect and Quark Xpress all had large user bases and were 'the' standards. If users are using a product or service because of few choices, that doesn't mean they aren't wishing for a change -- if they aren't happy, they'd switch given a better alternative.

    However, Blackboard is in an enviable position, with academic clients who typically are glacially slow to change systems and the majority of end users at those institutions having no or little input or influence over what those institutions purchase. As well, unlike corporations, academia often tolerate inefficiency in business systems. So change to competitors will be slow, so there's still time to change the 'haters' to 'lovers'.

    Year of the Tablet or the Dragon?
    Next year, the Chinese Year of the Dragon, is being predicted by some pundits as the year that many switch to, or add tablets to their technology choices. On the Blackboard forum there are signs of that switch,  I read 2 recent posts from teachers who bought iPads specifically to use Blackboard on, only to find out it's not supported in the Safari browser.

    Get Out of the Past, The Future's Coming Fast
    Those are some of the things that need  to change, so those end users that aren't happy with Blackboard usability become promoters not complainers.

  • Jan Kraus

    In response to the evangelistic/marketing-speak blurb by George Kroner re: "feedback received from thousands of instructors over the past decade" etc.  I have many years of experience in User Interface Design and hi-tech commercial sales & marketing as well as a 4 year Art & Design diploma. Having used Blackboard as a design program faculty member, I can only believe that the feedback from 2001 to 2002 must make up the bulk of the design direction, as well, those "advisors' most likely had nothing to compare to, no 'yardstick' -- pencil & paper maybe?. 

    Being from hi tech industries it's obvious to me, from the crude GUI & clunky interface design, that the software programmers and engineers, such as yourself, are steering the design.You badly need help from the likes of Apple and Android app interface designers and others. The number  of sales Blackboard has tells me that they have a strong sales & marketing group & evangelists (such as yourself) -- that's how the sales numbers & installments increase -- been there done that. As well, in general, academics are "soft-sells" who are afraid to say anything too negative, they're not really hard-nosed business people who ask hard 'experienced' questions and heavily 'compare shop' and negotiate. You have a market advantage, so did WordPerfect, Novell, Quark Xpress, and RIM -- good user experiences are a way to keep it.Now on the other hand, the Blackboard interface & usability is telling me Blackboard has a weak UiX design group, (either that or their UxD skills are from a decade ago). The danger there is that if your clients ever get a taste of a slick, modern interface (such as the newer mobile technology and computer GUIs that are all around) you'll need to give it to them or lose them. Is your company reactive or proactive?Let me ask you a question -- why can I not scroll the Blackboard gradebook on an iPad 2 or iPhone for instance? Obviously advice from the past decade -- means you're designing from (for?) the past. Brilliant companies design for the future, i.e. Apple etc.Read your own forum about how teachers are starting to buy iPads (tablets & mobile ARE the future) and being disappointed trying to do simple things - this year not a decade ago ...

    I'm going to have to lug a laptop in just to look up marks entered instead of using my iPhone tomorrow at a meeting ... I can see the gradebook and the first 7 columns -- just can't scroll over to the next columns ... get programming George ; )

    But as long as you have folks like Tom who seem happy with a poor user interface you'll have fans, but what would be even better is, if your interface was so easy and great to use, that even those "lazy faculty could sit down and start using it INTUITIVELY in 15 minutes.

    By the way Tom, I'm one of those who prefer not to use Blackboard as it is (lazy?). I setup multiple WordPress (self-hosted) blogs, phpBB forums and use Engrade, Gradekeeper, Moodle, etc., etc.  a lot of extra work that most faculty don't have the knowledge skills, time or motivation to do.

    The lazy, easy way would be for me to just learn and use Blackboard and it's slow, clunky unintuitive interface. That's because one can get used to anything, if it's all you know and you work at it, as most academics are accustomed to doing (fortunately for Blackboard).

    i'm not doing this as a paid part of my work like George - my time - my opinion - so I guess I'll say goodbye ... George, survey more academic users (including students) and be like Apple and Microsoft and "borrow" and incorporate good UI ideas. Then take a look at this site (as painful as it may be) solve the majority of issues they complain about (obviously ignoring the petty or vague concerns) Good Luck !

  • tom durkin

    Note- we also have a few lazy faculty members who will not spend 1/2 an hour learning to use Blackboard.  My guess is that they will not use coursekit either.  

  • tom durkin

    I will give this a try.  I will have a problem when they tie it to advertising.  (Remember the Channel One debacle?  Students surveyed thought that George Burn's death was far more important news than Iraq disarmament,  Chinese missile testing or suicide bombers in Israel.)  

    I have been teaching for 20 years, and using Blackboard for 10.  I love it, & my almost all of  students really like it (the lazy ones don't).  If you think hitting the "Syllabus" button is too difficult a way to find a syllabus, there is another problem there.  I use Bb for everything.  It allows me to hold the students responsible for what I post, and for them to hold me responsible if I miss something.  In the last 10 years I have never had to deal with "But I was sick the day you told us that" excuses, nor have there been frantic late night emails and phone calls asking if Chapter 7 is really on the test.  

  • Allan Yu

    Hey George,

    I'm a student and my university uses blackboard as its LMS. 
    Let me tell you, it's one of the worst platforms I have ever used. 
    My professors hate using it and in fact have they just put the bear minimum on blackboard as a failsafe mechanism for lazy students. Most assignments and course materials are given out via email. In fact, one of my professor has gone as far as making a course blog on wordpress instead of using blackboard. 

    I also have a terrible time using it. It's very counter intuitive and I usually end up spending more time finding the what I need for an assignment than the actual assignment itself. 

    So far blackboard owns the LMS market, so professors who aren't tech aware think it's the only option.

    Remember, people don't know what they want until you tell them what they want, and maybe it's time to tell them to try something new. 


  • George Kroner

    Hi Anya,

    I question the ingenuity of the business
    model behind what essentially is just yet another free LMS to enter the
    market.  As you state, a lot of free
    platforms out there have business models that explicitly depend on future
    monetization of user data. This is invasive to privacy and a potential
    distraction to the classroom. Blackboard, instead of selling personal data away
    to the highest bidder, chooses to directly monetize its product through
    enterprise license fees.

    I do, however, believe that both free and
    commercial LMSs have a place in the marketplace. Speaking of free LMSs, I think
    you’re also forgetting that Blackboard has been experimenting with its own free
    product called CourseSites which currently boasts over 20,000 instructors from
    13,000 institutions and 113 countries. Blackboard uses it as a test bed for new
    features and usability improvements, many of which are rolled into the core
    product in due time.

    For some reason, you love to hate on Blackboard.
    To do so discounts the efforts and feedback received from thousands of
    instructors over the past decade. It is simply not accurate to use one measure
    from a random web site as a reason to state with authority that everyone dislikes
    the product. Contrary to this, and speaking as someone who works for
    Blackboard, I’ve been hearing a lot of strong positive feedback from Blackboard
    clients, particularly relating to latest LMS improvements made in the past 18
    months and to new products like Blackboard Mobile and Collaborate.

    Thank you,

  • luis

    Computers and software   are only assistants and a good teacher’s will
    always be needed.

    However social networks such as facebook and YouTube as well
    as great resources including Wikipedia and Wolfram-Alpha are here to stay so
    that educators must use them in the teaching process.


    Many academics are posting great educational videos and
    materials online. The only problem is to sort the good ones from the rest and
    present them in an organized manner.


    This effort is being done by: which presents
    the best educational videos available on YouTube in an organized, easy to find
    way to watch and learn.


    They are classified and tagged in a way that enables people
    to find these materials more easily and efficiently and not waste time browsing
    through pages of irrelevant search results.


    The website also enhances the experience using other means
    such as recommending related videos, Wikipedia content and so on. There's also
    a Spanish version called


    This is a project that YouTube should embrace itself, with
    curated content from academics and maybe using a different URL (Youtubersity?)
    so it won’t be blocked by schools.