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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]