Coursekit grew out of the frustrations that you'll hear from many students and faculty that have had to deal with Blackboard. That frustration prompted the three founders, University of Pennsylvania students Joe Cohen, Dan Getelman, and Jim Grandpre to create their own re-imagined version of a learning management system. The startup received some press earlier this year when it raised $1 million in financing and the founding trio opted to drop out of school to focus on their new company.
After spending the year piloting the system in some 30 universities, Coursekit launches to the public today.
I've asked several times this year (here, here, and here) if the education world really needs another LMS. Regardless of how boring the Blackboard-bashing has become (to me personally at least), the number of new entrants in the LMS field does indicate that folks believe there's room for competition and improvement. Certainly there is still a strong (and overwhelmingly negative) response to the incumbent players. As such, almost everyone in the learning management system industry now says that they're rethinking what an LMS should do.
That includes, of course, Coursekit, which is taking a more social approach than administrative approach to the LMS. "Our goal is to turn courses into communities online," says CEO Cohen. Doing so "transforms the learning experience from something that happens twice a week into a continuous conversation."
Coursekit does still have some of the features that one would expect in an LMS: grading and calendaring, for example. But the emphasis of the new product really is on that community piece: highlighting students' profiles, sharing resources, and enabling class discussions via the now-familiar Facebook-like "news feed."
When instructors set up their courses in Coursekit, they can opt to make all these features public or private (in other words, for enrolled students only). That gesture towards more "openness" is something too that almost all LMSes have now recognized as important (even Blackboard).
How instructors set up CourseKit is important for another reason: the startup is targeting them directly and not colleges. Coursekit isn't aiming at wooing schools and securing campus-wide LMS contracts. The startup hopes that teachers themselves will provide the momentum to move the company forward. While grassroots momentum does have a lot more appeal than enterprise sales, it's still a rough road ahead for Coursekit. If schools do have official LMSes, instructors that opt to use Coursekit might find themselves doing double-data-entry in prepping their online materials (and even though Coursekit is pretty easy to use, double-data-entry sucks). The company is also relying on there being a large enough population of faculty who are interested in a more social alternative but who aren't likely to "roll their own" course websites.
By opting to go directly to instructors rather than to campuses, Coursekit will also face a challenge when it comes to monetizing their product. The tool is free, after all. I asked Cohen what the startup's business model was and he told me that "The plan is to give it away for free and then leverage the user base as a platform for content and software distribution." That's a model that sounds an awful lot like what I suspect Pearson's plans to be for its OpenClass, and as critical as I've been of Pearson's plans (least of which because it's wrapped with that "open" adjective), it's not a horse I'd want to bet against in this race.
Blackboard and Pearson are industry giants, and no matter how much teachers and students think "they suck," it's still going to be incredibly challenging to displace their control of the learning management market. But Coursekit thinks that by being student-created and by going directly to instructors, it has a shot. As schools re-examine their heavy investment in LMSes, as instructors look for easy-to-use alternatives, and as students demand more social interactions with course content and with their peers, CourseKit hopes it's well positioned as the LMS market continues to be shaken up.