Udemy Collects $1 Million to Expand Casual Learning Platform

8/31/10Follow @wroush

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a content management system that lets instructors upload course materials such as presentation files and recorded videos, and arrange them according to whatever pedagogical scheme they have in mind.

Existing consumer-level publishing platforms such as WordPress wouldn’t work well for courseware, since most of these restrict users to posting material in reverse chronological order, Biyani argues. “The blog world is all about recency, but when you’re learning something you want to start at square one,” he says. “We’re focused on sequencing, and letting you put the course in the order that you think is appropriate for the learner.”

If you were looking for Udemy competitors, you might point to Blackboard Learn or Moodle. But both are geared toward professional educators. And Blackboard is a high-end system that only universities and school systems can afford, while Moodle—although free and open-source—must be downloaded and installed on the instructor’s own Web server.

Udemy’s system, by contrast, is entirely Web-based, and is free to instructors. Only a system with this level of simplicity, Biyani says, will draw in the large population of people already offering informal instruction through various media.

“One thing a lot of people don’t know is that there are already hundreds of thousands of people online trying to teach, using the most basic formats, like sharing Zip files of a bunch of PDFs,” Biyani says. “Our platform is new, in the sense that it’s different from a textbook, but this is not the first time people are learning on the Internet via video and PowerPoint, so I don’t think we will have to teach people how to use the platform. But we do have to teach people how to market their courses, and that will be a little more challenging.”

I asked Biyani for a few favorite examples of courseware created by Udemy’s early users. He pointed to several, including “Multimedia for the Classroom,” by Larry Hewett, an art instructor at West Columbus High School in Cerro Gordo, NC; “Photoshop Basics,” by Deivid Colkevicius, a U.K.-based Web designer; and “Introduction to Poker” by Al Spath, a contributor to Poker Journal and the former “Dean” of PokerSchoolOnline.com.

Like much user-generated content, Udemy’s courses are a bit rough around the edges. This can perhaps be attributed to the novelty of the form, and to the fact that Udemy hasn’t yet implemented its payment system, which will presumably attract more serious casual-learning entrepreneurs. “Right now we have decent to good courses,” Biyani says. “Eventually we will have great courses.”

For an example of what the Udemy platform can do and what the site might eventually grow into, check out academic.udemy.com, where the company has backfilled its platform with more than 600 video courses from free sources such as MIT’s Online Courseware project. But don’t pay too much attention to these Ivy League-caliber lectures, which Biyani and his co-founders uploaded mainly as a demonstration. The startup’s vision is firmly mass-market, built around the three common types of files that many hobbyist instructors probably already have on hand: video, text, and PowerPoint.

And that could eventually mean big business. But over the coming months, the company will have to prove that it can attract high-quality instructors, and get users to pay for their courses. “We think we can democratize the market, similar to the way blogging democratized publishing, by providing simple authoring tools,” says Biyani. “We figured out some very simple tools that instructors can actually use today. That’s what we think is the compelling value proposition.”

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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