Versal Steers Away from the YouTube Model in Online Education

Versal Steers Away from the YouTube Model in Online Education

Ask educators and entrepreneurs today how technology is changing the way students learn, and they’ll point first to MOOCs, or massive online open courses, the new teaching approach being developed by companies like Udacity and Coursera and non-profit ventures like edX.

But how new are MOOCs, really? If you look beyond the delivery mechanism—the Internet—the core content of most online courses is pretty traditional: video recordings of faculty lectures. Which means students in these courses are mainly just sitting back and listening, the same way they would in a lecture hall, except that they’re probably at home in their sweats.

Wasn’t there supposed to be more to computer-mediated learning than watching YouTube? And what about people like Gregor Freund who don’t learn well by sitting and watching?

“If you give me a lecture or stand at a whiteboard and tell me what I’m supposed to think, I space out after 10 minutes,” says Freund, a serial software entrepreneur who dropped out of high school after the 11th grade and never went to college. “But if I do stuff interactively and get my hands on it, I get it really quickly.”

Freund’s aversion to the classroom didn’t turn out to be an impediment to his success. In the 1980s he started a software consultancy that became the German and Italian divisions of software tools maker Borland. And in the 1990s he founded personal firewall software company Zone Labs, which he sold to Check Point in 2003 for $205 million.

Now he’s using his software fortune to bootstrap Versal, a San Francisco startup devoted to the idea that interactive, multimedia educational content can be more powerful than video alone—and can speak to a wider cross-section of students.

“If you are teaching in a traditional classroom and you have 40 kids, 30 of them might get what you are doing and 10 will struggle, not because they are less intelligent or less talented but because they have a problem with the specific teaching style,” he says. “We all have different learning styles. And now we have the incredible chance to build tools to accommodate that.”

Versal isn’t a producer of educational multimedia software like, say, The Learning Company or Dorling Kindersley. And it isn’t a publisher of other people’s digital content, like Inkling. Rather, it’s creating a simple authoring platform that it hopes educators will use to build their own online courses, combining elements like text, video, quizzes, and interactive JavaScript graphics and simulations.

This kind of grassroots curriculum-building could ultimately generate a body of multimedia courseware at far less cost than previous generations of educational software, Freund thinks. In the past, he says, the most engaging and profitable multimedia products—think Carmen Sandiego or Rosetta Stone’s language-training CD-ROMs—were always custom-programmed. “That meant you were probably going to spend $1.5 million, hire five developers, and spend half a year, and that’s not an exaggeration,” he says.

But today, the cost of filming and editing videos has dropped dramatically. There’s a growing body of JavaScript tools—demos, experiments, and simulations—that can be used to illustrate curriculum points interactively (the company calls them “gadgets”). And many teachers don’t want to teach from commercial textbooks, even digital ones. The only thing holding back a surge of self-publishing in multimedia courseware, Freund says, is the lack of a framework to help non-programmers to assemble and share their own materials.

Versal's course creator interface. Available gadgets are arrayed along the bottom edge of the canvas.

Versal’s course creator interface. Available gadgets are arrayed along the bottom edge of the canvas.

So that’s what Versal is working on. “The fascination about building something for education was not to build two or three mass successes” like Rosetta, he says, “but having every teacher and professor be able to participate in an active authoring role.”

Versal was founded in June 2012 and introduced a beta version of its authoring platform in July 2013. This week, Freund and other executives are in Las Vegas at the International Consumer Electronics Show, where they’re introducing a new feature that allows multiple authors to collaborate to build courses. The high-level vision at the company is to make the Versal platform into the flash point for a kind of crowdsourcing revolution in education. “Imagine dozens of physics professors and researchers from around the world working together to author the ultimate guide to the fundamental structure of the universe,” Freund says in a statement on the collaborative authoring feature. “Or an online community of gardening enthusiasts teaching people how to grow organic vegetables. Or a network of global non-profit advocates creating a water filtration course to help individuals in developing countries.”

In reality, though, it’s still very early days for the company. Versal hasn’t yet released a promised software development kit that would make it easy for programmers to create course-ready gadgets. There are fewer than a half-dozen Versal courses to sample at the company’s website. And the gadgets built into some of the course are rudimentary at best—for example, a piano keyboard that plays a note when you click on a key.

But Freund says Versal isn’t in a rush. “This is not an Instagram,” he says. “Education is too complex, and it’s never going to be winner-takes-all. It’s going to have a diverse infrastructure, and we want to make sure we are a solid partner, and not a flash in the pan.”

The original idea for Versal came to Freund five years ago, when he was looking around for a digital Spanish course and realized just how much time and effort had gone into creating commercial products like Rosetta Stone. “For me it’s a hobby to see a problem and analyze the underlying issue, the economic background,” he says. “How much work would it take to make that?”

It was a trait that went back to his days at Borland. The company was famous for marketing a compiler and development environment that allowed thousands of people to start writing software in the structured programming language Pascal, previously the province of a few experts. “Turbo Pascal was one of the first products that really opened up software development for the masses,” Freund says. To build a real software economy, he observes, “You can’t just have this elite little force.”

Likewise in education—but here, the disconnect is between programmers and educators. Freund says he eventually discovered that “there was a whole subculture of developers doing really cool modeling, mainly in JavaScript—things like chemistry labs where you could reorient molecular models.” The problem, as he saw it, was that the models lacked context. To be useful for learning, they needed to be part of a larger teaching narrative, including text explanations, videos, and quizzes to test retention.

In a way, that’s exactly what the latest generation of e-textbooks provide. Open a textbook created for Inkling or Apple’s iBooks platform, and you’ll find an interesting mix of text, video, and interactive demos. But to Freund, the problem with digital textbooks is that they don’t leave much room for the teacher’s contribution. A great teacher has usually built up a personal collection of handouts, workbooks, slides, tests, lesson plans, and the like that helps them engage students in a personal way on subjects like the periodic table or the history of the Roman empire. But “the online educational industry has been pretty adamant about cutting teachers out of their creative role,” Freund says. “They are now glorified TAs.”

So the first nine months at Versal were all about building an HTML5 courseware “engine” that could help teachers step into the shoes of software developers and product designers and build their own courseware. The engine provides a browser-based what-you-see-is-what-you-get canvas, where an author can assemble a complete course from bite-sized units or lessons. Each lesson can include any number of gadgets, from simple text gadgets to images, videos, quizzes, surveys, and customizable JavaScript apps. Once a course is finished and published, a teacher can direct students to the Versal pages via e-mail invitations, or embed a player that recreates the whole course within an external website or blog.

Versal’s team wrote the backend software in a scripting language called Scala that’s known for being elegant and lightweight. But Freund says two key technical goals complicated the work considerably. One was making the courses playable on any PC, laptop, or a mobile device, whether that meant a Chrome browser on an Android device, Safari on an iOS device, or Internet Explorer on a PC. The other was ensuring that the system retained personalized “state information” about what’s going on in the app at any given moment. That would give students the ability to pause a lesson and come back to it later without losing their work, or even switch devices in mid-course.

“The player stores the results of interactions; if there is an essay gadget, it stores the student’s progress on the essay,” he explains. But that’s not a function the creators of most JavaScript apps for education had ever had to think about. “Abstracting storage out of the learning gadgets was a huge challenge.”

Now that Versal has figured out how to integrate gadgets into its courses, Freund is looking forward to tapping into the wealth of existing JavaScript apps for education. “We actually can take lot of things that have been invented before and make them accessible to a much broader audience of students, authors, and professors,” he says. “It took us less than two hours to build a gadget that allows anybody to take a 3D model from Sketchlabs and put it into a course, so as a student you can do a 3D walkthrough of a house, or a microbe.”

This week, Versal introduced a small catalog of courses available for collaborative authoring.

This week, Versal introduced a small catalog of courses available for collaborative authoring.

So far, only a small group of gadgets can be dropped into a Versal course. For example, there’s a slide show gadget, a sine wave generator that lets math students play with the parameters that affect waveforms, and an anatomy gadget that authors can use to embed 3D models of skulls or other body parts. Freund knows that scavenging existing JavaScript apps will only take course authors so far—he says the next big step for Versal will be to publish specifications that will help programmers create purpose-built gadgets, ideally in collaboration with course authors.

“A fixed palette is not the solution,” says Freund. “What you want is an open platform that allows you to actually add new gadgets.”

And that’s just one of the changes that will be needed transform Versal from an experimental platform into a real ecosystem. Freund is only willing to talk about the company’s product road map in the vaguest terms. For example, it’s not clear how or when the company might create a centralized catalog of Versal courses—there are many more in existence than the five listed on Versal’s website, but they’re scattered across the Web, mostly embedded in the blogs of individual authors, according to Versal marketing executive Allison Wagda.

Versal also hasn’t said whether authors will be allowed to charge for access to their content—or, for that matter, how the company itself will make money.

But on that front, there are a few hints. Software companies like Neo Technology and Typesafe are already using Versal to build online training courses for developers. It would make sense to ask such enterprise users to pay a subscription fee.

Also, Freund says Versal is in conversations with the big MOOC companies, which are in need of more content to flesh out their offerings. “Eighty percent of online education these days is like YouTube—click a button and watch a video,” Freund says. “To me, that is not education per se. The computer is a relatively lousy TV screen. What it’s really good at is interactive stuff.”

But nobody in the MOOC business is focusing yet on tools for creating interactive content, he says. “For me, it’s almost inconceivable that you would start building education tools and not worry about how [content] is going to get built and how to make sure we have the best possible courses.” So there’s the prospect of partnerships between Versal and the likes of Udacity, Coursera, edX, and other private or university-based online education efforts.

But it’s all still TBD, while Versal’s engineers work to flesh out their creation platform. And that’s why Freund has been funding the 20-employee startup, so far, out of his own pocket.

“If you went to a VC today and said, ‘I am building this really cool engine that does all of these things, and I will tell you in a year and a half what it’s really good at,’ they would laugh you out of the room,” Freund says. “The startup ecosystem and the press are used to a much different model, which is saying, ‘Yeah, we are here to change the world,’ when what they really have is just the latest sales optimization app for the iPad. We are trying to be a little more subtle, and actually have a meaningful discussion with partners and teachers and professors.”

The Author

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.

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  • SciFiTeacher

    Interesting ideas. Still too early to be able to comment on the applicability within the classroom.

  • online training

    this is very use full article for online learners…
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  • David Parker

    We “imagined” an educator’s consortium at Pearson in 2005 for the creation and sharing of content. Teachers come to find but not often to give. How will you incent contribution and creation? And what is the business model? This space is thick, thick, thick with competitors and online, interactive, multi-media and adaptive are in everybody’s product description …