Versal Steers Away from the YouTube Model in Online Education

Xconomy San Francisco — 

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 … Next Page »

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8 responses to “Versal Steers Away from the YouTube Model in Online Education”

  1. SciFiTeacher says:

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

  2. online training says:

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  3. David Parker says:

    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 …

  4. Poogie Bell says:

    I’m doing a search on this company on the Internet at this very moment. Versal looks like an API for teachers to create learning objects. Interesting. I hope these guys make the thing easier to use than a jigsaw puzzle or else just too damn hard. Why do they slam video?

    • Wade Roush says:

      They don’t slam video in general. In fact, there are widgets for embedding videos in Versal courses. I think Freund’s main gripe is that recorded lectures are the centerpiece of most MOOCs, and that watching a lecture is a passive, lean-back experience.

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