July 9, 2013 6:11 pm

Open online course platform launched

Would-be providers of online learning resources can now make use of an online publishing platform that will enable them to quickly build sophisticated courses that go beyond the standard video-quiz format.

Versal launched the beta version of its open course publishing platform on Tuesday and is aiming to attract educators who wish to create any kind of online course – including Moocs (Massive open online courses) or Spocs (Small private online courses) – with advanced interactive instruction methods.

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Unusually, Versal is also hoping to attract developers who wish to make online educational tools, that it calls “gadgets”.

“Right now in education, by and large, we provide a worse experience online than students have in the classroom,” said founder and chief executive of Versal, Gregor Freund.

He said his intention in setting up Versal was to change that and confirmed he was already in talks with a leading business school interested in using the platform.

Versal has launched with a few sample courses and a small selection of demonstration gadgets that already provide educators with a range of tools including video, annotation of images, graphing tools and a gadget that can be used to create 3D images such as used in the gaming design industry. Any educator can create a course and provide a link to it on their own website with the course being hosted invisibly on Versal’s platform.

By the end of the summer Versal will open its API to third-party developers to create further learning gadgets. Eventually Mr Freund envisages that thousands of gadgets will be made available and that the developers will earn small fees for their use in the same way that third-party developers earn fees for the apps they develop for the Apple environment.

At the beginning, however, on the beta version of Versal, everything will be free and Mr Freund said he would like the resource to remain free for those providing free online courses.

“We should be aligned with our customers,” he said, adding that if a customer was a not-for-profit organisation then there should be no charge, but if a commercial organisation creates a training course for which it charges, or from which it intends to generate cash flow, then he would like to move towards a revenue sharing model.

Mr Freund, who made $250m selling his last Silicon Valley venture Zone Labs, an online security software provider, has also established the Versal Foundation which he has seeded with a donation of $1m to provide grants of $1,000 – $1,500 to those setting up free “transformative” or “foundational” educational courses.

He pointed out that the US alone had about 4,000 universities offering courses of every kind. “It would be a tragedy if the move to online education led to a less diverse education scene.”

Versal is renting capacity which means that it will have no difficulty hosting multiple Moocs, Mr Freund says. “One of the reasons that we’re using the Amazon hosting environment is because you can scale up. It can happen in seconds, you can scale up automatically.”

Versal is based in San Francisco and is launching with a staff of 30 engineers.

Mr Freund said he expected Versal to be cash flow positive in 18 months.

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