A different kind of massive open online course (Mooc) platform, launched today,will provide students with the small collaborative learning groups that have so far been hard to find in the Mooc format. In trials the format has proven to be more successful in retaining students than the traditional Mooc.

NovoEd, is the second Mooc platform born out of Stanford University. Unlike its birthplace rival Coursera, which launched last year offering only Moocs, NovoEd will also provide the technical platform for limited-entry, closed courses, such as Stanford executive education programmes, alongside the Mooc courses.

NovoEd, formerly known as Venture Lab, was started by Stanford professor of management science and engineering Amin Saberi and PhD student Farnaz Ronaghi.

NovoEd launches with seven Stanford University courses available to the general public as well as 10 private courses available only to Stanford students. The Moocs will start over the coming month.

Prof Saberi said the idea for fostering group work over an online platform came from colleague Chuck Eesley, assistant professor of management science and engineering. Prof Eesley wanted to run his technology entrepreneurship course as a Mooc, but thought the typical Mooc format of video followed by individual assessments was not suitable for the subject.

“We asked him how people do it on campus,” said Prof Saberi. Prof Eesley explained that students worked on team projects, so Prof Saberi set about devising an algorithm which could organise people into groups.

When the technology entrepreneurship course was launched on Venture Lab in March 2012, 80,000 students signed up from 150 countries. Students included a range of different people including “serial entrepreneurs” from Silicon Valley and “kids in Nairobi who didn’t have an internet connection and had to go to an internet cafe to do the course,” Prof Saberi said.

The students were asked at registration to reveal where they lived, as well as other background information about their experience to date. They were then divided by algorithm into groups of six or seven people in the same geographical area but offering a range of experience. During the tasks, group members rated one another for commitment and progress giving each participant a profile score. Half way through the course the groups were dissolved and participants were asked to form new groups.

The course statistics show this method of learning was more successful than other Moocs in terms of retention. About 10,000 completed the course. The top 200 teams were assigned, or found, mentors. The course has led to the creation of companies in countries as diverse as Germany, Bolivia, India and Malaysia. Prof Saberi says this was managed with a small team of only four people at Venture Lab.

“My hypothesis is that we shouldn’t strip away the social and collaborative side of learning,” said Prof Saberi.

Prof Saberi said he took a leave of absence from Stanford when he set up NovoEd as a company in January. He has secured venture capital backing and is in discussion with other institutions to broaden the range of courses on offer.

He said he envisaged a future for NovoEd with a selection of both open access Moocs and closed courses.

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