Versal's Developer Platform Could Launch a Stealth Education Revolution

Greg Bates
Sep. 04 2014, 11:42AM EDT

Versal, an online learning company, has launched an open developer program, aiming to help developers build "learning gadgets" that enable teachers to create online courses. We'll look at its API platform strategy in a minute. But to understand how that strategy works and its potential impact, it's worth taking a look at this company's unique view of the online education landscape and its vision of where it needs to go.

The Limits of Today's Online Education

Do we need yet another "interactive education" effort? This is a crowded online space. Tons of free courses (and paid ones) are popping up. We have apps to learn everything. And there are companies that specialize in learning management systems, interactive textbooks, you name it. Content costs everywhere from an arm and a leg to free. Companies are pursuing many business models. In such a fevered environment, Versal's promise of interactive education tools might elicit a yawn.

That reaction would be a mistake. I spoke with Versal's CEO and co-founder, Gregor Freund, and Allison Wagda, VP of marketing. In what comes off at first to be a brash claim, they dismiss today's online educational advances and rapidly changing environment as "boring" and failing to exploit the true potential of digital learning. But their view is compelling.

As they outline it, the problem is that online education focuses on translating standard education to the web. Lectures are now on video. Tests and classes are online. Teachers choose digital textbooks that deliver knowledge in a manner that is similar to the printed books they used to choose. Sure, the online versions have advantages, from being weightless to offering embedded videos and graphics that can be manipulated. But the books are stuck in the model of knowledge packaged by textbook companies for students who memorize the contents. And in some ways the model is getting even more rigid: creating those interactive textbooks has become an enterprise that involves hundreds of people with huge costs, concentrating the power of the textbook industry in fewer hands rather than liberating educators.

In essence, we've taken an education model that reaches back to the time of Plato, stuck a veneer of interactivity over it, pasted it on the Internet and congratulated ourselves on a revolution.

The Versal Vision

Freund wants to upend this. Versal aims to put those tools of interactivity (little programs/apps the company calls "gadgets") in the hands of teachers so they can create their own course content, or augment textbook content to make it locally and culturally relevant. It's not that textbooks from large companies are useless, but they can be augmented by teachers, he says.

Here's an example: An instructor is teaching a civil rights course using a textbook. But she wants to bring it home to the students by creating content focused on the struggle that took place right in the town where they live. With Versal's tools, she has the power to do more than compile news clippings from the library and instead can bundle many content mediums, testing regimens and learning techniques. The course is not just alive, it's locally focused, and that can have a big impact on student understanding — and retention.

That's just the beginning. Freund and his team are on fire. Freund wants to make it possible to interactively explore topics that are so specialized they will never catch the attention of textbook companies compelled to focus on content designed for huge audiences in order to recoup massive costs. He calls his vision the "long tail" of education.

He offers a another compelling example. He has a teacher who is building a computer science course that includes showing how a CPU works. To make this real, the teacher wants to create a simulator that shows how these things perform simple calculations and functions, in a way that students can manipulate. That's not something you're going to find in a textbook aimed at millions of students.

There are an infinite number of long tails in education. Someone has been working on creating a course on the history of video games in the 1980s, Freund says. To make it real, the developer wants to drop a game like Pokemon or Packman right into the course so students can play it, not just read about it.

To cite another example, Freund says, a Native American nation wants to create an online course with these tools to offer a different history than what is traditionally provided by the victors.

Pulling any of these examples off is beyond the reach of most teachers, and again is not something a textbook company is going to put together.

Whether it's the long tail or more popular topics, the dream at Versal is to help teachers build interactive content, create tests, and create memorization tools like digital flashcards or manipulate the content into games for learning.

To finish fleshing out the vision before we look at the API and platform strategy, there's one final aspect. Freund asks, what if we make the gadgets that enable people to build this content and its interactive capability accessible enough that students could use them to create their own material? Then an entirely new level of collaborative project-based learning that is facilitated by a teacher but created by teams of students could unfold. This would have massive implications for the very nature of education, he says, because it extends project-based education into many areas that it has never been in before.

His example is a biology course. Instead of having the teacher create it, she could provide the skeleton (no pun intended) of what needs to be covered. Perhaps it would be made clear where the resources and information could be found. Students could form teams to tackle building different aspects of the course. They then would get feedback on how well they did from other students using their modules. And students might then run their parents through a course they created, perhaps changing the nature of parental involvement. This project-based learning, Freund points out, could really deepen student understanding of the material.

On top of this, the Versal platform provides the ability to manage and monitor progress of many students over time. That's a critical organizational layer.

The Versal API and Platform Strategy, Part 1

To pull off its vision, Versal has to accomplish two things: smash through the coding barrier and crush the cost barrier. Few teachers can create the code for these interactions, and none can afford the expense of throwing enough of them together to create a rich experience. And managing the learning organization of a body of students requires a separate software layer.

That's where today's announcement of learning gadgets for developers and Versal's partnership with Codio come in. Versal wants to create a community of developers to build the learning gadgets that teachers can plug material into interactively. An example of a gadget is one used for a cell structure. The teacher can label the diagram and make it so the students can fill in blank labels as a test, rearrange the labels, etc., so they can really learn the material. You can find this in an online textbook, but the difference is that a teacher can create it.

Anatomy versal

But why go to the trouble of creating a series of APIs for developers to build these gadgets instead of simply creating them all at Versal? It's not like this is the iPhone, where we can see an infinite number of apps being created, requiring a developer community; this is strictly within the educational space. Freund takes exception to that view: There are numerous possible gadgets; the examples discussed above, from dropping in video games to CPU simulators, illustrate that Versal can't go it alone and create enough gadgets for teachers. No single company could have the vision, he points out, to understand all the learning gadgets that could be useful.

By creating an open API platform, Versal aims to do for education what Apple did for cell phones: open up what might be an infinite number of tools built by developers and used by teachers, completely transforming our world.

The Versal API and Platform Strategy, Part 2

To pull that off, Versal has to make it cheap. So it started at free. Any teacher or developer can create for nothing. There's even a course catalog teachers can post their courses to.

Then, in line with the freemium models, it offers upgrades. I get the distinct sense that the business model is still being worked out. For now, the company seems to have deep pockets enabling it to roll forward for years.

A more difficult feat is making this easy. To pull that off, Versal partnered with Codio, making it possible for a beginning JavaScript coder to create a gadget quickly. Like every developer company, Versal has an SDK users can download. But it wanted to skip that step. Codio offers a powerful web IDE (see graphic). There's no downloading of an SDK, no adjusting your machine required. You just log on and start coding.

chess game gadget

That attention to convenience — easy coding made fast — is the kind of thing that could start a wildfire in this space.

Developers create the gadgets. Versal's platform hosts them. Teachers (and students) build their courses. And the learning revolution arrives.

Greg Bates A writer for Programmableweb since 2012, Greg is a freelance writer and a maniacal editor of dissertations and term papers. - Follow me on Google+

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