Another click on the wall

From the Economist – August 25, 2012 – Original Article

Disruptive innovation in the lecture hall

DROPPING out of university to launch a start-up is old hat. The twist with Joseph Cohen, Dan Getelman and Jim Grandpre is that their start-up aims to improve how universities work. In May 2011 the three founders quit the University of Pennsylvania to launch Coursekit, soon rebranded as Lore, which has already raised $6m to develop what Mr Cohen, its 21-year-old chief executive, describes as a “social-learning network for the classroom”.

Lore is part of a trend that builds on the familiarity with social networking that has come with the success of Facebook. It customises the rules of a network to meet the specific needs of students. Anyone teaching a class would reasonably worry that students using Facebook were gossiping rather than learning useful information from their network of friends. Lore allows teachers to control exactly who is in the network (by issuing a class-membership code) and to see how they are using it. They can also distribute course materials, contact students, manage tests and grades, and decide what to make public and what to keep private. Students can also interact with each other.

In the academic year after launching its first version last November, Lore was used in at least one class in 600 universities and colleges. Its goal for its second year, about to begin, is to spread rapidly within those 600 institutions, not least to see what the effects of scale are from having lots of classes signed up within the same institution.

The firm has a fast-growing army of fans in the faculty common room. Lore, says Edward Boches, who uses it for his advertising classes at Boston University, makes teaching “more interactive, extends it beyond the classroom and stimulates students to learn from each other rather than just the professor.”

Among other challenges for the company, there remains the small matter of figuring out a business model. For the moment it has none. Mr Cohen hopes that eventually Lore could become the primary marketplace for everything from courses to textbooks, but so far the service is free and carries no advertising. Blackboard, the industry incumbent, charges users for its course-management software. It remains to be seen how it will respond to the upstart.

The lack of a plan does not appear to bother Lore’s founders or investors, who seem content to learn a lesson from another university drop-out, Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder of Facebook: achieve critical mass in your network and the profits will follow. And after that perhaps they can expect an honorary degree from the alma mater?