Coursekit, founded at Penn, now in New York, officially launches

Tom Paine

Coursekit, the Social Learning Management System (SLMS) startup founded by three Penn students who raised $1 million, dropped out of school and relocated to New York, announced its launch last week . Coursekit says it has piloted its offering at 30 universities, including Penn and Princeton.

Coursekit is built around a disarmingly simple user interface featuring a social networking stream for communications among students, professors and others who may have involvement in a class. Its approach is to use "guerilla marketing" (my words) to avoid the enterprise sales process and seek course by course adoption. The product is free to both students and professors, as well as schools; monetization will come from other revenue streams to be developed. One question I had which hasn't been answered yet is about security. For example, one of the functions on Coursekit's dashboard is to report grade information. I assume, but don't know for sure, that is only meant to include assignment grades, not full course grades. Even so, there are a number of issues that have to do with both school policies and legal statutes concerning privacy and security that have to be met or else Coursekit will have some problems in that area. Another issue for Coursekit and some other newcomers is that they are largely stand-alone products that don't integrate well with other university systems, as some administrators desire. But at the course level, professors want the best tools and the freedom to try out new solutions.

Coursekit is taking on, among others, Blackboard, the largest established player in the LMS market that is seen by many as inflexible and out of date. Blackboard, which is based in DC, is now showing its newly released "Blackboard collaborate" product on its website. Blackboard, which had been a publicly traded company, was recently acquired by PE firm Providence Equity Partners for $1.64 billion. Providence Equity is usually considered a smart strategic rebuilder of assets with considerable experience in the higher ed space. Also out there are open source solutions like Moodle and Sakai, which appears to be widely used at Rutgers and is also replacing Blackboard at NYU. And Pearson, a major higher ed player, recently introduced a free LMS called OpenClass.

Monetization remains an issue, and an opportunity. In a brief phone interview with Philly Tech News, co-Founder & CEO Joseph Cohen said that a key opportunity is the electronic distribtion of course materials, such as ebooks, through the Coursekit platfom.But that opportunity may take a while to develop (though it is something Pearson is actively promoting for OpenClass). Institutions could also use the platform for other services like recruitment, retention, and student services. Advertising is said to be off the table for at least a year for Coursekit, a Fast Company article reports.

Cohen founded Coursekit at Penn along with co-Founders Dan Getelman and Jim Grandpre. Investors include Founder Collective and IA Ventures. The company has 80 ambassadors, whom it calls campus founders, at the schools where it is piloting. Penn has continued to be a major focus of development, with numerous classes tying out the software. Cohen and Getelman started working on the project in June 2010, originally to replace printed course syllabi. The project expanded late last year, as Engineering sophomore Jim Grandpre joined in, and the funds were raised in May of this year. Coursekit was part of the TechStars NY accelerator program, and recently moved into its own digs in Tribeca, if I understood correctly over a patchy phone line in my conversation with Joseph.


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