ClassConnect: Rethinking the LMS

"Tell me: what motivated you?" It's a fairly boilerplate question that I'll direct at my interview subjects. It's something I ask entrepreneurs and educators alike. Why this? Why you? Why now?

Eric Simons had a good response: as a high school student, he wasn't engaged in class. Recognizing this, his 10th grade chemistry teacher, Linda Bennett, asked him what would make him interested in the material. "Let the class work together. Online." was his response. So she offered him the chance to design just such a thing as a class project. A programmer and website designer, Simons opted to build an online portal for the class -- just the sort of educational application, he argued, that would keep him engaged.

That's a very different motivation behind a learning management system than what you often hear: a tool to help instructors keep grades and assignments organized and to help share materials with students. Sure, engagement is probably assumed there. But it's not the motivating factor behind the creation of the product.

It is, with ClassConnect. Simons has been working on the startup for several years now, and it's grown from being an in-class project to being a full-fledged business. Simons, who's now graduated from high school, along with his 3 other co-founders, were part of the inaugural class of education startups that just graduated from the Imagine K12 incubator program.

The space that ClassConnect enters is nothing if not competitive. The learning management system industry remains dominated by Blackboard, and although its market share has dropped over recent years, there are other major players ready to swoop in to pick up customers: namely Moodle, Desire2Learn, and Sakai. And then, there are other upstarts too: Instructure, Schoology, and Coursekit, for example. On top of all of that, there are the numerous other companies that offer pieces of an LMS: gradebook, calendars, and/or messaging.

This makes the focus of ClassConnect -- improving engagement -- all the more important, and in many ways, all the more unique. While ClassConnect does contain some features of an LMS -- a calendar, for example -- it doesn't seem to quite fit into the LMS category. The emphasis is instead on a course's content, rather than on its administration.

ClassConnect allows instructors to upload content to their "Filebox" -- a feature that's a bit like Dropbox and a bit like Evernote. ClassConnect also integrates with Google Docs. Filebox allows instructors to store and students to access all the files they need for a class in one place, accessible via the Web. Coming soon: an assessment tool, a wider library of other instructors' content, and better collaboration tools.

One of the key features that ClassConnect boasts right now is "Live Lecture." With Live Lecture, instructors are able to make their presentation slides into more interactive, Web-based content. Embedded into the "lecture" "slides" can be quizzes and games, for example. Why spend money on "clickers," Simons told me, when students already have their laptops open and can interact with content via the Web. Live Lecture allows students to "explore while listening," and again, as this is all Web-based (both the creation and the viewing), there's no downloading or uploading for the instructor or student. Live Lecture can be operated in real-time, meaning that students can participate with the material just as the instructor moves through it. Livestreaming is optional, and great if you're a student sick at home.

ClassConnect is still in beta as the startup works to develop its existing and planned features. But as it does so, the approach the company takes seems quite different from the traditional LMS. It's not aiming for top-down, school-level adoption, for example, but on meeting the needs of individual teachers and their students. And it's not so much about streamlining class management (although Simons says that ClassConnect will do that), but it's about giving instructors simple tools to help build interactive content and share that with students.

As it does so, I can't help but wonder about the future of the LMS in general. As it stands -- with Blackboard being the obvious example here -- the traditional LMS is an unwieldy, bloated piece of software, one that most instructors use only because they don't know they are alternatives within their reach (or, okay, because they're mandated to do so). Of course, other LMSes do say that they've built an easier-to-use tool, making classroom management -- grading, scheduling -- less painful.

But what does it mean to reframe the tool in terms of what a student wants? Sure, that probably also does include easier-to-use and easier-to-access grades and scheduling. But it also means better access to more engaging content. And so I have to ask: do we need an LMS for that? Or as the initial impulse behind ClassConnect suggests, will the next generation of products in the space look and function very differently, meeting different needs and solving different (but very old) problems?

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