Stanford’s NovoEd Brings Collaboration And Group Learning To MOOCs To Help Fight Attrition

What is it with Stanford professors and Massive Open Online Courses (a.k.a. MOOCs)? For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, two of the three most popular MOOCs — Udacity and Coursera — were both founded by Stanford professors. Then there’s Class2Go, an open-source MOOC platform created by a team of Stanford engineers and professors, which recently “merged” with edX (the third member of that aforementioned MOOC trifecta) to help it create an open-source platform.

But the university’s MOOC contributions don’t end there. In early 2012, Stanford professor Amin Saberi and PhD student Farnaz Ronaghi created a project called Venture Lab to offer Stanford courses for free on the Web, with its first class on technology entrepreneurship attracting 40,000 students from over 150 countries. But, rather than simply creating another MOOC platform, the startup wants to solve a big pain-point for MOOCs — to make it easier to break down those huge classes of 40,000 into smaller groups.

So, Venture Lab is officially re-branding and re-launching today as NovoEd to not only offer courses online for free, but to offer a MOOC platform that focuses on collaboration and project and team-based learning. Beginning next week, the startup will offer seven Stanford courses to the general public as well as 10 private courses available only to Stanford students. Going forward, NovoEd plans to partner with other universities and build out a roster of classes on a range of topics, from creativity and entrepreneurship to medicine.

And that’s really the key differentiator for NovoEd. Saberi and Ronaghi founded Venture Lab to help teachers who found that current MOOC offerings didn’t cater to their style, working better for mastery-focused courses than those that are more open-ended — or focused on teaching creative disciplines. Unlike, say, Mathematics or Computer Science which may work best in the lecture format, or one in which students study and practice by themselves, the founders wanted to create a MOOC platform for courses that demand more group interaction and peer-to-peer collaboration.

After signing up for NovoEd, students are assigned to groups of 10 or fewer peers, based on their location or similar interests and backgrounds. As they study, students can then rate each other, with the rankings compiled at the end of the course to form a student’s “Team Score,” which then informs student decisions when they’re later allowed to form groups on their own.

The idea is to create a dynamic in which students are accountable to their peers, and feel, perhaps, a bit of social pressure to perform to keep their rankings up — ultimately creating an experience that’s more engaging. Many MOOC platforms suffer from high attrition rates, so NovoEd is hoping to solve that problem by creating a social incentive system that aims to keep students from falling through the cracks and dropping out.

Not only that, but the founders say that the system is designed to help students improve their group learning skills, like virtual team management, the ability to better negotiate and understand one’s role in the team, leadership and communication. These are the kind of skills one traditionally learns in the group-based environs of offline, in-class activities but have largely been missing from MOOCs and this new form of online education at scale.

To help it seek partnerships with other universities and expand its course catalog, NovoEd has raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding from investors like Costanoa Ventures, Foundation Capital, Kapor Capital, Learn Capital, Maveron, Ulu Ventures, as well as a handful of angel investors.

For more, find NovoEd at home here.

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