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CourseWork alternatives offer greater social aspect

This article is the second of two on Stanford’s course management software. The first part addressed criticisms of Stanford’s most popular system, CourseWork.

While CourseWork, Stanford’s centrally supported and oft-criticized class management system, remains the dominant platform among Stanford users, The Daily recently took a look at some of the many ventures seeking to complement or replace it.

InYourClass

Developed by four Albanian immigrants who met at The City College of New York, InYourClass—which adds a social element to more traditional course management platforms—has enjoyed remarkable success in less than three years of operation. It currently boasts 480,000 students of the City University of New York system and has undergone trials at Stanford.

Arber Ruci, InYourClass’s founder, framed the platform’s positive reception as reflective of InYourClass’s ability to address the desires of actual platforms users—students—and  incorporate a number of different functions under one system.

“We really want to slap everyone in the face who had ever created a [learning management system]…because they’re awful,” Ruci said. “When we call [InYourClass] that, we’re simply going after the idea that everything out there kind of sucks.”

According to Ruci, the platform’s effort to bridge the gap between students’ social and educational lives has resulted in page views per user much higher than other platforms.

Ruci and his colleagues are currently working on applying InYourClass to a Stanford audience—a rare positive legacy of the University’s failed bid for a New York City campus made in partnership with CCNY—in a task complicated by Stanford’s security and protocol requirements. Ruci expressed gratitude, however, for the platform’s reception by Stanford administrators and subsequent access to opportunities for further partnerships.

“This is a good place to be if you’re doing something like this,” Ruci said.

He acknowledged, however, that the entrenched nature of the class management system market and fluctuations in student and faculty preferences meant that InYourClass’s success at Stanford is far from assured, especially as developers continue to work on full integration into Stanford’s WebAuth system.

“Stanford doesn’t limit [itself] to one thing,” said Fani Maksakuli, one of Ruci’s principal collaborators. “They like to experiment with everything, and they go with what faculty and students like.”

ClassOwl

ClassOwl, a Stanford student startup, shares InYourClass’s intent of introducing a social aspect to class management systems but, according to co-founder Sam Purtill ‘13, it aims to do so in conjunction with CourseWork rather than offering a competitor platform.

“[CourseWork] does the job [of providing document storage]…it’s not trying to be social,” Purtill said. “CourseWork is an open-source project, and it can be hard for open-source projects to keep up with technology.”

In an attempt to complement CourseWork, ClassOwl aims to offer a centralized location for students to find all relevant information regarding their academic, social and professional lives, effectively synchronizing various syllabi into a single offering.

“What we’re trying to replace is the syllabus,” Purtill said. “There should be a standard for syllabi and you should be able to consume that in an easy, standardized way.”

ClassOwl currently has around 3,500 unique Stanford users, and Purtill expressed cautious optimism about the platform’s future prospects as full integration into CourseWork continues.

“A lot of people come up to us and say they really like it,” Purtill said. “With the University backing us, it’s made it a lot easier.”

Blackboard

An offering largely similar to CourseWork, Blackboard has been used extensively at the School of Education while falling victim to many of the same criticisms, such as a lack of social networking features.

Paul Kim, assistant dean of the School of Education, asserted that Blackboard’s advantages lie in accessibility to outside speakers—who lack the SUNet ID required to use CourseWork—and the availability of numerous mobile versions, in part the product of the iStanford mobile application.

He acknowledged, however, that the platform is vulnerable to trends in online education, which could potentially make traditional learning management systems redundant.

“There are some experimental online courses we are offering and I am encouraging our faculty members to try different tools and learning environments,” Kim wrote in an email to The Daily. “Technology keeps evolving; so should pedagogy.”

Online offerings

Even while various offerings compete with CourseWork to serve the Stanford community, the University continues to emphasize platforms focused on online education and the accompanying potential for reaching thousands of students. Internally developed platforms such as Class2Go and startups such as Coursera have found applications both within and beyond Stanford in a shift supported by University administrators. Many of these integrate the essential features of course management software within the massive open online course platform.

“We want to get ahead of this wave,” said University President John Hennessy to the Faculty Senate in January, speaking on online education. “I want to be surfing the wave, not drowning in it.”

About Marshall Watkins

Marshall Watkins is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily, having previously worked as the paper's executive editor and as the managing editor of news. Marshall is a junior from London majoring in Economics, and can be reached at mtwatkins "at" stanford "dot" edu.