After being beta-tested in over 80 courses at 30 universities nationwide, Coursekit — a course management site created by three Penn students that hopes to compete with Blackboard — officially launches to the public today.
Key features of Coursekit include a calendar, syllabi, a grading tool, a paper and assignment collecting tool and a “class wall” where students can post comments and hold discussions.
“Really, the most interesting part about the whole thing is that it takes the class experience from something that happens twice a week for an hour into this continuous conversation,” said Joseph Cohen, one of Coursekit’s founders.
“I’ve been observing a bunch of the courses that have been using Coursekit for their class, and it’s remarkable because you see the class take on its own conversation outside of the classroom. It becomes a community and that’s fascinating.”
Another unique aspect of the site is its business model. Unlike Blackboard and other course management sites that charge users, “any instructor in the world can use it for free,” Cohen said. He explained that Coursekit will rely on brands and merchants who want to reach students with contextual products such as electronic books or educational applications for revenue.
In June 2010, Cohen, who had just completed his freshman year in Wharton, and Wharton and Engineering sophomore Dan Getelman started working on Coursekit with the goal of replacing printed course syllabi. That December, Getelman — a former Daily Pennsylvanian lead online developer — and Cohen were joined by Engineering sophomore Jim Grandpre, and the project evolved into developing an entire new website.
After raising $1 million in May 2011, Cohen, Getelman and Grandpre left Penn to focus on developing Coursekit.
Several classes at Penn were a part of the beta testing this fall. “It’s been terrific,” according to Marketing and Social Systems Engineering professor Michael Kearns, who is also a former professor of Cohen’s. He explained in an email that one of the central aspects of his course is “encouraging students to submit relevant websites, services, startups and blogposts. Coursekit makes that all really streamlined, natural and easy.”
Ben Gitles, an Engineering freshman in Kearns’ MKSE 112, “The Networked Life,” class, said “Coursekit is definitely better when it comes to interaction between students and overall cleanliness in design.” However, he found it hard to sort through the numerous posts on the class wall “because, unlike Facebook, there is no ‘Top Stories filter.’”
College junior Karis Tzeng said Coursekit was used as a supplement to webCafé in her Legal Studies 230, “Social Impact and Responsibility,” course. Although she hasn’t used the site that much because it isn’t required — and the professor did not use it to post the syllabus and readings — she finds the layout of the site to be “sleek and clean” and “easy to use.”
“I … would love to use it in future classes. It basically does everything that Blackboard is meant to do, but in a better, more accessible way,” she wrote in an email.
One problem that both Tzeng and Gitles had during their Coursekit experience was the lack of a grading tool — a feature that was added to the site in the official version launched today.
“The key thing here is that we give the instructor every single tool that they would want to manage their course,” Cohen said. “And we do that in the most simple elegant way of doing each of those things.”