NovoEd, another Stanford MOOC startup, opens small-group learning services to public

In an online class of 80,000 students, breaking up into small groups is no easy task — as we saw from a suspended Coursera class earlier this year (that tried to use a Google doc to create groups), it can lead to confusion and technical glitches.

But a new startup called NovoEd wants to build on the massive open online course (MOOC) phenomenon with a service that puts collaboration and team learning at the center of the student experience.

Starting Monday it will open up to the general public with seven courses and, going forward, it said it plans to partner with other universities. For the past year, the startup, which is backed by investors including Costanoa Ventures, Foundation Capital, Kapor Capital, Learn Capital, Maveron, and Ulu Ventures, has been used at Stanford University.

Like Coursera and Udacity – two of the startups leading the MOOC movement – NovoEd was also launched by Stanford professors. Co-founder and CEO Amin Saberi, an associate professor of management science and engineering, said he started creating the service last year, after a colleague said she wanted to put an entrepreneurship class online but couldn’t find a service that supported her pedagogical style.

While existing MOOC services may work for classes that focus on mastery learning, like computer science, Saberi said, many teachers want a better way to teach subjects like entrepreneurship and creativity online.

In those classes, it’s not just about watching a video of professor and then doing the work alone, he said, “It’s about peer learning, social learning – it’s collaborative and experiential. In the transition from brick and mortar to online, you shouldn’t strip away these aspects, you can use the social web to amplify them.”

Over four weekends, Saberi said he and a student came up with an approach that brings social networking techniques to online learning. When students first join the course, they’re automatically assigned to small groups (of less than 10) based on their experiences and locations. As the group works together, each team member is asked to rate their peers, which informs each person’s “Team Rank” score. Later in the course, students are asked to form groups organically and those scores can help students recruit and build teams.

Because the entire experience is more social and students feel accountable to their peers, Saberi said, NovoEd sees higher engagement rates than other MOOCs. For example, in its first class, of the 80,000 students who enrolled in the class, 37,000 said they would do the group project and 10,000 ultimately finished the project and the course. Most MOOCs have a 10 percent completion rate, but NovoEd says theirs is closer to 13 percent or higher.

More importantly, the startup says, students don’t sacrifice the chance to work on the group learning, leadership and critical thinking skills that develop in offline classes.

Schools that already partner with other MOOC startups, like Coursera, Udacity or edX, might not want to evaluate and work with yet another online course provider. But Saberi said that the online higher education space is very big and schools are still in the early days of experimenting.  While the startup is exploring different revenue models, he said that one possibility is charging students for certificates, a strategy already adopted by other MOOC providers.