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Versal tries to bust open e-learning with open platform for interactive ed.

New courseware APIs allow developers, educators to roll their own “gadgets."

by Sean Gallagher - Sep 11, 2014 2:00 pm UTC

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If you’re one of the millions who started taking one of those Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offered by the likes of Stanford and MIT, only to abandon it after hours of watching video-taped lectures, reading static course materials, and marginally helpful online discussions, you’ve gotten a taste of what’s being inflicted on the current generation of students. That’s a bug that Versal, a company launched by Gregor Freund—the former CEO and chief technology officer of security software company Check Point Software—is trying to fix.

While MOOCs and other e-learning platforms have made it cheaper to reach large numbers of students with course content, they haven’t necessarily made it any better than sitting (or falling asleep in) a lecture hall. Versal aims to make online learning more interactive in the face of this. The company has launched an open JavaScript-based interface and a Web-based developer tool to allow programmers and teachers to create their own interactive elements for courses to more fully engage students.

Versal is “targeted at a broader audience than MOOCs,” Freud told Ars. “Existing systems are far too limiting. MOOCs are fine for people who go Stanford and have perfect recall.”

Versal already provided course-builders with a library of “gadgets” to pull in content from other sources. Gadgets fall into four rough categories:

  • Components that simply link in external third-party services, such as Google documents or SketchFab 3D models.
  • Developer components to allow custom external Web applications to be built into a lesson—Freund said that one course on video game history had Asteroids and Pac Man gadgets built into it, and students had to complete a game of each before moving on to the next lesson.
  • Pre-built, generalized applets that can be customized without programming. These include things like in-course assessments.
  • The newest category, JavaScript applications based on the open API that can access Versal’s content storage mechanism directly like the pre-built gadgets.

The company has partnered with Codio to create a free Web-based development environment to kick-start gadget development, then feeding completed gadgets directly into the Versal library. “With other IDEs, you’ve got to go to GitHub and download,” Freund said. “We’re actually giving you a virtual machine behind a Codio IDE so you can start modifying a gadget, play with it until it works, push a button, and it ends up in your own tray in the sandbox. Then you can publish and use in your own courses.”

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Sean Gallagher / Sean is Ars Technica's IT Editor. A former Navy officer, systems administrator, and network systems integrator with 20 years of IT journalism experience, he lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland.

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