Versal Aims to Make Teaching as Easy as Blogging

A new site lets anyone meld words, pictures, videos and web gadgets into courses.

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The web may be over two decades old, but it’s continuing to change any number of basic things about the way we live our lives. At the moment, one of the busiest areas for creative startups is education: In recent months, I’ve written about Coursera, Curious and Learnist. And yet another new entrant is debuting today. It’s called Versal, and I recently spoke with CEO and co-founder Gregor Freund and got a chance to peek at it before it went live.

In certain respects, Versal reminds me a little bit of Curious. Both aim to help anybody teach anything to everybody who’d like to learn it. But while Curious emphasizes video lessons above all else, Versal allows its teachers to create courses and classes that meld words, images and video with interactive web gadgets. The text, pictures and videos let teachers do the teaching; the gadgets let students teach themselves by doing. Versal provides a web-based editor that lets users piece everything together in a straightforward manner reminiscent of a blogging platform such as WordPress, then hosts completed courses on its own servers.

Among the gadgets debuting in Versal’s first courses are one that lets 3D modelers manipulate a skeleton; another allows color-theory students to tap on paintings to see which colors they use; and a third (shown above) provides a simulation of how epidemics spread. They all worked well on both my PC and iPad, and hint at how all sorts of gadgets could enhance all sorts of lessons.

One thing Versal hasn’t done is make creating these gadgets simple enough that teachers can reasonably be expected to construct their own. You build them in JavaScript, and while it should be a reasonably straightforward job by coding standards, it’s still programming. The company hopes that developers will build gadgets that course creators can embed in their lessons, and that over time the library of available gadgets will expand to cover as many bases as possible.

To encourage the creation of high-quality courses and gadgets, the startup is setting up a grant program it calls the Versal Foundation. It’ll award subsidies of between $1000 and $25,000 to the worthiest proposed educational projects.

In the initial version launching today — which is labeled as a beta — Versal feels like a first pass at an idea of boundless ambition. It isn’t yet accepting third-party gadgets. (It plans to do so later this summer.) Teachers can create multiple-lesson courses with quizzes, but there’s no way to track a student’s progress throughout an entire course, along the lines of what I experienced when I took a class from Coursera last year. Nor can teachers choose to charge for lessons, as they can on Curious.

I asked Freund lots of questions about things Versal might do in the future, and in almost every instance, he said to stay tuned and watch what happens in the months to come. I will. The site is already fun to check out; if a critical mass of smart people who want to share what they know show up, along with a quorum of gadget-building developers, it could be a big deal.