GoodSemester: the ‘Basecamp’ for classroom learning launches public beta

It’s doubtful anyone ever thought the cult-classic video game Legends of Zelda would play a role in reforming education, but Jason Rappaport thinks that ridiculous scenario might turn out to be true. That’s because at tonight’s Philly Tech Meetup, Rappaport will launch what he thinks is a “paradigm-shifting”education resource-sharing platform called GoodSemester, which was partially […]

It’s doubtful anyone ever thought the cult-classic video game Legends of Zelda would play a role in reforming education, but Jason Rappaport thinks that ridiculous scenario might turn out to be true.

That’s because at tonight’s Philly Tech Meetup, Rappaport will launch what he thinks is a “paradigm-shifting”education resource-sharing platform called GoodSemester, which was partially funded by Rappaport’s lucrative side job: running the popular fan sites, Zelda Universe and the Zelda Wiki. The new education service allows students and educators to build classes, ask questions, share notes and do other work all within one cloud-based system.

Zelda, meet Education. Education, meet Zelda.

“My friend started the site in 2001 and in 2007 I bought it from him. He then got a car and I got the site,” says Rappaport. “It was $75,000, that was a loan that my mom graciously gave me. I have since paid her back because the site makes money. Some of the money funds GoodSemester. When GoodSemester starts making money, it’s actually going to be the reverse. I’m going to stop making money from Zelda Universe and just contribute it to the fan community.”

Of course, Zelda earnings are not the only way Rappaport has moved along a product that has taken two years to research and develop while he was simultaneously studying industrial design at Lehigh University. He says he is also using the money he saved by graduating a year early to push GoodSemester forward.

“Theres been no VC,” said Rappaport. “We’ve built a full product off one year of tuition. Actually, there’s still quite a bit left.”

Rappaport’s broader goal, he says, is to legitimize the use of computers in the classroom. So he says he hates when people compare GoodSemester to other learning management systems (LMS), like Blackboard, because he boasts that GoodSemester should be filed in a completely different category.

“We actually invented a new type of platform that is designed for productivity, so it has a lot more in common with Basecamp or other project management suites,” said Rappaport. “It’s the product software service in the cloud for anything you need to do work-wise in education.”

What actually does set GoodSemester apart, however, is that individuals — especially students and professors — not university administrations, are the target market for the site.

“GoodSemester is that service you thought education always had but they don’t,” said Rappaport.

Rappaport and his team — six active staff who are either Lehigh classmates or colleagues from his Zelda business — have been piloting versions of GoodSemester at various universities since spring of 2011, including Lehigh, Muhlenberg, Moravian, Carnegie Mellon, Case Western Reserve, Gratz college, Villanova and Cedar Crest. But those colleges and universities aren’t his only test cases, he says, because he has made the private beta available to students at approximately 50 countries all over the world.

“The way that this propagates is different from an LMS,” said Rappaport. “We don’t get universities, though we will in the future. But that’s not how this works since this is an open service.”

Rappaport actually made the site public early this morning in advance of the launch, so he was willing to show Technically Philly an early demo.

“We’re calling this a paradigm shift because if you think about learning software today, they are kind of filing systems. You don’t really do anything social on them. You don’t do real work on them,” said Rappaport, by way of starting the demo. “This is time based. Everything is meant to simulate real interaction as if you were actually in class.”

When you log in to GoodSemester the first thing you’ll see is a familiar feed, that Rappaport says could be compared to a Facebook feed, except GoodSemester posts to your feed for you, based on what you are doing on the site. So if you are enrolled in a computer science class, GoodSemester will post all relevant content being generated about that class in your feed.

Beyond the home feed, the three main features of GoodSemester are as follows:

  • Course Creation:Because GoodSemester isn’t tied to university administrations, anyone can create a course, says Rappaport, and you can follow any course you want to even if it’s not affiliated with your university. GoodSemester also includes the option to invite a professor to take ownership of a course once it’s already been created.

  • Notetaking: Notetaking seems to be the true bread and butter of GoodSemester. You can take notes on any course, share them with others or keep them private, as well as reply to other people’s notes. Rappaport says you can also copy someone else’s notes and then build on them. GoodSemester will track the evolution of those notes so you can always see where they originated.

    Rappaport says he plans to introduce a five star rating system to signify note quality, but that feature isn’t live just yet.

    The note taking system GoodSemester uses is called Etherpad Lite and it’s is based off of a derivative of Google Wave, says Rappaport. They’re in the process of building tools for the system that include freehand drawing, math type and collaborative music notation.

    Rappaport says GoodSemester is also working in partnership with the Creative Commons to allow the sharing of notes with the desired attribution.

    “Our goal is to build the world’s largest repository of education resources,” says Rappaport.

    This licensing partnership may prove to be an important feature for a cloud-based, globally oriented education system targeting a market concerned with its intellectual property.

  • Grading: The third feature Rappaport plans to introduce tonight is an interactive grading system that will only be available as a paid upgrade, Rappaport says.”This is how we are making money. It’s a full analytics suite,” says Rappaport. “It’s the most advanced grading system ever created.”Rappaport says professors will be able to use the dashboard pictured below to input grades, manipulate test curves and share real time detailed report cards with students.

As Rappaport tells it, GoodSemester is “revolutionary,” however to some, the system could simply be overwhelming. Rappaport has huge ambitions for growth of the platform, but GoodSemester still has a long way to go before it infiltrates the global education system.

Rappaport, who’s originally from New Jersey, isn’t sure where the GoodSemester’s home will be as the company grows, though he says Philadelphia is definitely in the running.

“I’ve only been to Philly a little bit,” says Rappaport. “Philly to me looked like a cleaner, happier New York.”

GoodSemester is open in public beta, but stay tuned for video of the demo from the Philly Tech Meetup tonight.

Companies: Lehigh University

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