After a year of prototyping, fundraising and development, social teaching and learning network Sophia is alive in private beta.
Sophia was created by GoKart Labs, a ‘digital innovation shop’ we previously know from collaborations with BringMeTheNews.com. Prior to GoKart, CEO and Co-founder Don Smithmier had 14 years of employment with online education org Capella before leaving three years ago to start the new firm with partner A.J. Meyer.
“Online education still seems to be stuck in the 90’s — not really embracing the new generation of web. 2.0 technologies that appeal to the modern pedagogy of social learning,” says Smithmier. “Sophia began with the premise that there are millions of great ideas, methods, lessons and people who can contribute to our society’s goal of spreading knowledge and making education better and more effective.”
Built around a credo that we all have the potential to be contributors, not just consumers, Sophia is all about “teaching what you know and learning what you don’t,” according to Smithmier. Content is assembled by teachers and distributed via ‘learning packets’, essentially a bit size multimedia curriculum of taggable content — slideshows, text, audio, video, etc — which can be classified generally by subject or course and granularly by instructor, textbook, or lesson. Imagine a YouTube/ Wikipedia/ Facebook/Flickr mashup. When assembling these packets, instructors decide whether to share publicly or privately within a specific group or virtual classroom environment. From here, a rating & reviews system is integrated to ensure quality and increase the appeal to credentialed teachers and serious learners.
Sophia will be free to use, but in order to make a profit and remain self-sustaining, the product will be made available through white label for licensing by school districts, colleges and corporations for their own internal use. Colleges and other learning institutions will ultimately be able to provide specialized offerings for students through the network.
The social teaching and learning space is booming, yet is relatively wide-open as there are different players and creative experiments with no single approach claiming a distinct leadership position. Competition at the outset is viewed as default platforms like Google (where students go to find help today) and YouTube (where many educators post online tutorials today). “Through a blend of targeted media relations, SEO, online marketing and events-based outreach, we intend to drive awareness of Sophia within both audiences [teachers and learners] so that they can recognize it as an ideal solution,” Smithmier says, noting that “In the long term, partnerships with leading companies and organizations who can sponsor Sophia to advance their own brands and initiatives will help us scale the message.”
“The world now has devices, bandwidth and web-based tools that, for the first time in history, make it possible for anyone to teach anyone else, regardless of geography or status. We want to connect learners to teachers, teachers to other teachers, learners to other learners, parents to tutors, tutors to teachers, and so on. A community outside the traditional classroom where everyone has access to information taught in a way that makes sense to them.”
Sophia will be publically available (sophia.org) in March when anyone can register to become a teacher and/or learner. The site has many features in the works, but Smithmier is cautious not to tip his hand just yet. “There is no single answer when it comes to improving education, just as there is no denying the fact that it can and must be done better, and with Sophia we want to enable it for the benefit of students everywhere,” he affirms.
The startup is sharing the technology at Thursday’s Minnedemo on the the University of St. Thomas downtown campus (sold out).