A new model for online learning

  • Article by: WENDY LEE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 9, 2011 - 1:56 PM

A Minneapolis start-up aims to take advantage of the latest Internet trends to enhance the educational experience.

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Sophia's CEO Don Smithmier In the digital age, students often go to websites such as Wikipedia for information that may or may not be accurate. Minneapolis-based Sophia hopes to stream educational information into one website that will allow educators and other members of the community to upload information and have users rank its helpfulness.

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Students who struggle with math homework may have a devil of a time trying to get help from their parents.

They could turn to the Internet, but how would they know which websites are accurate?

The Minneapolis start-up Sophia hopes to provide a solution. The company, named after the Greek word for wisdom, has an online platform that allows people to upload educational videos, lectures and slide shows on topics that range from U.S. history to chemistry.

Each piece of information is rated by Sophia's users. A page gets an extra endorsement if three users who say they have master's degrees deem it accurate.

Sophia launched this spring and has more than 20,000 users from more than 116 countries. The company hopes to expand access to reliable information that can help parents tutor their children and students refresh their memory on various subjects.

In some cases, videos are uploaded by teachers to let students review lessons on demand.

"I think it's going to be a radical disruption to the educational model," Chief Executive Don Smithmier said. "It's not about replacing teachers. It's not about replacing traditional classrooms. It's just surrounding those traditional classrooms and supporting teachers and students in different ways."

The idea came about two years ago, when Smithmier was having lunch with his business partner A.J. Meyer. The two have started a number of businesses together.

They agreed that if they were going to create an online learning environment, it would need to look different from what already exists. But it would reflect YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter and iTunes, Smithmier said.

Smithmier, a founding partner of digital advertising agency GoKart Labs, challenged a team there to design a rough prototype.

In February, Smithmier's former employer Capella Education Co. said it would provide an undisclosed amount of financing. Minneapolis-based Capella provides online education, primarily for master or doctorate programs, and said the investment is part of its long-term strategy.

"Since our founding, Capella has been about innovation and education that makes a difference," spokesman Mike Buttry said. "Sophia fits perfectly with that. It is innovative and it has the potential to have a real impact in the way we educate."

Smithmier has long had a passion for teaching. He moved to Minneapolis in 1994 with dreams of becoming a high school social studies teacher. He attended the University of Minnesota's master's program, but ended up dropping out due to unforeseen circumstances. He ended up at Capella as a temp worker.

"It ended up being the greatest accident of my life," said Smithmier, who left the company in 2008 as a vice president.

It doesn't cost money to join Sophia or view the educational material on its website. Smithmier said the company hopes to make money by licensing its technology to schools or other organizations that may want privacy or administrative control.

Smithmier hopes people will use Sophia frequently. Educational material on Sophia ranges from a high school algebra teacher posting a video on how to solve an equation to a user sharing a song to help students memorize the order of the U.S. presidents.

"Education can really be done differently and better," Smithmier said. "There is an incredible number of creative, passionate teachers out there. I want Sophia to be a resource to them and to other people who aren't professional teachers, but care about education and the subject they know. [Let's] make all of those people available to the students."

Sophia worked with Washington-based Lone Shark Games to enhance the user interface of the site. Sophia added some features that encourage return visits, such as allowing users to earn achievement badges and improve their profile scores based on criteria such as answering or asking questions on the site.

Smithmier, the parent of three daughters, said he is looking forward to using Sophia as an educational tool for his children.

"When you're helping your kids with school, you can't just tell them how to do something," Smithmier said. "You have to tell them the same way their teacher is telling them to do it, or it's not right."

He said that's a big benefit of Sophia for parents, including himself as he helps each of his daughters. "It's being explained the way it's explained in class. It will be a resource for her and for me in case she needs help."

Wendy Lee • 612-673-1712

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