St. Thomas professors create a new way to keep track of course work

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 20, 2014 - 2:00 PM

University of St. Thomas instructors are testing their business acumen with launch of CourseCal, a cloud-based calendar and course management platform.

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From left, Lloyd Cledwyn, Alec Johnson and Jay Ebben launched CourseCal for college educators and students.

Photo: JOEL KOYAMA • jkoyama@startribune.com,

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Jay Ebben and Alec Johnson, entrepreneurship professors at the University of St. Thomas’ Opus College of Business, are putting their business savvy to the test with CourseCal, a cloud-based time and workflow management platform for college educators and students.

Launched last fall, CourseCal allows educators to upload schedules and course materials, which students access online or through mobile devices.

Drag-and-drop functionality enables educators to make changes quickly and easily, they said. Students see those changes in real time because of the platform’s integration with the Dropbox file-sharing service.

In contrast, Johnson and Ebben said, changing a course schedule in one of the many systems used by institutions can require dozens of mouse clicks. They believe CourseCal solves such frustrations, and they’re positioning it as an alternative to an institution’s enterprise platform and the homemade websites and other ad hoc solutions that have been educators’ other primary options.

The CourseCal venture also is serving as lesson material for students in starting and building businesses.

“It’s a live case study,” Ebben said. They’re using [CourseCal] themselves and seeing how we ask and answer questions about viability. It’s about testing whether this model works.”

Said Johnson: “One thing we preach is there’s a big difference between a good idea and a sustainable business. That is a drumbeat of our pedagogy, and they can witness it day in and day out.”

Eight educators and more than 300 students are using CourseCal this semester in class at St. Thomas, the University of Minnesota and two other institutions, according to Johnson and Ebben. It’s free to educators. Students can pay $5.95 a course for a full-featured version of the platform or CourseCal Lite for free.

Working with Ebben and Johnson on CourseCal is Lloyd Cledwyn, director of advancement IT at Macalester College. The three hired a local firm to build the platform in what so far has been a self-funded enterprise.

Johnson said they decided to charge for the platform from its earliest version, believing the feedback they got would be better than if they gave it away. They also wanted to offer CourseCal as a “simple, reliable, mobile” course management tool, not as an advertising-driven platform.

“We’re not trying to build an empire,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to build a really great solution.’’

The market, at least initially, is adjunct professors, or part-time educators whose frustrations over low pay have made headlines and, in the Twin Cities, prompted efforts to gauge adjuncts’ interest in unionizing.

CourseCal’s cloud-based platform makes course materials portable for those who teach multiple classes at multiple institutions, Johnson said.

“With our solution, they own their course now, their own teaching business,” Johnson said. “We’re giving them a way to own that [in a way] they don’t currently have.”

Maureen MacVane, an adjunct who teaches reading and study skills courses at Milwaukee Area Technical College, said she and her students have found CourseCal easy to use.

“It’s very easy to upload stuff and to shift it from one date to another,” she said. “Students love it because it is so easy. It has the assignments and the dates and exactly what they need to have completed for the course.”

Josh Villa, a senior entrepreneurship major at St. Thomas, said CourseCal gives him the course content he is looking for right away.

“I have never experienced such a simple and intuitive way of keeping updated on a class calendar,” Villa said. “If I click on a day on the calendar, it displays what we are doing in class, what is due and any other relevant content. It’s such a change from the frustrations that I’m used to” with an enterprise platform.

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