Follow-up Interview with Gregor Freund, CEO and Co-founder of Versal
EdTech Times caught up with Gregor Freund, CEO and co-founder of Versal – as you may recall, we spoke with him in November 2013 (http://edtechtimes.com/2013/11/12/qa-gregor-freund-ceo-co-founder-versal/). Read what Mr. Freund has to update us on:
ETT: In our interview in November 2013 you mentioned you had “plenty more surprises on the way…” – would you like to share a bit on this with our readers?
GF: Since we last talked our team has released many small updates and several more significant ones. In January we announced a collaborative authoring giving authors the ability to create courses with colleagues and other experts. In June, we opened up our first public catalog with sample courses. The interest has been high and we’re starting to work with select community authors to feature their courses as well. Our private beta with developers has been going well, and now we have over 30 interactive gadgets available, from interactive diagrams to timelines to flash cards.
And this week we launched Versal Pro. Created for teachers, Versal Pro boosts interactivity in the classroom with the ability to follow and monitor student progress on lessons and quizzes, create private courses that are secure, invite students and parents to take a course and manage their access, and share courses anywhere.
And as an agile development team, almost every week we release smaller features designed to enhance the Versal experience for teachers.
ETT: Are there new challenges for you from business perspective since then? Product perspective? Customer perspective? How have you been or how are you addressing these?
GF: As a newer start-up, we’re not faced with as many challenges so much as opportunities. And therein lies the challenge – identifying the right focus areas and avoiding distraction.
The opportunities are inspiring. For example, with customers building for organizations, course designers say that Versal is simply a better tool – flexible and easy to integrate with their work flows.
On the development side we are thrilled with the new gadgets and functionality coming on board from places we didn’t expect.
With teachers the opportunity is taking control of online courses. A lot of teachers were frustrated that e-education from MOOC platforms offer no ability to influence the content, so being able to build their own courses and edit them along the way has given them the control over the material that is missing from other platforms. Writing, creating and managing courses, and tracking the people involved such as students, parents and other teachers – this has been the bigger challenge with tech in the classroom.
It takes teachers about five minutes to figure out that it’s easier to create their own content, which was a surprise we learned. We didn’t anticipate a couple of things: 1) building a curriculum on Versal is more relevant because it can be modified so easily; and 2) teachers use Versal to curate existing materials like quizzes and lessons, so it’s really a popular way to organize materials into a linear experience where you can make sure people are actually looking at the materials, and then include a quiz to make sure they actually did the work.
Because Versal is such a flexible platform we see people are using it in different ways and contexts, but for us we have been very focused on two user groups – high school teachers and corporate trainers. And we’re learning a lot from them.
ETT: How has your collaborative course authoring platform been received – what have been your challenges in rolling it out?
GF: It works amazingly well. Corporate customers are telling us that collaboration is an absolute must have when creating courses, and something they haven’t seen before. Teachers tell us that they rarely feel that they are part of a worldwide network of peers, so Versal gives them a collaborative effect that’s new.
Collaboration is also proving to be a key feature in the classroom. Student-led learning (the idea of organizing classes into groups and empowering students to collaborate on researching and creating material) is a powerful learning tool. With Versal, a teacher can outline a course in Versal, create teams and assign lessons, and then let students take the lead. When they’re done, the entire class can take the course. Even parents. It’s been an amazing response to the concept.
An interesting thing that just came out, a new study by Boston Consulting Group released last month underlines a few things – blended classroom and student-led learning are emerging now as prominent trends. A year ago people were saying online learning would all be done at home. But the results of this study show the classroom environment is critical – online learning is not a displacement, it is a complement to the classroom, so we feel validated about Versal’s interactive model.
ETT: Since we last spoke, have you observed any new trends or developments in the edtech industry – and if yes, what are they? In what way do these trends have implications on Versal or its customers?
GF: I don’t know if it’s a trend (yet), but we believe that education technology should focus on giving teachers tools to make learning more effective and fun. Technology creates new opportunities for teachers, from curriculum planning to smart homework to classroom projects.
Customizable learning and data-driven adaptive learning solutions are also particularly interesting to us.
ETT: What do you foresee are the next frontiers for the course creator applications – what are the new challenges facing by you and others in this specific space? How have you defined these challenges and how do you plan to address them – i.e. what is your process of going about this?
GF: At Versal we are creating these interconnected communities around the courses – bringing teachers together to add courses and create together. That social aspect will allow us to help them highlight the great stuff they are building by sharing it with the communities that matter.
Versal already has three main communities: teachers, learners and developers. Anytime you build a three-way platform you face the chicken-and-egg situation. For us, our first focus is on course creators, and from there will connect them with learners and developers.
ETT: What is your general process of defining a problem, and how do you articulate it among your team?
GF: Support requests are all forwarded to multiple members of the executive and engineering teams, and we answer them directly. At this stage of our company, this is the best way for us to see firsthand how people are using our product and what gremlins they encounter along the way. It’s critical for prioritization, and it’s even more critical to keep us connected with our community.
It’s always a magical mixture between understanding when a customer asks for a specific feature, which is indicative of a problem, and determining what we can do technically in a given timeframe to give them a solution. It’s a combination of vision and listening to customers.
Plus, it’s really fun and inspiring to talk with people who are using Versal.
ETT: What is your process of explaining your solution to the problem to your clients and customers? In other words, how do you ensure that your message and solution does resonate with teachers and instructors out there?
GF: Keeping lines of communications open with customers is so important. The sales team is on the phone talking with existing customers to identify challenges and opportunities, and they let us know how our message resonates. Also, because we have the whole company building courses we hear what we do well and talk continually about solutions vs. technology, solving problems vs. features, and learning from our partners.
ETT: What are Versal’s plans and challenges for the near future?
GF: We are definitely ramping up our teacher community effort throughout this summer and fall, working with teachers to integrate Versal into daily classroom activities. We know the tools are useful and how they are using it. Now the challenge is getting the word out, reaching them, showing them, and engaging them into community.
We thank Mr. Freund for catching up with us, and recommend you read our original Q&A here:
Yevgeny Ioffe, or as people call him, Yev, has been working in both the startup world and established companies. His career spans from joining Xplana Learning as it launched to Cengage Learning to MBS Direct when it acquired Xplana in 2009. Yevgeny brings to EdTech Times his passion for start-ups and technology, along with his interest in the ever evolving world of edtech. Yevgeny obtained his BSc and MA from Brandeis University and MBA from Boston College.