Coursekit, the TechStars company that raised $1 million from Founder Collective, IA Ventures, TechStars and a few angels before the program even started, just launched to the public. It’s a Blackboard competitor, but only sort of, says CEO Joe Cohen, who mentors told us earned the reputation as the Jason Baptiste of the summer class (cocky, but probably rightfully so). Coursekit is a “learning management system,” as the genre is called, to give teachers and students a centralized place to communicate outside of class. Blackboard rakes in $400 million of the $500 million spent on this type of software per year, he said, but Coursekit isn’t interested in that money. “Our business model is not to compete with Blackboard by selling software,” Mr. Cohen told Betabeat. “It’s to create large audiences of students and teachers that we can then leverage for all sorts of things.”
All sorts of things! Like what? we asked.
“Higher education accounts for half a trillion of our GDP,” he said gravely. “What we’re saying is we want to compete for a slice of that and be the platform by which vendors get to students.”
That means distributing electronic textbooks for McGraw-Hill, for example, he said. The company is starting with courses but plans to expand to serve as a platform for departments and groups within universities; for example, all NYU students will be part of an NYU Coursekit.
Blackboard dominates the market because universities are slow and bureaucratic, Mr. Cohen said. The school administrators—not the people who actually use the software—signed contracts for the software in the late 90s and as far as they know, Blackboard works. “If you look at the software that is used to support real world education, it’s really lousy most of the time,” he said. “It’s called a ‘learning management system.’ The leading learning management system, the company with a monopoly on the learning management system, is Blackbaoard. It’s meant to be used for things like grading, management style, keeping in touch with the class. We said okay, let’s do those really, really well.”
Coursekit is certainly simple, although the news feed-centric app has some teachers confused. Coursekit ran a pilot program with 30 professors, and had problems mostly with professors who had never used Facebook. The app has the ability to collect papers and store them online and lets students post questions and comments in a discussion that’s less like the forum-y feature of Blackboard and more like the unstructured realms of Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.
Coursekit’s five employees are holed up in a large loft in Tribeca with space for about 15 more, Mr. Cohen said, who he hopes to hire over the next 18 months. “It’s fantastic, we’re in Tribeca, but literally we’re in this huge loft and we’re in the corner,” he said. The company is listing openings for a software engineer, front-end engineer, design director, product designer, and two interns.
Coursekit has already had a reality check after its public debut into the harsh world of Startupland: Business Insider broke the 3 p.m. embargo on the story at midnight.