GoodSemester: Not an LMS, but a Learning Platform

A while back here on e-Literate, Phil wrote a post called Farewell to the Enterprise LMS, Greetings to the Learning Platform. In it, he wrote,

In my opinion, when we look back on market changes, 2011 will stand out as the year when the LMS market passed the point of no return and changed forever. What we are now seeing are some real signs of what the future market will look like, and the actual definition of the market is changing. We are going from an enterprise LMS market to a learning platform market.

What I mean by ‘enterprise LMS’ is the legacy model of the LMS as a smaller, academically-facing version of the ERP. This model was based on monolithic, full-featured software systems that could be hosted on-site or by a managed hosting provider. A ‘learning platform’, by contrast, does not contain all the features in itself and is based on cloud computing – multi-tenant, software as a service (SaaS).

There tends to be a pendulum swings in technology. In the old days, there were dumb terminals, with all the business logic residing on the mainframe. Then came the PC revolution, pushing functionality out to the edges of the network. Next came the internet, driving functionality back to the server. And now we have apps. Similarly, in educational technology, we started with a few tools, moved to an all-in-one, all-you-can-eat LMS model, and now are moving back toward more specialized systems. And one of the questions platform developers and teachers a like are asking is how much functionality do you really need? Is it just WordPress? Is it WordPress plus Google Docs? Is it WordPress, Google Docs, and grade book? Is it a simple LMS with only a handful of tools and an app store? There are lots of different models.

Enter GoodSemester, which has its own take on…well…just about everything. I had a chance to talk to company founder Jason Rappaport a while back about both the product and the company.

Jason doesn’t know what to call the product category the GoodSemester falls into, but he is emphatic that it is not an LMS. He describes it as “Evernote meets Google Docs meets Dropbox.” One thing those three products have in common is that they approach collaboration from the perspective of the utility for an individual. I may invite you to work on a Google Doc with me, but it’s my doc, and I will hold onto it for as long as I want to—by default, forever. Similarly, GoodSemester has a consumer-focused model, both in the sense that it’s intended to be a personal productivity tool for classes. For example, taking, storing, and sharing notes is a central feature of the platform. The GoodSemester team has started by focusing on the student rather than the teacher. And your content is yours forever. Your courses don’t disappear at the end of the semester. They are still accessible to you. Also like Evernote and Dropbox, it has a freemium model, where the idea is to hook individuals on usage and then have them pay a monthly subscription as their usage increases. (They are working on a more traditional model where the institution pays as well.) Will students pay for this kind of thing? I have no idea. But it’s definitely a novel approach.

Since I have been thinking a lot about how to get more young entrepreneurial talent into educational technology lately, it seemed natural to think about Jason and his approach in comparison to Brian Whitmer and Devlin Daley, the co-founders of Instructure. They couldn’t be more different. When you sit down with Brian and Devlin to talk about product that’s still in development, you almost feel as if you are being interviewed by a couple of anthropologists. They study you, in an extremely focused and disciplined way. This discipline produces outputs like the Canvas Speed Grader functionality:

This is exactly what an instructor would ask for. It is, in my opinion, the most highly polished grading workflow in any LMS. It just works. (I’ll have much more to say about Instructure’s approach to product development in an upcoming post.)

In contrast, Jason is just bursting with ideas that he wants to tell you about. He uses a lot of superlatives. This feature is the “first on the planet.” That one is “revolutionary.” That’s not just youthful exuberance (although it is that too). Jason takes pride in re-imagining. As a result, GoodSemester has a grading system like this:

This isn’t just an improved grade book. It’s a complete rethink of the application category.

The classic LMS grade book is all about tabular data. It basically re-implements Microsoft Excel—badly. But Excel is an extremely poor model. Teachers don’t want to manipulate category weightings and write formulas. They want to use their assessments of students’ performance on individual assignments to derive an overall progress indicator (in the form of a course grade) through a formula that is fair to all the students in the class. GoodSemester starts from that goal and achieves it through a completely novel set of visualization tools.

A few of the details are worth calling out:

  • Categories:  It is literally impossible in this system for a teacher to create category weightings that add up to anything other than exactly 100% because it’s all manipulated via a pie chart.
  • Curving and grade cutoffs: The reason that teachers futz with curves and cutoffs between letter grades is because they have an intuitive sense of what the grade distribution could be. In GoodSemester, they adjust those things visually and see the changing grade distribution instantly.
  • Grade dropping: It’s non-destructive. Again, teachers futz with grading schemes when they believe that the scheme they have isn’t accurately reflecting student performance. This happens partly because most teachers don’t have a strong grasp of how the math is working in their grading schemes to produce final grades (particularly when those schemes are complicated). By letting them play with changes non-destructively, they can find the approach that best reflects their sense of how the students are doing.

I’m frankly not sure what to think about GoodSemester. Their product model is so different from the conventional LMS business that there are no clear precedents for how well it might work even in principle. It’s uncharted territory. And I have trouble connecting the dots for some aspects of their product strategy. For example, they talk a lot about open courses on their website, but it’s not entirely clear to me exactly where they are going with open education and, maybe more importantly, how they think they can get there. But there is no question that they are doing some original thinking, and some of it—like the grade book—is really outstanding. And you have to admire their determination both as aspiring entrepreneurs and as aspiring educational reformers. I asked Jason how GoodSemester is funded. He said, “It’s completely self-funded. I graduated from college a year early and used the money I saved to start the company. My only regret is that I didn’t drop out a year earlier. GoodSemester would be a lot further along. That’s how expensive college is.”

I asked, “Can I quote you on that?”

He replied, “I wish you would.”

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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6 Responses to GoodSemester: Not an LMS, but a Learning Platform

  1. Rob Reynolds says:

    Thanks for the post, Michael.I went to GoodSemester and checked it out. You’re absolutely correct about it being a different approach. I found really myself liking pieces of it quite a bit (course setup, easy flow of building what you want organically). It is exactly the kind of thing I would use for building informal courses or short courses. That said, its divergence from traditional workflows would likely prevent many instructors for trying to use it for building our formal semester courses. GoodSemester seems to be designed around the individual who, in turn, can connect to groups, as opposed to being designed around the group (class) and institution.

  2. Hey there, Rob! So, I’m Jason – the guy behind GoodSemester. I definitely see how, at first glance, it would seem like GoodSemester’s built for strictly non-traditional workflows. To that end, I’ve tried to make sure the service has remained really flexible – so you actually could build from the course down to the individual if you wanted to, and GoodSemester has stuff to accommodate that as well. I think the greater goal of GoodSemester’s design is to allow people to build their own workflows, not for the software to impose any sort of specific workflow on people – and if there’s anything I can change to make that happen, I usually do.

    I also figure that I can comment on what GoodSemester’s plans are for open education. It might shed some light on what I’m going for, and what my team and I are trying to foster. (You can skip to the last paragraph for the punchline.)

    So, a while back, the folks at Creative Commons and the 20 Million Minds Foundation got in touch with me about (1) Implementing CC licenses into GoodSemester, (2) Building up a library of global, open source notes and (3) Funding GoodSemester with grants to benefit open education.

    All three of those are pretty much entirely unrelated, but they all come together into something really big and cohesive. When we designed GoodSemester originally, we built it for university courses. But it needed to be easy to find and join courses, and anyone needed to be able to make them, because that’s how the service would propagate. It turns out that allowing anyone to make and find courses has huge implications for open ed – because GoodSemester can be used as an open learning platform *in addition to* a traditional private learning platform. On GoodSemester, there is (literally) no distinction between these two types of courses and resources.

    So, we ended up in a situation where we built the first (and only) service where:

    – Users can freely create courses
    – Users can freely find courses
    – Users can join these courses for free (originally intended to make joining professor-less courses easy since the student creating the course might not know everyone in his/her class or want to spend time inviting them in)
    – Users can create content

    The final piece was allowing users to find content that had been created by others. This, to us, represented a whole new realm of possibilities – my school and other students in my class are no longer the only people and places I can go to to get help and resources! Which is, of course, what we’re all about – expanding out the education community to include what is, essentially, infinity. Your classroom isn’t the community. Everyone on GoodSemester is. So we realized: We don’t want to make school more interactive. We want to make the world more interactive with education.

    Apparently, these foundations caught on to that. So, this is the real meat: The five foundations we partnered with are deeply entrenched in open learning and have direct connections to Khan Academy and MIT Open CourseWare. Neither of these amazing efforts has any sort of platform at all.

    Other software and services fade into irrelevance in the face of amazing content like that. But the problem has been that open education, from a user experience point of view, really sucks or is nonexistent. Because our team cares about the quality and distribution of education so deeply, we really, really want to see open education become more accessible to everyone in the world.

    Long story short, Dean Florez and I are getting Sal Khan on the phone to see if we can’t get Khan Academy to use GoodSemester as its primary method of content distribution, and we’ll be doing the same with MIT Open CourseWare. That would save them all the effort of having to build and maintain a platform of their own, and would integrate open education seamlessly with more traditional “closed” education for the first time ever.

    Hope that sheds some light on a bunch of things!

  3. Rob Reynolds says:


    Thanks for the information. By “informal” what I mean is simply that the application has a different center of gravity than traditional learning platforms — it is designed for the individual instructor/mentor who is likely wanting to create a more open and dynamic (fluid) interaction and likely with less certain end goals. I will definitely keep playing around with GoodSemester and hope to create an open course there in the not-too-distant future.

  4. Aha – yes, that’s definitely correct.

    One of the things I always imagine GoodSemester doing for teaching is enabling professors to connect more intimately with students. So you can have this kind-of divergent curriculum where you’re teaching each student individually and the whole class is moving at a million different paces. It sounds hard to manage, but when you’ve got a bunch of question and discussion boards, and assignments that can be due any time, it really becomes this inevitable thing – and I think every student really benefits for it.

  5. Pingback: Experiences with GoodSemester | Learning Through Play & Technology

  6. Pingback: Conexão TE » Blog Archive » GoodSemester – a plataforma de aprendizagem divertida

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