LearnHub: Social View of Learning

learnhubSaw on TechCrunch this week that John, Gosia and team had redeisgned the home page of LearnHub. Congratulations!

LearnHub is the evolution of Nuvvo. It’s a set of online tools designed to make learning fun and engaging for students, and easy and effective for teachers. It’s built on new technology, Nuvvo was built on a Java stack using Hibernate and Struts. LearnHub is build on the Ruby stack using Rails. It also represents an evolution in understanding of how important communities and interaction are in the learning process.

“We participate, therefore we are”

What is the social view of learning? Joshua Porter summaries very nicely,

The mere threat of social interaction changes our behavior…if you know your work is going to be put on public display, you’ll be much more motivated to make it good.

John Seely Brown presents Learn 2.0 as a shift from a view where knowledge is something that can be transferred to students. To a view where it is the social interactions and activities that help support the learning of content.

“This perspective shifts the focus of our attention from the content of a subject to the learning activities and human interactions around which that content is situated. This perspective also helps to explain the effectiveness of study groups. Students in these groups can ask questions to clarify areas of uncertainty or confusion, can improve their grasp of the material by hearing the answers to questions from fellow students, and perhaps most powerfully, can take on the role of teacher to help other group members benefit from their understanding (one of the best ways to learn something is, after all, to teach it to others).” – John Seely Brown [Minds on Fire – PDF]

LearnHub supports a set of social activities. Including blogging, comments, quizzes, tutoring, testing, and a reputation system. The reputation system provides a mechanism for students to evaluate teachers, the input and tutoring advice of other students, and generally create a public mechanism for building trust amongst the participants. The combination of using a socially motivated reward system, i.e., reputation, along with participatory social tools seems like a fantastic start for successful social learning communities. Coupled with the lessons from Nuvvo about how to build efficient course management tools, it sets LearnHub up to be a competitive player.

Quick Analysis

Management Team

The management team consists of Malgosia Green, John Green and Michelle Caers. The team is relatively inexperienced, but looks like a strong young team. Recent experiences building a succesful acquisition in Silicon Valley and lessons learned from a failed attempt at Nuvvo, should provide a strong basis for keeping LearnHub’s product development and business development on track.

Market

Bersin & Associates estimates the LMS market in 2006 at approximately $480 million/year and growing at 26% per year. March 2008 post shows the market at over $700 million with a strong focus on Web 2.0 and participatory tools as a important focus for vendors. There is a strong market for LMS solutions in India where there is a good mix of public and private sector adoption of learning management tools, there is a strong educational market with a strong group of private universities that account for 90% of the educational spend.

Product

The LearnHub product offering shows the experience of having build Nuvvo. The learning management tools included for teachers are comparable to those included with Moodle and Blackboard: courses, lessons, polls, quizzes, tests, student management, multimedia instruction, etc. The advantage for LearnHub is the participatory nature of the product is not bolted on after the fact. The LearnHub tools appear to be built around social learning. The integration of a reputation system that leverages many of the standard social design patterns, allows LearnHub to build tools for educators around a participatory community that supports individual learners improving the learning experience. The reputation system combined with the focus on easy-to-use instructor and participant experiences really set LearnHub apart from their enterprise competitors.

Business Model

There are still some open questions about the business model. The current model appears on the surface to be advertising based, there are Google Adsense on each pages, and larger educational institution brand advertising. With an investor like Educomp, there is bound to be additional business models brewing.

Strategic Relationships

The investment and strategic relationship with Educomp places LearnHub in a very good spot. Educomp is a large Indian educational technology provider with a strong presence the K-12 market in India. This is a strength for Savvica.

Competition

There are 2 leaders in the LMS space with the closed source Blackboard/WebCT offering, and the open-sourced Moodle. Moodle offers individual professors and instructors a great course management system, but it is missing many of the features and functionality necessary to run an institution. Blackboard is the 800 pound gorilla in North America and has recently added managed hosting and community features.

Barriers to Entry

Much of the barriers to entry analysis requires looking at information dependent on details of the business model, marketing plan, and a better understanding of the relationship with LearnHub’s investor Educomp. The barriers to entry in the LMS market appear to be related to existing vertical integration and key agreements in the educational market.

  • Globalisation
    My thought here is that the partnership with Educomp provides rapid access into the larger local Indian educational market. And that the size of this market will allow LearnHub to be able to adjust the tools for use in other English speaking markets.
  • Customer loyalty
    LearnHub is building tools that people enjoy using. And is trying to build a community around learning that allows students to eventually become teachers. Customer loyalty and community liveliness are metrics that can be track as LearnHub develops. First steps include their agile, human-centered design and development process.
  • Network effect
    There are strong network effects that are dependent on finding the right instructors, institutions and courses. Content is still king, and with the right participatory model surrounding the content LearnHub is set to build a vibrant community that replenishes the content but also improves the learning experience.
  • Sunk costs
    It’s pretty easy, once you get your courses and material entered into the system there is a huge cost to move them to another provider. Getting the right content and instructors is key to leverage the learning tools and community tools.
  • Research and development
    Let’s just assume that LearnHub continues to be out in front of the R&F curve. Leveraging an existing community and layering in new tools and techniques as they are discovered, invented or evaluated for effectiveness.

One key barrier that is difficult to assess from the outside is the one of intellectual property. Much of the LearnHub system is public, and many of the social design patterns are freely available an published by others (see Yahoo’s Reputation Design Patterns). It will be interesting to see how quickly existing LMS providers adopt social tools, Blackboard has a Community System but appears to be offering this as enterprise software to educational institutions to deploy. Missing the internal insight it’s very difficult to assess the intellectual property protections. In my search of the US Patent Office, I could not find any filings related to Savvica or LearnHub.

Summary

The experience in Silicon Valley appears to have prepared John & Gosia in building a solid business plan around an existing problem with key differentiators in the community tools for elearning. There are a few open questions around a business model that allows LearnHub to generate significant revenues, and the barrirers to entry for a competitor. However, the investment by Educomp and the existing Educomp salesforce and business development efforts lends significant credibility to the LearnHub efforts. LearnHub is building tools that are leading the social learning trend and have strong investment and business development relationships in India.

Savvica, the company that makes LearnHub, is hiring.