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‘Social Teaching’ Company Gets Buy-In From Capella Education

What happened to music because of the Internet—going from few creators to many—is going to happen to education very soon, says Don Smithmier, and his new “social teaching” Web site, Sophia, is going to be part of that change. That’s a big claim for a small start-up now in beta testing, but it seems more plausible the first week of February, after Capella Education, the corporation behind the online educator Capella University, made a substantial investment in his company.

“The money is going to let us scale up,” Mr. Smithmier says. “And they have 38,000 learners in their system, so it lets us pilot studies of our technology.” Michael Walsh, a Capella spokesoman, said the company could not disclose the amount of money, because they were in a so-called “quiet period” required by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Officials did say in a prepared statement that they viewed Sophia as a strategic investment.

The basic idea behind Sophia is to identify the best teachers for any concept, put their instruction for that concept online, and students all over the world can use these “learning packets”  free of charge. For example, a professor who has a really great lesson on how to factor polynomials can package that lesson—complete with video and any other materials—on Sophia, and search engines like Google will let students find it and use it.

But who decides what makes a lesson really great? Or even accurate? Mr. Smithmier says the site has two levels of quality assurance. One is votes from users. Currently there are about 1,100 of them, and more than half are educators at the college level. They get to rate each learning packet with a 5-star system. The second level is a rating of academic soundness. “People on Sophia identify themselves as someone with an advanced degree in a particular subject, and then they rate the packets,” Mr. Smithmier says. “Three positive ratings get a packet a green check mark.” He admits that people can lie about their expertise in this system. “It will happen,” he says. But he thinks other experts and the community in general will catch them. Raters themselves are constantly rated by others in the Sophia network.

The difference between Sophia and a learning-management system that also allows professors to post instructional material, like Moodle or Blackboard, is that Sophia is not institution-limited. It starts with a public community, rather than just people affiliated with a particular course at a particular college.

There will, however, eventually be private versions of Sophia licensed to colleges, Mr. Smithmier says. These versions would be integrated with a college’s student information system, letting instructors track an individual student’s performance. That’s how the company intends to make money. For now, Sophia intends to make its beta version public in March, and free for all.

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