Like many an Internet tale, this one is told by the users. Call it the birth of Karaoke U., a school where everyone is a teacher.
It started when educational software company Blackboard Inc. put its professional course-creation tools on the Web for free. The idea was to show teachers how they could enhance their classroom instruction with automatic quiz builders, electronic test grading, chat, calendars and discussion boards. Blackboard's founders were hoping teachers would fall in love and persuade their schools to buy the company's $5,000-to-$100,000 software.
But within weeks after Blackboard ran an ad touting its tools at another Web site, more than 1,000 people came and created full-blown courses at Blackboard.com, including hundreds of teachers who were not affiliated with schools. "We had a course on how to play contract bridge, a Cisco certification class, a Series 7 stockbroker exam," said Michael Chasen, co-founder of District-based Blackboard.
So in May, Blackboard revamped its Web site to add a dollop of e-commerce and let people search for courses. Now anyone who creates a course there and is willing to pay $100 can charge tuition, sign up students, bill them through Blackboard and keep 80 percent of the revenue. So far, more than 9,000 live courses are hosted at Blackboard.com, including one on infertility that a doctor created and one about town planning crafted by a community group in Gaithersburg.
Blackboard.com is at the forefront of a grass-roots movement in education, even though most of its courses are still linked to offline schools and it is barely beginning to explore the free-lance teaching world. Blackboard has no plans to abandon its core software business, either. After all, more than 300 universities, including Harvard, Yale, Cornell and Georgetown, have bought its electronic tool kit to create Web sites that supplement their traditional instruction.
But on the Internet, strategies shift as fast as the mind can wrap itself around new ideas. And so it is that Blackboard, eCollege.com, DigitalThink and dozens of other start-ups are tinkering with new online learning environments--
even partnering to make their products work together.
Some are helping traditional educational institutions go online. Others are creating entirely new virtual schools, taking advantage of the global computer network's ability to break through the time and space limitations that have long governed the country's $740 billion-a-year educational market.
Inside this swirling new educational galaxy, a few firms are vying to become the central stations where self-directed students might start their learning journeys by finding and signing up for courses from far-flung sources. One is HungryMinds.com, a San Francisco-start-up that is launching an educational portal in two weeks. Another is a "personal learning community" called SmartPlanet that Ziff-Davis Inc. is launching on the Web this month. Both will offer free tools for people to teach courses and share information in nontraditional formats.
Many of the new players share a broader goal: "We want to be the Yahoo of online learning," said Stuart Skorman, the founder of Hungry Minds. "We are helping to start a new industry--something called online learning that did not exist before."
The idea is to create virtual communities with registrars where people can mix and match courses from different institutions, including personal how-to training, career development and academic studies. In the same way that Yahoo offers two distinct Web directories--one listing its own content and the other cataloguing content at other people's Web sites--
HungryMinds.com will wrap a comprehensive directory of tens of thousands of Web-based courses around a smaller listing of services created and hosted by its own staff and partners.
Hungry Minds announced partnership deals last week to market Internet courses taught by online pioneers University of California at Berkeley, UCLA-
Extension and University of Maryland University College. The company also said it will carry new Web-only courses from women's network iVillage.com, employment supersite Monster.com and financial adviser SmartMoney.com.
But most interesting will be what Hungry Minds calls its people's university, a Karaoke U. of sorts, where anyone will be able to create a course. Hungry Minds is screening the more than 1,000 submissions it has received from would-be teachers to figure out how open the system should be, what kind of quality controls are needed and how much of the tuition free-lancers should be able to keep.
Skorman, a second-generation Internet entrepreneur who sold his Web video store Reel.com for $100 million last year, said his game plan is "like an airplane we're designing while we are building it."
That plane arrives none too soon for Jason Roberts, whose own mini-learning portal has been feeling lonely in cyberspace for several years. Learn2.com, which is partnering with HungryMinds, offers thousands of short instructions on life's basics, like changing tires and getting a "clean, close" shave. "It's been a problem in the past because people have never been able to classify us," Roberts said. "There was no learning category in the search engines."
The big worry, of course, is that without official accreditation systems it will be hard to tell which free-lance courses are worthwhile or whether teachers are who they say they are. It is not easily addressed, even if sites adopt reputation-feedback systems similar to what online auctioneer eBay uses to let buyers rate sellers.
While such worries may slow down the democratization of education online, they cannot stop the Internet from empowering students to structure their own learning paths. In the learning markets of the future, you can bank on students, no longer constrained by geography or clocks, reaching out to sample more classes from around the world on their own need-to-know timetables.
Send e-mail to Leslie Walker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CAPTION: Matthew Pittinsky, left, and Michael Chasen co-founded District-based Blackboard.com, at the forefront of the online education movement.