For the Sake of Better Class-Management, Putting College on Hold

Penn undergrads Joseph Cohen, Dan Getelman, and Jim Grandpre have a hard time shaking off comparisons to The Social Network, the 2010 film dramatizing the genesis of Facebook. 

“I don’t really encourage the comparison,” Getelman says. 

But it’s hard not to make the connection. These three undergrads recently raised $1 million in seed capital for their education-industry startup, an online course-management system called Coursekit. And now they’ve put school on hold so that they can work on launching it. 

There’s a conceptual dimension to the comparison as well. See, Coursekit is like a Facebook for college classes. 

Since freshman year, Cohen had been frustrated by BlackBoard, the current standard. He found the site clunky and hard to navigate. 

So he and Getelman set out to build a better course-management system—one that might be capable of adding value to the actual classes themselves. “It wasn’t just a better BlackBoard,” Cohen explains. “We wanted to build a worldwide academic social network.”

Grandpre joined them a semester later. They spent every free moment cracking away at the challenge. This summer, they decided that it was best to focus on one thing at a time.  So they put Penn on hold. 

“Telling your parents that you want to leave an Ivy League school that you worked very hard to get into—it’s a difficult conversation to have,” says Cohen. “It’s definitely nerve-wracking to put the best business education on hold.” 

The company has set up shop in Manhattan’s Union Square. They work “every waking hour,” Cohen says. He rises at 8 a.m. and goes to bed again at 2 a.m.

“That’s how you have to do it,” he says. “We’re doing it because we think we can do very big things.”

“I think it really is very worthwhile,” says Sharka Hyland, an adjunct assistant professor of graphic design, who used a beta version of Coursekit last spring for her Typology course. “It really did change the dynamic of the class.” Student discussions online spilled over into class time, Hyland says, and “made the class richer.” 

She decided to use Coursekit after Cohen, a student in the class, proposed it to her. 

Cohen recalls a time that he posted a picture of a shampoo bottle on the class’s Coursekit page. Twenty minute later, Hyland posted a response: “This is a very sophisticated design. Can anyone describe why?” When no one could answer, she posted again: “Let’s discuss in class.” What followed was an impromptu lesson on Swiss typography.

Cohen was blown away. “It just made [Coursekit] so relevant,” he says. He later deployed the same Swiss font in an updated version of Coursekit.

The newest version of the site, which 50 college professors across the country will test-run this fall, has a homepage anchored by a wall on which students and teachers can post messages, links, photos, and other media. 

“People learn better when they review things together,” Getelman says. Coursekit aims to build an online community for each class and “get the students to where they’re comfortable talking to each other.” 

It’s a long way to go from bright idea to market domination, but Cohen says they’re pressing forward one step at a time. 

For now, he says, “we just build.”

—Maanvi Singh C’13

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