Thinkific and the Science of Online Education

August 14, 2012

9:35 am

This year, Stanford University turned things upside down with experiments in the “flipped classroom.”

For a few courses in biochemistry and computer science, students watched their lectures online and did problem solving, discussion, and practice during classroom time. According to the school, biochem students enjoyed the course more and attendance rose from 30 to 80 percent.

I learned about flipped classrooms from Greg Smith, the cofounder of Vancouver startup Thinkific. He and his brother Matt are building a site with online video courses in law and accounting, mining, and entrepreneurship, with an eye on the latest education research.

For example, he explains that the popular wisdom of different learning styles can be deceptive. In fact, many students benefit from the same techniques: we understand material better when we learn it over time (rather than cramming), and when we teach it to others. Teaching a friend will be part of the curriculum on Thinkific – and it also happens to be great advertising.

Smith, who taught LSAT classes online, has also learned one danger of online education: overloading our senses. Too many visual stimuli, like video plus text plus a graphic, actually make learning harder. (Think of those PowerPoint presentations where too much text distracts you from the speaker.) Thinkific solves that problem by balancing visual and audio material.

And finally, like most online courses, Thinkific lets you set your own time and pace. Research has suggested that breaking up learning into chunks lets students stop to process and integrate new knowledge. Without a break, they may not fully grasp some information, which can be crucial to learning what comes next.

In other words, contrary to what universities might have us believe, three-hour 8 a.m. lectures are not a recipe for enlightenment. “There are better ways to do things,” Smith says diplomatically. (He’s a lawyer.)

To find out what those better ways are, he has spent a great deal of time reading the latest studies and findings in education. That might seem like a dull task to many action-oriented entrepreneurs – “most people’s eyes kind of glaze over when I get into the statistics,” Smith says – but he obviously finds it fascinating.

If Thinkific and Stanford and others keep innovating, we’ll all learn that education can be more than an 8 a.m. snooze.

Thinkific will be showcasing at the Launch@Grow party in Vancouver on August 22, where Tech Cocktail is a media sponsor. To get a $10 discount on tickets, use the code TechCocktail.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact

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