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A class app

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  • | 8:27 a.m. November 1, 2013
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Angelo Biasi was teaching a marketing class to adult learners at New York University when he decided to create a mobile app for his students so they could review that week's lesson.

The two-month class would meet online on Mondays for three hours. Biasi designed the app so students could check their phones at other times to review. “What are the top 10 things you want the students to remember?” he says.

Turns out, this was NYU's first course to have its own mobile app. “The light bulb went off in July 2012 when I filed for the patent,” Biasi says, and MassiveU was born.

As the name of the Naples-based company implies, anyone in the world with a mobile device such as an iPhone or a tablet can download a course app from MassiveU. It's the first distance-learning technology company that develops courses primarily with the mobile user in mind. Other similar services design courses for the desktop or laptop computer, not the mobile phone. “No one is approaching it with a mobile-first strategy like we are,” says Biasi.

Because it has the potential to attract millions of users from all over globe via the Web, MassiveU has been lumped into the latest tech craze called MOOCs. The letters stand for massive open online courses, and it's the next frontier in distance learning. Distance education was a $92 billion industry in 2012 and the mobile part of that totaled $9 billion. Biasi says the industry could generate $166 billion by 2015.

But Biasi isn't a fan of the funny-sounding term, even though MassiveU might be considered the first mobile MOOC. That's because the word implies that there is no cost and learners could earn degrees without paying professors. “This is not the Napster of education,” says Biasi, referring to the free music file-sharing program that disrupted the music recording industry before iTunes set the standard.

Biasi declines to share his outlook for MassiveU's revenue potential, but venture investors in Naples with the Tamiami Angel Fund determined it was enough of an opportunity to invest $370,000 recently in the company's first round of capital raising. “We like the space and it was attractive to get in on the ground floor,” says Tim Cartwright, the fund's chairman.

Making money
Most professors and universities aren't in the business of giving their knowledge away for free. “I'm a little threatened by this free movement,” acknowledges Biasi, who owns a marketing company in his former home of White Plains, N.Y.

When NYU asked Biasi to create a free app based on content from his class last year, he felt it was risky because he didn't want to create a monster that might put him out of a job. After all, his students pay NYU $840 to take his marketing class. “It's my content and I want to keep doing that,” he says. “I'm very sensitive not to cannibalize the paying course.”

So Biasi pared down his course to fit the mobile learner's short attention span to increments of 10 and 30 minutes, and he got corporate sponsors including Sprint to underwrite the cost. He calls it the abridged Cliffs Notes of his class. “This was content I'd already produced,” says Biasi, who has lived in Naples since 2005.

Biasi declines to say how much he earned from the effort that launched in February, but he notes: “It was a good enough amount that I felt I was very well taken care of.”

“It was a nice little marriage,” Biasi says. The cell phone company offered the mobile marketing course free to its small-business customers and NYU got leads for future prospective students. It was marketed as a “free gift of learning” from Sprint and NYU. “We just delivered over 200 leads to NYU,” Biasi says.

But MassiveU can generate revenues in other ways, too. For example, it charges universities $1,500 to $2,500 for an app and it might take a percentage of the sales, which could range from 99 cents to $49.99.

In many cases, professors will use the app as a complementary tool. For example, Sandra Kauanui, professor of management at Florida Gulf Coast University, will be using a MassiveU app for students at the Institute for Entrepreneurship that she directs. The app will give them a taste of what it might be like to start a business, and they can follow up with a more in-depth course later.

“What we're doing is developing apps to get people to think about a business model for starting a new business,” says Kauanui. Proceeds from the app might go to help fund promising new businesses created by students in the entrepreneurship program. “For people who are interested in going further, they can build on that,” she says.

Adults and kids
Biasi says the design of the learning apps must be tailored specifically for the mobile platform. “I really do think we have to package learning content that is accessible, convenient and engaging on a 3-inch screen,” he says.

The ideal user is the adult learner, the professional who may have a job and other obligations. “A lot of them are self directed, time starved and device affluent,” Biasi says.

These are students like the ones in Biasi's marketing class at NYU, who might have 10 minutes waiting in the carpool line for their children at school or 30 minutes on the train while commuting home. MassiveU's mobile learning apps are designed for that person so that course work can be completed in those kinds of tight time increments.

The way he sees it, many MOOCs don't tailor their coursework to that busy, time-constrained professional. “Less than 7% of people who sign up for a MOOC actually complete one,” Biasi says.

Another target market is the young student in grade school. Most kids today have mobile devices, and Biasi says he's working on a project with Collier County public schools under a “bring your own device” to school program.

A system of rewards is an important component of attracting students to mobile learning. For example, adult learners might earn a badge from a university each time they complete a mobile course. Such badges on a resume could give a job candidate an edge. For kids, completing an assignment on their phone might earn them rewards in a game. It's what investors like Cartwright dub the “gamification” of education.

Cartwright says MassiveU satisfies the criteria that many investors look for: a large market, a scalable business model and a passionate and competent entrepreneur. “We're looking for a real problem and solution,” says Cartwright.

With about half of the $750,000 he plans to raise in the first round of financing, Biasi says he's ready to ramp up the company's efforts. “Capital is going toward technology and hiring people so we can scale as quickly as possible,” he says. “We're in the right place at the right time with this technology.”


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