Wednesday, 2 July 2014


Last week, the University of Alberta spinoff company Onlea was announced ( Onlea (pronounced on-lee-a) has a mission of “mindful online learning crafted with scholarship, creativity and quality.” I am one of the four founders of this exciting opportunity.

The core business of the University of Alberta is research and teaching. It is not doing the production work required to turn the content of a course into an engaging online experience. Onlea partners with universities, schools, companies, and agencies. Our clients determine and own the pedagogy. Onlea works with them to turn their material into a high-quality interactive online course. To do so, we have a talented team of people and contractors including producers, directors, cameramen, film editors, illustrators, graphic designers, script writers, makeup specialists, software developers, project managers, instructional designers, assessment specialists, and so on. In other words we take an educator’s ideas and create an online adventure that engages the learner.

Let’s say you are a professor and want to create a MOOC (massive open online course). You decide on the course and the content. You then contract with Onlea to work with you on creating the online version. We go over the material, suggest improvements, help with the script writing, suggest interactive software applications (ILOs – interactive learning objects), work on in-line quizzing (periodic formative feedback), help with course assessment (online midterms and exams), coach the course presenter(s), film and edit the course material, add in illustrations, and so on.  In other words, the material given to us by the educator is the proverbial tip of the iceberg for Onlea.

The founders of Onlea worked on the University of Alberta’s first MOOC, Dino 101. From it we learned many valuable lessons. In particular, it’s not in the University of Alberta’s best interests to employ a (large) full-time team devoted to doing the production work needed for online courses. Although a few universities do their MMOC/blended/online course production in-house, most can’t afford to do so or, quite frankly, don’t want to do so. Onlea wants to work with other educational institutions and companies to produce their courses. We will work on any kind of online learning experience, not just MOOCs. Further, we are platform agnostic.

Will I make a lot of money from Onlea? Sadly, no. The company has been created as a not-for-profit. Thus any money earned gets plowed back into the company. I have a full-time job as Dean, so my work with Onlea is restricted to my own personal time. Of course, I have to reserve a few hours each week for leisure time, else work will become all consuming.

So why I am putting in the extra hours needed to help Onlea succeed? Because I believe there is a real opportunity to make the company an international leader in the online space. Onlea is the first MOOC production company in Canada (and possibly the world). Many institutions have already expressed interest in what we can do (thank you, Dino 101). We have to leverage this to go great work and continue to innovate. As a researcher, I know how much fun it can be on the leading edge. I am not interested in being an also-ran.

In 1995, I co-founded BioTools, Inc. Sadly, the company no longer exists. We started out building software tools to do DNA and protein analysis. The products were well received in the marketplace, but we couldn’t quite generate enough ongoing revenue. The dot-com crash hit us hard and we almost went under. We reinvented ourselves by commercializing the poker-playing software developed by my research group. This was successful for a while but, again, we couldn’t quite generate enough ongoing revenue. Eventually we sold the company. I made less than $10 for every hour that I put into the company. Although the money wasn’t great, it was an interesting learning experience and an exciting journey with plenty of highs (e.g., our bioinformatics software getting an excellent review in the prestigious journal Science; the poker software being picked up by Walmart) and some major lows (e.g., laying off people; almost going bankrupt).

Hopefully Onlea will have plenty of highs and none of the lows. Stay tuned!