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LecturesOnline and BritannicaU
February 28, 2010 - 5:32pm

In 1999, while teaching at West Virginia University, I created a site called LecturesOnline.org. You can find the original home page for LecturesOnline at the Internet Archive site. LecturesOnline.org was created out of my desire to easily locate materials for teaching, and to share the materials that I was creating for my classes with other faculty.

The home page contains the following text:

"LecturesOnline.org is the one-stop site to preview, examine, and download academically focussed digital work-product, such as PowerPoint lectures, demonstrations, figures, charts, graphs, and HTML pages. [The site]… tries to fill a gap in the academic world; the absence of a web site that allows academics to easily find, distribute, disseminate and trade educational materials that they produce for teaching."

In 1999, while still teaching at WVU, I started consulting for the Britannica - and in 2000 I sold LecturesOnline to the company. That same year I left my job at WVU to join Britannica's new San Francisco based educational start-up. The original idea was to leverage Britannica's expertise, resources, and brand to expand the reach and content of LecturesOnline. A site called "BritannicaU" would develop out of LecturesOnline, one that would fold in Britannica's multimedia and text content with user-submitted teaching materials and perhaps content from other sources. The site would be organized around disciplines, the way a college/university is organized, allowing faculty looking for lecture material to easily locate high quality content.

This vision never came to fruition. Looking back, I still think that BritannicaU (or an expanded LecturesOnline) was a pretty good idea. A site such as BritannicaU would have (and perhaps still would) fill a need for quality discipline (or course) specific teaching materials. Faculty still produce tons of PowerPoint lectures for their own courses, and these lectures are never shared (as they are locked up in learning management systems or on individual hard drives). At least a certain percentage of faculty members would be willing to share their teaching materials, particularly if they got attribution and their material was not re-purposed for commercial use (this was before Creative Commons). Sharing would be encouraged if an easy exchange method for borrowing was part of the deal. For Britannica, mixing their existing content with user submitted materials would have increased the relevancy and visibility of their brand. I've long thought that Encyclopædia Britannica content is useful for teaching, and a site like BritannicaU would have demonstrated this idea.

Why did BritannicaU never get off the ground? The idea died before we were able to produce any workable site, it never even made it to the stage of being released (although a good deal of money was spent on outsourced Web design, consulting and prototyping).

Some reasons for the failure of BritannicaU:

1) Business Model: BritannicaU, sort of an expanded LecturesOnline with Britannica content and a more advanced platform, may have been a good idea but it would have never been a huge revenue generator. The whole point of the original site was a nonprofit exchange. Why would faculty upload their teaching materials if someone else was making money off them? This tension existed from the day I sold LecturesOnline to Britannica. How would BritannicaU monetize? Advertising seemed like the only possibility, but again this would violate the original spirit and rationale of the site. Britannica could have made the site a dot-org, foregone advertising and decided to live with the site as channel to market their content as relevant to higher ed faculty, but that would have cannibalized its paid (subscription) properties. A "LecturesOnline" brought to you by Britannica probably would have been the best bet, but Britannica was never interested in moving too far beyond their core content (or other expensively produced original content), or supporting a property that did not make money.

2) Leadership and Experience: The Britannica Educational Division, initially based in a couple of live/work lofts South of Market (SOMA) and finally at the Presidio before closing in 2001, recruited some very smart people. Most of these folks never worked on BritannicaU, as the inherent lack of a business model quickly doomed the higher ed. site, with the focus quickly moving to a product called BritannicaSchool for the K-12 market. As for me, I had really no idea what I was doing and did not have the skills or influence to make BritannicaU a reality. Someone should write the story of Britannica's foray in the San Francisco start-up world to launch an education division, putting this effort into the larger context of Britannica's historical transformation from print to digital. My role at Britannica was too marginal, too peripheral and too short-term to write this story, but I hope someone takes it up. (Note: I'd like to connect with the old San Francisco Britannica.com Education people).

3) Technology: Back in 2000 during the dot-com bubble some crucial technologies and business models were not in place. User generated content and the read/write Web were not really mainstreams concepts. Building any kind of website, much less one that would incorporate the technologies necessary to allow anyone to upload, tag, search, and discover teaching materials, was an incredibly expensive proposition. Today a site like this could be built on Drupal, with storage come from Amazon S3, for very little money. Bandwidth and storage are now cheap, 10 years ago these were expensive and scarce commodities.

Today, if you go to LecturesOnline.org you will find some Web squatter. Britannica was never really interested in the idea of user generated and shared content, and after buying the site from me they never did anything with it. The dot-com bubble collapsed, Britannica's management and business model changed (and changed again), and I left the company in late 2001. I'll be forever grateful for the opportunity that Britannica gave me to participate in a start-up culture and transition my career from a traditional faculty track to educational technology. While I never moved full-time to San Francisco (tele-commuting from West Virginia, where my wife was in medical school), I cherish the time I spent with all the amazing people who at one time worked at Britannica.com Education and who still work for the company in Chicago.

If I could have a "do-over", I think that it would have been smarter to have not sold LecturesOnline.org to Britannica, and to have maintained the site as an independent nonprofit. Perhaps I could have figured out a way to have a company "sponsor" the site, some way to bring the expertise and resources necessary to scale the idea. Certainly my lack of programming skills, lack of money, the fact I had a full-time teaching gig, and the state of the technology when I began LecturesOnline would have made this difficult. I still think that Britannica's Encyclopædia content is much more useful for teaching than most faculty realize, and there should be a way to get this material into the hands of people putting together lectures. Mostly, I'm happy that I had the opportunity to start something new, try to grow it, and to fail. No doubt that failure is the best teacher, and I hope to have many more failures in the course of my career.

 

 

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