Building an engaging, accessible online learning platform for higher ed

Andreina Bloom Parisi-Amon
By Andreina Bloom Parisi-Amon on April 06, 2022

Engageli is led by a team of experienced educators, entrepreneurs, and technologists working to transform higher education by giving educators and learners an accessible and flexible platform that supports in-person, remote, and hybrid learning in real-time or asynchronously. 

In this three-part series looking at the various facets of Engageli, we want to look at how the company brings together the best in education, engineering, and entrepreneurship to maintain and grow a cutting-edge learning platform that is disrupting the higher education space.


In part one of this series, we take a look at the origin of Engageli, and how active learning principles, interactivity, granular measurements, and multimodal collaboration are seamlessly built into the platform’s DNA to improve learner outcomes.

Combining the best of in-person and online learning experiences

Engageli traces its roots to an early vision of online learning that Daphne Koller, one of our co-founders, set out to deliver while teaching computer science at Stanford University. Engageli brings the approach full circle by marrying for the first time the effective learning of a small-group classroom environment with the scalability, accessibility, and analytics of online learning, creating an inclusive platform for all learners.

In 1971, Jim Gibbons was studying the efficacy of tutored video instruction, or TVI. Stanford honors co-op learners working for Hewlett-Packard would gather locally in Santa Rosa each day to watch a recorded lecture with an onsite tutor; anytime a learner had a question during the lecture, the tutor would stop the tape and facilitate discussion until an answer was reached. This experiment was the first in what is today called collaborative learning -- and it found that the TVI learners outperformed the vast majority of those who took the standard, in-person class, evidenced by an average GPA of 3.71 vs 3.37, respectively. 

The excitement at technology-assisted education for both on-campus learners and those in the broader population never waned, and a few years later led to the creation of the first Stanford MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in 2011, which in turn led to Daphne's co-founding of Coursera in 2012. Coursera continues to grow and now offers more than 4,000 classes in everything from business analytics to graphic design and python, serving over 90 million learners (2021 Coursera Impact Report), and fulfilling its mission of increasing access to education and providing meaningful experiences to learners across the globe. But that was only half of Daphne’s original mission. The other half was to improve the educational experience for her on-campus learners who, when sitting more than a few rows back in the lecture hall, had a hard time directly engaging, which was not the experience she wished to provide each learner. 

When the COVID19 pandemic started disrupting higher ed in early 2020, it created a new imperative to reevaluate how we could build engaging digital teaching and learning platforms and was a prime opportunity to revisit some of the ideas Daphne had grappled with at Stanford. She and her husband, tech entrepreneur Dan Avida, saw their own daughters’ schooling change for the worse overnight due to COVID19 and co-founded Engageli seven months later.

Group-Based Learning

Based on active learning principles, one of Engageli’s most unique features is its virtual tables, with learners clustered together in smaller groups of up to 10, promoting peer-to-peer learning and meaningful discussion. While seated at a table, learners can converse among themselves, but never leave the greater classroom and can always communicate with the instructor(s). This closely mirrors the way traditional classrooms handle grouping, with small segments of a class collaborating but always within earshot of the instructor, who is able to walk around and provide feedback to each group. Tables also provide an environment for learners needing extra support to be paired with other learners or assistants without disrupting the classroom and while encouraging engagement and participation.  

Numerous communication channels are built into the platform, with learners able to ask questions publicly or privately; message classmates, tablemates, and instructors; or provide real-time feedback via emojis and thumbs up or down signals. This creates a strong social component and replicates the feeling of going to class with your friends and the camaraderie that can arise from working on projects together or chatting outside of class. It also replicates the experience of a physical classroom by making it easy to “get up and walk” to the next table, chat with someone, and then come back. For the instructor, creating groups is more straightforward than in the physical classroom, as there is no need to worry about the number of tables in the space or time lost transitioning. With the click of a button, learners can be placed in groups.

Beyond the live classroom, Engageli provides Playback Rooms where learners can engage with replays of class sessions individually or alongside their peers, post Q&As and answer polls, and take and download notes and screenshots, making it easy to meet outside of class and continue course work.

Teaching Iteration and Intervention in Real-Time

Instructors aim to be sensitive to what is and isn’t working, but in a physical classroom, that visibility is often lacking. Instructors can try to look at the gazes of the learners and see if they're paying attention, but it's a weak signal of whether they're actually learning, especially since many learners take notes on their laptops (or are shopping on Amazon) and never look up from their screens. Looking at the pedagogical research, it’s also clear that having instructors who care and who reach out to their learners is one of the most important factors in their success, and has been shown to be true at the college and post-college levels. But similarly, how can instructors know who to reach out to if they're teaching 150 or more learners, and all the faces blur together in the classroom?

In the past, it was challenging to improve and iterate on the teaching and learning experience in physical classrooms since the cycle time for getting information about engagement could be as long as a semester or year. Instructors would only get a full picture at the end after learners had submitted their course work, taken their exams, and moved on. At that point, going back and trying to figure out what could have been done better was almost impossible. And the next class cohort could be different, so even if teaching insights could be gleaned, they may not be what’s needed for a new group. 

Digital platforms enable an incredible data stream that lets instructors know whether learners are paying attention and learning. With Engageli, there are non-invasive ways to measure engagement, so instructors don't need to force learners to keep their cameras on or do gaze tracking to see if they’re actually following online. All data and engagement is tracked, and instructors can get granular insight into attendance, thumbs up, hand raises, class talk time, poll/quiz participation, reactions and session feedback, as well as chat and communications. 

This real-time feedback can not only help instructors gauge whether their teaching methods are resonating; but can help identify learners who could benefit from a timely, warm word of encouragement or an explanation of a concept that they seem to be struggling with. 

Designed for both Learner and Instructor Accessibility

The goal of increasing access, expanding flexibility, and improving the learning experience regardless of where people are located, has led to the expansion of the hyflex course, where learners on- and off-campus can study together in real-time or asynchronously. However, as higher education expands and grows in the digital age, more support is needed for learners to learn in the manner most convenient for them, and for instructors to adopt new platforms and teaching methods that offer accessibility, flexibility, and meaningful engagement.

Instructors spend a lot of time developing their course materials, and one obstacle to the adoption of new platforms is the need for them to recreate or adapt what they’ve already made to a new format. Engageli streamlines this process by integrating live interactive polls and quizzes into existing materials during a session, regardless of format. Adoption is frictionless, and instructors can use the platform in a web browser to begin teaching without the need to install any software.

For learners, Engageli isn’t simply a remote learning solution or a tool to help with note-taking during class, but a full-spectrum online learning platform that makes it easy for in-person, remote, blended, synchronous, and asynchronous learners to learn together. By supporting all learners, Engageli puts learning first.

In part two we will look at the technology underpinning Engageli and how it is a complete solution for educational institutions looking for broad-spectrum capabilities that support teaching, learning, and engagement in a single accessible platform.

Published by
Andreina Bloom Parisi-Amon
Andreina Bloom Parisi-Amon
April 6, 2022