LearnOpt is a social learning platform designed for professional bodies. It enables doctors, accountants, engineers and so on to better manage their career trajectories through a process of continuous personal development (CPD). The company started as a research project at the University of Limerick (UL) in their Enterprise Research Centre. The relationship between LearnOpt and the University has been a particularly good example of public and private sector cooperation. UL have been particularly helpful to the LearnOpt project in providing facilities and access to contacts around the world.
The first iteration of LearnOpt was Bluebrick which was set up to provide information on flexible learning courses for four different institutes of technology.
Flexible learning is any program that is not included in the usual nine to five schedule. Part time and online learning would be considered flexible learning courses. The benefit to the colleges is having a centralised system to manage applications for their flexible learning courses. For the students, they can see all the programs available across the four institutions to make planning their education easier.
There are six people on the team and we spoke to the commercial manager, Hughie Tiernan, and the operations manager, Dr. Cornelia Connolly, and asked them what happened next.
Cornelia: “In our market research we looked into the whole area of professional bodies and professional learning, and this is where we decided to branch into and head towards. The professional learner, the accountant, the doctor, and so on, are people who need to maintain professional accreditation and update qualifications on a continued basis.”
Hughie: “It’s a social learning program for professional bodies. It’s a platform that empowers the learner, not the institution. It gives the learner power over their career trajectory and [they can] decide on what learning they think they should be doing within the confines of the professional body.”
LearnOpt has the ability to compare learners. If two learners belong to the same professional body and are at the same stage of their careers, it would be very likely they would be undertaking the same certain sets of courses for their CPD. However, if one learner had taken it upon themselves to do two additional modules, the LearnOpt system would detect the difference and consequently recommend those two extra courses to the other learner to see if they would want take up the same options. These two abilities. comparison and recommendation, are key aspects of social learning.
Cornelia: “It’s like Amazon. If you take a course you also get a recommendation that informs you that other people who have taken that course have also taken another course. There is an inbuilt recommendatory system that adds to the whole social learning sphere.”
Hughie: “It isn’t anonymous. So the professional bodies can see who is commenting on what courses and who is grading what. So it is open to everyone. Our thinking behind it is that people are going to be commenting anyway. They are going to be talking to their friends and talking to their colleagues about the course. We believe that it is in the professional body’s interest to collate these comments and to be able to see which courses need improvement.”
Cornelia: “We have a recommendation engine where we can compare learners. There is a full reporting package behind it. It is an all-inclusive product that would serve any professional body very well. We’ve put a lot of work into the user interface and usability of this system – because at the very start it was highlighted to us that if we didn’t get that right then the back end didn’t really matter. So the software is really easy to use for everyone.”
LearnOpt is not a platform that can be accessed directly by the general public. Permission to login has to be obtained from the relevant professional body that is using the system. Therefore, LearnOpt will have to acquire clients rather than just sell its technology directly to the general public. Finding new geographic markets is key. We asked what sort of challenges that represented.
Hughie: “The key to the product is that we are not locked down to any particular market. We’re hardly looking at Ireland because compared to the States it is tiny. It is just a matter of getting out there and meeting people. There’ll always be opportunities when you are actually selling your product worldwide.
“It’s important to have someone in the country you are thinking of moving into. It’s vital to have someone on the ground looking out for you. We have an agent in the UK who is sounding out opportunities for us. Over in the States Enterprise Ireland have been very good to us. We have a good contact who has introduced us to a number of potential clients. We haven’t entered the American market directly from Ireland. We have had to have some actual presence over there.”
Cornelia: “Our biggest challenge has been in taking it from a research project to a commercial product. There’s a lot of interest in what we are doing. It is cutting edge and it is exciting. It’s new and novel so there is a lot of positive energy when we show it to potential clients.”