Online education entrepreneur aims to make learning beautiful

· The Pulse

If you have had a bad experience with online learning, says Jennifer Griffin Schaeffer, it's because an important ingredient was missing: respect.

"We don't respect our learners," she told Episode 32 of Bloom, Taproot's podcast about innovation. "We expect our learners to keep up, to get an A, to get the points you need. It's an ugly thing, really."

Her company, Onlea, aims to make learning a beautiful thing. It has created or collaborated on a wide range of learning experiences, such as an Opioid Awareness Community Based Naloxone Training for the Métis Nation of Alberta, an anti-racism course for the Coaching Association of Canada, and a transitional program called Lassonde Edge for students entering engineering at York University.

Onlea was born as the result of an experience that showed how delightful online learning could be. As part of her work in digital strategy in the 2010s, she co-chaired a committee that led to the creation of Dino 101, the University of Alberta's first MOOC (massive open online course).

Because MOOCs are free, completion levels tend to be low. At the time, 5% was the industry standard, Schaeffer said. But she blew her colleagues' minds at a Coursera conference in London in April 2014 when she shared that Dino 101's completion rate was more like 20%.

That led to the foundation of Onlea as a not-for-profit at the University of Alberta, assembling a team that could create similarly successful experiences for others.

In early 2020, Schaeffer and her co-founders — husband and AI specialist Jonathan Schaeffer and Adriana Lopez Forero, who is now CEO — spun Onlea out as a for-profit company. "We wanted to be able to have the flexibility to build the company far beyond the needs of just the University of Alberta and its needs for high-quality digital learning," Schaeffer said.

Their timing was extraordinary. Soon after, the COVID-19 pandemic thrust millions of people and organizations into online learning. Over the past two years, Onlea has grown by 50%, earning Schaeffer the Emerging Entrepreneur Award from Alberta Women Entrepreneurs.

A smiling Jennifer Griffin Schaeffer, flanked by Jonathan Schaeffer and Adriana Lopez Forero, at an awards ceremony

Jennifer Griffin Schaeffer (centre), along with co-founders Jonathan Schaeffer and Adriana Lopez Forero, shifted Onlea from a non-profit within the University of Alberta to a for-profit company in 2020. (Supplied)

Opportunities abound to build a business around making online learning engaging and effective, Schaeffer said. "It's actually still, in my opinion, greenfield. There's so much we can do in this space that we're not doing yet."

Onlea is exploring those possibilities through LX Labs, which helps organizations and individuals develop ways to exchange knowledge, and Project KIND (for Knowledge INDex), the company's first foray into research and development, using natural language processing to develop a new kind of search engine for learners.

The secret to success in this field is "honouring a student's attention, honouring a student's ability to complete, and also honouring a student's ability to engage," she said. "Not (forcing) them to do something boring just because you have this wonderful university name behind you."

While Lopez Forero handles the day-to-day running of Onlea, Schaeffer pursues similar goals through her day job as the vice-president of information technology at Athabasca University, Canada's online university.

"I'm still really learning about the ecosystem of what it could be, so that when the day comes, and somebody says, 'How do we build a university from scratch that's better?', I'm going to be the person saying, 'I figured this one out.'"

That's the kind of figuring she has been doing her whole life.

"My own background is as a creative technologist. I learned to code as a very young person, just simple stuff using books that would teach you how to build games," she said. "Acquiring knowledge, understanding how to master a knowledge set, and sharing knowledge and teaching others has kind of been just who I am since I was 11 years old."

Learn more about how Schaeffer made her way to Edmonton from New York, why she loves it here, and what she sees as the future of education in Canada in the Oct. 6 episode.