I had the great good fortune to know Professor John Sperling, Cambridge don, when I was an undergraduate student at San Jose State University. At that time, our campus was awash in great thinkers: visiting scholars Buckminster Fuller, Alan Watts, and a host of other eminent faculty. I knew Sperling as a friend and mentor, and worked closely with John and my friends with the SJSU student government: Dick Miner, Peter Ellis and others, some of whom went on to work with Sperling at the Institute of Professional Development and later at the University of Phoenix. My fondest recollection of John was as the catalyst for our symbolic burial of an ugly yellow Ford Maverick on the first Earth Day. John challenged us to define ourselves by what we would do to mark that day. It has become one of the defining events of the first Earth Day. But I also view John as the precursor of the current MOOC’s movement. John shook up the academic world with his revolutionary ideas about education. John created immense controversy but he also spawned significant change.

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Stanford Graduate School of Business and Harvard Business School are adopting drastically different strategies for delivering business education. These differing strategies are reflected in the debate that has erupted between two of Harvard Business School’s best known professors and their visions for the future of business education, Michael Porter and Clayton Christensen. I have also been personally tire kicking MOOC’s, acting as a mentor for Stanford’s online Technology Entrepreneurship course, hosted by NovoEd. I have been pleasantly surprised by the experience, and among the teams I am mentoring is a group of Xerox senior research scientists acting as an entrepreneurial team.

Google is driving the deployment of Gigabit Fiber to the Home (FTTH), which holds the promise of orders of magnitude higher bandwidth and dramatically lower cost. But people have asked the question, “what will people do with all of this massive bandwidth?” Now we are seeing actual glimpses into that future, and how Cisco Systems vision for the future of education is already emerging.

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A couple of weeks ago I was asking myself about the current “clicker” classroom participation technology at UBC.  Why did the university implement a proprietary technology with no other practical use, which cost students precious dollars?  It was instantly obvious to me that the students already owned the devices needed to accomplish electronic classroom participation: their smartphones, tablets and laptops.  Even more compelling for me, it could provide a way to reduce the classroom distractions caused by these devices.  It turns out that the reason that the students devices were not being exploited for teaching and learning was fear of “the cloud,” privacy and where the data was being stored, which are legitimate concerns.  It turned out that there is a Canadian company that has created an app that does everything I envisioned and solved all the privacy issues to the satisfaction of a number of educational institutions in British Columbia and across Canada. I am now a trial use of Top Hat Monocle and I am very impressed with it.  I went so far as to introduce one of  Top Hat’s marketing people to the UBC Vancouver IT expert on apps like this.  It is my hope that Monocle can be a breakthrough application for classroom use.
Classroom participation startup Top Hat Monocle strengthens its team with addition of elite CFO and CPO (via Pando Daily)

Toronto-based classroom education startup Top Hat Monocle takes a contrarian position on students’ smartphones. Rather than insist that they put them away, which we all know is a losing proposition, the company uses the devices to drive engagement and participation. Today, the company has beefed up its executive team, announcing the addition Ralf Riekers as its new Chief Financial Officer and Malgosia Green as its Chief Product Officer.

Riekers was the first employee at marketing automation startup Eloqua, where he spent 12 years in areas including finance, operations, product deployment, and customer operations. Eloqua was recently acquired by oracle for $871 million four months after its IPO. At Top Hat, he will focus on improving the company’s back-end processes and managing relationships with the venture community.

Green founded India-based education marketing firm Savvica in 2007 to help students worldwide choose schools to match their needs, and before that was the director of product development for Affinity Labs. At Top Hat Monocle, she will take over the product road map and also promises to “aggressively market” the company’s products.

Top Hat Monocle offers allows students to respond in real-time to instructor questions and polls using their Web-enabled mobile devices. They can also use these second screens – assuming the teacher’s black board or projection screen is the first – to engage in interactive discussions, pose their own questions, download notes, and submit work, among other functions. The company’s products are used at over 250 universities worldwide.

Following an $8 million Series A financing in July from Emergence Capital PartnersiNovia CapitalSoftTech VC, Golden Venture Partners, and Version One Ventures, and the company raised a subsequent $1.1 million strategic round in January, bringing its total financing to $10.7 million. The Top Hat Monocle team has since explode from 20 to 80 employees in the last nine months. According to COO Andrew D’Souza, we should expect additional high profile hires in the near future, including specifically a VP engineering, VP sales, and VP marketing.

Ask any investor or experienced entrepreneur and they’re likely to tell you that success is dictated more by the team that is leading a company than by the idea or the market itself. Top Hat Monocle has the benefit of being in a space that is ripe for disruption, at a time when investors and educators are desperately seeking solutions. Today’s announcements should only strengthen the company’s ability to execute on this massive opportunity.