WebCT Revolutionized E-learning

UBC Reports | Vol.
51 | No. 7 |
Jul. 7, 2005

By Lorraine Chan

If UBC were to set up a hall of fame for research spin-off companies, Murray Goldberg would be one of the first picks.

Goldberg, as a rookie entrepreneur and young software designer, revolutionized online learning with his popular software called WebCT or World Wide Web Course Tools.

It all began with Goldberg’s classroom project when he was teaching computer science at UBC in 1995.

He found that students did better academically when they learned through a combination of classroom lectures and a web-based course.

He and teaching assistant Sasan Salari designed software that improved upon the clumsy and expensive programs that were in use a decade ago.

In 1997, Goldberg and Salari formed a company to continue distributing WebCT when their research grant ended. Then in 1999, Goldberg sold WebCT to Universal Technologies (ULT) in Massachusetts, and stayed on as Canadian president.

Shortly after signing the deal, ULT changed its name to WebCT. The company currently has 300 employees in offices in the U.S., Canada and Australia.

WebCT is used daily by 10 million students at more than 2,500 universities and colleges in 80 countries. The sophisticated, easy-to-use software leads global sales in the current e-learning market estimated to be worth about $7 billion US. WebCT allows educators to set up courses that contain searchable course notes, review material, discussion boards, quizzes, exams, image databases and chat rooms.

For his groundbreaking IT innovation, Goldberg was presented the prestigious 2004 EnCana Principal Award and a cash prize of $100,000 from the Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation. In 2000, he received the National IWAY Award from CANARIE (Canada’s advanced Internet development organization).

Goldberg says he has logged many miles giving talks at “hundreds and hundreds” of universities. His travels have opened his eyes to just how differently UBC views commercialization and technology transfer.

“I’ve heard over and over again that at most other universities, WebCT wouldn’t have seen the light of day because they didn’t have the mechanisms we do with the UILO for making it happen,” says Goldberg.

“And I would have to say that my experience with UILO has been fantastic, really fantastic. They moved very speedily, getting rights established,” recalls Goldberg.

“I credit UILO for creating a structure that greatly benefited UBC with royalties and ownership, but at the same time, the conditions were not so onerous that WebCT wasn’t able to succeed as a business.”

Again, UILO was “fantastic” when Goldberg decided to sell his company.

“The office had the absolute best interest for the university and at the same time it was very sensitive to my best interests.”

UBC owns about half a million dollars worth of shares in WebCT and to date has received a cumulative amount of $1.7 million in royalties.

In 2002 Goldberg founded Silicon Chalk with former UBC dean of science Maria Klawe, who is now dean of engineering and applied science at Princeton University.

As a measure of their gratitude to UBC, the company founders gifted 10 per cent equity of Silicon Chalk to the University. The company builds e-learning tools that incorporate the wireless environment and complement WebCT.

“They’re two halves of the larger picture,” explains Goldberg. “WebCT provides a web server that allows educators to build web course sites. Silicon Chalk gives support within classrooms to enhance presentations, record lectures and poll students.”

Now that he’s a seasoned player, what caveats would Goldberg offer a newbie inventor?

He points out the first and obvious issue of intellectual property rights.

“Some may feel a bit taken aback, because the first thing that UILO will ask the researcher to sign is a contract stating that the research is university property,” says Goldberg with a nostalgic laugh.

“This is totally the proper thing to happen because that invention does belong to the university. But if you’re not prepared for that, it can come as a surprise.”

Secondly, he advises before signing on the dotted line, would-be entrepreneurs need to brief themselves on the range of royalties and equities that are possible and likely for their invention.

Finally, Goldberg suggests the person get clear on what they truly wish to accomplish with the new enterprise, remembering that it requires a huge commitment to run a business.

“Think very carefully about the level of involvement because there are some very strong positives and very strong negatives.”