Spurring innovation through advances in educational technology
If America is driven by innovation, as many believe, then count Ali Jafari among those who have spurred innovation through advances in education leading to ideas, products, and processes needed to stimulate economic growth.
A serial entrepreneur, Jafari has made achievements in the development of learning management systems that have earned him recognition as one of Indiana's leading high-tech success stories and the unofficial title of "father of LMS." He is considered one of the global pioneers in envisioning and developing new e-learning systems and pedagogical methods.
Jafari is a professor of computer information technology in the School of Engineering and Technology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He is also the director of CyberLab, which he founded in 1995 on the IUPUI campus.
There, he and his students invent new technological methods and systems to improve teaching and learning. Along with envisioning new ideas, the CyberLab team researches and develops advanced learning technology systems that are ready for commercial or open source rollouts. CyberLab also builds connections between the university and industries so that research is more easily transferred into practice.
The entrepreneurial spark that burns brightly in Jafari has been with him as long as he can remember.
"Even when I was 7 or 8 years old, I always wanted to make things, put them into use, and even commercialize them," Jafari said.
In 2012, Jafari was awarded a TechPoint Mira Award in the category of Technology in Education Excellence & Innovation - Individual for his contributions to revolutionizing education through technology. TechPoint, Indiana's technology growth initiative, established the Mira Awards to recognize excellence and innovation among the state's technology industry performers and contributors. The awards also focus attention on the broader issue of technology's importance to the state's economy.
Jafari earned his bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Isfahan in Iran before he moved to the United States to pursue a master's degree in media technology at the University of Wisconsin. He completed his doctoral studies in telecommunications/mass communication at Indiana University Bloomington.
Since then, Jafari has continued to innovate and combine next-generation learning systems and social-networking features into the academic sphere to form new "smart" solutions to teaching and learning.
He has conceptualized, researched, developed, and commercialized four major software systems: Indiana University's Oncourse, which later became the Sakai open source learning management system; the Angel learning management system; the Epsilen environment; and CourseNetworking.
Publishing in a journal is just the beginning. Let's not stop there. Let's go all the way to the end. Be a professor, a scholar, and an entrepreneur.
Those inventions reflect a deeply held philosophy, Jafari said.
"As an academician, I have always strongly believed that when it comes to discovery, you don't just publish it, get excited, and open a bottle of champagne. Publishing in a journal is just the beginning. Let's not stop there. Let's go all the way to the end. Be a professor, a scholar, and an entrepreneur. It rewards you and your school, both intellectually and financially."
In 2000, with seed funding from Indiana University, Jafari founded Angel Learning Inc. with David Mills, a 1999 graduate of the School of Engineering and Technology at IUPUI. The company was purchased in 2009 by Blackboard Inc. for $100 million. At that point, it had grown to about 200 programmers, analysts, and sales/marketing personnel.
It was the largest commercial transaction linked to the sale of a university startup company that IU had experienced. The university realized $24 million for the sale, which supported more teaching and research activity.
Jafari credited the leadership of Indiana University—and IU President Michael A. McRobbie in particular—for creating an environment that encourages faculty members to roll out their research into a product. Jafari said discussions he had with McRobbie led to his latest LMS system, CourseNetworking, which he believes could change the way the world learns.
CourseNetworking is owned in part by IU and headquartered in Indianapolis, with offices in Malaysia and China. It offers both free and fee-based LMS services. This patent-pending technology combines the social component of popular networks such as Facebook and Twitter with functionality similar to existing learning management systems used at many colleges and universities.
Unlike existing learning systems, however, which typically limit access to members of a single course, CourseNetworking creates an engaging, large-scale learning environment that is completely open to any user, nationally and internationally. The system is experiencing the first-move advantage of dominating a new academic social network.
"Information technology has not yet played a major role as an 'enabler' in education," Jafari said. "Our schools' networks and Wi-Fi are clogged by Facebook and Instagram usage, not by educational tools such as an LMS. With CourseNetworking, we are getting there with an LMS that is liked and sticky—something that is social, global, and engaging."
Jafari has also contributed his entrepreneurial savvy to three books, co-editing and authoring "Handbook of Research on ePortfolios," "Designing Portals: Opportunities and Challenges," and "Course Management Systems for Learning: Beyond Accidental Pedagogy."
He has presented papers and delivered keynote addresses at more than 100 national and international conferences.