Few physics professors become entrepreneurs. Fewer still build a company that goes on to serve more than 1 million students at more than 2,600 educational institutions, becoming the world’s leading independent provider of online instructional tools for faculty and students.
That’s the legacy of NC State physicist John Risley. Colleagues were saddened by his death in 2013. But the company he launched in 1997 — Advanced Instructional Systems, known as WebAssign — has become a formidable innovator in customizable online instruction.
“John devoted his professional life to serving students, and we honor his legacy by continuing that work,” said Alex Bloom, WebAssign’s president and chief executive officer. “Our unique relationship with NC State helps us explore new ways of meeting the evolving educational needs of instructors and students.”
From its headquarters on Centennial Campus, WebAssign has built an online class management system that enables instructors to build assignments, administer secure tests, provide practice problems and track student progress and results.
The system also has email capability and provides interactive content such as simulations, videos and tutorials to enhance learning. All major academic publishers have adopted WebAssign and have integrated it with more than 900 textbooks.
In short, WebAssign has become the go-to tool for thousands of college and high school faculty members.
Lori Petrovich began using the platform in her NC State chemistry lectures in 2003 and in laboratory sessions in 2006.
“The instructional support provided by the WebAssign platform allows me to focus on what I truly enjoy: interacting with students as individuals and teaching them chemistry,” she said.
For lectures, the program provides immediate and constant feedback to students. “Students are always aware of their grades in the categories of homework, participation and exams — and of their overall grade,” Petrovich explained.
In the lab, WebAssign keeps teaching assistants and students on schedule with assignments and grades. “With WebAssign doing the heavy lifting of grading and calculating grades, the TAs have more time to assist students,” Petrovich said.
That kind of feedback is music to the ears of Bloom and Mark Santee, vice president of marketing and business development for WebAssign. Since joining the company in 2009, Santee has seen it go through the usual growing pains of a technology company.
“Releasing new functionality and features that better serve WebAssign’s users is a continuous process,” he said.
The company’s future looks bright. WebAssign continues to increase its new business by 12 to 15 percent each year and grow its presence outside the United States.
In the wake of this success, company leaders want to move WebAssign into other disciplines, such as statistics and business. The management team also sees growth opportunity as high school teachers move toward online interaction with students.
At the core of successful educational technology is an understanding of the data related to use of that technology. One new trend in education, often called adaptive learning, involves companies such as WebAssign capturing data on students’ progress and then using those data to tailor the learning experience to students’ needs.
Santee said WebAssign and others are just now scratching the surface in terms of what’s possible in this emerging field. “From a technology standpoint, we’re still feeling our way through this,” he said. “Our goal is to provide better data.”
With nearly 200 full-time employees and bold new plans for future growth, WebAssign continues to realize the vision John Risley set out for the company nearly 20 years ago. His legacy extends to the overall campus through the annual John S. Risley Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
Whatever the future holds, being located on Centennial Campus has proven to be an invaluable asset for WebAssign. “It’s energizing,” Santee said. “We feel that having close access to faculty and students gives us a huge competitive advantage.”