The other day I had an opportunity to ask Yury Uskov of iSpring a few questions about his company and the future of eLearning. Yury founded the company, iSpring, in 2005 and today iSpring tools are used by over 40,000 customers in 155 countries, including 148 of the Fortune 500 companies, and the world’s top universities. Yury has a master’s degree in software engineering, and has been teaching computer programming at the Mari State Technical University for over 17 years. He dedicates his time and resources to developing world-class software skills for children, youth and mature professionals. He has founded a Children’s Computer School, High School for Programmers and Software School for Professionals.
iSpring is an international e-Learning software vendor. The iSpring product line includes a set of authoring tools which provides the full solution for educators to create e-courses, tests and surveys, video lectures, conversation simulations, screencasts and interactions, and a cloud-based LMS.
Kapp: I understand that iSpring was started in the early 2000s in Yoshkar-Ola, Russia. Can you tell us a little about the origin of the company, how it started and how it has grown to the company it is today?
Uskov: We started as a small team of software engineers in 2001. We developed custom applications, mainly for international clientele. The projects were diverse: websites, desktop apps, component libraries, server-side solutions. However, we felt overqualified for the projects we made. From the very beginning we had an ambition to build our own products.
We released our first product in 2004. It was ActiveSWF, a software development kit to programmatically create Flash files. In just a year, we launched FlashSpring, a PowerPoint add-in which converted PowerPoint presentations to Flash. By that time we had worked on several projects that involved publishing to Flash format, and it just dawned on us — if companies from different parts of the globe required applications of that kind, there had to be a lack of an off-the-shelf solution! There were about 300 million PowerPoint users in the world, and a tool to easily convert PowerPoint presentations into web-ready Flash format would be in demand. We had both the experience and the resources to develop it.
With FlashSpring, we gained further experience in product launch, promotion and online sales. We kept upgrading the product, and by 2007 it had become the world’s best PowerPoint-to-Flash converter. The product became rather popular, and that brought up issues with the owners of the Flash trademark. Thus we changed the product name to iSpring. Whatever happens, happens for the best. We gradually moved from the Flash format to the more innovative, compact and flexible HTML5. iSpring now publishes to both Flash and HTML5, and “Flash” as a part of the product name would probably mislead potential clients and conceal the full capabilities of the software.
We entered the e-Learning industry quite by chance. As we always considered and analyzed our clients’ feedback, we found out that many clients used iSpring Converter to create e-Learning content. We decided to meet their needs and enhance our tool with e-Learning options. We added SCORM support and a quiz maker, and came up with iSpring Presenter.
We are still in close touch with our end users. Basically, they want quite simple things — to create e-Learning content quickly and easily. And we do our best to help them. Our e-Learning tools were received very well, and have been honored with three Brandon Hall Gold Awards for Excellence in Technology in 2010, 2013, and 2016. While we are still the best at converting PowerPoint to online formats, and iSpring’s conversion engine is licensed by many well-known vendors, over 90% of the company’s revenue comes from e-Learning tools and solutions. Clearly, our main focus is e-Learning.
In 2010, we started to develop our own learning management system, and at the same time we were working on iSpring Cloud, a commercial PowerPoint sharing platform. We gave iSpring Cloud a low priority, but now I think we should have focused on Cloud rather than the LMS. In that case we would have been much farther in the e-Learning industry. Creating a sharing platform first would have allowed us to provide unique value to customers, and thus differentiate from other vendors.
Today, 160,000 learners use iSpring Learn LMS. In 2017, new features will appear, and we will be ready to compete with industry leaders. We understand that it’s not easy to move from one LMS to another, and this can be an obstacle for those clients who’ve already invested a lot of time and money into their current LMSs. And we know how to address the issue: we can transfer content items, data on learners’ activity, and course structure.
Kapp: Can you explain the various products offered by iSpring?
Uskov: iSpring offers a full range of solutions to cover all requirements educators may have. First, we have authoring tools for business and academia. The flagship product is iSpring Suite, a full-featured e-Learning authoring kit.
Second, we have cloud-based services: iSpring Learn LMS and iSpring Cloud, a content sharing portal. Also, we offer free mobile apps. With the apps, e-teachers can manage their content on the go, and e-students can conveniently access learning materials, even offline.
Our tools are fully integrated with each other and form a flexible environment where users can develop and deliver learning content.
Kapp: Having started in Russia and grown to be an international company can you tell us a little about the Russian eLearning market and how it might be similar or different from other markets around the world?
Uskov: The e-Learning market emerged in Russia later than in the US, and it still lags behind the market in North America and Western Europe. However, e-learners in Russia are very technologically skilled; their requirements for software are quite high. That’s why we often beta-test new features with the Russian audience first and then offer them overseas.
Furthermore, the e-Learning market in Russia grows faster than in the rest of the world. Last year, iSpring sales grew by 35% on the global market and by 90% in Russia. That’s faster than the average market growth rate.
iSpring clientele in Russia is mainly businesses, from entrepreneurs to large corporations. The share of educational institutions is lower.
Kapp: What do you see as the future of eLearning and authoring tools?
Uskov: Your question reminds me of a book by Isaac Asimov titled “Profession”. It shows a very interesting vision of the future of learning. While we don’t have machines which infuse knowledge directly into the brain yet, the trend clearly points in that direction. We now see a whole new generation of Millennials and Gen Zers who grew up with computers and the Internet in their homes and mobile devices in their hands. Learning and communicating digitally is already a natural part of life for them. This is a trend now, and e-Learning fits into their lifestyle very well. So the prevalence of e-Learning will grow, and it will embrace the spheres where it’s not popular now. However, nothing will substitute traditional education, and we have to keep focus on the quality of online learning.
As for authoring tools, I think their role is supportive. An educator’s job is similar to that of a programmer or a writer. Time goes by, but programmers keep writing code just like they used to do in the ‘80s. The key tools for writers are their brains and imagination. Authoring tools for e-Learners make content creation more convenient and easy, but they cannot replace creativity.
Kapp: What advice would you give to someone just entering the field?
Uskov: First, I want to congratulate them: they made the right choice. It is a fast growing industry with astonishing opportunities for development and career growth. The community they are going to join is very creative: educators are usually innovative, intelligent and well-motivated. I believe they should focus on generating ideas and developing valuable content, and technology vendors like iSpring are here to support their creativity.