Screenshot from High Touch Courses' immersive online game designed to teach computer programming skills.

Screenshot from High Touch Courses’ immersive online game designed to teach computer programming skills.


In a dystopian future, everyone works for the Company and is siloed into a job based on an aptitude test. Your job is to build websites for the Company. Working for the Company has its benefits, and you could rise in the ranks if you perform well. But there’s also a rogue element that wants to topple the Company and is recruiting people on the inside to help by embedding malicious code in the websites you develop.

Where do your loyalties lie? Which side do you choose?

While that sounds like the premise of a great Ray Bradbury novel, it’s actually the storyline behind a new educational game being developed by a startup in Orono called High Touch Courses. The game, which has yet to be named, is designed to teach players how to write computer code and build websites.

High Touch Courses got some global recognition this week — it’s Global Entrepreneurship Week, which for whatever reason seems to go unnoticed in Maine. It was named one of the world’s 50 top startups in the Startup Open, a competition organized by GEW and supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and Dell. Now in its fifth year, the Startup Open is open to entrepreneurs from all over the world. Judges selected the top 50 on a set of criteria, including strength of concept, creativity, ambition, growth projections, and knowledge of the market.

High Touch Courses was one of 600 startups from around the world that applied to enter the competition. There are 19 countries represented on the top-50 list and 64 percent of the startups are from outside the United States. CNBC pared down the list even further and named High Touch Courses one of world’s 20 hottest startups.

Elizabeth Chabe, High Touch Courses’ founder and CEO, told me she was attracted to the competition because of its global reach and focus on startups that want to leverage technology to make positive change rather than just make money for its founders and investors.

“For so many startups their mission is to make money for investors and it’s not to help people,” Chabe said. “If somebody says they want to make grocery shopping easier or make taxis more ubiquitous — these are all great services and make our very first-world lives a little better perhaps, but really we’re not solving any societal problems.”

Many problems faced by societies, whether in Maine or anywhere else in the world, could be solved through education, she said. Computer programming education is especially important as it provides tools that people could use to benefit their own communities, she said.

“If you were able to plug  into a computer connected to the Internet and develop software to solve a problem, not only could you develop software to commercialize and sell and make a living, but you could also provide societal benefits that otherwise would not come to your town or village quick enough,” she said.

“With the Internet at our fingertips we have the ability to teach so many people around the world and very few hardworking entrepreneurs are taking advantage of that and solving problems,” she said. “This could completely revolutionize economies in various parts of the world because you really just need a computer and Internet connection to develop software if you have the education to do it.”

The “gamification of learning” is a growing field, Chabe said. Most efforts to use the Internet for educational purposes have to date involved either a person watching a lecture and answering multiple-choice questions or a gamified process, but a solo one, she said. The game High Touch Courses is developing — people can request on the company’s website an invitation to participate in the beta version — will be interactive and multiplayer. Chabe and her team have tried to take aspects of massive online multiplayer games (think World of Warcraft) like leader boards, player chat and avatar creation, and apply them to an interactive curriculum designed to teach computer programming. The beta version teaches HTML and CSS.

This past summer High Touch Courses ran what Chabe called a “fail fast, fail cheap version” in the form of a summer camp co-located at the University of Maine in Orono. The camp was for middle and high school students and was a success, she said.

“The goal for the summer camp was to test through this curriculum, to test some game features we were interested in developing and get some market insight from what we thought would be our customer base, which was middle and high school students,” she said.

They discovered, however, that the target for an online game that teaches computer programming skews older. As a result, they’re now targeting a demographic that spans high school students to 34-year-olds. Chabe also originally thought of charging users a small monthly fee — something on par with a Netflix subscription, she said — but is now developing other revenue models to make it accessible to more people.

In the end, High Touch Courses did not win the Startup Open. BreezoMeter, an Israeli startup that has developed an analytics platform that uses air-monitoring sensors worldwide to create real-time maps of air-pollution levels down to a street-by-street level, was named winner of the global competition on Tuesday.

But Chabe isn’t disappointed. High Touch Courses may not have won the global prize, but being in the world’s top 50 has already delivered more than she hoped for.

“Being in the top 50 is awesome in itself,” she said. “People contacted me from the entrepreneurship and investment communities and we’re getting requests to play the demo from all over the world, which is exactly what we wanted.”