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Teaching start-ups the new cool kid

Aussie e-Learning applications are gaining favour with investors and academics alike.

The growing popularity of online courses such as the Khan Academy has whet the appetite of investors, and Aussie entrepreneurs are cashing in on the trend via new technologies aimed at improving the quality of education.

Salman Khan rose to fame after millions of students around the world watched his series of short YouTube video tutorials on the topics of mathematics and science. The Khan Academy now offers additional subjects including art history and finance.

Last year the not-for-profit organisation received a $US5 million investment, a watershed moment for education technology funding. The sector has long been seen as the ugly cousin of consumer and business applications which have a greater ability to scale and offer solid financial returns.

In the wake of Khan Academy's success, new applications are targeting student demand for innovative and improved learning experiences, a model that is attracting investor funding.

Smart Sparrow was developed by University of New South Wales PhD student Dror Ben-Naim during his four-year PhD exploring education, data mining and intelligent tutoring systems. He describes it as the Apple iOS development framework for tertiary education. 

A beta version was released last year, and within six months Ben-Naim secured a multi-million dollar funding round, sourced from venture capital firm OneVentures and UniSeed, a fund that commercialises technology developed within the Universities of Melbourne, Queensland and New South Wales.

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Australian technology now in Arizona

Smart Sparrow is now at the heart of a new Arizona State University online course that gives students the scientific tools to find life in outer space.

Arizona State University professor Ariel Anbar and his colleagues used the platform to develop the "Habitable Worlds" online course which teaches research methods via a range of games and exercises. Among the exercises, students are given a map of stars and weekly challenges to complete in order to identify potentially habitable planets.

Scientific theory underpins the course and includes issues such as the search for extraterrestrial life and climate change.

"We want to engage students in actually going through the processes of science, we want them to struggle and solve problems and puzzles using scientific reason," Anbar said. "That's hard to do in a lecture hall but we can do it online."

Adaptive e-Learning

The Smart Sparrow platform - dubbed an example of adaptive e-Learning - can be used by professors to develop customised applications for a particular course or module, such as a virtual lab for science students to perform experiments online.

Students can also receive instant feedback from the lecturer or the system itself, based on an analysis of the user's data and behaviour.

Ben-Naim said the multiple-choice teaching standard was outdated.

"We're about empowering and inspiring teachers with tech such as adaptive learning, a smart virtual lab," he said. "We think there's a huge amount of technology that is needed, there's a huge demand, and there's a lot of tech you need to provide for them."

"We're not a teaching company; we're a tool for teachers."

There are about 100 academics using Smart Sparrow, according to Uniseed investment manager David Rowe, who said it adopts the Web 2.0 model of building a customer base by selling directly to users.

"How this company's growing at the moment is not by going to the vice-chancellor or the IT of the uni and saying 'buy this platform'," Rowe said. "Academics using the platform are making great tutorials and just referring their modules to other academics."

"We're going ground up from the academic level, building a network of academics... It doesn't need an enterprise licence for the unis."

He said the education technology market was experiencing growth which also includes the beta launch of local start-ups Playconomics and Brainworth.

Another education start-up is Melbourne-based Lexim which recently completed the AngelCube start-up accelerator program, where entrepreneurs surrender 8 per cent equity in the business in exchange for three months' mentoring and $20,000 seed funding.

Michael Shimmins, a former university lecturer developed Lexim as a way for lecturers to easily enhance the existing course material and have more interaction with students. For example, music students can submit their assessments online, and lecturers can listen and mark the works, and provide feedback.

The full version application was released last week, following a beta test that drew 600 users from around the world (about 350 lecturers and 250 students).

Shimmins is currently raising funds from angel investors who he says are excited by the prospects of education start-ups.

"The type of investors we've spoken to share our belief in trying to make education better. There's a lot of stuff wrong there and we're trying to lend our skills from a technical perspective."

"(On) the financial upside, education is a huge market, a global market and not just limited to Australia, so they see that vision and are excited."

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