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Teaching start-ups the new cool kid

Date

Mahesh Sharma

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

Dror Ben-Naim (centre, front) with the Smart Sparrow team.

Dror Ben-Naim (centre, front) with the Smart Sparrow team.

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.

Former UNSW PhD student Dror Ben-Naim built an intelligent and adaptive eLearning platform.

Former UNSW PhD student Dror Ben-Naim built an intelligent and adaptive eLearning platform.

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.

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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6 comments so far

  • Just what the education sector has been waiting for - a program to find habitable planets in space. How did we get by in the past?

    Commenter
    blaubaer
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    May 02, 2012, 9:48AM
    • Further supporting the education technology market is Alaress with an eLearning platform called Schoolbox. Schoolbox is focussed on access, technology and the learning experience. The system can be fully integrated with the majority of school management systems to provide a seamless experience for teachers, students and parents. Specialising in the K-Y12 market the whole of school community can access everything they need through a single sign on. Developed in Melbourne by Alaress, Schoolbox is now being used in New Zealand and targeted for growth internationally. A technology leader in its market, Schoolbox is among the first to adapt wiki's, podcasts,online chat and social network's such as ePortfolio's. System Architect James Leckie is passionate about improving the learning experience, optimising the process and realising the vision that online technology becomes part of every classroom.

      Commenter
      Richardz
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      May 02, 2012, 10:09AM
      • Back in the 1980s I was struggling with a maths class at university, the lecturer made available a program that took you through example problems step by step with multiple choice questions that determined how much detail you saw. I found this very useful. Since then I have been wondering when all learning would be done using adaptive software. This kind of software solves all kinds of teaching problems, it allows students to work at their own pace, rather than be bored or left behind as happens now. At last it is starting to happen.

        Commenter
        Robert
        Location
        Perth
        Date and time
        May 02, 2012, 11:24AM
        • Richardz, Schoolbox is a very different to Smart Sparrow. Schoolbox is a Learning Management System, i.e. a database that helps Teachers deliver material and communicate with students. There are a number of other similar systems already available. Smart Sparrow is a way of making the material automatically adaptive to a particular learner, this is something I have been looking for for a few years, I hope it lives up to the promise.

          Commenter
          Robert
          Location
          Perth
          Date and time
          May 02, 2012, 11:39AM
          • @Robert (Perth) - there is a start up thats working towards simplifying maths teaching.

            Its called Math Brain [1] and they're hoping to help NSW HSC students get better at learning maths online as well as being an aide for the various tutoring businesses.

             

            Commenter
            sHz
            Location
            Sydney, Australia
            Date and time
            May 02, 2012, 8:30PM
            • Step by step solutions of problems in math is crucial to students between years 6-10 when help is most needed. Promoting this type of resource is 'schrool' which delivers a complete online course that prepares students for years 11 and 12. it's a perfect compliment to Smart Sparrow. I wish I had this when I was at school.

              Commenter
              Richardp
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              May 02, 2012, 10:51PM

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