As eLearning matures as an industry, the focus is shifting from delivering information online – that is, posting lecture notes and relevant links in HTML format – to improving learning and performance. Over the past decade, technology has advanced to the point where educators can implement laboratory-based adaptive instructional techniques online.
For many educators and innovators in the EdTech (educational technology) space, new and better ways of facilitating active learning are derived from concepts such as “knowledge-building, meaning-making, collaboration, and authentic, relevant, and student-centred learning”, as well as the goal to “reproduce the technological, social, time, and motivational characteristics of real world situations where what is being learned will be used”. These values underlie adaptive eLearning technologies.
There are about a dozen companies worldwide providing adaptive eLearning solutions – one being a Sydney-based startup Smart Sparrow. The startup has rapidly climbed up the EdTech ranks since launching in 2011. In fact, Smart Sparrow’s adaptive eLearning platform is being used as far from home as Arizona State University; and is currently in the process of expanding into the US markets with the help of a recent capital injection of $10 million.
So what is Smart Sparrow? The startup offers a suite of tools that enable teachers to create interactive adaptive lessons and simulations to students, providing richer learning experiences and opportunities for extra practice on emergent skills across medicine, science, engineering, business, music and other academic disciplines.
One dynamic feature of Smart Sparrow’s platform is its drag-and-drop authoring tool, which can be integrated into any web browser, allowing educators to create personalised learning paths for their students, collaborate in real-time, and access pre-made templates to save time during the creation process. Educators can easily import rich simulations in Flash or HTML5 into their adaptive lessons, and add them to their Learning Management System (LMS).
Founder and CEO of Smart Sparrow, Dr Dror Ben-Naim says “the professor is at the centre of the technology”. He explains that the platform allows educators to understand the learning process, rather than simply identify whether the student has come to the right solution.
“Unfortunately too many online educational experiences rely on basic modalities like text, video and multiple choice quizzes,” he says. “But we all know that selecting the right answer is not like coming up with the solution yourself!”
Using Smart Sparrow, educators are able to create content that accounts for the many variations of students’ potential errors and difficulties. The learning analytics dashboard provides educators with instant feedback about how their students are progressing through a lesson. The technology identifies students’ learning pain-points and offers recommendations on how the content can be improved to achieve better learning outcomes. With that knowledge, educators can make appropriate adjustments.
One study in a mechanics course at UNSW showed the platform to reduce failure rates from 31 percent to 7 percent. With such statistics behind the startup, it would be no surprise to see them dominate the global EdTech market.
But where does the story begin? Smart Sparrow’s history dates back to 2004, when Dr Ben-Naim was finishing off his undergraduate degree at UNSW. He had moved to Sydney from tech startup hub Israel, to study computer science and physics. One night, when he was preparing for a Quantum Mechanics exam, he discovered a website that offered simulations. Unlike the thick textbooks lying on his desk, the online simulations allowed him to understand complex physics concepts more effectively. This sparked a light bulb moment for Dr Ben-Naim.
In 1999, an educational technology visionary, David Thornburg, said, “The key idea to keep in mind is that the true power of educational technology comes not from replicating things that can be done in other ways, but when it is used to do things that couldn’t be done without it”. Adaptive eLearning technology, as we know it today, exemplifies Thornburg’s vision.
Five years after this statement, Dr Ben-Naim started bringing this vision to life. While doing a laboratory in optoelectronics – the study and application of electronic devices that generate, detect, and control light – he conducted an experiment where he transferred the lab into an online setting. The result was an innovative virtual lab that impressed the head of UNSW’s School of Physics so much that he asked Dr Ben-Naim to develop it further to enable the faculty to change the way they taught physics.
The technology used for the virtual labs later became the focus of Dr Ben-Naim’s PhD study. Halfway through his PhD, he received $350,000 in grant money from UNSW; and this allowed him to create a variety of adaptive eLearning tools, such as the Intelligent Tutoring System (ITS).
Leading a research group that focused on ITS and Educational Data Mining at UNSW, Dr Ben-Naim recruited some of his students to help develop his project. Academics across UNSW began incorporating the technology into their teaching programmes; and thousands of students were using it before Dr Ben-Naim recognised an opportunity to create a business.
The technology grew to become bigger than anyone had envisaged; and so Dr Ben-Naim and his research team decided it was time to commercialise it. This marked the birth of Smart Sparrow.
In 2011, the startup secured $2 million in funding from venture capital firms One Ventures and Uniseed, to help “further develop the technology, take it out of the university and start offering it to clients across Australia”. Australian clients include University of Melbourne, University of Tasmania, and University of Western Australia, among many more.
“We grew the company from three guys in a cubicle at UNSW to over 20 people across our offices in Sydney, Boston and San Francisco,” says Dr Ben-Naim.
The US expansion was a recent occurrence following their $10 million Series B funding round. London-based financial advisory firm Yellow Brick Capital led the round, with participation from existing investors One Ventures and Uniseed.
Johnathan Kol-Bar of Yellow Brick Capital, says Smart Sparrow is a “classic disruptive innovation that opens up an untapped market by taking a solution directly to professors themselves.”
He continues, “The company is showing fantastic traction and the growth potential in the US is very exciting.”
Dr Ben-Naim says that while Australia is a great place to create educational technology – given there’s an intrinsic investment in the higher education sector, despite recent government funding cuts – the market is too small for a startup with such mammoth potential.
“We are close to saturating the Australian market. By the end of the year, I have a feeling Smart Sparrow will be used in every university across Australia,” he says. “I always knew Australia was the right place to start, but the market is just too small. Smart Sparrow has the potential to be a multinational company.”
With Smart Sparrow already being used by academics from over 400 educational institutions, world domination doesn’t seem too far-fetched – especially now that academics realise that the ‘one size fits all’ approach to education is futile.
On a final note, Dr Ben-Naim stresses the point that Smart Sparrow is not out to replace educators, but to empower them: “We’re helping educators teach smarter, so there are better learning outcomes.”
More information on Smart Sparrow is available via www.smartsparrow.com.