Starting an Adaptive Learning Startup: Things you should know

Since 2009, Educational technology has become a really hot sector for investments with a boatload of ed tech companies such as Coursera, Lore, Edmodo, Udacity and Knewton sprouting. The types of ed tech company span across this wide spectrum, one of which that has observed substantial growth in popularity is adaptive learning. Learning technologies have always been my favorite, as they most directly influence instructions and learning outcomes. My first startup, based on a concept for massively scaling content authoring for example-tracing tutoring systems while doing research at CMU, was a learning technologies company.

However, adaptive learning in my opinion has been thrown around a bit as a buzz word and the disconnect with pedagogical practices and research is becoming more apparent as more entrepreneurs enter the space. What do I mean by that? Simply put, sometimes it seems like too many entrepreneurs are entering this space without some knowledge of prior art and of the market that they intend to serve.

I am writing this share perspectives on some interesting points of consideration before one jumps into starting an adaptive learning company, to save passionate ed tech entprenreurs some time in discovering and navigating through challenges in the adaptive learning landscape.

Let me start with just the general attitude towards starting up. It of course always starts with…

### Be passionate about what you do. Entrepreneurship is too hard and too taxing on your mental and physical health that there is no other justification for it unless you enjoy the process as much as you enjoy the payday. This is even more true for education, I will explain why in a little bit.

Now, why would you want to start an adaptive learning company?

### Because you recognize that education is a very important public good. Remember that education is a social issue, ed tech without a social cause is just technology. You should be starting an adaptive learning company because you are passionate about helping people learn. You should be focusing on building the best learning technologies and not just promoting information asymmetry for the privilege – believe it or not, too many companies are focused on helping people who don’t need the help because they are already far ahead of all others.

### Because you care about teaching and you are actively studying it (or you are already good at it). One little pet peeve of mine is hearing some ed tech entrepreneurs say that they are looking to disrupt the industry with zero teaching or pedagogical research expertise on the team. With all due respect, you cannot disrupt a market you don’t understand. If you have not understood the struggles of teaching that teachers face on a daily basis, you are in no position to innovate their business. Remember that domain expertise is not teaching expertise. 

Now that we’ve had the pep talk, let’s get down to business and the sanity check.

### Assessments are not learning. If you are creating a video instructions repository with question bank? I hesitate to call that learning technology. This may be partial, but I believe learning technologies must analyze and facilitate structure of learning in a fashion that either makes the traditionally impossible possible, or make the traditionally inaccessible accessible. Simply digitizing multimedia content and providing assessments do not reflect that. Learning technologies should identify knowledge gaps and provide scaffolding and remediation.

### Adaptive learning and knowledge engineering are decades-old enterprises. Yep. In fact, a lot of what we call adaptive learning softwares are actually architecturally less sophisticated than the AI and expert systems (primarily rule-based) built back in the 70s and 80s. I have had quite a few encounters where someone approached me to show me a test bank template or an equation solver and asked me what I thought of the “invention” and how much it can be sold for. The truth is that AI-driven learning technologies such as cognitive modeling are more than two decades old, and the models are often more advanced than what is being offered to the public today.

Ok, so if amazing technologies have been around for that long, why haven’t they been commercialized?

They have, they just didn’t spread like wildfire the way MOOCs supposedly have.

Why? Because the problem is not the tech, it is operational, it is social, and it is cultural.

Not let us inquire into why things are. The following points I think are quite valuable to entrepreneurs in adaptive learning, because they are more often than not, overlooked.

### Democratization is great when all that participate in the democracy are great. Wikipedia was a great story. Twitter as a crowd-sourced channel for real-time news. I get it, but have you thought about what percentage contributes to Wikipedia and what percentage of Twitter is valuably informational? Now, think about how hard it is to teach a particular topic well. Think about how long it takes to know all the probable misconceptions, the scaffolding and remedial strategies, as well as cognitive capacity (and cognitive development for early childhood) required for the task. This is no walk in the park. The talent and experience are very very hard to come by.

Great instructional content doesn’t grow on trees, much less adaptive learning content.

The truth is, democratization often doesn’t work for learning technologies if you expect your students or their parents or their teachers to pay. Student learning has an immense sense of urgency and specificity, and students are not guinea pigs for a community content creation experiment. Putting out questionable content is a great way to get the boot in the education space. Simply put, this industry is just very different from mainstream consumer markets such as casual gaming, social networking in that you are lucky to have even just one chance to put your best foot forward, and for that reason you probably don’t want to put some unreviewed community-generated content in front of your clients.

### Standardization of content and instructions. Honestly this is a challenge so trying that it should be addressed in every business plan for an adaptive learning startup. Standardization of content and instructions is a huge challenge in this country where each state has its own loosely defined requirements and each school district within has a lot of leeway to interpret what an appropriate curriculum looks like. Luckily, in the recent years we are seeing more adoption of the Common Core standards, it is far from perfect but it is a start.

If you want to deal with higher ed, it gets even hairier. Even for Calculus I, perhaps the most common STEM class across US colleges, instructions are highly customized school to school. Better yet, the same topic may be taught algorithmically or conceptually, and again, that depends on the campus and on the professor. This is something you don’t want to leave out of your strategic considerations.

### Content creation cost. Now, let’s answer the question of why amazing learning technologies are not more prevalent. It is (at least largely) a cost issue. To develop a cognitive or example-tracing tutor for just one topic, say, Algebra 1, with a team of engineers, teachers and researchers, has traditionally taken around a year and a million dollars to develop. Some startups, of course, have taunted that and said that they were able to create content cheaply by themselves – so far I have not observed that to really be the case, usually the startups are not paying the employees market rate salary, and in many cases the content was not created by someone with appropriate education background.

You may be content with the fact that you were able to design and implement content for Algebra I in three months on a couple of laptops in a garage or a co-working space. Okay, assuming that you did it all by yourself and you have a technical background, this probably put the cost of content at a minimum of $25,000 ($100,000 annually for just one person) – and we know this is total nonsensical quality standard. But let us do some quick math.

Suppose you are Series A funded with 2 million in the bank, this buys you 2 years of runway at 1 million a piece. Let us be very generous and say that you can spend 50% of the funding on content creation, now think about how many grade levels you have in K-12, suppose you have just one topic per grade level, that already limits you to only $40,000 per topic, but you know as well as I do that each grade level has more than one topic to cover. Even at a very modest $40 per hour, you are looking at only 1,000 work hours to design, implement and QA the content. Remember that this is not accounting for curriculum and instructional design. And of course, nothing ever goes according to plan, you will want to double that estimate.

Suppose you can make this happen, the fact that you have to spend a staggering half a million to a million on content creation just to be have enough initial coverage to qualify to compete in a market like K-12, before you even demonstrate the quality or novelty of your product. From an investment point of view, the numbers don’t look great.

The trick here is to de-couple design and engineering from content authoring so content creation can scale up without adding design and engineering headcount. The method as to how is a topic for another day.

### The challenge is not just content, it is classroom process management. I personally believe that we often put too much emphasis on the content offering – yes this is a must have, but the true challenge for most teachers in classrooms is not being able to manage all the different learning modules from different websites and reconciling the grading schemes into one coherent format that they can use.

When you ask why teachers still use paper – because learning technologies don’t play nice with each other and with learning management systems to deliver a seamless classroom management experience. Teachers need to onboard students for each of the content platforms, manage the learning process on each platform, take all the numbers from each platform and fit them into one gradebook (often a spreadsheet), and then try to figure out which students need help and then perform appropriate intervention. From there, the cycle continues. Often times the horrible segmentation in learning technologies create more trouble than the solutions are worth. 

Unless you have a process management solution built into your adaptive learning solution to automate all the onboarding, management, grading and intervention tasks that teachers are required to do on a daily basis, implementation within schools will always be a challenge.

### Motivation and Metacognition are most indicative of great learners. The one cold hard truth that we tend to forget is that upbringing and social factors are far more indicative of educational and long-term career success than any performance measure. This usually translates to higher motivation, stronger goal orientation, and stronger self-regulatory skills. The offshoot of this is that if you believe that you are doing the world a service by staying away from schools and simply publishing books, videos, assessments and learning exercises online, what you are really doing is imposing a self-selection to exclude the majority of the student population, which is not highly self-motivated nor highly self-regulated. The heartbreaking fact is that those who are motivated enough to do self-pace education – they don’t need your help and they will still find a way to success even with just pencil, paper and a library full of good old-fashioned books. In fact, most of them are probably already college-educated or on a pretty sure path to that end.

One main reason that schools are still irreplaceable in a digital age is because school is not just a knowledge learning institution, it is a social institution. It is supposed to provide a community an equalizing force to make sure people of all different backgrounds are sufficiently motivated in one way or another to complete the minimum level of education required by the community, or the state. Especially with young children and underprivileged students, educational success require a lot of classroom management. This is also one factor that ed tech entrepreneurs tend to overlook – without these social forces in place the majority of the primary and secondary school population is unlikely to succeed on their own, regardless of how good your product is.

As I mentioned, the post is meant to shed light on some challenges in adaptive learning to save new entrepreneurs the time to discover and navigate through problems – at the very least I want to point to (hopefully) the right direction.

I love the space of adaptive learning with a passion, and I hope the post is helpful and will encourage more entrepreneurs to tackle challenges in learning technologies.


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