Bet on being a Chameleon, not an Unicorn in the education market
A point of view about what valuable company nobody is building
[XAMCHECK is one the fastest growing education startups in India serving a student market of more than 1,00,000 (0.1 million) students achieved in less than 3 years. The product provides a connected learning experience for schools through offline and online means. It is powered by a team of more than 80 members with backgrounds in design, technology, data science, education, operations, sales/marketing and media. Recently it raised $1.8 million funding from Aspada Investors.
The following is a personal post by the founders Naveen Mandava and Varun Kumar. Startups often have a point of view about their ecosystem that serves as a Magellan-esque compass for their decisions and actions.
What follows is our point of view.]
Dramatic changes are afoot in the what, why, when, where, how and who of learning. Fundamental questions will be asked, and for the first time in many decades, we are on the right side of history to push for better answers.
i. what — What should I learn? Can I create my own curriculum/courses? What can I learn that I am already interested in but it is not taught in school? Can better and diverse content be created as well flow to me? What can my history tell me about my present? What can my history and my present tell me about my future?
ii. why — Why do I need x credentials to display my competency? Why is it so expensive? What other ways are there of displaying x credentials?
iii. when — Can I be in more control of when and what I learn? Does it have to be the age-grade axis?
iv. where — Does it have to be in front of a school teacher or in front of a screen? Where else? Will it follow me on my smartphone?
v. how — how can I attain my true entelechy? Will it be possible to notify what I should learn even before my need to know of it? How will the form of content affect me? Youtube videos? Gamification? VR/AR? Impact of neuroscience and biotech?
vi. who — More from channels like Discovery or companies who understand children well like Mattel and Disney? Can I share and construct with my peers?
But enumerating trends doesn’t tell us much about where we should reach. For that we have to dig deeper and ask ourselves the following questions.[i]
a. What is the technology landscape that is evolving out there?
b. What key experience is technology making possible that wasn’t happening earlier?
c. How can these possibilities allow for the creation of uniquely valuable new types of assets that power business sustainability?
d. What bets do we therefore take, based on our Point of View?
And here are our bets.
Bet 1 — What matters is not just the number of students that you reach but the number of Learning Profiles that you have.
[A Learning Profile of a child is a dynamic profile that stores the learner’s profile in terms of “what am I good at?”, “what am I weak in?”, “what do I like?”, “what do I not like” and other markers (academic and non-academic) of school and home environment. It also captures micro-information from contexts like programs watched on TV/tablets; what did s/he enjoy sharing on Facebook/Instagram; what did his parents buy for him recently; and maybe even health-related like vision or stammering problems.]
The world of education content earlier used to resemble the world of HBO and Washington Post with their reach. But the world increasingly resembles one occupied by the likes of Netflix and Buzzfeed with their hyper-focus on data science based personalization and digital distribution. And for that to happen, the acquisition of Learning Profiles is a must. Not just delivering x book to y people aka the behemoth Pearson.
Bet 2 — There is a bunch of content out there and many entrepreneurs will try to put them together. But the key will be to unleash content marketplaces that can drive the creation of absolutely amazing content in a way that puts New Media[ii] and Web 2.0 together.[iii]
MIT Professor Woodie Flowers puts it best.[iv] “We decided to assume that the world could hardly wait to see our huge pile of PDFs, PowerPoint presentations, classroom locations, teaching assistant lists, and other assorted bits of information about our courses.
Instead, universities should produce new learning materials specifically for the online world:
In their highly developed form, learning materials would be as elegantly produced as movies and video games and would be as engaging as a great novel. They would be ‘smart’ to both accommodate the learners’ varied styles and yield data to facilitate their continuous improvement.
Each year, 600,000 first-year college students take calculus; 250,000 fail. At $2000/failed-course, that is half-a-billion dollars. That happens to be the approximate cost of the movie Avatar, a movie that took a thousand people four years to make. Many of those involved in the movie were the best in their field. The present worth of losses of $500 million/year, especially at current discount rates, is an enormous number . . . even a $100 million investment could cut the calculus failure rate in half.
Online courses are to offline courses as movies are to plays. The marginal cost of delivering online courses is minimal. The potential audience is everyone with a smartphones and an internet connection — about 1.5 billion people today and growing quickly. There is no reason we shouldn’t be investing as much to produce online courses as we do to produce Hollywood movies.”
The key question is — how do we unleash content marketplaces that can produce extremely engaging content for superior learning experiences.
At the same time, learning content is determined by corporations and authors who span an entire book. We need authors for superior micro-content. There must be a teacher in Finland who knows really well how to teach magnetism foundational concepts. A teacher in San Francisco who is an expert at communicating applications of magnetism. How can there be democratization of producing micro-content yet it all comes together as part of a seamless learning experience.
Bet 3 — Folks in the education market will produce more and more content. There will be a proliferation of content a fragmentation in the sources of learning.
But content consumers will demand a seamless learning experience, irrespective of the diversity of learning sources.
Fulfilling this demand will require modern and innovative content management systems that can respond to the context of the learner.
Like Chorus at Vox Media.[v] Chorus seamlessly allows media content related tasks like editing, illustrating, social sharing and reader interaction. Educators and learners would need the same. FOLD[vi] from MIT Media Lab allows content components to be reassembled in new and interesting ways. It makes it simple to add multimedia background information or create context. The New York Times’ The Upshot recently personalized a news item based on the county location the person was reading from.[vii] Even toys will get more and more connected. Dash and Dot are two programmable toy robots made by Wonder Workshop.[viii] Because they are powered by software, they can acquire more capabilities with time. If the child is bored, the toy can perform something different. More importantly, the toy can tailor experiences based on the ages of the children.
Of course, Google Now is the flag-bearer of context-aware computing. Google Now has the ability to personalize information for a person’s context (what I did earlier and what I am doing now; where I am; how am I feeling; who I am with; what devices are around me) based on the person’s profile and the networks he accesses.
Imagine a Google Now for learning.
It will learn what a child is learning (and not learning) at her school and home environments. Based on her Learning Profile and context, it will provide recommendations (machine learning or good old human curation based) and discovery options relevant to her Learning Profile.
My favourite example is of Time and Distance chapter in Maths. Assume a child Anna travelling on a train. A bridge is coming up. The smartphone throws up a relevant Time and Distance problem for the child — given l length of bridge and speed travelled by the train is s (provided by the accelerometer in the smartphone) what is the time t taken? The Time and Distance problem is thrown up based on her her real world interest in the chapter or need for more practice. The possibilities of context based snack-y learning are endless — to combine the child’s environment with what she is supposed to learn or interested to learn. If she is still facing difficulties in the chapter, recommendations will come up for offline home tutors in the area where she is staying. The home tutors will have ratings and reviews based on how well they have taught those specific topics.
This would imply that the Learning Profile knows about her performance/interests at school as well her exposure inputs at home. And based on that is pulling in various learning modules from around the world/internet to offer a seamlessly integrated and contextualised learning experience.
This means that learning will be seen as a continuum of touch-points across school and home environments. There won’t be a silo-ed distinction of learning activities only at schools. Learning and fun can exist together.
Bet 4 — Going ‘full stack’ in education need not mean going ‘full monty’. It means picking a meaningful ‘whole product’[ix] for mainstream consumers.
If you visit the EdSurge Edtech Index, you will find about 1507 products grouped on the following lines:
a. Curriculum products — Products that teach concepts
b. Teacher Needs — For keeping learning on-track
c. School Operations — To keep a school humming
d. Post-Secondary — For students and institutions
e. Everything else — Other stuff in edtech like apps, digital textbooks, home tutoring and video instruction
Unfortunately, none of them take ownership of providing a seamless integrated learning experience, with the user at the centre.
Majority of these products have the following thesis.
The world is in a state X before the introduction of the product. After the product P is introduced, the world changes from X -> (X′ + P). The benefits of product P are advocated. But two aspects are overlooked.
a. The incentives and how to bear the cost of change from X to X′
b. The enablers for the benefits of product P to be realized
Hence many edtech products get stuck at the altar of integration.
Based on this some entrepreneurs prefer to go the whole hog and set up schools from scratch like AltSchool and Bridge International. If the objective is to create large school private school systems, then it does make sense. But it may be missing the more valuable opportunity out there.
The right questions for eliciting this valuable opportunity are: What can be done to provide a superior learning experience for users across schools and homes? How can current and emerging technologies power this seamless learning experience?
This means we slice the education space in a way that takes ownership of the learning experience (and additional layers for bearing the cost of integration) but not lock, stock and barrel. Uber takes ownership of the transportation experience but does not buy or make cars or have drivers on their rolls.
We can slice the education space as three layers of Learning Inputs + People + Infra. Next, the Learning Inputs layer can be designed to have superior and seamless experience and, very importantly, is robust across a variety of (People + Infra) layers. This will enable dramatic reach and as well allow much more innovation across the ecosystem.
Bet 5 — In emerging markets with private schools, be the Chameleon before you become the Unicorn. Blend in, and then stand out.
The current K-12 school system in India is one of the largest in the world 250+ million students enrolled across 1.4 million schools.[x] 25% of all K-12 schools in India are private schools, accounting for 40% share in student enrolment. In terms of private sector, India has ~100 million students enrolled as compared to the US or the UK that have 5.1 million and 504,000 private school students respectively.
Given the size of the market and the requirement to be broad-based across a variety of private school environments, we at XAMCHECK made choices that prioritized blending in and setting up the stage to stand out.
a. identification of mass market segments
b. development of ‘whole product’ from buyer point of view
c. low friction for sales & distribution
d. high product adoptability among users — ensure there is less friction and high desirability among all stakeholders (students, parents, teachers, and school promoters) — ride on existing behaviours
e. easy integration with diverse school environments
f. mass market affordability
g. suitable technology in the back-end for smooth operations
h. emphasis on content management systems and data science — to ensure right content reaches the right student in the right time in the right form (4Rs)
i. ensure starting point is print content as that is/will be a dominant feature of schools — but create gateway digital experiences through interactive augmented reality apps like Layar. The mobile internet users in India is expected to reach 213 million by June 2015.[xi] Soon there will be greater touch points for learning on smartphones.
j. asymmetric push on design for user experience– identify and develop touch points that lend to digital experiences and sync all touch points to craft a superior learning experience across schools and homes
For more on our growth story to cross 1,00,000 students read the evolution of XAMCHECK.