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Photo: Enlearn
Student using Enlearn tablet in pilot (photo: Enlearn)

One of the knottiest problems in applying technology to education is the holy grail of “personalization:” How to adjust and adapt instructional materials automatically, so that every child is both engaged and learning.

It’s the kind of challenge that dates back to early mechanical teaching machines, relatively more advanced systems like the mainframe-computer based PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) in 1960, and dozens of personal computer software and hardware systems since.

Now, a Seattle nonprofit thinks it’s nailed it, by not focusing only on technology.

EnlearnlogoEnlearn, a two-year-old startup launched with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is about to announce its first partnerships to bring its “adaptable curricula” platform to market.

Initially developed for tablets and now web-based so as to be device-agnostic, Enlearn’s platform — and promises — at first sound a lot like other edtech personalization plays. Students interact with materials that adapt to their progress. Teachers get real-time data on what’s working with students. Schools and districts get better results from what they spend on curriculum and computers.

But the differences, according to founder and Chief Scientist Zoran Popovic, are that Enlearn also adapts to the classroom environment and the teacher, and isn’t just focused on mastering specific subject content, but also gauges students’ engagement and “persistence” to aid in motivating them.

Results from Real-School Pilots

Enlearn has been piloting its platform in schools in Seattle, Federal Way, and Minnesota, using a specific curriculum to which it has access. The latest pilots took place on hundreds of tablets in 14 classrooms in five Seattle and Federal Way schools.

Enlearn founder Zoran Popovic
Enlearn founder Zoran Popovic

Earlier pilots last Spring found that the real-time data helped teachers assist individual students three times more frequently than in a paper-based classroom, students solved 4.5 times more problems on average, and had better collective scores on exercise problems — even though, if you were to measure success by test results alone (and not teacher-student interaction or student activity), you may not be impressed by a collective score increase of 2.5 percent.

“I am trying to look at a holistic picture,” explains Popovic. “The teacher can see in real time the state of the entire class and make instant decisions on which subgroups of students should be working jointly on which specialized activity.” The idea, he says, is not to replace teachers, but to “amplify them.”

One of those teachers is Olga Mashnitskaya, an educator whose class at Technology Access Foundation Academy in Federal Way spent ten weeks with Enlearn’s tablet system in the most recent pilot.

“Enlearn reminded me of the benefits of constantly knowing where students were at academically,” she says. “While using the tablet system, students who initially struggled at math or felt that they were unable to complete the work began to show a more positive outlook on the subject. I will admit that face-to-face interactions with students diminished due to increased screen time; however, the class gradually developed a good balance.”

But Mashnitskaya emphasizes that, ultimately, the technology is a tool. “The effectiveness of that tool depends on how the teacher utilizes it in the classroom,” she concludes.

From Foldit to Enlearn

Popovic’s inspiration for Enlearn comes from Foldit, a computer-based, competitive game for folding proteins he ran wearing his other hat — that of Director of the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington. “We showed that complete novices can become biochemistry experts in less than six months, and published multiple Nature papers describing their discoveries,” he says. “To me the obvious next step is to develop similar kinds of outcomes early on in education.”

Foldit game (image: University of Washington)

However, Popovic is also aware of others who are pursuing the holy grail of personalization. For math, DreamBox in Bellevue, backed by Netflix’ Reed Hastings. For eTextbooks, New York City’s Knewton. And literally dozens of startups that come from a Silicon Valley, not education, mindset.

It’s this very last group — one which seems to think education is an engineering problem that can be fixed by technology — that Popovic takes to task for assuming learning is easy, until they get into it. “Then they say, ‘Holy crap. This is extremely complex,” he notes. “That kind of hubris by technologists over time wanes when you have to show some results.”

“Learning,” he says, “is fundamentally a social activity. There are also aspects that relate to peer learning, as well as aspects of out-of-school support that may vary across the student population.” It’s why he maintains that “personalization is still mostly just a buzzword that has not met the expectations. Educational process is a very complex challenge and everyone is personalizing just a tiny sliver of it.”

Focus Beyond Student + Device

Finer details built into the Enlearn platform are both aspirational and practical. For educators, Popovic says the platform also is adaptive to their “preferences, strengths and weaknesses.” For classrooms, Enlearn doesn’t assume every student has a tablet or laptop, but will restructure lessons, based on how many devices are available. And for students, Enlearn doesn’t just rearrange existing content, but generates what he calls a “unique learning progression for each classroom and each student.”

But there have been surprises. “We discovered that classroom variability both in terms of the student spectrum and teacher’s classroom style is greater than we anticipated,” Popovic says. “We also discovered that the interplay between technology-driven activities and more standard classroom activities is quite tricky.”

Still, Popovic says they’re addressing the challenges and are in the process of signing up education companies, such as textbook publishers, to offer their curriculum on the Enlearn platform, which will be licensed and integrated with the materials that the companies sell to schools.

Nonprofit, But Contracts Coming

The first announcement is planned next week, during the SXSWedu conference in Austin, Texas. And he says they’re about to finalize a contract with “an entity” in India to bring materials on Enlearn to cheap Android devices in cybercafes, initially reaching 100,000 kids and eventually as many as 200 million who need help with reading and math.

“It’s very much in line with our mission,” he says. “We are singularly driven to to achieve mastery for 95% of students on any subject, in every classroom, and for every teacher. It is easier to build towards this goal in a nonprofit structure where you don’t have to compromise the path to the ultimate objective for rapid profits and making impatient VCs happy.”

Nonprofit or not, the personalization challenge remains notoriously difficult. Many others are trying, a number have failed, and Enlearn still has to pull off the transition from pilot to production. But that doesn’t seem to deter Popovic.

“It’s endlessly exciting,” Popovic says. “I’m waking up every morning with new exciting opportunities to make a difference.”

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