For over a century, education has been stuck in the multiple-choice paradigm, so University of New South Wales student Dror Ben-Naim used his four-year PhD in adaptive e-learning to develop an alternative: an application-based "intelligent learning system".
The result was SmartSparrow, an application for university professors to build engaging online courses and interactive learning environments. The courses are known as smart learning apps. One example is an online, visual lab, where science students can perform virtual experiments. Rather than being an app developer, Ben-Naim described SmartSparrow as the university market's iOS.
"The Apple apps are third-party developers, and Apple provides them the framework, which is iOS," Ben-Naim said. "We're not a teaching company; we're a tool for teachers.
"We think the best way to improve learning is by empowering teachers — and really, that's our focus. We're about empowering and inspiring teachers with technology, such as an adaptive lab, a smart virtual lab.
"There's a huge demand, and there's a lot of tech you need to provide."
Professors can access student-performance analytics to improve course content and provide unique feedback to individual students, which Ben-Naim said is the foundation of an intelligent teaching system.
Six months ago, Ben-Naim closed a multimillion-dollar funding round, which he negotiated with venture capital firm OneVentures and fund UniSeed (a partnership to commercialise technology developed at the University of Melbourne, the University of Queensland and the University of New South Wales), achieved less than a year after SmartSparrow was spun out of UNSW.
There are about 100 professors using SmartSparrow, including several at the University of Arizona, where it was used to develop an online course on space exploration.
It has early traction both locally and overseas, raised millions in funding, the founder experienced the problem firsthand and is passionate about learning.
Some user-education is required to use the platform efficiently. It misses the opportunity to service students directly.
E-learning is a multibillion-dollar global market (education providers want to teach and students want to learn), and this will explode as universities attempt to use online channels to grow their student numbers.
I expect there would be similar technologies being developed in Silicon Valley, which could raise a greater amount of funding and take the critical first-mover advantage.
Ben-Naim is passionate about improving the quality of learning, and plans to achieve this via his ambitious and detailed vision. SmartSparrow is championed by its users, and the multimillion-dollar investment ensures that he has the resources at his disposal to properly execute it. The combination of these factors will ensure that it is a huge success.