Alastair had just finished university studying physics at Oxford, and was tired of everyone telling him to get a job in finance. He wanted to do something he considered meaningful in life. His passion has always been around learning, both himself and helping others to learn. My friend suggested Alastair and Scott (co-founder of Shape) meet up and talk.
Scott had been working to produce an app with Touchpress and we discussed the potential of apps and how education might change. The advent of the iPhone and subsequent release of the touch screen iPod and iPad opened up a whole new world where people could learn whenever and wherever suits them.
We thought that using static textbooks and learning by rote was the past. The future was interactive, learning by playing and we wanted to expand on this belief and work towards realising some of the enormous potential and opportunity we saw.
We spent a week looking at the current apps in the AppStore, and engaged some maths teachers to tell us what was good and bad about each of them.
Max, one of the founders and the CEO of Touchpress was giving a talk at TEDxLondon and we set ourselves the task of building a proof of concept around manipulating equations that we could showcase at the event.
It wasn't an easy task, given the time constraints and the complexity of the challenge, but if we could pull it off we knew that it would be impressive and a step change from anything else out there, and act as a catalyst to raise some money in order to make the app a reality.
So we got going writing a detailed specification - we wanted to do that so we could check everything made sense from a pedagogical perspective with some maths teachers before we start the build, as we were very aware that getting it wrong would have been incredibly costly (both in terms of time and effort), and potentially kill the project.
The maths teachers loved it! We excitedly got going and started to code.
Every week we travelled from London to Manchester to test it with students from Manchester Grammar School to ensure they were both learning from and enjoying using it.
The students helped us enormously to refine the experience and get it ‘ready’ for a more public release.
The feedback we got from TEDxLondon was amazing - we spoke and demoed to hundreds of people throughout the day, from interested students to education experts. People were amazed, and we caught the eye of someone from Apple who invited us to their UK headquarters to talk more about what our plans were and how they could help.
Apple are extremely committed to education and work closely with a schools up and down the country. The leading schools who demonstrate innovation, leadership, and educational excellence are named Apple Distinguished Schools. They offered us access to these schools so we could test concepts and have more feedback both from students and teachers.
Even though the feedback we received was amazing, we felt that more could be done. After lots of research and conversations, we got very excited about the concept of “adaptive learning”.
The basic premise of adaptive learning is using technology to improve education and training by providing individualised learning programs to students based on data that is gathered both before and throughout the learning process. In short, it learns how you learn as you learn.
We wanted to use advanced data techniques to put together learning content for students that’s optimised for their learning needs. We would continually gather data when a student interacts with any learning content and determine which learning activities, delivered through what medium and in what sequence will help improve the student’s learning the most.
This meant that each student goes through a highly individualised learning experience, which provides much better learning results. Find out more here (PDF).
The idea got a number angel investors excited and we raised over £350k in seed funding to bring it to market.
We recognised that learning is different to teaching and it required a radically different technical approach to deliver the most effective intervention strategies and real personalisation and adaptation to suit the individual. Find out more about this approach here (PDF).
The solution we developed to achieve these objectives was to:
You can read more about the idea and our approach here (PDF).
Right at the beginning we had 2 key markets; individual learners and schools. One of the assumptions we made early on was that schools would rapidly adopt iPads. This seemed to be the case in the US where there were big announcements of school districts making iPad purchases (for example San Diego Unified School District: 26,000 iPads, McAllen Independent School District: 25,000 iPads, Mansfield High School: 10,600 iPads), however in the UK this widespread adoption was not happening. Schools in the UK were still using desktop computers and one of our core values was to ensure the best tools got to as many people as possible. By only offering the tools to iOS users we were not doing this, so we started to rewrite all the tools in HTML5, which allowed us to put the tools on the web so that as many people as possible could benefit from what we were creating.
HTML5 had a number of new features, and the enhancements specifically to drag and drop meant that the work, whilst not trivial, was worth the effort.
It meant that we could also do something else quite exciting which was to offer ‘freeform’ tools. Freeform tools were tools that could be used by teachers to demonstrate concepts - i.e. they were designed to be played with and with no associated assessment.
As part of our commitment to getting Beluga into schools we designed an analytics package for teachers to understand exactly what students were doing and the concepts they were learning. We called this Beluga ‘Teach’.
Beluga Teach allowed teachers (and parents) to view analysis of how a student is doing compared to national expectations. Teachers could assign activities as pre- and post- assessments, meaning that they were able to view progress made in any given time period. which could help teachers to demonstrate the progress that students made within a single lesson.
They could also see exactly what a student did using the unique Beluga Learning Replay Function where teachers could look at any question that the student attempted in the past, and replay the exact actions they made while working on the problem. This gave a complete insight into the thinking, misconceptions, creativity and effort that the student demonstrated. In order to motivate students teachers could reward learners by assigning additional trophies, badges.
The product was widely praised in education circles including NESTA (the government’s innovation agency) and Apple where it was selected to be featured in the Maths section of the AppStore for over 12 months.