Startup spotlight: Smart Sparrow targets next-generation learning

Smart Sparrow has set out to revolutionise e-learning in Australia

Smart Sparrow founder, Dr Dror Ben-Naim.

Smart Sparrow founder, Dr Dror Ben-Naim.

Dr Dror Ben-Naim — the founder of Australian e-learning company, Smart Sparrow — grew up knowing that one day he’d start his own company.

Upon finishing secondary school in tech start-up hub Israel, he travelled to Sydney to study physics and computer science at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). On moving here, Ben-Naim was surprised to discover the state of e-learning in the country.

“When I came to Australia and I started doing a degree here in physics and computer science, I was actually quite shocked about [how] it’s still a 17th century style of learning and teaching,” Ben-Naim told Computerworld Australia.

According to Ben-Naim, 80 per cent of Australia’s “iEducation” revolves around Microsoft PowerPoint and PDFs, which together account for 89 per cent of e-learning tools currently available.

“If you look at gaming technologies, it’s by far more advanced," Ben-Naim says. "So how come the technologies available for education aren't enabling teachers to create that type of content?”

While doing a laboratory in optoelectronics — the study and application of electronic devices that generate, detect, and control light — Ben-Naim transferred the lab into an online setting because he thought it’d be “cool”.

The experiment was successful and it caught the eye of the head of School of Physics, who asked Ben-Naim to build a virtual lab for the whole first year laboratory.

The technology used for the virtual labs later became the focus of Ben-Naim’s PhD study. Halfway through the degree he received some grant money in the sum of $350,000 from UNSW. The funding allowed him to construct “a lot” of virtual labs and adaptive e-learning tools, such as an intelligent tutoring system (ITS) and adaptive tutorial.

The technology Ben-Naim and his research team built is essentially “the PowerPoint of ITSes”, a generic tool that enables teachers to create smart content.

For example, the virtual labs are “intelligent”, which means that if a student gets an answer wrong in an exam, teachers will be able to see what they’ve done wrong and how to help them.

Then there are the adaptive e-learning tools, which grade student presentations and can assess what students know or don’t know then adapt the educational content to them in real time. This includes the adaptive tutorials, which Ben-Naim explains are basically interactive worksheets.

“Imagine a worksheet that you take home and do your homework on,” he said. “Now imagine that the worksheet becomes intelligent and gives the students feedback on what they do as they do it.

“We can now know what they got wrong and why and then be able to continually adapt the content.”

In the following years, the technology was incorporated into the teaching programs of more than 60 academics and used by up to 20,000 students each year. It now boasts of hundreds of adaptive modules in subjects such as pathology, music and business.

As the technology took off, Ben-Naim and his research team decided to commercialise it as they “grew too big” for the university as a research group. This move marked the birth of Smart Sparrow in 2010.

Smart Sparrow has since secured funding from venture capital firms OneVentures and Uniseed, and staff numbers have risen from three to 10 within two months and expected to double in the next few months.

However, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the start-up. Ben-Naim said he and his team faced a number of challenges during the development of the adaptive e-learning tools, as the technology involved was very advanced.

There was also the issue of “growing pains”, with UNSW being unable to sustain Smart Sparrow as a research group as it became more successful.

Smart Sparrow is also looking into expanding overseas markets, such as the US, and potentially establishing a research and development centre in Israel; however, Ben-Naim maintains that Smart Sparrow is currently “really focused” on the lucrative Australian education market.

“I think Australia is a good place to do education technology because Australia’s third highest export is higher education and that means that there’s actually an intrinsic investment in the market here in education,” he said.

But Ben-Naim admitted there were also some downsides to being based in Australia, including the relatively small Australian start-up market in comparison to Silicon Valley in the US, time differences that can make it harder to organise meetings with clients in other countries, and the high cost of living in Australia.

“Because the cost of living in Australia is high, that means the salaries are really high,” he said.

“And it means that you get a few million dollars from your investors and the amount of engineering that you can buy is different to other places in the world.”

The start-up is now building on the adaptive e-learning technology with the creation of a multi-dimensional platform, dubbed ‘Bronte’. (All three of its previous systems have been named after Australian beaches, including Bondi, Manly and the current version, Coogee.)

Follow Diana Nguyen on Twitter: @diananguyen9

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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