Y Combinator Challenge #13 – Online Learning

For more information about the Y Combinator Challenge, check out this post first 

13. Online learning. US schools are often bad. A lot of parents realize it, and would be interested in ways for their kids to learn more. Till recently, schools, like newspapers, had geographical monopolies. But the web changes that. How can you teach kids now that you can reach them through the web? The possible answers are a lot more interesting than just putting books online.

One route would be to start with test prep services, for which there’s already demand, and then expand into teaching kids more than just how to score high on tests. Another would be to start with games and gradually make them more thoughtful. Another, particularly for younger kids, would be to let them learn by watching one another (anonymously) solve problems.

My Idea – SuperMemo High

There was a great article in Wired a few months back that profiled a Polish man named Piotr Wozniak (no relation) who created a software program that uses a memorization technique called the spacing effect.  The basic idea is that memory fades in a surprisingly predictable pattern, and if you can reinforce the initial learning at very specific intervals, you can dramatically increase memory retention rate.  Here’s a diagram that explains this a little better (courtesy of Wired):


Of course, school teaches us much more than just rote memorization.  You learn problem solving, teamwork, connections between events, social skills, etc..  So while today’s idea is centered around using the SuperMemo technique, any real attempts at providing a full online learning system would need to be fairly broad.

Here’s a take on how this could be implemented.  To start, each day’s lessons would be broken down into 10 minute sections – each hour would have 5 segments focused on traditional subjects (math, science, geography, etc..) and one free segment where users could take a quick break and/or socialize with each other via webcams, public chat rooms, or private IMs.  The learning segments would be compiled by experienced educators and could be presented either as text, video, interactive simulations, or even educational mini-games. 

For information that needs to be memorized, the lessons would be strategically presented at the proper intervals to align with the principles of the spacing effect.  Also, as students work through their lessons, the system would adjust the difficulty to ensure that each student is working at a challenging (but not frustrating) pace.  In addition, while most segments would be individually presented to the student based on their current pace and spacing, certain segments would bring together 2-4 students to work on a problem together.  Ideally, the students would not have more than 20 “classmates” that they interact with during the team sessions or the breaks, which would allow longer-term friendships to form as they would in a real-world classroom environment.

What do you guys think of this idea?  Believe it or not, I actually spent a year in a middle school computer lab as a teacher.  I can tell you from firsthand experience that computer-based learning systems are very expensive and have lots of room for improvement.  As always, feel free to post any comments below.


3 responses to “Y Combinator Challenge #13 – Online Learning

  1. This is an awesome idea. The K12 and college markets definitely need some disruptive innovation to shock them out of their complacency.

  2. One thing a lot of small charter schools could use is an online program of this sort that teaches things the teacher doesn’t know, or is vague on. A lot of computer courses are just courses on MS Word because that’s all the teacher feels comfortable with. Something that teaches, and makes the teachers feel confident with the results even if they don’t understand all the material themselves, would help elevate these classes and make them more fun for the students (and probably the teachers, too.)

  3. Thanks Mark, that’s a great idea. You’d definitely need to incubate this somewhere other than a public school system (given all the political issues you’d run in to) – I was thinking home-schooling or summer schools might be a good audience, but charter schools would definitely be good to approach as well. (I updated your link, btw.. 🙂 )

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