"One size fits all" is a terrible way to go about getting an education, according to Ben Sand, founder and CEO of Brainworth. He spoke to CNET Australia about what makes his new e-learning system stand out from the rest.
According to Bloom's two-sigma problem, Sand told us, the average student performs better than 98 per cent of the rest of a classroom group when placed in a one-on-one learning environment.
"What we want to do is reach, and even surpass, the quality of one-on-one learning, without needing 7 billion new people to teach the 7 billion we have on the planet today," he told CNET Australia.
His solution is the browser-based Brainworth: a new e-learning platform that uses video-game-type achievements to create a personalised learning environment and curriculum.
It was conceived one day when a friend of Sand's, studying mathematics at university, mentioned something called "Rings and Fields" (PDF).
"It troubled me, because neither of those terms made any sense to me," Sand said. "I'd topped my maths classes in high school and was even doing well in undergrad classes at uni, but still I hadn't the slightest idea what they meant," Sand said. "So I looked into it, but had real difficulty finding out what those terms meant. The information was just so exclusive, it wasn't something I could look up. Even Wikipedia, normally a great resource for getting the basics on anything, isn't much help for higher maths — following the explanations of terms just leads you in circles."
What Sand felt he needed was some sort of system that outlined the learning steps he needed to take to get from his current position to a position of understanding Rings and Fields — and, further, how long it would take him to get there, and how he could use it once he understood.
So he turned to video games.
"Every video game which is sold as pure entertainment is also a teaching tool — it has to teach you how to play the game. Not only that; it keeps the player intrinsically motivated the entire way through, while many help develop group-work skills, as well," he said.
"Some people criticise games for breeding an appetite for instant gratification, but we believe the best games do the opposite. There are games people invest years in precisely because they have payoffs that take years to reach. The only thing people demand instantly is feedback on their performance, and reassurance they're heading in the right direction. We think these are healthy demands, and should be encouraged. Students aren't motivated when education delays feedback (by weeks at a time on some occasions) and offers a curriculum that isn't personally relevant to them. This is not a failing of the student, but a weakness of the system itself. That, thanks to what we've learned from video games, can now be solved."
The team is also working with psychology and neuroscience consultants, who examine each component to ensure that it fits in with the optimal ways in which people learn while maintaining enjoyment.
The core concept seems to be based on a series of modules, with video-game levels that are designed to teach you your desired skill in a practical environment, with users free to create their own curricula, connect to friends via Facebook and network with other learners.
"The first challenges we have will be for programmers, because that's our area of expertise and it's something we personally know how to teach," said Sand. "We will give them code that is missing parts or not working properly, and they will need to work as a mechanic to fix it. These first challenges will be related to artificial intelligence for games, so an advanced example would be giving them a character walking through a maze that keeps getting lost, and users would program a way to help them get out."
The system employs the use of what the developers call a graph, which diagrams the relationships between different skills.
Sand explained, "If you want to run, first you need to be able to walk, so we would represent walking as a prerequisite for running in a beautiful and easy-to-understand visual space. We break down a topic into its individual skills, and show which ones rely on which to form a large knowledge 'tree'."
Users' current skill levels are assessed, and they provide Brainworth with their goal; then the graph extrapolates the pathway from the user's current skill level to where they want to be. Extra optional units may be added as the user likes.
"What makes the graph particularly special is the way it can rearrange itself in a manner completely personal to each learner," Sand said. "Only skills relevant to the learner are shown, and they never have to see unnecessary content. The graph creates a new version of itself for each user, so although there is one giant network behind the scenes, you're only ever going to have to see a graph which is walking you through your particular sets of skills."
Additionally, users can generate their own content and add it to the graph, as well as make adjustments to how the graph links content together; so Brainworth itself will constantly be learning and adapting to user requirements, with users able to vote on the content itself as a measure of quality control.
But the absolute key, said Sand, is not content; it's context. "The other next-generation education providers focus on the content they can provide, whereas we focus on context. We see most other content providers as people we can work with, linking all of their content together in a context which makes sense for the user and keeps them engaged."
We're itching to get our hands on it.
Brainworth is due to launch in closed beta in Q3 this year. You can find out more by watching the video below and heading over to the Brainworth website.