How Washington’s entrepreneurs are revolutionising the way we learn

Many of the new companies establishing themselves in Washington, D.C. are dedicated to making a change that serves a public good. In particular, the education sector continues to show signs of disruption as start-ups revolutionise the way we learn. We caught up with William Weil; co-founder and CEO of Tales2go, and Tom Adams; co-founder and chairman of Smartly, to discuss entrepreneurship in the world of education.

Education-based entrepreneurship in the DC area has shown its face across all attainment levels in the industry; from improving primary education to reforming graduate degrees. We spoke to William Weil about his work at Tales2go, discussing improving literacy among young children. Tales2go is an audiobook library that provides individuals and schools access to more than 5,000 books from leading publishers. The product operates on a mobile platform and therefore serves both school and personal use.

Weil founded Tales2go in 2009 alongside his wife, Tracey. As parents they were looking to find a way of educating their children outside school whilst keeping the learning process entertaining. Like a lot of families, during long car journeys they would often listen to audiobooks; it was this combined with the development of smartphone technology that served as the initial inspiration for their product. Weil explains, "Tales2go was an innovation made possible by advancements in mobile technology, but started with an underlying commitment to doing good things for kids and a core belief in the power of storytelling."

Tales2go began on a small individual scale, however they soon moved to working with schools; "Tales2go is used in leading school districts across the US, including Los Angeles USD, Broward County Public Schools (FL) and Heartland AEA (IA)," Weil says. "Educators found us, and got excited about our business, specifically providing instant, unlimited and simultaneous access to a complete catalogue of titles."

Audiobooks and their impact on literacy levels

The expansion of Tales2go has been based around disproving the commonly held belief that whilst audiobooks are enjoyable to listen to, they don’t provide an educational resource. Weil explains that in fact, Tales2go provides a much-need literacy tool to address the low-levels attainment in schooling across the U.S. "Just 36 per cent of US 4th graders read at or above proficiency, in part because just half of US parents read to their children every day," Weil explains. The results of this education gap show that students not reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade are four times more likely not to graduate from high school.

The results of an evaluation of Tales2go in the San Francisco Bay area school district show that it functions as a promising literacy tool. Specifically, students using Tales2go attained 58 per cent of the annual expected gain in reading in just ten weeks, putting them three months ahead of the control students. Weil explains, "The findings make a case for adding audiobooks to curriculum and using audiobooks at home to combat the word gap."

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Given the success, Weil revealed that the company plans to expand significantly. "Whether as a literacy tool for international schools (of which there are many and growing) or as an English Language Learning tool, there’s a lot of opportunity for us abroad," Weil says. The eventual hope is to provide a service available in multiple regions across the world in local languages.

Smartly is another education-focused start-up operating out of the DC area. Seeing how the rising cost of studying is pricing some students out of education programmes, it serves as a solution that democratises education. Currently in beta, Smartly offers a free online platform for students to study subjects and then connects them with top employers worldwide.

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The next generation of online learning

Adams founded Smartly along with Alexie Harper and Ori Ratner in 2013. "The inspiration comes from a desire to make learning with technology dramatically better. The traditional methods of online learning that use video lectures are out-dated. It’s not how humans learn, we all learn by doing. We want to make learning hard subjects super easy and fun," Adams explains.

He continues, "When we look around the world and think about making an impact, our goal is to get the best education to as many people as possible. So we’re making an MBA that’s free."

Smartly differentiates itself by using 'active learning' to teach its material. Active learning is about engaging the user through participation on the smartphone platform. It means the user is clicking the screen approximately every seven seconds, this is around 20-30 times as much as in other systems. Learning through continually solving problems in bitesize lessons is a method that has been shown to be significantly more effective in teaching subject matter.

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Adams attended the prestigious INSEAD Graduate School in France to study his MBA. He explains, "The experience of going to a business school like that is terrific, but very few people get to do it. Across the world, only 23,000 people get to attend the top 60 business schools each year; and yet the top positions in the vast majority of big companies are made up of individuals with the MBA qualification." Smartly addresses this problem by providing a platform that is both high quality and free.

The reason Smartly are able to provide their product free is because the company is financed by employers searching for MBA graduates. Adams explains, "If you look at the stats on hiring college-graduates, you see that it costs on average around $3,400 per hire. For that money, the company often gets unqualified graduates. Smartly maintains a very selective MBA programme so therefore we save the recruiters time searching for that talent."

In terms of Smartly’s future plans, it aims to expand beyond the MBA into other subject areas. "We are the first active learning company that is platform based. There’s Rosetta Stone and Duolingo that also provide active learning systems, but they are specific single-category products. Whereas we are a platform, we can teach almost anything," Adams explains. In addition, Smartly want to expand abroad to capitalise on smartphone usage in the developing world. "My passion would be for Smartly to be a platform that exists across the whole world. In poorer countries, there’s a huge opportunity to bring them world class education" Adams says. "We’re already working on translating it so even language isn’t a barrier to achieving the skills you need to succeed."

Why DC is the place to be for education entrepreneurs

Both Weil and Adams commented on the benefits of working in the DC Metropolitan Area as an entrepreneur. "There is a strong start-up community in the broader DC area, including Maryland and Northern VA" Weil says. "In highly regulated industries, such as education, defence and healthcare, it’s helpful to be close to the regulators, perhaps this explains the long history of ed-tech, defence and biotech start-ups and companies in the region."

Adams echoed Weil’s message concerning the importance of working in DC as an entrepreneur. Adams also explained that being an entrepreneur in the DC area allows you to be more independently minded versus the traditional thinking in Silicon Valley. Adams explains that when addressing large-scale challenges like education reform, it means using the experience of practitioners, of which DC is home to plenty. Adams explains, "Silicon Valley may have the edge when it comes to creating an effective business model and scaling your company; but that’s not the problem in our industry. Our industry has had an efficacy problem, it doesn’t work and it’s slow, it doesn’t have credibility. If you don’t solve that, a) you don’t impact humankind, but b) I don’t think you build a lasting business. That’s what we’re trying to do."

Tales2go and Smartly are two companies that exhibit DC’s commitment to making a difference, not just on a national level, but globally. The success of DC-based start-ups has been reflected in a growing investor community. Whilst previously considered underdeveloped compared to regions in California and New York; PWC’s latest MoneyTree Report places the DC Metropolitan Area 8th for 2015’s top centres for venture capital activity in the US - between 2014 and 2015, there was a 30 per cent increase in the value of VC investment. Start-ups continue to utilise new technology to revolutionise the learning process, and their ambition is catching on across the region.

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