500 Startups’ eSpark Learning Turns Your iPad into a Teacher’s Assistant

January 31, 2012

11:30 am

Launching last week as part of 500 Startups’ third class, eSpark Learning is leveraging iPad apps to make learning more engaging for young students.

“Consider a typical student’s modern entertainment options – iPods, iPads, Wii, Nintendo, Xbox, video games, social networks, HD television, 3D movies. Why are we mostly using sophisticated technology to merely entertain and distract our kids?” asks founder David Vinca.

eSpark begins by evaluating students and helping them set academic goals. It then recommends relevant iPad apps, which are rated by teachers, and gives students “quests” to complete. After that, teachers and parents can see reports on student improvement on particular apps. This model has attracted partnerships with more than 27 school districts, including KIPP schools, Chicago Public Schools, and the Virginia Department of Education.

Vinca was inspired by the work of KIPP charter schools in helping out underserved students. eSpark interviewed KIPP teachers and discovered that their biggest challenge was personalizing education for each student. The Chicago-based startup’s approach is also informed by research that shows that students perform better when they choose their assignments and are rewarded for effort, not performance.

But how can eSpark Learning make headway in an education system that gravitates toward tradition?

“The system is changing fast,” says Vinca. “More than 40% of teachers are 30 or younger and they are beginning to bring and demand modern technology in the classroom.  District leaders are also innovating by bringing modern technology like the iPad into schools. The budget crisis that many schools face is creating the need for schools to think about education in creative ways. Schools have been pretty slow to innovate historically, but I see schools moving pretty fast recently.”

eSpark is similar to Beijing-based SmarTots, which is also targeting the United States. Both use an SDK that integrates with apps to generate data on student progress and provides aggregated usage data to app developers. But while eSpark is designed for students around ages 4-12, SmarTots targets 2- to 7-year-olds and also has offline activities to bring together parents and their children. By making education fun, both startups hope to extend learning beyond the school day.

In fact, using all our new-fangled technology for round-the-clock education is something even adults could learn from.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact [email protected]

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