Can iPads Compete with Schoolteachers?

October 20, 2011

12:00 pm

We’ve all seen videos of young kids adeptly navigating the iPad’s touchscreen, but could the Apple device bring more than play? Jesper Lodahl certainly thinks so, as he sees his 4-year-old daughter Laura – with the help of a few iPad apps – do basic reading, tell time, and even teach him Spanish words. Lodahl’s startup, SmarTots, helps him makes sense of all this.

“We don’t know what kids are actually learning, and it’s difficult to find the right apps, and we don’t understand how to reinforce their learning,” says Lodahl, who is from Denmark.

So the Beijing-based SmarTots created an SDK that, once integrated into an app, tracks children’s progress and generates reports. The open beta platform also detects their favorite subject areas and recommends other apps to download, as well as offering teacher-created activities for parents to do offline with their kids. Founded in May 2010, SmarTots supports about 40 apps for children ages 2-7 in subjects like math, music, and science.

Education specialists seem supportive of the iPad’s potential. SmarTots just announced $750,000 in angel funding led by Chinese education giant Xu Xiaoping’s Zhen Fund. And much of their data comes from volunteer teachers, who rate children’s apps and tag them by age and subjects taught. SmarTots is using this backing to target the United States, then all English speakers and Chinese parents eager to give their kids a leg up.

But the iPad-as-tutor raises some concerns. Even Lodahl acknowledges it can be a double-edged sword: he is surprised how addictive it is. His daughter constantly wants to use the learning apps, he says, calling for the iPad in the morning and in the car. For him, the best scenario is for parents and teachers to use the iPad as a teaching tool. Also, SmarTots provides aggregated demographic and usage information to app developers, with children’s ages and location (but no names).

Lodahl showed me an app that his daughter loves, which teaches math and vocabulary. I’m astonished that a bit of interactivity – a touchscreen, some sounds, and an encouraging cartoon animal – could make learning fun, even addictive, for kids. The iPad may not replace educators anytime soon, but it is already teaching.

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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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