Engaged Learning, Backed by Gates Foundation, Adapts to Each Student

When University of Washington computer science professor Zoran Popović describes his effort to dramatically change the way kids learn math, you can pick up echoes of personalized medicine, targeted online advertisements, and even choose-your-own adventure books.

As in virtually every other sphere of business and life, the technology-driven transformation of education from a data-poor to a data-rich field is creating the potential for innovation. And data is at the heart of what Engaged Learning, a nonprofit founded by Popović and backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is trying to do.

The Engaged Learning system is designed to monitor a student’s answer to each new question, and adjust the next question in real-time—though, more realistically, on a daily basis—to address that student’s specific challenges, level of engagement, and readiness to advance toward mastery of a subject. Each new data point gathered on a student informs what the system does next.

This automated, adaptive curriculum should, in Popović’s words, understand “exactly what the kid is thinking about, and exactly the kind of new light bulb that’s about to illuminate in their heads.”



The 11-person Seattle organization is building what it describes as a platform capable of turning an ordinary curriculum into one that adapts to each individual student’s pace of learning, automatically measures and propagates the best teachers’ best practices across K-12 classrooms and schools, and generates reams of new content to ensure that struggling students can get the amount of practice they need to master a subject.

That might sound like a big, audacious promise, but Engaged Learning has years of research behind it and says it is gaining traction within its target market. The nonprofit is planning 10-week trial implementations with Washington schools this fall and is in discussions with seven large educational publishers, which would use its software to add capabilities to their curricula, Popović says. Assessment companies are interested in the technology, as well. “They need a way to automatically generate a huge amount of content that they curate towards assessments. With the emergence of Common Core standards, this becomes more important,” he says.

The company was created a little over a year ago to translate to a broader K-12 curriculum the novel approach taken in a highly successful algebraic math game developed by the UW Center for Game Science, which Popović directs. By adapting to the way each individual player is learning, the game helped more than 93 percent of players master arbitrary complex linear equations in about 90 minutes. (Mastery here means they were able to complete three problems—such as solve for x: a*x+b=c+d—with no errors or extra steps.) He says this approach could apply not just in math—though that’s the natural place to start—but also subjects like reading comprehension and science.

Popović says the Gates Foundation urged him to found a company to build and commercialize technology that expands on this adaptive model, personalizing and optimizing existing K-12 curricula. “I don’t know if it would have happened without their help initially,” he says. “I had venture capitalists and many other people contact me, but I didn’t want to sacrifice the actual outcome, which I think requires a scientific approach and a huge amount of iteration. If I did it as a [for-profit] startup, I would have had to have an outcome in two years.”

Engaged Learning declined to disclose how much funding it has received from the Gates Foundation.

Popović has a lengthy resume. Engaged Learning’s technology, which he’s been working on for nearly five years, was inspired by his earlier work helping create another video game that allowed non-scientists to solve puzzles that advance science. The game, called Foldit, built on the [email protected] protein structure calculation project of David Baker and has helped inform new approaches to treating cancer and other diseases.

“That was the first thing that pointed to the ability to create experts from relative novices,” Popović says. “From there, I basically realized that the same kind of principles should be applied to education at large. If we can create experts, why can’t we create mastery at schools?”

Popović says he focuses on games because they foster engagement and mastery of a subject at the same time. Also, he says, games can easily contain lots of automated variation in the problems students are asked to solve, quickly amassing data on the best ways to present material to optimize learning.

With funding from the Gates Foundation and U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Popović and his team of about 45 people at the University of Washington Center for Game Science have developed games that have been played by more than 7 million kids around the world.

Games are one thing. Marketing new products and services to K-12 education is another.

“There’s no shortage of better mousetraps for education,” says Engaged Learning CEO John Mullin, who previously co-founded and led Seattle-based Teach First, a professional development company focused on helping teachers identify effective practices for challenging students.

And the procurement process in many school districts is “irrational,” he says, with decisions made by everyone from state superintendents and chief academic officers to district school boards to school principals to individual teachers. Budgets to try new products and services are typically limited to a single school year, he says, which often isn’t enough time to show whether a new technology or approach is effective.

The market is dominated by big textbook publishers—Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Scholastic—“because they have the financial wherewithal to live inside of school districts” and state departments of education, Mullin says. “It’s very challenging for a startup, as great as their idea might be, to sustain” that kind of sales and marketing, he adds.

Challenges aside, there is a sense that “education is having its Internet moment,” Mullin says. Venture capitalists are taking note, pumping $1.25 billion into 378 edtech deals globally last year, according to CB Insights, breaking the billion-dollar mark for the second straight year.

“The ability to actually use data in a meaningful, objective, and real-time way, to be able to take that data and translate it into something that can help a teacher know what to do right now for that specific student who’s struggling—who [the teacher] might not have realized is struggling to begin with without this data—is hugely powerful, if it can be done at scale,” Mullin says.

Indeed, Engaged Learning makes some tantalizing promises about a complex piece of the education puzzle: How do teachers, faced with larger, more diverse classes, tune their instruction to help individual students? It’s long been an intractable problem, Popović says.

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