Smart Startups? Platforms Aim to Change the Education System

Israeli firms seek to 'profitably and innovatively' help students do better.

Nir Kafri

Several recently founded Israeli startups have taken on the ambitious task of revamping education and adapting it to the digital age.

Scrolar.com, for example, was established as a platform for discussion and study, at home and school, enabling users to exchange views on texts that interest them. Unlike social-networking websites or news sites, comments are pegged to specific sentences in the texts being studied, so people interested in those passages can more easily respond.

The site’s developer, Assaf Ovadia, got the idea from the visual of the page of Gemara. “The Gemara is a composite page of texts written at different times,” Ovadia says. “The primary text is the Mishna. Around it is the Gemara which explains it. Around both of them is Rashi’s simplifying remarks and all surrounded by additional comment.” This text enables people to converse over time, he says.

Scrolar began as an interactive platform for the study of religious texts, and the pilot is currently limited to the study of text of the weekly portion of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. “But the hope is to be a social network for texts,” Ovadia says. As a business model, he hopes to add options for users of the platform to buy textbooks and general reading.

“The students will get access to the books on my platform with notes and commentary of teachers and other students like them, with an option to create groups for private discussions for classes and friends,” he says.

Scrolar was a participant in the MindCet accelerator, established by the Center for Educational Technology to bring change to teaching methods. MindCet has been seeking out startups that provide alternatives to traditional teaching methods.

“We founded the accelerator [MindCet] on the understanding that there are widening disparities between what happens in school and what’s happening outside,” says Chief Executive Avi Warshavsky. “The students’ level of technology at home has changed unrecognizably. They have fast Internet connections and social networks and apps, but institutional methods of study and instruction have undergone almost no change at all. As this gap widens, the school becomes irrelevant from the standpoint of the students, whose significant learning happens elsewhere.”

Although technology has been integrated into schools for several decades, Warshavsky says it hasn’t shaken up the education system as it has other sectors, like printing, banking and medicine. “It has become reinforcement for existing structures and teaching and study methods,” he explains. “Once we had a physical book and now we have a digital one. Instead of chalk and a blackboard, we have an interactive board, but it hasn’t brought about the required paradigm shift.”

After many years in which investors shunned the educational-technology sector, it’s been drawing more investment. Take, for example, Edmodo, a social network for the education community used by about 40 million educators and students worldwide. This U.S. startup has attracted $87 million, including a $30 million funding round completed about two weeks ago. Edmodo’s backers include Index Ventures, a European venture-capital fund that’s invested in Skype and MySQL, a highly popular open-source database-management system.

Edmodo, which is free to users, didn’t take the usual path into the schools. Instead, it became popular when teachers began using it to send messages and classroom material to their students. MindCet is working to translate the platform into Hebrew.

Another example is Teachers Pay Teachers, a lesson-plan marketplace where educators can upload their materials and sell lesson plans to other teachers. More than 800,000 teachers have bought lesson plans on the site. And the income potential is substantial: The highest selling teacher on TPT has sold more than $2.6 million of lesson plans. Each of 255 educators have sold materials for more than $50,000. TPT takes a 15% to 30% cut from each lesson plan sold.

Another popular project in Israel is Coursera, a website established in 2012 by Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, professors at Stanford University in California. It offers courses from leading universities around the world online at no charge, threatening the traditional structure of academia. Coursera raised $85 million but its business model is still unclear.

The potential for technology solutions for education is reflected in the numerous accelerator programs that have opened in recent years.

“When we started out about two years ago,” Warshavsky says, “there was one accelerator program in the United States (Imagine K12). Now there are about 20 American programs and six European ones. There is a program in India and one in South America. It’s proof that there is a gap that needs to be closed more quickly than what the market is naturally capable of.”

Asked about the relative dearth of education projects geared to the Israeli public, Warshavsky said that developments in Israel are less interesting from a business perspective. “There is a small market that speaks Hebrew,” he says, “and other than the handful of those interested in the local market — most of them non-profits motivated by a desire to change values and bridge disparities — the hope of everyone is to make a breakthrough abroad and make money. On the other hand, Israel is an outstanding pilot location. The teachers here are more flexible and prepared to examine new things, and there are entrepreneurs that understand this.”

Learning to program with a monkey (playcodemonkey.com)

Despite Israel’s international renown as a high-tech leader, few high schools are preparing students for careers in science and engineering. Although demand in the high-tech sector for such skills is growing, the number of students in the higher-education fields that the sector needs has long been at a standstill.

The developers of the CodeMonkey website, Yishai Pinchover and brothers Jonathan and Ido Schor, are out to change how computer programming is taught. Their startup developed a website that combines addictive game play with formal coding language to encourage students to keep at it with their studies.

“Currently computer programming is taught at school later, if at all, even though young children can absorb it and quickly understand the approach,” Jonathan Schor says. “The aim is not to teach a profession but to instill confidence in the children in their ability to do computer programming.”

The CodeMonkey mascot is a monkey that children have to lead along a complicated path to the bananas. It is appropriate for third-graders and older.

“Currently there are 60 lessons of the 120 anticipated to be online by the end of September,” Jonathan Schor says. “The vision is that at the end of the game, CodeMonkey will serve as a platform on which graduates will create quizzes and program little games, and not just with monkeys and bananas.” The company plans to charge an annual fee of $29 from Lesson 61 and beyond.

As for differentiation from competitors, like Scratch (http://scratch.mit.edu/) and Tynker (tynker.com), Schor says, These companies are focused on teaching kids to think like programmers by playing puzzles and dragging words, and they invented a language for this purpose. Their solutions are very good, but they are suitable for preschoolers and exhaust themselves quickly. And in fact, children do not write a line of code. CodeMonkey requires writing from the first lesson. It demands the precision required for formal programming and we use real language (CoffeeScript) for that.”

Virtual calculator and math tutor (Simplisico.co.il)

Math studies in Israel are in crisis. Only 9,000 high-school students study math at the highest level; math teachers are in short supply, and Israeli math students place poorly compared with their peers elsewhere in the developed world. A recent study by TheMarker showed that 58% of 11th- and 12th-grade students take private lessons to prepare for the high-school-matriculation exams, and 54% of those get help in math.

The Israeli startup Simplisico, founded by Offir Goldstein and Idan Givati, provides a virtual private tutor to math students. A calculator on the site enables students to enter specific math problems and get solutions with simple or more detailed explanations. It is currently in the pilot stage.

“The plan is to incorporate more features of private teaching” to identify specific students’ problems, Goldstein explains. The site will use video clips for explanation, and give students the option to share problems and solutions in learning groups. The goal is that the students will have no reason to leave the site for additional math knowledge.”

`Flipped Classrooms’ to reduce achievement gaps (hebrewkhan.org)

The Khan Academy was founded by a Bangladeshi-American economist, Salman Khan, who got his start in the project by creating a collection of YouTube videos explaining math problems in an effort to help his cousin with her homework. In 2009, it became a startup providing instruction on a range of subjects and has attracted funding from Google and Bill Gates’s foundation. It provides light and colorful content, including scientific explanations presented clearly.

Two years ago, efforts to create a Hebrew version began. “We started as Khan’s translators,” says Yarden Assa, director of Here and Now, a non-profit organization responsible for the project. “Gradually we have become an independent that in addition to translating the platform creates lessons and content adapted to the local population.”

The Khan platform currently provides the base for major changes that the organization is bringing about in peripheral areas of Israel. Khan’s “Flipped Classrooms” program provides recorded lessons that children work through at their own pace at home. In class, they work together on joint projects under the direction of their teachers. Classroom time is directed at discussing, processing and absorbing the material that the children are taught with the help of the videos that they watch at home.

“The platform includes not only movies but also a complete learning system that allows teachers to view statistics of their students’ progress and reward them for doing tasks, as individuals or groups, using virtual medals,” says Assa.

Khan’s method aims to help reduce the achievement gaps among students in Israel, which are among the highest in the world.

A site upgrade next week will add new content — the popular math video series of Eli Netzer — and integrate a semantic search engine for mathematics and science developed by the Israeli startup Symbolab.