By Jeffrey J. Selingo
This article is part of a series profiling the next generation of higher education innovators and leaders.
Nearly every start-up begins when someone identifies a problem, figures out a solution, and turns that fix into a new company for others facing similar issues. That’s how Dror Ben-Naim came to start Smart Sparrow, a company that builds instructional tools and courseware, and, in doing so, ended up carving a pioneering trail in the hot field of adaptive learning.
The story begins in 2004, when Ben-Naim was an undergraduate studying physics and computer science at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. He was a teaching assistant in a photonics laboratory and was frustrated by how little students in the course knew about science and how to operate the equipment. He was constantly repeating himself, and the students were wasting valuable time in the lab. If only they could practice on their own time at home in a virtual lab, he thought, they could come to class better prepared.
This was well before the idea of “flipped classrooms”—where students watch lectures at home and then work on problem solving in the classroom—became a popular concept in education circles. Ben-Naim knew some programming language, so he built a virtual lab designed to give students personalized feedback based on the experiments they performed.
The professor teaching the course fell in love with the tool and so did other faculty members in physics. Soon the virtual lab was being used by 1,200 students in first-year physics courses at the University of New South Wales.
But there was one problem: professors who lacked programming skills didn’t want to run to Ben-Naim each time they needed changes to the lab materials. They wanted it to work like PowerPoint, where they could easily adapt the program to their needs. Ben-Naim quipped that “seven years later I walked back with the answer for them” after finishing his Ph.D. thesis in artificial intelligence and machine learning that formed the foundation for Smart Sparrow. (The name comes from “Dror,” which translates from Hebrew to both “freedom” and the “humble sparrow,” and to Ben-Naim the combination of those two ideas seemed like a good beginning for an education company.)
The focus of his thesis was on giving professors the power to create their own adaptive learning tools. At that time, and even now, many education companies released products that forced professors to conform their teaching methods to the needs of the technology rather than the other way around, a constraint that often ended up provoking hostility toward new classroom tools for teaching and learning.
“Our goal was never to replace the professor,” said Ben-Naim, who noted that his mother is a teacher. “We thought of it as supporting the professor.”
Today, Smart Sparrow is a 50-person company based in San Francisco and Sydney, Australia. It has developed two well-known introductory science classes on its platform, “Habitable Worlds” and “BioBeyond.” Both courses are built on the premise that students find general science courses boring because these classes focus more on mastery of facts delivered from professor to student than on the learning that emerges from students’ own curiosity-fueled exploration. In “Habitable Worlds,” for instance, students learn about space exploration, climate science, and planets through game-like simulations that lead them to find life elsewhere when their existing environment is no longer sustainable.
Both courses were originally designed for Arizona State University to improve large lecture courses for nonscience majors. “We’re building courses around asking questions instead of around following a syllabus and memorizing facts,” said Ben-Naim.
Smart Sparrow is also working on building similar question-based chemistry and physics courses—in essence creating a new introductory science curriculum. “Inquiry-based, active education is the best way to teach and learn,” Ben-Naim added, “because students understand why they’re learning something as they’re doing it.”
The science courses caught the attention of Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation, which has challenged educators and technologists in 2014 to create the next generation of courseware. With $4.5 million awarded from the foundation through that competition, Smart Sparrow is using its platform to develop what is known as the Inspark Science Network. The network is an association of professors who will share content and technology to use in their classes and collaborate on course design. It is modeled after a similar network Ben-Naim developed for medical education in Australia.
Networks are an important component of both learning and innovation today, Ben-Naim said. “They are the way knowledge now works,” he explained. In the modern education era, he believes, knowledge is not just what is in a professor’s brain, a textbook, or a student’s notebook, but knowledge is distributed throughout networks that are increasingly digital and global. A big part of learning for students these days is figuring out how to navigate those networks to advance their knowledge.
Meanwhile, networks of professors enable the dissemination of innovative teaching practices and new pedagogical approaches across their disciplines, Ben-Naim said. Innovation is a buzzword on campuses, but too often institutional leaders fail in their attempts to remake courses because they attempt change at the macro level (institution-wide) rather than starting at the micro level (within an academic discipline). While Smart Sparrow has started with redesigning introductory science courses, the underlying pedagogical patterns are applicable to any course at a university.
“One discipline at a time is easier than institutions,” Ben-Naim said. “An administrator can’t dictate to an academic unit how to teach, but if there are good examples from departments at other schools then professors will adopt them.”
And not just adopt them but also improve them. That’s the value George Siemens, a prominent innovator in education, sees in what Ben-Naim has built. Instructors have long copied their teaching methods or a syllabus from colleagues. The value of Smart Sparrow, Siemens said, is that it allows professors to easily tweak something to best address the needs of their particular students while retaining the instructor as the primary player in the learning equation.
Many other adaptive learning platforms, he noted, eliminate the teacher. “Adaptive learning needs to create adaptive learners, and that’s where the professor complements the technology to show students how to navigate the ambiguity they’ll face in school and in life,” said Siemens, who is executive director of the Learning Innovation and Networked Knowledge Research Lab at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Smart Sparrow is just one of many ed-tech companies with leaders like Ben-Naim promising the next big thing, especially in the area of adaptive learning. But unlike many of its counterparts, Smart Sparrow seems to be succeeding with university leaders where others are struggling.
“It probably helps that Dror has a Ph.D.,” Siemens noted. “He’s an academic at heart with wide-ranging interests that appeal to scholars he’s trying to sell to.”
For his part, Ben-Naim described three reasons that Smart Sparrow is able to break through the slew of technology products inundating the higher-education market right now. First, he said, the company was founded with the needs of the end users in mind—students who need practice outside the lab and professors who want to customize their teaching tools. While many other ed-tech products also emerged from the experience of entrepreneurs as students, these start-ups, unlike Ben-Naim’s often don’t spend time with today’s students and professors to understand their most pressing needs and how a new product might integrate with what they’re already using.
Second, too many start-ups think that just because they developed an easy-to-use tool, professors and administrators should be able to click a link or download an app and start using it immediately with little assistance.
“The prevailing thought in the tech world is that there should be little onboarding,” Ben-Naim said. “But in truth, you have to be super aggressive about going to the teacher and spending time with them. If you do, they’ll become your best sales people because they’ll vouch for it with their friends and colleagues.”
Third, the mindset in technology is to build products that scale. But higher education, especially in the United States, is highly diverse and fractured with a mixture of institutional types and governance structures. That diversity requires products that can be customized for the needs of professors at research universities as well as instructors at community colleges.
“Education is an inherently complex area of human endeavor, so you can’t just copy what works for e-commerce or digital marketing platforms and hope for the best,” Ben-Naim said. “You have to constantly think about why someone would use this when they’ve been teaching the same way for decades.”
It’s not that Smart Sparrow doesn’t build products to scale. After all, that is the idea behind Inspark—to create a network of sharing science resources with educators around the globe. But for Ben-Naim getting the nuts and bolts of building adaptive courseware right was more important than mindlessly following the fast-growth playbook of Silicon Valley start-ups. Recall, it took him seven years to finish his thesis and finally provide an answer to that professor at New South Wales who wanted to customize his lab tool.
“I want every student doing digital work to be in a guided, active learning environment because that is the right way to teach and learn,” said Ben-Naim. “And to get there you need time and patience.”