Does a test prep company reveal the future of education?

by Bruce Kasanoff on October 13, 2009

“Every single one of you has something you’re good at,” President Obama told America’s school children earlier this week. “Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.”

He might have gone on to say that your strengths and weaknesses vary widely. Some of you learn by talking, others by doing, or by reading. Some of you learn very fast, and get bored easily; others need repetition and reinforcement to master a piece of content. He might have said that traditional classroom education can’t begin to accommodate your differences, especially as budget pressures are pushing class sizes higher and higher.

But Obama was pumping up the kids, not pitching other politicians, and his speech mainly served to remind me that we owe children a better education than they have been getting. Fortunately, I have seen the future of education, and it is embodied by a rapidly growing SAT and ACT test preparation company called PrepMe.

PrepMe combines truly personalized online content with actual human tutors who check in with students online. This hybrid approach delivers the best of both worlds: it allows people to do what they do best – motivate other people, for example – and computers to also focus on their strengths, such as customizing the content each student receives.

PrepMe is an example of what authors Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson call disruptive technology applied to the education industry. In their book, Disrupting Class, they write that disruptive technologies are not as good as the technologies already on the market, but they are less expensive and easier to use. They disrupt the trajectory of established products and services in a market. Personal computers were a disruptive technology, not nearly as powerful as mainframe computers, but far cheaper and easier to use.

The PrepMe service is not as capable as a full time classroom teacher; no computer is today as smart as a person. But PrepMe excels at finding each student’s weaknesses and immediately customizing lesson plans to turn such weaknesses into strengths. It is far cheaper and simpler for Prepme to do this than to ask a classroom teacher to take on such a task. In fact, it would be virtually impossible for a classroom teacher to do this.

A high school venture that keeps growing

PrepMe has a fascinating history that embodies the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation. Basically, the two founders started the company in high school and it has been growing ever since.

Karan Goel and Avichal Garg – now CEO and CTO of the firm – each aced their college entrance exams. Avichal says he never prepared, but then took notice when his younger sister struggled with a test prep service that seemed to make no sense.

“Karan pitched the idea to me,” says Avichal. “We wanted to generate some income and the only thing we could claim to be good at was taking tests. I had programming knowledge, and it occurred to us that there were all these cool things you could do.”

It’s important to understand that the two founders were smart kids who were utterly bored by classroom instruction. Avichal admits to skipping two-thirds of his classes because it was faster to just read the book and show up for the tests. The pair also realized that other kids had the opposite problem in class; the typical pace was too fast for them. So the idea of personalized instruction was with them from the very beginning.

Along with a third partner who has now left the firm, Avichal says, “We set out to codify the sorts of things intelligent people do. We started doing private tutoring, earning $50 an hour, or sometimes even more.”

In 2001, they took the cash they’d earned and bought third party software to put their curriculum online. By this time, Avichal was enrolled at Stanford and Karan at University of Chicago. They discovered that eLearning software wasn’t very good. “It was targeted at the corporate training market,” says Avichal, “And the people paying for it weren’t the same people who were using it. But customers started finding us and paying for our online services.

“In theory, school was our life. In reality, we were spending 30-40 hours a week on this. The summer of 2001, we didn’t take internships and worked on the business instead.”

Since you probably have other things to learn today, I’m going to speed things up a bit. Working in two different states over the past eight years, the pair built the company. They jettisoned the third party software because it did not allow them to personalize instruction, and wrote their own version that delivers remarkable personalization. They started getting press – a lot of it – and the press generated more income, which they used to hire staff for the first time and further improve their offerings. After a few years of having full time jobs elsewhere, they were able to 100% focus on Prepme.

Today, they have just over 20 full time employees, plus about 50 tutors, most of whom are students at Stanford or Chicago. (All the tutors aced their entrance exams, too.)

The customers get bigger, but the focus remains one student at a time

PrepMe still serves individual students – you can sign up today online – but today they are also serving entire schools and school districts. Interestingly, they are not selling their services merely as preparation for college entrance exams, but also as a mechanism for supporting teachers and ensuring that students with weak areas can actually learn the content they need to learn.

Avichal explains, “For example, a charter school might buy a license for every kid to use our services. There is a trend in education that states are moving towards national standards, and in some states the SAT or ACT is the standard. It just doesn’t make sense for a state to develop its own proficiency test.”

The State of Maine, for example, is a PrepMe client.

The firm recently brought in Eva Prokop as VP of Business development. She has worked for The Princeton Review and deeply understands how the needs of students, teachers and school districts are evolving.

Reinforcing a previous article on NowPossible (“Top schools lag poorer schools?”), Eva says that the school systems that face challenges are the most likely to adopt PrepMe today. Such systems might have a wide disparity between their best and worst students, or they may be failing to meet state or national standards. In contrast, affluent school districts with good outcomes – they’re getting kids into good colleges – are slower to embrace and adopt a personalized approach to education.

“We’re delivering true personalization,” says Eva. “There is a real difference between customization and personalization. Other vendors can customize a lot with respect to the way that their software works in a given school district, but once the students start using the software, they are all getting the same treatment. With us, we focus on each student’s weaknesses; that’s where the leverage is. By the second day of using PrepMe, students in the same classroom are working on different content.”

Wait a minute – isn’t it bad to let kids in the same classroom work on different areas? Won’t that lead to chaos? No, because the course content itself doesn’t change. The teacher doesn’t stop teaching. It’s just that in their personal work time, students get to practice what they most need to practice, and learn what they most need to learn.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

Why are services like PrepMe the future of education? Simply stated, classroom instruction is vastly overused as an educational tactic. It works wonderfully for some purposes, such as holding lively discussions that force students to form and defend an intelligent point of view. But it works horribly for accommodating differences in learning styles and pace of learning. These flaws will become more obvious as budget issues force school districts to put more kids in each classroom.

Decades ago at a large university, I took a self-paced statistics course. Students learned each module on their own, then visited a classroom managed by teaching assistants to take a module test. When you passed one section, you went on to the next. When you had questions, the TAs answered them on the spot. It was wonderful! I finished the course one month early.

For many students, and many courses, this sort of approach makes much more sense than classroom instruction, especially when you throw in the capability to deliver differentiated instruction via digital technology.

This approach also makes sense as a support system for classroom instruction. Services such as PrepMe can provide teachers with ongoing reports about the progress of each student. Without the work of grading additional tests, a teacher can discover precisely what each student knows, and where he or she needs help.

Eva says that, “When we have the opportunity to explain that we are trying to give students a skill, not just preparing them for a test, it really resonates with teachers and administrators.”

School systems are slow to change; our educational system hasn’t changed much in the past forty years. But in Disrupting Change, the authors use actual data to plot the pace of adoption of disruptive technologies in education. If I’m reading their data properly, sometime between 2018 and 2020, true student-centric differentiated instruction will be just as common as traditional, monolithic classroom instruction. In the meantime, innovators such as Prepme will be delivering welcome relief to students and teachers.

Help is on the way.

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