Monday, November 25, 2013

Education + Technology = Win-Win

Start-up: CueThink 
Location: Boston

CueThink aims to provide better engagement with students regarding their education and more data for teachers on students' performance. It's a win-win situation for all, on a national issue close to home for many. We sat down with CEO Sheela Sethuraman for her thoughts on the future of mobile and education.

1. What is your “elevator pitch”?
A number of students lose interest in mathematics by the time they reach middle school. They either experience "math anxiety" or feel they are not adequately challenged. While the Common Core State Standards, adopted by 48 states in the U.S., emphasizes higher order thinking and problem solving, schools continue to focus on procedural skills. At CueThink, we are building an iPad app called Quantum to develop math problem solving skills for middle and high school students. We are leveraging what students enjoy doing outside of classroom - social media, gaming and content creation - and bringing it into the classroom. The core of our platform is the creation, curation and evaluation of student "thinklets" - video vignettes of a learners' thinking process as they solve problems. When we tested our app in different classrooms, more than 90% of the students said they preferred Quantum because of the following reasons: "I can focus more when I am recording", "I can double check and record and get other people's input", "It is very useful on getting other people’s perspective and their views on the problems”. For the students, we help develop systematic problem-solving skills, enable sharing and learning from peers, improve math language and create a rich portfolio of strategies. For teachers, we provide opportunities to observe every student's thinking process, obtain samples of typical student errors, engage expert and novice learners alike and meet Math Common Core expectations. We plan to make the app free for all students to use and charge for access to the "teacher dashboard" where teachers can create or customize content, create learning pathways and view recommendations on instruction based on student interactions.

2. How did you get started?
We have always been intrigued by the "process of learning" rather than correct or wrong answers. There is a great deal of difference between how a novice student approaches a problem versus an expert student. We wanted to capture that process so that students (and teachers) can learn from their friends' "aha moments" as well as from typical errors and missteps made. Thus emerged the idea of CueThink. We pulled together a great team of designers, developers and content specialists, and raised funding from the National Science Foundation to prototype an iPad application. We also were fortunate to be accepted into PayPal's StartTank incubator, which has given us access to top-notch business and product experts. Our pilot tests in three different classrooms – public, private and charter – has validated our assumptions about student engagement and we are now refining our product and go-to-market strategy.

3. Where do you see the mobile landscape in 5 years?
In education, the mobile landscape is going to transform how students learn. Apple sold 1 million iPads to K-12 just between April – June 2012 and companies like Google are aggressively entering into the education market with Google Play. At CueThink, we are leveraging the 1:1 trend in classrooms where every student has his or her own device in the classrooms. Over a quarter of a million students are already using the iPad in a 1:1 model and this is expected to grow rapidly, doubling every year. Furthermore, the BYOD or Bring Your Own Device trend in high school allows students to bring their smartphones and devices to the classrooms. Today, textbooks and worksheets are being placed on these devices. But this sort of "substitution" will be replaced by "redefinition" as more and more products are built to make full use of what's unique about mobile devices – portability, networking and interactivity. A number of schools are bypassing the purchase of laptops and desktops and moving directly to the tablets. Some are abandoning the purchase of print textbooks in favor of eBooks. We must worry about how this will increasing the "digital divide" for schools that cannot even afford to hire good teachers or purchase textbooks. We also need more data on how learning is impacted with these new models. These devices will work best in the hands of driven and committed teachers, else they will end up gathering dust in the back of a classroom. Our goal with CueThink is to not only provide a compelling math solution for problem-solving but also help teachers figure out how best to integrate it into their curriculum.

4. Any wisdom you can share for aspiring female entrepreneurs?
Building a startup is hard – whether you are male or female. For female entrepreneurs in particular, I would say bring your "A game" at all times. You have to demonstrate leadership and commitment, in addition to your passion and knowledge of the domain. This cannot be seen as a hobby, as something that you might abandon if the forces don't align. You will need the support of numerous people on this journey - your team, mentors, advisors, customers and investors. Your passion and energy will draw them in, but what will make them go to bat for you in your ability to articulate your vision, your willingness to course correct and your decisiveness when faced with multiple options.

You can keep up with CueThink on Facebook and Twitter.


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