Openwords EdTech Startup Profile EDUKWEST

Openwords – EdTech Startup Profile

Name: Openwords
Headquarters: Bloomington, USA
Vertical: Language Learning
Tech: Web App, Mobile App

Introduce your startup and give a short description of what you are doing.

Openwords is building a foreign language learning app with open data. Openwords will be free and open source and we’re committed to learner data privacy.

Openwords has mined content for >1000 languages. 中文, to Abenaki, to English…
Openwords has open data, so we can mine existing open databases (e.g. Wiktionary) and re-purpose that data for language learning.

Openwords app:
The Openwords app design has different learning modules. We have single word problems like hearing, review, self-evaluate recognition, type-evaluation. We have simple sentence translation problems in development, and a handwriting learning module for Chinese in development utilizing the Wikimedia Stroke Order project.

As Openwords develops new learning modules or games, we can add them in. We will be open source, so others can build learning modules as well.

Who are the founders, how did you meet, what are your different roles in the startup.

Openwords Team

The Founder & CEO (me, Mark Bogonovich) is a scientist and educator. I’m a biologist by training with ten years of teaching experience. Shenshen Han, the CTO of Openwords is a veteran in EdTech, working in the Creativity Labs at Indiana University, building software teaching children biology. Shenshen has two masters degrees in computer science and ten years experience managing large international teams.

Our roles:
I developed the concept for Openwords, and have been the person organizing and motivating our team in Bloomington, IN. Shenshen and I recognized we shared similar values and commitment to open education. Shenshen is responsible for most implementation & development. Openwords also has a strong group of UX masters students.

How was the idea for your startup born?

Here is how the idea for Openwords originated. I became interested in learning languages for personal reasons. My partner is a native speaker of Chinese. I realized that many languages get overlooked by mobile developers, and that in fact these languages add up to a lot of under-served people (Infographic #1).

Openwords is an application of the data scraping methods I applied in biology in my doctoral research, but to the problem of providing free and open language learning educational content for all peoples.

Here is the basic plan:

  1. Find free and open data used for purpose A (Dictionary purposes)
  2. Scrape that data, re-organize the data for purpose B (Mobile Language learning)
  3. Keep it free, improve the data if possible, and share it back.
  4. Enjoy.

What is the main problem in education that you aim to solve.

We aim to solve two problems.

  1. We want free & open source language learning educational material for all languages.
  2. There are few educational resources for many languages, corresponding to a large populations (Infographic #1). Open data is a strategy for scaling learning material to these languages rapidly, because much of the required data already exists.

Openwords will also be available for the major languages too, of course.

Who are your main competitors? What sets you apart from them?

Duolingo is a major competitor. Flash card apps are also competitors, but Openwords is focused on language (like Duolingo).

I recently summarized differences between Openwords and Duolingo.

A) Openwords is open source and free, Duolingo is just free. Duolingo controls its language incubator program. Openwords is opening it up. We build and offer curricula, but you can build your own. You *own* Openwords content.

This alone is sufficient differentiation.

B) The design of Openwords promotes learning autonomy. What does this mean practically? Openwords will allow learners and teachers to choose what words they want to learn. Freedom is not a “trade-off” with guidance. We will have a default curricula, and if you really want, you can still *decide* to be told what to do.

Teacher autonomy is pretty critical for use in classrooms. How could we tell someone with a masters degree in teaching Swahili what to teach?

C) Duolingo uses crowdsourcing to build content. Openwords uses crowdsourced data that *already exists*. That is why we really have mined content for >1000 languages.

In which markets / regions are you active. What markets / regions are next.

Openwords has mined a lot of open data. We are finishing the design and development of the Openwords app that reads this data and presents problems to the learner.

Our incubator program is attracting a lot of interest. If we organize this process well, we should be able to have apps in many languages.

Who is your target audience.

This has been a difficult question for Openwords to answer. In some sense Openwords has obviated the problem of specialization. However, we do recognize that we need to focus on certain regions.

We believe we can focus on China, Hong Kong, Taiwan given Openwords’ ethnic composition.

Second, for many languages for which we now have content, there aren’t any competitors. Our research has shown that these regions are rapidly adopting smartphones.

We’d also like your thoughts.

How do you engage with your target audience. How do you convert them into users of your product.

Language learning is nearly a necessity for many people. People may be learning a language because their spouse is a native speaker of a language, or they may need to understand a language for work.

For many languages, our goal is to simply extend and scale basic functionality to these people. Many people may want to learn English, (e.g. Lao->English) and the do not have mobile resources in their native language.

For language combinations that are more competitive (e.g. English->French), we believe our social good and open data purpose will be persuasive to educators.

Openwords’ freedom orientation should lead to advantages. People can organize curricula as they wish, and edtech developers can develop new learning modules.

What is your business model. How much does your product / service cost.

The Openwords app is free & open source. Our goal is to attach revenue models to the Openwords app that support our open data and social good purpose.

In this end, we are collaborating on a project initiated by Creative Commons called the Open Business Model Canvas (a derivative project of the Business Model Canvas). There is also an active Google group.

Here are two concepts we will be exploring.

  1. Teacher Module. A website (outside of the Openwords application) where teachers can log in, and view the performance data of their students on the Openwords app. Teachers will be able to make sure their students are learning out of the classroom.
  2. Connect learners with job opportunities. We could connect learners to job opportunities, and do so consensually and while respecting learner privacy. We would effectively operate in the recruitment industry. This would also operate as a great motivator for people using the Openwords app.

If you raised funding, how much did you raise. Who are your investors. If not, are you planning to raise funding.

We are raising seed money via Kickstarter. We may raise more money via crowd-vesting. We will only bring in investors who will not interfere with our social mission.

Are there milestones you are especially proud of and would like to share.

Openwords’ back-end is largely designed and implemented. We mined content for >1000 languages (largely from the Wiktionary). Our incubator program has reviewed the English-Farsi data, and flagged errors and other issues. We are now in the process of doing the same in several other languages.

We hope to back-channel any improvements in the Openwords db back to the sources.

We created a prototype app in 2014, ran user testing and decided on a redesign for 2015.

We are also proud about opening up our design process. We have mockups available.

What are the next steps in growing your startup.

  1. Kickstarter.
  2. Finish the Openwords app design and development.
  3. Incubator program & build community. Openwords has a lot of content, particular for word-word translations. We need to create or mine many simple sentence translation problems, and we need to organize our data into curricula.

How can people get in touch with you.


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Kirsten Winkler is the founder and editor of EDUKWEST. She also writes about Social Media, Digital Society and Startups at