EDUKWEST Sunday Review

Sunday Review: Udacity’s Magic Formula, Tracking Students and $6.2m for Speakaboos

EDUKWEST Sunday Review

Udacity’s Thrun is close to creating Magic Formula

This week Udacity and San Jose State University shared the data behind their summer pilot program which indicate that student’s pass rates have improved. Compared with the spring pilot program students who scored a C or better were up whereas retention went down due to more flexibility offered to students who wanted to drop out.

According to SJSU and Udacity, key factors for this increased performance were the addition of more staff in the summer pilot, a new pacing methodology that warns students about poor performance and more time with the professors.

Since SJSU suspended another pilot program with Udacity due to low student performance, Thrun and his startup have taken in a lot of criticism. In a recent interview Thrun stated that he and his team are now close to a magic formula that will enable Udacity to build

“an online version of education that really works, that has great retention, great outcomes of education and really reaches people — not just the world’s most motivated 1% — but can be made to work for many more people.”

Thrun touches on an important point here. Self-guided or motivated learning is clearly not for everyone. I am sure that it is more than 1% who can succeed in this form of learning but clearly most learners need other forms of guidance and motivation along the way. Building a system that works for all learners is a hard nut to crack and if Thrun really succeeds it indeed would be a game changer.

What surprises me a bit though is the underlying notion that these findings were new or even revolutionary as the term ‘magic formula’ might suggest. Distance learning in its various forms has been in place for some 20 years, data and research about motivation, student retention and the challenges of online only exist already. (But I guess that not how it’s done.)

School District tracks students on Social Media

After a student had committed suicide over bullying, the Glendale Unified School District hired a social media monitoring service to track conversations of students that may indicate wrong behavior like cyberbulling, drug abuse and resulting suicidal tendencies. Needless to say that students are not happy about “being spied on”.

Of course, Internet rule number 1 applies: everything you put on the Internet is public by default, especially on social networks. Hence the district and Geo Listening are not spying but harvesting and processing publicly available data points to draw their conclusions. Apparently, they were already able to prevent one suicide in a pilot program initiated directly after the suicide which resulted in the lawsuit by the parents.

The idea is to stay one step ahead of students but I predict that kids and teenagers will eventually find ways to circumvent the tracking, either by using other ways of communication or by encrypting their messages.

I also think that the narrative is totally wrong and that parents if anyone should be obliged to track their children on the Internet, not the school. When the duties of the education system now extend into students’ private lives, they could also move in directly, no need to stay with the parents anymore. But that rant is for my personal blog. Moving right along.

Speakaboos raises $6.2 million Series A

According to TechCrunch Speakaboos, a startup that creates interactive storybooks for children raised $6.2 million from a group of different investors. Speakaboos offers a subscription service that offers access to over 150 children books by publishers like The Jim Henson Company, Pearson, Dr. Seuss, Penguin, Charlesbridge, Abrams and independent authors.

The stories offer different ways of interaction, children can read along with the narrator, interact and play with characters and choose their preferred topics from princesses to monsters.

As this Sunday Review started with data points, here are some from Speakaboos: children read an average of 40 books per month, spend 3 hours reading and complete 85% of books they started. On the other hand, 75% of parents or schools that subscribed for the service are retaining their subscriptions at the end of 12 months. Schools can purchase bundled licences based on the number of students.

All in all, pretty impressive numbers showing that reading is not dead and that tablets are the perfect devices for this kind of “edutainment”.

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