According to a report from McGraw-Hill Education, the use of mobile devices for studying was on the rise in 2013 and 2014. 81% of the 1,700 college students surveyed used mobile devices like smartphones and tablets making them the second popular choice behind laptops.
Chipmaker Qualcomm announced the acquisition of mobile learning platform EmpoweredU for an undisclosed sum. Founded in 2011, EmpoweredU pivoted and changed names several times before settling on its current model, a mobile centered learning platform based upon the Canvas LMS. The EmpoweredU team will be integrated in Qualcomm’s other mobile focused education initiatives.
The company also announced that it has invested in Wowo, a mobile edtech startup through its new $150 million strategic fund for China which focuses on Internet, e-commerce, semiconductor, education and health. Wowo is targeting the pre-school English market.
At first glance these announcements seem to be a bit out of focus. Why does a hardware company want to be in the edtech space?
This week busuu made the news having achieved 20 million downloads. And while this surely is a nice number we all (should) know that vanity numbers alone don’t say anything about your business. Just ask Livemocha. Luckily busuu has more to offer than the glitzy baits that get you on TechCrunch.
If you look deeper into the press release you should notice something that is far more interesting.
The general shift to mobile learning is further demonstrated by the fact that busuu users now complete 33% more exercises via the app than online.
There has been written a lot about learning sprints and mobile learners but having hard data to prove that people are actually learning and completing tasks on their mobile devices is pretty fascinating.
If you take the time and look at people during their commute in public transport you will notice that over the years the number of people looking down on a smartphone of some sort has risen dramatically. It has become a somewhat personal zone of privacy in an increasingly noisy and hectic environment. And this is what makes it perfect for learning sprints.
You know exactly how much time you’ll have to spend and frankly, there is nothing much you could do otherwise. I mean talking to people? Come on. Hence people either check their email; social media or catch up with the latest news. And while some people add a round of Words with Friends (is this still a thing?) or any other popular mobile game, some actually use this time bubble to learn a language.
It really is a perfect learning environment. Nothing that may distract you and a fixed amount of time to complete a task. When you are doing the same thing at home in front of your computer, a lot can and will happen to interrupt the learning from spouses to children and pets. But don’t write off learning on a computer just yet.
I asked busuu’s co-founder and CEO Bernhard Niesner whether there was a difference in the time people spend learning on mobile devices compared to computers and he told me that the session time on a computer is twice as high than on mobile devices. On the other hand, busuu now has more users that learn with its mobile products.
Learners now can also further personalize their learning experience by setting their own goals. Niesner told me that for now most users choose the beginner levels which might indicate that people find language learning more entertaining when they are not drilled too hard.
This of course leads to the inevitable question of how serious most people are about learning a foreign language and what most learners feel is good enough, but I guess this has always been the case. For the vast majority language learning was a tedious task. Now startups like bussu, babbel.com, MindSnacks and others turned the basics into an enjoyable, game like experience.
More serious learners will always go deeper and probably prefer learning on a computer where it is easier to type, interact with more complex tasks or set up a video call with a language partner. Mobile learning is an essential part of the overall process, it can be an “entry drug” but for now it won’t replace the web based experience.
Now that is indeed something that does not happen everyday. A German startup acquires an US based startup for parts, in this case language learning startup babbel.com from Berlin the user base of San Francisco based PlaySay which is pretty telling as neither the PlaySay team nor the technology will be integrated into babbel.com products. Only PlaySay’s founder Ryan Meinzer, whom I interviewed in October 2011, is going to join babbel.com in the role of an advisor for the US market.
So let’s break this one down. PlaySay started at TechCrunch Disrupt as a Facebook application for learning Spanish, and eventually pivoted its way to a mobile application to learn Spanish. It even ranked #1 in the education category of the iTunes Store in ten different countries including the US at one point.
But babbel.com does not seem to be interested in the technology or applications but merely in the PlaySay users who now have 45 days to switch over to using babbel.com instead.
babbel.com is part of a group of three language learning startups which all emerged at about the same time and have battled to become the next Rosetta Stone. Besides babbel.com the others are Livemocha out of Seattle and busuu who just relocated their HQ from Madrid to London after raising a Series A round.
Similar to busuu, babbel.com did not take on tons of funding at this point which probably helped the team a lot to figure out the business model and how to sell best. A strong factor in the growth of both busuu and babbel.com have been the respective mobile applications. In fact, babbel.com’s first acquisition was the mobile app developing startup that had built the first babbel.com applications.
The only real problem babbel.com seems to have had is growing its footprint and finding success in new territories. Both Livemocha and busuu succeeded early on to grab market share in key markets like the US and South America.
Taking all this into consideration I suppose that babbel.com got PlaySay for a pretty reasonable price as the press release states
Deal fueled from operative cash flow.
PlaySay have only raised $820k since 2008 which means that even if babbel.com paid a bit more, like in the range of $1.5m to $2m it was still kind of cheap. It also shows that PlaySay did not manage to get enough traction to make it worthwhile for the founder and his team to keep on working on the product or to raise another round of funding. I think the following sentence from the press release why PlaySay sold to babbel.com is pretty telling.
“It’s fun, social and mobile, just like PlaySay…only better!”
I don’t know how many users PlaySay actually has in its database but if we assume that 1 million people have downloaded the application or signed up for the Facebook application at one point, babbel.com may have paid about $2 per user. I am also not sure what the cost per acquisition for a language learner is these days but I guess it’s much higher, maybe in the $10 range.
Of course, babbel.com can’t be sure that all of the PlaySay users will happily switch to the new service and then also pay for it but in the end it might be enough to get the babbel.com Spanish app ranking in the US iTunes Store which will eventually lead to better exposure and new users.
2011 was a banner year for San Francisco-based mobile learning startup and EDUKWEST favorite, MindSnacks. Among many exciting accomplishments, their addictive language learning applications were named among the best iPhone education apps of the year in Apple’s App Store Rewind. I recently paid the company’s studio a visit, as I was eager to find out what MindSnacks has in store for 2012.
Just in time for the Chinese Year of the Dragon (4710, beginning on January 23, 2012), the latest release from MindSnacks teaches over 1400 words and phrases in Mandarin Chinese, including greetings, numbers, and days of the week. The app has 50 levels of content, and is appropriate for a wide range of language learners, from novice to intermediate. If you are less familiar with Chinese characters, you can start in pinyin (phonetic) mode – which is very helpful to learn basic pronunciation. For those of you practicing your reading skills (like myself, a somewhat lapsed native Mandarin speaker), the six mini games can also display simplified characters.
Mandarin was the first language tackled by MindSnacks that did not use the Roman alphabet (other apps available include Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, German, and ESL – available for seven languages). Another characteristic of Mandarin that makes it particularly challenging for second language learners is that it is tonal. In a tonal language (other examples include Thai and Vietnamese), syllables with the exact same pronunciation (e.g., ma) may have entirely different meanings based on their pitch. In Mandarin Chinese, there are four tones (as well as “neutral”). In order to address this fundamental aspect of Mandarin language learning, the MindSnacks team did extensive research in the development of their new gesture based mini game, Galactic, as detailed on their official blog. I won’t go into much detail here, as the company has already described their process eloquently. I highly recommend reading their post!
I agree that a gesture-based game is ideal for learning tones, as these exact gestures have been familiar to me throughout my schooling in Mandarin Chinese from childhood throughout my university years. As I discussed with co-founder and CEO Jesse Pickard, gesture has been shown to enhance word and concept learning in general. Moreover, I can attest anecdotally that I rely on gesture when trying to remember how to write a Chinese character (and have also seen others do the same), which also supports the idea that learning and memory of Mandarin also has a spatial component. From a developer’s standpoint, I think that Galactic truly takes advantage of the touchscreen in a unique game mechanic. The space theme is also visually and auditorily appealing, creating an all around fun (and educational!) multisensory experience.
From a learning science perspective, I appreciate that fundamentals of memory are taken into account in the development of all of MindSnacks apps. As you advance through the levels, you may notice that words and phrases from previous lessons reappear throughout the game. This concept is referred to as “spacing” or “spaced testing” in the memory literature, which has been consistently shown to aid long-term retention of new words and concepts.
All in all, I think that 2012 has a lot of great things in store for MindSnacks. The company looks forward to introducing apps in exciting new content areas, as well as adding more social features to their games. I will also be returning to the MindSnacks studio in the not-too-distant future to give EDUKWEST readers a tour and a chance to meet the team in a sneak peek into life at a startup.