The startup world is seriously displeased with the status quo in higher education. Brainworth, a scrappy startup out of Australia, is the latest to throw its hat in the ring, taking a novel approach to solving the problem.
Brainworth is a company two years in the making which aims to use a visual gaming environment to map the knowledge in a given subject for students. It helps guide students to visualize how far away they are from mastering a subject — e.g. two hours, two weeks, or two years — and more importantly, understand what the information can be used it for once its acquired. The company also uses a peer review process to ensure that content is always evolving and improving.
Y Combinator founder Paul Graham called replacing universities a frighteningly ambitious startup idea and dared only the bravest to tackle the issue. Paypal co-founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel [Disclosure: Thiel is also a PandoDaily investor] declared a bubble in higher education and challenged 20 students under 20-years-old to drop out or forgo college entirely for $100,000 Thiel Fellowships.
Now, no less than two months after competitor The Minerva Project announced a sterling management and advisory team along with its $25 million financing — the largest seed funding ever completed in the history of Benchmark Capital — unheralded Brainworth is ready to introduce itself to the world.
Brainworth’s admittedly ambitious goal is to make education more accessible and engaging while removing restrictions based on cost and the limits of physical classrooms. The young and underfunded founders have some enormous obstacles ahead of them. That said, they’re tackling a real problem.
Traditional universities are notoriously expensive, time consuming, and one-size-fits-all. Unfortunately, the current online alternatives struggle dramatically with engagement and, as a result, face reported drop off rates up to 80 percent. Brainworth tackles both these issues by making its learning process interactive and constantly evolving.
The subject which Brainworth’s founders know best, and where they plan to focus their initial lessons, is computer science with an emphasis on artificial intelligence. Students will arrive at the online university and stipulate a specific goal, such as “learn artificial intelligence.” From there they will be given a range of basic to more advanced tasks to complete and can choose a starting point commensurate with their abilities.
The results of each task appear directly in the game environment. One simple example is the programming of a snake which will live within the game. The company is building social and collaborative elements into the system. In this example, students can see which of their friends are working on the snake building task and can ask for help. After both are finished, students can compete against each other.
Brainworth will provide the starting curriculum but will crowdsource suggestions from its users, such as alternate problem sets and solutions. The most highly rated will form the new path to the knowledge goal. A core part of its technology is the ability for Brainworth’s curriculum to adapt both over time when new techniques for learning arise to ensure the user always sees the most relevant content.
The company plans to integrate with existing universities as well.
“There is a lot of great content available, but finding the right content at the right time is not easy,” says co-founder Ben Sand. “We see our long term role as a context provider — we will help people to find the right content at the right time and present the intellectual and social context of information.”
Brainworth has a radical view on the monetization of its virtual university. Rather than charging the students to attend, the founders hope to charge companies to identify and hire the best students. When I first heard this plan, I was completely skeptical. The more I think about it, the more plausible it sounds.
Leading companies already spend millions of dollars to recruit top candidates from elite universities. By the nature of the gaming environment created by Brainworth, the company will know more about each student’s skill set, rate of learning, and how well they work in a teams than any university before.
This information is invaluable to a hiring company and certainly worth paying for. With the long term per-student costs of operating Brainworth sure to be less than a brick-and-mortar university, the only remaining question is whether the figures work out profitably.
Brainworth plans to roll out its private beta in less than two months. The founders are currently working to establish partnerships at prestigious universities around the world. Their initial goal is to prove value to both students and would-be employers at the highest levels of the educational mountain.
The company has been entirely bootstrapped to date, while Sand and his co-founder Dave Wilcox complete their undergraduate education. The pair even invented their own $2 per day diet which they claim is nutritionally complete, although maddening.
They are currently exploring a variety of traditional and non-traditional means of financing the project, including raising institutional capital, applying for government grants, and potentially even crowdfunding.
The founders readily admit that replacing traditional education is an ambitious goal, so they’ve set out to build a supplementary product initially. At this stage, the product is definitely coding education, by coders for coders. That may be enough to produce a sustainable and narrowly disruptive business.
To accomplish its ultimate goal, which is to rethink the way we present information, Brainworth will likely need to become more approachable and relatable to the masses. We are looking at an early product, and there’s plenty of time to aggregate lessons and create a more widely appealing environment.
“Most people don’t need to know the quadratic formula, but its something everyone is taught,” says Sand. “It may be more valuable to teach practical skills like statistics. Mathematics is important, but understanding how to apply it to the real world, rather than how to do the nitty gritty calculations may be more important.”
As the company concludes in its promotional video (below) “Education is changing. For good.” The next few years will hold more clues as to which direction it moves.