Volley Labs Wins $2.3 Million in Seed Funding to Build Learning Algorithms

By Betsy Corcoran

Dubbing itself a “learning technology” startup, San Francisco-based Volley Labs said today that it has raised a $2.3 million seed round from investors including Reach Capital, Zuckerberg Education Ventures and Chinese education services provider, TAL Education Group. Individual angel investors from companies including Apple, Blackboard, Dropbox and Udemy also contributed.

Volley aims to deliver technology that will help students—particularly those taking advanced high school or college curriculum—understand the material they are studying by using their mobile devices to surface relevant, machine-curated explanations from the web. The goal, says co-founder and CEO Zaid Rahman, is to make learning feel “automagical.”

Textbook makers are still pouring billions into creating materials that students don’t find “relevant,” contends Carson Kahn, a co-founder and the product and technical director for Volley. Those same students frequently turn to the web to search for a term or concept, only to get lost in the millions of resources—some valuable and far more others not so much.

Volley’s founding team of five began to try to imagine what it would be like to have a “magic lens through which we could learn anything,” Kahn says. After flirting with ideas around peer-to-peer learning, they began trying to augment textbook information with curated, relevant content from the web, at just the moment a student feels perplexed.

Here’s how the founders say it will work:

Say a student is stumped by a passage in the class biology textbook around mitosis. He or she could scan the section of the text with a smartphone. Volley will then serve up a collection of “cards” with chunks of explanations for the most complex phrases and passages—not just mitosis, for instance, but potentially other concepts and relevant structures such as cytokinsesis, cytoplasm and organelles. All the explanations are curated from the web.

Volley Labs cofounders Carson Kahn, technical director (left) and CEO Zaid Rahman show how their mobile software will deliver the most relevant learning chunks.

In addition to presenting those information chunks on cards, Volley will estimate how long it will take the student to absorb a card’s information. (Volley combines an estimate of how long it would take to read the passage with a measure of the difficulty level of the section.) Students can then work through as many (or as few) cards as it takes them to understand the section—and, of course, save the ones most meaningful to them. Such a favorite list could become an instant study guide that a student could use or share.

Kahn and Rahman describe their work as “trying to computationally understand the world’s knowledge.” Their algorithms aim to calculate how concepts relate to one another, how knowledge is presented (including the depth and breadth of explanations) and “cohesion and coherence,” a linguistics concept that describes how well ideas are connected at a sentence level (both rhetorically and grammatically).

Or here’s another way to think of it: Search on the word “turkey,” and a search engine will sweep up concepts related to “turkey,” finding references to birds and to the country, then deliver up the most relevant results.

But learners aren’t as good as Google at figuring out what concepts are related to what they don’t understand.

“Learners can’t perform their own ‘query expansion,’” notes Kahn “because they don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t formulate the best queries in their head.” So Volley undertakes a context-aware search. (Volley also measures the validity of the resources it encounters on the web much like it weighs the pedagogy of a textbook.)

Kahn and Rahman declined to share too many details of how their algorithms work, noting that they hope to apply for patents. By summer, the team aims to have alpha technology that students can use to test out the technology and Volley’s hypotheses around learning. Commercial products will follow—either in the form of apps for students or possibly as technology embedded in other products.

A handful of other organizations are doing comparable work, noted the co-founders, including Wolfram Alpha (which is focused largely on mathematics), teams with Khan Academy, and non-education specific organizations such as those that focus on search or even contextual advertising technology.

What Volley’s funders ultimately hope to do is save students from spending too much time from “processing” information, and refocus their time and efforts on real learning. Says Kahn: “We want to change that balance.”

Editor’s note: Reach Capital is an investor in EdSurge 

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