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With Eyes on Asia, Kidaptive Raises $19.1M to Grow Its ‘Invisible’ Adaptive Learning Platform

By Tony Wan     Feb 21, 2018

When some kids grow up, they stop gaming and go abroad. That metaphor might describe the journey that Kidaptive took on its way to a major fundraise.

Once known for a learning game, the Redwood City, Calif.-based company now touts itself as a provider of adaptive-learning technologies for educational content providers. And to support its work, Kidaptive has raised $19.1 million in a Series C round led by Formation 8 and Woongjin ThinkBig, a Korean publisher.

Of this amount, Woongjin invested $5 million in return for a 10 percent stake in Kidaptive, reports The Korea Herald. To date, Kidaptive has now raised about $31 million.

Kidaptive first entered the edtech market in 2012 with Leo’s Pad, a game-based learning app that offered mini-games and puzzles to assess cognitive skills in young children. The team followed up with Learner Mosaic, an app that takes gameplay data from Leo’s Pad to inform a sequence of learning activities that parents can do with their kids to help them further develop those skills.

But those days of designing games and content may be over. The company has refocused its business and research around what it calls its “Adaptive Learning Platform.” The description from the press release is a bit abstract and heavy on jargon, but it boils down to this: combining data from learning activities to create a “psychometric profile of a learner” and offering feedback and recommendations for what he or she should do next in order to master a skill.

That data comes from content partners, and Kidaptive is eyeing publishers in Asia. This path was influenced by an early investor and board member: Formation 8’s founder and general partner Brian Koo, who has been described as a “scion of the LG business dynasty in South Korea.” His connections there brought Kidaptive to the Asian market. In 2015, Kidaptive acquired Hodoo English, a language-learning company, in a deal that established Kidadaptive’s Korea headquarter.

Today the team splits its time and resources between Silicon Valley and Asia, says Kidaptive’s co-founder and chief learning scientist, Dylan Arena. He added that its Korean business is already cashflow positive, and expects to reach that milestone for its U.S. operations by the end of the year.

The company’s Adaptive Learning Platform works in a number of ways. In the case of Woongjin Book Club Study, a reading and tutoring service provided by Woongjin ThinkBig, the tool gathers and analyzes data from the digital books, quizzes and activities that a child engages with. That information is then distilled into feedback, patterns and predictions that tutors can use during their in-person teaching session.

The goal is to “characterize learner activities by citing specific evidence” and “suggest possible strategies for the tutor without de-professionalizing the tutor,” says Arena, who acknowledges that this is “a delicate balance to strike.”

All of this data crunching and analysis happens on the backend. “We’re entirely invisible,” he adds. “If you’re a kid, you have no idea what Kidaptive is.”

Back in the U.S., Kidaptive has also applied its technology to a game, Fish Force, developed by PBS KIDS, WGBH and CRESST, an assessment research group at the University of California in Los Angeles. The game has 256 different levels, and the Adaptive Learning Engine decides the sequence of levels that each player sees based on his or her gameplay.

In this partnership, “what Kidaptive provides is information on the leveling sequence to keep kids in their zone of proximal development,” explains Sara DeWitt, vice president at PBS KIDS Digital. She’s referring to a research term that describes the sweet spot at which a learner is adequately challenged.

While Kidaptive’s system is used to determine the sequence of activities in Fish Force, it does not offer information about where or why users may have done something wrong. That’s the opposite of how the Adaptive Learning Engine is used with Woongjin Book Club Study, which “focuses on generating learner insights but not recommending next steps,” says Arena.

Depending on the extent of capabilities that a prospective partner wants from the adaptive engine, a business deal can take anywhere from 3 to 8 months to secure. The company is in talks with education companies in China and India, and will onboard as many as 5 new partners by the end of the year. Kidaptive will also continue working with PBS KIDS on a new game based on The Cat in the Hat.

Kidaptive’s efforts to build an adaptive engine for other content creators sounds eerily reminiscent of what another company once tried. Once the industry’s poster child for adaptive learning, Knewton boasted working with dozens of publishers, including Pearson and McGraw-Hill. But as those partners pulled out, the company has since pivoted to competing with them.

Arena says he’s familiar with Knewton, adding that his team is “proceeding slowly and cautiously” in its external partnership and business development work. He’s also careful around how he frames adaptive-learning technology: “There’s a lot of legitimate concern about the robotic tutor. A much more healthy way to think about adaptivity is how it can augment what human teachers can do.”

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