Once upon a time, Lane Merrifield was the emperor penguin.
Club Penguin, the kid-safe, virtual gaming world that Merrifield co-founded in 2005 was one of the first massively multiplayer online communities designed specifically for children. It was massively popular and profitable, too. By August 2007, Club Penguin had 12 million users--and Disney acquired it for a hearty $350 million. Merrifield joined Disney to continue growing his club.
But soon, he came to an odd--and slightly disturbing--realization.
“The fact that I knew more about the playing patterns from millions of kids, and nothing about the learning patterns of my own kids at school, appalled me,” Merrifield recalls.
He was involved in bringing learning activities to some of the mini-games in Club Penguin through the Disney Connected Learning project. (More about it here.) But education, says Merrifield, was just an add-on. “Ultimately, Club Penguin was an entertainment-first property.”
As Executive VP of Disney Online Studios, Merrifield had the opportunity to meet Steve Jobs and was fascinated when he first learned about the iPad in 2010. “I had been watching closely how Apple has changed the music industry,” he says. “And I knew that if [Jobs] could make the iPad a success, it could change print media, books and ultimately education.”
In October 2012, Merrifield left Disney to join his friends, Mark Payne and Steve Wandler, to start FreshGrade. Based in Kelowna, British Columbia, the startup went to work to bring lesson-planning, gradebook, assessment, student portfolios and parent communication tools all on one mobile platform.
After nearly two years, FreshGrade has publicly released its beta. The company has been actively piloting and developing the tool in partnership with Surrey Schools, the largest district in British Columbia. Merrifield accredits much of the product’s polished user design and experience to his early teacher adopters.
“Teacher tools shouldn’t require an in-service training day,” he says. “We’ve been brought in for training sessions in other districts, and we’ve been able to show teachers how to use it in one and a half hours.”
FreshGrade will test Merrifield’s belief that data and predictive analytics can be just as applicable--and powerful--in education as entertainment. With Club Penguin, “we could anticipate the patterns and needs of the players,” claims Merrifield. “But I’m not seeing a lot of intelligent algorithms in edtech that can predict students’ success or struggles based on behavioral, attendance or performance records.”
Teachers start by uploading the student roster different classes on FreshGrade. They then create learning activities (which can be a homework assignment, quiz, group project, or presentation) and tag them with learning objectives aligned to state, Common Core, or other academic standards. Afterwards, teachers choose from eight different assessment options such as Yes/No, point scales, or open-ended observations.
As students turn in their assignments or perform the learning activity, teachers assess their performance using the FreshGrade mobile app. Results are captured on the teacher dashboard and on each student’s portfolio (which resembles a Facebook timeline). At any time, the teacher can email parents a snapshot of their child’s progress.
“Freshgrade isn’t just about data collection,” he adds. “It’s about providing analyses that encourage the teacher be proactive with the data” and share it “in a way that allows parents to be an active participant in their child’s learning.”
All the features currently available are free for teachers--and Merrifield intends to keep it that way.
It remains to be seen whether the predictive algorithms that have raked in millions for games such as Club Penguin can be equally impactful in education. Others are trying, though. The co.lab incubator, founded by Zynga.org and NewSchools Venture Fund, is betting that the same data analytics that made Zynga famous can be leveraged to help educational gaming startups improve learning outcomes.
So far, Merrifield has been able to self-fund his team of 16. He says he currently has capital to grow without needing investors or immediate revenue.
That’s a luxury that not many other education startups have, and Merrifield knows he’s fortunate in this regard. He knows his march to success in this industry will proceed at a much slower and more deliberate pace than the march of Club Penguin.