The Adaptive Learning App that John Danner Left Rocketship to Build

The Adaptive Learning App that John Danner Left Rocketship to Build


Many former teachers leave the classroom to start edtech companies. Just take a look at BetterLesson, eduClipper, and SmarterCookie to, name a few.

What’s rare is when a co-founder and CEO of one of the world’s most well-known charter school organization makes the jump. But that’s what John Danner did in January 2013 when he left Rocketship Education, which currently operates 11 schools in three states.

“At Rocketship I only spent 5% of my day focused on student learning; the other time focused on politics and staffing. Now I get to spend all my time doing learning, figuring out how to do it best,” says Danner.

Fresh starts are nothing new for a serial entrepreneur like Danner, who in the mid-90’s co-founded NetGravity (which became the backbone of Yahoo’s first advertising system) before leaving in 2002 to teach in Nashville’s public schools. In 2005 he and Preston Smith co-founded Rocketship, which has since grown into a network known for pioneering blended learning strategies and adaptive technology to help students learn basic skills.

Now, Danner is ready to unveil the fruits of his labor: Zeal, an adaptive Common Core practice app with game-like features. Accessible via the web and as an iOS and Android app, Zeal delivers adaptive Common Core practice problems based on specific goals teachers set.

That description may sound like jargon. But while adaptive technology isn’t new, and practice problems rarely get students excited, Danner really believes his tool could be a game changer--not only for schools like Rocketship, but for the billion and a half students without access to formal education across the world.

Becoming A Zealot

At first glance, it looks like any other adaptive tool on the market. Teachers start by setting goals based on any Common Core English or math standard for grades K-8. Zeal then pulls related Common Core practice problems from a pre-loaded library, or from those uploaded by the teacher. Then teachers set the amount of practice time for students and choose one of two game modes: competition, where students “race” to cross the finish line; and collaboration, where students work together as a class to earn points.

Students create their own avatars (called “Zealots”--but no relation to Starcraft). In competition mode, each avatar is lined up at the “starting line.” Once the teacher starts the clock, students work through exercise problems set by the teacher. As students answer problems correctly, several things happen: They get points and their avatar moves closer to the goal line. Also, the next problem gets harder (hence the “adaptivity”).

Once a student misses a problem, the system goes into “practice mode” where they work through lessons and problems. They can ask for hints, which come in the form of a pre-made audio recording of another student explaining how to approach the problem. “Kids are way more motivated by listening to other kids,” says Danner.

Once students have sufficiently mastered the concept, they can test out of practice mode. Then they return to racing to the finish line and earning points along the way, until they come to another problem they cannot master.

Teachers project the leaderboard at the front of the class showing each student’s progress. At the end of the session, the tool automatically assigns digital badges to the students based on how many points they earn, how quickly they mastered the material, and how fast they are able to answer questions correctly.

A feisty entrepreneur, Danner believes the competitive and social aspects of the game that make it different. “Others have built a single student system, where every child is an island [working by himself or herself]…but people are socially motivated by competition and collaboration,” he says.

Eyeing the World

So far, Zeal has only been used by a handful of students and teachers. Since its release on the Android and iTunes app store on August 7, Zeal has 100 active teacher users, 60% of whom are Rocketship teachers, and the rest from other schools. About 5,000 students are currently using the product either as part of a class or individually on their own.

Despite the paltry numbers, Danner is eyeing the billions of students around the world. He aims to make Zeal as accessible as possible and is betting on the proliferation of mobile devices to help him achieve his goal.

He’s zealous in the belief that growing access to mobile technology will be a great equalizer for every community when it comes to education, regardless of income or poverty levels. “I’m really interested in the billion and a half of students across the world that don’t have access to formal education. I’m interested in how mobile phones will reach these places,” he says.

His Silicon Valley companions share his optimism. In a recent article for the Wall Street Journal, John Doerr, partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and co-founder of NewSchools Venture Fund, praised the power of “free, powerful mobile apps” in improving student learning. He cited a 2013 report from Nielsen, which finds that 70% of teenagers (13-17 years old) have smartphones.

Mary Meeker, also a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, whose annual forecasts on Internet trends have become a can’t-miss, is also looking closely at potential of the mobile market. According to her report, “Internet Trends 2014,” mobile usage rates growing at an annual rate of 81%. Currently, 73% of the world’s population uses mobile phones (5.2 billion people), 23% smartphones (1.6 billion people) and 6% tablets (439 million people). According to Meeker’s report, mobile devices accounted for 25% of all web traffic, up 9% since May 2013.

The Power of Parents

One might expect Danner to take advantage of his seven years of experience from running a schools to sell Zeal directly to them. But that’s not the case. Instead, he plans on making parents as his primary paying customers, through premium features tailored to their needs.

The viral growth of (currently) free tools like ClassDojo and Remind reinforces Danner’s belief in the freemium, consumer approach to app adoption. “If you put a price tag on tools, it eliminates a lot of users,” especially teachers. As the tool develops, Danner plans to continue to make the product free for teachers and schools to use.

“I think we’ve tremendously underestimated parents. They’ve been boxed out of learning,” Danner explains. He apparently has more faith in selling to parents than to schools. “Parents act rationally, not like schools who have to worry about things such as, ‘Does this deploy quickly?’ and other factors,” he continues.

Since his days at Rocketship, Danner has always been focused on time efficiency and management. Zeal is no different: By using the tool to help students master basic skills, teachers and parents will presumably have more time to spend teaching more complex lessons. All Zeal asks for, he says, is 30 minutes of practice a day.

Editor’s note: NewSchools Venture Fund invests in EdSurge. 

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