Entrepreneurs are racing to drag education from the archaic classroom and textbook model to the rich and dynamic online digital world. So far, efforts have been to create new platforms and mediums through which to use educational content. But few companies have tackled the challenge of motivating students to prioritize learning.
Startup educational platform Empower.me launched into public beta two weeks ago to do exactly that by allowing parents to incentivise teens (fifth to twelfth grade) to supplement traditional education. Students earn cold hard cash for reaching learning goals set by their parents.
The Empower.me platform offers video content curated from publicly available sources like Khan Academy and the TED lecture series, with CodeAcademy coming soon. There are currently 3,500 videos available, which are typically 10 to 20 minutes in length. Subjects range from standard school subjects to more interesting and potentially practical topics like the Greek economic crisis, pharmaceutical careers, Oceanography, and how Black Holes work. After watching a video lesson, students must complete an associated multiple choice test to get credit for the lesson.
“We invest heavily in strong tests, says Empower.me founder and CEO Bryan Starbuck. “We really make sure that the students know the content cold.” Currently only 500 of the videos have tests available, but Starbuck expects to have balance up on the site within a few weeks.
Parents set per-video reward values, typically ranging from $3 to $5, and can set weekly limits on total earning as well. Once a week, parents receive feedback from Empower.me on their student’s progress and the total rewards earned during the period.
With their alway-on mobile devices, teens are constantly bombarded with notifications from gaming and social media apps which encourage entertainment. Empower.me uses this existing feedback loop to encourage education by sending periodic text messages to teens, suggesting that they take a new video lesson. Currently, these texts are sent only once per week on Saturday mornings, but the frequency could increase in the future depending on user feedback.
Beyond just getting better grades today and getting into college, Starbuck says that the broader goal is to help young students explore the world outside of school to find subjects that they’re passionate about and learn life skills they rarely pick up in school. He’s adamant that existing learning platforms fall short by not offering teens sufficient motivation to prioritize learning.
A common concern when paying kids for what might be considered expected behavior is setting the wrong type of precedent. Starbuck is generally unconcerned about this, saying that parents already reward kids for doing chores and getting good grades. Empower.me only extends this behavior into a more constructive and aspirational learning environment. Also, the founder points to research stating that incentives are proven to act as advertising, planting seeds to do things that we would otherwise ignore like go to the gym or study.
The average allowance earned by US teens is $15 per week, according to Starbuck, but this amount is said to typically be gone by mid-week. Parents then get hit up for an average of an additional $22 per week, in most cases without any system for earning or tracking these funds. Empower.me aims to solve this issue by offerning a platform where parents and teens set predetermined expectations and where accountability is transparent.
Empower.me does not currently offer a payment platform between parents and teens — one may be added in the future — instead only tracking virtual balances and leaving payments to the offline real world. A typical scenario according to the founder might be a child asking for parents for $20 out of her “Empower.me balance” to go to the movies.
While it might be expected that the company would take a cut of each payment made from parent to teen, because no funds flow through the system this is not possible. The company instead monetizes by charging parents a monthly subscription fee of $7.95 with yearly prepayment discounts available. The site offers a free 30 day trial which Starbuck believes is enough to demonstrate kids “falling in love with various pockets of learning.”
Empower.me has a number of additional features planned for future versions of its product. One day soon, parents will likely be able to turn on and off rewards based on subject, such as prioritizing Engineering or Life Sciences over the Humanities. Also coming are more community based interactions, where siblings or school classmates can share learning experiences and possibly engage in friendly competition.
Starbuck started working on the Redmond, Washington headquartered Empower.me approximately nine months ago after completing a 12 month earn out following the 2010 sale of his previous startup. The company has raised $650,000 in seed financing to date from various unnamed angel investors as part of a planned $1.3 million round.
A common refrain I’ve heard from early stage investors lately is “I’m always interested in companies targeting moms, kids, and education.” Entrepreneurs and developers, for their part, are looking to gamify anything and everything in their path. The direct result of these two messages is Empower.me, a highly incentivized learning platform that aligns the motivations of both students and parents.
“We don’t have any direct competitors in the incentivized learning space,” says the Empower.me chief executive. “What we’re competing against instead is Farmville and other things very aggressively attacking teens time.”