Reed Hastings is best known as the CEO of Netflix, the streaming service that personalizes recommendations for users.
But Hastings’ interest in personalisation also extends into a lesser-known realm: education.
In 2011, Hastings teamed up with venture capitalist John Doerr to invest $US11 million in the growth of maths education startup DreamBox Learning. Created in 2006, the program supplements kids’ elementary and middle school education with lessons, games, and animations, all tailored to the student.
More than 2 million kids use the platform today, the New York Times reports.
DreamBox is part of a growing group of tech-forward education platforms. As Google and Facebook move into schools across the country, bringing software for collaboration and individualized learning, the notion of education is transforming.
In years past, teachers may have taught to a room of students from the head of the class, but today’s students are increasingly learning amongst themselves on devices catered to their needs.
DreamBox collects data on students’ performance, including accuracy rates and response times, and keeps track of how many hints kids needed to get the right answer to a given question. From there, the program either raises or lowers the difficulty level and amends the style of instruction.
The system collects more than 50,000 data points for each student per hour.
Research has found that high-tech classrooms don’t necessarily leave students better off come graduation. There have been some marginal gains, using services like the literacy app Newsela to improve reading, for instance, but there isn’t any long-term data to indicate they’re worth the expense.
DreamBox has some research on its side. A 2016 report from Harvard found students used DreamBox to varying degrees when schools adopted the platform, and seldom to the recommended levels. But those who used it longer did find bigger gains in their maths proficiency.
Hastings isn’t the only tech entrepreneur who values personalisation. Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg have both endorsed the Seattle-based Summit Public Schools network for its student-led curriculum.
Gates points to research that found among 62 schools letting students guide their own education, with teachers serving more as mentors, many of the kids scored higher in maths and reading compared to kids learning normally. Many who were below-average scorers ended up above-average.
“To be fair,” Gates wrote on his blog last August, “we don’t know yet how much of this improvement is due to personalised learning, versus other good things these schools are doing.”
The research on DreamBox has run into similar obstacles, but the platform’s 2-million-strong user base continues to grow.