Interview with Bharani Rajakumar, Founder of LearnBop
LearnBop is an automated expert teaching system for elementary, middle and high school students that helps them master mathematics. The system mimics the question and answer interaction between a student and an instructor in a one-on-one scenario so students learn from their mistakes in real time when they solve math problems incorrectly. The program is used in schools in 17 states to help teachers ensure that students master the mathematics they need to succeed in their careers after high school. LearnBop recently launched LearnBop for Families which students can use at home in the absence teacher-led instruction.
To find out more about LearnBop, we interviewed founder Bharani Rajakumar.
Founder profile: Bharanidharan Rajakumar
Founded: March 2010
Company Twitter: @LearnBop
Market Segment: Supplemental math
What does your company do? Who are your core customers?
LearnBop helps schools ensure that their students master mathematics. LearnBop’s core users are math teachers who teach 3rd grade through high school and their students. LearnBop works with districts and schools both large and small in 17 states including Hillsborough, FL, Miami, FL, Freehold, NJ and several rural districts in MO.
How did you come across the problem you’re addressing? What was your process of arriving at a solution?
Based on research from the psychology field, we know that students who receive one-on-one instruction can outperform 98% of students receiving only regular classroom instruction. The issue is that providing one-on-one instruction is very expensive, but success in math should not be limited only to students from affluent families or districts! Many students already have anxiety when it comes to learning math and with the adoption of the common core, math scores dropped even further. As the common core math standards were adopted, teachers, students and parents felt that they needed new tools to teach and learn the new, more rigorous standards. Creating software to scale the one-on-one cognitive interaction between a student and teacher would go a long way to help students learn faster and more effectively by receiving immediate feedback on every single problem solved help teachers manage their classroom more effectively with the use of granular data and technology that would help them differentiate instruction help parents get an inside view into the new math standards and how their children perform
What are you doing differently than your competitors? Do you expect to develop other differentiators in the future?
LearnBop is not a simple, static homework product.
LearnBop is a “smart product” because it doesn’t just throw out problem after problem and force students to use a drill and skill method as we did when most of us were in school. Instead, when students solve a problem incorrectly, the system coaches the student by asking them questions step-by-step, as a teacher or tutor would in a one-on-one scenario. Thus, students get feedback to help them learn from their mistakes right away. Students solve the problem immediately enabling them to learn faster and apply what they learned on upcoming problems.
This is different than other programs where students answer a problem incorrectly and get a series of generic hints or the solution as you’ve seen in the back of a textbook or a solutions manual.
LearnBop takes the opportunity to teach students when they solve a problem incorrectly instead of just assessing if they answered the problem correctly or incorrectly.
This fundamentally, changes the way students use learning products. Instead of just giving students easier problems when they solve a problem incorrectly, LearnBop starts to teach them how to solve that particular problem step-by-step. Students can use their mistakes as a learning opportunity and then move on and try more challenging problems.
There are many digital math products that are on the market today but most don’t actually interact with or adapt to the individual student. They don’t teach. They just assess.
What are you working on currently? What should we expect to see from your company in the next 12 months?
LearnBop recently launched LearnBop for Families. At a price point of $15 per student per month or $149.95 a year, we expect to save parents hundreds or thousands of dollars in tutoring expenses a year, where they once had to pay as much as $150 per hour for crucial one-on-one math support.
We expect about 10,000 families to purchase LearnBop in the first year and we will serve an equal number of high need students through non-profit partners and our “buy one, give one” program bringing the total number of families served to 20,000 in the first year alone. Through LearnBop for Families, we know we can really move the needle in math education across the country, by providing everyone with an ultra-personalized learning experience that is unlike any other math program.
How are you changing the face of education?
We are changing the face of education by changing the perception of math with the students we serve. It’s very common for students to feel frustrated with math education. However, with LearnBop students start to master concepts one by one and can visually see and track their growth in mathematics, completely changing their perception about their ability to do math, and increasing their confidence and overall long-term performance as a result.
Because LearnBop has step-by-step instruction built into each math problem, it trains students to think about their incorrect answer and troubleshoot their response to develop a correct response. Unlike other programs where students can easily click through each problem and get a completion grade and continue to perform poorly in mathematics, LearnBop identifies the prerequisite skills gaps, nudges the students to master the foundational skills then brings them back up to the grade level skill and beyond. In doing so, students start to realize that their achievement is a result of their effort and their mastery of each skill—not whether they have the “math gene” or not.
We believe that by changing the perception of math among students, we can better prepare them for their futures, which are certain to have a strong dependence on math mastery and related skills.
What other startups or product builds have you been a part of, and what was your role? How has your past career prepared you for your current role?
LearnBop is my first startup, and my first commitment to bringing change to the education space. Before founding LearnBop, I worked for an investment bank where I learned how technology coupled with effectively-run organizations can dramatically overhaul an industry and have a meaningful impact on individuals globally. That was a key lesson that I brought to LearnBop.
I also am a founding board member of nycTIES.org, a non-profit that help young professionals build a connection with the city and develop managerial skills by managing large projects and fundraisers for non-profits in New York City.
Who do you look to as a role model or mentor for your company?
Our inspiration comes from our power users. Teachers and parents who tell us they “see” their students becoming more confident in mathematics and that there is a noticeable difference in their performance. That’s why LearnBop was created, and why we are now offering it to families. There is no better source of inspiration than to see students overcome self-doubt and master mathematics.
Where do you think the education technology market is going in the next five years, especially in your market segment?
The cost of learning will continue to drop precipitously. Where math tutoring used to cost between $30 to $150 per hour, LearnBop provides an effective alternative to face-to-face for only $149.95 per year! Other education platforms exist where you can learn an entire subject such as “building a website” for under $50 or learn the same content that someone admitted to an Ivy League school learns but for less than $300 instead of tens of thousands of dollars in tuition.
Technology greatly enhances the access that people have to high quality learning experiences, and that will continue to accelerate in the years ahead. Outside of schools, motivated students are not hesitating to use every educational resource available. As a result they are learning at warp speed. How this will play out in schools remains to be seen.
If schools can muster the will to harness the power of technology instead of finding every reason that it isn’t as good as the traditional way of doing things, they will be able to create the most highly educated generation the world has ever seen.
What advice, if any, do you have for someone launching a company in the education technology market?
Clearly define your customer’s budget and where the funds would come from to pay for your product, and clearly define how teachers (or families) will use your product in a variety of types of classrooms with a variety of types of students. Build a product that is at last 10 times better than the alternative. And engage teachers and students—they know more about learning than you ever will.
Find out more about Learnbop:
A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.