StudySmarter books $15M for a global ‘personalized learning’ push

More money for the edtech boom: Munich-based StudySmarter, which makes digital tools to help learners of all ages swat up — styling itself as a ‘lifelong learning platform’ — has closed a $15 million Series A.

The round is led by sector-focused VC fund, Owl Ventures. New York-based Left Lane Capital is co-investing, along with Lars Fjeldsoe-Nielsen (ex WhatsApp, Uber and Dropbox; now GP at Balderton Capital), and existing early stage investor Dieter von Holtzbrinck Ventures (aka DvH Ventures). The platform, which launched back in 2018 and has amassed a user-base of 1.5M+ learners — with a 50/50 split between higher education students and K12 learners, and with main markets so far in German speaking DACH countries in Europe — uses AI technologies like natural language processing (NLP) to automate the creation of text-based interactive custom courses and track learners’ progress (including by creating a personalized study plan that adjusts as they go along).

StudySmarter claims its data shows that 94% of learners achieve better grades as a result of using its platform. While NLP is generally most advanced for the English language, the startup says it’s confident its NLP models can be transferred to new languages without requiring new training data — claiming its tech is “scalable in any language”. (Although it concedes its algorithms increase in accuracy for a given language as users upload more content so the software itself is undertaking a learning journey and will necessarily be at a different point on the learning curve depending on the source content.) Here’s how StudySmarter works: Users input their study goals to get recommendations for relevant revision content that’s been made available to the platform’s community. They can also contribute content themselves to create custom courses by uploading assets like lecture slides and revisions notes. StudySmarter’s platform can then turn this source material into interactive study aids — like flashcards and revision exercises — and the startup touts the convenience of the approach, saying it enables students to manage all their revision in one place (rather than wrangling multiple learning apps). In short, it’s both a (revision) content marketplace and a productivity platform for learning — as it helps users create their own study (or lesson) plans, and offers them handy tools like a digital magic marker that automatically turns highlighted text into flashcards, while the resulting “smart” flashcards also apply the principle of spaced repetition learning to help make the studied content stick. Users can choose to share content they create with other learners in the StudySmarter community (or not). The startup says a quarter (25%) of its users are creators, and that 80% of the content they create is shared. Overall, it says its platform provides access to more than 25 million pieces of shared content currently. It’s topic agnostic, as you’d expect, so course content covers a diverse range of subjects. We’re told the most popular courses to study are: Economics, Medicine, Law, Computer Science, Engineering and school subjects such as Maths, Physics, Biology and English. Regardless of how learners use it, the platform uses AI to nudge users towards relevant revision content and topics (and study groups) to keep extending and supporting their learning process — making adaptive, ongoing recommendations for other stuff they should check out. “The ease of creating learning materials on the StudySmarter platform results in a democratization of high-quality educational content, driven by learners themselves,” is the claim.    As well as user generated content (UGC), StudySmarter’s platform hosts content created by verified educationists and publishers — and there’s an option for users to search only for such verified content, i.e. if they don’t want to dip into the UGC pool. “In general, there is no single workflow,” says co-founder and CMO Maurice Khudhir. “We created StudySmarter to adapt to different learner types. Some are very active learners and prefer to create content, some only want to search and consume content from other peers/publishers.” “Our platform focuses on the art of learning itself, rather than being bound by topics, sectors, industries or content types. This means that anyone, regardless of what they’re learning, can use StudySmarter to improve how they learn. We started in higher education as it was the closest, most relevant market to where we were at the time of launch. We more recently expanded to K12, and are currently running our first corporate learning pilot.” Gamification is a key strategy to encourage engagement and advance learning, with the platform dishing out encouraging words and emoji, plus rewards like badges and achievements based on the individual’s progress. Think of it as akin to Duolingo-style microlearning — but where users get to choose the subject (not just the language) and can feed in source material if they wish. StudySmarter says it’s taken inspiration from tech darlings like Netflix and Tinder — baking in recommendation algorithms to surface relevant study content for users -(a la Netflix’s ‘watch next’ suggestions), and deploying a Tinder-swipe-style learning UI on mobile so that its “smart flashcards” can to adapt to users’ responses.

“Firstly, we individualise the learning experience by recommending appropriate content to the learner, depending on their demographics, demands and study goals,” explains Khudhir. “For instance, when an economics student uploads a PDF on the topic of marginal cost, StudySmarter will recommend several user-generated courses that cover marginal cost and/or several flashcards on marginal cost as well as e-books on StudySmarter that cover this topic.

“In this way, StudySmarter is similar to Netflix — Netflix will suggest similar TV shows and films depending on what you’ve already watched and StudySmarter will recommend different learning materials depending on the types of content and topics you interact with.

“As well, depending on how the student likes to learn, we also individualise the learning journey through things such as the smart flashcard learning algorithm. This is based on spaced repetition. For example, if a student is testing themselves on microeconomics, the flashcard set will go through different questions and responses and the student can swipe through the flashcards, in a similar way to Tinder. The flashcards’ sequence will adapt after every response.

“The notifications are also personalised — so they will remind the student to learn at particular points in the day, adapted to how the student uses the app.”

There’s also a scan functionality which uses OCR (optical character recognition) technology that lets users upload (paper-based) notes, handouts or books — and a sketch feature lets them carry out further edits, if they want to add more notes and scribbles.

Once ingested into the platform, this scanned (paper-based) content can of course also be used to create digital learning materials — extending the utility of the source material by plugging it into the platform’s creation and tracking capabilities.

“A significant cohort of users access StudySmarter on tablets, and they find this learning flow very useful, especially for our school-age pupils,” he adds.

StudySmarter can also offer educators and publishers detailed learning analytics, per Khudhir — who says its overarching goal is to establish itself as “the leading marketplace for educational content”, i.e. by using the information it gleans on users’ learning goals to directly recommend (relevant) professional content — “making it an extremely effective distribution platform”, as he puts it. In addition to students, he says the platform is being used by teachers, professors, trainers, and corporate members — ie. to create content to share with their own students, team members, course participants etc, or just to publish publicly. And he notes a bit of a usage spike from teachers in March last year as the pandemic shut down schools in Europe. 

StudySmarter co-founders, back from left to right: Christian Felgenhauer (co-founder & CEO), Till Söhlemann (co-founder); front: Maurice Khudir (co-founder & CMO), Simon Hohentanner (COO & co-founder). Image credits: StudySmarter

What about copyright? Khudir says they follow a three-layered system to minimize infringement risks — firstly by not letting users share or export any professional content hosted on the platform.

Uploaded documents like lecture notes and users’ own comments can be shared within one university course/class in a private learning group. But only UGC (like flashcards, summaries and exercises) can be shared freely with the entire StudySmarter community, if the user wants to.

“It’s important to note that no content is shared without the author’s permission,” he notes. “We also have a contact email for people to raise potential copyright infringements. Thanks to this system, we can say that we never had a single copyright issue with universities, professors or publishers.”

Another potential pitfall around UGC is quality. And, clearly, no student wants to waste their time revising from poor (or just plain wrong) revision notes.

StudySmarter says it’s limiting that risk by tracking how learners engage with shared content on the platform — in order to create quality scores for UGC — monitoring factors like how often such stuff is used for learning; how often the students who study from it answer questions correctly; and by looking the average learning time for a particular flashcard or summary, etc.

“We combine this with an active feedback system from the students to assign each piece of content a dynamic quality score. The higher the score is, the more often it is shown to new users. If the score falls below a certain threshold, the content is removed and is only visible to the original creator,” he goes on, adding: “We track the quality of shared content on the creator level so users who consistently share low-quality content can be banned from sharing more content on the platform.”

There are unlikely to be quality issues with verified educator/publisher content. But since it’s professional content, StudySmarter can’t expect to get it purely for free — so it says it “mostly” follows revenue-sharing agreements with these types of contributors.

It is also sharing data on learning trends and to help publishers reach relevant learners, as mentioned above. So the information it can provide education publishers about potential customers is probably the bigger carrot for pulling them in.

“We are very happy to say that the vast majority of our content is not created or shared on StudySmarter for any financial incentive but rather because our platform and technology simply make the creation significantly easier,” says Khudir, adding: “We have not paid a single Euro to any user on StudySmarter to create content and do not intend to do so going forward.” 

It’s still early days for monetization, which he says isn’t front of mind yet — with the team focused on building out the platform’s global reach — but he notes that the model allows for a number of b2b revenue streams, adding that they’ve been doing some early b2b monetization by working with employers and businesses to promote their graduate programs or to support recruitment drives. 

The new funding will be put towards product development and supporting the platform’s global expansion, per Khudir.

“We’ve run successful pilots in the U.K. and U.S. so they’re our primary focus to expand to by Q3 this year. In fact, following a test pilot in the U.K. in December, we became the number one education app within 24 hours (ahead of the likes of Duolingo, Quizlet, Kahoot, and Photomath), which bodes well!” he goes on.  “Brazil, India and Indonesia are key targets for us due to a wider need for digital education. We’re also looking to launch in France, Nordics, Spain, Russia and many more countries. Due to the fact our platform is content-agnostic, and the technology that underpins it is universal, we’re able to scale effectively in multiple countries and languages. Within the next 12 months, we will be expanding to more than 12 countries and support millions of learners globally.” StudySmarter’s subject-agnostic, feature-packed, one-stop-shop platform approach sets it apart from what Khudir refers to as “single-feature apps”, i.e. which just help you learn one thing — be that Duolingo (only languages), or apps that focus on teaching a particular skill-set (like Photomath for maths equations, or dedicated learn-to-code apps/courses (and toys)).  But where the process of learning is concerned, there are lots of ways of going about it, and no one that suits everyone (or every subject), so there’s undoubtedly room for (and value in) a variety of approaches (which may happily operate in parallel). So it seems a safe bet that broad-brush learning platforms aren’t going to replace specialized tools — or (indeed) vice versa. StudySmarter names the likes of Course Hero, StuDocu, Quizlet and Anki as taking a similar broad approach — while simultaneously claiming they’re not doing it in “quite the same, holistic, end-to-end, all-in-one bespoke platform for learners” way.   Albeit, some of those edtech rivals are doing it with a lot more capital already raised. So StudySmarter is going to need to work smart and hard to localize and grab students’ attention as it guns for growth far beyond its European base.

 

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