A smart, cross-platform test prep company changes how students excel.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
When he was just 22, Ashish Rangekar (pictured, left) was an an adjunct lecturer in Mathematics at City University New York. He later ripened his analytical skills as a strategy consultant with Capital One. These days, as co-founder of BenchPrep, a cross-platform test prep course creator, Ashish directs business development, public relations and operations. He holds an MBA from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, an M.S. in Applied Mathematics at City University New York, and a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai. Co-founder Ujjwal Gupta (pictured, right) is
The future of education is digital, and I think we should be more and more open to technology, and how it can enhance the learning experience.
CTO and day-to-day he leads a variety of product and project management initiatives. Prior to founding BenchPrep, Ujjwal started several companies across a number of industries – including nanotechnology, rural tech, and events management. He has a Ph.D. in Chemistry from The Pennsylvania State University and a BS/MS from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. Together, their genius cross-platform solution has passed the test of workability, having served more than 400,000 students. Here, Ashish and Ujj talk about challenges, apps, collective vision and what the future holds.
Victor: What prompted you to develop the BenchPrep? What issues, challenges, problem were you trying to solve?
Ujjwal: The core idea came in 2008 when my co-founder Ashish Rangnekar was studying for the GMAT. He realized that the options available to him were heavy, static books or antiquated and expensive online classes. He decided to use the book, and although the experience was terrible, the actual content was really good. At the same time, Apple opened up their iPhone platform for development, and I saw people really engaging with the device and spending a disproportionate amount of time on their phones playing with the apps.
We realized that combining the book content and the engagement that an iPhone can provide would be a great tool for Ashish and a million other students. And that’s how it all started. Within two months, we designed the product, hired people, built the first test prep engine for the iPhone, and released a GMAT prep app. The app quickly became one of the best-selling education apps in the App Store.
Victor: What’s something interesting about it’s development history?
Ashish: After the success of the GMAT iPhone app we built several other stand-alone mobile apps and actually started building a desktop app. It wasn’t until after our first round of funding that we ditched the individual apps and desktop app for the cross platform product we have today. We built our learning platform to be accessible from multiple devices and sync across all devices, where you can start on an iPad and continue on your computer or Android phone. Everything is synchronized across devices.
This approach has its advantages and disadvantages. Obviously, there is a huge advantage for the user. Also, having a cross-platform, API-based approach means that we can license educational content from the best-in-class publishers to create interactive courses. However, the major disadvantage is that you have to develop all of this content for three screen sizes, and this increases development time.
All and all, though, we feel that cross-platform cloud-based technology is the way of the future, so we’re happy to spend the extra time to build our product like this from the start.
Victor: Anything interesting about your own background that informed your current approach?
Ujjwal: After earning my degree in my native India, I went on to start a nanomaterials manufacturing firm with my advisor. Later, I came to the US to complete a PhD in Chemistry at Penn State. Though I loved my work and my field, I soon realized that it takes years of research and scaling to make something which can be commercialized. At that time my college friend Ashish and I started our first app, and the rest is history.
While it sounds like a dramatic change, every day I am learning how my Ph.D. work is helping me with my role at BenchPrep. A typical Ph.D. consists of identifying a problem in a field you are passionate about and then finding a solution. It is a long process and requires patience. During this process, new problems consistently come up that need to be solved, which is typical of a startup as well.
Ashish: Ujjwal and I knew each other from college in India. When I moved to the States, I was teaching math as an adjunct lecturer at the City University of New York. After my classes in pre-calculus and calculus, students would ask if I knew of any supplementary resources beside the textbook that they could use to hone their math skills. I used to recommend they read some blogs or watch some YouTube videos. Everyone in the math department thought I was crazy.
Even though the students could have studied their textbook, they didn’t connect with the books and wanted to learn in a different way. From this experience, I realized that there was a market for an interactive, digital product like BenchPrep.
Victor: What’s your 60 second pitch to someone on what exactly it is, benefits?
Ashish: BenchPrep is a learning platform and marketplace that helps students study for tests like the GMAT across any device. We work with 30+ educational publishers, from McGraw Hill to Princeton Review, to create interactive, personalized courses for standardized test prep, math, science, language, professional certifications and more. BenchPrep is accessible on the web, Android, iPhone, iPad and Kindle Fire. Course material syncs across all of them creating a seamless study experience.
On top of this, BenchPrep gives students personalized study plans, a game center, social features and real-time analytics (to name a few) creating a comprehensive and robust study interface. The analytics and personalized study plans allow students to see which questions they answer wrong and which lessons they should concentrate on. This way, they study in the most efficient way possible. More than 500,000 students across 20 countries have used BenchPrep courses to achieve their educational goals.
BenchPrep’s pricing model also undercuts a lot of other study sources and classes by hundreds of dollars.
Victor: Do you have any direct or indirect competition?
Ujjwal: Education is a $1 trillion market, and there are tens of thousands of players in the field. The test prep sector alone is a $13 billion market. So the “competition” comprises a pretty wide umbrella of institutions, companies, and individuals. What’s most important to us at BenchPrep is that we design our product to be as agile as possible to adjust to the changing educational paradigms.
That being said, we have established partnerships with some established educational content providers like McGraw Hill, Princeton Review, and Pearson. I think these companies recognize the changing landscape of the delivery of educational content, and there are immense opportunities out there for innovation in the field.
Victor: Any highlights about test marketing it /starting out; any interesting feedback, reaction to it?
Ashish: The first piece of interesting feedback was that when we were starting out we really did not expect the GMAT app to sell as well as it did, but it sold really well!
We had such early success with the GMAT iPhone app, we thought: “If we’re having this amount of success with a relatively small market size of the GMAT prep, then if we make an ACT or SAT app, we should have much more user growth.” The reality, however, is that the GMAT and ACT/SAT are radically different markets. The actual users of the GMAT app purchase the app. With the ACT/SAT, on the other hand, parents usually purchase prep materials for their children.
The test prep market is surprisingly varied, and learning how to market to each customer segment has been a challenge.
Victor: What else can you say about the value and benefit of BenchPrep?
Ujjwal: Our collective vision is to create an educational tool that can help millions of students around the world. We are a bunch of students creating an educational platform for students. We are not constrained by the legacy mindset in education business or by the lack of technology innovation in the U.S. today. Our job is to build the best learning tools and figure out the impossible along the way.
Our current product, its cutting edge features, our talented team, and our partnerships all contribute towards this vision that drives us. We are the only company that is delivering interactive courses across multiple devices from the top education publishers with a consistent UI.
Victor: Anything else in the works? additional products, features or series/angles?
Ashish: We’re building an adaptive, API-based learning engine for interactive courses that sits on top of our large reservoir of content. Our goal is to define the value of content based on student engagement and whether or not it resonates with their personal learning style.
Based on what we’ve seen, students now think about content ownership in a very different (and probably more nuanced) way than they did five years ago — or even when I was growing up. Students now look at educational content more as a service than as a product. And so into the future we’ll continue to work to improve our educational infrastructure to make the overall student experience more enjoyable and personalized.
Victor: Your thoughts on education in general these days?
Ujjwal: At BenchPrep, we believe that traditional education is still important. You go to a class and your teacher is there to provide guidance. However, we believe it’s going to evolve into something where you watch videos or read beforehand, and class becomes the time for you to figure out the problems you are having. Classrooms will become problem solving and collaboration sessions instead of reading, watching and listening. The reading, watching and listening portions of learning are still important, but the medium of information consumption must evolve to be device-agnostic, adaptive, and mobile. It has to be convenient so that students don’t have to think about devices while learning. Technology is so powerful and has the ability to really help students learn. We must take full advantage of that.
Victor: Any guidance or advice to educators these days?
Ashish: The future of education is digital, and I think we should be more and more open to technology, and how it can enhance the learning experience. There is immense opportunity for innovation in the classroom, and I think brave educators should try to experiment and take risks to figure out what does and doesn’t work.
Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
This is Insight Education Group’s cloud-based platform for teachers and district leaders to plan and share lessons aligned to the Common Core State Standards and any other state standards. It can be accessed on a variety of devices via the Internet, including desktops and mobile devices. The platform walks teachers through a backwards-design lesson planning methodology (known as Strategic Design for Student Achievement) where they are encouraged to always keep the end in mind. Teachers begin by analyzing the standards with Bloom’s taxonomy, next build their summative assessments and then build out their units and lessons in alignment with the standards and summative assessment. In addition to creating units and lessons from scratch, myCore offers a library of dozens of units (and hundreds of lessons) in Math and ELA for grades K-6 that are aligned to the Common Core. The units and lessons provide educators with tangible examples of what it looks like to teach with the Common Core. Educators simply pull down relevant units and lesson to their dashboards and customize them according to the specific instructional needs of their students. The platform also provides teachers with access to real-time feedback from coaches as well as resources to assist in their process of creating strong instruction. After teaching their units and lessons, educators are encouraged to rate and reflect them. School and district leaders can use myCore to set benchmark assessment dates, track standards that have been taught, and view teachers’ units and lessons to provide them support. The educator-friendly interface is intuitive and requires minimal training. The support site (http://www.mycoreapphelp.com/screencasts.html) provides screencast videos to assist viewers with some of the main features and overall operating information, rounding off a solid teacher resource. Check it out.
Selecting and assessing educational resources for teaching to Common Core.
GUEST COLUMN | by Adam Blum
Most U.S. teachers are now teaching to the Common Core State Standards. This is a curriculum and content shift for the majority of teachers and most self-assess as not being ready to handle the new content they are presented with. Teachers recognize this as an opportunity to introduce supplemental resources (videos, games and assessments) to flip their classroom.
In addition the emphasis of the Common Core Math on deeper conceptual understanding by presenting different approaches to the same underlying concepts is an opportunity for usage of games or videos with varying approaches. But before jumping right into assigning resources we recommend teachers consider ahead of time just how they will choose the best resources and how they will assess whether they are working for their students.
Using educational resources (such as video lectures, games, quizzes and exercises) is a powerful way to enhance the student learning process.
Criteria for Resource Choice
There are several factors that teachers should evaluate when considering a resource. While these may seem obvious we have found that teachers that explicitly consider these factors have better results in student subject mastery, given usage of the resource.
Content Precision. How closely aligned is the resource to the standards? This can be assessed both subjectively and using computer-mediated techniques to rate or score the alignment of the resource to the standard. This is based on common information on the metadata attributes of both the resource and the standard. The proposed alignment precision scores have proven to be very helpful in assessing suitability.
Continuity. Another important factor for the teacher to consider is continuity with previously used resources. For example, a video on a standard might be a mere continuation of a teacher’s lecture whose previous one happened to address a previous standard. Or a game might be part of a series, which can accelerate focus on the content over the gaming environment.
Challenge Level. Most standards have at least a basic and advanced level of achievement. Resources can be assessed as not just aligning to a standard but as either basic or advanced. Resources should be assessed based on level within the standard, with a teacher potentially assigning different resources for different students.
Presentation/Content Style. There are many common styles of videos: talking head lecturers, “drawing diagrams on the blackboard”, “real world footage” of moving video that demonstrate concepts, and animated cartoons that show a situation involving the concept in question. Teachers should consider for a given class or particular students which approach is most effective.
Assessing Resource Effectiveness
There are several criteria used in determining just how good a resource is for a class or a particular student.
Results on a Mastery Assessment. One characteristic of Common Core State Standards-based teaching is that students are evaluated with assessments of their mastery of individual standards. PARCC and SBAC provide assessments used by a large number of states. But there is a huge and growing market of Common Core aligned quizzes, tests and assessments that should be leveraged to allow resource effectiveness to be gauged closed to realtime.
Engagement. Depth of student of resource is another good gauge. This is measured in several ways:
• Completion of usage – Do the students watch or play from start to finish?
• Frequency of usage – How often do they use the resource?
• Choice of one resource over another by the student – when assigned for the same topic or standard
Sharing. If students (or even teachers) are sharing the resource with peers is also a powerful indicator of effectiveness, particularly combined with mastery results.
Rating. This is a helpful additional indicator, although it is so casual to set them and somewhat broad brush (few levels to rate at) that it is not that valuable by itself. However it is often a very useful tie-breaker or influencer when choosing between otherwise similar resources.
Using educational resources (such as video lectures, games, quizzes and exercises) is a powerful way to enhance the student learning process. We discuss some of the key criteria for choosing resources and assessing resource usage. We at OpenEd try to provide large amounts of metadata for each resource to help in the choice process described. And we provide assessments, ratings and statistics on engagement and sharing to help teachers assess resource effectiveness.
Regardles of the site or resources they use, K-12 teachers should be considering how to choose those resources and how to assess their effectiveness with a carefully considered framework for both choice and assessment.
Adam Blum is the CEO of OpenEd. Contact him through their website and follow them on Twitter. OpenEd is the largest K-12 educational resource catalog, with over a million Common Core Videos, games and assessments. While it integrates with all popular Learning Management Systems it offers its own simple “flipped classroom” LMS oriented to using resources. It is focused on offering Common Core and other standard aligned resources, and has many more times Common Core Videos, games and assessments than any other catalog.
Using technology on National Read Across America Day.
GUEST COLUMN | by Nicole Fonovich
As National Read Across America Day (NRAAD) rapidly approaches, I reflect on how much the reading experience has changed. It is only fitting that NRAAD coincides with Dr. Seuss’ birthday, the beloved children’s book author who wrote the story, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”, among other nostalgic tales. With the ever-so-rapid advances in technology, a child’s literacy level can be furthered and imaginative journeys can be taken with the snap of their digital fingers.
Books are purchased and borrowed not just as hard and soft covers from bookstores or libraries, today they are found on eBookstores, tablets, eReaders, and smart phones. This “digital” shift has opened the doors to more interactive reading experiences for children in the form of book apps on smart phones and tablets, and interactive eBooks.
Children interact effectively with their books when they learn to love the reading experience. Previously, the interaction, has been verbal and imaginative. The advent of the interactive reading experience on tablets and smartphones has made the physical interaction of touch possible, and can enhance the learning process as children learn to love the “art of reading.”
This physical interaction with eBooks and book applications is helping to establish different levels of connection and learning as children become more literate. Being able to make a mental connection between concepts is a skill that increases a child’s ability to comprehend what they read and helps a child become a better student and test-taker. It is fascinating to watch children fall in love with reading in any form, and this new form of interaction between words and children takes this fascination to the next level.
So, this NRAAD, we not only urge educators to introduce a good story to students, we ask that they introduce students to interactivity in storytelling through eBooks and story apps.
Nicole Fonovich is the president of Luca Lashes LLC and co-author of this interactive eBook and app series. She has a Masters of Education in Educational Policy and Leadership from Marquette University.