Global Politics, Interviews, US

Interview with Quipper: How Games and Education Share the Same DNA

Games and play are part of the learning process, educators agree. Thus, with the rise of digital natives — people too young to remember a time without the Internet and gadgets like smartphones and tablets — startups and enterprises have turned to play and games to help foster learning. Of course, one can only do so much in the face of the distractions that gadgets, games and social media have brought upon us. But even so, technology can be a powerful tool in enabling access to information, resources and content without geographic boundaries and restrictions.

London-based EduTech startup Quipper has built its educational platform with the digital generation in mind. Interestingly, the company was founded by Masayuki Watanabe, who was co-founder at DeNA, which runs Mobage, one of Japan’s biggest mobile gaming platforms. According to Takuya Homma, Marketing Director at Quipper, the team took best practices and lessons learned from DeNA and applied these into the learning-oriented startup.

Quipper recently raised a $5.8 million Series A2 funding round led by London-based venture capital firm Atomico (which is led by Skype co-founder Niklas Zennström). This is on top of an earlier $3.6 million Series A in raised 2012, led by Japanese VC Globis Capital Partners. With the new funding, Quipper is set to aggressively expand its market focus, bringing its “gamified learning” and “adaptive learning” platform into more users in more markets.

Quipper’s core product, Quipper School, is an online homework platform currently being targeted at both teachers and students. Educators can build content, including video and interactive content, while students can access these from various devices, including desktops, tablets and smartphones. According to Homma, Quipper works closely with teachers to develop the features and functionalities that they want. But they key advantage is that the social and gaming features keep retention rate up.

Here are some excerpts from VR World‘s interview with Takuya Homma.

VR World: Tell us about how Masayuki Watanabe conceptualized Quipper School. It’s interesting how he started out with social gaming (DeNA) and shifted into education. Do you think there should be a connect between these two industries?

Takuya Homma: Masa’s visions about Quipper came about from his travels, spending some time helping out at refugee camps. “If you are born in an impoverished country, your chances of getting a proper education are very small,” he earlier wrote. “And without that vital education, your opportunities rapidly diminish.” Interestingly, there are a lot of common elements between social gaming and education, especially in terms of keeping our user/learner retention up. We’re implementing a lot from what Masa (and some members who joined from DeNA) learned into our products, and they’ve been working extremely well.

VRW: What is Quipper School’s edge or difference from other learning platforms? Do you have a specific focus or target that will make Quipper School a more viable platform for teachers and students?

TH: The most important thing is that we are working with over 50 teachers in each of our target countries to create content which is completely aligned to the local curriculum of each country with Math/English/Science, and in some countries local languages and social studies. This is possible because we are also offering easy-to-use content creation system, which also enables teachers to easily create their own content. This is something most of competitors are unable to do.

Also, we’re trying to make our UI/UX as simple and easy to use as possible. Most education services are fairly complex and are very hard for teachers/students to use, and we’re working very closely with teachers to provide what they want. As earlier mentioned, our game/social features are very useful to keep our retention rate up.

VRW: What are your target markets at this time? What are the key features of these markets that are worth focusing on?

TH: Currently our main market is Southeast Asia. We’ve done extensive global research, and from the perspectives of mobile/internet penetration, people’s attitude to education and initial reaction to Quipper School, Southeast Asian countries, especially Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam have been quite promising. On top of this, we’re looking into other regions, such as India, Mexico, and Russia, as well. They’re also looking promising, although we’re still at an early stage. Regarding the US, we’re partnering with Benesse America, a subsidiary of the biggest education company in Japan, Benesse.

VRW: How about emerging economies like the Philippines, which do not exactly have the best resources in terms of infrastructure. How do you plan to address the lack of access to online services for many students, especially in the lower-income communities?

TH: Although not every student has internet connection at school or at home, they still almost certainly have a Facebook account, which requires some internet connection. They indeed go to internet cafes or PC shops for very cheap internet access, and many teachers are encouraging them to use Quipper School and get smarter, rather than spending hours on Facebook!

VRW: Does this mean Quipper is more keen on targeting more capable/affluent schools and communities with your learning platform? Have you already started partnering with schools thatmay be interested in including an e-learning facility along with their existing methods/curricula?

TH: We already have some partner schools in the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand, which use Quipper School at the school level (i.e. every student uses Quipper School). Some schools are using it for test prep, and most of them are integrating it to their scoring system, as part of the curriculum. We’re working with some divisional Departments of Education, and they’re mandating all the schools within their jurisdiction to use Quipper School.

We’re very optimistic about our current target countries, such as Indonesia and Thailand. For the rest of countries, honestly speaking, we don’t know yet, but we’re getting some positive response from the users who signed up from other countries as well. But a bit more thorough research would be necessary.

VRW: Apart from free basic access to the platform, what are your planned premium offerings, and how can the users take advantage of these?

TH: We will keep the basic offerings of Quipper School for free forever, because we strongly believe basic education should be available to everyone. For some aspiring students who want to learn more, or more efficiently, we’re considering offering some paid services, such as tutoring services that make students ready for high school or university entrance exams.

VRW: What is your opinion on the use of high-technology in learning? Do devices like computers, tablets, smartphones and the like contribute to a positive disruption in learning, or can these also result in distractions? Or, to put it in other words, what would make learning more effective in an environment rich with technology and devices?

TH: The biggest advantage of high-tech learning is data. We can now get unprecedented amount of learning data, which we very carefully and thoroughly analyze. Data helps us come up with features that help students stay more focused. Data also helps us create questions that actually contribute to improving their academic performance. Data also helps us send reminders or encouragements to the students who lose interest. This is a tremendous change happening on the EdTech field, and we’re very excited about it.

VRW: How do you see learning and the education sector 20 to 50 years from now?

TH: Definitely, the current school models will be disrupted soon. Now that anyone from any part of the world can get the best education delivered via the internet, there’s no reason for students to go to lectures for the same objectives as we do now. Schools will become a place for some other purposes than lectures. And this is a huge change.

In terms of what we need to learn, I don’t think there’ll be much change. The fundamental things we need to learn, such as mathematics, literature and science, have not changed for so long, and there’s no reason to assume that it will change anytime soon. It’s just how we’ll learn them will be altered.

On the other hand, there are a lot of relatively new areas, such as computer science, artificial intelligence, or DNA analysis, which have great fit with computers and the internet. A lot of new methods of learning will be born in these areas, and they’ll play very important roles in the future.

VRW: If I’m an investor or an entrepreneur, in what industry or applications should I put my money or effort into (may or may not be education)?

TH: I’d think the robotics industry, especially healthcare robotics would be very interesting, especially in an ageing society like Japan, where a declining number of working populations needs to sustain the ageing society. We need to rely on robots, and the technologies behind it are getting more and more sophisticated. Google has made some investments into the area recently, as well.

To conclude, Homma says Quipper’s aspiration is to make as many positive contributions to education and technology as possible. “Education plays a very very important role in anyone’s lives, and now is the first time in history when anyone from any part of the world can access the best learning materials that exist on the planet — what can be more exciting than that!”

Photo credit: Kids using tech / Shutterstock

Update: First few paragraphs have been corrected to reflect that Quipper is based in London, the UK and not Japan.