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Diana Rhoten: On a Mission to Fast-Forward Mobile Learning

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Why all this fuss about iPads and iTouches, Kindles and Knos? It’s more than just about playing with fancy toys. It’s actually changing the way kids learn.

Diana Rhoten certainly believes it. Rhoten is a founding partner of Startl, which recruits innovators and entrepreneurs and helps them bring digital learning products to the market. She says the future is about learner-centered technology that also happens to have the added advantage of being lighter weight and portable. And she’s on a mission to push for progress in this field right now.

“We’re at a point where technology is easier and cheaper to build, it’s easier to use, more intuitive and more ergonomically attuned to the way kids learn,” Rhoten said in an interview last week. Combine the physical ease of using mobile devices with the fact that most kids (93%) are online, and 76% own them, and it’s easy to see why mobile learning is the future.

“Demographically, there’s much more even distribution with mobile devices,” Rhoten says. “Mobile offers a way to close the digital divide even more so than laptops. It allows learning anywhere anytime."


As part of her mandate to bring mobile products to the market, Rhoten, who spoke at a panel about education at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco last week, thinks it’s crucial to educate the technical talent and help them make progress.

Diana Rhoten

“There’s a viable bottom line. There’s capital, there’s interest, and right now we have a huge opportunity," she says. "People understand that there’s need for change. But my concern is that we get too much capital in this market before we have the technology in place, we’ll burn out before it reaches its full potential. And that will add another layer of disaster to the education issues.”

That’s one of the reason behind Startl’s Mobile Design Boost event last week in San Francisco, which brought together 10 bright, ambitious innovators for four days to brainstorm and prototype their education-based products to the market.

Two winners emerged: Voxy, which won the audience choice award for the mobile app that’s based on their web-browser product targeting adult Hispanics who want to learn English as a second language; and Motion Math, which won the juried selection award for its second learning-based product.

Each of the 10 innovators who participated in the program went through an intense three-day process that included designing and developing, prototyping, and showing their models to not just end-users (elementary and high school students, parents, teachers), but to potential angel investors and venture capitalists, as well as engineers and product development representatives from big companies.

They had to meet the same criteria as every product designer: Does it advance learning? Can this team execute? Is it scalable over time? Is it sustainable?

But for Rhoten, there's even a higher threshold than those criteria.

“The holy grail for any company is not just creating a product that gives instant feedback, but that has a truly adaptive learning engine. And there are few that really do,” Rhoten says.

By that, she means the difference between a closed set of simulated pathways (answer one question and get three different options that are predetermined, for example), compared to a product that truly adapts to users' response – an engine that collects data over time and understands patterns from the user’s mistakes.

“I don’t use the term adaptive learning loosely, but the market is starting to,” she says.

Much more on this soon.

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