Guest post by: Andrew Cohen is the founder of Brainscape, a web & mobile education platform that helps people study more efficiently. Brainscape has raised over $2.5m in venture capital from some of the top Silicon Valley angel investors.
Few phenomena have changed media this decade as much as cards have. As Robert Fan wrote earlier this year, the advent of the mobile “card” is slowly transforming nearly every consumer web & mobile industry on the planet. There’s simply something so damn consumable about the combination of text, images, video, audio, meta tags, likes, shares, and comments into a single unit of meaning.
We’ve recently seen card-based products like Tinder (dating), SlideShare (corporate white papers), Twitter (microblogging), Instagram (photos), Pinterest (pinboards), and Google Now (real-time personalized information) enrich millions of lives while creating billions of dollars of investor wealth. But one market that is only just beginning to be transformed by cards is Education. I predict that flashcards will be among the most important disruptors of Education for the next millennium.
Digital flashcards are now able to accomplish so much more than the dreaded paper flashcard has ever offered to us. Rather than being “drill & kill” devices that simply allow us to memorize trivial facts, today’s digital flashcards can support any type of media, of any length, of any level of interactivity, on any web or mobile device, in conjunction with any type of broader educational setting. Digital flashcards can also be made adaptive, so that they are automatically repeated in intervals that are customized for the learner’s own pace of learning, thereby accelerating memory retention. For the next millennium, the word “flashcard” does not have to mean “trivial fact”, but rather, it can mean “the smallest unit of knowledge that can be efficiently studied, shared, or tied across various curricula.”
Card-based learning platforms have great potential to transform Education by reaching large masses of learners more quickly than ever before. Unlike most other learning technologies, which are sold to schools and universities, flashcard platforms are adopted by individuals, in the same way people might sign up for a utility like Dropbox or Evernote. Flashcard-based study platforms are able to spread virally to millions of people while establishing a social fabric of learning that can permanently connect students and learning materials from around the world.
If one or more leading B2C flashcard platforms can establish a dominant presence among the 600 million students and teachers on the planet, it could finally provide the much-needed standardized “data layer” of the world’s learnable mobile knowledge, on top of which can be built the foundations of new types of adaptive global curricula.
What will it take to accomplish this?
Hundreds of millions of students around the world are already using inefficient paper flashcards to study subjects ranging from Telling Time and Learning the ABCs, to Medical School, Law School, Bartending, Standardized Tests, and Foreign Languages. Meanwhile, software developers have created literally thousands of flashcard applications on web and mobile app marketplaces, which are growing at exponential rates. It is increasingly clear that students and teachers of all demographics demand a digital flashcard experience that is easy, convenient, comprehensive, and awesome.
Yet despite this massive demand and millions of dollars raised, the web/mobile flashcard industry is still less than 1% of its ultimate potential. In order to fulfill their tremendous promise in the decades to come, flashcard industry leaders like Brainscape will need to do a much better job developing 5 key product components:
The ability to access the world’s study-able knowledge via a web/mobile flashcard marketplace is probably the most obvious improvement from the old model of having to make your own paper flashcards. While there is still some educational value in creating your own digital flashcards, today’s students can save tremendous amounts of time by borrowing digital study materials created by teachers, classmates, or publishers.
This necessitates the existence of not just a user-generated content marketplace, but a carefully curated ecosystem of expert-created, certified curricula for large common subjects like foreign languages, standardized tests, certification exams, and even the Common Core curriculum. The value of having a single, centralized marketplace for the world’s best educator-certified mobile study materials scales exponentially the more users and subjects are on the platform.
As far as I know, Brainscape is still the only major flashcard network that supports such large, well-organized, comprehensive study packages. And we still only have fewer than 1% of the number of subjects and expert partners that we would ultimately like to have. The future of flashcards belongs to the platform whose marketplace is able to combine both private class notes and globally accessible expert-certified subjects.
Simply flipping through static piles of digital flashcards is barely any better than studying a PowerPoint document. The true power of digital flashcards is unleashed when you make them adaptive. Over 5 decades of cognitive science research has proven that learning outcomes can be multiplied several-fold by optimizing the interval of repetition for each bite-sized piece of knowledge.
Brainscape uses a scientifically proven adaptive study system that we call Confidence-Based Repetition (CBR). By asking the learner to rate her confidence in each flashcard on a scale of 1-5, our machine learning algorithm can determine exactly how soon that concept should be reviewed again, with hard concepts being repeated the most frequently until they are gradually moved into longer-interval review buckets.
CBR’s combination of the principles of Active Recall, Metacognition, Spaced Repetition, Scaffolding, and Frequent Feedback allows for a better-optimized learning system than ever before. In fact, you cannot have fully adaptive learning in the first place unless you have first broken down knowledge into its fundamental building blocks. Digital flashcards are the optimal medium for such adaptivity.
The beauty of computers and mobile devices is that they allow us to put so much more than just text on a flashcard. Digital flashcards can also contain images, sound clips, video clips, animations, and many other types of widgets that could help promote deeper learning.
Perhaps more importantly, digital flashcards can be seamlessly tied to other education resources, thereby tying the study experience with more exploratory, constructivist activities in which broader skills can be learned. In the ideal world, content creators could add hyperlinks and supplementary “attachments” for each flashcard, to ensure that the broader context is never lost while studying bite-sized concepts. Flashcard platform leaders could also open their APIs so that the rest of the world’s education software developers can seamlessly integrate with their content and statistics.
Together, educators and software developers could create a system where the digital flashcard becomes the world’s standardized unit of learnable knowledge, around which the rest of the education system is built.
Digital flashcards can also make the study experience feel a lot less lonely. In Brainscape, every subject has a “Leaderboard” tab where you can compare your progress with other learners. Whether this list of learners consists of just a few of your classmates, or people from around the entire world, Brainscape’s “community” aspect can make studying feel a lot more engaging and motivating.
Having a strong social fabric can also help flashcard platforms facilitate a much larger degree of collaboration between content creators. The ideal flashcard platform allows subject admins to control “edit” access among other contributors, while encouraging the world at large to “suggest an edit” to cards whose educational value could be improved. Such network effects allow the content to achieve increasingly higher quality the more users are on the platform.
Having to remember to bring your flashcards with you was always a huge barrier to the wider proliferation of paper flashcards. Smartphones, in contrast, are always on you. They allows you to integrate bite-sized flashcard study sessions into your everyday life, whether you are riding the bus, sitting on the can, waiting for a friend, or just studying at Starbucks for 10 hours straight. The ability to study digital flashcards throughout the day dramatically increases the value of Confidence-Based Repetition.
The study platform(s) of the future will need to be accessible on any smartphone, computer, smartwatch, and other devices that don’t even exist yet. Cloud-hosted study platforms will allow developers to blend learning experiences into your life so seamlessly that you never have to think about where your learning data is. It will just work.
Luckily for all the learners of the world, several other startups beyond Brainscape have emerged to build some version of this future. Some, like Quizlet, have successfully focused more on flashcard-like vocabulary games rather than deeper content and curation. Others, like StudyBlue, Flashnotes, and Course Hero, have focused on school-specific class notes rather than publisher-curated curricula with global appeal. It remains to be seen which combination of features will emerge as the most disruptive winner. But one thing's for sure -- we still have a lot of work to do to create the future of studying.