02 May Madison start-up bets on interactive future for reading education
Madison, Wis. — After four years of development the electronic learning company NeuronFarm has put the finishing touches on its interactive Web-based learning tool 3D-Readers, moving past early funding difficulties and technological hurdles.
The company formally announced the system on Monday at the International Reading Association Conference in San Antonio.
“[Now] our challenge is getting the word out and the product in schools,” said Carol Goedken, vice president of sales and marketing for NeuronFarm.
• Read where NeuronFarm was at one year ago.
When Mina Johnson-Glenberg, now president and chief science officer of NeuronFarm, founded the company in 2001 her goal was to develop an online reading system for students with learning disabilities. She wanted to move past teaching how to read and go into improving reading skills though a tool teachers and students could use with minimum preparation.
Locating in Madison gave NeuronFarm a strong body of talent, but locating capital proved to be a problem. While the Department of Commerce and members of some venture capital firms were able to give their advice so NeuronFarm could lay out a business plan, “active and passionate” angel investors were absent from the picture.
Johnson-Glenberg said that the main problem was that in Madison, investors are focused on biotechnology start-ups and advances and most other technologies simply “fall of the radar.”
“I wouldn’t say Wisconsin has a plethora of investors who are easy to reach,” Johnson-Glenberg said.
To get started NeuronFarm had to look to other methods, applying for Small Business Innovation Research grants offered by the National Institute of Health and the U.S. Department of Education. The company won four of them by 2004 and added over $1.4 million dollars to their resources, funds which Johnson-Glenberg said were vital to getting NeuronFarm started.
“We’re sort of the poster children for NIH in that regard,” Johnson-Glenberg said. “That’s what the [grants] were created for, to take innovative research and get products developed and commercialized.”
Building the technology also took time, but NeuronFarm began the project prepared for that. “Technology is a complex animal, especially with artificial intelligence,” said NeuronFarm Chief Operations Officer Ankur Malhotra.
The company had several demanding goals for the interactive system, which was designed to move students past multiple-choice and into descriptive answers to the questions posed. It needed to supply students with their results almost instantly, incorporate a combined verbal and visual interface, and have a strong correlation between the student’s answer and the quality of the system’s judgments.
NeuronFarm developed 3D-Readers to handle each of these requirements, providing students with a mix of 2,000-word stories and flash animations that describe key facts in the story. Students then fill out “constructive text responses” and vocabulary lists the system evaluated based on clarity, completeness and understanding of the information.
Danielle McNamara, a psychology professor at University of Memphis experienced with Web-based applications related to reading and learning, said that a focus on interactive technology is the best thing NeuronFarm could do for creating learning software. Interactive technology will likely be the most useful in the future, since students’ abilities do not stay constant.
“Currently there are very few interfaces that are highly interactive, they are simply ‘read and ask questions,'” McNamara said. “When you interact with the learner, than the learner is more able to learn from the experience.”
Malhotra said NeuronFarm’s biggest break in developing 3D-Readers was that they had correctly predicted a Web browser would make the best platform for learning. An estimated 98 percent of all public schools are hooked up to the Internet and 90 percent have high-speed connections. This makes 3D-Readers accessible in most educational settings without the need for further installation.
“Two years ago would have been too early,” Malhotra said of 3D-Readers. “Now schools are ready [and] now it sets itself up well for the future.”
After completing development the system was tested in several schools in the Madison area, including the Walbridge School for Children with Learning Disabilities. Thirteen students between third and eighth grade with dyslexia or ADD read stories and answered questions provided through some of the ten science modules provided by NeuronFarm.
Donna Daniels, a science and computer instructor at Walbridge, said that while she thought the training was not spaced out enough – 70 minutes a day for ten days straight was too intense – she was impressed and surprised by the results the students showed. Since they got results so fast and couldn’t argue with the computer, they were driven to try harder on their answers.
“This was a population that is in general not super readers and they were working very hard on it and were interested,” Daniels said. “They really cared about getting a good grade on those tests.”
With its product now available, NeuronFarm plans to keep adding to it and acting on customer opinions. Five more modules are planned for release in fall of 2005, and plans are underway to develop more for language arts and mathematics courses. NeuronFarm also plans to market the system to summer schools for additional trials.
Despite being a little smaller than was planned, NeuronFarm is completely undeterred. “We feel like we’re on the leading edge of technology in schools,” Goedken said. “We’re not just assessing, we’re finding qualities to help through visual and verbal comprehension.”