Technologists have a long history of making grand claims that their innovations will supplant what has gone before – and in this year of all years, it is not difficult to see why edtech businesses are feeling upbeat. But Travis Ratnam, the CEO and founder of Knowledgehook, insists his business does not have traditional educators in its sights. “Actually, we’re disrupting the edtech paradigm,” Ratnam says of the platform, which has just raised £13.5m in a funding round led by a UK-based edtech investment fund. “We’re not trying to replace the teacher.”
Knowledgehook is a digital learning platform that aims to help teachers secure better outcomes for their maths students. Pupils can log on to the platform at home or in school, but the crucial value add is that the system analyses their progress in order to provide teachers with support on what each student needs to move on. The platform identifies where each student is struggling and then advises the teacher on which pedagogical techniques and supports will help.
Ratnam built the platform having struggled with maths when he was a child. “I was bottom of my class and I thought I was stupid and slow,” he recalls. “But what made the difference for me was that my dad was a maths tutor and he worked with me – eventually I was top of the class.”
After several years working at Microsoft, where several successes finally cured Ratnam of the imposter syndrome that dated from his early struggles, he began building Knowledgehook. “We came up with something that recognised the role of the teacher in the classroom as critical for learning,” he says. “Many edtech ventures ignore that role, but we could see the opportunity to connect teachers to their students’ learning problems.”
The system took some time to construct – the company’s seed funding round took place in 2016. Knowledgehook not only had to build a sophisticated data analytics infrastructure capable of analysing students’ performance, but it also wanted to build in the latest educational research and pedagogical theory. The idea is to offer teachers specific advice on how to help individual students, based on global learnings about the most effective strategies for tackling their particular issues.
As an analogy, Ratnam points to the experience of most car owners, who only ever look at their instruction manuals when they need to find out what a dashboard warning light is telling them. Knowledgehook enables teachers to instantly access the instruction book for providing effective maths education, with the platform automatically guiding them to the relevant advice for each student.
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This approach is proving hugely successful. Knowledgehook’s technology is already in use in 100,000 schools around the world, with the UK, the US and Canada its largest markets. Within the next year, the company hopes to be reaching 50 million students, with plans for expansion in South America, Australia and New Zealand.
In addition, Knowledgehook has also changed its distribution model, and now works with some of the world’s leading education companies, which act as its partners, rather than competing directly with them. “The thing we had to work out was how to scale effectively,” says Qamar Qureshi, Knowledgehook’s chief financial officer. “We only had a couple of sales guys; they were doing very well, beating the big companies at their own game based on the merit of our product, but we realised partnerships would reduce our cost of customer acquisition.”
The company’s technology is easily rolled out, harnessing a cloud-based subscription solution that each new school or education authority can trial before moving to full-scale adoption. “It’s a ‘land and expand’ model,” Qureshi explains. “We don’t have to spend huge sums on marketing, and very often our teachers and districts are our greatest advocates.” The company is also investing heavily in research, content and other thought leadership, ensuring that the platform continues to offer its users access to the latest educational thinking.
This year, of course, online education platforms have come into their own, enabling students to carry on learning even if they haven’t been able to go to school. But Ratnam is keen to talk about the long-term opportunities for education from digital transformation; this isn’t a quick fix to deal with Covid-19, he argues.
“People are making all sorts of claims for edtech right now, but not all of them will still be around tomorrow,” Ratnam says. “What’s important is recognising that while technology is a tool that can be used to accelerate learning, it takes the teacher to inspire the whole classroom.” There simply is no substitute for experienced and expert teachers working individually with students, Ratnam argues – and Knowledgehook’s role is to help teachers as they perform that work.
Investors certainly buy the argument, attracted by the company’s 4,300% growth since it entered the market – and a 100% client retention record. Investors in its fund raising round include Mesoamerica’s Alexandria Corp, Nelson Education, Ideal Ventures and Nicoya Ventures.
This is just the beginning, insists Ratnam. “We took our time to raise funds because we wanted to be ready, but now we’re set up to scale and it made sense to throw some fuel on to the fire we had stoked,” he says. “We’ve started with maths, but we aspire to be in every subject area.”