THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION. APRIL 17, 2013. Imagine more than 1,000 nurses learning how to use defibrillators at once, each delivering shocks to a single patient. If a patient dies, the instructor is immediately told which nurse failed, and the nurse then tries again, but with more assistance.
It’s not a process patients would want in the real world, but it’s one example of what can be done virtually with a new online-learning portal called Smart Sparrow, said Dror Ben-Naim, the start-up company’s founder.
Smart Sparrow, which was officially launched on Tuesday at the Education Innovation Summit, in Scottsdale, Ariz., is an online-learning platform that allows anyone to create what Mr. Ben-Naim calls adaptive content. “The stress is on anyone,” he said.
Mr. Ben-Naim compared the portal to Adobe Creative Suite. Instead of an array of tools allowing users to produce creative content, Smart Sparrow provides tools for educators to generate educational content. Mr. Ben-Naim referred to it as a “productivity suite.” Teachers are able to adapt that content to the needs of their students. A basic example of this, Mr. Ben-Naim said, could be a quiz in which the difficulty of a question is based on a student’s response to a previous question.
“Get the question right, your next question is harder,” Mr. Ben-Naim said. “Get it wrong, and the next question could be easier.”
Smart Sparrow takes the idea, which can be found in products released by other publishers, and builds on it, Mr. Ben-Naim said, by giving educators the tools to create their own customizable interactive content as complex as a virtual operating table or oxygen-electrode laboratory.
The platform also allows students to receive immediate and detailed feedback, he said, and the student cannot move on until a concept has been mastered, in a process that’s like a having a personal tutor.
Smart Sparrow does not offer courses but rather a way for educators to build tools for their own courses. Currently, the platform is primarily used by educators in science, engineering, and medicine.
“These are the first disciplines that have adapted our tools because they had the greatest need for adaptive content,” Mr. Ben-Naim said. “You can’t teach a doctor to diagnose diseases or operate with just simple text.”
Smart Sparrow was created at Australia’s University of New South Wales. While working on his Ph.D. there, Mr. Ben-Naim began building a virtual laboratory for the head of the physics department, based on the idea that students learning online need more than just words to fully grasp the concepts. They need interaction.
“The head of the department said to me, ‘This is really cool, but what do I do if you get run over by a bus and I need to update the material?’” Mr. Ben-Naim said. “That’s where the idea came, the realization that e-learning needs tools that everyone can use.”
He began studying the idea with three colleagues. Soon they were a research center. Now they’re a company, having grown from four to 20 employees in a year. The company, Mr. Ben-Naim said, is named for the Hebrew bird of freedom, the sparrow.
“We think that education emancipates the mind and that by making online learning personalized and adaptive, we can really make a difference,” he said.