Andrew Friday is passionate about teaching kids to read using technology, but he knows full well the odds are stacked against him. He co-founded Beijing-based startup revSquared Studios, which just released an interactive iPad app aimed at preschool-aged kids. The app has already been featured in several education-related publications and even won an award, but download numbers aren’t where they need to be.
“Outside of paid marketing, the only way to make it is for Apple to feature you,” Friday says.
This is the unfortunate reality for many apps from unknown developers, and it hits education apps harder than most. Friday explains that the “freemium” model doesn’t gain traction in the education sector like it does for other types of apps. “Parents don’t like freemium for their kids,” he says, due to things like advertisements and kids unknowingly making in-app purchases. In the education genre, most of the top apps on the App Store are not freemium.
Most educational apps are rubbish
But in an over-saturated market of apps claiming to help parents make their kids smarter, getting moms and dads to pay isn’t any easier. At last year’s 10×10 conference here in Beijing, SmarTots founder Jesper Lodahl boldly stated that 39 out of 40 educational apps are rubbish. Friday says that figure might even be an understatement. “There are two types of people who make education apps. The first type are tech people who don’t get education at all,” he says, but the second type, “teachers with a lack of tech skills,” are often even worse.
Friday works to find a balance between the wants of his engineers and that of the teacher who writes the more than 150 children’s e-books included in the app. The two often butt heads, even over the smallest details of the interface. Friday gives one example:
With games you want to mess people up so they try again and win, but with kids, you want to do everything you can to help them win.
The author behind the startup’s Reading Train app is Libby Curran, a teacher who started writing and printing books for her special education students in the US using printer paper and staples at just pennies per copy. She’s got a handful of high-profile awards on her resume, most notably a 2012 People Magazine Teacher of the Year. Today, Curran uses the Reading Train in her own classroom.
Read to learn
All those books are packaged into a fun and slick interface that includes three difficulty tiers of quiz games, sing-a-long songs, an audio dictionary, and even a recording feature so teachers and parents can listen back to their kids when they read out loud to check on progress. In line with the company’s philosophy that kids should not “learn to read, but read to learn,” each book teaches kids about subjects ranging from shapes to animals to numbers.
Even with Curran’s endorsement and a seemingly never-ending flow of new content, Friday finds the education market almost impenetrable. He explains that retention rates are high (day two: 70 percent, day seven: 57 percent, day 29: 36 percent), but daily active user numbers are currently hovering just under 500 for the startup’s app.
Friday doesn’t blame parents or schools for missing the opportunity. It’s tough for parents to actively sift through dozens of apps and accurately judge which ones will be effective. Furthermore, kids are not monolithic – one solution won’t meet the needs of every student. “You have to ask people what they want, but then you have to look at the data,” he says. Schools are often blamed for being behind the times, but Friday explains things always work slowly in big organizations, even in the private sector. “Adoption rates [for new technologies] are on par with Fortune 500 companies.”
He can rattle off a long list of reasons why the Reading Train is better than its competitors, but he doesn’t have a budget for marketing to get the word out. Some of his problems might be self-inflicted, as he hasn’t actively sought funding. He somewhat regrets that decision, but says he would probably accept investment now if someone made him an offer.
Friday previously made a racing game app that teaches arithmetic called Meerkat Math, which saw some success, but never made it big.
When asked about a plan B, Friday says the backup plan for him and his team is to just get jobs elsewhere, then possibly work on the Reading Train as a side project. If all else fails, he says he’ll resort to the ‘fuck it’ strategy of making the entire app free – a Hail Mary to gain traction.
Friday channels Bob Dylan, “When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.”
The Reading Train is available on iPad and supports both Chinese and English, but both versions teach kids to read English. The first 10 books are free, and the full library costs $1.99 per month.