Why We Created a Company Focused on Learner-Centered Education

Voices from the Field   16 June 2020
By Fred Delse, Unrulr


In a learner-centered learning program, tech tools need to be something students want to use, rather than something they have to use.

Fred Delse
Co-Founder and COO, Unrulr

Getting Started

My colleagues and I experienced a conventional, teacher-driven education, and we did well at the “game of school.” But, as we’ve read from, watched, and engaged with educators over the past couple of decades, we’ve learned school doesn’t have to be a game, and the current education system was built to serve workforce needs that are no longer relevant. Moreover, a great deal of research shows that our education system is not aligned with how people actually learn. 

Through our exploration, it became clear to us that learner-centered education is what we wish we had growing up. And, that we could put our hearts and souls into supporting today’s learner-centered models with a tool that was aligned with the science of learning. We weren’t interested in building a product that digitized existing processes in the current system.

The Unique Needs of Learner-Centered Models

When building a software product, it’s essential to empathize with the needs of users. Common models for product development, such as Lean Product Development and Design Thinking, start with defining the user. In education, it might seem obvious that the “user” is the student. Yet, the product market for the conventional system largely focuses on the needs of the teachers and schools—building digital products for online teacher-centered communication, managing assignments and quizzes, receiving and grading assignments, and supporting integrated gradebooks all organized by class.

We’ve talked with educators doing learner-centered work at over 100 schools and organizations around the world, and we’ve quickly learned that the needs in learner-centered models differ greatly from those of conventional ones. Rather than focusing on the needs of the educators, they focus on the needs of learners and the competencies they are hoping to fulfill:

  1. Students need to be able to capture and reflect on their learning when and where it happens, regardless of assignment or class.
  2. Peers and teachers need to have visibility into the learning and be able to give formative feedback on specific learning objectives.
  3. A flexible, competency-based assessment model needs to be supported—an assessment model that should equally support the assessment of 21st-century skills and academic skills.
  4. Students need to be able to not only demonstrate what they can do but also how they did it—the process is as equally important as the outcome. 

These needs raise the bar for software quality. Learner-centered models aren’t prescriptive and give students choice in when, where, and how they do their work. Therefore, students will only choose to deeply engage in the tools that actually help them learn. In a learner-centered learning program, tech tools need to be something students want to use, rather than something they have to use. 

Incumbents Have Challenges Meeting the Needs

Unfortunately, apps that support learner-centered learning enjoy far less demand than do apps that support conventional learning. This fact makes it difficult for long-standing educational service providers, which already have significant market share in the conventional system, to make investments in learner-centered projects. As the late Clayton Christensen posited in his seminal work, The Innovator’s Dilemma, these incumbents are busy focusing on the evolving needs of their current customers. As such, It’s hard for them to justify spending resources on such a small market.

Although incumbents have trouble reinventing their products, they do see a slight shift in demand towards student-centered learning and are trying to hedge their bets. They do so by adding evolutionary features onto otherwise conventional software. 

For example, some have been adding rubric grading support to their systems. But, these rubrics still roll up into a single score for the gradebook in a particular class, rather than contribute to a competency-based summary. Others support peer communication, but the communication centers around assignments or classes, rather than the work of each individual learner.

Startups Can Start Small and Give On-Ramps to a Growing Movement

Despite the small market size, we have been inspired by the pockets of learner-centered learning that we’ve found. In the majority of schools we talk to, we find a handful of innovative teachers who run a learner-centered program in their area of control, usually their classroom. We also commonly find school leaders who are encouraging a broader shift to learner-centered programs at their otherwise conventional schools.

Startups need to think about how to create an on-ramp to support the shift. Innovative software must be designed to be extremely easy to implement and use. Most successful change (and creation!) involves doing and learning on a small scale and then scaling up the parts that are working. To the extent the “doing” is easy, the learning and transformation can happen more quickly.

In addition, innovative software should work in tandem with the more conventional systems already in use at the school. For example, several schools we work with create assignments in their traditional learning management system (LMS), but the assignments involve giving students choice in the order and timing of competencies they tackle in their work. The assignments also involve reflection and sharing with peers. In our case, we are working on features that allow learners to do the learner-centered work in our system, while integrating with the LMS for assignment management.

It’s Hard But Worth It

Ultimately, it was clear to us that the best way for us to contribute positive change in education was to start a new company. We believe that a product designed, from the beginning, with the learner and target competencies at its core will be the most effective at meeting the needs of learner-centered learners. Incumbents can add new features to conventional systems, but if the primary constructs in the system are classes, assignments, and grades, they will have difficulty supporting a truly learner-centered model.

If nothing else, product developers who are supporting learner-centered learning must be patient and committed. The movement will grow unpredictably in fits and starts. The customers are scattered and hard to find—but can be found. And, like-minded investors are scarce. But for me, personally, despite the difficulties, the effort is worth it. In my career, I’ve worked on software products in a variety of industries from search engines to health care, and I’ve never felt more gratified than when a learner-centered teacher tells me, “This is exactly what we need.”

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