In 2011, the poster child of digital education was the Khan Academy, Sal Khan's brainchild of over 3,000 lessons, but a new star is emerging for 2012 that's taking Khan's approach to the crowd. It's a free whiteboard app called ShowMe that will currently play 1.5 million teacher-produced lessons. The first iteration of the app has been downloaded over 400,000 times. Now, with an updated version that empowers users to create, search and share lessons, it's ready to emerge as a leader in the digital education revolution ushered in by the iPad.
ShowMe, like other whiteboard apps, captures what users draw on the iPad screen but it also records their voice. Creations are then stored and can be shared with others. For users, ShowMe capitalizes on the touch computing of the iPad, which feels more interactive than a mouse and keyboard, but it also provides the "pen on paper" look-and-feel. While glossy educational animations can do a lot to teach concepts, ShowMe captures more intuitive learning by showing handwritten sketches and notes as well as showing them revealed in real time. This lends itself to following along with the reasoning behind explanations that makes certain teachers so successful in helping students learn.
The story behind ShowMe begins with San Kim, a former tutor and classroom instructor who was interested in utilizing technology to better educate students. In 2009, he partnered with Karen Bdoyan, formerly of Lycos Europe, to launch LearnBat, Inc., which won the 2010 Columbia Venture Competition for their iPad whiteboard tool that allowed teachers and students to share notes in real time. This technology was used to develop a few apps focusing on SAT review and tutoring.
Rebranding into Easel Learning, the startup developed a proprietary technology for capturing voice and syncing it with screen strokes in a file format that was very small, more akin to mp3 file sizes than YouTube video lengths. This also meant that lessons could be easily embedded in web sites using a player they developed. This technology was licensed to the Princeton Review and used in its SAT Score Quest app, which allows students to click a button in the middle of a review section to pop up a virtual tutorial that walks students through the trouble spots using the whiteboard. Easel Learning was nominated for the 2010 Crunchies for Best Bootstrapped Startup.
The Easel Learning team wanted to capitalize on table technology they had developed and make it more freely available to teachers. The goal was to make an app that had a low learning curve so that teachers could easily produce lessons without having to be animation producers. in other words, something that feels a lot like a classroom board. After development and beta testing by teachers, the ShowMe app was launched, which is nicely shown in this promotional video:
ShowMe takes what works for the Khan Academy and effectively democratizes lesson production. Anyone, not just teachers, can produce a video lesson on their iPad and share it. Fortunately, it doesn't require users to be master educators across an enormous array of academic subjects. At its worst, ShowMe allows a teacher, student, or even a layman to capture the one concept that they explain really well and share it with the world. At its best, teachers can replicate lessons from their classrooms and allow students to practice it at their convenience. Furthermore, tutors and other at-large educators can use ShowMe as a platform to advertise their services, as there are currently no plans to allow monetization of lessons within the app. In fact, the platform could be used for any type of learning, not just K-12 or higher ed, including job training, hobbyists, or anyone who wants to get a message across in this way (think RSA animate).
As is true with any service in the social media space, ShowMe's success depends on users creating content. But the response from teachers has been enormous as 1.5 million lessons have been produced in the app's short lifetime. Viewers elevate the best lessons by voting, so the community helps to identify the highest quality content and the best teachers. The lessons can be shared and added to websites, adding to its utility and visibility. Equating it to what Flickr has done for photo sharing, Kim says the desire for ShowMe is to "...make knowledge sharing as readily available as sharing pictures." ShowMe will continue to grow as its fueled by the communities growing around it.
What's the future for ShowMe? Big plans and ideal positioning as well as nothing short of the Holy Grail of education: personalized instruction. As users continue to fill the database with lessons, the ShowMe developers are trying to find a way to take all that good content and cater it directly to the student, thereby creating a crowdsourced tutor. This would allow any student to log in and save their progress as they move through their custom-fit curriculum while tracking their achievements. In other words, ShowMe would create a personal textbook and journal. Furthermore, ShowMe will allow the Easel Learning team to identify the best teachers and content creators out there, not only to continue to build into the lesson database, but potentially be tapped for future products. That alone is an untapped goldmine.
For more insight into ShowMe, check out this interview from last year with San: