When students get stuck finding a solution to a question on their own, their first instinct directs them to where most of us turn to for our answers: search engines, or Q&A sites like Quora. However, Palo Alto-based Answer Underground has found that not only do those options costs students a great deal of time to sort through, it’s also left them frustrated. CEO Sallie Severns found that to be the case with her teenage son, peaking her interest in not only validating the problem, but launching a tool to help students to get answers to their homework questions from classmates and teachers.
Severns, who has 12 year of experience launching products and services in the education space for companies like Nextage andAnswers.com, spoke with BetaKit about the opportunity to address how students find the most relevant answers. “I spoke with every student that I could speak with, then I went to a couple of colleges, and called a couple of friends of mine who were teachers. I asked them, ‘how do you search for academic information?’ they said ‘we typically start with Google’…across the board they were frustrated,” said Severns.
Her solution to the problem is an iOS app available for both iPhone and iPad, which is now being used in several large school districts in New York, Chicago, and Texas, that connects students with each other as well as with educators from across the U.S., giving them the ability to join, create, and contribute to study groups across multiple subjects. Answers can be voted up or down in a Reddit-like manner, and starting today can be verified by teachers as being correct, something Severns said is a huge issue with Q&A platforms where a lot of information floats around, but is never verified by an expert. It was a feature the company saw a lot of demand for from teachers, who can also start study groups for their own classes, since they didn’t want students relying on false answers.
The platform is free for both students and teachers and looks to tackle the problem for a wide segment of students in K-12 and post-secondary. Its monetization strategy is lead generation via mobile ads for higher education institutions looking to recruit the most engaged students or very targeted segments of the population, which the company can do thanks to the information Answers Underground has access to through Facebook’s API if a student chooses to sign in using the social network. Severn also cited stats that showcased just how engaged students were with the app, with an 80 percent retention rate and more than 45 percent spending over 30 minutes looking for and giving answers.
The edtech space continues to see plenty of startups looking to take advantage of the uptick of smartphone- and tablet-equipped students to bring the sector up to speed. Only recently BetaKit covered the $9 million funding announcement for StudyBlue, providers of a handful of tools to help students manage their courses and collaborate on notes. Specific to Q&A, Chegg, a textbook marketplace, has acquired sites like Student of Fortune and Cramster to power its own student help arena, in addition to Piazza, another student Q&A site, and learning platforms like Lore that provide teachers with the ability to set up a discussion board and provide access to answer sheets. When asked what would help Answer Underground stand apart, Severns said it was the domain expertise she brought to the table with over a decade of experience in the space.
Given the wide spectrum of students the app looks to help, Severn noted some key observations, most notably that students in middle school and high school were most likely to join a study group initiated by a teacher, whereas college students were more likely to start their own study groups. With its mobile-first approach, akin to being a Quora specifically for studying, Answers Underground will need to prove that it’s knowledge base is more effective for students, or they’ll continue to just turn to Google and in-person help.