Innovations in software coupled with the widespread availability of Internet broadband are transforming the once stodgy business of language education. Leading the charge in Japan are two Japanese-American brothers, John Hideyoshi Martyn and Billy Kosuke Martyn.
The brothers want to reduce the many hours per week that language teachers spend on managing assignments, grading, and keeping track of student progress. Their early stage Internet startup, called Language Cloud, aims to be the first comprehensive learning management system to help teachers easily manage assignments and classes in the cloud.
It sounds like an audacious mission, until you learn that Cambridge University Press, and professors at Sophia University and Tokyo University are partnering with Language Cloud. In November 2012, John received the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan’s Director’s Award for entrepreneurship. That caught people’s attention.
The Japan Times recently met with John and Billy to get the inside track on their startup venture.
The pair got the idea for Language Cloud when they noted that tech-savvy language teachers and students were hacking together high-tech teaching aids from software applications including Microsoft Word, Excel, Dropbox, Evernote, Quizlet, and Facebook. As a result, the two decided to consolidate apps like these into a single platform designed for language education.
Take, for example, the two apps Turnitin and Gradekeeper. Turnitin is a composition markup service and Gradekeeper a gradebook service. Both apps are good at what they do, but the apps don’t talk to one another. Data in each remains siloed and cannot be easily shared.
The service John and Billy are building integrates third party apps into one platform — theirs. The platform, a learning management system, provides teachers and students with a seamless workflow experience. Teachers create an assignment from within Language Cloud; Then, students receive an email notifying them that homework has been assigned; After completion, students electronically submit homework back to teachers, and so on.
The magic behind Language Cloud lies within its analytics, which allows for collected information to be used in innovative ways. The analytics can determine which topics a student needs to brush up on based upon quiz performance. It can also flag students that are falling behind and can tell content providers which of their teaching materials need upgrading.
“Right now,” says Billy, “Cambridge University Press does not know which chapters of their textbook are the most popular and which are in need of improvement. That’s because their textbooks are paper-based. Our content will become interactive so that we can tell Cambridge which chapters are being used. Based on that information, they can improve their teaching materials.”
The Martyns are busy integrating Cambridge University Press’s content into their platform.
The plan is to market third-party language apps as well as content, including Cambridge’s textbooks, through Language Cloud’s own app store. Under the partnership arrangement, Cambridge (as the content owner) will keep 70 percent of the app center’s revenues on sales of Cambridge products while Language Cloud (as merchant) will keep the remaining 30 percent.
The idea behind the Language Cloud app center is elegant if not ambitious. There are hundreds of thousands of apps available for the iPhone today and more are added every day. Searching for the best apps is time consuming and difficult. The Martyns hope to simplify the process by consolidating online sales of language learning materials through their online store, much in the same way that Amazon has with books.
Language Cloud’s apps center will use analytics to decide which app or content is most appropriate to take a student to the next step in the learning process based upon their actual educational progress. That will reduce the possibility a student will purchase a product which has good reviews, but in fact is too easy or too difficult.
Talking frankly about their ambitions, John said, “The online education market today is fragmented. Last year about $250 billion was spent worldwide on language education, of which $9 billion was on digital purchases spread across thousands of websites. By 2015, digital purchases are expected to grow to $40 billion. Yet there is currently no centralized marketplace for language education. We want to consolidate the marketplace. We want to build an app store, like the iPhone App Store, that allows an app developer to reach 100 million downloads. Our apps center is going to be that.”
That’s a big dream, but John and Billy are well on their way. The technical team started writing the first lines of code for Language Cloud in January 2012. They released the first version of the service in April and are busy refining the service with input received from their first 50 clients. Sophia University and the University of Tokyo are among the beta clients, as are many small to medium sized eikaiwa (English conversation) schools.
With such early interest, it looks like the the future for Language Cloud is set to have a silver lining.
Richard Solomon posts regular Beacon Reports at www.beaconreports.net