BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Despite astonishing growth within the online education industry — a crowded market worth an estimated $107 billion globally in 2015 — providers still struggle to perfect technology that maximizes the effectiveness of distance learning.
Tiffany Roman saw this first-hand in 2012 while teaching online at Indiana University Purdue University Columbus. Now a doctoral candidate at IU Bloomington’s School of Education, she wanted her students to authentically share their work and offer comment. But four years ago, no tools offered such capability.
Her solution? Use a collaborative spreadsheet that allows students to interact with each other while providing formative feedback on their project-based work. The approach worked well, so she shared it with fellow doctoral candidate Matthew Callison, who also found it effective. So they published an article in the practitioner journal Learning and Leading with Technology and from there, took things to the next level.
They launched a company known as Critique with the help of B-Start, a pre-accelerator program created by the Bloomington Economic Development Corp. for early-stage, student-run technology startups that receives partial support from Innovate Indiana. Additional sponsors include the Cook Center for Entrepreneurship at Ivy Tech Bloomington and Cook Group Inc.
Having little business experience going into B-Start, the veteran educators became students again. At times, they struggled to answer even basic queries about their venture.
“The first question we were asked is what kind of business was this going to be? Not for profit? Profit? We didn’t even have that question answered,” Roman said.
“To go from what kind of business you are going to be to winning the (Demo Day) competition shows how pivotal B-Start was. I don’t think our company would be at the stage it is at if not for the support and guidance of B-Start … (as well as) the ability to have regular informational sessions on topics such as fund-raising and identifying target markets.”
Patching a startup “gap”
B-Start is a four-month program that competitively selects startup businesses to take part in mentorship and coaching sessions, consultations, informational programs and a pitch day in which they compete for prizes based on various scoring criteria. It is open to all Indiana University Bloomington and Ivy Tech Bloomington students who want to take their idea for a technology-related business to the next level of development.
The program was hatched in June 2015 as BEDC officials explored ways to keep more entrepreneurial students in the Bloomington-Monroe County area — and found a “gap” when it came to launching local startups. IU and Ivy Tech students had few ties to local resources that could help get their business off the ground, while local resources were unsure how to reach those students.
“In Bloomington we have this beast of a university with more than 40,000 students and one of the strongest entrepreneurial programs in the nation at IU. But while the Kelley School of Business has programs such as CEO (Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization) and the Hoosier Hatchery, many students are unaware of the entrepreneurial ecosystem that exists within the city,” BEDC Vice President Dana Palazzo said.
“So we needed to find a way to get them off-campus so they could interact with local mentors. Over time, as they become better connected within the community, the hope is they will become more likely to stay upon graduation.”
Meanwhile, business incubators and accelerators were appearing in other communities — and Bloomington feared being left behind.
As a not-for-profit organization, BEDC lacks the capacity to host a traditional incubator or accelerator, Palazzo said. So B-Start became a “pre-accelerator,” offering services beyond those of other programs while shunning traditional roles.
“The word ‘incubator’ is an older term now, not something most millennials use. There are virtual accelerators that are available online, but we needed an aspect where students could work with a real, live mentor offline as well,” Palazzo said.
“In addition, accelerators tend not take on early-stage companies that need the most support. They also push entrepreneurs into finding ways to make that new company their day job — and students generally are in no position to do that. We wanted to offer something not quite as intense, but still involved structure and accountability.”
B-Start hoped to attract about a half-dozen students to its first cohort. But the entrepreneurial buzz was bigger than expected, as B-Start’s staff accepted nine businesses after interviews in late August. Along with Critique, they included:
- SoundsGood, a recipe and health database;
- Engine-us, a touch-screen digital electric guitar sound processor;
- TrickLab, an online platform for martial arts tricking;
- EconomyLoop, a sortable platform for global economic news;
- Cohesify, a platform for creating mobile patient engagement apps;
- MyStartupU, a network to connect student entrepreneurs and investors;
- CollegeDeedz, a tasking service for subcontracting college students, and
- Beatmatch, a social commerce platform for buying and selling instrumentals
B-Start paired fledgling companies like Critique with local technology entrepreneurs who act as mentors throughout the program. B-Start cohorts also attended workshops to learn skills such as pitch development, funding procurement and identifying customers.
One of Critique’s mentors was Pat East, CEO of Bloomington-based Hanapin Marketing, who chose to work with Callison and Roman because of their expertise in instructional systems technology.
“As instructors, they faced the problems that happen in every classroom with peer feedback: lack of engagement by the students and burdensome administration for the instructors. Their product creates engagement by forcing students to reflect and give thoughtful feedback, thus improving their learning. And because it’s online, it reduces the time to administer group meetings by 40 percent,” East said.
“What I love most about Matt and Tiffany is their resourcefulness; they’ve accomplished all of this without a developer. Seeing the needs in their classrooms, they built a ‘minimum viable product’ in Google Apps. They tested it with actual students solicit real-time feedback, so with $0, they validated a multi-million dollar market, which was the start of their company.”
Roman said that Critique likely would not be in its current stage of development without mentors like East and Ari Vidali, CEO of Bloomington-based Envisage Technologies — and the structure that B-Start provided.
“Their guidance was invaluable … as well as the ability to have regular sessions about information such as fund-raising and identifying your target markets,” Roman said. “We also had several group sessions along the way and had to meet certain deadlines, such as having our business plan ready, as well. It was a lot of work and not a lot of sleep, but very much worthwhile given the product we created.”
B-Start closed its inaugural year with a Demo Day event held at Indiana University’s Cyberinfrastructure Buidling. Each venture delivered a 5-minute pitch before a panel of judges that included Tony Armstrong, president and CEO of the IU Research and Technology Corp.; Dan Owen, entrepreneur-in-residence at Elevate Ventures; and Troy Phelps, a regional director for the Indiana Small Business Development Center.
As the winner of Demo Day, Critique received $2,500 to continue its business development. The second-place team, TrickLab, and the third-place team, Beatmatch, earned $1,500 and $500 respectively. In addition, each of B-Start’s graduating participants received $500 for their efforts.
The road ahead
As part of Critique’s evolution through the B-Start program, Roman and Callison first needed to validate their idea in the market. So they partnered with IU’s Kelley School of Business, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Oklahoma, working with four instructors and 113 students.
“The first thing we did was basically start to gain traction by using the tool, seeing what features worked well and what needed to be changed without spending any money on development costs, other than our own time,” Roman said.
Critique addresses one of the main challenges of online teaching — student isolation. Because discussion forums often are the primary means of communication, the lack of additional channels can suppress a sense of community within the course, Callison said.
“As students give feedback and share their work, Critique creates that sense of community and dialogue on how to improve their work,” he said. “It creates an authentic and meaningful dialogue about course content.”
Critique’s pilot runs proved successful, with instructors reporting improved learning and time savings, Callison said. This spring, Critique expanded to Berea College in Kentucky and Central Middle School in Columbus, Ind., with additional institutions also expressing interest, Callison said.
At the Kelley School, Critique’s use will rise from 24 students in the fall 2015 semester to more than 300 this spring — and eventual expansion to 1,200 students next fall with continued success, Roman said.
“So we’ve had really good traction,” she said. “Everyone who has used it wants to continue using it and teachers just naturally share what’s effective.”
Critique recently applied for a Small Business Innovation and Research (SBIR) grant through the Department of Education. While waiting on a decision, expected sometime in April, Critique is assembling a team of developers and advisers to produce a second version of its product, Roman said. If successful in obtaining the grant, development on the new version would start May, with testing in a local school anticipated in August.
In mid-February, Critique also was accepted into the Johnson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s CLAPP Idea Competition. Callison and Roman will learn in March if they have been selected as finalists.