Q&A: Patrick Supanc Wants Students to Score with Alleyoop

Apps & Mobile, EdTech, Learning, PreK-12

“Interview: Patrick Supanc Wants Students to Score with Alleyoop” by Victor Rivero first appeared on the Edcetera Blog.

Too many young people are entering their post-high school college and career worlds woefully underprepared, particularly in the areas of math and science. Despite all of the investment of time, effort and money they make to get into college, they are at high risk of dropping out or graduating late.

“We created Alleyoop to help teens and their families get on track earlier so that they arrive at college ready to succeed,” says Patrick Supanc, President of Alleyoop, a Pearson-incubated startup which is a sort of math and science adaptive-learning “super-app” that preps students for college.

“We knew that this would take a new approach that placed a premium on personalization, engagement and, most importantly, better results. We also wanted to leverage technology in ways similar to how it has transformed the way we prepare for other key life goals like personal health or a secure retirement,” says Patrick, who in previous lives worked for the World Bank, followed by five years in the early 2000s at Blackboard, before he joined Pearson in 2006.

The mission of Alleyoop is to empower teens and families with the knowledge, feedback and skills they need to take control of another key life goal: a college degree leading to a great career. Here, Patrick talks about game dynamics in education, the infinite value of a new kind of currency, and how he keeps serious work light with an unlikely remote-controlled prowler.

What’s the name all about?

Getting ready for college takes hard work, drive and timely support from others. The same holds true to perform an alleyoop in basketball, where the perfect pass from a teammate leads to an energizing slam dunk. That combined feeling of achievement, elevation and exhilaration is what we want to bring to our customers and our brand. And, we’d like to make it fun along the way.

What’s your elevator-pitch description on, say, a 20-story ride up?

Alleyoop is a site for middle and high school students that essentially is a combination of a super-smart tutor, a guidance counselor and a game all rolled into one. Alleyoop’s recommendation engine, called the “Super Brain,” is able to evaluate a student when they sign up to determine exactly where they need help, and over time, it gets better and better at presenting the right learning activity at the right time for you as you work toward your college-bound goals.

We’re also a new startup incubated by Pearson Education. A big factor in Alleyoop’s success is its partnership network, which includes content and activities from major organizations like NASA eClips, National Geographic and The National Science Foundation, as well as innovative education startups like Virtual Nerd and Adaptive Curriculum. We are working with these partners to bring their activities directly to college-aspiring students. We also just announced a partnership with Hobson’s Naviance, the largest guidance network in the US, which connects us to more than 4 million students throughout the country.

What does it do, really? And what are the main benefits to it?

Alleyoop helps students learn in the short-term while putting them on a personalized path to success over the long-term.

Say a student was struggling to prepare for an upcoming Algebra quiz. She could log into the Alleyoop site and quickly discover videos and practice problems, or get live 1:1 tutoring that relates to the specific area in which she’s seeking help in school. The powerful thing about Alleyoop is that the site learns more and more about the student the more she uses it, and is able to serve even more tailored recommendations and content. Our ultimate goal is to anticipate needs, not just respond to them. By increasing relevance we seek to engagement and progress.

Alleyoop also employs game dynamics to help motivate students to meet their goals and put their learning in context. Great games engage players to do real work but make it feel more like play. We’ve been inspired by a lot of those techniques and have been introducing elements such as missions, virtual currency and leaderboards to the Alleyoop platform. We’ll be doing more of this in the months ahead.

How is it unique and what else is out there that may be similar?

We have tried to draw from the best in both consumer technology and learning technology and bring them together in a new, effective way to learn and meet goals for teens. Our recommendation technology has been compared to Pandora or Netflix and our model of drawing activities from a variety of creators – not just a single source – is more akin to the marketplaces of the Apple App Store or Spotify. We then layer on game dynamics to engage, motivate and reward, which a few observers have likened to the games developed by companies like Zynga. In the end, it’s the way that we are bringing smart curation together with engagement that sets us apart, alongside our focus on college readiness. We are working on a number of ideas of how to take this further, especially when it comes to mobile and social contexts.

Let’s talk about development, feedback and your main target.

We launched Alleyoop in February 2012. Before we even launched, we tested the site with more than 20,000 students to ensure that we were giving kids an experience that was both useful to them and fun. We continue to rely heavily on the feedback of teens, and have even enlisted a teen advisory board to help us test out new features and content. Many education technology products have been developed for teachers first and students second. From the outset, we’ve been focused on wining the hearts and improving the minds of students first, and that philosophy drives how we design and build Alleyoop.

Let’s talk money: How much is it? And what’s a Yoop?

Alleyoop is free to use and explore. Students use virtual currency to access learning activities and earn more currency through achievements and unlocking new college readiness experiences. For example, the more readiness missions they complete on Alleyoop, the more Yoops (or virtual currency) they can earn toward an activity, such as a practice problem or video. We are always suggesting new ways to earn more currency through action. Our users also have the option of purchasing additional virtual currency if they want to, but its not required to play Alleyoop.

Could you share some numbers and examples?

We have more than 30,000 students on the site right now, accessing Alleyoop for a wide variety of needs. For example, a teen could log on and use Yoops to get a 1:1 tutor for physics or algebra. The unique thing about Alleyoop is that every student’s experience is different. Now, with our Naviance partnership, we can tie what students are doing in school or the guidance counselor’s office directly to the activities they complete on Alleyoop. This type of data is incredibly useful in designing a student experience that directly maps to a longer-term college and career path.

Who is this particularly for?

Middle and high school students are the key audience for Alleyoop. Their parents are also incredibly important, as they can connect their teens to outside resources like Alleyoop to get the extra help they need. A notable minority of our students have already graduated from high school and have already enrolled in college, but are looking for support from a service like Alleyoop. The one group we are not currently designed for is elementary school students.

Let’s get broad now: What are your thoughts on education these days?

That’s a big question! What I can say is that stakes have never been higher for young people to pursue and achieve a world-class education. We see it in today’s economy and in the emergence of new, high growth career fields where the bar is high for what you know and how you learn.  So there is absolute urgency, in my view, to address what has been a systemic failure for too many teens who aspire to succeed in this new economy but are ill-equipped to do so. As we tackle this problem, I think we are going to see the emergence of new services that are designed to empower consumers directly with choice, personalization and new modes of learning. We see it today in virtual schools, MOOCs and the explosion of mobile apps. The current generation of teens is dominated by hyper-connected gamers who are used to being in charge of their experiences in music, entertainment or communication. How can we now harness those experiences and technologies to put them more in charge of their college- and career- bound future?

How have key parts of your background led you to now?

As the son of two educators, I was fortunate to be surrounded by a love of learning and given the opportunity to learn from some incredible teachers and mentors, who took the time to personalize my learning path. Along the way I experienced how education could inspire me and open new opportunities. For me, Alleyoop is a response to the reality that too many kids do not have that experience and the opportunities it unlocks. Our ambition is to broaden access to learning and guidance that is personal and effective during a critical period where young learners are facing a life-defining transition to post- high school life.

How does Alleyoop address some of your concerns about education?

As a country, we have been fixated on the whole idea of “getting into college,” spending billions on test prep and admissions marketing. But as an education community, we have not spent nearly enough time, investment and innovation on the “staying in” part of the equation. We can focus on helping poorly prepared students survive college or we can do a better job of getting them on track and prepared earlier. We embarked on Alleyoop to give students the skills, insight and assurance of success before they arrive for freshman orientation.

Looking ahead, what do you see?

For decades, people have argued that technology has the potential to transform education. Until recently this has been more aspirational than truly transformational. But, with the convergence of technologies — many developed outside of education — that enable interactive learning and hyper-personalization, I believe we finally have the opportunity to move the needle in terms of broader access to better outcomes. A new generation of tools can evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each student delivering personalized, one-on-one instruction to all students, not just those fortunate enough to have a fantastic teacher or afford a great tutor. This is about the extension, not the extinction, of the classroom. For these reasons, I think the next ten years are going to be some of the most transformational in education, both here and abroad.

Alright, got any quirky stories?

We have an office pet at Alleyoop: a remote controlled, inflatable shark. He is really quite involved in our student advisory board meetings. He’s especially psyched about our recent launch of science on Alleyoop.

Final words?

At Alleyoop we are energized not only by the challenge of improving college readiness, but also by the challenge of engaging teens — and their circle of supporters — very directly. We’re always looking to partner with other innovative organizations that can join our network and expand our scope into more subjects, test new approaches to learning or help us reach more students with college-bound aspirations. This is not a project that can exist in a vacuum, and I’ll be the first to say that I think we are at the very beginning of our journey to fulfill our vision. That’s why we’re so open and eager to hear from other education leaders who may be interested in teaming with us and testing new ideas as we solve the college readiness crisis together.

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