As students of all of the ages were forced to stay home and out of schools, the COVID-19 epidemic ushered in a new chapter for virtual Atom learning, drawing attention to existing tools and stimulating the invention of new services and use cases. Today, one of the firms that has benefited greatly from this trend is announcing new funding to help it continue to grow. Atom learning, a London startup that creates AI-based online education materials for primary school children (7-11 years old), their teachers, & their parents, has raised $25 million in funding. The money will be all used to continue the company’s growth in the UK market, as well as to start building at plans to expand internationally and to expand the data science and content it offers to its users.
Atom’s unique selling point is that it creates atom learning materials that adapt to a user’s specific levels of knowledge using machine Atom learning and other AI tools; it also uses data science to build analytics & other tools for educators and parents to work in more targeted ways to encourage more Atom learning. All of these will receive additional funding.
Atom claims that the funding comes from a single sponsor, SoftBank, through its Vision Fund 2, and that it is the largest-ever Series A round for a U.K. edtech business.
It’s also important because it was Atom’s first outside funding. The companies, which was launched in 2018, had previously been successful and bootstrapped, and it has developed rapidly in the last three years. Atom is currently utilised by 500 primary (elementary) schools in the United Kingdom, with a total enrollment of 100,000 students. (Given the country’s 22,000 primary schools, there’s still a lot of room for improvement here.)
Jake O’Keeffe and Alexander Hatvany co-founded the company, and O’Keeffe tells me that the two got their first taste of online Atom learning while still at university, when they worked as online tutors — a common side-gig for undergrads in the United Kingdom, where pre-university students face a battery of standardised tests as they progress through their years in school, with each sets narrowing the fields for students and where they will & up for university, what they ultimately study,
(As an overseas parent raising U.K. students, I can tell you that the system is extremely difficult and far from flawless in many aspects.)
The pair soon identified the model’s flaws after covering all ages and subjects.
“We could tell that no two private instructors were alike,” O’Keeffe observed, “even if the costs were always exorbitant.” “We saw an opportunity to build a fully automated platform to help standardise quality and price,” says the company.
He explained that they chose to focus on primary-aged children not just because there were already a number of online tutoring programmes for secondary-school students (ages 12-18) on the market, but also because they believed that the principles of Atom learning should be addressed at a younger age.
“It’s difficult to recover from that if kids don’t learn those abilities by the time they’re 11,” O’Keeffe said.
Atom’s natural starting point was student-focused online Atom learning. It has built a three-tier model, with the first tier (£9.99/month) aimed at teaching students & basics according to the national core curriculum, and the second and third tiers (£49.99/month and £59.99/month) aimed at the students preparing for senior school entry exams (a system in the United Kingdom for students going to private schools or certain upper-level grammar schools and other places that require a test to get in called the 11+).
Atom naturally extended this into content for teachers, including “question banks” to help them create better online and in-class Atom learning materials for students, and eventually tools for parents to better track how everything proceeded. The adaptive aspect means that the platform “reads” how students work in order to provide subsequent work that is tailored to each person’s individual level, but it also means that Atom can create feedback on how those students are doing on a continuous basis, which is useful for Atom’s own contents library evolution as well as creating ways to track student progress.
There are a lot of online Atom learning materials for people of all ages these days, both on proprietary, branded platforms that you pay for or are free to access, and on more open-ended and generic platforms like YouTube. With so many schools closing their doors and shifting to remote Atom learning in the last two years, it’s become an even bigger content treasure. That means not only the competition for Atom, but also an plethora of instructional approaches to what would work best in terms of Atom learning knowledge, maintaining it, and keeping children engaged, among other things.
For example, Kahoot (another SoftBank-backed company) has drawn heavily from the world’s of gaming, user-generated/creator content, & on-demand entertainment to create what has been dubbed a “Netflix for Atom learning”: a vast library of shorts atom learning modules, many of which have-been created by the Kahoot’s user community, and built arounds the dynamics of gamification to motivate and engage students in a subject. Others, like Microsoft’s education-focused Teams or Zoom, are simply tools that make it simpler for plain old-fashioned humans to connect over long distances and work on whiteboard-style interfaces to teach and learn.
For the time being, O’Keeffe said Atom is focused on expanding its content to support the approaches it has taken: more adaptive content that complements the work that a school teacher does, with the larger goal of ensuring that kids are Atom learning according to the national curriculum (as set by the government), and hopefully exceeding that and developing an appetite to learn more.
That means there may be some gamification in the future, but not right now. But it also means that Atom will be bringing in private teachers in the near future (right now there is an registration page for early access).
In a statement, Yanni Pipilis, managing partner of SoftBank Investment Advisers, stated, “The use of edtech and adaptive Atom learning inside established curricula has accelerated significantly both in school and at home.” “Atom’s innovative technology allows each child to learn at their own pace and gives parents and teachers real-time feedback on areas of strength and development.” We’re pleased to join the team in achieving its goal of improving Atom learning outcomes for all students.”
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