Edtech startups flock to the promise and potential of personalized learning

The rise of remote instruction left many parents freshly aware of (and annoyed by) the shortcomings of Zoom school, but for Letha McLaren, COVID-19 brought an epiphany: the importance of a headset.

McLaren’s son, who deals with executive dysfunction, was better able to focus through the screen because he used a headset that blocked out some other noises. With the device, he could hear what the teacher was saying at all times, and better yet, was keener on paying attention. McLaren, in turn, learned what her son, a straight-A student, responds best to.

The broader takeaway for McLaren was that traditional classrooms don’t serve all students due to learning and thinking differences. So, she teamed up with longtime friend Suchi Deshpande to help a market of parents who found themselves in a similar boat, trying to find a better format for educating their children. Learnfully is a personalized learning platform that connects neurodiverse students, who have conditions such as ADHD or dyslexia, with specialists to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses.

Personalized learning has long had a halo around it. After all, an adaptive curriculum that changes based on a student’s emotional or educational state feels pretty sensible. Why not adapt learning on a student-by-student basis, instead of applying the same curriculum to everyone within a class? The easy answer, of course, is that it’s easier to scale the latter, and the former requires more money and time from end-users.

Startups such as Learnfully, along with Wayfinder and Empowerly, are breaking into the market with fresh takes on what it means to prioritize a student’s emotions in personalizing education. While consumers and venture capitalists certainly understand the vitality of personalized education like never before, these startups are navigating the longstanding challenges of true integration.

Closing the feedback loop

Innovating on traditional learning often requires retooling supplemental services for students outside of the classroom. McLaren explained that Learnfully is focusing less on the “what” of learning and more on the “how.”

“Students may struggle in math, but it’s because they don’t understand the building blocks which permit them to do some math programs – and so we really focus on the foundation, which oftentimes boils down to literacy.” The co-founder said the “educational therapy” approach helps Learnfully differentiate from classic tutoring platforms like Wyzant — part of the reason it was able to close a $1.25 million seed round a few weeks ago.