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When students build their own learning platform

by Ana Lopez
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With a group of high school classmates, social entrepreneur Simon Köhl built a Wikipedia-inspired platform for collaborative learning in 2009: Serlo. It is now used by a million students in Germany every month and received federal funding in late 2022 to integrate into Germany’s national digital learning infrastructure. Sascha Haselmayer from Ashoka spoke to Köhl in Berlin to find out more about why students love Serlo and what lies ahead.

Sascha Haselmayer: Simon, your digital platform will become an official part of the education system in Germany. Tell us why you made it.

Simon Kohl: Personally, I could only stay in school because my parents paid for private lessons. Later I saw more clearly how the school system creates inequality, with many young people not getting the support they need. So my friends and I built Serlo. It offers totally free lessons, exercises, videos, and other Wikipedia-style content. We wanted to make the content more accessible to all students so they can learn at their own pace.

When we approached the Federal Ministry of Education in Germany a few years ago, it was in the middle of the Covid crisis and much of the digital public school infrastructure was down. So we saw a huge opportunity to create more impact and offered our free resources and our content editor so that teachers could easily adapt our content to the needs of their classes and, ideally, individual students. The government agreed to the proposal and funded us to implement our content and editing tools within the public digital school infrastructure.

Haselmayer: Good to hear! And why is Serlo needed – I mean, what’s wrong with the way children are taught in German schools?

Cabbage: Many aspects of the education system need to be updated for the world we live in now. Even in Germany, success in school often depends on how prosperous the school district is and whether your family can afford private lessons. When it comes to learning, the biggest problem is us adults deciding what and how young people should learn. In general, school is still designed to make young people passive consumers of information, rather than strengthening their capacity to solve challenges on their own, to direct their own learning. But for our increasingly volatile world with rapidly changing challenges, such as the climate crisis, we need young people with fresh ideas and a strong belief in their ability to shape their world. The role of the teacher must evolve towards keeping space for self-directed learning, collaboration and reflection.

Haselmayer: How can Serlo contribute to this transformation?

Cabbage: Of course there are many variables in a complex system like schools. Serlo’s puzzle piece are learning tools that leave many decisions to students. We ask them: What do you want to learn? Do you prefer to read or do you prefer to watch explanatory videos? What kind of practices are most helpful to you? We let our users move freely through the platform – the same way you might use Wikipedia. That is why we always provide links to additional background knowledge and interdisciplinary connections, which we hope will arouse curiosity.

For teachers and schools, the first step is often to add one laptop to a classroom so that students can look things up on Serlo, instead of asking the teacher. Allowing students to direct their own learning process is very empowering.

Haselmayer: As a not-for-profit startup, how do you deal with the for-profit drive for education technology dominance?

Cabbage: Global development is clearly moving towards the privatization of education. And while that could bring some innovation, and while some of these startups could create services that are widely accessible and not that expensive, the guiding question for for-profit investors will always be is there any added value that can be created and sold? to wealthier families or school districts? Ultimately, the private sector is incentivized to differentiate students based on economic class. It’s not really interested in a well-funded, innovative public school system that serves a holistic public service because it detracts from their market.

As a non-profit organization, we can’t compete with for-profit platforms by raising the same amount of money – that’s not possible. So our strategy is to move forward through collaboration, as part of a movement of NGOs, not-for-profit startups and public institutions working towards the shared goal of a modern, open-access and student-centered education system.

Haselmayer: You reach one million students per month with a very low cost structure and a small team. Does technology have to be incredibly expensive, or is there a smarter way to go about it?

Cabbage: In the beginning, you can be very effective with a small, dedicated team and lean development techniques. Later on, however, learning applications used by millions of students – that are reliable, have strong performance and provide a great user experience – will become expensive. As a society, if we want those learning technologies to be available to everyone, protect our data, be ad-free, and provide content created by independent editors, we need to find ways to adequately fund them.

Our Serlo developers love their job, but earn perhaps half of what they could earn in the private market. Right now, we depend on highly talented people who are willing to earn less or work pro bono. We hope this changes, as society’s priorities evolve, of course. Our experience is that the smartest people always want to make a positive impact. So we offer co-ownership of the company, high flexibility, a highly inclusive and collaborative culture, and above all, real purpose.

Haselmayer: An extraordinary thing about Serlo is that you and your co-founders started it in 2009 when you were so young – in your teens. How has that affected your trajectory?

Cabbage: For us it was an advantage. We knew nothing about incubators, business angels or social entrepreneurship, so we flew under the radar at first. Nobody told us that we didn’t have enough experience, that we didn’t have the capital or the network to reach our target audience. I think this shows what young people really want and need: to pursue their ideas without judgment. Trying something new, even if it means failure, is learning in its purest form.

Simon Köhl and Sascha Haselmayer are Ashoka Fellows in Germany.

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