Online learning platform Squla focuses on pupil-parent-teacher triangle

Interview with Serge Bueters, CEO at Squla

Primary schools hardly made use of available technology in 2008, the year Squla was founded. Laptops and smartphones were ubiquitous in Dutch households but not yet in Dutch schools. Due to this situation, educational publishers had little incentive to invest in the development of digital content. A CD-ROM inserted in a book was as far as it went. Squla jumped into this gap in the market and built a successful and growing online learning platform that focuses on the pupil-parent-teacher triangle. Serge Bueters, Squla’s CEO since 2018, discusses the ins and outs of Squla’s digital platform, as well as internal and external factors that affect Squla’s business.

“About four to five years ago, we saw a change towards digitalisation in schools setting in”, says Bueters. “Device penetration in schools was on the rise and schoolchildren started to bring their own tablets and smartphones to school. Although there is room for improvement with regard to hardware and connectivity, partly caused by lack of funding, most teachers approach digitalisation in their classroom in a constructive way. Today, unlike primary schools in most European countries, the vast majority of Dutch primary schools are online. Adoption of digital products by teachers started to increase, also due to the wide adoption of digital blackboards.”

Engaging and instructive product

“So today, the situation in schools is not the same as it was in the year Squla was founded”, Bueters continues. “Yet, there are still hardly any digital learning materials that are focussing on pupil engagement, as most digital learning materials are based on the principle of a teacher guiding a classroom of pupils through the compulsory curriculum. Children are curious by nature and by offering an engaging product they will enjoy learning. We make a product that is engaging, as well as instructive, by combining curriculum-based material with gamification techniques and attractive user experience design. Squla is very suitable to provide schoolchildren with an individual experience by offering them highly personalised content through an adaptive learning system and a smart recommendation system.”

“But of course digital solutions should always be faster and easier than the traditional way of working with pen and paper, otherwise the adoption of a product will be low. People need to benefit from it, as they will not innovate for the sake of innovating. Access should also be fast and easy. Think of a class full of children who have to log into the same system to get started. Children can easily access Squla and find their way intuitively through its content without help from their parents or teachers.”

Recommendation system

Squla is adapting its recommendation system so that children will become acquainted with the wider spectrum of subjects Squla covers. Bueters: “Some children only practice a specific subject because they are good at it, while ignoring all other subjects. It’s our aim to invite them to also try something new. Parents can influence the recommendation engine too, by what we call ‘goal setting’. This means they can use their account to, for instance, express the wish for their child to do at least sixty minutes of arithmetic every week. Squla then tries to stimulate the child to practice more maths using gamification elements and rewards. Yet, this never happens behind the child’s back, as we want to be transparent to all parties involved. In the future, we also want to give teachers the possibility to influence the recommendation system if they think a pupil is behind or should spend more time on a subject to master it.”

Tailored content and adaptivity

Based on user data, Squla tailors its content to the level of the child and automatically takes the child to a higher level of difficulty when he or she is ready. Bueters: “We constantly improve the algorithms behind this and adapt it to be able to correctly determine the level of mastery of the pupils. The algorithm also includes different degrees of mastery, since for instance answering open questions is harder than answering multiple-choice questions. We also adapted the sequence of questions so that children finish a certain task and then go back to some extra questions on a particular topic before going to the next section/level. Of course, we take into account that pupils also need teachers in order to make progress, since Squla doesn’t instruct pupils or replace teachers. But there are of course children who are able to find their way through all levels independently. Learning preferences are another layer in the algorithm. Some children prefer the pressure of multiplay situations while others rather learn on their own.”

Feedback

Regularly, Squla organises user labs where children and their parents test new features with regard to content, creative game elements, and design. Bueters: “Feedback is vital for us and, in addition to generating qualitative user feedback, we actively analyse our user data. Also, we A/B-test many features as well as asking our user base for input. For example, because we have thousands of users every day, it is easy to distribute questionnaires or surveys in the form of a quiz, presented on the platform when logging in. This feedback is vital, because children are the end-users and their engagement is our key performance indicator.”

Non-curricular content

Squla covers the complete primary school curriculum. But, as a result of feedback from users and demand in society, Squla is also developing content that is not part of the official school curriculum. Bueters: “We offer, for instance, English, computer programming, and 21st-century skills, such as critical thinking and computational thinking. In addition, in Squla we have a section called Checkit! which contains quizzes in which different school subjects come together or in which a variety of specific non-curricular topics are presented so that children can discover new things. We can see from our data that children love this and we hope this stimulates children and will help them to find their passion.”

Publishers are not focussing on the development of teaching methods for subjects that are not (yet) part of the school curriculum, such as English in primary schools. In September, Squla therefore launched new English learning modules, including speech recognition technology, for all primary school levels. Bueters: “Teachers spend the vast majority of their time teaching the compulsory curriculum and often don’t have the time to teach English. Squla wants to support the teachers and offers pupils English content that they can complete independently. With the new English learning module, Squla enters the field of instruction, similar to traditional educational publishers. But this doesn’t make us an educational publisher, as we have a completely different focus and business model.”

Business model

In the Netherlands, less than a handful of publishers dominate the market of educational publishing materials. Bueters: “To enter this market you need to build a strong salesforce and you will have to enter a very long sales cycle to be able to sell your products to schools. However, the pull for the adoption of digital educational tools really came from parents more than from teachers and schools. This is why our initial business model focuses on a direct link with parents by offering a subscription model, which provides ‘all-you-can-eat’ access to the supplemental learning platform for one or more children. Squla offers practicing materials for pupils supplementary to what teachers teach in class.”

Social inequality

As Squla is not state-subsidised, their business model is based on subscription fees. Bueters: “For some, this provokes discussion about social inequality, comparable to the discussions about wealthy parents who are able to pay for private tutoring for their child. Yet, I don’t think Squla is a good example in this discussion, because we strive to make our product available to everybody. Squla offers teachers the so-called Squla-in-class account free-of-charge during school hours. On top of that, we work together with the Tuition Funding Foundation (Stichting Leergeld, ed.) and the Youth Education Fund (Jeugdeducatiefonds, ed.) to make sure less privileged children also get access to Squla.”

Parent-teacher-pupil interaction

The current interaction, that is also expressed in Squla’s business model, is between parent and child and not yet between child and teacher or parent and teacher. Bueters: “Yet, we are constantly brainstorming on ways to make it easier for teachers to interact with parents. If a teacher is able to activate parents in a positive way, this will have a positive effect on a child’s school results. Of course, Squla doesn’t issue certificates, but we do help children build self-confidence and, therefore, improve their school results. This will also have a positive effect on a pupil’s school career after primary school.”

“To create a link between teacher and pupil, we developed a teacher dashboard in which a teacher is able to create free individual accounts and see the individual achievements of their pupils whenever they play via their Squla-inclass account. But this dashboard, and its functionalities, is scarcely out of the egg. Future development will include more functionalities to support teachers as well as features to close the loop with the home environment of the child.”

Data and privacy

Squla is aware of the growing tensions around privacy and data protection. Bueters: “The personal data of our users can never end up out on the street, as this will harm the children and therefore our reputation, as well as client confidence. GDPR is a framework that provides us a firm footing. Actually, we were already compliant, even before GDPR came into force. Our primary interest is to let children experience progress through fun learning and to improve our platform we don’t need personal data, as anonymised data is sufficient.”

International scalability

Squla’s digital learning platform is internationally scalable, but there are some hurdles. Bueters: “Design and technology are fully scalable, but content is not. Even in arithmetic, there are sometimes differences between countries in the way calculations are made or written down. Or look at the way history is written in other countries, with different (politically inspired) angles and an emphasis on different historical events. This means the investment in content for other countries goes beyond translation of that content. The hurdles of international scalability are mostly about cultural differences, differences in educational systems and digitalisation. However, the investment in the development of content for another country is relatively small compared to building brand awareness or building a distribution network. But ultimately, it’s children’s desire to learn and play that will make the difference.”

About Squla

Squla is an out-of-school online learning platform for primary school children that involves the triangle pupil, parent and teacher in the educational development of children. The Squla platform facilitates this development by means of quizzes, games and videos that cover the whole school curriculum and more. The platform is available via desktop, laptop, tablet and smartphone, and is further developed and updated on a daily basis. Today, more than 130,000 Dutch children practice with Squla content at home and more than 605,000 children play and learn with Squla at school, either individually or in class on a digiboard.

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Casper Scheffer

Entertainment & Media Industry Leader in the Netherlands, PwC Netherlands

Tel: +31 (0)88 792 65 20

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