Creating Voluntary Projects That Disrupt and Scale

 In Blog, Insights, SOSV, The SOSV Story, Tips for Startups

3 Lessons from the MATHletes Challenge & Khan Academy

We at SOSV are passionate about giving back (“Should giving back be a key marker of a company’s success?). Whether it is engineering and mapping for war-torn Iraq with Jumpstart, teaching kids computer coding at one of 390 CoderDojos worldwide, or engaging teachers and students in mathematics with Khan Academy, we are constantly seeking out innovative and ‘disruptive’ initiatives that can be scaled globally.

Does this last bit sound familiar?

It should – it’s the same approach that we bring to our accelerator programmes and startup investments.

The current project of the O’Sullivan Foundation is the MATHletes Challenge 2014, a pioneering maths tournament for Ireland using Khan Academy. Motivated by weekly leaderboards, provincial rivalries, and pride of school and county, 3,000 11-15 year old students from 240 schools across Ireland have logged nearly half a million minutes on Khan Academy in the first 2 months of the Challenge. In the US, these participation numbers would be equivalent to 200,000 students participating from nearly 2500 high schools. This is the first Challenge of its kind run anywhere in the world, and the engagement has been remarkable.

It all began in 2011, when the O’Sullivan Foundation granted $5 million to Khan Academy, the world leader in free online math learning. The organisation which began as a series of youtube videos by hedge fund manager Salman Khan for his cousins, has transformed into a comprehensive learning platform of videos, exercises and data-driven coaching interface for teachers and parents. Khan Academy gained fame from Sal’s 2011 Ted talk “Let’s use video to reinvent education” and is not synonymous with the term “flipped classroom” and personalised learning. With support from Google, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the O’Sullivan Foundation, Khan Academy is now a household name (and innovative model) in education technology circles. And Khan Academy is free – which has vast implications for education disparities worldwide.

Khan Academy has a ‘disruptive’ idea. The MATHletes Challenge is scaling that idea.

With support from the Department of Education and National Education Centres in Ireland, the MATHletes Challenge is one of several “experiments” to build awareness of Khan Academy in Ireland and transform how the country learns, teaches, and performs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects. If these experiments work, and are taken to scale, not only could Ireland become the first country to adopt Khan Academy nationally (following California school districts and the state of Idaho), but the Challenge could become a model for how Khan Academy can quickly spread its participation around the world.

Like any startup, we have been failing and adapting every day with the MATHletes Challenge. We don’t have it completely right yet, but something is working: students are engaged and confident in maths class. We have replace fear of maths with fun.

So what does the MATHletes Challenge story mean for you, a startup or investor?


Three lessons we have learned from MATHletes that may provide food for thought:


1. Build the Platform or App?

Build on something that works. Khan Academy works – the research says so, teachers say so, and students say so The MATHletes Challenge is a new application that is built on the Khan Academy engine. There are endless programmes and charities out there doing good work – rather than reinvent the wheel and create a new philanthropic programme for your company, why not think about a new application, process, or interface that will help an organisation that already has it right?


2. Local or global?

Awhile back, the term ‘global’ came into fad in social entrepreneurship circles: make local changes that have global impact. Pretty simple. MATHletes is a local application of Khan Academy’s global platform – the inter-county rivalry, fed by Ireland’s Gaelic Athletic Association, is a uniquely Irish motivator. I’m not sure you would get the same county pride if you pitted my home Yolo County in California against its neighboring Solano County just down I-80. In fact, I’m sure you wouldn’t. If you are looking to scale a good idea, keep it simple, local and adaptable. CoderDojo is a prime example – now in 43 countries, dojos are found in a wide range of locations (company HQs, community centres, schools) and are championed by whoever has passion for the cause (industry reps, parents, young people). Focus locally to scale globally.


3. Push or Pull?

Big systems are hard to change. As Sean O’ Sullivan said at a recent US embassy conference on EdTech: “it’s difficult to push a change through the educational system. It’s far easier to have the system pull the change through the system.” Find champions who will introduce an idea into the system, and if it is a good idea – if it is a worthy product – it will do the “pulling” for you.

Give it a go.

Many voluntary initiatives fail, just like startups. Trust me, kids are the first ones to tell you if something is ‘uncool’. But you will learn something in the process, and who knows? Maybe the next iteration will change the world. Or at least it will change how one kid looks at geometry.


And that might be enough.

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