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Based in South Africa, Douglas Hoernle, went from working in the Cape’s wine industry to the edtech space when he co-founded the startup Rethink Education. He says that his family always had a passion for education and that he was looking to do something with a greater, lasting social impact than what the fine arts of the wine industry has to offer.
He looked at one of the fathers of modern elearning for inspiration — Salman Khan — who’s the founder of the incredibly popular Khan Academy, a non-profit online education platform. His company has served as a popular muse for current startups in the edtech space.
When Khan first started, he wanted to provide online mentor videos for his relatives struggling in maths. He soon found himself uncovering an untapped market and decided to broaden his approach. He saw that young learners spend the majority of their time with popular platforms such as YouTube more than they did with things like textbooks — online or otherwise. This led Khan to start his own YouTube channel which began attracting millions of subscribers, learners and eventually springboarded a highly influential career.
His approach was reiterated by Hoernle when he started Rethink. “Textbooks and ebooks allowed teachers to let students work through content at home, but there has been no way to track whether students have or have not read their textbooks or notes before class,” he says.
Unlike Khan Academy which uses online video lessons as its primary feed of content to over 10-million students per month, Rethink provides bite-size information. Rethink, the company argues, makes the content much more engaging for the learner compared to something like ebooks.
In today’s online world, it’s all about making content more digestible. Whether it’s an article, a brand or a product, the concept becomes much more apparent when it comes to mobile phones. This is the main reason Rethink creates content, based on the high school curriculum, that’s easier to interact with.
Hoernle explains that he saw the gap in the market: “I got the idea from watching university students engage with chat rooms to ask their fellow students and lecturers questions. I saw how easily a lecturer could respond to fairly difficult problems using an online chat interface.”
Rethink Education provides Maths and Science content to high school students. While the platform’s currently in English, Hoernle says that an Afrikaans language option is currently in the pipeline. He also hopes to add Afrikaans as a subject to Rethink’s offering in the near future.
This method also allows Rethink to reach much more students via various devices, as long as they have an internet connection.
So instead of teachers naively relying on tedious handouts to keep students up-to-date and preoccupied, learners are encouraged to study via the web application. The platform is cloud-based and can be accessed via PC, mobile or tablet, but Rethink also recently launched an app on the social platform Mxit.
The same way Salman Khan initially decided to roll out his service to a very popular platform such as YouTube, Rethink chose Mxit as one of its launchpads. The average user, of which there are 6.5-million, spends more than 90 minutes a day on Mxit so opting for this platform was almost a no-brainer.
Hoernle explains that 43% of South African high school learners do not have access to textbooks or academic content, however the majority of these learners do have a feature phone and use Mxit.
Most edtech solutions we’ve seen over the past few years offer teachers and students with either tools or applications for their content. They focus on the “tech” part of the term instead of the “ed”. Rethink, on the other hand, focuses on providing content.
The company has also partnered with Teach South Africa, an NGO that focuses on addressing the national skills shortage in the areas of Maths, Science, English and Technology.
In about a year, the Rethink has managed to scoop up nearly 400 000 unique visits and has rolled out the product to over fifty schools across the country. The schools who’ve paid for the service range from under resourced ones to those keen on new tech solutions.
“We charge a subscription fee of R300 per user per year for access to our premium schools platform. As the tool is used as a teaching aid, it is in the best interests of the school to sign up all students,” tells Hoernle.
Rethink Education is profitable, has been self-funded and has raised additional funding from private investors. Current founders include Douglas Hoernle, Nicholas Hoernle, Alfred Hoernle and Anna-Marie du Plooy.
An impressive aspect of the application is that, when looking at the backend, you have access to thousands of specific user data points. For teachers and parents alike, this is pivotal. You can use it to keep learners in check, and importantly, track the learners’ behaviour in relation to the content. For the company, Rethink can see exactly when, where and with what schools and their students are struggling or excelling at. This means that the company can more efficiently allocate its time and resources.
“Teachers need a way to monitor whether learners are consuming content at home in order to effectively flip the classroom. Learners need more engaging academic material,” argues Hoernle.
The fact that Rethink today only offers maths and science means that it will be less of a hassle to expand to other markets. Hoernle intends to release a similar model in the UK and in other African countries in the next two to four years.
As is the case with many edtech products on the market, one of the greatest challenges Rethink has been facing since it launched is getting significant traction in the high school space. Hoernle explains how he and his team have had to be on the ground, at schools, selling them the product.