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A New Medium

Apps are not really a new medium. The iPhone launched more than a decade ago. However, the fact that (in education) this medium is still being used like the old one (books and classes) shows that people really still have not grasped how this medium could be used. For clarity purposes, the current way that education is using apps is to put the content that used to be in books and now it is digitally available. This is a slight improvement.

The idea that we do not have a good grasp for how to use a new medium should not surprise us. Just consider what television looked like when it was first available. The first shows, such as I Love Lucy, were really the same shows that had been on the radio previously, just in a new medium. However, in the 1960’s, the funeral of JFK and Martin Luther King as well as Lance Armstrong walking on the moon forever changed how this medium was thought of. You could now visualize what an event was actually like in a way that you never could with radio.

As we look at apps and education, there are many ways in which a new experience, and a better experience, can be had. The primary one is customization. As you answer questions, an app can learn more about what you do and do not know. This means we can specify where your knowledge gaps are, and then provide content to fill those gaps. Of course the ability to fill those gaps exists with a book or lecture, but the process is very inefficient. You might tell me to read chapters 1-3 by Thursday, but really what I needed was to read pages 43-46. I already knew the rest of the stuff. Or you lost me on page 2, and I need to go over some of the basics from the previous textbook. Customization can fix all of this.

This new medium can also much more easily release dopamine from our brains. We can turn learning into a game in which there are point animations and visual interactions after you achieve something like mastering a topic or answering a certain number of questions. If done creatively, this can lead to a much more engaging process. A book or a classroom never offered this.


There are other possibilities too, like how to use location based services, calendars, how to recognize free moments in a persons day, and even how to integrate VR into an education app. We are really at the I Love Lucy stage, and it’s exciting to think about what the future will bring for apps and education.



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life of a co-founder 1 (the first vc meeting)

In this video, Brad introduces Whipsmartt and talks about his expectations for the first venture capital meeting. Brad briefly talks about the competition in the standardized exam preparation space and why he thinks that there is a business opportunity for apps.




All posts by Brad Brown

Microlearning: it works better with mobile tech

Micro learning is the belief that we learn better in many short little periods of time throughout the day as opposed to one big two or three hour block once a day. These periods of time are generally ten or fifteen minutes. This flies right in the face of traditional studying, but I think makes sense. In a short burst, the likelihood that I can focus in an effort to understand one thing a little better seems more reasonable than understanding a variety of concepts over a two hour time period. It also seems likely that my ability to stay focused on what I’m doing will be better in a short time period than in a long one.

Mobile technology makes it much more possible for us to take advantage of these little pockets of time. Whether I’m waiting in line for coffee, using public transportation, or making dinner, there are actually quite a few moments in the day where I have a spare couple of minutes in which I could be productive. Those moments have always existed, but it just wasn’t practical to whip out a book in line at Starbucks. Part of the problem was just that I might not have the book with me while I can’t leave the house without my phone. We think there are things that can be done with these moments besides taking selfies and posting cat videos.



All posts by Brad Brown

Exam Prep for Slackers

When I was a student at the University of Denver, I did not want to pay for parking. So I parked far enough away so that I did not have to, which meant a ten minute walk to and from campus every day. Sometimes twice a day. Which means I probably wasted about two hours per week just doing this. Oh, and I stopped at Starbucks pretty much every day, which is very near the business school. So that probably gets us to three hours per week of completely wasted time.

When I was at DU I did not think of that time as being wasted. I just did not care to pay for the parking, the walk did not bother me much, and I need coffee in my life every day. Wasted time is exactly what that was though. Apps have the capability to change this. The stuff we could have studied for but did not? Those three hours per week, when I was literally not doing anything, would have been well served by using an app that made me better prepared. Whether it was for the material in a certain class or for a licensing exam, studying through my phone during these wasted moments would have made me a better student and enabled more achievement.

The old way is to know that you need to prioritize your tasks. Whatever is most important needs to get done first in your day. You need to set goals and they need to be measureable. You need to set aside a couple of hours where nobody can bother you and get to work.

The old way is not dead. There is still a need to sit down and study. But mobile technology is enabling new possibilities that never existed before, and the one that we are focused on is the wasted time in your day and how to make those moments productive so that you don’t have to wreck yourself trying to pass that exam and get licensed or certified.



All posts by Brad Brown

Brain Breaks and Learning New Stuff


For the majority of my educational career, the end of class went something like read chapter 7 by Thursday and review the questions at the end of chapter review. Getting through the chapter usually took at least an hour, and by the time I was done there was no way I had any interest in looking at any of the end of the chapter questions. While this is not the point of this particular blog, it does seem that a good textbook reading strategy would be to go over those questions before you start reading the chapter. The person who wrote the book almost surely wrote those questions, and it would help to alert your mind as to what that author thinks is important.

It ends up that reading that chapter from beginning to end no matter how long it takes is not the best strategy for learning the material. If you don’t want to read about the basics of how your brain works, just know that especially for new or challenging material, you should probably take a three to five minute break for every 20 to 30 minutes of studying.

For new information to become memory, it must pass through the amygdala (emotional filter) and then reach the prefrontal cortex. Feeling anxious or overwhelmed eventually leads the amygdala to reach capacity for letting new information into the pre frontal cortex. Brain breaks should be planned to allow the amygdala to return to its optimal state.

Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that carry messages from one nerve cell to the next across gaps between the cells called synapses. Neurotransmitters are in limited supply and can deplete in as little as ten minutes. Your neurotransmitters might be depleting just as you read this. Brain breaks, which essentially means switching the type of mental activity, can shift brain communication to networks with fresh supplies of neurotransmitters.

As I said earlier, generally speaking 20 to 30 minutes of studying calls for 3 to 5 minute breaks. These breaks should be something like physical activity, something that produces laughter, or listening to music. The key is to keep it to three to five minutes and then go back to studying for another 20 to 30 minutes.

Please remember that this applies to learning new information. If you are studying something you already know a lot about, you can probably go for much longer. In standardized exams, many of us have knowledge gaps that make the exam quite challenging. The fact that there are knowledge gaps means that we can feel overwhelmed very quickly. This is where it is important to remember to take brain breaks. Brain breaks also fit very nicely into how our app works, which is to try to take advantage of little pockets of time where you are not doing much of anything (waiting in line, for example).


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Dopamine and Exam Prep (Studying)


There are four brain chemicals, but I am going to focus on dopamine. Dopamine is the joy of finding things that meet your needs. You know that “Eureka- I got it” feeling? That’s dopamine. Dopamine motivates you to get what you need, even when it takes a lot of effort. It is not always all that rational. Your inner mammal decides what feels good and seeks rewards that feel good. This mammal brain scans constantly for potential rewards, and dopamine is the signal that it has found some. It is important to note that the expectation of rewards is what triggers dopamine.

There are examples all over the place. Video games are filled with potential dopamine releasing behaviors. They almost all have levels and challenges of some type. As the game gets harder, the release of dopamine gets more intense as you pass through a level that required many tries. But once you have done it, the dopamine release is not as strong the next time. You need a new challenge to get that dopamine activated again.

Social media is even better. They don’t usually have levels, but most of them do have a feed. And you need to scroll through the feed before you finally find something interesting. The game of finding that interesting post or image releases dopamine and makes you addicted to the platform.

So what does this have to do with education? It should have a lot to do with it. Shouldn’t education be implementing products that make you more addicted to using it? Shouldn’t education involve something that produces a feeling that you want to have again?

It seems that most of education operates with the opposite in mind. The basic process of studying through a textbook and then answering some questions is not going to release euphoria for most people. I suppose the argument would be that dopamine is released by the expectation of acing an exam. That’s probably true, but obviously it only works for a very small percentage of the population (those who are A students). Everyone else has shorter attention spans and will inevitably do something that meets their dopamine needs more immediately. For a lot of people, some of those things will surely be the examples we gave above (social media and gaming).

The challenge for education technology companies is not to produce the content. That already exists. Just making books available in digital form does not actually improve the user experience very much. What is needed is for the product to be based on releasing dopamine from the student’s brain so that they become addicted to the expectation of reward. What exactly that reward should be requires creativity in developing a good product.


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Studying and Study Breaks: How Long Should Each Be?




Most of us have mastered the art of cramming. That is, waiting too long and then studying like crazy for that test. We always knew it was wrong. Didn’t need anyone to tell us that we were procrastinating. Should have planned ahead. However, ends up that those of you who just loved to put your nose into a textbook for hours at a time were also going about it ways that did not maximize your productivity.

In 2014, DeskTime, a productivity app that tracks employees’ computer use, peeked into its data to study the behavior of its most productive workers. The highest-performing 10 percent tended to work for 52 consecutive minutes followed by a 17-minute break. Those 17 minutes were often spent away from the computer by talking a walk, doing exercises, or talking to coworkers.

Also, in 1999, Cornell University’s Ergonomics Research Laboratory used a computer program to remind workers to take short breaks. The project concluded that “workers receiving the alerts [reminding them to stop working] were 13 percent more accurate on average in their work than coworkers who were not reminded.”

While I could not find studies detailing the amount of time to study with new or challenging information, I can tell you that if studying new material or material that you are not all that comfortable with, then a 52 minute period is probably too long. The frontal cortex just gets tired. So adjust accordingly.

If you decide to try for the 52/17 rule, the challenge that you will surely face is that 17 minutes is not a lot of time. Your favorite shows last longer than 17 minutes, and most people have a hard time limiting their social media/fantasy football/online shopping/gaming time to a 17-minute period. What you actually want to be doing is moving. Going for a brief walk or doing some light stretching is much better for you and your productivity than taking five selfies and texting your friends for several minutes. We were not designed to spend our whole lives sitting down.



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Why Education Should Act Like A Game



Have you ever read the questions and answers at the end of a chapter in a textbook? All of them? If they were not assigned? Most people have not. I certainly didn’t. Usually I felt good about having read the whole chapter and underlining a bunch of stuff. It’s interesting that we do this. The author of the textbook almost certainly put those questions there because they think the answers to those questions are the most important aspects I needed to learn from reading the chapter. But usually reading the chapter was slow and tedious, and I would get back to it later. Or so I told myself.

Reading the chapter is essential. There is no getting around it. However, the process of answering the questions at the end of the chapter is done in the most boring way possible. There is room for massive improvement here. It should look and act like a game. This is one of the central concepts that we have built our app around. And if you think about it for a minute, it makes perfect sense. Most games are based on learning something. Level 1 starts off pretty easy. Learn a few basic moves and you have “mastered” that level and you are on to level 2. Level 2 will make you use the stuff you learned in level 1, but add a couple new jumps and kicks that you have to do at exactly the right time in order to keep progressing. The levels progressively get harder, so that getting through level 9 or 10 will probably take you some time and feel like a real achievement when you do get through it.

Interestingly, most video game developers refer to moving on to the next level as mastery. Mastery Based Learning is a great form of education. It is better because so much time is wasted in classrooms where the student is either bored because they already know the material or they are lost because the material is too difficult. If you follow the model of the video game, this would never happen. Or it would only happen in a poorly designed game that was either too easy and boring or too hard to figure out how to play it.

Too much of digital education looks like we just took the classroom or last night’s homework and put it in an app or a website. Too many one hour plus lectures that you can see online. Or they are basically just digital flashcards. Nobody has ever enjoyed the process of using flashcards. It is possible that somebody got a good grade by using them, but the user experience is absolutely awful. Video lectures, on the other hand, tend to be very long and take a while to finally get to the part where they help me understand the part that I don’t understand. And these videos are intended for millennials, right?

A game developer knows that they need to entertain you. They need to create an engaging environment if they want the users to care. Most games require points, point animations, levels, badges, challenges, trophies, and more. And yes, if the user doesn’t learn fast enough, they should probably die. Isn’t that what happens in almost every game?

The point is that games are based on learning. Learn some stuff and move on to the next level. And they must be interactive and engaging or else nobody will use them. These concepts could and should be the basis for learning things that are actually important to one’s educational career and not just for games that we play for fun with our friends.



All posts by Brad Brown

Nutrition for Your Brain


 This isn’t science class, but you should really know the basics here. Diet also has a major impact on how your brain functions. The effects that things like sugar, simple carbs rather than complex ones, and lack of omega 3 fatty acids have on you is significant. Diet can have a major impact on your ability to concentrate and focus. This means that a poor diet could, and likely will, have a negative impact on your test score. This is by no means an exhaustive list of what you should be putting in your body, but maybe gets you started on knowing how nutrition impacts your brain function.

Nutrition and Brain Function

The impact of nutrition on normal brain function can be demonstrated by the performance of neurotransmitter activity (chemical messengers that carry information from brain cell to brain cell). The brain, like many other vital organs, is affected by nutritional intake. Amino acids found in proteins, and essential nutrients like choline are responsible for the normal production and use of neurotransmitters in the brain (serotonin, acetylcholine, dopamine, and norepinephrine). We obtain these substances in the food we eat, so it is no surprise that what we choose to eat directly influences how our brain functions.

What You Need and What It Does

There are five vital components for proper brain development and function and they are all found in food.

▪ Proteins (meat, fish, milk, cheese) are used to make most neurotransmitting substances. Lack of protein causes fatigue and withdrawal and has been associated with poor school performance.

▪ Calories are the measure of the amount of energy delivered by food. They get a bad rap but we all need calories.

▪ Carbohydrates, such as grains, fruits, and vegetables, are used to produce the body and brain’s main fuel. Complex carbs, such as green vegetables, whole grain foods (oatmeal, pasta, and bread), starchy vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, and pumpkin) provide sustained energy along with fiber and assorted nutrients. Many nutritionists suggest that complex carbs make up 50-60% of your caloric intact. Simple carbs offer only sweetness and short bursts of energy.

▪ Fat makes up more than 60% of the brain and assists the body in absorbing fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K). Omega-3 fatty acids (fish and nuts) are especially important to brain function Fat should not make up more than 30% of the diet.

▪ Vitamins (A, C, E, and B complex) and minerals (magnesium, folic acid, potassium, manganese, and fiber ) are also essential for brain function. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, says that since most Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables each day, they miss out on these essential vitamins and minerals. Many females do not meet their daily calcium needs, which might increase their risk of poor bone health later in life.

▪ Make small changes to your usual diet and dump those power drinks as a replacement for water — they are nothing more than salted sugar water.

▪ Start reading food labels. If you eat a lot of packaged and processed foods, you may be surprised to see how much fat, and sugar and sodium, is in the foods you eat every day.


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Fake It Til You Become It

I think that standardized exams and job interviews can have similar feelings associated with them. It seems that the exam and/or the interviewer could ask you practically anything under the sun. What I have for you is a video that suggests that our non-verbals can govern how we think and feel about ourselves by increasing testosterone and decreasing cortisol (the stress hormone). Which is to say that if you feel unconfident or even scared, if you portray confidence and practice some power poses, it can actually change how you feel about yourself. The old saying is fake it til you make it. Can the body actually change the mind?

Watch this TED talk and let us know what you think.