During the summer, most parents declare victory if they can coax the kids off the couch for a trip to the library. Most parents are not Allan and Heather Staker.
Last year the Stakers, parents to five children between the ages of 1 and 10, decided to take the problem of summer learning into their own hands. The result is Brain Chase, a six-week treasure hunt that layers an animated story peppered with clues on top of the best instructional content on the web. As students log progress in reading, writing, and math, Brain Chase reveals new chapters in an adventure story and opportunities to guess the location of a real-world treasure worth $10,000, buried under a rose bush somewhere on Earth.
"What can we do during the summer to keep the kids sharp? And what kind of a program would be irresistible to kids? That's when the floodgates opened and the idea came together," says Allan, who has a background in entertainment and has taken the lead on the creative aspects of Brian Chase.
"The question then is not only about falling behind, but getting ahead," says Heather, who also happens to be a senior research fellow, specializing in education, at the Clayton Christensen Institute. "As a parent, I want to take advantage of what's online to help my children accelerate. Of course, that needs to be balanced by plenty of time in the sunshine and with friends."
Audrey Staker, age 6, believes her mom is on to something. "I think it’s good for kids to learn over the summer because during the summer, all we do is play, play, play and we never do learning," she says. Of course, she adds, "My favorite thing about summer is swimming because swimming is fun."
After years of hemming and hawing among education leaders over the merits of our nine-month school year, the relic of an agricultural era that has long since passed, Brain Chase represents the new kind of compromise that online learning can offer.
"Most disruptions get their start serving areas of nonconsumption," says Heather, who is putting her expertise in disruptive innovation into practice. "We've predicted for years that online learning could fill this gap, and now the technology is good enough that it's a real opportunity."
Districts and charter schools from Colorado to Connecticut have been experimenting with longer school days and years, thanks to interest on the part of grant-makers like the Ford Foundation. But these structural changes to the school calendar have been slow to catch fire, even after decades of research pointing to their promise. For students, and particularly for low-income students, waiting for policymakers to summon the political capital to act will have real consequences.
"By the end of summer, students perform, on average, one month behind where they left off in the spring," researchers at RAND, a nonprofit that analyzes public policy, wrote in their 2011 report on Making Summer Count.
"Average", however, doesn’t tell the full story: "Low-income students lose substantial ground in reading during the summer, while their higher-income peers often gain," the report said. "Most disturbing is that it appears that summer learning loss is cumulative and that, over time, these periods of differential learning rates between low-income and higher-income students contribute substantially to the achievement gap in reading."
To make a dent in this stubborn problem, Brain Chase will have to convince parents that its instructional framework is worth $199, and then convince students in grades 2 through 8 that its animated story can rival the drama of Disney Channel favorites. Allan is hopeful that Brain Chase main character Mae Merriweather, a modern Indiana Jones meets Nancy Drew on a quest for the "Globe of Magellan," will capture and hold imaginations.
"There has to be a compelling story behind it, and an objective that can get kids engaged," he says. "The idea of a real treasure is mysterious and captivating."
Heather notes that the visual dashboard that tracks students’ progress—Brain Chase requires an hour of learning time five days per week in order to "unlock" new chapters—is also designed to play a role in retention. "As software starts asking, ‘how can we help students exercise agency,’ this will just explode the quality and the satisfaction that students feel as they engage with it," she says. "We need to relax some of our notions about the things that need to be imposed on students. If they feel like they're in control it's so much easier for them to buy in."
The Stakers moved thousands of miles to Austin, Tex., in order to enroll their growing family in a school that follows a "learner-driven" model. "They love that freedom," Heather says. "They couldn't go back to the factory model."
The Brain Chase dashboard integrates via API with instructional content developed by Khan Academy, famous for its whiteboard-style math videos, and myON, a library of digital books, as well as with writing prompts and bonus projects developed by the Stakers and their "talent cloud" team. Both Khan Academy and myON are adaptive platforms that can track outcomes in terms of effort, meaning that Brain Chase can challenge students at nearly any level without the prohibitive expense of customizing course material. (Students’ responses to the writing prompts will be evaluated by certified teachers managed by Brain Chase.)
This week the Stakers embark on an adventure of their own: releasing Brain Chase to the broader world beyond their home-based "focus group" of kids and neighbors.
"We're looking at this summer as a beta test," says Allan. "We have a lot of questions ourselves about who it's for, and what subjects we should be doing." He envisions adding foreign languages and other subjects in subsequent years.
Also in the works: a social enterprise business model that would make summer licenses available for free to low-income families. "We really want to make this available to the kids who need it most," Allan says. First, though, he wants to prove the value proposition. "It remains to be seen whether it's compelling enough to get kids to learn over the summer."
If all else fails, Brain Chase will at least be able to count three loyal customers: Audrey; Savannah, age 8; and Tate, age 10.
"I don't like the idea of doing work over the summer," says Tate, "unless it is for something fun like a competition or a treasure hunt."
"It’s better than being bored all summer," Savannah says.
Well, exactly. Though it’s hard to imagine there’s ever much danger of boredom in the Staker household.