With new recommendation engine, Alleyoop wants to be a tutor for teens

Technology can’t replace the experience of working with a personal tutor, but Pearson-backed education startup Alleyoop is hoping its software can come close.
The Boston-based company, which launched in February to help teens become better prepared for college, tailors its online experience to each student’s learning needs. As middle and high school students interact with the gamified math content, the program adapts to supply lessons and practice problems that best fit their needs.
For the past four months, the startup itself has been learning from the collective interactions of its student users and, Wednesday, Alleyoop said it was rolling out a new recommendation engine that’s been made smarter by the tens of thousands of inputs. Beyond responding to the interactions of one single student, the company said the tool now provides a more powerful experience by learning from behaviors of students across the program to predict what each one might need next.
Patrick Supanc, Alleyoop’s president, said the software currently refines its recommendations based on the learning experiences of 30,000 students, but will only become more effective as the startup scales. That, he added, will help Alleyoop scale the ultimate educational experience, which is the valuable but expensive tutoring experience.
“It’s not replacing the experience of a one-on-one tutor, but it’s as close as we can get,” he said.
Other companies, such as New York-based startup Knewton and McGraw-Hill’s LearnSmart program, also provide adaptive learning program. But while those have K-12 students in their sights, they’ve mostly focused on higher education. Some school districts have incorporated adaptive learning platforms, but Alleyoop sees itself as an in-home, complementary program to classroom learning.
In addition to learning from each student’s behavior on the site, Alleyoop asks students to complete offline “missions,” such as talking to people about certain topics, and then report their experiences back to Alleyoop. Down the road, the startup hopes to incorporate data from other online platforms, such as test prep and grade management programs.
All of that information, Supanc said, will help Alleyoop learn students’ preferences and histories to provide the most customized and engaging experience for each student. For example, if a student likes roller coasters, the program should know to teach her about velocity in that context. Beyond that, it could even show her how roller coasters are built, potentially sparking curiosity about future possibilities.
“Consumers are used to experiences that customize and adapt to their preferences,” Supanc said. “We haven’t done a good job in education in creating that kind of experience around learning.”