Mobento: Reinventing Digital Education

When Tony Blair was re-elected back in 10 Downing Street on 7 June 2001 after a landslide victory for his Labour party, his first speech at the University of Southampton reiterated his top priority, “education, education, education”. In short, his speech highlighted his party’s commitment to investment and reform in Britain’s lagging education sector, which had suffered under the “neglect” of the Conservative Party. His speech, I believe, rekindled the public interest in education — and also became one of his most memorable soundbites. Although I don’t support the Labour Party or their principles, I do credit Mr Blair for awakening the dormant giant that is education — and it shows nowadays.

Almost every major technology company has a page of their corporate website dedicated to education, touting how their products will “change lives” and “enhance basic classroom activities”. Microsoft‘s, for example, demonstrates a variety of its products, such as Microsoft Office 365 and Windows 8, whereas Apple opts for a more device-orientated page, touting how its products such as the iPad and Mac allow pupils to “tap into their potential” and have “inspired learners”. OK, so it’s a bit cringeworthy, but you get the point.

And now, there’s a new area to focus on: educational videos. Sure, we’ve all heard of the likes of TED and the Khan Academy — both of which offer excellent material — but now, there’s a new kid on the block that wants to give these two a run for their money. Mobento describes itself as a “video learning platform” which not only has an outstanding database of videos for your viewing enjoyment but it also allows you to search within videos for the actual words spoken. To help me understand a bit more about this amazing product, I spoke to Sumner Murphy, the founder of Mobento — here’s what he (and myself) had to say.

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The Beginnings

Mobento was founded back in 2012 by Murphy, a native New Yorker, who moved to London in order to set up his company in the “Silicon Roundabout”, an area of Central and East London which has received a significant amount of investment from a number of major technology companies, including Cisco, Facebook, Google and Intel. The company’s office is located in the heart of London’s Docklands on the 39th floor of One Canada Square, or Canary Wharf (one of London’s most prestigious office locations), and back in June, Mobento received a record-breaking $1.7 million in seed funding, which not only was the largest ever disclosed for an education technology startup but was also one of the biggest amounts ever raised by a British-based technology business for its initial funding round.

Murphy, who is half-French and suffers from dyslexia, founded Mobento back in 2012.

Murphy, who is half-French and suffers from dyslexia, founded Mobento back in 2012.

I asked Murphy: why was Mobento created?

I created Mobento out of personal frustration for a lack of smart technology in the classroom that could complement teachers in both a traditional and flipped classrooms.

In case you’re wondering, the term “flipped classroom” was coined in the early 2000s and describes a method of learning whereby students learn new content by watching videos at home online, then discussing and solving problems with the teacher in class, rather than being assigned homework — this is exactly what the Khan Academy tries to achieve. But rather than emulate an existing product, Murphy has tried to create something which is unique.

Mobento contains the very best in hand-picked, education videos.

Mobento contains the very best in hand-picked, education videos.

Mobento is an original product and contains a pre-vetted library of over 1,000 educational videos, as well as the unique capability to search within a video. Users are much more likely, according to Murphy, to use the app during a commute, or on the couch with their iPad or smartphone and search for the area of a lecture they want to reabsorb — an evolution of the humble flashcard.

The Evolution

Mobento has been around for just over a year now and in that time, it has evolved from a little-known online platform into a cornucopia of educational goodness, offering videos on subjects from astrobiology to technology. All the videos are vetted before they are uploaded onto the company’s servers, unlike TED, which according to Murphy:

…has ballooned massively since they have really opened up the ability to participate in the program, and you will now get things like straight stand-up comedy, or a session that is obviously designed to be a personal branding move or PR vehicle rather than an educational video.

Mobento has been negotiating with the providers of educational videos ever since their inception back in 2012, and Murphy states that these providers really do see the value in their platform, as it’s a free community with no advertisements. What’s more is that the platform offers easy access, aggregation and search for the videos, with that “smart search” function, as I’ve dubbed it, to search inside videos.

Mobento's video player in the new iOS app showing the unique search function.

Mobento‘s video player in the new iOS app showing the unique search function.

The company is really dedicated to its cause — providing high-quality and education videos to everyone who’s interested — and they are planning to add over 5,000 hours of videos by the end of the year. There’s also a fresh new iOS app, available for both the iPhone and the iPad, which really takes the platform into the mobile world. The Android app has been downloaded over 30,000 times since its launch and has received positive reviews from users.

But what really boots Mobento‘s reputation is that it has been designed from the ground up with education in mind. It has the rights to distribute content from the likes of TED and the Khan Academy, but Murphy emphasises learning in his unique approach. Videos are vetted and only the ones with a “true educational slant” are allowed in. It’s on course to be one of the biggest services in education technology — and Murphy is behind it 100% of the way.

The Future

Unlike most application developers, who prefer to remain tight-lipped about their future plans, Murphy is enthusiastic:

School accounts (like Spotify playlists for classrooms/teachers) will see great strides made in the coming months towards providing educators with great analytics on digital assets they distribute to their students via the platform.

As most of the major technology companies have already demonstrated, education is the future. The Netherlands has already started an initiative called Onderwijs voor een nieuwe tijd (education for a new era), which emphasises the role of the iPad in an elementary school environment. Seven “Steve Jobs schools” have already opened in a number of Dutch cities, including Breda, Almere and Amsterdam, and the project is expected to go international in early 2014.

It’s an exciting time for education technology (also known as ‘edtech’) as, according to Murphy:

The president’s [Obama] recent remarks around a plan to reduce college costs for future generations should be welcomed and championed by forward-thinking institutions already embracing change, but there is a long way for tech to go as far as meeting cost points for educators and providing real value in the classroom. At Mobento, we like to think we are one of the ones to watch!

During the past few years, we have seen a marked shift in attitudes towards technology in a learning environment. Previously, it was seen to complement classroom activities but now it is actually enhancing the pattern of learning, as demonstrated by “flipped classrooms”. The Khan Academy, for example, has received a number of high-profile donations and endorsements for its unique approach to web-based learning and Mobento, although young in comparison (TED has been around in some form since 1984 and the Khan Academy was launched in September 2006), is poised to do well.

Mobento's videos are sorted into a wide range of categories, offering everything for the curious visitor.

Mobento‘s videos are sorted into a wide range of categories, offering everything for the curious visitor.

With the launch of its iOS applications, as well those “school accounts”, Mobento not only makes learning more accessible but also more affordable. MOOCs, or massive open online courses, have shot up in popularity over the past few years, as they offer the same quality of learning as any higher-education institution at a fraction of the price. The Georgia Institute of Technology, for example, in collaboration with Udacity (another MOOC provider) and the carrier AT&T, offers an online course in computer science for a mere $7,000, which was recently praised by Obama in a recent speech on college affordability at the University of Buffalo, NY.

Of course, Mobento isn’t designed to replace higher-education learning but merely to serve one of mankind’s greatest traits: curiosity. I can happily waste away an afternoon watching videos on climate change, creative thinking and philosophy even though I would say I don’t possess a natural interest for these subjects. It just so happens that Mobento curates the most educational of content — and the stuff that’s on there just happens to be extremely interesting. I’d like to say a big thanks to Sumner Murphy for chatting to me about Mobento, and of course I wish him, and the fantastic company he’s created, all the very best for the future.

To stay up to date, or to ask Sumner any questions, then please feel free to follow both him and Mobento on Twitter.