Silicon Valley, CA – iQ3R, a Silicon Valley ed-tech startup, began with their Chief Information Officer and founding engineer – Peter Alexander. He is responsible for curriculum development, instructional design and the platform architecture for this new idea they are unfolding to the online learning community. He also has worked for many education startups and has been involved in some very interesting dialog concerning what are good business practices in the area of online education. “We intend to deliver on what we promise. Our customers will like that. They are weary of ‘great expectations’ only to find the same old sloppy teaching and irresponsible management,” he said, reflecting on how he hoped to make this group stand out as different.
iQ3R is quite different. The name is kind of a twist on the venerable SQ3R study method. SQ3R stands for “Survey”, “Question”, “Read”, “Recite”, “Review”. Alexander thought this was a bit dated. When he partnered with USGBM’s CEO Raymond Wang, they worked hard to find a solution to a major problem in the “gig” industry of online “education”. According to David Weil, Dean of The Heller School at Brandeis, “Companies come up with a way to provide a service by tapping on a screen instead of making a phone call and they want to call their workers contractors.” iQ3R sees the educational “gig” industry as filled with Uber drivers, not educators – willing laborers, not teachers. iQ3R intends to be a response to this. iQ3R stands for “Intelligence”, “Questioning”, “Refleting”, “Reasoning”, and “Responding” – the process which is at the heart of scientific thinking and learning.
iQ3R aims to be a platform for educators. They are working to build a data hub which will serve as a platform for the design of intelligent statistical learning solutions. iQ3R believes the problems educators actually face in the online environment require solutions that go beyond traditional lesson plans and course outlines. There are numerous online tools and activities. iQ3R studies these issues in depth. Many of their competitors simply provide a well-branded generic curriculum to their “Uber” drivers. “I could hardly use the online tools. It didn’t even make much sense,” said Valerie Capriotti as she reflected on her experience with one such online “learning” company. Valerie is now a Lead Instructor and content developer with iQ3R.
“The educational gig industry treats its workers – you can hardly call them educators – as disposable commodities,” Alexander said. “And it is not going to go so well for them if they keep doing that.” Leading employment law specialist Steven Tindall  commented, “They are not contractors. They are assigned to carry out very specific tasks under very careful supervision. That hardly conforms to the designation of a ‘contractor’. The employers are breaking the law.” iQ3R aims to uphold U.S. labor laws. Not only will they have instructors who are employees, but they will also be offering full time status to qualified instructors. This is very different than the way of the “teaching” gig.
One of the most challenging problems for educational gig companies is “teacher” turnover. iQ3R’s Rana Abourizk is completing her doctoral thesis in education. She has worked for some of these gig companies and also does recruiting for them. “As a recruiter, I added them (got would-be ‘teachers’ gigs) in hopes they would wake up one day and realize what they can actually do with real knowledge (as opposed to) acting,” she said as she reflected on the quality of “teaching” the gig industry supports. iQ3R aims to deal with teacher turnover problems by simply attracting real teachers. Currently the teaching crew with iQ3R consists mainly of credentialed teachers and college professors. iQ3R believes that by treating instructors with dignity, making room in the organization for genuine career paths, and creating a community with education as its focus, they will provide a genuine virtual work environment in which educators will want to remain.
iQ3R aims to provide a way for qualified instructors to supplement their income. But the quality of their model depends on career path opportunities for their instructors. They plan to furnish students with one-on-one personalized instruction and this will result in an estimated ratio of one instructor for every four students in their program. In order to maintain high standards of Common Core and STEM based instruction, they will need to have full time instructors, program coordinators, and instructors devoted to supervision and training. “If you plan for excellence, you will attract excellence; to retain excellence you need to reward excellence,” Alexander said. “You don’t reward professionals by paying them “fast food” wages, subjecting them to pejorative student rating systems, publishing their numbers to the internet, and offering complicated ‘incentive’ rewards which aren’t really much of a reward.”
At iQ3R, students are not given the opportunity to “rate” instructor performance. Citing research from U.C. Berkeley, among others, the teaching staff believe student evaluation of teaching (SET) is not only unreliable, but biased against women. Instead of a “popularity contest” – as they referred to (SET) – iQ3R plans to have a system of training, shadowing, and peer review to maintain quality of service. “It is humiliating to have an eight year old essentially fire you because you were trying to help them pronounce ‘Uranus’ correctly,” said iQ3R product designer Jennifer Wong concerning her prior work with one of their competitors. Indeed, many former instructors from competing companies reported leaving to work with iQ3R for exactly these kinds of reasons. The teaching staff at iQ3R claims to be committed to teaching and free to actually teach. “In order to actually teach, you have to resist the temptation to be the kid’s buddy. With these other companies, that can cost you bookings,” said iQ3R Lead Instructor Steven Moore.
The opportunities iQ3R aims to provide for its students center more around traditional education values with modern implementation. They feature Common Core and STEM based learning through an assessment based, adaptive learning model. In this model, their core technology will enable the instructor to identify the optimal plans for reaching learning objectives. They point out that using sound statistical techniques, reliable predictive methods can be of enormous value to a good instructor. They believe, however, that Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, and the like, will never replace a good instructor.
Despite these concerns, iQ3R does indeed plan to include as many tools as make sense in their analytics platform. Indeed, they are taking considerable care to set up their platform to handle large amounts of data with integrity. Matt Permutter, head of the data science unit at iQ3R commented, “Some of the most challenging aspects of analyzing data, is simply wrangling the data, cleaning the data, and getting the data into your system. If you can do that in an honest manner, 80% of the work is done.” Alexander added that the reason for this has to do with a fundamental failure of engineers to hard code the right tools for the analysis in the first place. iQ3R plans to solve this problem before it even shows up.
iQ3R will officially launch its products and services on Tuesday, July 9, 2019. Their initial launch will reach out to students in the U.S., with a planned international expansion early next year. They have a full staff of trained instructors and a lean, but useful basic platform. Much of the company’s plans and projects require a sufficiently large training set of historical data before they can say with scientific honesty that their algorithms make sense. In that sense, the company seems to prefer to be conservative about the size of its initial user base. “We have chosen to adopt an agile development model  Choosing to do a few things well, means choosing not to do everything, and being very selective about who we work with,” Alexander said.
Following the ‘agile’ model, the iQ3R ‘sprints’  may be a little slow going at first. This is perhaps good for their competitors. iQ3R is aiming for student retention rates of 95% or better and teacher turnover close to 0%. If they can engineer that, they will be a formidable brand of online learning services and extremely challenging to others concerned with far different things than providing genuine educational services.
1. Steven Tindall is a leading prosecuting attorney with Gibbs Lawgroup. He has won numerous cases against companies in the “education gig” industry.
2. “Agile” is shorthand for a software development philosophy stressing the importance of customer satisfaction and collaboration during the entire process of engineering.
3. “Sprints” are defined in the agile language as clearly defined periods of development with very specific objectives and timeframes.