When Students Build Their Own Learning Platform
With a group of high school classmates in 2009, social entrepreneur Simon Köhl built a Wikipedia-inspired collaborative learning platform: Serlo. It’s now used by one million students in Germany every month, and in late 2022, was awarded federal funding to integrate into Germany’s national digital learning infrastructure. Ashoka’s Sascha Haselmayer caught up with Köhl in Berlin to learn more about why students love Serlo and what’s ahead.
Sascha Haselmayer: Simon, your digital platform is becoming an official part of the education system in Germany. Tell us why you created it.
Simon Köhl: Personally, I was only able to keep up in school because my parents paid for private tutoring. Later I saw more clearly how the school system produces inequality, with many young people not getting the support they need. So my friends and I built Serlo. It offers lessons, exercises, videos, and other content in the manner of Wikipedia, completely free of charge. We wanted to make content more accessible to all students, allowing them to learn at their own pace.
When we approached the Federal Ministry of Education in Germany a few years back, it was the middle of the Covid crisis and a lot of the digital public school infrastructure had failed. So we saw a huge opportunity to create more impact and offered our free resources and our content editor, so that teachers could easily adapt our content to the needs of their classes and, ideally, to individual students. The government agreed to the proposal and funded us to implement our content and editing tools within the public digital school infrastrucutre.
Haselmayer: Great to hear! And why is Serlo needed — I mean, what it is wrong with how children are taught in German schools?
Köhl: Many things need updating for the world we live in. Even in Germany, success in school often depends on how wealthy the school district is and whether your family can afford private tutoring. Regarding learning, the biggest problem is that we adults decide what and how young people should learn. In general, school is still designed to turn young people into passive consumers of information, instead of strengthening their capacity to solve challenges on their own, to guide their own learning. Yet for our increasingly volatile world with fast-moving problems, like the climate crisis, we need young people with new ideas and a strong belief in their ability to shape their world. The role of the teacher needs to evolve towards holding space for self-directed learning, collaboration, and reflection.
Haselmayer: How can Serlo contribute to this transformation?
Köhl: Of course, there are many variables to a complex system like schools. Serlo’s piece of the puzzle is learning resources that leave a lot of decisions to students. We ask them: What do you want to learn? Do you prefer reading or watching explanatory videos? What kind of practice are most helpful to you? We allow our users to move freely through the platform — the same way you might use Wikipedia. So we always provide links to additional background knowledge and to cross-disciplinary connections, which hopefully sparks curiosity.
For teachers and schools, often the first step is just adding one laptop to a classroom so that students can start to look things up on Serlo, instead of asking the teacher. Allowing students to guide their own learning is very empowering.
Haselmayer: How are you, as a nonprofit start-up, handling the for-profit push for education technology dominance?
Köhl: The global development is definitely moving towards the privatization of education. And although that might bring some innovation, and although some of these startups might create services that are broadly accessible and not that expensive, the guiding question for investors in for-profits will always be: Is there any additional value that can be created and sold to wealthier families or school districts? At the end of the day, the private sector is incentivized to differentiate students by economic class. It is not really interested in a well-funded, innovative public school system, serving a holistic public service, because it takes away from their market.
As a non-profit entity we can’t compete with for-profit platforms by raising the same amount of funding — that’s not possible. So our strategy is to advance through collaboration, as part of a movement of NGOs, non-profit startups, and public institutions working towards the shared goal of a modern, openly accessible and student-centric education system.
Haselmayer: You’re reaching a million students a month with a very low cost structure and a small team. Does technology have to be incredibly expensive, or is there a smarter way to go about it?
Köhl: At the beginning, you can be very effective with a small, dedicated team and lean development techniques. Further along, though, learning applications used by millions of students — that are reliable, high-performance, and offer a great user experience — will be expensive. If we as a society want those learning technologies to be available to everybody, protect our data, be ad-free, and offer content created by independent editors, we have to find ways to fund them sufficiently.
Our Serlo developers love their work, yet earn perhaps half of what they could earn on the private market. For the moment, we rely on very talented people being willing to earn less or work pro bono. We hope to see this change, as society’s priorities evolve, of course. In our experience, the smartest people always want to have a positive impact. So we offer co-ownership of the company, high flexibility, a very inclusive and collaborative culture, and, above all, genuine purpose.
Haselmayer: One extraordinary thing about Serlo is that you started it in 2009 when you were so young — in your teens. How did that affect your trajectory?
Köhl: It was an advantage for us. We didn’t know anything about incubators, business angels or social entrepreneurship, so we flew under the radar at first. Nobody told us we weren’t experienced enough, that we didn’t have the capital or the network to reach our target audience. I think this shows what young people really want and need: to pursue their ideas without judgment. Trying something new, even if that means failing, is learning in its purest form.
Simon Köhl and Sascha Haselmayer are Ashoka Fellows in Germany.