Article Lead Image

Can algorithms help bridge education’s literacy gap?

BirdBrain offers a simple solution to improve student literacy.


Allen Weiner


Posted on Feb 25, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 11:07 am CDT

Reading may be fundamental, but for countless children, literacy is a challenge.

Pioneers in the emerging education technology space of adaptive learning are using the Internet to try and address problems that have been plaguing education. The beauty of BirdBrain Science is how easy it is to implement, and its ability to scale as new content is added.

BirdBrain founder and CEO Brendan Finch was a teacher in Los Angeles for seven years. As a teacher, he recognized the need for a solution for his students who fell behind in science and history because they lacked a basic mastery of reading. BirdBrain creates subject-specific science curriculum that maps to prescribed reading levels, and are matched in real time to students via simple online assessments. As a student progresses using continuous skill measurement, he or she is served stories at the next reading level. The initial product offers science-related topics, but BirdBrain is hosting a Kickstarter campaign in hopes of adding history to its catalog.

“I built BirdBrain Education from my own classroom to support literacy growth for students who are behind grade level and to further challenge students who are above grade level,” Finch told the Daily Dot.

Finch broke down the complex moving parts of adaptive learning into a simple foundational platform. The system uses approved standards-based reading levels that align with grades and common core requirements; more complex adaptive systems take a deeper granular approach to personalization but are more expensive to deploy, and require a lot of student data to achieve maximum effectiveness. Using high volumes of student data has drawn the scrutiny of privacy advocates.

“We looked at a couple of other programs like Accelerated Reader, along with teacher feedback, to create the algorithm we use for BirdBrain science,” explained Finch. The company is continually fine-tuning its matching formula as it expands into new areas such as Spanish language material, and topics beyond science and history.

As a teacher, Finch understood that many of the more advanced adaptive learning solutions require a great deal of time and training for teachers—a group already overtaxed. With that in mind, BirdBrain sells those in the classroom on the value proposition of saving time by not having to customize each lesson for individual learning styles.

Finch found all the inspiration he needed to move forward with his startup after he began BirdBrain in his own classroom.

“I remember when they looked at their first article and there was a glow in their eyes,” he said. “It was the first time in science class they had something they could sink their teeth into.”

Screengrab via BirdBrain Science/YouTube

Share this article
*First Published: Feb 25, 2015, 11:30 am CST