You must be familiar with the term Open Platform which is one of the key invention driving the modern Internet business. OpenLanguage, founded in 2012, the Shanghai-based  startup is trying to extend the Open idea to language-learning market. Its mission is to use mobile technology to help busy adults learn languages. In this article, Jenny Zhu, co-founder of the company walks us through what she is trying to accomplish with OpenLanguage.

OpenLanguage is actually founded by the core team is behind the immensely popular ChinesePod. Hank Horkoff, co-founder of ChinesePod, a Canadian entrepreneur living in Shanghai for the past 10 years is the other co-founder of OpenLanguage.  Together with Jenny Zhu, they started OpenLanguage after the acquisition of ChinesePod in the beginning of 2012.

As the name suggests, OpenLanguage’s open to students, publishers, teachers and schools. OpenLanguage is a software platform that provides them with modern publishing tools, language learning materials in addition to the best of modern web and mobile study tools. As Jenny introduced, “The development of mobile technology has opened up tremendously exciting opportunities for us to rethink language learning. There’s so much more that we can leverage than the current options out there.  We want to help people learn and teach in a much more convenient, enjoyable and data-driven way.”

Jenny explained to me the three key problems OpenLanguage’s trying to solve.

  1. Modernizing lesson publishing – If you look at traditional publishing, language books are usually general, outdated and hard to customize. But this one-size-fits-all economics no longer needs to apply. With a web-based publishing system, OpenLanguage seeks to empower talented teachers to produce world-class learning materials and distribute them throughout the world onto smartphones and tablets.  Looking at my experience with ChinesePod, learners’ success largely depends on convenience, relevance, practice opportunity and motivation. And that’s what we want to work with publishers both traditional and new to deliver.
  2. Bringing technology to the classroom – While adult students are increasingly demanding a more convenient study option, most schools either lack the experience or funds to build their own technology solutions. OpenLanguage offers software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions to help them (and individual language teachers) to take advantage of these modern, digital tools. Students can use the OpenLanguage Tablet Textbook, while teachers and administrators can use the Open Academy features to manage their students and track their studies. Jenny believe that the form factor and content of the Tablet Textbook helps increase students’ interaction with their learning input. Users can study on their way to work or class and be primed about the key language. Therefore, in class they can dive right into speaking practice and receive very targeted feedback. This could make the classroom much more efficient and effective.
  3. Using data to solve student problems – As more and more study activity migrates to digital devices, the resultant data-footprint can be used to solve student problems. At the heart OpenLanguage wants to target traditional language proficiency exams. While those exams are the predominant benchmark for school enrolment officers, HR and immigration officers, they are often poor reflection of one’s real communication competency. “That’s why so many high TOEFL and IELTS scoring students can’t even deal with basic daily exchange.” Jenny said, “But as more study moves online, it enables us to track students’ learning over months or even years and provide a much more comprehensive and realistic assessment of their language ability.”  Just as Facebook is increasingly used as an alternative to traditional resumes by potential employers, OpenLanguage believe something similar will happen for language learning. OpenLanguage wants to help create a “big data” alternative to traditional language proficiency exams. This “Language Graph” will be a collection of all students’ study activity (collected with their consent) with a simple dashboard overlay to help potential employers, university enrollment offices or immigration officials to get a more accurate sense of their language abilities. “It’s almost like Google Analytics, but for language learning.” Jenny said.

Education is a long-term commitment, and you need to be in it for the long haul and want to make an impact. Obviously Jenny and Hank understand that. They’ve got a 5-year roadmap for OpenLanguag. As they said, the first stage is to promote the idea of the Tablet Textbook which is done by their iOS and Android apps for smartphones and tablets.  It’s designed as the next generation textbook. It provides all the learning input of a traditional book, but brings all the content into life. For example, all the dialogues and review content come with text, annotation and recordings. Students can also save target words and study them as flashcards. They can also choose from a wide range of topics in our lesson library to match their own level and topic needs.  Smart features such as the SRS flashcards help students memorize words and learn how to use them in real contexts. All in all, it is a much more convenient, multimedia and “smart” learning experience.

For the international market (i.e. English as instruction language), OpenLanguage now has Spanish, French, Italian, English and Arabic, and has also signed on partner publishers for Russian, German, and Portuguese.  I asked Jenny about the relationship with these partner publishers. Jenny said, the publisher are language experts in their chosen language. So they provide the content and academic backbone where OpenLanguage gives them powerful publishing tools and modern lesson media production training as well as some sales and marketing support. This alliance helps student study the most practical, updated and authentic language on their favorite mobile devices.

As for the business model, for the end-users (students),  OpenLanguage use the subscription business, i.e. students purchase a monthly or annual subscription; and for schools, it’s an SaaS model. (Note, OpenLanguage offers a white-label solution for schools, i.e. their students will see an app from their school powered by OpenLangauge. It’s to help schools with their branding and gives them a mobile strategy.) OpenLanguage does a revenue split with publishers.

Jenny and Hank both are firm believers in the Lean Startup approach. They’ve iterated very fast based on customers feedback, whether it’s from individual customers in the US, in China, publishers and school customers. Jenny said, now over 95% of OpenLanguage’s paying customers are using smartphones and tablets to access our service, which confirms their belief of the advantage of the Tablet Textbook and using mobile device to learn languages.

“After all, why can’t you learn a language like you use Facebook?  Learning should be convenient, smart and fun.” I can’t agree more on this.