Wednesday June 3, 2020

Irish edtech firm AcornStar puts UX to the forefront of its offering

After three years in development, AcornStar is helping businesses face Covid-19 head-on with innovative, interactive training

23rd May, 2020
Siobhán and Cathal Leonard, co-founders and co-chief executives, AcornStar

Edtech, or educational technology, is at the forefront of the fight to get back on track after the Covid-19 pandemic. Classrooms have already moved online, and in the longer term many countries are now looking at ‘blended’ online and in-person learning experiences.

In the business world, too, edtech has a real role to play in getting society back to work, delivering training efficiently, both in areas that were already important and in relation to the coronavirus itself.

One Irish company, AcornStar, is in the market now— and delivering a lot more than pre-recorded lectures or Zoom chats.

Co-founder and co-chief executive Cathal Leonard says a key goal is to bring good production values to its training — something that is often missing from online material.

“People are rushing now to get stuff out there, and they’re not considering the UX [user experience], it’s a big rush to get people up in front of the green screen talking,” he says.

Leonard, who cut his teeth in media and music production on the west cost of the US, says that having good production values is not just an added extra. Instead, it is key to driving engagement.

“It would be like Daft Punk recording an album on a Walkman,” he says.

This matters because people simply won’t engage with poorly made and boring content. Instead, it has to match the experience people expect from streaming services such as Netflix and even video games.

“Younger generations in particular have a shorter attention span, but they also have a broader digital palette,” Leonard says.

Largely bootstrapped and self-funded, AcornStar’s course line-up is broad, but with a focus on health and safety in particular.

“We started out with a niche about health and safety. My co-founder, Siobhán, is an expert in that. We created content for people like Rolex and France 2 television.

“Frankly, I was shocked at the quality of the material out there,” he says.

AcornStar developed its own learning management platform and delivers interactive content produced in industry-leading software, all deployed via the open standard HTML 5.

“Right now, we’re talking to very large, billion-turnover corporate clients, and to unemployed people,” says Leonard.

Indeed, AcornStar has made its courses available to the unemployed, supported by regional development bodies, helping them to get accredited qualifications.

Health and safety may not be the most glamorous area, but it is vital— both for business and wider society.

“If we had real quality control in place globally, we’d not have had this [coronavirus] situation, at least not as bad. We’ve come a long way from children climbing up chimneys, and that’s because of regulations,” says Leonard.

Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) training, for instance, is mandatory in food service businesses, and AcornStar can train up to level three in food safety, as well as in allergen awareness.

“A waiter, a chef and anyone else who handles food is legally obliged to have HACCP training, and managers, generally, have to have HACCP level three.

“Traditionally, they send them off somewhere for three days and it’s very expensive. This revolutionises that,” he says.

All of AcornStar’s HACCP courses are RoSPA approved.

The coronavirus itself has also become the subject of training, something that will be key as businesses begin to reopen, says Leonard.

AcornStar offers training such as an ‘introduction to Covid-19’ course and ‘Covid-19 compliance officer’.

One other area of vital importance is in the construction industry, where AcornStar delivers essential toolbox training.

“They can’t do that the traditional way any more, so we’re delivering them via mobile apps in five languages. We track progress and have advanced reporting features,” he says.

The reporting features are essential in a highly regulated area like construction.

“If something happens on-site and a guy says he wasn’t trained, then it’s a real problem,” says Leonard.

While keeping users engaged is key, it is not the be all and end all. The material has to be high quality, too.

“The content is the content. We try to make it entertaining, but the fact is, for people who are going to be in the field it’s essential.”

Augmenting reality

Leonard is proud that the content itself is not just a glorified lecture or slideshow. Video, audio and graphical elements are key, along with interactivity.

“Every slide in three has an interactive element, meaning you have to do something to progress it,” he says.

But there is more: AcornStar has gone all-in with augmented reality (AR).

Learners can hold their phone to the screen and see elements move in three dimensions, popping out of the screen, in an experience we are more used to with the very high end of video games than in workplace training.

Future plans include teaching science to young people, including in markets outside Ireland.

Here AcornStar’s high production values and AR in particular will help, driving an educational experience that engages children with the material.

“We launched about a year ago and we’re trying to move into the British market in the next year. We’re also looking to take everything we’ve got and build out the content for kids doing science from K through 12 and integrate it all: we have amazing models of the solar system, plants, animals and so on,” he says.

Feedback so far has been universally positive, both from users (whose Google ratings are publicly published) and from clients.

“Recently, we got some new customers and they have said it has transformed their experience,” says Leonard.

Just as education is changing in line with technology, the technology itself keeps moving on, and Leonard says that AcornStar will be there to take advantage of new and exciting developments as they appear.

“We think AR is going to be a huge space. We’re expecting Apple to release their ‘glass’ [headset], and the hope will be, eventually, that they’ll replace the phone.”

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