This article is part of our TechRadar North column, a series focusing on the development of the North of England’s digital sector.
Each September sees the UK’s university towns and cities flooded with students. Many push the thought of revising to the backs of their minds to instead focus on social activities far removed from neon-colored binders and weighty textbooks.
But for one final-year medical student at the University of Leeds, England, the subject of revision is constant. James Gupta, along with his friend and coursemate Omair Vaiyani, co-founded Synap — an educational platform that lets students and teachers create and share multiple choice question quizzes.
The idea came to Gupta and Vaiyani after they began trading questions over Facebook. They started by coding a WordPress plugin designed to ask multiple choice questions, which was embedded into a blog. A standalone web app followed, along with iOS and Android offerings down the line. An Apple Watch version, which will allow users to take bite-sized quizzes, is in the works.
“We were annoyed to find that you go into university and are expected to learn everything by reading through textbooks and staying up all night in the library,” Gupta says. “We realized that writing questions for each other was a fun and challenging way to revise.”
After logging in using a Facebook account, you can create your own quizzes, share them with friends and earn feedback points for commenting on others. For a service that promotes learning and accuracy, the issue of how Synap’s user-generated content is ratified is a glaring one.
“We have the same problems that Quora and Wikipedia have,” admits Gupta.
Synap looks to weed out misinformation by combining algorithms and human input. The former are designed to sink low-quality content while allowing high-quality content to rise to the top.
Whenever a user submits a quiz, the algorithm checks out how many quizzes they have completed, added to their favorites, taken multiple times or shared with friends. They all add up to paint a complete picture of the user and their authoritative weight.
Additionally, both students and teachers can get their accounts “verified”, lending them additional clout when it comes to ratifying content submitted by others.
“If somebody says they’re a teacher that’s publishing content, or are a vetted doctor, then we can add badges to their profile confirming that we’ve checked them out and what they’re saying makes sense,” Gupta says. “It’s like a seal of trust.”
Synap is named after synapses — minute regions of empty space through which nerve cells are able to transmit information to other cells in the brain. It’s no coincidence: the company claims that its offering can help students learn more in less time, pointing to neuroscience research that likens brain cells to muscles. By continually revisiting bite-sized pieces of information, it says, the brain becomes more efficient at retaining knowledge.
And this is where Synap’s “spaced repetition” algorithms come into play. Spaced repetition is a learning method that Gupta likens to “hacking” the brain. As an alternative to “cramming” — repeatedly reading over the same information in a short space of time — it involves answering questions at set intervals over time.
The theory is that the brain strengthens and consolidates memories of things it encounters regularly and frequently, making it easier to recall information when needed.
The company plans to test this by working with Brighton & Sussex Medical School (BSMS) in January. In a randomized controlled trial, BSMS will produce a set of questions for one half of a student sample to study from using normal ‘self-study’. The other students will answer multiple choice quizzes containing questions suggested by Synap’s algorithms. The company will then measure the results.
“I know that Synap helps knowledge go up anecdotally from personal experience just by speaking to users, but obviously we need to test that,” says Gupta. “We’ve based Synap on newer science research from the last 50 years or so, so we’re confident that the group answering questions based on our algorithms’ recommendations will perform between 30 to 40 per cent better than their peers.”
Call of the North
Synap, which is based out of the Leeds University Enterprise and Innovation Centre, currently has 12,000 active monthly users and is relying on word of mouth to increase that number.
It could hardly be located in a hotter testbed, with the city playing host to three major universities and a student population of 65,000. According to Gupta, this is one of the reasons why the company won’t be succumbing to the lure of London’s Silicon Roundabout any time soon.
“We’ve already spoken to the team in London who are more than happy to come up to Leeds,” he says. “There’s many exciting things going on here and the northern scene generally is ready for some sort of catalyst.
“As a company that’s fairly successful already we can be the lightning rod that says to graduates and developers they don’t have to go down to London.”
After receiving a £5,000 (around $6,500) grant from Leeds University, the company raised £200,000 (around $260,000) through crowdfunding platform Crowdcube in 2015. According to Gupta, it went toward, “polishing the site, undertaking market research and landing new contracts.”
One of those contracts, with Oxford University Press, provides students with access to content from the Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine. They are accessed through Synap’s recently launched online store, which will play a key part in how the company monetizes the platform.
“We’re reaching out to educational publishers who have been trying to make a successful digital offering of their products for years,” says Gupta. “Now with Synap they can just upload their stuff in a spreadsheet. We’re looking to expand into Chemistry and GCSE content next.”
Synap’s potential is so that Gupta has decided not to pursue a career in medicine after five years of study, “for a whole bunch of reasons.”
“It’s partially down to factors that are pushing me away from the NHS,” he says. “I’m the sort of person that wants to address problems which is what led me to create a business in the first place. The NHS isn’t conducive to people who try to do that — they generally end up being asked to resign, if not outright fired.
“More for me, though, is the pull towards Synap. I’m working with my best friend and a team that I hand picked and really get on with. It’s something that I’m really passionate about and nothing else can compete with that.”