For the most part, a master’s thesis is the last step in a long academic journey.
But for aspiring entrepreneur Morten Versvik, it was an opportunity to develop technology that would revolutionize the learning of students around the world.
“We wanted to bring out the full learning potential of all learners, regardless of age, subject or background,” Versvik told CNBC Make It.
Versvik is the co-founder and current Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of Kahoot, a game-based learning platform which has become a worldwide success and is backed by leading investors like SoftBank, Microsoft and Disney.
He and his computer science teacher developed one of the first versions of the game in 2006, in order to make classrooms more attractive to all types of students.
Within a few years, their concept grew into Kahoot – a $ 5.7 billion edu-tech sensation that the the company says is used by 87% of the world’s top universities and 97% of Fortune 500 companies.
Today, the company headquartered in Oslo has more than 9 million teachers organize a so-called kahoot Last year. “Kahoots” are multiple choice quizzes created by a host, usually a teacher or presenter. The host shares questions on a screen and players record their answers using individual devices such as their phones or laptops.
But according to Versvik, the journey from his college days to what Kahoot is today wasn’t easy.
Versvík first proposed the technology for Kahoot while doing research for his Masters at the Norwegian University of Technology and Science (NTNU).
“The idea behind this was to bring engagement and competitiveness to all the students – especially those at the back of the class,” Versvik said.
To further develop the idea, he approached his professor at the time, Alf Inge Wang, who created games for movie screens. The two got together and started working on something that would make learning more engaging and interactive.
Versvik and Wang wanted to develop a game with a common large screen and multiple people playing simultaneously. They wanted players to “watch” a split screen and play together, instead of being absorbed into their own individual devices.
Their first idea, which they simply called “Lecture Quiz”, was to improve student motivation and increase classroom participation.
Once they had a basic prototype, it was time for experimentation.
“We tested the original technology with university students in a theater using the very basic phones of the day,” said Versvik.
But technological limitations have proven to be a challenge.
The first prototypes, which were tested with some NTNU students, used basic flip phones with no apps and with a limited number of keys. Simply put, the user interface was difficult to use, according to Versvik.
“Internet technology and connectivity were nascent back then – in the pre-iPhone era – but the concept was a hit with gamers,” he said.
Despite its limitations, the idea aroused the interest of students and the duo decided to experiment with other uses of their technology. They have tested their technology in conferences, movie theaters, large arenas and even used it to control a mechanical bull.
“The early days were tough – the technology was limited and there was no business model,” Versvik said. But the launch of smartphones, 3G, and the HTML5 coding language increased the platform’s prospects, and the team was able to update their technology.
Soon after, the co-founding team – which now included entrepreneurs and investors Johan Brand, Jamie Brooker and Asmund Furuseth – moved to San Francisco for a few months to turn the project into a full-fledged business.
Kahoot was officially founded in 2012 and launched into a private beta testing phase in Texas in early 2013. The beta was released to the public in September of the same year.
Months later, Versvik and his team had made great strides in the technology, so much so that their first investor was instantly drawn to the “viral” idea.
“I immediately thought this was a very strong concept that could become a business and global success,” Eilert Hanoa, Kahoot’s senior investor and current CEO, told CNBC.
“The idea of ’making learning great’, making sure the teacher is the hero of the class and having a very compelling user experience, were the most important ingredients,” Hanoa said.
The investor was very impressed with how the Kahoot team managed to take advantage of “viral pull”, which he believes is the most difficult dimension of any successful business.
“There are countless boring little courses for school or training, but they aren’t engaging,” Hanoa said.
The nine-year-old company has since grown to a team of over 500 employees and has offices in eight countries. It is listed on the Oslo Stock Exchange in March of this year and has acquired seven other edutech and engagement platforms such as Clever, Dragonbox, and Drops.
He also started to develop his own study material. in partnership with education magnates such as National Geographic, Britannica, Khan Academy and the United Nations.
Despite Kahoot’s rapid success since 2013 and its growth during the pandemic, the company said it would stick to Versvik and Wang’s original ideals – giving teachers a compelling tool to build excitement among students.
According to Hanoa, the team believes in staying “free forever for teachers and students,” and educators and learners can create quizzes for free. Kahoot earns money by selling a premium subscription for businesses and schools, giving them access to additional features.
It also encourages thousands of teachers to provide input in order to continuously develop and improve the product.
“I think our ‘make learning awesome’ journey doesn’t end in any dimension. We almost haven’t even started,” Hanoa said.
The next challenge, he said, is figuring out “how to make this even better … how can we become our own biggest competitor?” “
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