Sidecar Learning: Carrying You Through the Confusing Routes on the Internet

Updated: Aug 9, 2019

With ever-growing global access to the internet, more and more people are turning to online resources to fill out forms, conduct professional connections, facilitate education, and more. But if you’ve had experience with a website like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), it can sometimes make you wish for a stack of paper forms and a roll of stamps.

Maybe you’ve avoided FAFSA so far (you’re not missing out on much!), but you teach history and want to introduce your students to databases as research tools. Setting up a group of pre-teens, or teenagers, or even college students, with a laptop connected to the internet and expecting them to follow along with what you’re showing on the projector at the front of the room is just unrealistic. There are videos available online, sure, but it’s still difficult to hold the students accountable for watching the videos because you may not have access to the back end of the video provider.

Okay, so you’ve managed to avoid FAFSA and you’re not a teacher. You work for a tech startup and the company is growing rapidly. Every time they hire a new employee, you have to personally walk them through the nuances of the existing programs and website setup. It’s imperative that new people are introduced to these pieces but every hour you spend doing that could be spent doing one of the many tasks crucial to running a tech startup. As a techie, you catch yourself wondering whether any other technology-focused groups have tried to address this problem.

Imagine if there was a quick tutorial, no more than 5 or 10 minutes, that walked you through the various aspects of FAFSA and showed you how to fill in the pieces correctly. As a teacher, you want to teach your students about databases in a more engaging manner that requires less direct oversight. Or as a tech founder, you would love an easy platform that will essentially train new hires for you, freeing up your time and giving them a more comprehensive introduction.

Sidecar Learning, a tech startup native to Tucson, offers a platform to do just that. With their

program, anyone can create an interactive tutorial using any online content in three steps: choose the content, create the tutorial by adding directions, questions, and helpful text to help guide your users, then publish the tutorial. Upon publication, you can access a database that allows you to see your students’ progress and gives insight into how your users are learning.

"As a teaching librarian, I’m thrilled with Sidecar Learning. I’m very impressed by Sidecar’s thoughtfulness in design, simplicity of use, and support for authentic learning experiences. It allows me to focus on the pedagogy of my online instruction instead of the tool itself, which is critical as the library seeks to engage with more learners.”— Erica DeFrain, Librarian

On the Sidecar website, they have a sample tutorial for using the PubMed database from the NCBI (left). I took it for a spin to get a better idea of what their program does. Having used the PubMed database in college courses, I was somewhat familiar with it going in, but the tutorial helped me get a more comprehensive understanding of how to take full advantage of the search filters. It combines multiple filter systems to distill search results without getting too complicated, and the questions along the way help ensure the user is correctly applying the filters. On my first try, the first “quiz” question that caused me to realize that I had misunderstood the preceding direction. I went back, re-read the instructions, retried the search, and was ultimately successful. Having access to this sort of tutorial during my lab sessions would have allowed my professor more time to answer specific questions while the students used this resource.

Sidecar Learning Cofounders, Jason Dewland and Yvonne Mery

So far, Sidecar Learning has received funding from the NSF through the UA, the Tech Launch Arizona Asset Development grant, and was accepted into the Y Combinator Startup School (Y Combinator helped companies like Airbnb, DoorDash, and Weebly in their initial stages).

We’re so excited that they’re back in Tucson, and we connected with the founders to hear more about what’s to come:

How did you decide this idea was worth pursuing as a business?

There really wasn’t one moment. We both used the legacy product a lot when we taught students how to do research and how to effectively use library databases. It was a form of self-preservation when we began this trip. We knew that we couldn’t support teaching 40,000 plus students a year how to do research, and the old tool, with all of its flaws, was the best thing out there. It really came out of necessity; we didn't start off with the idea of pursuing a business. Rather we wanted to find a way to keep the tool alive for our own teaching. And it wasn't just us that used and loved the old tool. There were over 200 libraries also using the tool, so that played a role in deciding to pursue a business too.

We went through TechLaunch Arizona’s (TLA) i-Corps program and we managed to talk to around 200 people during that time. After talking with so many people in libraries, training, and instructional design, we found that there was indeed a need for our vision. It wasn’t until we received funding from TLA did we realize that we were really going to have a business.

What has been the company’s biggest challenge?

The most challenging part of starting Sidecar Learning has been the software design and development process. We knew what features we wanted but were never entirely sure if it could be done with our limited budget. We had a lot of help from some technology advisors along the way, but some did not really understand e-learning nor the user experience, so we had to know when to take advice and when to know that we knew better. So that was hard too, knowing when to trust our instincts even though we were navigating uncharted waters. The time commitment has also been challenging. There is always something to improve and another person to talk to.

How did you overcome it and what advice would you share?

Well, two things we learned are that software development is never really finished and that there are many unknowns that will come up. There is always something to fix and something that can be made better. We have also learned to be more strategic in what we do develop. There are obvious bug fixes that need to take place, and with adding new features, we are focused on the user experience and making the tool as easy as possible to use for both educators and students. We also learned that to achieve the level of usability we were going for we needed to be intimately involved in the development process, and even though we are not developers ourselves we needed to question our developers, challenge them, and trust our own instincts.

The best advice that we could share is to truly listen to your customers. Don’t ask them what they think of your product or idea; rather ask open-ended questions. These interviews are about a better understanding of potential customers’ pain points and then coming up with a solution that works. They are not about validating your product or idea.

Describe your proudest moment with the company and what it meant to you.

Our proudest moment was when we finally had everything up and running and were finally able to create a tutorial. Our first webinar was also quite exciting. It was our grand unveiling and we got to hear from our customers and what they thought of it. Getting our first sale was also a great feeling.

Where do you envision the company 5 years from now?

We have a long-term vision for this platform that will allow personalized experiences for learners and that will provide them the skills and information they need when they need it in a way that promotes lasting and continuous learning. We believe AI will play a role in how the tool changes. AI will mean that our platform will respond to a learner’s specific input and offer a learning experience that is based on the difficulties they may be having at that moment. We also see the need for more powerful analytics that will allow educators to gain a better understanding of how students are progressing and where they are running into trouble. And with more powerful, predictive analytics, educators can use our platform to create learning experiences before the student even knows they need them.

Why Tucson/Southern Arizona?

Well, it's the place we call home. Yvonne is a Tucson native, Jason has lived here for over 8 years, and we are both librarians at the UA. We are part of the Tucson community, our children attend the public schools, our partners work here, and our parents live here too. We have roots here, so it was a natural fit. There’s also a great startup community here that has been incredibly supportive and has offered us excellent advice.

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