Bernhard Hofer
Ashoka Fellow since 2015   |   Austria

Bernhard Hofer

Bernhard supports children and young people to achieve success in their schooling, which improves their opportunities to find well-paid employment upon graduation. Through a scalable grassroots…
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This description of Bernhard Hofer's work was prepared when Bernhard Hofer was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015.


Bernhard supports children and young people to achieve success in their schooling, which improves their opportunities to find well-paid employment upon graduation. Through a scalable grassroots peer-to-peer tutoring program, an intensive after-school academy, and partnerships with schools, teachers and corporations, he is creating an ecosystem of support in learning, changemaking and pre-professional experiences throughout their school years while building a student-run movement to reform the existing school system to include social and change making skills.

The New Idea

Through an online platform and offline community engagement, Bernhard is building a movement of students with the dual goals of increasing skills and knowledge, especially for children from disadvantaged family backgrounds, creating bottom-up change in the education system.

At the heart of Bernhard’s model is an online platform called “talentify”, a peer-to-peer learning tool that bridges between students of different socio-economic backgrounds and provides the space and tools for knowledge sharing. The platform is free of charge for everyone to access, find connections and learn about educational events and news about education reform. Students are empowered as tutors, offering a combination of free and affordable tutoring to others. About a third of the tutoring is provided free of charge and the remaining two-thirds are offered at a price between EUR5 to 6 an hour, which is a fifth of the current market rate. Bernhard sees peer-to-peer learning as key to the success of increasing knowledge and skills of those students from low-income backgrounds. By using the platform, and showing improvement, students earn points that can be exchanged for offline workshops and events hosted by companies and organizations providing in-person skills building. This platform is easy for individuals to use but also simple for schools to adopt and use to not only improve students’ performance but also builds connections between students from different socio-economic backgrounds that are too often divided by Austria’s educational system.

The Academy is the second level of Bernhard’s work that further builds on the offline component centered on community engagement and interaction. The goal of the academy is again to increase knowledge and skills but also to bring students from different socio-economic backgrounds together under the umbrella of education. Students that offer free and low-cost tutoring on talentify are given access to the academy and those from low-income backgrounds gain access through scholarships that Bernhard has put in place through partnerships with education-focused organizations. Students are offered courses that focus on social-emotional development and changemaking and further reinforce the bottom-up change through a student-run movement to reform. His community work creates new connections between different actors of the education system and beyond ensures close linkages with business while placing the pupil at the heart of the transformational process.

Bernhard’s platform and academy have taken off in urban environments. His goal is to increase the percentage of peer-based tutoring from 4% to 10%, reaching 3.5 percent of all Austrian students (until age 19) and forming an online community of more than 35,000 thousand active pupils spanning all federal states of Austria by the end of 2016. Ultimately, he aims to reach closer to 20% of students, with a bias towards those from low-income backgrounds. This will drive down the cost of tutoring even further as his model gains economies of scale.

The Problem

The Austrian educational system has failed to keep up with the changing needs of Austria. Schools are teaching the same basic skills as they did 100 years ago. One of the many implications of this failure to adapt is the lingering bottleneck of social mobility.

The quality of education of a young person in Austria still heavily depends on family background. There is a strong intergenerational association between the level of parental schooling and their children’s schooling, as documented in a recently published OECD study “Education at a Glance.” 79 percent of children from privileged socioeconomic backgrounds in Austria receive higher secondary education, preparing them for university. In comparison, significantly fewer children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds can access higher secondary education - 83 percent of them attend only vocational preparatory schools. According to OECD´s findings, Austria is among the countries with the strongest persisting education inequity.

One of the main reasons of this inequity is the practice that separates children into two groups based on their grades after they have finished primary school: children with good grades gain access to “Gymnasium” that finishes with “Matura” (A-levels) after eight years, while children with low grades are directed into “Hauptschule” and do not finish with a degree.

This early separation into two tracks increases the marginalization of children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds as their parents often don`t have the resources to support their children in primary school to move on to Gymnasium. Often children require tutoring outside of school, which in most cases has to be paid for.

But 50 percent of the parents who spend money on tutoring say it is a financial burden for them and 8 percent cannot afford tutoring for their children. On average, an hour of tutoring in Austria costs € 32, a heavy financial burden for many low-income families. In 2014, approximately 38 percent of the Austrian students between the age of 10 and 18 received tutoring. Annually, Austrian households spend more than € 109 million to support their children in school.

The Austrian tutoring industry thus deepens inequalities as middle and higher income families can easily afford this service for their children unlike many lower income families.

Furthermore, the Austrian school system is based on competition rather than empathy. Pupils´ performance is more important than social skills, creativity, and self-responsibility, perpetuating social exclusion and bullying. Conventional teaching methods do not inspire children to think outside the box but rather leave many of them in a state of passivity, with no opportunity to explore their practical abilities and skills.

In such a system, independent action from students, teachers, and parents is the exception, not the rule. School pupils are not encouraged to shape the schools and curriculums. Their “user-based” experience is hardly taken into consideration in the school reform process, which is mostly top-down, ideologically based and expert driven.

The Strategy

The design principle of Bernhard`s work, both of his online matchmaking platform and also the character building courses, aim to build a movement of empowered pupils that become the drivers of education reform. Bernhard´s peer-based model aims to overcome the spatial and socioeconomic divide between students from higher and lower socio-economic backgrounds through a clever matching process across different school types, leaving prejudices and stigmata behind.

At the heart of his impact model lies an online platform developed especially to enable community building and match making between pupils with the goal of allowing for more affordable and low-cost peer-to-peer tutoring.
The self-empowering structure of the website allows students to connect with others, to offer and find tutoring within their neighborhoods and exchange news on interesting education events. According to scientific studies, it is easier for children to learn from peers than from adults. The level of stress experienced by children when learning from adults is significantly higher than from peers and impedes effective learning. Bernhard´s peer-based tutoring model thus creates a stimulating learning atmosphere at eye level. The schools in his program use the platform to encourage their students to become tutors and tutees at very low cost.

Giving students the chance to take over the role as tutors empowers them to discover and explore their social skills often neglected in the conventional school system. Passivity and withdrawnness among students are transformed into excitement and the desire to learn more about their own talents to support others even better. Bernhard fosters this eagerness through a gamification system with online and offline components: interactions among peers on the platform are rewarded with bonus points, which can be spent on basic professional trainings and workshops provided by companies such as IBM, SAP, or Erste Bank. Pupils and schools get re-connected with real life and the economy by establishing a network of companies and universities that enthusiastically engage with pupils and share their know-how and experience. It’s a win-win situation for all as pupils benefit from the workshops, while companies and universities get access to high potentials and promising talents right at school.

Bernhard`s work around building a community aims to develop a community of students that implement new ideas to improve the schools system from the bottom up. To fully unfold the community`s potential, Bernhard started in urban areas such as Vienna, where he could reach out to a greater number of students both as tutors and tutees, and could also easily offer workshops and events for a broad target group. Bernhard developed strong relations with the schools, deans, teachers, parents and student associations. His strategy works because important stakeholders from the schools themselves become promoters and multipliers of his idea. Bernhard envisions a community of empowered pupils that will take leadership in shaping the school system. He wants to transform the community he is building into a movement of peers that unleash their collective creativity and reform the school system from the bottom-up.

At the core of this “movement building” lies Bernhard`s Academy concept: Through the incentive structure of the online platform, pupils that offer low-cost tutoring gain access to courses offered by corporate partners at the Academy. Social and emotional development, design-thinking, presentation skills, and creative skills courses are at the heart of the Academy. In the winter and summer semester 2014/15 Bernhard offered 23 workshops for pupils covering topics like: “How Do I Apply to Work Correctly?”, “What Are My Rights?”, “How To Pitch Convincingly”, “My Superpowers – How You Discover Your Talents and Strengths” and more. To ensure that children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds are one of the main beneficiaries of Bernhard´s platform, he works closely together with organizations like Teach for Austria, Caritas, Volkshilfe, etc. which connect him to the children who need the support the most.

Bernhard´s goal is to have 10,000 pupils on his platform by the end of 2015. During the year 2015, 1000 students have registered to become tutors or tutees. After having measurable impact in urban areas he seeks to scale into rural Austria as of October 2015. Bernhard´s goal until the end of 2016 is to raise the percentage of peer-based tutoring from 4% to 10%, reaching 3.5 percent of all Austrian students (until age 19) and forming an online community of more than 35,000 thousand active pupils spanning all federal states of Austria.
In the long run Bernhard plans to reach 10 to 20 percent of all Austrian students, especially from less-privileged families accounting for around 100,000 to 200,000 students. This will lead to a significant drop in the cost of tutoring and gives children - regardless of their socio-economic background - equal opportunities to succeed in school.
He is also bringing together all relevant education initiatives driven by civil society actors outside of the official school system to share and collaborate, and to form a strong community of educational changemakers locally.

After the “private” and “public beta” phases of the platform in 2015, 100 schools and over 1000 pupils used the platform. The nation-wide launch that will take place in October 2015 will scale the outreach of the platform from 3 to 9 federal states in Austria.
Bernhard is cross-financing his community building work by offering consultancy services to companies to help them recruit and train young people to consult companies on how to appeal to youth, offering headhunting services for internships and job openings and offering an academy program for apprentices that helps small and medium sized businesses to develop their young employees. All profits are reinvested in the social mission of this work.

The Person

Bernhard himself comes from a blue-collar family background. His parents both worked multiple jobs, managing to build themselves a home on the countryside with the help of friends and family. He was raised by his grandfather who took care of him as a boy through supporting him in elementary school. Even so, he often found support from his teachers. It was his elementary school teacher who made him apply for an excellent catholic private school that was otherwise only frequented by pupils from established families. Against all odds, he received the opportunity to attend Gymnasium there, a step that would influence his whole life.

He also has a long entrepreneurial track record. The first time he started this project was over 10 years ago when he still was a student at a technical high school in Innsbruck. Back then he saw how socially selective the Austrian school system was and started together with his German teacher a social buddy system, which eventually evolved into a peer-to-peer tutoring platform.

After graduation, he went to basic military service and started studying, founded a student’s magazine and lost track of the idea. It took about 10 years, after starting his career in Vienna, to realize that he was dissatisfied and had to start over with something meaningful. Attending a panel discussion at the business angel days in November 2013, and following the talk about social entrepreneurship with Marie Ringler, it was clear to him that he would start a social business. His “old” idea of a peer-to-peer online platform jumped back into his head.
In Spring 2014, Bernhard started to develop this concept further. Only 6 months later students, parents, and teachers tested the beta version of the online platform over a period of 3 months. Quickly Bernhard identified important players in the field of education in Vienna and has built a network of supporters. This shows Bernhard´s quality as a social entrepreneur who understands what is needed to connect others and encourage them to take action.

Bernhard commits himself fully to move the development of the organization further. He quit his job as a managing director at a software company to build up his social venture.
Bernhard, together with his partners from die LICHTFABRIK, also initiated the first Austrian “Experimental Fun Festival for Innovative Education (stEFFIE)”. In September 2014, Bernhard invited over 40 innovative educational organizations such as Teach for Austria, Pioneers of Change and many more to share their knowledge and tools with students, teachers, and everybody who was interested in alternative and inspiring educational approaches. Bernhard enabled new cooperation possibilities across sectors and thus is building up a strong network of people who are actively involved in changing the education system from inside.

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