Monthly Archives: April 2012

Teaching It Forward

(This is the text of my talk at #TedxSanJose April 14.)

I want to talk to you about an epidemic that is affecting a million teens each year. It’s a deadly epidemic and one for which there is no vaccine – or good cure yet. The Gates Foundation (@gatesfoundation) calls it the Silent Epidemic.


1 million high school students do not graduate each year in the US.  The Gates study established that shockingly, many of them are bored and choose to drop out rather than graduate.  They are not engaged enough to come to class, to read, to stay in school and graduate.  This is a deadly epidemic and one I care deeply about. I am going to tell you about my search for a cure.

Let me begin with a story. Sergio Alvarez is a 9th grader in NY. He has failed every math class through 8th grade despite numerous teachers and paid tutors. He dreams of a future where he engineers planes. But you and I know the harsh reality—this is very unlikely. We know that kids like him get discouraged, bored, drop out of school, and struggle the rest of their lives.

But wait, this is MY story. In my story, Sergio discovers OpenStudy, an online study site. He meets Hero, an OpenStudier who takes an interest in him. 6 months later we get a note from Sergio saying he is making 90s in math. This is a fairy tale with a happy ending…only it is not a fairy tale. Sergio is an actual user on OpenStudy and there are thousands more like him.  And for Sergio and the others, it is not an ending, but a beginning.

This is when I realized that we had created something good, something powerful, something with potential. Something that could even cure an epidemic.

We call it OpenStudy and it all hinges on this: between success and failure there is a human.  A teacher. A mentor. A peer.

So how did this realization come to me?  Let’s go back several years.

I was driving my three kids to school one Spring in Atlanta in a crowded Blue Honda Fit.  My eldest, then 16, had a Chemistry test and asked me to explain osmosis in the car.  I launched into the beautiful explanation of an award-winning Chemistry professor.  He looked at me and said, “That’s cool, but I think I’ll ask my friends!”

That was my thunderbolt!  It was the best thing that ever happened to me in the carpool lane.

I realized the tremendous power of peer learning.

My son graduated and now we are looking forward to Sergio’s graduation with a little help from his friends that he has found on OpenStudy.

So that’s my story of Sergio and Hero. Unfortunately, there are a 100 m young people globally who don’t even have a school or college to go to.  How do we find enough Heroes to teach these 100 m hungry learners?

My answer is: they will teach each other. To do this I needed a platform for global scale peer learning. And it couldn’t just be academic research. I had to make it real.

This decision has changed my life.  With two co-founders, Ashwin Ram and Chris Sprague, and the blessings of the National Science Foundation, we created a startup. Then I decided to move to the Valley. Why the Valley? Well I’d heard this is the best place for entrepreneurs.

I also had to reinvent myself. I traded my academic robes for jeans, my car for a bike. I’ve also learned a lot—like how to face rejection making the rounds on Sand Hill Road.

But we were funded and I thank our investors, the National Science Foundation, the Gates & Hewlett Foundations, NIH, GRA, and Learn Capital.  You see, it’s all very well to have good ideas, but you need funding to make them a reality.  And most of all you need a great team.  You need a lot of help from your friends, and your friends’ friends, and their friends. The Valley is a giving place.

So with the team and funding and friends, we built OpenStudy.

We now have a hundred thousand Sergios and Heroes on our system.  Let me introduce you to some of them.

Meet Erik. He’s an engineering student at Texas A&M University. Learning is easy for him, but when he teaches, he feels like he has done something worthwhile.  And he loves how he can reach NASA engineers who put a context to the equations he studies.

Meet 17-year-old Samuel in Ghana. He taught himself about computers and found OpenStudy as he was working through an MIT Computer Science course. He said he gained the confidence to attack his chemistry tests because he saw a lot of questions and answers on OpenStudy. “I can walk to my chemistry test with confidence,” he said. I think he can walk into any college admissions office now. In fact, he is already being recruited.

Christy is one of our most sought after math experts. She feels the pain of the math deficient; she made it through remedial math at a community college. She now is on her way to a PhD, and is a college teacher in Arkansas. She knows the difference a mentor can make.

17-year-old Saifoo is in Pakistan and has helped thousands of users. Thousands. I’m ready to write him a recommendation for Cambridge.

Here is Catherine.  Can you believe this Biology graduate student in Australia was too timid to answer a question when she started?  She is now a moderator, a power user, and hands out judgments and wisdom on the late night shift.

Our solution is really blindingly obvious, especially to anyone with a teenager.  Give them a Facebook-like social site and the social interactions will lead to engagement. The peer-to-peer learning creates a win-win scenario. Our users complain happily that they are addicted. Addicted to math!  When was the last time you heard that?!

Today there are over 100,000 registered users, from dozens of partnering institutions including a who’s who list of the MITs and Yales to the community college systems of West Hills and Piedmont. Our users ask thousands of questions a day and get help within 5 minutes.  And it works: 80% of our users surveyed reported that using OpenStudy had helped them gain a better understanding of their course material.  But numbers aside, there are stories like Sergio’s.

Why do they do it? Why do they come back? Learners come for help, for an explanation, to talk through their problem with someone.  They stay because someone has taken an interest in them and is willing to help.  And then they come back so they can help someone else in turn.  They are engaged because it is like playing a game where good learning behavior is incentivized.

Let’s pay another visit to Saifoo.  Saifoo has hundreds of fans. He answers questions in a few different topics but he has helped most learners in math.  Each time a learner is happy with Saifoo’s explanation, he gives Saifoo a medal.  Over six months Saifoo has gathered a bounty of 4000 medals. The medals, the fans, and the testimonials are all part of the game mechanics that keep our users, young and old, coming back for more and more.

As they stay they become a part of a family, a community of practice.  And they realize what it means to be in a community, helping one another. As Voltaire said, when one person teaches another, two people learn.

As satisfying as this is, there is more.   As our users engage with one another, young with old, the middle schooler with the MIT engineer…the American with the Pakistani, the Tanzanian, the Turkish…black, white, brown…they learn to interact and be courteous. They learn to be helpful, to work together, to communicate.  For the most active of our users, OpenStudy becomes their passion.

We have created a platform where millions of learners can come for help and there are people waiting to help them.  Not for money…but because it is their passion.

We have found a vaccine for the Silent Epidemic. Our goal is to inoculate every student across the United States and on every continent.

But this vaccine can’t be manufactured in a lab. It will take each one of you to help. My call to action is simple: pay it forward by teaching it forward. Take 10 minutes to teach 10 people. That’s it. It will grow virally as some of those you teach will teach others who will take 10 minutes themselves to teach 10 more. 10 will teach 100, 100 will teach a thousand, a thousand will teach millions.  Together, we will reach all the Sergios in the world. Together, we will make a difference.

When education works.

It was a win for education today, twice on #TedxSanJoseCA

Angela Zhang, winner of the Siemens Science Talent competition. She asked for journal articles from a Stanford cancer researcher, learnt about it and then proposed a award winning project, performed the research.    Home schooled Roberto Granadas (13) and his brother, Ernesto (7) lit up the stage with their duet on guitar and drums.  Angela spent hundreds of hours performing research and Roberto started playing along with Jimi Hendrix songs as a four year old .  This is what is right with education today.   Why can’t we do this again and again and again?  Why are there any kids that are not fired up about something? Anything?

Every kid is an opportunity to achieve the impossible.  Why then are there so many missed opportunities? Just pondering #TedxSanJoseCa.

Addressing Two Challenges of Higher Ed: Scale and Engagement

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,” Charles Dickens was talking about grim times of the French Revolution. His elegant phrase however is strikingly relevant to those of us lost in turmoil of higher education. While this seems to be times of great disenchantment with education, it is also the time for hope, for reinvention and new ideas.

Of the many problems of education, the one that haunted me the most was the problem of student engagement. Students who are not engaged with their learning are not motivated, are bored and do not graduate high school. About a million high school students do not graduate each year for many reasons. The Gates Silent Epidemic study indicates that a large percent of the drop-outs could have graduated but did not, and of these many were just too bored to graduate. The situation is a lot worse when you consider that according to Sir John Daniel of the Commonwealth of Learning, there will be a 100 million young people with no college or high school to go to. Forget building bricks and mortar schools and colleges, how on earth will we find enough teachers to teach these young minds?  And keep them engaged?  We need new solutions that offer both scale and engagement.

A possible solution to this problem came to me through my own experiences with my children. My TedxSan JoseCA talk will describe this journey of discovery which took me from my life as an academic dean in Atlanta, to that of an entrepreneur in the Valley. With our team, we created a startup, OpenStudy that offered a world-wide study group. I encountered rejection, obstacles, but also made new friends and rediscovered the true meaning of the Beatles song, “With a little help from my friends.” OpenStudy resonates with this theme.

We created a unique social learning platform where anyone can find a way to pay it forward by taking the time to teach someone something. The title of my talk, “#Take 10 Teach10”. Come see for yourself.
April 14.

“To Boldly Go Where No Grades Have Gone Before”

Grades never tell the whole story.They are one-dimensional, subjective, non-standardized and unreliable. Most teachers would agree that there are better ways to evaluate students and assess their progress.  Students stress about grades and all agree that it kills collaboration and sharing. And yet we keep using them.

April is the time of year when colleges decide who to admit into their hallowed ranks.  This is the time when the panic about grades, GPAs and scores hits an all-time high.  Studies of Kuh, Pascarella & Terenzini, and others have established quite clearly that student engagement rather than grades is the most significant predictor of student success and retention. Engaged students are the ones who raise their hands in class to ask questions, who chat with their classmates, and who stay back to interact with their teachers.  They are the ones who join clubs, participate in sports, find a cause to champion, volunteer, and who help out in the community. This is important, right? Well then, where is this included in the curriculum and where does it appear on the transcript?

When was the last time you were offered a job based on your college transcript? When employers sift through entry-level applicants, they look beyond the GPA for evidence of teamwork, passion, problem solving, communications. And yet you will not find any of these attributes on the college transcript. These skills are developed during experiences outside the classroom: experiential learning, problem based learning, real life experiences, projects, co-ops. Our learner faces two challenges—to pick the right experience to learn these skills, and to produce credible documentation of these skills.

Today’s world is dynamically changing, technologically evolving, highly global, constantly online, and demandingly collaborative. Do we have educational experiences to train our young learners for this brave new world, a connectivist world where Google places encyclopedia facts at a eight year old’s fingertips, where online chats connect an Atlanta coed with an Ankara teen in seconds, a world where notions of privacy are being challenged by texting tweens. At OpenStudy, we asked ourselves what environment would make it is easy and fun for learners of all ages to prepare themselves for the new tomorrow? Our answer: Open Social Learning.

OpenStudy’s first disruptive innovation was to enable peer learning.  We set out to prove that learning could occur in an open social platform that offered peer learning help. The platform exceeded expectations. It has grown to over 100,000 users from 170 countries, and it offers a free, scalable, 24/7 learning help that users report is “addictive”. 80% of surveyed users report improved learning outcomes.

But there is more.  I’ve written countless letters of recommendation to help students apply for jobs, graduate school, and medical school by evaluating and documenting soft skills. I could see something remarkable emerge on our peer learning platform. Students began building and demonstrating these very skills. They learned to articulate their questions and answers, to maintain courtesy and openness, to work together in teams. They were truly passionate about learning. Some became leaders and offered support and mentoring.
Watching the interactions on OpenStudy, we realized that this ecosystem was just the right environment to develop key soft skills: helpfulness, courtesy, teamwork, problem solving, engagement, to name a few.  Today, OpenStudy is a global extracurricular extraordinaire, experiential learning for the 21st century, with access for all.

SmartScore is OpenStudy’s bold new initiative to challenge the traditional notions of intelligence normally quantified by grades. SmartScore will report on skills and competencies demonstrated on our platform that are relevant and meaningful for both student and workplace success. SmartScore is a 21st century version of real world intelligence.

We are hacking education and rethinking evaluation and assessment. You can think of it as going beyond grades. We call it a SmartScore.

Join us for our SmartScore launch on April 17th at the Education Innovation Summit to learn more.

Got your SmartScore?

“All hands to battle stations”

I am a StarTrek fanatic, and so these words will always reverberate in Captain Picard’s (Patrick Stewart) clipped British accent.  It felt like battle stations that Saturday, the room packed by Marina Gorbis and her talented team at the Institute for the Future’s “Hack the Future of Education” day long session.

Hats off to the IFTF team for realizing the urgency for reinventing education and for calling all hands to battle station.  They packed the room with diverse set of people who had with one thing in common, a passion to change the status quo in education.

You need all hands to make a dent in education’s problems.  And we have to feel a sense of urgency. We need to get to battle stations, now. We need a solution now and it is going to take everyone working together to make that happen.

I have always felt it rather presumptuous to assume that only the high priests of Higher Ed should be invited to these sessions of problem solving about education.  A typical academic conference, the usual venue for discussion and collaboration of these issues is depressingly uniform with mostly faculty and higher education administrators and salesmen.  Conversations float around the usual circles, the usual obstacles are trotted out, the usual ideas, locked into the usual frameworks are discussed, hands are shaken and agreements made over the usual glasses of wine and nothing really changes.

But Saturday was different.  You had some unusual academics, the innovators in an old regime, but the ones most open to innovation, ones who were actually taking risks by doing cool things: Southern New Hampshire University (@snhu), Center for the 21st Century University at Georgia Tech (@c21u), San Jose State, Stanford, CSU, Berkeley.   The Department of Ed was represented by Hal Plotkin, my favorite DoEd guy, remarkable visionary and doer.  He fills me with hope that the government may actually be helpful in all this. Then you had a small cluster of big companies, with IBM’s most imaginative thought leader, Jim Spohrer (@jimspohrer), AutoDesk, SimCities. The Foundations were listening, Gates (@gatesfoundation), Kaufman, Edutopia, Gordon and Betty More.  I loved the group of small companies, including the startups that are really taking this whole industry apart.   CodeHero (“Coding is literacy”@primerlabs), Udemy (@udemy), Minecraft, Singularity U (Startup and Academe), BioCurious (Opening lab sciences to the world @erigentry), ScienceHackDay (Get everyone hacking science together) and OpenStudy (#Take 10 Teach 1o, peer learning for the world @OpenStudy). Anya Kamenetz (@anyanya) representing the Press, and finally, remarkably the students, the learners, from high school to recent graduates.  It was eyeopening to hear their voice, to add their opinion to the table – and humbling to hear their candid opinion of the education we have built with years of  research and funding.

The solutions to educations many problems are not going to come out of one sector alone, certainly not from Higher Ed institutions or from the Government.  I doubt if industry can or should solve these problems. Certainly foundations are trying to establish fertile ground to nurture innovation. And start-ups can come up with out-of box thinking but can’t take it down alone.  But together, with the right attitude we can. For this to happen, we need more venues like the IFTF Convening, where the bouncer doesn’t check your degree at the door, where the doers and the thinkers are valued and the stakeholders have a voice, and where all sectors of this ecosystem are represented.  Different voices, different perspectives, different contributions. After all, even Captain Picard needed his Klingon and Android to “Boldly go where no one has gone before”.

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