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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.