Adaptive Learning and the Flipped Classroom; An Interview with Roy Gilbert, CEO of Grockit

In the education world, the buzzword of the day is “adaptive learning”. The question for me has always been what is more important – to get the adaptive learning algorithms optimized or to have just great, engaging content? After years building Grockit, Roy Gilbert firmly falls into the latter camp, as shown by Grockit’s newest product Learnist. Below, we talk about adaptive learning, the potential of the flipped classroom and how Learnist can change how people around the globe teach and learn.

QUESTION: Roy, can you tell us a little bit about Grockit? It seems like the business has evolved significantly since you began with some adaptive learning driven test prep products.

The premise behind Grockit is not just our test prep business, which was the first thing that Grockit offered, but also Learnist which is our online social learning tool to give people the ability to share what they know. The fundamental premise behind this is  there are other channels to teach people besides the traditional publisher-driven K-12 model of boxes of books in the schools.

QUESTION: So are you looking to replace the K12 textbook or be supplementary to it?

I don’t think like institutional sales models are going to go away anytime soon. I mean, inertia is an extraordinarily powerful force. But, what you’re seeing from other education technology companies is if you can impact students at home, if you can impact teachers outside of school, if you can help students with tools that they don’t actually get in the classroom, and help them learn, and not necessarily just math facts, but also learn about things that they care about in their world, then that’s where the really truly disruptive tools and education are going to come from. I mean, I would posit that a major textbook publisher, or a teacher’s union, or a school district is probably not going to create a math application where every student is going sit, and learn, and be excited about teaching themselves trigonometry. I don’t consider that possible. It’s going to come from the world of educational technology start-ups.

QUESTION: It’s interesting you have gone from some pretty technical adaptive learning platform to a product in learnist that really aims to engage the learner with compelling content. Learnist does feels a little bit like HowStuffWorks, which Discovery bought years ago. Is that an accurate way to categorize it, and how did you go from there to here?

Not really. I mean, I don’t think it’s totally accurate and here’s why. When Farb Nivi founded Grockit, the original idea was a massive multiplayer game for learning, which has a couple of different elements to it. Like one, engagement that almost engages people in learning so much that they can’t really differentiate between being entertained and then learning. Then number two is the multiplayer portion, the social experience. And so, there’s decades of research in social learning about how people teach each other.

And the idea of using test prep to do this and learning from how people interact to a standardized test was really a huge laboratory for how people can interact and teach each other online. We found a few things that were driving much of the efficacy and much of the engagement on the platform, and if you look at all the things we are doing with Grockit, the number one thing that was driving both engagement and learning was just the pure sharing and interaction between students.

It didn’t matter how many badges or how finely tuned the adaptive algorithm was. It didn’t matter whether we were licensing content or creating it ourselves. It was that social interaction which in many cases was not even related to the fundamental subject area, but social interaction was driving this. And so, as part of our long-term plan to expand to other content types, we refocused the product and refocused the platform as Learnist, which is really driven by social interaction above all else.

And we were right, and we’re pretty excited about how people are sharing content, sharing what they know, but also making a vast repository for knowledge curated around experts and subject areas. We could never, for example, have gotten 100% of the US common core into Grockit in three months, but with Learnist even the couple hundred initial teachers who started testing it from day one helped us accomplish that task, and now we have many, many times that  number of users.

QUESTION: And are those teachers viewing this as the way they flip the classroom? They’re using your content and then working on more experiential types of activities in the classroom?

Yes. One of the most interesting things that we have seen is that my expectation was that a teacher or a group leader would create a learn board and share it with their classes. Instead, we’re finding that much of the real efficacy comes from teachers creating a curriculum or creating a learn board, and then their students adding to it, constructing on it, and building a web of knowledge around it. It was kind of a head smacking moment because that is social learning. That’s how social learning works. It’s the idea of, it’s the line between being a teacher and being a student just constantly blurring and shifting.

QUESTION: Got it. Where is the bulk of the adoption coming? Is it middle school, high school, college, adult learners?

 I’m not going to break it down by age per se, but the demographics appear to be pretty similar to what you see on Facebook, or Twitter, or anything like that, which is young adults. But, we designed Learnist as a tool that can be used by anybody. And so, it’s easy and it’s interesting to use and so it cuts across a lot of different demographic players. But half the content there is pure education and the rest of it I sort of fit in the broader category of general non-fiction.

QUESTION: Got it. So, you came from the consumer web world and entered into education. What did you think you were going to face coming in and kind of what were some of the big surprises?

One thing that I was managing at Google was our education channel for Google Apps and so this is getting schools and universities to use Gmail and Google Docs and that sort of thing. And so, I was aware of sort of the pressure that schools are under. I think one of the bigger surprises for me is when you’re a consumer tech company, people are like excited about their Gmail, their Docs, but when you start talking about people’s education, the importance of it, and the care with which we have to act, is much more than what I would have expected.

I think number two is just like the pure passion that entrepreneurs have for the space. The entrepreneurs I meet through New Schools, which is one of our investors, the entrepreneurs I meet at the GSV conference in Arizona, I’m extraordinarily impressed, not just with their ability, but it’s pure core passion that you don’t see in online payments.

QUESTION: I mean, you have more people who are mission-driven around this than in social media analytics dashboard, right?

Yeah, exactly. By the way, it’s not just on the entrepreneurial level, It’s the bankers. It’s the people who fund these companies. It’s the people who service providers. They all feel like they’re all part of this large ecosystem that makes a difference. And, it’s fairly impressive. There’s this feeling of that we’re all in this together to do something that’s really big. Whether you’re trying to restructure a postsecondary company that’s on hard times, or you’re trying to build the next ad tech start-up, there is this enormous mission-driven motivation.

QUESTION: Absolutely. What’s interesting when I look at your content is there is common core stuff around 6th grade math, and then there’s how to make super simple grilled mushrooms?

Yes. And those are two totally different things by the way.

QUESTION:  Do you have a sense now in terms of kind of where is the bulk of the activity on the platform, or where do you think it’s going

Yeah, we do. I don’t want go like too heavily into details on this, but we’re seeing an enormous amount of activity around peer educational content and an enormous amount of activity around areas where there is, I almost call it a temporal knowledge gap where something happens and people want to learn more fast. So, whether it’s like debates, or I just heard a loud yell out here from our team and the baseball game is on, so, you know, something obviously happened there. It’s filling in information you can’t just fill in with a 140 word tweet.

So, we see an enormous amount of activity in both the education side, where teachers want to use it to have students comment on them and solve problems in areas where there is that high -peed knowledge gap that has to be filled. There is a huge amount of use of Facebook and Twitter to share knowledge from Learnist.

QUESTION: Got it. So, when you think kind of five years out, what’s your vision around the platform? Is Learnist kind of part and parcel to how the flipped classroom manifests itself globally?

In a few years, a teacher can walk into the middle of nowhere with a set of iPads and start school for free with the same world-class curriculum you could get at the most expensive private school in New York just by sharing information from some of the best experts in different fields, and have this aggregation of really high quality, beautiful, educational material organized, not just around the common core, but also around who were the best teachers and who were the best curators of content. And then have this product at their fingertips to share with their class and have it be alive and change in real-time. So, it’s really the ability for any teacher to become better, and anyone to become a teacher anywhere in the world.

QUESTION:   That’s great. Big vision and it’s pretty exciting.