The Diary of an Edtech Startup: The Good, Bad and Ugly

It was a month after I started Smoocer that I realised it comes under the category of an Edtech startup. Edtech means much more than it appears to be. Its not just about online tools that teachers can use to keep track of their students. Edtech startups range right from technologies that sell to schools, products for MOOC takers to learning tools for individual students and learners.

By working on my Edtech startup and in trying to make sense of this industry, I have discovered a few common experiences faced by several Edtech startups whose founders I’ve interacted with. If you’re looking to venture into this space, or if you are already in this space, here are some things that I consider must knows of the Edtech space:

The GOOD: There are tons of opportunity in the market. No matter where you look in the traditional education space, there is almost always visible scope for technology to swoop in and save the day. It can be in the form of Learning Management Systems for teachers or Massive Open Online Coursewares for learners worldwide. Problems, such as poor communication between teachers and students or low accessibility to quality education are well defined problems that have a well defined audience. And this is what makes Edtech such a vibrant and upcoming industry.

The BAD: Just because the problem is clearly defined and existent, doesn’t mean people are willing to adopt your solution. Remember that the Edtech space is entirely and completely dependent on the education space, which is fairly resistant to new technology. The Education industry comes under the late majority in adopting technology. Many a time, you can talk to your customers, understand their problems and craft a perfect product for them. But getting them used to screens after decades of having used paper is like trying to train a human being to do a headstand. For them, computers and phones equate to distracting games and social media, which is nowhere close to effective learning and good grades. Online tutoring is an ideal example of a product that faces this kind of problem. So in other words, finding your early adopters might be as difficult as finding your soulmate.

The UGLY: Even if you come with an awesome product that people are want to use, it’s hard to get it to them. While the market is well defined, the marketing channels are not. In case of B2B products or services, the bureaucratic hurdles that you may have to jump in educational institutes can really slow you down. In case of B2C products or services, like the kind I’m working on, its difficult to find online platforms and physical places where you can market your product. End users, like professionals taking MOOCs in my case, are scattered across the planet, several MOOC platforms and thousands of Facebook groups. It’s not rare for me to be talking to a user who tells me about a very frustrating problem they’ve been facing, like choosing the right MOOC for themselves, that has already been solved to a large extent by services like Coursetalk and MOOCList. They’re just not aware of the solution yet.

I’m not saying that its harder to operate in the Edtech industry than other industries. Just like any other space, this one has its unique set of problems. But despite these problems, Edtech has been the most exciting space I’ve worked in so far. Its vibrant, moves fast and is far from saturation. And the best part? It feels like a revolution.


When Education gets Creative with Technology

Reading Tom Wilson’s post on good technology for education got me thinking about some of the popular and prevalent social technology that have been used very creatively in online education, or more specifically, in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Coursewares). I remember being awed by each of these things when I came across them, and if you’re an edtech fan like me, it’s likely that these will blow your mind too:
Twitterbot: MOOCs often have discussions on Twitter, wherein hundreds of people taking the course converse by tweeting to the MOOC’s twitter profile. These discussions can be quite fast paced and are usually more spontaneous than those on course discussion forums. A particularly innovative MOOC I came across, called E-learning and Digital Culture on Coursera created a Twitterbot for themselves which would answer the course takers’ tweets automatically by picking out certain predetermined words. And you thought video lectures were advanced?
TalkAbout: TalkAbout is a tool that helps people taking an online course to schedule google hangouts with other students taking the same course. I haven’t personally used it, but from what I understand, it also provides some add-ons that can be used during the google hangout to guide discussion. The simplicity of the idea and the way it makes use of exisiting technology (i.e. Google Hangouts) is fascinating.
Padlet Walls: Padlet may not be something you have heard of unless you’re a user of online project collaboration tools. Well, that’s basically what it is. It lets you invite people to share a ‘padlet wall’ to which all of you can post documents, pictures, links, etc. A few MOOCs which included a final project to be submitted by the end of the course request their students to post the final projects on a common wall like this one. Apart from enabling students to see each others’ projects, this is a great marketing tactic for the course too since the content on these walls is usually made public by the MOOC provider who can display all the work that has come out of their online course.
Facebook and Google+ Communities: Creating FB and Google+ groups for online course takers to interact with each other on social media isn’t particularly innovative. But its probably the most effective. If moderated well, these social media groups can play a huge role in giving MOOC takers a sense of community and comfort. Also, these mediums seem to be better at maintaining long term relationships amongst MOOC takers since people continue to use FB and Google+ even after their course ends.
Do you have any other cool MOOC technologies you’ve come across? Share them with me if you have, so that I can geek out over them too.

A Newbie’s Lessons from the Game Industry

I was never a full time gamer, but after watching a talk on game design by Jane Mcgonigal and a few lectures by Kevin Warbach, I started thinking about projecting education through games. People are always talking about how information needs to be converted to a consumable format, and so far that consumable format has been videos. But videos just change the format in which information is presented, it doesn’t change the interaction people have with the content. While I think videos are far more affective than books and texts, I also think that games are far more affective than videos.

The problem is that so far, it hasn’t been done right. Games are still mostly for entertainment, and we still face the challenge of making games educational without losing out either the game element or the educational element. I have been trying to create a game on cultures and have learnt several things about the game industry in the process, with the help of mentors and experienced professionals:

a) No money: The game industry is facing the problem of how to monazite games in the face of competition from free games. Some of the best games have had to be made free of cost, because people aren’t willing to pay. Game designers are encouraged to incorporate the monetization in their game early on and not leave it for later. At the same time, the audience for video games is increasing as more people use electronic devices and the nature of games diversify.

b) Competitive and high failure rate: There is a 95% failure rate among games that are produced and the competition is severe. The number of games on the IOS and Android market are testiments.

c) Easy to produce: Producing a game isn’t so hard any more. There are several softwares that are available for non coders. Some good ones I have come across are Unity, Game Maker Studio, Adventure Studios and Game Salad.

d) Making games vs thinking of them: Thinking of game ideas is easy, and it may be appealing in your head. But when you actually start making the game, your ideas suddenly aren’t as fun as they were in your head. So its a good idea to start prototyping asap. (This may sound obvious to any entrepreneur or businessman, but I think it applies even more so for games than anything else I’ve come across so far)

e) Prototyping: From my experience so far, some prototypes don’t even make it to the customers, because you notice problems and change it before its fully complete. (This may not be a good idea though, since you could be overly self critical) Prototyping video games has been very different from other kinds of prototyping I’ve seen or done. It can be anything from drawing on paper to actually coding the game.

f) B2B educational games: A lot of educational games are sold to institutions like schools or businesses who need very specific type of information to be taught to their students or employees.

So far, the game makers I’ve contacted have been very approachable and friendly. They have been willing to fix meetings without knowing me directly or indirectly. This may be a characteristic of the gaming industry or Singapore, I’m not sure, but either way I have been very lucky with regards to talking to the right people.

The Unfortunate Demise of School

“I think there won’t be any school by 2028”.
I was at a startup conference in August, and we were all separated into groups as per our industry of interest. I was in the education group, and we were attempting to see the future.

Since you probably laughed at that last line, let me rephrase. We were attempting to do some scenario planning, which is basically an attempt to predict the future. We mapped out significant events that had occurred in the field of education for the past 15 years. Then looking at all these events, we started looking 15 years into the future to try to predict what it held for us. We talked about focal concerns-the education bubble, mismatch between skills provided by schools and skills required at the work place, equal access to education.
According to many of my group mates, the demise of school as we know it wasn’t too far away in the future. All our focal concerns for the future of education, all the problems being faced today about skill development, seemed to point to how dysfunctional our current concept of ‘school’ is.It certainly seemed like an idea not very sustainable for the future.
There are so many online sources of learning that the value of school as a source of knowledge will definitely reduce. So in some ways, the computer has already replaced the teacher.
More than that, we have a lot more knowledge than we did a 100 years ago. The speed at which we create knowledge increases every decade.There is so much to learn, that soon, it will be hard to pin down what exactly is the necessary knowledge required to be taught in school. After kids know how to read, write and add numbers, which way do you go? You could teach them science, math, the arts, business, or you could just try teaching them everything. The problem with teaching them everything is that there just isn’t an end to it.
An interesting perspective that someone brought up was “Fuel will run out and therefore getting to school will become impossible. Kids will have to be homeschooled”. Although it may seem too presumptuous, it’s not impossible.
Between expensive transport costs and reducing faith in the existing education systems, parents may just decide that school isn’t worth the 14 years of time and money. Given the kind of resources widely available through technology, parents may not need to give as much attention to their kids being homeschooled as they do now. And if the concept of homeschooling becomes more and more widespread, we may see communities beginning to get together and teach each other’s children according to each of theirs skills and expertise. It would be a mini and informal structure of school, governed highly by choice.
Eventually, I think school might come down to the basic elementary skills that are absolutely essential. After learning math, reading and writing, kids should be able to more openly explore, through games and online courses, subjects of their interest, and discover what their passion really is. Soft skills that are slowly getting recognized now, such as the ability to be a good communicator and leader, being a quick learner will be a part of the schooling experience. Extra curricular activities will be considered as important as academics, and parents won’t tell their kids to stop playing basketball and go do their homework.

I imagine that what we know as higher education today i.e. college, where we develop as human beings and try to achieve overall development and employable skills will come down to the level of school. Although we will be able to finish our formal education faster, learning will be a lifelong journey, since there will be more ways to learn than to just go to school or college, and all these ways will be affordable and less time consuming than our existing ones.
And considering how fast our world is changing, lifelong learning that continues after school and college will become a need. Knowledge will become obsolete so quickly that our jobs and livelihood will depend on a continuous learning process.

Although school as we know it may not exist in 2028, I envision our learning to be a lot more accelerated and effective than it is today. 

A Week of Experiential Learning at Yale-NUS

When you get a week without classes, and instead spend time researching with professors in your freshman year of college, you know you’ve been given a unique opportunity.
In case it wasn’t clear already, I was one of the lucky ones who got this wonderful chance!
All 150 freshman at Yale-NUS were given 12 research projects to choose from, spanning over diverse fields. I chose a project called ‘alternatives to fossil fuels’ and spent last week probing deeper into green energy with Professor Clarke and Professor Maniates, experts in the field of environmental science.
With the profs and 14 of my classmates, I got to visit a solar institute, a palm oil farm in Malaysia and an electric vehicle startup among other things. We learnt about the challenges in the technicalities of scaling solar energy, the possibility of palm oil as in alternate source of energy and the commercialization of the electric vehicle. All the field trips and discussions we had with the professors gave us new insights and different perspectives into the world of alternative energy.

At a palm oil refinery in Malaysia

An Electric Car at EV World, an electric vehicles company in Singapore
It was a bit incomprehensible at first, but I think that was part of the purpose-making us struggle and pushing us outside our comfort zone. Looking back, the challenge in trying to comprehend some of the technical aspects of my project was exciting. This week challenged my assumptions, and made me so much more aware of the complexities that I previously deemed simple.
Some of the other interesting week 7 projects were migrant nations, a project involving interaction with migrant workers in Singapore which made some fascinating discoveries about the plight of migrant workers, such as their disintegration with the local community and their socio-economic conditions. There was a trip to Banda Aceh in Indonesia to study the impacts of the 2004 Tsunami, which discovered that villagers whose homes were impacted by the tsunami thought of it as largely religious and spiritual and are averse to technology which might help them predict future tsunamis. A project on beauty researched beauty across cultures, and went about interviewing people on their dating and marriage preferences.

We had a symposium on the last day wherein all groups came together and exchanged their experiences and learnt a little bit about each other’s projects and epiphanies. It was amazing seeing everyone back together bubbling with new insights and exchanging stories about their weeks. It comes to show how being out there makes learning so much more exciting and conducive. 

Class 12, etc

When my psychology exam got over last week, I suddenly had this euphoric feeling of how I was now a free bird who wouldn’t have to study hard for a while now! That is what most class 12 students think when their board exams come to an end.

None of us realize that with the extremely fucked up system of ours, the end never comes.
So the day the final exams get over, everyone jumps around hugging every student in the vicinity. Then we all spend hours with our friends. This happiness lasts for a couple of days. That is until we realize that the board marks may not be enough to get us into a decent college and to have a backup is a good idea.

Want to watch hours and hours of television?
 Forget it. It ain’t happening

That is precisely why everyone marches into coaching centres which give out brochures with pictures of their favourite students and their respective marks. That is about the time we all realize that there are still 2 more months of slogging left. Slogging to get a good rank in some entrance exam or the other. Most entrance exams are in may and june. That is about the same time everyone’s board results come out and the hunt for college begins. The bottom line is that there’s really no such time when we actually get to slack.

So if you guys are dreaming of a post class 12 phase of watching movies all day, having week long sleepovers with your friends or being spared of that guilty feeling that tells you to go study, forget it. Unless you have parents who can afford to pay their way in to a decent college, remember– this class 12, etc is not easy to get rid of!

Bunking School

The cool breeze, the beautiful clear sky, the empty roads.

The freedom you have to go wherever you want, to do whatever you want, the knowledge that no one really knows where you are, the thought of having fooled your teachers, your parents and those foolish children who sat inside school studying.

It was the most beautiful, amazing, marvelous, remarkable, incredible, extraordinary, spectacular thing I knew of. The feeling of Bunking school gave the most heavenly feeling anything ever had..until that day. That day, I learnt one of the most important lessons of my life.

It all started when mine and one of my best friends, Aishwarya’s section got split up in 11th. We just never had enough time to talk! And those 20 minutes of break were just not enough for us!
One day Aishwarya said, “Hey, lets bunk school tomorrow! We can go for a movie, it’ll be so much fun!”

“Bunk School? Hmmm…Oh! you evil genius!”
We had a unit test. And people were allowed to leave the school very easily after a unit test, on account of being sick, or having to go elsewhere, or whatever other excuses you could think of. And since Aishwarya and I were in different sections, no one would really get suspicious!
So that was that. We got out of school very easily. I had dance rehearsals, and Aishwarya was sick. Pretty genuine right?

The minute we were out, we were jumping, shouting, yelling, screaming! We were bunking school. And at that time this idea for some reason really fascinated me.

That day we really wanted to go for a movie. And it wasn’t just something we wanted, we CRAVED it. You know the kind of cravings that you get in the middle of the night for brownies and icecream. That kind.

So since select citywalk was walking distance from our school, we decided to go there. We got there, having already decided what movie we wanted to watch. But when we reached there and walked up to the entrance, the guard said “No, NO. Uniform. NO NO.”
What? Not allowed to enter the mall just because we were in our uniforms. What happened to democracy? Anyways, we tried to talk the guard into letting us in, but that didn’t work out too well. He was one of those migrants of delhi who couldn’t speak hindi and spoke very little English. Only they know how they survive here.

Anyways we turned around, thinking of what we should do next. We decided to go to PVR Saket. So we found an auto and off we went to PVR Saket.
By this time, we were already dreaming of nachos an ice teas, which happened to be a regular at each one of our outings. Anyways we reached PVR Saket, and walked towards the ticket counter. We found their movie schedule and decided which movie we would go for. The movie was scheduled to start half an hour from now. Until then, we would go to Planet M and shop for DVDs.  And maybe step into McDonals for the Ice Tea.

So I went upto the ticket counter. 2 tickets for Bounty Hunter please.
Maam, sorry, but that’s an adult movie.
So what? We’re adults!
That was when Aishwarya came up behind me pulling me away..”umm..Payal..we cant lie today about being over 18. We’re in our uniforms!”
Oh crap! I’d completely forgotten about that.  Now since there was no other show for any movie that we wanted to see soon enough, there was no point in hanging around at PVR Saket.

So anyways, we had to decide what to do next. So we thought why not go to PVR Priya. We could still make it there in time. We had time till 2. If we could rush there and find a show that started before 11:30, we could still catch a movie!
Again the déjà vu. So we rushed to find an auto. Right into PVR Priya Complex. To the ticket counter. The movie schedule.There was a show at 11:40. That worked too.
So I asked “Excuse me, 2 tickets for … 11:40 show”
Yes maam, That would be 500 Rs. Aishwarya and I looked at each other and grinned. We got in! We once again started dreaming of the movie, the nachos, the ice tea!

I turned around to take the tickets. But instead of giving me the tickets, the guy said “ Sorry Maam, We cant let you in during school hours. PVR Policy”
Policy? Really? Who the hell came up with this ridiculous idea? Being a student these days was beginning to feel like being an untouchable. And if movie halls stopped serving to students, especially during school hours, then they were kind of losing out on a huge client base there!
So anyways we turned around again, heads hung low, ashamed of being students. I was going to suggest just hanging out here and then going back in an hour, when aishwarya said “What if..we take the metro to gurgaon! They wont have any of this policy there..hopefully!

Yes, lets go to gurgaon. So once again we rushed, another auto ride, another metro ride and another rushing into the mall, rushing upto the ticket counter. By now, it was 12:00.
We both stood there quietly, side by side, looking at the movie schedule, calculating which ones we could go for.
Then we looked at the ticket counter. None of us felt like going up to the ticket counter and being told once again that we couldn’t go for a movie in our uniforms.
So this time we just turned around and left, with dignity in other words, without having to be sent away!

Friends, I learnt two lessons that day:
            Firstly,  There are some things that are not directly in your control. Being born in the 21st century, we have become used to having the remote control of our life in our hands. But when you do encounter these things which you can’t control no matter how badly you want to, be it other people’s emotions or PVR’s policies,  take a step back and think about what you’re doing before you start trying to find ways to find the remote control again. I believe that everything happens for a reason. So maybe all the PVR guys refusing to sell us the tickets was a way of reminding us to rethink our mind-set and realize that there was really no cool factor in bunking school.
            Secondly, If you ever decide to bunk school, do carry a map of the city. It’ll come in handy.

Do schools kill creativity?

A girl was drawing a picture of god. People around her said “No one knows what god looks like.” And she said “They would in a minute”.
Kids will take a chance. They will not worry about being wrong. They will take a risk. The same is unfortunately not true about adults.
If you are not prepared to be wrong you wont come with anything
original. By the time they get to be adults they have lost that capacity. They are frightened of being wrong.
Schools are run in a way where mistakes are the worst things that can happen. We are educating people out of their creative capacity.
Picasso said “ All children are born artists.” We don’t grow into creativity but we grow out of it, or rather get educated out of it.
Do you know where Shakespeare was born? He was born in stratford. Can you imagine of Shakespeare as a child? Being 7 and going to school? He must have been 7 sometime and been in someone’s English class.
How annoying would it have been? Checking all of his English assignments and telling him to work harder on his English. Can you imagine his mom telling him “Go to bed now and put the pencil down. and stop speaking like that. Its confusing everybody.”
If this had been the case Shakespeare wouldn’t have been what he is today. People wouldn’t know him like they do.
Same hierarchy of subjects everywhere. At the top is maths and languages, then humanities and then the arts.
Maths is very important but so is dance. After all, we do have bodies, don’t we?
The main output of education is to produce university professors who typically live in their heads. They look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads.
There was no such education system before the 19th century. They all came into being to meet the needs of the green revolution.
You’re always told not to do what you like. Don’t do art, don’t do music. You’ll never get a job like this.
Highly talented, brilliant and creative people think they are not capable because of the bad system of university entrance. Anybody not good at school was never valued and stigmatized. In the next 30 years according to UNESCO more people will be graduating through university than since the beginning of history. Degrees aren’t worth anything. Isn’t that true? Earlier if a student had a degree he had a job and if he didn’t have a job it was because he didn’t want one.
Now you need a PhD where you needed an MA and you now need an MA where you needed a BA degree. This is because of academic inflation. My father once met a person who had done his BA. Can you guess what job he was doing? He is one of the security guards in our colony.
We know three things about intelligence:
1. It is diverse-visually, in sound
2. It is dynamic- wonderfully interactive creativity is a process of having original ideas which have values
3. It is distinct.

But the current education system
1. enforces rules upon us and instructs us to do things in a specific manner
2. focuses on all kinds of subjects, not allowing professionals in the country to be experts in their domain.
3. enables the majority of the population, who by the way do not want to become lawyers or doctors to waste their time and kill creativity.
4. doesn’t allow our schools to be flexible. They have very limited co-curricular activities.

The 20th century saw the rule of the left brained-the analyzers. But with the 21st century comes the renaissance of the right brained people.


Source: Ted Talk by Ken Robinson