Getting kids engaged in reading has always been hard, even before the technology-induced ADHD of our current time set in. When you consider the fact that the majority of youngsters aren’t comprehending what they’re reading, it makes a lot of sense that they may not be so into sitting down and doing their homework.
Rather than throwing his hands up in despair, Jay Goyal decided to tackle the problem head on with his online e-reader, Actively Learn. Currently a part of the Pearson Education accelerator, Actively Learn aims to engage students through questions and media embedded directly into the text they’re reading. Students are able to interact with their teachers and other students, while teachers are able to directly track their student’s progress.
When I heard about Actively Learn, I was immediately interested in finding out more. I hit Jay with some questions that were definitely a bit harder than usual and he answered them with the grace and intelligence that I would expect from a man who’s passionate about education. Keep reading for an insightful look into the future face of education and technology.
First of all, what is Actively Learn, in a nutshell?
Actively Learn is an online literacy platform that empowers educators to transform reading and writing so students understand more, retain knowledge, and build lasting skills. Educators can customize instruction, provide real-time feedback, and access analytics on student performance. Students interact with peers and receive information to fill gaps in background knowledge, making reading and writing active and collaborative.
What problem in education is Actively Learn solving?
Two-thirds of students in grades 4-12 struggle – they cannot comprehend the main idea when they read – and only 3% read critically for understanding. Studies show that if students are not proficient readers, their chance of success in math is 14% and in science is only 1%. Reading is the bedrock of education, but reading achievement in the U.S. has stayed stagnant for 40 years. In Higher Ed, professors lament that their students are not engaged while reading and often need more help than they can currently provide.
We have finally reached a time when we can change these trends with technology. A winding career path
Your experience is in a wide range of sectors. Could you list them for us and then explain how you ended up in education?
There has not been a lot of planning with my career. I have pursued jobs with interesting companies and organizations that provided great learning opportunities. I have always been passionate about technology and social missions, and try to combine them whenever I can. Fortunately I’ve worked with great people that have supported my development throughout my career. So here’s the story:
When I first graduated college, I had planned to go down a typical business path and work for an investment bank, but I chose a small firm that was acquired by Goldman Sachs before I started; I was without a job leaving school. The market was tough, so I joined a friend to build a web content management startup.
Things were going well, but after 9/11 I had the opportunity to be on the founding team of the Transportation Security Administration, the government’s primary response to the attacks. After an exciting run there for a couple years, the organization became more typical government, so I went to Honduras to work in microfinance after being inspired by Muhammad Yunus’s Banker to the Poor.
I made my way to Harvard Business School and then set out to get back into internet software, landing at Bing in Microsoft. After 4.5 years of business development, product management, and strategy, I felt ready to start a company and after extended conversations with my co-founder Deep, decided education would be a great place to do so. Shortly thereafter, Actively Learn was born.
Who’s on your team?
Our team is full of rockstars, who have all succeeded at other companies before joining Actively Learn. My co-founder Deep Sran is the education expert, having obtained his PhD in education psychology, taught at a university and a charter school, and founded his own private school five years ago. Anish Mehta can build awesome products in his sleep, having spent a few years at Microsoft and Amazon. Allison Ragasa has sold everything to schools, most recently a writing tool for K-12 students. Christian Schmidt is an awarded-winning designer, and racked up another one with Gold at the UX Awards because of Actively Learn.
Where are you guys located?
How’s the startup scene there?
The startup scene is lively, but it appears that investors in the Bay area and New York are more willing to take risks with education startups.
What does your office space look like? Is it a heads down, everybody super focused kind of environment or is a little looser?
We work out of a coworking space, the Hub Seattle, setup for socially conscious companies. So we don’t have fixed desks – sometimes we are all together at a table and other times we are more scattered. We keep the environment pretty loose, lots of laughing and making fun of each other. But we are a small team, so most of the times you’ll see us buried in our computers cranking away.
There’s a lot of controversy about the increased use of tech in the classroom. How can teachers with concerns about the changing face of education come to terms with what seems to be the inevitable entrance of technology in all aspects of learning?
I don’t think it needs to be forced on teachers with a “get with the tech or else” mentality, but it is rather a twofold problem that can be addressed. First, too many solutions try to replace the teacher, but most effectiveness studies show that tools that empower teachers do much better than tools that avoid them. The technology community needs to build more of those types of solutions with teacher input.
Second, teachers have tried many solutions that have failed, and sometimes it causes fatigue. We are in a rich time for understanding more about learning and the human brain, so it will take a lot more trial and error to figure out what works. I think teachers and administrators need to increase the appetite for failure with tech solutions, instead of reverting back to paper when they don’t measure up.
While Actively Learn is free, the technology needed to use it is definitely not. What do you think of the fact that it will only really be available to school districts that can afford the tech? Do you have any opinions or ideas about the effect of new technologies on the growing gap in education equality?
Schools don’t have much money, but our technology, like others, can be used to replace other costs in the system. That said, if a school has made no commitment to technology, it would be a non-starter. I worry less about new technologies causing a gap in education technology but more that technology is often purchased as an end itself, instead of a means for more personalized and engaging learning experience. Over time, I suspect that as tools prove effective, more schools will commit to technology as the benefits become clearer, and it will be in all of our collective interest to bring these tools to all students.
I do worry that because the education market is difficult to penetrate, companies will focus on solutions for “out of school,” which will then cause the gap in education equality to persist.