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Daphne Koller changed the world of online education once when she co-founded Coursera. Now she hopes to do it again.
The pandemic has forced universities to host most of their classes online, recreating the in-person experience for students on the web. Koller believes she can challenge Zoom with a video platform tailor-made for education called Engageli.
"I think we're finally at a place where, because of this pandemic, we need to build the technology to support the learning experience that frankly, most people would have benefited from even without the pandemic," she told Protocol.
With Coursera, started alongside fellow Stanford professor Andrew Ng, Koller pitched universities on the idea of opening up their courses to an online audience that wasn't enrolled in the school, creating massive open online courses or MOOCs. Elite universities bought into the vision. But now, she thinks, enrolled students could use some help.
While many classes have moved straight to Zoom, Engageli is one of a handful of "Zoom for X" startups that are building alternative platforms catering to a specialized purpose. Unlike a Zoom call that ends up looking like a round of "Hollywood Squares," Engageli's platform is designed to let students "sit" at smaller virtual tables with groups of students, where they can chat or work on assignments while following along with the instructor. There's a built-in note-taking tool that syncs with the timestamp in the recording, plus different ways to do quizzes, polls and chats inside the window.
Professors will be able to see indicators of a student's engagement with the software to see who is paying attention and taking notes or responding to quizzes, versus students who maybe are distracted by something else. Engageli considered technologies like eye tracking, which has been a privacy concern, to monitor students, but ultimately decided against it. Instead, the engagement metrics that she decided to track are focused on how much students are actually interacting with the platform and each other.
"There's so many questions about education that we've never been able to get rigorous answers to, because we just haven't been able to perform an experiment where we can measure outcomes," Koller told Protocol. "Now, we can actually do that."
Investors have already bought into the vision; now Engageli needs to sell it to the universities. The company has been operating an invitation-only pilot program and is emerging from stealth on Wednesday, having raised a $14.5 million seed round. Koller co-founded the company alongside her husband and serial entrepreneur Dan Avida, who is Engageli's CEO; Stanford professor emeritus Serge Plotkin; and 2U executive Jamie Nacht Farrell. Koller will remain the CEO of Insitro, a company focused on drug development, and serve as a board member to Engageli in her spare time. But as someone who helped bring online classes to the masses, and now has her own children in high school going through the process, she's ready to again build a better online education experience.
Protocol spoke to Koller about building Engageli and Coursera, how technology can improve access to education and why Zoom falls short when it comes to online learning.
The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
You're already the founder and CEO of a startup working on big hairy problems around drug discovery and medicine. Why start another company, especially in the middle of a pandemic?
In some ways, I can tie it back to my early Stanford experience where, as a big research university, people are mostly rewarded on the research, and I've always had this soft spot for teaching and always had these side passion projects there. I think learning is so important, and I wanted to help make that better, so we carved out the time from my schedule to do that. My current job doesn't really involve much of that, so I think I've been feeling [a] lack of that.
And then the pandemic, if anything, made this a particularly pointed moment at which to do this. Because even within my own house, the learning experience that my high school kids were getting as we were all forced to switch to a Zoom-based education in the spring … honestly, it wasn't a great learning experience. They're in a great school with relatively small classes and even so, it was clear that we were trying to take the teaching experience and push it onto a platform that was never intended for teaching. It was for video conferencing for business people.
That really created the impetus and a time to think differently and bring back ideas and lessons that I had in my Stanford days and really build it into a platform that fits the purpose for education.
With your new company, Engageli, how are you doing things differently than using Zoom? What needed to change that Zoom was not enough to recreate that classroom experience?
That's a great question, and the platform has several pillars that are critical and in many ways are an improvement over what face-to-face instruction was.
One is the focus on engagement of the students with the material – both techniques for creating that engagement by different mechanisms, but also importantly measuring the engagement and reflecting that to the instructor so that the instructor can see who is paying attention, who is actually noticing, and really get a pulse for their class so that they can call on the people who are not paying attention or change their teaching if the majority of the classes isn't following. That sort of pulse is really critical.
The second one is the focus on peer-to-peer interaction. There are these breakout rooms in Zoom, but they feel very appropriate for, again, a conferencing system and not for the kinds of very dynamic interactions. Like in my daughter's classrooms, one of the things that they used to have was these table groups where you get to sit with a few of your friends, chit chat with them quietly, while also listening to the instructor and do these activities, as a small group. Organic interaction is not something that you get using a traditional breakout group model.
A third one, which to me is something I've really been passionate about because of my scientific work, is the collection of data that relates to learning activities, learning outcomes, that allows us to learn from what we see works and what doesn't, and then adapt our teaching accordingly. So this is an incredibly instrumented platform that allows us to collect data that frankly, in traditional educational settings, we just were never able to collect.
What's an example of that data?
There's all these engagement tools on the platform — like upvot[ing] something, you can ask a question or there's polls, there's exercises that are integrated into the learning experience — all of those are tracked and stored. You can then start to ask really important questions like, what kinds of engagements are most predictive of ultimate success? What happens if I add an intervention? What happens if the instructor actually calls on a student? Does that actually influence it?
You can actually start to evaluate different teaching strategies, and see which of them has an effect and which one doesn't. To give you another example, we all believe in peer-to-peer interaction and study groups, but the amount of data on what's the appropriate formation of a study group is — is it all people at the same level? People who are on different levels to help teach the ones who are a little further behind? — you don't really know. We've never been able to measure this. There's so many questions about education that we've never been able to get rigorous answers to, because we just haven't been able to perform an experiment where we can measure outcomes. Now, we can actually do that.
Engageli cofounder Daphne Koller thinks her new startup can help teachers better understand how engaged their students are.Image: Engageli
When you are talking to universities and teachers, what do they seem to be missing or desiring the most out of rebuilding their classrooms online these days?
First of all, just the ability to engage with the students and see are they paying attention. Regardless of whether they're there physically, are they there mentally?
The data analytics is a huge part of it. Even prior to this whole pandemic, it was something that a lot of instructors wanted to get a sense of. So if I'm doing my best to teach students, is it working? There's really no way to test that other than at the end of the semester, and you look at the final exam and say how on earth did I not know that 70% of the class doesn't get this basic concept?
And then the last thing, which I think is really important, is that education needs to be something that everyone has access to. That was problematic before, but it's even more problematic now. There are people who lack basic bandwidth, the infrastructure of the computers, and you [are] really shoving a lot of people out of educational experience because of those requirements. And one of the focus areas of Engageli is the ability to use relatively simple, cheap mobile devices, that we all have, and really create an educational experience that is much more accessible.
This isn't the first time you've been working on a startup that's essentially bringing education online. What was an early lesson you learned from building Coursera that you found now is applicable again here in 2020?
One of the lessons that I learned at Coursera is really just the importance of engagement. At Coursera we had students from all of the world taking classes, and it was covered extensively in the media, the lower completion rates. We said at the time, and I think it still holds true, a lot of students didn't complete the courses because they weren't in it to complete the courses. They came in mostly to maybe learn a few modules and walk away knowing more than they had learned before, kind of like if you pick up a book and read three or four chapters.
But then we did have a lot of students who wanted to complete the courses, but just weren't able to sustain enough engagement to get all the way through. As we started to build out some of the paid programs on Coursera, we found how difficult it was to add synchronous components of interaction between the instructor and the students and how much that made a huge difference in the completion rate. So, really, I think what I learned from that is there are different kinds of learning experiences.
A question I'm asking all edtech startups right now is how do you know you're building something that will outlast this pandemic versus something that is helpful in this moment. Once schools go back, will demand for Engageli be gone?
I don't know if in K-12 people are going to do online Zoom calls in large numbers. We can debate whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, but I think a lot of kids as well as parents really want the kids to be out of the house, in a world where they can play with other kids, and so on and so forth. So will that have a large online component? I don't know.
For university students, especially for the ones who have other constraints on their life, I think there's going to be a significant portion that want to take either some or all of their classes in an online format. That was already a demand, and that trend was already happening, this really just accelerated it by five or 10 years.
If you're holding down a job and trying to raise a kid at the same time, you don't have that utopian residential experience where you're in a green lawn sitting with other people talking about philosophy or science, walking from one beautiful building to another. You're probably in a community college or state university, driving frantically from your job to take a class and then driving back and then finding time at night to work on your assignments. That's what college is like for a lot of people.
It sounds like we're almost at the point where technology is actually catching up to what the reality of education is like versus the other way around where technology is what's driving the change.
I think we're finally at a place where, because of this pandemic, we need to build the technology to support the learning experience that, frankly, most people would have benefited from even without the pandemic.
It's not just about whether you can take the courses through your cell phone: It's whether your learning fits inside your life, which I think pushes a lot of people out of the education system. That's why there's a large group of people who have some college with no degree, because their life just couldn't accommodate it.
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Biz Carson ( @bizcarson) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol, covering Silicon Valley with a focus on startups and venture capital. Previously, she reported for Forbes and was co-editor of Forbes Next Billion-Dollar Startups list. Before that, she worked for Business Insider, Gigaom, and Wired and started her career as a newspaper designer for Gannett.