Interview | Joshua Salcman and Leo Shmuylovich are Virtual Nerds

Remember that really smart guy two rows over who helped you pass the class you never thought you could? He wasn’t just smart—he cared and knew how to communicate so you actually understood the material when no one else got through. Well—he’s back. Only this time, technology has compounded his 1-on-1 powers to infinity—and he has a business partner, too. Who would have thought? Can two smart guys really change a student, a row, a classroom—no, think bigger: a school district, a region, the U.S. education system—well, let’s just say: all of learning, and worldwide? The answer to that question is yes, because that’s exactly what Leo Shmuylovich and Josh Salcman are doing.

Josh (pictured, left) is that rare breed, blessed with a highly-creative and highly-analytical mind. With a B.A. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Princeton University and an M.F.A. in Product Design from Pratt Institute, he led user interface design for major corporate clients as a consultant for IBM. More recently, he was an internet marketer for a design group, helping to define product design strategies for a range of corporate clients. Now, at Virtual Nerd, Josh designs and develops the company’s patent-pending e-Learning Platform and their business and marketing strategy. He designed and coded the beta versions of Virtual Nerd’s e-Learning Platform; he’ll continue to oversee refinement and implementation of all of Virtual Nerd’s products and services. He’s on the Advisory Committee for the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. An avid (if not accomplished) road cyclist in his spare time, Josh is what you might call a “well-rounded” individual.

As a 6th-year MD/Ph.D. Student at Washington University in St. Louis, Leo Shmuylovich is no slouch, either. In late July of 2010 he earned his Ph.D. in Physics. He will complete his MD after this next year (during which time he’s taking a leave of absence to focus on Virtual Nerd full time). He already has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Cornell University, having graduated Magna Cum Laude in three years—and he was named a Merrill Presidential Scholar, one of the university’s highest honors. From his college days, Leo has always devotedly shared his passion for math and science in both private and group tutoring environments. As a tutor and lecturer for The Princeton Review, he taught MCAT Physics and Biology classes, as well as SAT Math classes, to hundreds of students. He’s also worked individually with students on SAT, SAT II, AP exams, and science and math courses at both the high school and college level.

For Virtual Nerd, Leo designs and develops Virtual Nerd’s educational content; he’s also responsible for design and testing of Virtual Nerd’s e-Learning Platform. He has developed several automated methods for creation of content related to individual tutorials, and continues to oversee the design, content, and semi-automated creation of Virtual Nerd’s educational offerings. You’ve got to admire the guy, but if that isn’t enough: Leo and his wife Ilana are competitive ballroom dancers, and they’re seriously good at it.

My parents always told me to surround myself with people smarter than me, so here’s to following their advice; I’m interviewing both Josh and Leo together. Don’t bother taking notes, it’ll go by much too fast, but be prepared to learn—and to have fun!

Victor: Why did you create Virtual Nerd?

Leo: I love math and science, and I want everyone else to love math and science, too. For that to happen, I think people need access to help at critical times in their education, when they might otherwise reach the conclusion that they are “just not a math and science person”.

Before we started Virtual Nerd, I’d worked with many students one-on-one as a private tutor, and I saw the impact I could have on their understanding of, and appreciation for, the subjects we worked on together. I was very interested in how the web could allow me to reach more students.

Josh: Leo shared these thoughts with me one evening, back in early 2008, during a double date we were on with our wives. At the time, he was planning to use YouTube as the delivery platform. My questions back to him were, first, “What are you really trying to do?”, and, then, “Is YouTube the right tool?”

Leo: About whether YouTube was the right tool to do what I really wanted, the short answer was “No”. I was convinced of that by the end of dinner. Over the course of the next few months, we developed a shared vision of how interactive technology could be used to capture the essence of private tutoring.

Josh: And since we couldn’t find anything that did what we wanted, we thought this might be an opportunity to build something of real value, and we decided to give it a shot.

Victor: What does the name “Virtual Nerd” mean?

Josh: The word “virtual” often refers to the use of technology to liberate an experience from the constraints of time and place, which is what we set out to do for students seeking help in math and science.

Leo: We actually get asked about our name a lot, because the term “nerd” can have different connotations. Some people even find the term (and, by association, our name) offensive. We once saw an article suggesting the term should be banned! To us, a nerd is someone who has passion for something (often academic or technical, but not always) and is eager to share that passion and knowledge with others. More and more in our culture, nerds are celebrated for their skills and accomplishments, and as proud nerds, we welcome this pop culture trend.

Victor: What is Virtual Nerd? (And who actually created it?)

Leo: Virtual Nerd is a website providing interactive video tutorials and other learning tools in math and science subjects. It consists of both a unique technology solution and a library of original educational content. We use our patent-pending individualized learning platform to deliver hundreds of PreAlgebra, Algebra, and Physics tutorials covering the kinds of problems students tend to get stuck on and the kinds of concepts students often find baffling.

Josh: Leo and I co-founded the company, and we built the initial prototypes. We set out to combine Leo’s infectious enthusiasm and remarkable teaching skills with my experience developing interactive products and services and a shared passion for clear and effective user interface design.

Leo: As I’ve learned, one of the really powerful things about interactive technology is the way it can be used to solve the problems people often face with online instructional content. For example, we’ve developed a solution to the some of the most frustrating aspects of the typical one-size-fits-all approach to educational material on the web. This allows us to create a library of content that students can interact with on their own time, at their own pace, and in a way that is specific to their needs!

Victor: What does it do? What are the benefits?

Leo: During an early step in our development process, Josh asked me how I would sum up the essential benefits students got by working with me one-on-one. As we talked it through, we arrived at a few principles, which have guided us ever since: (1) The critical first step toward helping a student resolve their confusion or frustration is diagnosing its source; (2) While certain concepts seem to cause confusion for many students, no two students are completely alike in terms of the underlying concepts which may also require clarification or strengthening.

Josh: Taking the second point first, our individualized learning platform combines step-by-step video tutorials with supplemental explanatory text and graphics. The text and graphics are synchronized with the video, and they provide an additional level of detail around each step in the tutorial, which students can access anytime they want. We also make links in the form of frequently asked questions available for them to click on. Clicking these links calls up new tutorials which help with the specific part of the tutorial they are confused about. This is what allows different students to get different levels of help with different concepts and drill down for even more help in areas where they have a specific need.

Leo: All traditional forms of instruction—books, lectures, videos, etc.—assume a certain level of prerequisite knowledge. A student without the necessary background knowledge will have a lot of trouble understanding new material. Using Virtual Nerd’s system, however, a student can simply click for more detail during a step that confuses them, and the e-learning platform will pause the main tutorial and superimpose a more detailed and focused tutorial that fills in whatever conceptual gap the student may have.

Josh: This unique feature allows students to customize the level of depth and detail they see. Different students may start at the same point and each take a completely different path. One student may get everything she needs from a single 3- to 7-minute tutorial. Another student may drill down to review two or three tutorials covering supporting concepts. Students can branch out, drill down, dig deeper, and find their own way through the material in the order that makes sense to them.


Leo: Another thing that’s unique to Virtual Nerd is that our system makes possible a bi-directional connection between instruction and assessment. What this means is that, (1) while reviewing a tutorial, a student can request a practice problem to test their comprehension of the concepts covered in that tutorial; and (2) if a student gets a problem wrong while taking a practice quiz, they can click a link to review a tutorial that explains the process for solving that exact type of question.

Josh: Beyond the benefits to students, Virtual Nerd also offers benefits to parents and teachers. For parents, we provide them an option to receive weekly email reports of how their child is using the site. We also know many parents would like to be able to help their children with their homework but may be a little rusty on what they learned when they were in school. Parents can use Virtual Nerd as a way of refreshing their knowledge. For our colleagues in the teaching profession, we offer completely free access to all the content and features on our site. We hope they’ll use the site in the classroom and recommend it as a resource for their students and parents.

Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services? What companies do you see as in the same market?

Leo: When we started Virtual Nerd we did some research to find out who else was trying to solve similar problems and what approach they were taking. What’s amazing is how many more products and services we’ve discovered since then. We often joke about how we might not have started Virtual Nerd had we been fully aware of the overwhelming number of companies in the online education space. Companies like Brightstorm, Educator.com, YourTeacher.com, and Guaranteach, for example, are all in the online education space, and they have a variety of different approaches and benefits. In addition, Khan Academy is a free resource available on YouTube, and everyone should be a fan of that site, because there is some great content there for people to check out.

Josh: The main difference between our approach and the other resources we’ve seen is that all the other resources we’ve seen take a linear approach to online educational content. Using video as an example, these sites allow you to pause the video, skip around and repeat segments, but there is no way to immediately and directly drill down to a related video for more detail about a particular step. We think the typical linear structure of most online educational content forces students into what is essentially a one-size-fits-all model of instruction. As we’ve been fond of saying from the beginning, if your content is web-based but not web-like, you’re not taking advantage of the medium.

Leo: Experts in math and science are experts because they see all the connections—they understand how seemingly different problems and concepts are really pieces of one big puzzle. Our educational platform and its underlying content structure reveal these interconnections to students, and we believe it therefore provides students with a truly interactive experience, and the most effective help they can get short of having an elite tutor available to them on a 24/7 basis.

Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?

Josh: We founded Virtual Nerd in Spring 2008. At the beginning, Leo and I constituted the whole team, and we didn’t have much cash to invest in the company, so we had to find ways to make progress on the cheap. Early on, I had a conversation with a friend—a serial entrepreneur experienced in bringing new technologies and web-based services to the market—about how we could get a prototype built. Honestly, I walked away from the conversation more unsure about how to proceed than before, and deeply anxious about our prior plan to outsource the project. But what proved pivotal was that a seed had been planted in my head about building the prototype myself. It seemed a little crazy, given that my technical background didn’t extend much beyond basic HTML, but I figured it was worth a try, so I embarked on a crash-course in programming ActionScript 3, which is the object-oriented language developed by Adobe as part of it’s Flash platform. It took a lot longer than if we had outsourced it, since I had to figure it out as I went along, but at that stage we had more time than money.


Leo: While Josh was locked in a room with his computer, I was recording Physics tutorial videos in unused classrooms at WashU’s medical school. As an MD/PhD student, I had access to these rooms with huge whiteboards and bright lights, and I would just show up with a suitcase full of gear: markers, lights, a friend’s video camera, tripod and wireless microphone. We built our own teleprompter from materials at Home Depot and an older laptop. I’d get all this stuff set up just right, record videos for a few hours, and then I’d have to pack it all back up at the end of the day.

Josh: We’re both efficiency-minded people, so we were anxious to recapture the time Leo was wasting on set-up and tear-down whenever he wanted to record some videos. We ended up buying a whiteboard and lights (and some insulation for the windows), and we turned Leo’s basement into a video recording studio. It was, as they say, sub-optimal, but it was certainly an improvement.

Victor: Where did it originate? Where can you get it now?

Josh: Virtual Nerd was born in St. Louis, and most of the team is still here. Our lead web developer is in Ohio and our lead tutorial designer is in Washington, DC. Other members of the team are in Boston, New York, and San Francisco. This type of geographically dispersed collaboration probably wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago, but it works great for us. As for our location on the Internet, we registered the virtualnerd.com domain fairly early on (we actually had to buy it from someone else who had registered it but wasn’t using it), and that’s been our virtual home ever since. All of our tutorials can be accessed by logging on to VirtualNerd.com

Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?

Josh: First things first: Virtual Nerd is, and will always be, completely free for teachers. Teachers even get their own sign-up process on our site. For everyone else, Virtual Nerd offers a Basic Plan and a Premium Plan. The Basic Plan is free and provides access to a sampling of about 20 percent of the tutorials in our library, mostly focused on basic concepts. Our Premium Plan has a monthly subscription rate of $49 per month. In many places, that is equivalent to a single hour (or less) working with a private tutor. At Virtual Nerd, we try to follow the maxim of keeping things as simple as possible, so we don’t have options—all Premium subscribers have unlimited access to our entire library of tutorials in all the subjects we offer, as well as practice problems and other new features as we release them. When it comes to payment, we do offer a few options: we accept Visa, Mastercard, AmEx, and PayPal, and our 3- 6- and 12-month packages provide substantial discounts of up to 32 percent.

Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it NOT for?

Leo: We believe the students who will get the most out of Virtual Nerd are those who may be having some trouble keeping up in their math or science classes, but who are motivated to improve. Students who work with a tutor once or twice a week but could use some supplemental help during the rest of the week would benefit as well. In general really any student that needs some additional help in Pre-Algebra, Algebra 1, Algebra 2, or Physics will be able to find some help on our site, and if they can’t, they can leave comments requesting additional tutorials or clarification, and we will respond.

Virtual Nerd is intended to be used as a supplemental resource for students. At this point, Virtual Nerd is not something that can provide a complete curriculum for students. And we doubt that any exclusively self-guided tool could substitute for a motivational mentor or teacher.

Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?

Josh: Before making any generalizations, it’s important to note that we’re not experts in educational policy. Our opinions are based on personal experience and secondary research we’ve done during our time working on Virtual Nerd. One thing we can say for sure is that we’re excited about the positive impact technology can have in education.

Leo: One example I like to talk about is the fact that a program like Excel, without any fancy animation or Smart Board effects, can be used in a math classroom to demonstrate beautiful patterns in numbers. For example, you can discover that the ratio of consecutive Fibonacci numbers gets closer and closer to the Golden Ratio. Reading it is okay, but it’s truly thrilling to see a cell in excel get mysteriously closer and close to (1+√5)/2!

Josh: We’re also encouraged by what seems to be a lively discussion taking place about the future of textbooks and the value of good homework problems. In particular, We like Dan Myers’ suggestions about making textbooks less helpful, so students are forced to develop critical thinking and deep understanding, in addition to the skill of applying algorithms.

Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating Virtual Nerd?

Leo: I’ve always loved being a student of science and math, and I can trace that back as far as first grade, when I saw my first times table. Sounds strange maybe, but I remember, very clearly, coming home and asking my father to help me fill in the table beyond the 5-by-5 that had been introduced. I was fascinated by the process of taking something I thought I knew (counting), and reorganizing it in what seemed to be a drastically different way. There were a lot of patterns to explore in the times table, and the fact that it was something that could grow forever really blew my 1st-grade mind I guess.

That was the first of many experiences where I felt inspired to think critically and deeply about something I learned, and as I’ve continued in my education, I have felt a deep sense of fulfillment as I’ve grown to appreciate the way seemingly different ideas we all learn throughout our school years are related.

I’ve also been incredibly fortunate to have outstanding teachers and mentors who motivated and challenged me. My Physical Chemistry professor, Mike Duncan, for example, stands out. His knowledge was extensive, and his teaching style was so engaging that I actually dropped another course so I’d have more time to devote to doing the extra reading he recommended. He seemed to tailor his teaching to my exact level, so I was never lost but always challenged and intrigued. I hope everyone gets to have at least one teacher like Mike Duncan in their educational experience, and I’ve been lucky enough to have several.

My experiences with truly gifted teachers, and the enjoyment I found in the patterns and connections they helped illuminate, has always informed my tutoring strategy, and that in turn inspired the core of what we’ve built at Virtual Nerd. As a tutor my strategy with each new student (and on an ongoing basis) was to ask myself two key questions: First, what level is the student at right now? And, second, is there a clever, possibly beautiful, pattern or property, connected in deep ways to other topics they’re working on, toward which I can steer them? I try as hard as I can to give students opportunities to discover these properties for themselves, and once they do, we talk about the implications.

At its core, the idea of Virtual Nerd is to make the connections between topics available to anyone at any time. As we continue to develop more and more content, I am committed to including numerous examples of creativity, cleverness, and beauty in math and science that have inspired me in the past and continue to inspire me today.

Josh: You can see why Leo is precisely the right person for the job! My experience with math and science was a bit different from Leo’s. I excelled in my math classes, including Calculus, which I took as a high school sophomore. But perhaps I was more drawn to the concreteness of the subjects, at least as they were taught to me. I think I found joy in mastering the “skills” rather than in the type of discovery Leo describes. I suppose I’ve always been a bit of a pragmatist.

Even though it pains Leo every time I say this, I never took another math class after high school. I majored in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in college, and while my heart wasn’t truly in it, some of the concepts I was introduced to, like selective pressure and adaptation, absolutely fascinated me. There were so many opportunities to ask “why”. Why does this animal look this way? Why does that organ function that way? Why did this version of life succeed while others failed?

I’m endlessly amazed at the parallels between evolutionary processes in biology and similar phenomena in culture, business, and technology—particularly the interplay between form and function and the dynamic between an individual and the environment. And since so much of our environment is of our own making, it matters what we choose to make. This idea was part of what motivated me to pursue graduate education in design.

One of the things that surprised me about the design process I learned in grad school was its similarity to the scientific method. Both problem-solving techniques involve initial analysis, formulation of a hypothesis, creation of an experiment or prototype to test the hypothesis, followed by analysis, adjustment, and iteration. What’s delighted me about web application development is the speed at which the complete cycle can be run, and the cost of failure is comparatively very low. So from the beginning our approach with Virtual Nerd has been to build something as quickly as possible, evaluate it, refine it, get other people to test it and provide feedback, refine it again, and so on.

Victor: How does Virtual Nerd address some of your concerns about education?

Leo: We built Virtual Nerd to address some of the concerns we had with current technology-based educational resources. I don’t feel I’m in a position to answer the general question of what’s right and wrong about education as a whole. Like anything, I think the existing system has positives and negatives, but our focus is directed toward building a useful tool for the inhabitants of the current educational landscape, rather than toward the creation of a new educational regime.

Josh: I agree with Leo, and in fact I would say I’m even less qualified than he is to judge “education” as a whole. But one of the first concerns we had with existing online educational resources was that many of them provide an opportunity for cheating. In fact, some sites are almost brazen in how specifically they seem designed for it: pay them some money, and they’ll do your problem set, paper, or homework for you. Other sites post exact solutions to problems from hundreds of textbooks. They require students to click a check box promising academic honesty, but we’ve heard of teachers abandoning homework as part of their grading criteria, because of the number of students handing in nearly identical and perfect problem sets.

Leo: These kinds of practices are completely unacceptable in our view, and we invest heavily in ensuring the content on our site can’t be used for cheating. We create all of our tutorials from scratch, and so while students can see problems on our site which are similar to their homework, they will have to generalize the principles they see in our tutorials and apply them to their own problems in order to complete their homework.

Another issue we set out to address with Virtual Nerd is transparency with regard to efficacy. Few educational resources provide useful analytics. Private tutoring is notorious for this, because tutors often fail to share progress and updates with parents. So we wanted to make sure we could provide parents with measures of how their child is using (or not using) our site.

Josh: Our individualized learning platform offers some new approaches to tracking progress and use. in addition to simply seeing practice problem performance, we can look at which tutorials students are reviewing and identify patterns in terms of clusters of underlying concepts that may benefit from reinforcement.

Leo: We think this kind of data can also be powerful for teachers, because it provides insight into what questions students are asking while they are learning and practicing concepts, before they are faced with the pressure of a testing environment. In one of our pilot studies, for example, the Physics teacher was stunned to learn that while preparing for the final exam, the most frequently reviewed tutorial was “What is the acceleration due to gravity?” This was certainly not what she expected, and it was information extracted without administering a test.

The data we capture is also useful for individual students, because it allows them to see which topics they consistently get stuck on, and what problems or concepts they should spend more time reviewing.

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

Leo: Josh and I are both optimists, and so we are very excited about the possibilities that the future holds. I am particularly enthused by initiatives, like MFA, which focus on taking people with advanced math degrees and providing incentives for them to get involved in education. To be an effective teacher certainly requires more than expert knowledge in one’s field, but a good teacher with high level expert knowledge can make learning a truly transformative experience.

Josh: I think it’s clear that technology—especially interactive web applications, mobile communications, and social media—is going to continue to pervade the culture as a whole and education in particular. That’s very exciting, because it opens the door to asynchronous and location-independent opportunities for the best teachers in the world to connect with and inspire more students than ever before. Is something lost when teacher and student are on opposite sides of a screen? Perhaps. But I think this is as clear a case as you could want of the benefits far outweighing the costs.

Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of Virtual Nerd? What makes you say that?

Josh: We’ve focused primarily on two things: (1) developing the highest quality instructional content possible; and (2) creating innovative tools for interacting with our content and extending its value. We’ve applied that approach not only to the tutorials but to formative assessment tools as well. We’re incredibly excited about the opportunity this gives us. For the first time, students will have the ability to seamlessly move from instruction to assessment and back again—or vice versa! Virtual Nerd will allow students to work on practice problems, and, in review mode, to watch specific video tutorials related to those practice problems. This will allow students direct access to engaging instructional content precisely when they need it most and when they’re most able to benefit from it: when they are reviewing questions or concepts that tripped them up. And while watching these review tutorials, they will be able to branch off to underlying tutorials connected to concepts or problems that they don’t understand or that seem confusing.

Leo: In addition to the areas of focus Josh mentioned, we’ve built our system to allow for analysis of usage and underlying learning patterns on both an individual and aggregate level. As students use our site we use these analytics, as well as student feedback, to build in new connections between tutorials and to create new tutorials to fill in any gaps. We believe our analytics also give us the ability to deliver helpful insights to parents and teachers. However, we are always looking for more feedback from the educational community about how to build services that will be of greatest interest and value both in the classroom and beyond. We are a young and nimble company, and our platform is built to adapt and grow. We are always happy to hear from educators and other experts in the field for ways in which technology can be useful to students and teachers, and we are thrilled to be part of such a dynamic and important undertaking.

——-

Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com

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4 Responses to Interview | Joshua Salcman and Leo Shmuylovich are Virtual Nerds

  1. Pingback: Cool Tool | Virtual Nerd myMathUniverse | edtechdigest.com

  2. Pingback: 50 Fascinating Edupreneurs | edtechdigest.com

  3. Pingback: edReformer: Virtual Nerd

  4. Just proves the old adage. It’s an ill wind that blows no good. – No computer has ever been designed that is ever aware of what it’s doing; but most of the time, we aren’t either. Attributed to Marvin Minsky

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