Watch and Learn

This co-founder believes everyone has a right to an affordable, quality education.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Adrian Ridner arms folded no braceletAdrian Ridner is the CEO of, an online education company he co-founded with company president Ben Wilson.  In 2002, Ben and Adrian were Cal Poly graduates frustrated with the rising cost of college and the lack of tools for empowering students. They decided to team up and start with the mission of making education accessible. After over a decade of work, is now a profitable, self-funded company that has taught over 10,000 lessons and reaches over 15 million students a month. Adrian (pictured center; arms folded, no bracelet) leads the engineering, product, business

One thing that modern technology does have over the Ancient Greeks is that it is in everyone’s pocket and at different times can ping people back into the learning ecosystem. 

intelligence, and creative teams and pushes to embrace a culture of innovation. He was born in Argentina, spent a large part of his childhood in Venezuela and Brazil, and consequently loves soccer and is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese. He earned an MS in Computer Science from Cal Poly University in San Luis Obispo and currently serves on the university’s Engineering Advisory Board.

What are your thoughts on education in general these days?  

Adrian: Education really hasn’t evolved much. How we teach and learn basically hasn’t changed since the Ancient Greeks. A classroom is still roughly 30-50 students sitting around a teacher who is in charge of both delivering the material – many times repeatedly – and tracking each student’s individual needs.  Academia as a whole has been slow to adopt new technologies, so it’s up to individual students and teachers to try a lot of platforms and embrace change. Education has gotten more expensive for everyone – look at the skyrocketing costs of tuition over the last decade and record levels of student debt. Technology can help solve this problem, but so far it hasn’t impacted education the way, say, Uber transformed transportation.

What is the greatest problem facing edtech?

Adrian: I think the greatest problem with education in general is the high cost and the lack of accessibility. As to why edtech hasn’t solved this yet:

  1. You need to rethink educational content from the ground up if you are really going to shift how we learn. We especially need to take into account all different devices, screens, richer media formats, and student attention spans and learning styles.
  2. Once you have the right content (quality, breadth, format), you have to really personalize the learning experience.  Edtech so far has mostly replicated the existing classroom model, by taping lecturing instructors and putting them online.  The challenge is to use technology to do things you could never do offline.
  3. Edtech underestimated the level of motivation that people have for online classes and forgot there is usually an end goal to studying.  We can enhance motivation by embedding game theory and psychology at large into educational platforms, but it’s not easy. The challenge is combining platform motivators (rewards, challenges) with the real world external goals of each student (passing an exam, gaining a job skill, earning a degree) – and doing this on the scale of millions of students.

How has edtech changed K-12 and higher education so far?

Adrian: The scale that you see in edtech can indeed help lower costs and improve learning efficacy. A traditional teacher in their lifetime can only get in front of a limited number of students, but online they can reach tens of thousands, which generates a lot more feedback to take in. We are in the early stages of correlating across millions of data points that optimize the learning experience. Also, edtech tools have started to free up teachers from having to focus on the content delivery, so they can focus more on each student.

Where does edtech go from here?

Adrian: One of the major problems that we have to solve in edtech is the issue of motivation. Learning doesn’t have to be a chore.  A lot of people have an intrinsic love of learning, but others need to be motivated by both internal and external things. One thing that modern technology does have over the Ancient Greeks is that it is in everyone’s pocket and at different times can ping people back into the learning ecosystem. But it’s been a long time since anyone has made learning truly enjoyable. Until you crack that, edtech won’t be able to truly move the needle the way it wants.

Why did you decide to start your company?

Adrian: I was born in Argentina and moved around South America a lot when I was a kid. I got to see how big an impact the education that I received had, and how much the lack of an education affected some of my family and friends in terms of what they could achieve. The fact that there were kids who wanted to learn and couldn’t really bothered me. Then I came to the US, became a computer science graduate student, and saw all these amazing things we could do with technology – but that we hadn’t done in education. That bothered me even more.  We are poised to make education accessible in a way that was not possible in previous generations, but it seemed that not enough people were tackling the problem with enough urgency. We wanted to help students, so that’s why we founded

What formative experiences helped you arrive at this current approach?

Adrian: Even in the U.S., my college experience was eye-opening.  When Ben and I took general education classes in college, we weren’t in 30-50 people classes; we were taking Psych 101 or History 101 in a theater with hundreds of students.  We could barely see the professor.  The professor would write on something that resembled a whiteboard.  You couldn’t read it.  You couldn’t even hear him with the people talking in front of you.  And this was at a prestigious engineering school – that was the best way for me to learn?  By the way, the class was so high in demand that I had to wait several quarters to take it? It just didn’t make sense.  And we’re talking about people who were at least fortunate enough to go

Fail fast and iterate. Look at the data and embrace what you get back. 

to college – there’s plenty of people who don’t have that kind of access in the first place.  Ben and I knew there have to be a better way. We’re trying to figure out how people can learn on their own, where there isn’t this kind of waiting list.  Our experiences informed our idea that we want a better way to learn – self-paced, fun, bite-sized and affordable. We experimented a lot, we tried a lot of formats that failed, we used data to learn what works and what doesn’t, and iterated our way to what we have today on

What business advice do you have for edtech startups?


1) Find a high-value niche and try to solve the main educational pain points that they have. Try to worry about scale later. If you try to tackle the whole problem at once, especially before you reach scale, it becomes very hard.

2) Fail fast and iterate. Look at the data and embrace what you get back. It’s been said many times, really focus on the problem, not the solution that you think you have. Let the students, let the teachers, let the data, let the market tell you how to approach the problem, and iterate. You can’t afford to not learn from your mistakes and spend too much time building before you put something out there and see what people think.

Excellent, thank you for your thoughts and ideas, Adrian!

Adrian: Thank you!

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:


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Trends | Teachers, Data and EdTech

CREDIT Gates FoundationTo support the product development efforts of K-12 edtech entrepreneurs, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation surveyed more than 4,600 teachers about how they use digital tools and student data to tailor student instruction. The findings from this research are essential to helping entrepreneurs develop tools that are appropriate to the districts and schools that they are looking to serve. More than 93 percent of teachers in the study reported using some sort of digital tool to guide instruction, but more than two-thirds of them are not satisfied with the effectiveness of the data and tools they have access to on a regular basis. In Boston, LearnLaunch Institute is hosting “Teachers, Data, and Your Edtech Product” on Monday, September 28, 2015, a working session for edupreneurs addressing and exploring these findings and relating them directly to product development. Local teachers will reflect on the data, and founders and developers can engage and interact with educators and other entrepreneurs on potential paths forward. Learn More.

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Cool Tool | MindTap Mobile

CREDIT CengageCengage Learning’s award-winning MindTap, a fully built course experience that integrates reading, homework, quizzing, multi-media assets and more into engaging, pedagogically sound learning experience for students, is now mobile. From their phones or other devices, students can stay organized, optimize small pockets of study time and interact directly with their instructor. “We set out to create a mobile product that adapts to students’ busy lives outside of the classroom,” says MindTap Product Director Jared Mann. “MindTap Mobile represents a subset of the MindTap experience that students told us would be most useful to have available right from their phone. We also developed all new features, such as the flashcard-based Practice Quizzes for the app as a result of our research.” His team interviewed dozens of students and surveyed thousands to help clarify what they valued most in a mobile app. Recent efficacy studies conducted by independent research firms found that students using the MindTap digital learning solution achieved significantly higher grades across a number of disciplines. As students have increasingly looked to their phones for social connections,  games, news, information and even educational content over the last few years, edtech companies meeting students ‘where they live’ is a required move if they wish to remain relevant. MindTap Mobile works with any MindTap course so students don’t need multiple apps to manage multiple courses; now there are MindTap products for over 520 courses spanning more than 50 disciplines. Check it out.

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Talent is Everywhere

Are we willing to do what it takes to spread opportunity around the world?

GUEST COLUMN | by Jeremy Johnson

CREDIT AndelaIt’s a widely acknowledged fact today that talent is evenly disbursed around the planet, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or background.

What isn’t as equally distributed, however, is opportunity.

In the US, policy, economic, education and business leaders have spent years discussing and debating the skills gap – the distance between what skills are needed to get a good job and what young people are learning in schools. They’ve focused on it for good reason – it’s a real problem for future workers, businesses and the country.

If we really want the best products, best communities and governments, we need more talent, not less.

The talent gap – the gap between global human capital and opportunity – is not only wider but more costly. Even if we can set aside the moral cost of watching talent unfulfilled, the economic toll of the talent gap is severe.

Without finding, nurturing and deploying the best talent, communities, businesses and economies make do with less. We all get good enough instead of great. And good enough costs more in training, time and lack of innovation and efficiency. And not just in business.

But here’s the good news.

Technology is actually helping close the talent gap.

In the past decade, businesses, governments and educational institutions have had the cost of delivering intellectual products cut to near zero. Or, at worst, a fraction of what they were.

Colleges can now teach writing or philosophy or accounting anywhere with a high speed Internet connection. Governments can bring civil engineers and agriculture experts anywhere, virtually. And instead of limiting their talent searches to their local school pipelines and commuter communities, businesses can recruit, train and employ new workers anywhere.

That’s not an abstract theory; it’s happening today.

Right now, my company is helping tech companies find and hire the best tech talent in the world. Coursera, the big online education company, is teaching basic medical care for remote communities around the world. The obvious impact is that, in cases such as these, individuals, families and whole communities are being uplifted through employment, medical care and a host of other services now available remotely.

But there are bigger implications for these efforts than the one-at-a-time benefit.

There is no doubt that some of those who learn computer skills through our company will start their own companies or usher in the next big thing in tech. Someone who learns basic medical care online will become a doctor, or medical researcher or lead a public health organization. All of this would have been impossible without the initial light of opportunity.

That’s why it’s so important that we push conversations and actions that spread opportunity around the world. Policy and business leaders need to attend events like National Education Week, a prestigious education leadership conference in Washington, D.C., which will host a panel on what can be done to connect and cultivate talent.

But it’s just a start of the work that needs to be done around the globe. If we really want the best products, best communities and governments, we need more talent, not less. Getting it requires narrowing the global talent gap by expanding opportunity to meet ability – wherever it is. When we do, we all benefit – wherever we are.

Jeremy Johnson is CEO and cofounder of Andela, a global talent accelerator that produces developers and connects them with top employers. He is also the co-founder and former chief strategy officer of 2U, which partners with leading colleges and universities to deliver online degree programs so students everywhere can reach their full potential.

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Cool Tool |

CREDIT KnewtonFrom arguably the global leader in truly adaptive learning is a cool tool just launched: is a free, open and personalized learning platform. Any individual can create or use state-of-the-art supplemental lessons to provide students with unique learning paths in real-time. Knewton’s adaptive learning technology assesses what each student knows and how he or she learns best — then pinpoints how much and what type of content, at what level of difficulty, and in what media format, each student needs to achieve specific learning goals. “Think of it as a friendly robot-tutor in the sky,” says Jose Ferreira, Knewton founder and CEO. “Knewton plucks the perfect bits of content for you from the cloud and assembles them according to the ideal learning strategy for you, as determined by the combined data-power of millions of other students,” he says. just launched — pre-loaded with free content in K-12 math, science, history, and English. It includes a variety of pedagogical approaches to meet varying student needs, including videos made by teachers, courses created by universities, and study guides created by the government for statewide testing. Anyone, including tutors and teachers, can add content in any educational subject matter. With an increasing number of solutions in the edtech space, Knewton is a company doing smart things, a company to watch — and when they launch something, it’s worth a closer look: check it out at

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