Interview | Andrew Cohen: Managing Your Entire Brainscape

French words. That’s why Andrew Cohen created Brainscape; to help him study his new French words, phrases, and verb conjugations while teaching himself French in Martinique. “It started as just a system of phrase lists in Excel, and it ended up turning into a complex Macro with rules, buttons, and automation,” he explains. “The system became so effective for my own learning that I decided to go back and get my master’s degree in Education Technology from Columbia, where I made understanding the science behind Brainscape to be the focus of my entire degree.” Now that sounds like a case study in the efficacy of purpose-aligned learning all by itself. Meanwhile, in this in-depth look, Andrew shares more behind the simple yet powerful tools provided through Brainscape; the surprising truth behind who came up with the name—and his one word answer to the question, What is your outlook on the future of education?

Victor: What does the name mean?

Andrew: When I was working on the first java-based prototype in grad school, the original name for the product was “Study A.I.D.” (Assessment Interval Determination). I obviously knew it needed something sexier to be marketable, so I engaged my friends and family to brainstorm good names. Some suggestions included KnowIt and Memourizer. We couldn’t come up with anything we loved for a period of over six months. Then one day my mother called me out of the blue and said it came to her – BRAINSCAPE!  The second I heard it I knew that would be the name of the company. The long-term vision is about so much more than memorizing things; it is about managing your entire brainscape.

Victor: What is it, exactly? How would you describe Brainscape in just a few words? 

Andrew: Brainscape is a web and mobile platform that helps you learn faster learning cognitive science. You can think of it as your personalized flashcard stream, built on top of an intelligent machine-learning algorithm.

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

Andrew: Brainscape feeds you multimedia flashcards in a pattern optimized for your brain’s best memory retention. After seeing each answer, Brainscape asks you on a scale of 1-5 “How well did you know this?”, and it uses this information to determine when to show you the flashcard next. Lower-confidence concepts appear more frequently until you report greater performance.

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

Andrew: Brainscape’s mission is to make learning as convenient and efficient as possible, plain and simple. Other companies may try to make learning more fun, social, or exciting with fancy videos and graphics, but these extraneous features often make the learning experience less effective. Brainscape is for the person who is seeking an extremely efficient tool for either creating their own smart flashcards, or studying premium content that already exists in Brainscape’s marketplace.

Victor: Where did it originate, and where can you get it now?

Andrew: Brainscape is available to use both on our website and through our iPhone app(s). We currently have over 20 subject-specific iPhone apps on the app store, and we are about to also release a single “portal” app that allows you to access your entire Brainscape Library through a single dashboard.

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

Andrew: Brainscape is free to register for, and free to create and share your own flashcards.  We charge for premium content. We work with the best educators, learning scientists, and subject-matter experts (often through revenue-sharing partnerships) to ensure that your Brainscape learning experience is as efficient as possible, and we believe that has a value. Prices vary depending on the size and complexity of the subject area.

Victor: What are some examples of it in action?

Andrew: Quickly drilling yourself on Spanish vocabulary before your trip to Peru. Memorizing the names and faces of people in your company. Learning facts about wine so you don’t look stupid in a fine restaurant. Creating an online study group for your Biology class where each student is responsible for creating flashcards for one chapter.

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

Andrew: Brainscape is most useful for people who truly want to learn something, whether it’s because they are genuinely interested or because they are motivated to get a good grade.  It’s not necessarily fun for someone who does not have a passion for learning.

Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?

Andrew: Everywhere you go, educators are screaming about having more collaborative, project-based learning in the classroom, and moving away from rote memorization. I could not agree more. But in this huge movement toward constructivist learning environments, we often forget that the goal of knowing things is still just as important as having skills. The statement that “a student no longer has to memorize facts because he can just look anything up on Wikipedia” is a cop-out. Try telling that to a doctor who forgets what a certain symptom means when he is addressing a patient, or someone who forgets a key vocabulary word while speaking a foreign language. You often don’t have time to just look something up. Our skills are largely based on our ability to synthesize knowledge that is already in our head.

The key is that nobody has been willing to stick their head above the fray in this debate and say “Hey – before we totally forget about the knowledge part of learning, why don’t we figure out a way to automate and optimize the painful drill & practice, so we can have more time for those critical collaborative projects in the classroom.” That’s the role Brainscape is willing to lead.

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

Andrew: Back in school, I spent too much time studying! People thought I was smart because I made good grades, but the truth is that I studied twice as much as they did, and was jealous of all the fun people would have in that extra time. I was always trying to find more efficient techniques to study. Those techniques ended up becoming the same techniques that I applied to that Excel macro I wrote to teach myself French as an adult – which later became Brainscape.

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

Andrew: The future of education is centralization. There are just too many low-quality resources out there, and there is not a centralized ecosystem where educators can quickly find pre-vetted high-quality resources and incorporate them into their curricula.  I think that over the next decade we will see the emergence of a few central, standardized resources that all educators will begin using.  I love what FlatWorld Knowledge is doing toward that end. (Basically a Wikipedia of textbooks.) I hope that Brainscape could eventually provide a similar central repository of all the world’s knowledge broken into bite-sized pieces.

Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of Brainscape?  

Andrew: Brainscape helps make the flashcard experience social and collaborative – bridging the gap between drill and practice and constructivism.

——-

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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