This co-founder believes everyone has a right to an affordable, quality education.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Adrian Ridner is the CEO of Study.com, 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 Study.com with the mission of making education accessible. After over a decade of work, Study.com 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 Study.com 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 Study.com.
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 Study.com.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org