The vision for this series is to surface and share the experiences, trends and insights of thought-leaders, trail blazers, and subject experts who either live at the cutting edge of technology and/or seek to make the world a better place. We can each learn from these experiences and potentially take the first steps towards making the innovations that matter to us.
During the recent Tech Inclusion NY conference, there was a breakout panel on the Future of Education, which included Zach Simms, the co-founder of Code Academy, and LaTeesha Thomas, the Director of Diversity at Dev Bootcamp, among others. One key point the panelists kept coming back to was how to equitably scale education. With Code Academy, scale is obtained from “community involvement” in which students become mentors. With Dev Bootcamp, the barrier to scale is the cost, and a solution is with scholarships, which is closer to a platform model. Either way, the solution to scaling education is precisely what Jade Roth and Flat World is tying to accomplish, but rather than “education,” Jade would define the experience as “learning.” And the learning is individualized.
Jade Roth, CEO of Flat World, is part of a movement that focuses on an individual’s unique path to learning. Compare this concept to a classroom experience where a whole class, typically grouped by age, is presented with the same information at the same pace and process. In the Flat World model, an individual learns at their own pace yet with independent study, collaboration and mentorship built in. Flat World provides the platform for institutions to deliver this form of learning-experience to their students.
This past May, I sat with Jade in her office at Flat World HQ. The bright sun blanched a wide white streak across the wall and shone through a glass partition into the main open floor where the team sat, heads down and hard at work. Even though the temperature of this hot spring day was set to climb even higher, I looked out from the large front window of the office and saw that the street was filled with people jaunting to and fro.
Jade has the manner of a great listener, which I always equated to great teachers. She was sharing insights, and had true interest in making sure I not only heard what she was saying, but that I could learn the utility in what she was conveying. Her cadence and tone were succinct, yet welcoming. There was joy in her voice, which lifts any conversation to another level.
I started our conversation with a question about mobile education. Our Q&A is below.
Jade: I think about how mobility can change education, not just for people in the traditional educational world of K-12, 18-24 years old, but education throughout life. I hate the term “adult learners” but I think about curiosity and what keeps people engaged through life. Mobility is key to that – we don’t think in huge blocks of time, staying in one place any longer. As example, I might engage in work too much, but everything is comfortable and mobile allows that, which is good and bad. The good, from the perspective of education, is that mobility is free. When I think about my parents, I think about two young kids who met at the University of Iowa, had a kid and had to drop out. Education for them was full time, which is still a problem people face today, but can be solved through mobile. With mobile education you have the ability to take content, assessments, coach and administration with you on your phone/tablet/laptop wherever you go, which allows you to finish what you started. This is really key.
Jason: How does this new model fit into the current state of the general, public expectations around education, specifically as it relates to having a career?
Jade: It is not always about ‘can I get a job’. In my view, education is about what I can do better, what I can change about what I see around me, which can partially be ‘can I get a job’. To have mobility/flexibility to go to where things are best for what you are trying to solve is important. When I think about mobility, I think about things that are constantly changing.
Jason: Do you see an either/or relationship between “life-long learning” and “learning for employment?”
Jade: I think of it as both depending on where you are in life and immediate needs. Right now, my daughter is a freshman in college, and her classes are very broad and specific. You won’t say, “what is this educating me towards” from a job perspective, because she is not at that point. She is in a lifelong learning stage. In a year and a half, she will be in a place with more thinking about how she is going to make a living. People have to figure out what are the educational needs that make the most sense at the point in their lives. Most of the time it’s about what is the best route to direct their life.
Here is an example: Think of a teacher in an inner city school…one of our clients uses our platform to provide a master’s in early education, and they have had three graduates complete a master’s in six months at a fraction of a cost. Those graduates are highly motivated people, seeking to advance in their career quickly. That is one kind of learning.
Both kinds of learning have access to mobility and learning, but more importantly than that, both are about achieving your personal goals and making society a better place on a local basis. The person who gets their master’s in early education is in a much better standing to teach a wider variety of needs. The more you know about a wide variety of things, the better you can relate to the diversity in our society.
Jason: Your platform goes beyond borders. Do you have a vision for borderless learning?
Jade: We are a small company; we can’t be everything to all people. We are wholly focused on higher education right now in the U.S and internationally. While we don’t have any international clients today, we have a number we are talking to. Our platform is not confined by geographical boundaries and I think that is increasingly important - not just the traditional semester abroad, but also something for people who are willing to take a chance and do something different, all the while being grounded and doing something they know. There is this wonderful ability to take risks while keeping connections or stability. Mobility does give you that.
Jason: A few weeks ago, I was speaking with coworking pioneer Alex Hillman. He was talking about mobility as layers of communities, beyond borders. Do you see the work of Flat World fitting this model of “layers?”
Jade: In a mobile society, you have to work harder for deep connections. I think the idea you are talking about, a borderless world, is aspirational. We want to get there, but I don’t think we are there as a society. There are too many deep-rooted issues as a society. I do think though that education is one of those things that will get us to the borderless society, if we are able to get there on our own. It is much harder to form deep connections today than it was 5-10 years ago. I think that many of us have surface connections; education is a shared bond whether you are or are not in the same room. You are going through a similar learning, asked to solve problems, asked to work together and collaborate, so I believe education will allow us best to break down those boundaries. Providing a technology platform that enables asynchronies and collaborative work is one of the things Flat World does.
Jason: Could it be that by going through the practice of taking classes in this new way you are instilling a positive way to appreciate the world?
Jade: I think that is absolutely right because you are allowed the independence you need, not always surrounded by people to solve problems but rather learning at your own speed. On the other hand, you have a community throughout the platform through discussion boards, faculty and coaches that you’d have in a traditional class setting. In my mind, you have benefits you don’t get on a campus, in a traditional type of educational setting.
Jason: Is the way you are approaching education more in tune with…what?
Jade: Flat World is approaching education in tune with the way people learn. Some things are hard lessons and you can only work them out yourself, whereas other things you can’t get there without collaboration or feedback. Example: Say you are taking a personal communications class and you have to present to a group – this requires collaboration. On the other hand, if you are thinking through a specific problem that maybe is historical in nature, you have to think through it in a logical sense that would take you in a different direction that you wouldn’t usually go with in the end, forcing you to be independent in your thinking.
Jason: This mirrors a lot of what businesses are trying to do. As an example, there have been experiments with working-space, but it seems like the balance between asynchronies and collaboration is the challenge in the business world. Do you see a relationship with the process you are developing in helping the business world become more successful?
Jade: The fact of the matter is it’s about what problem you are solving today and what the best way is to solve that problem – collaboratively or independently. I’m always suspect when a business chooses one over the other, because I don’t believe life works like that. Our platform allows both types of interactions. The way we built our platform is that there are multiple roles. There’s the role of the faculty member, which is about showing expertise in a subject area. There is always the role of the coach, who steps in and monitors if a student hasn’t been active for a certain amount of time. There are differences in support you need in education or throughout life. Those are the themes as we look at what is missing from today’s education in a mobile and flexible way, allowing learners to engage more than they would on campus…
Jason: Your platform could work well in a different context other than education…
Jade: …Huge opportunity in the workplace with education and community. Cross-corporation elaboration and also to complete what you need to independently.
Jason: Let’s talk for a minute about asynchronicity. Simply put, is it good or bad?
Jade: Good for certain things at certain points. People learn in so many different ways so, in an ideal setting, everyone would have a personalized learning plan. However, this is not realistic. You have to give people guide posts to decide where the best use of their time is and that their time is well spent.
Jason: Is there a stigma around saying, “Everyone learns on their own pace.” Could that be construed as “not as bright as…”
Jade: I don’t think there is a stigma anymore, especially our platform. For one, you are not benchmarking against the person next to you. More so the person is moving at their own pace, since life gets in your way. In a traditional environment you would miss it and have to catch up. Here you are pausing and getting back into it; it is wholly immersive. It’s not an ahead or behind experience, but rather acclimating your learning to your life experience.
Jason: I am thinking about the term “on-demand,” which is more about content. But would you use that term?
Jade: On-demand to me means I can watch something when I want to. We don’t pay attention to that because it is more about immersion in what you are trying to achieve and how motivated you are at that time…
Jason: Immersion and motivation…
Jade: …That also ties back to mobility. When I used to ride the NYC subways, there was something wonderful about it because there wasn’t Wi-Fi during that time. The NY Times was immersive and I would shut out all other noises. If I had time to be immersed in my learning experience, that would work for me personally because I found that helpful.
Jason: Education could be that type of time?
Jade: Yes, it could be that time on your tablet or telephone.
Jason: Will the world become more asynchronistic or less? Will there be more appreciation for time? Immersion seems to be timeless…do you see our perception of time changing?
Jade: Yes, I always think there will be something else that is new. As things evolve and change, people develop a deep appreciation for what has come before. Instead of replacing, things augment and run in parallel. Large bookstores democratized the smaller bookstores, and can mirror image the democratization of education. It is not either/or anymore; it is all additive. This idea of knowledge is building on itself.
Jason: Democratized access platforms…Do you see you are part of a movement? Is there a platform movement taking place?
Jade: Yes, in education I think there is. 10-15 years ago, education institutions decided they needed learning management systems that were perfect for where they were at that time. Today they are actually in their quest to democratize education, which may or may not be met by their school infrastructure. Schools are now starting to say, “maybe it is the right platform and technology for the problem we are trying to solve at this time.” It’s no longer about the next learning management system, but rather the next way to deliver the solution you are looking to deliver to a certain audience. When the first iPad came out, schools went out and bought one for each student. Now, most institutions are a bring-your-own-device atmosphere.
Jason: How agile does Flat World’s platform need to be? Are you building your platform to map to this approach?
Jade: I think that is really important. For any small company, you have to think about delivering something. When we first started, we thought about competencies. We then started to talk to more and more students who wanted more out of it and realized this format is fine for some learners and educators but others want more freedom. Just last month we pushed out a concept of “flexible hierarchies.” We are always looking at different ways to improve; it can’t be so prescribed.
Jason: Flexible hierarchies?
Jade: Flexible hierarchies enable colleges and universities to structure their competencies the way that makes best sense for the curriculum they are developing. For example, a competency in personal communications skills may need multiple learning activities and then a project-based assessment, whereas a competency in accounting may require interactive learning activities and then a proctored exam. The flexible hierarchies enable the school to create the structure that works best for the subject and best for the learner.
Jason: Is there an ideal way these education competencies are built?
Jade: If you always had a specific thought, you would never immerse yourself in something new. Today’s hardware is not the perfect delivery. Virtual reality is cool because it is a novelty and can be cool for a while, but it goes back to the problem you are trying to solve and how you approach it. Some things in education you learn by yourself, some in collaboration - our platform today is just one step on this path and it is not an end.
I thanked Jade for her time and asked the team if I could take a picture or two of their workspace. All were deeply engrossed in their work (as you can see in the photo at the top of this page). I took the elevator down to the lobby, which was packed and adorned with balloons. I asked the building concierge what was taking place. She said, “It was so hot outside today, the building is giving everybody ice cream.”
Read more conversations from this series:
- The Valley isn't interested
- The "co" in "coworking" is for community
- This tech founder is way ahead of all of us
- Making good things scale, globally
- Tech that breaks the cycle of poverty
- Showing the way into a tech life
- The future of health will be mobile
- The future is wondrously human
- Leadership success in our diverse and accelerated era
- Re-envisioning the food supply
- There’s more to your beautiful plate of food than you realize
- Diversity in Tech - The tech population doesn’t reflect the true population
Jason Moriber is a creative communicator with a background in social and digital for CSR, tech and start-ups. He’s working within the Communications team at Verizon, charged with developing a new model for corporate and brand communications. Connect with him on Twitter @jasonmoriber or on Instagram @makeserendipity