An Educated Guest

Ep.5 | Lights! Camera! Engage!


Guest: Dan Avida, CEO and Co-founder, Engageli

 

Todd Zipper, President of Wiley Education Services, welcomes Dan Avida, CEO and Co-founder of Engageli. Todd and Dan discuss how the pandemic highlighted the need for more engaging online learning. Listen to their conversation on your favorite podcast platform.

Topics Discussed:

  • The need for engaging synchronous tools in online education and ways to improve asynchronous learning
  • The shortcomings of traditional teleconferencing tools like Google Meet, Slack, and Teams
  • Ways to improve engagement and collaboration between instructors and students to help drive quality outcomes at scale
  • How to address inclusivity, equity, and diversity through platform design and functionality
  • The future of the personalized learning journey, machine learning, use of data, dashboards, and AI

Guest Bio

Dan Avida has been working in technology companies as an executive and/or board member for over three decades. Several of these companies have scaled from a small founding team to over $100M in revenues and valuations of over $1B. He started Engageli in 2020 with wife and Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller, Stanford emeritus professor Serge Plotkin, and former executive at 2U and Trilogy, Jamie Nacht Farrell. He earned his B.S. in Computer Engineering from Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, summa cum laude.



View Transcript

Speaker 1:
You’re listening to An Educated Guest. A podcast that brings together great minds in higher ed to delve deeper into the innovations and trends, guiding the future of education and careers hosted by the president of Wiley Education Services, Todd Zipper.

Todd Zipper:
Hello and welcome to An Educated Guest, I am your host Todd Zipper. And today I am here with Dan Avida CEO and co-founder of Engageli. Dan has been working in technology companies as an executive and board member for over three decades. Several of these companies have scaled from a small founding team to over a hundred million in revenue and valuations of over a billion. Dan was on the board of Coursera, which recently went public and he also started Engageli in 2020. We discussed topics like, addressing need for engaging synchronous tools in online education while improving asynchronous learning. Discussed the shortcomings of traditional teleconferencing tools like Google Meet, Slack and Teams. Improving engagement and collaboration between instructors and students to help drive quality outcomes at scale. Addressing inclusivity, equity, and diversity through platform design and functionality. And finally, the future of the personalized learning journey, machine learning, use of data, dashboards and AI.

Todd Zipper:
Dan, thanks so much for being here today.

Dan Avida:
Thank you for inviting me.

Todd Zipper:
All right. So let’s talk about the pandemic. As we all know, education was completely up ended in March 2020, and instructors were quickly trying to figure out how to move their in-person courses into an online format. Zoom university became a common term as both faculty and students became frustrated with the limitations platforms like Zoom offered. How did the discussion begin with your co-founders, and why was this something that you were so passionate about?

Dan Avida:
So Silicon Valley was thrust into a lockdown more or less in the space of a small number of days. And my two daughters, which at the time where a 10th grader and a 12th grader in a elite local high school, were immediately thrown as you put it, into a Zoom school. And it took them very short period of time to figure out all the loopholes. And so one was working very hard on perfecting her mastery of Sims and the other was going in a methodical way through the Netflix catalog. And it was because the classes were not engaging. It was difficult for the teachers to teach. It was difficult for the learners to learn. In Canada because of the very short time that the school had to adjust, our assumption was that simply the school did not have time to research the right tools for synchronous online education. And so we started looking for such a tool, and candidly we were surprised that none was in existence.

Dan Avida:
And so we talked about it Daphne and I, and thought that we need to help solve this problem. And so I called up our very long time friend and multiple different project collaborator, Serge Plotkin who was a professor at Stanford for many decades. He actually joined Stanford right out of his PhD at MIT as a professor when Daphne my wife started her PhD studies, and we’ve been close friends ever since. I described to him what we’re thinking of, he thought it was a great idea, and so we launched the company. We very quickly raised a 14 and a half million dollar round from our friends and family, had a few people that were all handpicked join us. Most of these people by the way, have worked with us throughout most of the past three decades, so they were known quantities. And we also had joined us, a bunch of very, very bright, super capable young engineers, and we put together the product.

Todd Zipper:
Excellent. And you did it so quickly, you were out in the public by October. How were you able to launch so quickly? Is this your proximity to Silicon Valley and knowing how to get products launched quickly?

Dan Avida:
It’s a great question. So it’s proximity to actually two different venues where people know how to build products quickly, it’s Silicon Valley and Israel. So when we started the company on day zero, we decided to create an Israeli office, which is headed by a super capable person. We staffed up there as well as we staffed up in the Valley. And because we know a lot of the people we’re working with, people got very quickly into a rhythm of working together and that enabled us to build the product very, very quickly. My whole career, my first startup was when I was in college and then I spent five years in the military, again, doing short turnaround projects. It’s always been about speed. In fact, I built a building that allowed me to name a street, which is the street this building is located on, and I named it a Velocity Way. I think in technology, it’s all about speed and effective execution.

Todd Zipper:
So talking about speeding and scale, you were one of the early board members of Coursera, you mentioned Daphne, which of course is your wife and one of the co-founders of Coursera. How did being an early board member help inform your thinking around Engageli and getting it started?

Dan Avida:
So the spaces are adjacent, but not overlapping. And by the way, Daphne and I left the Coursera board at this time a few years ago. We have a good idea of what it takes to work with university, and we have a good idea of what it takes to make online education interesting for students. As you well know, Coursera is focused more on asynchronous education, while we started Engageli with a thought towards synchronous education. We did have a number of executives from Coursera join us. So [Adrina 00:06:21] who leads our teaching and learning team used to head teaching and learning at Coursera. Giovanni who heads up our international and partner success is from Coursera. And Talia who is based in Jerusalem, who leads our MEI efforts also came out of Coursera. So there’s definitely [inaudible 00:06:40] to be had, but we also have a number of people that joined us from Trilogy, which again has a different aspect of how you teach people.

Dan Avida:
So there’s definitely parallels, but there are also major differences. When Coursera started, from the beginning we were very focused on getting very high quality content on the platform, which let us to initially partner with elite institutions, because basically their content is sought after by students. At Engageli we’re focused on the broad spectrum of students, whether in junior colleges or at elite institutions, we’re happy to help all of them. We believe that the type of education that we enable instructors to provide is suitable for people throughout the entire spectrum. And our thinking is no matter which university a student attends, some level of engagement with other students and with the professors is vital. As Serge well puts it, all the content today is effectively free. You can go to Coursera and view lectures from the top lecturers in the world. What people are paying tuition dollars for are two things.

Dan Avida:
One is a diploma, but the other thing they are paying for is candidly the interaction with the students and with the instructors, with the TA’s and so on. And that’s what we’ve built our platform to provide. Now, as we continue to build more and more capabilities into the platform, we’re definitely strengthening the asynchronous capabilities that we offer. Today it’s all around recording. At Engageli we allow students to view recorded classes with their friends, and collaborate with their friends in real-time as they’re watching recorded lessons. We know for a fact that that greatly increases the learning outcomes.

Dan Avida:
There is a paper back from the ’70s by professor Jim Gibbons at Stanford that showed that employees of Hewlett Packard and Rosewell, which is a city to the north of San Francisco who viewed recordings of Stanford classes. And all they had there was another person from Stanford just to stop the video for a few minutes and help the students discuss it, led to much improved learning outcomes. So we facilitate that at Engageli. So the engagement, which is part of the name of Engageli is not just in synchronous, but also in asynchronous, and this human-to-human interaction is vital in our opinion, for many types of learners.

Todd Zipper:
That’s great. And I’d like to put Engageli in context for the broader market of online education in the ed tech ecosystem. So we have the learning management system like Blackboard and Canvas and Moodle, we have videos of lectures, we have online tutoring, we have homework help sites. We have student information systems and then there are discussion boards. And so there’s a ton of going on in this ecosystem that a university is trying to figure out, how to provide a great teaching and learning experience for their students. Can you talk a little bit about how Engageli fits into that system? You’ve talked about some of the features and why it’s needed right now and how do you get in there and become part of the market?

Dan Avida:
One of our co-inventors on our core patents is my now 16 and a half year old daughter [Maya 00:09:58]. And one of the points that Maya made was, today to be a student in like you said Zoom university, you have to be a little system integrator. So if you want to do polls or quizzes, you have to use Kahoot or Poll Everywhere or some sort of thing. If you want to collaborate on a document, you have to go to yet another tab and go to Google docs. And so this requirement to handle many tools is an onus, not just on the instructors, but on the students as well. So Maya specifically is very fascinated with technology, but even for her, she thought it was a pain to have to flip between different tabs when you want to do different things. And so, first of all, we try to integrate as much as we can into the product and make it also easier from a cognitive load perspective for the instructor and for the students.

Dan Avida:
So everything is driven in Engageli from the instructor’s presentation. The instructor does not have to fire up another product in order to do polls, quizzes, show very high quality video clips, and the instructor can use any type of presentation software they want, or it could be a PDF file, could be a word file and nothing is required to be uploaded ahead of time. And so we actually try to minimize the use by the instructor of other tools, to make it as easy as possible for the instructor to teach, which is what they want to do. They do not want to start mastering 20 other products. But in terms of integrations, there’re important integrations that we have in our product, specifically with LMS. So in many universities classes are launched from an LMS, we enable that in Engageli. Engageli looks to the LMS, like basically an LTI tool.

Dan Avida:
So it appears as an LTI tool in the class page, the student clicks on that, that fires up the Engageli digital classroom. If there is a live class going on, it automatically inserts the student into this live classroom. If there is not, it shows the student all the available recordings of prior classes. And again, this is an engaging pun intended, Engageli recording. And so if there was a poll or a quiz in the live class, when the student is viewing it, they have to respond to the poll or quiz in order to proceed in viewing the recording. The user interface we’ve developed for the recorded class is almost identical to the live class. So again, people can view it with their friends, they can collaborate, they can take notes, which are then synced with the recording. They can collaborate using discussion boards and so on.

Dan Avida:
Now I want to be clear. You can launch an Engageli class without an LMS if you want to. So some universities they don’t want the overhead of starting to integrate with their existing infrastructure, but if they want, we definitely integrate well with LMS systems. And down the road, I suspect we’ll also integrate with student information systems.

Todd Zipper:
Great. So Engageli is primarily, at least for now a video platform that works complimentary to a learning management system you said, not replacing it. But let’s talk about the competitive set if you will. So we talked about Zoom university, there’s the Google Meets, the Slacks or Microsoft Teams in the corporate world that we’ve watched over the last 12 months. We use Microsoft Teams, we’ve seen it evolve incredibly well. How do you think the schools… Do they use those platforms going forward? How are they limited? We know that there’s a competitor out there that built a… Maybe you’d call it a competitor to Engageli, them on top of Zoom. How are you thinking about those traditional video conferencing tools that a lot is getting invested into, being used in universities versus something like Engageli?

Dan Avida:
We definitely benefit from all the heavy work that Google and others are putting into the modern browsers to support video conferencing, but it’s not like what some people are doing, which is they’re taking Zoom and repackaging it and adding a little bit of a classroom features around it, but they’re still limited with all the limitations of Zoom. We have [inaudible 00:14:04] our own audio, video handling, it’s completely done by Engageli. All the media servers are our own. That enables us to do one of our core features that people love, which is this concept of tables. Where students are sitting around virtual tables and they can interact with each other, talk physically, like audio talk to each other while hearing the instructor, you cannot do this when you’re writing on top of a corporate designed video conferencing tool. In a typical conference call, you’re not supposed to talk to your friends while the conference call is going on.

Dan Avida:
And so they have the concept of breakout rooms, but breakout rooms in Zoom and other platforms are effectively other separate calls. In us, there is no distinction. And I don’t know if you… I’m sure you have seen how people have to shuffle into a breakout room, shuffle out of a breakout room, there’s none of that in Engageli. It’s really like a physical classroom where people are sitting at tables and they can talk to each other while hearing the instructor, you cannot do this on top of a tool. Now, are we going to kick out all these video conferencing tools from universities? No, because at this point they’re like basically a phone, they’re utility. We’ve moved from where people just talk to people on the phone, to where everybody wants to talk to everybody else, from their mother or grandmother, kids onto their colleagues using a video conference.

Dan Avida:
But interestingly enough, we’ve had people who’ve seen our product who’ve asked us if they can use it for corporate conferencing purposes, we’re saying no, because we don’t want to be the focus, but to have actually specific features. Which again, we’ve obviously observed what people have been doing. And like you said about Teams that it’s greatly improved and same Google Meet over the past year. We’ve definitely observed what people are doing, and we have some neat features in Engageli which make it even fun for people using it for basically just conference calls. But to be clear, we’re not going in that space. And so we definitely are sure that… Right now it’s becoming a pretty meaningful business for the conference call vendors. So I’m sure they’re not going to just walk away.

Dan Avida:
But on the flip side, they all have other competitors they got to deal with. Zoom has to, in my opinion, look at what like you said, Teams, which is rapidly evolving and happens to be free. And they have to look at what Google is doing with Meet, which is also rapidly evolving and also happens to be free for people that use G suite and for people in Microsoft users get Teams for free. So I think that they all have other things to do other than just focusing on higher ed. All we do is higher ed.

Todd Zipper:
Right, And it seems like they hope it’ll just work out and students and faculty will figure out how to create that collaborative environment that you guys are very intentional about virtually. So it seems like the word of this podcast is engaged or engagement. And you just mentioned a couple of those features that really bring to life that engagement of the learner and the faculty member. And I can imagine when faculty have classes of a hundred students or more, which many of them do, that it’s a struggle to really… Not just on campus, it certainly is in a classroom, but certainly virtually it is.

Todd Zipper:
But I know that you’ve designed some features to really get out this. And one feature that really stood out to me is the way instructors can track students activity through data points that are directly linked to learning outcomes. This is such a cool way to see results in real time. Can you talk a little bit more about this? I know it’s so hard. I wish I could give a demo here for everyone, it’s how our industry works oftentimes. But maybe you could try to bring that to life. That and any other features that really allow engagement, which hopefully drives student satisfaction and generally retention and outcomes that your schools want to drive.

Dan Avida:
One of my favorite business thinkers is Peter Drucker. And he says, “If you can’t measure, you can’t improve.” And so you have to measure, if you don’t measure, there is no way to figure out where students are lagging, where they need more help, where they’re really excited about what they’re doing. And so we set out to fully instrument… And again, back to your previous point, this is not something you would need to do in a business conferencing solution because you assume that the people on the conference call are supposed to be engaged. So exactly like you said, we track pretty much every activity a student does on the platform. And now we do it in a non-creepy way. So first of all, we say exactly what it is we’re tracking. And we do not track things for example, what other software they’re running on their computer, or where are their eyes looking, or what is in the background of the room.

Dan Avida:
We don’t do anything like that. It’s exactly like you said, we track their activity. So what are all these? We track a lot of different things that students can do on our platform. Are they sending chat messages? Are they posting questions? Are they answering questions? By the way, again, the major difference between us and a conference call system, we totally separate out the chat from the Q&A. The chat is a femoral, it’s basically for people to just chat with each other, the Q&A is like a discussion board, it’s threaded. So a student can post a question, other students can post answers. The instructor can even validate the answer, which is correct. And students can actually vote up a question as being a particularly interesting question, so the instructor can answer that in real time during the class. Picture, like you said, a large class with 100 students, imagine how many chat messages there are.

Dan Avida:
And it’s just totally impossible for a normal instructor to track through this endless stream of consciousness going on in the chat, without totally losing focus on what they’re trying to teach. So with us to use the word use, which I fully agree with intentionally separate out the Q&A from the chat. We do not, by the way, record the chat, we record the Q&A, which is part of this body. Other things we track are students taking notes. Students like taking notes on our system because automatically get a screenshot of the instructors screen, they can draw on it and then they can save it to an editable file. Like a file that they can later edit in word or in Google docs or on a Mac. And so we track did they take notes, that they respond to polls and quizzes, did they respond correctly to quiz questions?

Dan Avida:
What is the amount of time they talked during the various sessions in the class? Did they raise their hand? In Engageli, for a student to be heard throughout the entire class, they have to raise their hand. And we measure how many times they’ve raised their hand and how much time they’ve spent at the podium speaking to the class. All these are good indicators of the level of engagement of a student.

Todd Zipper:
And they come in through an executive dashboard of some kind for the instructor. How about if they fall asleep? This was a bit of a problem for me in college.

Dan Avida:
Yeah. So we looked into basically shocking the students, but that apparently violates FERPA, and so we decided to not do that. But we do have more kind ways of activating students. So the instructor can prompt a student to do things like basically raise a student to the podium, and as the student to answer a question. So back by the way, to how do we display the information. So there is a dashboard that… And by the way, we download all this data, it can be downloaded in a CSV format, so instructors can put it into a analytics package of their choice, but to also prompt in real time the instructor with data. So there is an overall aggregate of the level of engagement of the students, which is shown as the thermometer, which we update every few seconds. We also show per student a little dot.

Dan Avida:
So for a student who’s falling asleep. And by the way Todd, that definitely happened to me, especially by the way in large auditoriums. So again, I think we make the experience for students much better than sitting in these mega auditoriums where they’re being talked at. And again today, there’s no reason for students to be talked at, they could just attend the course at Coursera and listen at their pleasure. I think basically it’s more about the engagement and talking to their peers and so on. So per student, we show a little dot green or red to give you the level of engagement. We show one other indicator to the instructor or to other indicators to the instructor that gave a sense of engagement. One is a thumbs up thumbs down, which is explicit with respect to the instructor, so the instructor can see that the student in the front row give a thumbs up.

Dan Avida:
And by the way, the other students just see a floating thumbs up or thumbs down, but they don’t know specifically which student has provided that indication. The other type of feedback we enable the students to give back to the professor is a thermometer. Sorry, it’s reflected in the thermometer. But it’s basically feedback that the students can provide any time they want from a green smiley face to a red frowny face. As you well know when you give people the ability to provide anonymous feedback, they’re much more likely to provide it and much more likely to be truthful.

Todd Zipper:
Yeah. You just spawned a thought that often there’s a lot of group think that happens in classes, and maybe people don’t feel safe to express their real opinion about a topic especially controversial issues. Do you think that this platform can enable that learning, but also can enable people to bring their full selves, whatever side of the argument they’re on?

Dan Avida:
Absolutely. So a few things, first of all, as you pointed out, even though we started development not too long ago, by November we already were deployed in classrooms. And one of the classrooms we were deployed in, the professor who’s a very, very capable instructor, noticed something super interesting, which candidly we did not anticipate. And this also talks about inclusivity as well as a group think. So because the tables are private, people are much more comfortable talking around the table, than they are talking to the entire class. And so if you have a shy student that didn’t understand something, it’s much more comfortable for them to ask their friends around the table, “Hey, do you understand what the professor just said?” And if they see that nobody else knows what’s going on, then they’re much more likely to raise their hand. Same by the way, to your point in the group think, if they disagree with the instructor [inaudible 00:24:05] check out their thinking around the table before they bring it out to the entire class. But we actually mechanize that even further.

Dan Avida:
So one of the things we allow an instructor to do is to throw out a poll question, that will automatically divide the class into tables where people have different points of view. So Todd might have a for point of view and Dan might have a con point of view, and the instructor would ask the question, you would answer pro I would answer Con, it automatically would throw us to a table where you and I can then argue it out. Now, because again, the instructor is never separated out from the tables, the instructor can continue re-polling to see if you convinced me, or if I convinced you. Or if they see that the breakdown between the pros and cons hasn’t shifted, then that’s probably a good time to resume the classroom and continue the discussion.

Dan Avida:
But [Tom Highland 00:25:02] always said that he didn’t learn anything from anybody who agreed with him, but to me this way predates that. Socrates thought that way. And even further back, in the tale of the [inaudible 00:25:12] study is all about people arguing. The [inaudible 00:25:15] is basically in the middle of the page, you have a section from a previous religious book and all around it this rabbi’s arguing about this one point. And so I think generally having a conversation with people having different points of view is a very, very effective pedagogy to get people to learn.

Todd Zipper:
Absolutely. And I think today, whether it’s in society, corporate America or on college campuses, diversity and inclusion is such an important component of our goals. And you really are talking about how it’s threaded into the platform to enable it, in a way that is inclusive. And not just in maybe different points of view. But I also think you’ve been thinking about other areas like internet connection isn’t always fast in some places, and you have to think about that. Or mobile device… A lot of people are looking at stuff through mobile devices. So any other thoughts on how you’re being intentional about the platform and really trying to make it as available to all parties?

Dan Avida:
So purposefully, I use old computers just so we’re not practicing on the latest and greatest high speed computers. As some of the computers I use, even for the instructor side, have a windows seven sticker on them. They’re running windows 10 right now, but they’re very old hardware and it runs great, and same students. To your point about bandwidth, we did a lot of work to reduce as much as possible the bandwidth, both up and down. So we don’t require a very high quality video from the students. And when we download to the students, because of the way that our system works, you do not need to get video streams for all your students. I was on a panel last week that was run on Zoom and they told us ahead of time that if more than 20 people show up, everybody has to turn off the camera except the panelists.

Dan Avida:
And sure enough they had more than 20 showed up, everybody turned their camera. At Engageli, you can have hundreds of people all with their camera open, because of the way we handle the bandwidth, and we are the compute. In terms of mobile, you can use our current… all our students setting… And this is back to your point about inclusivity Todd, it’s all browser-based, you don’t need to load any software in any particular machine. And so it runs very well in Chromebooks and we’ve been practicing on old Chromebooks. It’s run in a browser on a mobile device. Because of the limitations of size on a mobile device, we are now doing a full native application for both iOS and Android to give a better experience when somebody has a five or six inch display. One more aspect of inclusivity or people with various types of challenges. So we put one of our top engineers, a woman who has been working with me for all her career and most of mine, ever since she graduated from Caltech 30 years ago, and her whole focus is accessibility.

Dan Avida:
And we also hired Canon who is one of the leading experts in accessibility for universities to audit or system. So we have all the usual things that you would expect, like closed captioning for people with hearing challenges, and the ability to zoom everything up for people with sight challenges. As well as all the buttons on the monitor are all mapped into physical keys on a keyboard for somebody who can’t find them while using a mouse. But beyond that, we have capabilities to include the people that you cannot do with other platforms. So I’ll give a couple of examples. You can put on a table an ASL interpreter with the people that need the services of the sign language expert, and they can sign back and forth while the class is ongoing in a completely private way that does not cause them to feel self-conscious.

Dan Avida:
And so let’s say that the person who has a hearing challenge couldn’t understand something, they can literally sign to the ASL interpreter while the class is ongoing, the ASL interpreter can sign back and the class continues. Same for people with visual challenges. You could put a narrator in a table with the people that need the services of the narrator. The narrator can narrate what’s happening on the slide. We mix that together with audio coming from the instructor. And again, the people that need the services can ask them. The last example you gave is people with various forms of dyslexia can again, sit with somebody to help them out. And they can be sitting in a live class with that person effectively sitting right by them, talking to them live. And you cannot do this on other platforms.

Todd Zipper:
Yeah. So let’s jump into your customers for a second. Pretty much we’ve been focused on higher education, I think mostly US-based. How are you thinking about the go to market? And is K-12 potentially involved there? You talked about your daughters initially for the platform.

Dan Avida:
Because I was not born in this country. So I’m always focused on all the companies I’m involved in international markets as a first-class citizen. So we from the beginning started reaching out to universities outside the US, so we’re working with universities in Israel, universities in the UK, in Australia and other parts of Europe. So we’re not just focused on the US. We have had a fair amount of interest from corporate education, which we’re at the moment not spending time on because 100% of our focus is on higher education. It’s interesting your point about K-12, some of, actually more than one of the universities we work with, are universities with trained teachers. And these teachers then go to a K-12 environment, they want to bring Engageli with them. And as a father to a K-12 and a former K-12, my older daughter is now in college, just finished her first year.

Dan Avida:
Not sure that 100% online is the right solution for K-12, I think recess is important and lunch with friends in the cafeteria is important. I do think that eventually we’ll make our way both into corporate education and K-12. They’re starting to be more and more enrichment classes and tutoring classes, which Engageli is perfectly suited for. There are some K-12 international schools, so people in one country learning from teachers based in another country. So I think we could be of service in that environment. So there’s definitely a broader use of our platform beyond higher ed. But as you well know way more than I do Todd, that there’s plenty of work to be done in higher ed, that’ll keep us busy for a while.

Todd Zipper:
Absolutely. And on that note, so life is returning back to normal, it appears that the fall, most people are going to go back to traditional face-to-face learning. And I even like the idea that there’s face-to-face learning and there’s online learning. When I hear something like Engageli, these things are starting to blend together. In a respect, the platform that you offer is so engaging and versus, the face-to-face is important, but it’s not evolving necessarily, maybe it is at some level. So what are your views on the idea… Obviously, there’s been huge push in March of last year to get online in some form or fashion. There’s been a lot of adaptation, really amazing what’s happened, but what do you think the new normal is like? Do you think people are just going to go back to their traditional way of teaching and learning, or do you think that we’ve jumped to a new plateau of some kind, where online education and tools like Zoom or Engageli are going to be almost become ubiquitous? How are you thinking about it?

Dan Avida:
Obviously the latter, otherwise we wouldn’t have gone through this effort. And the statistics are bearing it out. So I’ll start with actually a broader view, which is what do adults want to do today? And so I’m sure you saw that Robert [inaudible 00:32:57] survey that showed that a significant, I forget if it’s a quarter or a third, of employees said that if they’re forced to go back 100% of the time to the office, they’ll quit and change jobs. And about 75% of employees want to either work fully remote or partially remote. I don’t think we’re going back to everybody shows up nine to five in a office in a suit and tie, those days are over, even without a suit and tie. And the same is true for students. All the surveys I’ve heard from our partner universities are that a quarter to a third of the students would very much like to remain remote, or at least more than half want to be able to consume at least part of our education online.

Dan Avida:
Now this trend has started a long time ago. So even before the pandemic, at least half of the students took at least one online course, especially by the way, among the working adults. The junior community colleges that have a large amount of working adults have been at the forefront, and also pioneers like ASU, like SNU have catered to that community and have done a great job of building a very large university audience for that. So I don’t think we’re going back to everybody marches to class all the time. And candidly, when I talk even to our younger engineers who mostly went to elite universities, they’ll tell me, “Yeah, once they figured out their class was recorded, they showed up, looked at the recording at double the speed, did the homework and were happy.” Our view is that there’ll be a blend.

Dan Avida:
And we intend to have our features useful even in a face-to-face class. So for example, the quizzes or polls, in-class students can do them. The note their taking, which is linked automatically to the recording of the class for further review whenever students want to prepare for a test, students in class can use it. So we’re trying to build a tool for education with a capital E, not online education. And we 100% agree with you Todd, it’s going to be a spectrum from people in the class, people watching and participant in class synchronously, people participating in the class asynchronously. And candidly, I think many classes will be a combination of all of the above. And soon students will decide, “On Tuesdays I have shift that I have to go to so I can’t come to the live class.” I think you’ll see a great variety.

Dan Avida:
The other thing is the whole point of lifelong learning. Which today it’s interesting, I’ve been spending a lot of time on LinkedIn because we’re having a lot of people. So people are spending a lot of time on getting credentials that will appear on their LinkedIn profile so I’m happiest when I see it’s a Coursera credential, but there is other organizations providing these credentials. And again for many people, having interaction and engagement is important. Not everybody can look and plow through a class simply by watching recorded videos and answering quiz questions.

Todd Zipper:
Yeah. Just to hit on one of the last points as higher education, post-secondary education starts to fragment almost. I just read a stat from JFF lab, Jobs For the Future that 62% of Americans preferred non-degree skills training options over two or four year degree programs. Not to think that the degree is going away, because I certainly don’t think it is, but that’s pretty telling. And how are you thinking about this category? You just mentioned it, people are trying to bring these skills-based certificates or badges to demonstrate their skills onto platforms like LinkedIn. How do you think a platform like Engageli can play in this wild wild west of non-degree, badging and skills training that’s happening out there?

Dan Avida:
Whether it’s degree or non-degree, it’s still teaching and learning going on. And we intend to be there when there is teaching and learning going on, whether it’s towards a degree or towards a credential. So to us, there’s really no difference. The same type of capabilities that we offer instructors to make it a better experience for their learners, we provide. If anything, I think there’ll be much more competition on these credentials because you can’t hide behind the halo of a university that’s been around for 300 years, that doesn’t have to try too hard. I went to university that wasn’t 300 years old, but the university I attended they didn’t really care very much about the student experience because they knew that the students [inaudible 00:37:22] the diploma, and they could do whatever they wanted. I’m happy to say by the way, that it’s greatly improved. But especially in this credentialing, I would say, look, there’s going to be people that find the students and provide the content, and there’s people that do the underlying platforms. We provide the underlying platform.

Dan Avida:
And it’s a heavy lift. The technology behind what we do is not trivial. In our founding team we have two former Stanford computer science professors. We have a lot of very, very skilled engineers, it’s complicated. And so we provide the underpinnings. But by the way, do I think candidly both are needed? I think it’s very important to have a foundation and get a degree. And pretty much everything I learned in technology in the MIT equivalent of Israel, is totally irrelevant today. So you definitely need to continue, especially in technical fields but also in other fields, evolve your knowledge. And I think these non degree credentials show future employers that people are seriously taking it. We saw it in Coursera by the way. Daphne used to run learners surveys at Coursera. And we definitely saw… I’m sure you’ve read the published surveys, that definitely people that took Coursera classes to give them more skills, ended up with in many cases a higher paycheck. So there’s definitely a benefit for people to invest the time to improve their knowledge, whether it’s credentialed or a degree.
Todd Zipper:
So what’s next for you and Engageli now that you’re flushed with two rounds of funding over the last year? How are you thinking about the execution and new ideas that maybe aren’t in the platform yet? Especially, you talked a little about this, but you hear a lot about machine learning and artificial intelligence, you’ve got these amazing folks from Stanford and whatnot. How are you thinking about using some of those technologies to emerge the platform?

Dan Avida:
Like all your questions, it’s a great question. So as you may know, Daphne is a machine learning professor, she actually got her MacArthur Genius award for the machine learning, that’s why I do not use the word machine learning lightly. And also when I was a VC, a lot of people showed up and sprinkled some machine learning fairy dust on top of their business plan, thinking that that’s going to totally change my view of it. So first of all, for machine learning you need data and so that’s why we collect all this data. Once we have sufficient amounts of data at scale, I think we can offer something that was never offered before, which is real incite into what works and what doesn’t, and to really personalized learning journeys.

Dan Avida:
So all of that obviously is facilitated by machine learning slash AI, so it’s definitely something we’re thinking of. Other things by the way, where we think we could be of great help to instructors, we can show which type of content resonates with which types of students. Something that might be interesting to you and me, for people that are significantly younger, they won’t know what we’re talking about. And we’re going to measure the level of engagement they have. Even things that sound simple, but are not.

Dan Avida:
Think about a project that you are to do in class, a 10 minute project. We can measure how engaged people are with that project idea, and was it a good project to do or not something that engaged the students. So there’s definitely a lot of room for that. To your earlier point, we’re doing a lot of work on integrations with the surrounding scaffolding that universities have. We’re very focused on the user experience of both instructors and of students, we think it’s key. I actually think students are going to have more and more of a voice down the road, and so it’s very important to provide them with a good experience, so that’s an area of focus to us. And candidly, what I spent a lot of my time on is recruiting. We want only the best people to work for us. And as I’m sure you know, this is a very tight hiring market and we work hard to find the people that can help us build the platform.

Todd Zipper:
Yeah. I just wanted to underscore one of your points. When I started in marketing technology, that was probably 15 years ago, the big expression was multi-variant testing to improve your advertising. And it’s just a constant AB AB testing all day long. And that’s what you were talking about in just looking at things, measuring what works, what doesn’t, throwing out what doesn’t work and keep making things better. And I think that’s incredible for education because generally that’s not how things have been done. Some expert of instructional designers or faculty go out there and they say, “We’re going to use this textbook, we’re gonna use this content and go.” And that’s actually not what might make the learning happen. So I think that’s a great nugget there that you gave us towards the end here. So on that note, this is my last question. I ask it of all my guests and I love hearing the different stories. Who has been a learning champion for you, and how has that person helped you in your life?

Dan Avida:
So there’s many, many, many, many people that I’ve learned from over the years, but since you told me to pick one, I’ll take the late [Effie 00:42:30] [inaudible 00:42:30]. So Effie was a household name in Israel throughout the ’70s and ’80s, he was a Steve Jobs equivalent of Israel. He was the one who started the high-tech company movement, which now is known as Startup Nation but Effie was one of its four fathers, especially when it came to non-defense type operations. So I had the great privilege of working very closely with Effie for a number of years at EFI company, which I was one of the first employees. I was an engineer there and eventually I was promoted to be the CEO and later chairman of the company, so I learned a lot from Effie. Effie by the way interestingly enough, because he never actually bothered too much with high school, he didn’t get accepted into any of the Israeli universities.

Dan Avida:
So he ended up reaching out to a professor at MIT and got into MIT. And Effie by the way, was one of the designers of the camera that the astronauts used to film the first moon landing. And so I learned a lot from Effie. And all of it was not in a didactic kind of, “Oh, this is what you got to do. This is what you should do.” Effie actually, one of the main ways he had to convey messages was via jokes. He had a plethora of jokes, but the jokes had a point to them. And I’ll tell you just one famous Effie expression. When you would come into his room, he would say, “Start from the end.” He did not want to hear the whole story, he was not a very patient man.

Dan Avida:
Actually, I’ll tell you one other thing that was useful because you’re a very successful businessman, you’d appreciate it. When EFI was a tiny, tiny company, we went to negotiate a very complicated deal with Canon, which at the time was definitely a huge, it still is a huge company, it’s tens of billions of dollars in revenue. And we’re sitting outside the door of this Canon executive and Effie outlined what we’re going to ask for. And I asked Effie, “What’s our fallback position.” He said, “We have no fallback position.” I said, “How come?” He said, “Well if you have a fallback position, you’ll fall back to your fallback position, so you should not have a fallback position.” Sure enough, we got everything we wanted.

Todd Zipper:
All right, Dan. Well, thank you so much for your time and speaking with me today. I’m excited to see how Engageli will grow and transform education. This is really an inspiring story and it gives me hope that education is going to be much better tomorrow than it is today. So until next time, this has been An Educated Guest.

Dan Avida:
Thank you very much Todd for everything.

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