The Story of Building an Education Startup

Taking on education’s biggest challenges

Most revolutionary companies aren’t born with the intent to change the world, yet there I was trying to do exactly that. I was on the verge of starting my third company, and I wanted to do something truly special. I listed all of the industries I thought I could have an impact in, and quickly became fixated on education. It’s a market that has the potential to impact billions of lives for the better. There are so many students failed by the system. “I can fix it”, I thought.

My theory was that students are increasingly carrying tablets to classes, but that the products powering them were sub-par. Why not build something for the iPad that allows a teacher to control a whole classroom and teach a lesson? To share videos, articles, slides and quizzes in real-time. Students would be captivated! It’d be a revelation throughout the entire educational system.

Upon reflection, I had a disastrous realization. It dawned on me that technology has been involved in the classroom for a long, long time. Traditional PC’s have been sold into schools and yet results haven’t improved in any meaningful way because of them. It’s clear that iPads are the future of personal computing, but are they going to be the difference between one generation being average and another being excellent? Perhaps the tools weren’t the problem. Could it be that the traditional classroom format itself is broken? I dove deeper.

After talking to many teachers, it became obvious that the real problem was one of pace. It is impossible to hope that an entire classroom of students will learn at the exact same speed. People absorb knowledge at entirely different rates, yet the current system is setup as if you had put 30 student clones into the classroom. The result is that educators have to make a decision between catering to the fastest or slowest learners. When a class is moving too fast, there is a huge percentage of students who will just not absorb the information. It is absolutely inevitable that even above-average learners are left with an incomplete knowledge-set. Just imagine what happens to below-average learners! From what I was hearing, this “one-size-fits-all” method was going to cause substantial damage for generations to come.

Reinventing the classroom was now my aim. In addition to pace, the ever-rising tuition fees in higher education meant there was an opportunity to serve those who simply couldn’t afford the costs. I dreamt up ideas for a new kind of school, one where the student was taught at a dynamic pace. Working from home would be encouraged, and the teachers would always be at hand to help whenever needed. The class content would be free, but the student would pay per-session whenever they needed help from the teacher. “I finally cracked it”, I thought. The new school would also let me indulge in my belief that iPads are still going to be a fantastic tool to use within education. There was just one problem, and it drives fear into the heart of any software engineer: Physical space. Every person I had explained my concept to remarked that the idea of a building in which you visit 5 days a week was antiquated. At first I disagreed, but in time I came to agree with them.

After my epiphany, I looked at the landscape of companies trying to revolutionize higher education. Companies like Udacity, Coursera, Udemy and more. I read up on pedagogy and classroom theory in the hope I could compete with them. I saw the love and dedication they had put into their products, and I’m happy to admit that I was discouraged. Beating these companies, with their wealth of knowledge and experience, was going to be an incredibly hard task. Not one to be put off, I decided to go right ahead and compete. My journey thus far had taken me from a tablet product, to a physical school and to a virtual classroom. I was ready to build.

As luck would have it, during this time a friend of mine joined Udacity as their COO and President. Vishal is an amazing entrepreneur and someone I look up to. We started talking and I loved everything about the team and its vision. Reinventing higher education is a huge opportunity, and one that Udacity is leading.

After talking with Vishal and the team, I was thoroughly confused about what to do next. On one side was the potential to build my own project, but on the other was this amazing team and exciting product. After much thought, I decided to join Udacity to head up their mobile efforts. Udacity has built an entirely new way to teach a class, one that runs asynchronously so that students can work at their own pace. Early signs of effectiveness are incredibly encouraging, and it’s only going to get better. The team has applied many, many years of pedagogical research and combined it with the latest technologies to build the best classroom I have ever seen. I am a big believer that always-open online classes will have a huge impact on millions of people around the world. You can learn from some of the best teachers in the world at your own pace. Did I mention it’s free?

Although my journey didn’t lead me to building my own world-changing company, I’m very happy to have joined one. I get to work on a product and medium I love, with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. It doesn’t get much better. Truly changing the classroom and higher education is starting to look like it will happen in the near future, and the best part is Udacity is only getting started. I couldn’t be happier to be a part of the revolution.

Want to help build the future of higher education? Udacity is hiring!