Spotlight on Thomas Richman

This month, we’re doing a spotlight for each of our team members. Thomas is our Chief Learning Officer, and works on curriculum development and design.

Thomas Richman

Tell us a bit about your background.

I grew up just outside of Washington, DC, but ever since I turned 18 I have moved around a lot, both for school and for work. In 2011 I joined the Peace Corps, and I spent two years living and working in Moldova, a small Eastern European nation. When I returned, I began creating online educational content for Moldovans and other Romanian speakers, and my educational YouTube channel has received over 1 million views. I have worked as a teacher at three dramatically different schools in three very different cities across the US, and I recently completed my Masters in Education from Harvard with a focus on international education policy. Education is my passion, and figuring out ways to increase access to online educational opportunities is what keeps me up at night and what gets me up in the morning.

What got you interested in education?

My path to education has been an indirect one, and I feel very fortunate to have found a field I am so passionate about. Growing up, I loved math and I always assumed I would go into engineering or business. At university, I studied accounting, but as graduation approached, I began to second guess this choice. I had long considered joining the Peace Corps, and I decided to join in 2011, hoping to learn more about my place in the world while contributing in any way I could. I received a placement in Moldova, but the placement wasn’t scheduled to begin until a year later, leaving me with 12 months to fill.

These 12 months turned out to be a turning point in my life. By chance, I found a teaching position at a unique charter high school in Austin, Texas. The school served students who had recently dropped out of their public high schools, and our aim was to provide practical job skills that could lead to employment after graduation in addition to academic skills. For that school year I taught algebra and geometry every morning, and I taught home construction and carpentry in the afternoons. I fell in love with the school and the students, and for the first time in my life I began to consider education as my calling in life.

At the end of the school year, I joined the Peace Corps and moved to a rural town in Moldova. Although my primary placement was consulting at the local district council, the majority of my time was spent designing programming and activities for students at the local schools. Working with the students in that town, I decided that I would spend my life working in the field of education. I completed my Masters in Education this past spring, and I am excited for what now lies ahead.

What about Education technology?

Education technology has been a huge part of my own personal growth and education, whether formal or informal. In college I used Khan Academy to brush up on old concepts as I learned new ones in my classes. As I prepared to move to Moldova I benefitted from the many language learning apps, which allowed me to hone my spoken Romanian even when I didn’t have access to partners to practice with. YouTube channels like Smarter Everyday and MinutePhysics helped remind me to continue lifelong learning simply for the sake of learning. Other apps, websites, and YouTube channels allowed me to build other skills, like using photoshop, editing film, or playing guitar. All these learning opportunities seemed to be a quick Google search away.

When I arrived in rural Moldova, I was impressed with the ubiquity and quality of internet throughout the entire country (the internet in my rural town was some of the fastest internet I have ever used). The students I met were extremely motivated and hardworking, and I was excited to take advantage of this internet access to help students reach their learning goals. Unfortunately, we were confronted with a major obstacle: the students spoke Romanian, and there was a dearth of content for Romanian speakers. Although the amount of content for Romanian speakers is steadily growing, in 2011, when I first moved to Moldova, there was a small fraction of the content available to non-English speakers. The students could easily access the internet, but the students couldn’t access many educational resources because of a substantial language barrier.

When I returned home from the Peace Corps in 2013, I decided to try to make a dent in this lack of Romanian content. Many Romanian speakers I met in Moldova expressed an interest in learning English, so I decided to create an English learning YouTube channel taught in Romanian specifically for Romanian speakers. The demand for locally-relevant educational content turned out to be enormous, and when I posted my first video I was quickly met by an outpouring of support in both Romania and Moldova. After this experience, I decided I would dedicate my life to supporting teachers and other content creators as they create locally-relevant online educational content.

How did you get involved in dot Learn?

I was very lucky to meet Tunde at an event early in my time at graduate school. We began talking about our goals and interests, and we found we both were driven by similar motivations and passions. Over the course of the school year we met regularly to discuss online education, and we began to work more closely together. Tunde’s vision and dot Learn’s vision turned out to be a perfectly aligned with my own, and I feel very fortunate to be a part of dot Learn’s mission.

What are you working on now?

Working for a startup has been an exciting experience. Everything moves so quickly, and there is so much to be done. As we aim to expand the amount of content we’re offering, I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out the best way to scale up content creation and to generally streamline the process of creating high quality content for our platform. One of my major focuses has been on developing and examining the processes we use to recruit and support new content creators, which has included a lot of time spent developing training materials and curricula and thinking about other supports we can offer. There are so many talented educators in Nigeria, and we want to figure out how to provide as much scaffolding as possible to help educators smoothly transition to being online content creators. Long-term, as we expand more broadly, we want to have systems in place that make creating new content as easy and fast as possible for new creators, so most of my energy has been towards figuring out best practices to achieve this.

What’s your vision for dot Learn in the next few years?

As much as I love education technology, I am not someone that thinks education technology is the singular solution to education. There is something powerful about the relationship a student has with their teacher (or parent or mentor), and I do not expect dot Learn, or any online resource, to fully replace the value of those in-person relationships.

However, in education, a whole constellation of factors exists that determines whether or not learning can occur, and any individual barrier can act as a barrier to the whole process. A parent may be an excellent and motivated teacher for their child, but may lack the expertise to develop lessons and curriculum to tutor their child in calculus. A student may be hardworking and motivated to study outside of school, but may lack access to appropriate educators or textbooks. A teacher may be willing and able to work individually with students, but may simply not have the time to design and grade practice problems for every student. Unfortunately, these individual barriers can stall the entire learning process, and they prevent us from taking advantage of so many of the other assets that exist within an educational context.

This is where I believe dot Learn will thrive. I believe dot Learn will provide teachers, parents, mentors, and students with an invaluable tool that ensures learning overcomes the obstacles that life poses. By offering high-quality lessons, practice problems, and curricula affordably to phones, I believe dot Learn will enable educators and learners to focus on what is important: engaging and interacting with the educational material.

Over the next several years my vision for dot Learn is to provide teachers, parents, and students throughout Nigeria with an all-encompassing platform that provides access to locally-created and locally-relevant educational content. I expect this platform to provide not only the core academic subjects as dictated by national curricula, but any subject demanded by learners.

Beyond Nigeria, I hope that dot Learn can allow any students without access to consistent internet to access locally-created and locally-relevant content. I could (and probably will) write an entire blogpost about why I believe in locally-created online content, but I strongly believe that every student should be able to learn from online teachers that they relate to and connect with, and I believe this connection has a powerful impact on learning.

I’m very excited to have this opportunity to work with such a great team, and I’m excited to see what we are able to accomplish together!