EXCLUSIVE NEW LEARNING TIMES INTERVIEW
Question: How did your educational trajectory (background) affect your current work?
Answer: I have always had a voracious appetite for learning, and sought out educational experiences from early on: extra credit book reports in primary school, college classes while a high school student, independent studies, and of course formal university and graduate degree programs. Seeking out access to new ideas, great teachers, and powerful learning institutions changed my life time and time again. These experiences - both formal and informal education - combined to instill in me a sense of appreciation for "investing in my brain." I observed how educational opportunities build on themselves, and I saw clearly how transformative the impact of getting the right education at the right time can be.
Specifically with regard to language education (my true passion and the focus of Voxy.com), I learned to think critically about the methodologies and practices employed in the learning process. I began to think about education in terms of outcomes, results, and efficiency. And most importantly, I started realizing that every person is different with regard to how they learn best. Because a student’s ability to learn depends on so many previous (often unknown) conditions, every student will learn in his/her own way. Thus the need for personalized learning. With personalized learning, we can provide the most relevant learning object at exactly the right time and place for each learner. For example, while I continually struggled with statistics in college, years later during a stint as a management consultant I was able to learn much faster because I was able to immediately apply and see the power of the tools, thought processes, and mental models the science of statistics contained. I believe this shows two key drivers that will improve education in the future: by making learning personalized and experiential we will be able to improve outcomes.
Question: What professional experiences have been most formative to your current work?
Answer: As CEO of Voxy, an innovative English learning platform, I draw on a number of my previous professional experiences, but three stand out as the most relevant.
First, most of my early career between undergraduate and business school was spent in countries where I didn’t speak the native language—in Santiago, Chile and Madrid, Spain. I learned Spanish, my second language, in an extremely immersive fashion, and developed a point of view on how language education could be improved. This gave me the confidence to found Voxy, and served as the early foundation of how we now teach English to millions of students around the world.
Second, I spent many years working in sales jobs—selling products, services or ideas to disparate groups of people all around the world. Regardless of whether your calling in life is business, politics, or academia, this is an indispensable skill. Sales requires great listening, persistence, resourcefulness, and being able to effectively influence outcomes.
Finally, as both a management consultant and a venture capitalist, I learned to structure my thinking, get smart on new problems quickly, and find patterns/frameworks to solve inherently ambiguous problems. These are the bread and butter skills that I use everyday navigating a growth stage company like Voxy through the numerous challenges and obstacles that face new companies in new rapidly-growing markets.
Question: How do you hope your work will change the learning landscape?
Answer: If we stay at the forefront of innovation, continue to listen to our learners and stay true to empirical research, I hope we can push the boundaries of Task-based learning and have two profound impacts on the learning landscape: improved quality and increased access. First, by removing frustrating pain points, improving feedback loops, and increasing the individual relevance, we can turn something that used to take years of study into something more manageable for the average person. This will dramatically decrease the effort involved with becoming fluent in a second language. Second, by intelligently deploying the appropriate technology in the right market we can strip out massive amounts of cost from the system. Leveraging the same technologies that are changing how people receive and share information, we can bring an affordable and effective English learning to populations of people that currently have no opportunity.
Question: What broad trends do you think will have the most impact on learning in the years ahead?
Answer: We are living in such an exciting time for education. There are many powerful trends that will forever alter how people learn, but perhaps none more than technology. In particular, three advances jump to mind: 1) Increased broadband penetration (even among the lowest socioeconomic groups), 2) lower-cost CPUs that put computing power into the hands of every student and teacher in the world and 3) Unprecedented ability to collect, store and analyze large data sets. These three things combine to enable a myriad of high-impact changes that will change learning, and ultimately have a measurable improvement on the prosperity of people all over the world.
Question: What are you currently working on & what is your next big project?
Answer: I currently dedicate 100% of my energy to scaling Voxy and to getting our English learning platform into the hands of more people in the world that need to learn English. And I truthfully don’t expect this to change! The fact that the English learning market is over 2B people and is only becoming more important as globalization continues is a big reason why I decided to dedicate my life to it. While the nature of the more granular technology, product, and distribution problems that we solve every day will clearly change, I expect my next project (and the project after that!) to leverage the amazing team we’ve assembled, the brand we’ve created, and the platform we have built. As we work through our current priorities like personalized content, adaptive learning algorithms, effective use of mobile devices, and how to use natural language processing to dynamically create learning objects from real-world media, technology will continue to present new exciting challenges. Wearable technology, virtual reality like we’ve seen with Oculus Rift, and the neuroscience work on activation patterns in the brain will all change how we deliver high-quality education, and how we can increase access to education overall. I’m further fascinated with how "grit," and other non-cognitive traits can impact a person’s ability to learn over time. Because language learning is something that requires people to persevere despite confusion and uncertainty, identifying ways to make learners more comfortable with failure so that they can get the practice they need to succeed is top of mind.
Image: Courtesy Paul Gollash