Andrew Sutherland is the founder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at Quizlet, a user-powered learning platform used by more than 20 million students and teachers each month. Sutherland founded the company as a high school sophomore. He originally built a simple website to help himself learn French vocabulary. He studied computer science at MIT and left after three years to work on Quizlet full time. In 2012 and 2013, he was featured in Forbes Magazine's 30 under 30 List for Education.
What inspired you to start Quizlet at such a young age and how did your studies at MIT prepare you to run the company full time?
Quizlet started in October 2005 without the intention of being a business. I was preparing for a French exam and I kept track of the vocabulary I was learning with a small website I programmed when I was 15 years old. The first time I used it to study for a test, I got the best grade I'd ever earned. I thought to myself, "Whoa, this is cool!", so I kept working on it and shared it with some of my classmates. For the first couple of years, I tinkered with Quizlet with the input from my peers and friends. It was a trial and error process, where I would study with Quizlet and realize a feature wasn't perfect, so then I'd put my books aside and code it into the system. Quizlet eventually launched in 2007 and today is currently used by more than 20 million people every month.
The company has come a long way and my studies at MIT were useful in shaping how I founded and continue to maintain the company today. I established a solid computer science background, which meant learning key concepts for things like machine learning, operating systems, and software performance that are critical to my role at Quizlet. I also took a few classes about education history and the economics of education that were really interesting and applicable to what our team strives to accomplish in today’s changing landscape. MIT is full of incredibly bright, ambitious people, so my expectations for myself and what I could achieve were raised by simply being immersed in that community.
How do you hope your work at Quizlet will change the way students learn and retain information?
My hope with Quizlet is that we can make learning much more engaging and fun and do it at the scale of every student in the world. Our exercises and activities can achieve many of the same learning goals as textbooks and worksheets can but be much more enjoyable to use and foster more collaborative and dynamic classrooms. Quizlet Live is a great example of us doing that. Also, I'd like Quizlet to help break the cycle of having students learn something once for a test and then forget it. We're in a great position to help fix that because once you've learned something on Quizlet, we have a record of that and can re-show you things that you're likely to forget.
What trends do you think will have an impact on learning in the coming years?
Access to low-priced devices and broadly available internet are two trends I'm really excited about because they provide classrooms with the infrastructure our software needs to thrive. Having inexpensive devices, both in schools and at home, means more people can have access to high quality software that can accommodate any curriculum in any educational setting. We’re starting to see a lot of education technology designed to make learning cheaper and more scalable, but oftentimes at the expense of quality. Our goal is to give and introduce users to learning resources that are designed for the digital age and can be personalized. It’s not about replacing our educators, but rather providing the tools that give super powers to students and lifelong learners so they can succeed.
What new features or products are you working on at Quizlet and/or are you pursuing new endeavors?
We've been hiring a lot recently because we are heavily investing in the Quizlet product right now. We're working on some major advances to how our learning modes work and how our content model works. Another big effort is making Quizlet more accessible to more people. Even though Quizlet has historically only been available in English, we see usage around the globe, so we're localizing Quizlet into a handful of languages this fall after being English-only for a long time. The other big project we're working on is making our mobile apps super easy to use—Quizlet started out as a desktop site, but student study habits are more and more mobile, and we want to able to meet that demand in the way students want and expect.
Who are the most interesting people you are following on Twitter?
Most interesting people on Twitter . . . let's see! Tracy Chou on technology and diversity, Audrey Watters on education and technology, Dana Goldstein on education and criminal justice, and Matthew Green on cryptography and security.For more on Quizlet, please read our review.
Image: Courtesy Andrew Sutherland