Junction Education CEO and co-founder Vineet Madan knows there's no shortage of great open source textbooks, flashcards, and videos. The issue becomes how to make it easy for faculty to curate and deliver that content in an engaging way. We talk with Vineet about how Junction is tackling content affordability and creating learning efficiencies based on meaningful data.
Welcome to the MBS Direct podcast, where we talk with some of our partners who are doing interesting things with content and education. I'm Carrie Watkins, the senior digital consultant with MBS Direct and today we are talking with Vineet Madan, the founder and CEO of Junction Education. Thank you for joining us, Vineet.
Vineet Madan: Certainly, I'm happy to join you. Thanks for having me, Carrie.
Carrie: Great. Junction Education has been around for a couple of years, but you're fairly new. I know we started looking at you guys and learning a little bit more about you and then we got a chance to meet with you guys at EDUCAUSE last year.
You guys are filling a really interesting role within the education space, providing some low cost, but very engaging material that's sort of a blend of open educational resources as well as very deep analytics.
Talk to me a little bit about what Junction Education is, which problem are you trying to solve?
Vineet: Thanks, Carrie. Junction's been around for eighteen months and what we've been really focused on is the intersection of affordability, engagement — particularly in a digital learning environment — and then learning efficiency, which is a little bit of a new topic.
On the affordability side, no surprise, any of us who've been on a college campus know that there are high and growing percentages of students who are opting not to purchase required material and/or have access to it, which really puts them at a disadvantage when they're trying to study and learn, so affordability matters.
On the engagement side, from what we've seen with the initial move to digital learning environments is a lot of comes from the move from the book business, we move from book to a quasi-transition to eBooks, but it didn't really take advantage of the opportunities that digital learning environments create with using multi-media, animation, simulation, and just about inter-activity.
Engagement is critically important and from an efficiency standpoint, generally we're in an era now where there's a lot of discussion about big data and education and what that means.
But as we talk to instructors and students all across the country, it's less about data for data's sake and it's more about how do you drive insights from that information to improve efficiency for students as they go through the studying and learning process, and for instructors as they're trying to figure out how to cater and adjust their teaching to help struggling students catch up or provide additional reinforcement or even advancement opportunities for students who are a little bit ahead of the curve.
That's really where our focus is, that affordability, engagement, and efficiency with a high twist on the dial to easy to be used.
If it's not intuitive and if it requires a lot of explanation, we've done something wrong.
Carrie: That intersection between affordability and efficiency is really hard to come by a lot of times because we talk a lot about open educational resources and a lot of the resources that are out there, but it takes a lot of time to curate those and understand whether they're valuable for what you're trying to teach. You guys sort of play in that space.
Talk about the efficiency on the instructor side, not only from the analytics side and making sure that they're using the time wisely for helping the students be successful, but also on the content creation side of things as well.
Vineet: Instructors, we've seen studies and I'm sure you've covered them in previous conversations where upwards of 71 percent of instructors would adopt or use OER material if they were available in what I call productized fashion, right? There's no shortage of OER textbooks and there're plenty of open source videos, and flashcards, and things like that, but as we were talking to instructors one of the big problems that they had was just sourcing that information.
Sourcing OER is hard, evaluating OER takes time, curating it, integrating it together into a complete package for students is also difficult and time-consuming.
These are all activities that instructors end up doing again and again and again.
If you and I, for example, were teaching the same US history course either on the same campus, but or on different campuses, we would each go through that separate discovery and evaluation effort and what you found to be effective and useful, I have no idea what that is. It's a building through collective intelligence around this whole system of OER, it helps generate additional efficiency and that's where the data comes into play.
Because we're integrating all these resources and delivering them through Junction, we know what materials students are using, how often they're using them, how those relate to mastery of learning objectives and we can present that data back to instructors and our own course developers so that we can constantly tune and adjust and improve the performance and quality of materials that are being used to deliver constantly improving student experiences.
For instructors, the turn-key nature of the platform makes it very attractive. The fact that it's also configurable and flexible so if they don't like a set of lecture slides we've done, they can literally point and click just as easy to do as if you were working in Google Docs and swap out a set of slides for their own, or add a video or add a discussion board literally with just a couple of clicks. They like that intuitive, easy to use there because that just saves them a lot of time.
What we end up finding for instructors, the ramp up time, in using Junction they all ask how much training do we need.If we have to give you a lot of training, something's not working, so we usually just cut them loose on their own. Then we usually touch base with them a few days later and say "How's it going?" And they're like, "You were absolutely right, I didn't need any training. If I use an LMS, a publisher homework tool or something else, if I haven't had a few days worth of training I'm uncomfortable.Using Junction, I find it as easy to use as any other online application."
And that generates efficiencies as well, so it's not only just efficiency in assembling materials and bundling of materials for students, but also being able to personalize it and make that experience their own. Because every single student is different, even on the same campuses. The instructors need to have that opportunity to have their voice echoed in the materials that they're using for this particular cohort of students.
Carrie: Absolutely, and that's something that we've found from our side as well, just working with so many different schools, is that flexibility and being able to really customize the material for the way that they teach and the way that they that cohort of students is very, very important and one of the primary drivers between moving away from the traditional textbook the way that we've all grown up with it, and moving to something that the teacher has a lot more say into how it's put together.
Vineet: It's funny, it's one of these things where we've seen in any other industry that's moved online, we've had significant gains in efficiency. Whether it's media businesses, financial, information businesses, and so on and so forth, except for education, which is a little frustrating I think to all of us who work in the market. Instructors, students, even those who support them as well. I think there's significant opportunities to help use technology to improve efficiency and that's really where we're focused.
Carrie: You are no stranger to the content business. Talk a little bit about your journey and how you came to create Junction Education.
Vineet: I've been at education and educational technology for over a decade now. A large portion of that time at one of the large publishing companies. Most of my time and focus there was pushing the digital evolution of the instructor materials business. It's really growing from the book out, so it's everything from doing interactive textbooks on iPads with the likes of Inkling and Apple to incubating adaptive learning tools and technologies on smartphones going back six or seven years ago to you name it.
One of the things that struck me as we were going through that process is that we're creating more and more things going out from the book-first orientation. Every time I was on campus talking to instructors and students, and in particular students, they were increasingly less likely to use a textbook as their primary point of reference when they were trying to study and work. I guess it's not really a surprise, right? Ten years plus post-YouTube getting into the mainstream is that when students try to study and learn, what we found is they're also starting with video, and it's short form video, two to four minutes tops. They'll quickly touch on a topic or two so if they don't understand something they go to YouTube first. If they still can't figure it out they'll go to Wikipedia, then they'll search on Google and whatever the top two search results are, that's what they'll turn to and then they'll SMS or text or IM a friend, and then they'll turn to their notes and finally, somewhere sixth or seventh in that priority list, they’ll turn to the textbook. So as we’ve gone through this evolution of the textbook business, something is not quite right here.
After we sold that business to a private equity firm a few years ago, my co-founder, Derek and I were left thinking is there a different way to approach the problem that doesn't start with a textbook first. It's not per se that textbook isn't important, it’s still a critical reference for students and instructors and it's a good backbone for a course, but if you look at where students actually spend the time, it's on all the other aspects of the course. From the video to animation to simulation, a lot of students like to use flashcards nowadays to study. They take notes online and so forth.
If we can find a way to build a platform that incorporates more of those learning behaviors, then we can probably do something pretty profound in terms of driving student engagement and as a result, course completion rate and overall graduation rates.
That's really where we started framing up what became Junction. Did a little minimum viable product and a couple of quick topic level apps on the iPad, launched them and much to our surprise we found over a hundred thousand folks across 58 different countries ended up downloading in the first few months.
That gave us this idea of sourcing, curating, integrating learning resources from around the web and putting them into a simple, easy to use shell that actually had legs, so that's what's turned into Junction.
Carrie: You guys still have the textbook as the backbone and then you guys have curated those additional resources around that to help supplement the learning process for the student. How do you guys find and curate these materials?
Vineet: We employ subject matter experts, folks who teach at a community college level, or small private institutions which is where we literally find the sweet spot to shift to blended and online learning. So the subject matter experts, many of whom worked as authors on open source textbook projects in the past will go out and do that initial discovery evaluation and vetting process. At that point in time we'll frame up and build a complete core and run it through a set of reviews with dozens of other instructors in the disciplines, we'll get the max of two weeks’ worth of materials or two weeks’ worth of materials that they choose. They collect feedback from the instructors and their students and we'll put the full semester pilot of those materials as well, so we can get information about how the students move through the entire body of material in the course.
So we get the subject matter experts who author the material and we go through these few steps that are review and validation process, we are constantly making updates and improvements and tweaks to the resources that are being used. Then and only then will we release a course into our catalog. Once it's in the catalog, frankly, it's still constantly evolving and being updated. It starts with folks who really understand the subject matter first, and really spend a lot of time teaching it, building the initial nexus of the course and will use a lot of data and user feedback to drive updates as we go on.
Carrie: Even though you guys have only been in this formal product for eighteen months, as you said, you do have a number of schools that are already using this and have been for a semester or so.
We've talked about a couple of different things today already. We talked about affordability, we talked about engagement, from your perspective as both on the corporate side and on the startup side, you're working and talking with faculty and students, what do you feel is the most interesting thing for you happening in education right now?
Vineet: Well, let me put it this way is that I think that there's a growing conversation about data, but it's less about data, it's more about insight in efficiency and affordability. There's no shortage of folks out there who've got online learning tools or have got all sorts of fancy, whiz-bang charts and graphs. To me, that's actually the easy part. When you talk to instructors and students about what they don't want to do, is spending more time just staring at charts and graphs. That's not an improvement in efficiency, so what they do want to know is exactly what could they be doing differently or improve upon to get better results. For students it really comes down to answering two really simple questions. The first is how much time should I spend studying for this course each week and the second is given that amount of time, how should I divide up that time in terms of the different activities I've got available. Whether that's reading, whether that's watching videos or pairing it going through flash cards, practice quizzes, how do I divvy up my time? That's why there haven't been a lot of applications that can answer those two questions.
We just launched a new insight center last week and we're still rolling it out to users as we go. For students, we're really focused on helping them answer those two questions and because we're collecting data on all students in a class, interaction data and how they're moving through a course materials. And we’re aligning it to assessments, performance data we can present back and anonymize the index if you will of the top performers in the class, it actually presents back and says for a given student in a sociology course you should be spending 56 minutes this week and of that 56 minutes, 24 minutes on video, 17 minutes on reading, then so on and so forth on the practice quizzes and assessments. To me the most interesting part of where we are is the journey is about this conversation around data and data evolving into insights that generate additional efficiencies for students and instructors. Again, we're at the very early stages of that, but I think there's a lot of room to run there. I think that will help us raise course completion rates, graduation rates, and pair that up with the affordability side of things and really start hacking into this 1.2 trillion dollars of student loan debt we've had sitting out.
Carrie: Well, we are very excited about this partnership. I think that, like I said, you guys are really filling a niche, a needed gap that exists there with low cost, very affordable, but still very highly engaging and useful for both the student and the faculty members. We're very excited about this partnership.
If the school is interested in learning more, obviously we would ask them to go through their account manager here at MBS Direct, but if they just wanted to take a look at what else is out there about Junction Education what's the best way to learn more?
Vineet: If anyone out there is listening, thinks it’s interesting, certainly start with your MBS rep as Carrie mentioned. You can also find us on the web at www.junctioneducation.com or follow us or message us on Twitter, we have the handle @getjunction, so available there as well, and if anyone wants to contact me directly, they're certainly welcome to do so. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carrie: Thank you for your time, Vineet. Appreciate your thoughts and ideas on education and looking forward to working with you with Junction Education.
Vineet: Thank you, Carrie. We're very excited to be working with MBS and please drop us a line.
For more information on any of the topics discussed in this podcast, or any other questions you have about digital content options, contact your Account Manager or you can reach out to me, Carrie Watkins, Senior Digital Consultant, on Twitter, @CarrieJWatkins.