In the Inaugural episode of Tech In EdTech, Dan Gizzi, Magic EdTech discusses the impact of Investing in Technology with Kalyan Nathan, Encyclopedia Britannica. Listen Now!
Dan: This is Tech in EdTech brought to you by Magic EdTech. In this podcast, we discuss technology that powers EdTech and helps improve learning for all. I'm your host, Dan Gizzi, Vice President of Global Accounts and today with us we have Kalyan Nathan, Chief Information Officer from Encyclopedia Britannica. Welcome, Kalyan!
Kalyan: Thanks Dan! Thanks for having me on the show!
Dan: Absolutely! So how have you been?
Kalyan: Things have been good. The last one year has been crazy for everyone so it's not much different but some of us have to be really appreciative of the fact that we've been fortunate and have had the ability to work from home. Flexibility has definitely helped to manage the local situation at home. Kids are doing schooling from home so having that flexibility has been great without losing much productivity. Can’t complain much! I hope you and your family are safe and doing well.
Dan: We are doing well - thank you for asking so I would definitely say that it has been many challenges beyond just our world changing on a dime and that's a fact for sure but I think the one thing I think we found to know is it's helped us all to see what really matters in life and we definitely been able to connect much more in a way that I think we would have without having spent so much time together in lockdown.
Kalyan: That's true. Definitely getting into office right it feels like it was overrated. People can still do their job or get over there as much as possible so not having to have 2 hours of commute every morning and evening. I think that has helped big time.
Dan: Very true. So one of the things, Kaylan, that I noticed in your profile is that you’ve had an interesting career prior to getting into the EdTech space and the education space. I would love to hear just a little bit about your journey and understand what drove you to land at Encyclopedia Britannica.
Kalyan: Sure! So my journey started working with mainframes, something that the Millennials won’t even understand what it is. I started working for Merrill Lynch and then eventually I moved on to working for the hospitality industry. I spent a good 13 + years there working as a consultant and then full time at Starwood Hotels and Marriott. So it was an interesting journey right. Starting from converting Starwood Hotels from their Mainframe systems into the then update, the new reservation system that they built using, at that point, the largest soap implementation ever at that point. So working on those projects and then a couple of other transformational projects and then leading the MNA for two of the largest, integration of two of the largest hospitality companies Marriott and Starwood. So it was a fun ride! But then eventually as I was working on those projects, I got an opportunity to work at Encyclopedia Britannica. Just the opportunity to work for a company that's been there for so long and - it's an iconic brand so I couldn't pass up that opportunity. In my current role I get the opportunity to integrate technology teams across the globe, consolidate, and stabilize infrastructure, focus on Innovation and ensure on security which is key in our area of educational technology especially dealing with a lot of kids. So that is parable on. It was an exciting role, I couldn’t pass on it. So I'm happy to be here and I'm really happy to do my job. I feel that I'm making a difference in the life of early learners on an everyday basis so that keeps me going.
Dan: That’s an amazing journey. It's always interesting to hear how someone may start out on 1 Avenue and in front of a computer maybe the size of the room we are probably both sitting in separately. But, to understand where you are today and your journey is great. So obviously Encyclopedia Britannica is just a small little company (laughs) that's been around for, I don’t know, maybe two hundred and fifty years.
Kalyan: The Britannica group comprises of Encyclopedia Britannica, Merriam-Webster, Melingo, Britannica knowledge systems, and Britannica digital learning. These are multiple brands that we have under our portfolio, which is a good mix of iconic Brands like Merriam-Webster and Encyclopedia Britannica and also, modern brands, like Morfix School. So it's a good place to be, right, having that expectability to work in a company that is constantly evolving. So that is one of the keys here. Again as you said Encyclopedia Britannica has been around for 250 years and the interesting thing is at Encyclopedia Britannica, the first books we published, the first paragraph in the book basically said “Utility ought to be the Principal intention of every publication. Whenever this intention does not plainly appear, neither the book nor their authors have the smallest claim to approbation of the mankind.” If you look at it, they were very clear on what they want to do. And the interesting thing here is it’s about the information. It's not about the medium in which you are going to be sharing the information. Working in a company like this. Starting off from print to now being all Digital. Encyclopedia Britannica group touches over 150 million students every year in over 120 countries, 20 + 9 regions and we are together one of the top five consumer reference sites in the world. So our brand priority is to help you save time, learn more and be sure. We achieve that by being able to adapt to new ways of delivering content. Be it social, be it search, radio, video, voice iot. Being available to where people need us to be.
Dan: That’s great. I'm old enough to remember when they would show up and sell you on the print down version of it with the wonderful leather cover so it's great to hear how the transitions happened over all of these years to being a digital implementation of everything. I guess what’s very interesting from the perspective when I think of the audience who may be listening to this, what are some of the areas you say the company has transitioned into that they may not necessarily know is Encyclopedia Britannica or one of the brands?
Kalyan: That's true. So one of things, our aim is right, as I mentioned earlier, is not only to provide relevant information, but the information should be medium agnostic. It should be available to people in the way they want to consume the information. It is key for us to provide better Information that not only provides you a quick answer, but also provides context around understanding the topic better. We want to provide you a framework by which you learn better and it’s transformational both inside and outside the classroom. Technology plays a key role in it. So for a company to survive 250 years plus, you can’t just stay still. You need to keep evolving as things go by. From starting to having printing a new version every 10 years to, as print technology improved, we started publishing more regular updates. But then, right now, we are all digital. We have not been publishing the encyclopedia for a while. You have to be constantly evolving with technology and one thing again all of those volumes of books on the shelves, we were the first company to launch the digital encyclopedia. We did that 4 years before Microsoft did.
Dan: That’s great to hear. What medium was that on?
Kalyan: It was on discs. Initially we were sending CD drives and one interesting thing is not too many people knew how to use CD ROMs then. So we actually had to package them with VHS tapes and send it over so people could know how to use it.
Dan: And here we are today 20 years later recording to a cloud (laughs).
Kalyan: That’s true. Technology changes how information is delivered and we also always need to be looking to what's coming in the future. You just can't stay still and say I have things and this will help me take me 20, 50 years. That doesn't happen anymore.
Dan: Well what I think what's kind of interesting, as we saw with the pandemic and as we saw with the overnight change in how delivery of Technology was expected and ultimately required for Learners to learn in the last year, what would you say would be some of the areas that you had seen or have come up that have been challenges that you think you may have had to face or even just in general in the industry?
Kalyan: Again, before I get into the challenges part of it right, the pandemic changed lives everywhere, But then there was always a positive side to it. I would want to just focus on that before dwelling on the challenges if you don't mind.
Dan: Ofcourse! Please! The positivity is always welcome!
Kalyan: Covid has proved that learning can happen anyway, not just in schools. As you look at the digital world is full of opportunities and as you said there is a lot pitfalls, but then, what happened was when suddenly schools were all closed and everything was shut down, because of Technology we had the opportunity to continue education for our kids from home. Imagine if this pandemic had happened 20 years ago. I don't think we could have done what we did today. We would have wasted a full year of school for kids and that would be again right what I would call the pandemic generation right now because then that would be loss of learning. It would have had a cascading impact in the future economy and the future generations. With technology right now we were able to continue schooling. It may not be the most optimal thing but I think we got to a place where we’ve realized we can learn anywhere, anytime. Even in the future right, as we are looking at it, think of the benefits, if somebody is sick. Right now you can’t send them to school but that same kid can now continue their education on those sick days from home. You can plan family vacations around it so it gives people a lot of flexibility and we have proved that we have the technology backbone available for this to continue.
Dan: This is very true.
Kalyan: As I am looking at the problem areas, one thing, this is very again right this analysis that I'm sharing is limited to the last one year, the access to technology right it's not being consistent. That is one of the huge problems I see. There is a significant issue with access to technology in rural areas or again right and some of the lower socioeconomic neighborhoods. So a lot of kids don't have reliable internet and it's not just an issue in developing or under developing nations right. Even parts of the U.S. or other developed countries, we have significant issues with internet. So let’s create some situation where the imbalance between students that have access to technology and devices and the ones that don't. The imbalance widens. This to me can cause a significant impact long-term. For example, I have a family member of mine in India who is a teacher. He is a math professor and he has been teaching and working with this not-for-profit organization, teaching underprivileged kids. What they did was give cellular access data to these kids in Mumbai to attend classes. These kids do not have access to internet. As this person was teaching them he realized that some of these kids would randomly not show up for classes and when he started inquiring, he realized there were 3 kids in that household and this guy would attend classes only if his sisters don't have classes at the same time. There was no way 3 kids in a household could attend classes at the same time so even though there are people ready to help them and giving them access again it's not at a point where it is available for everyone so that's going to have a big impact long term.
Dan: It’s very interesting to think about that because we think of infrastructure of what is required in this pit necessary. We think of water. We think of you know access to food and medical. But, you know now that we digitally connected the world almost overnight in a way that required it to teach an entire population. It became an infrastructure problem very quickly that had not been addressed, not even just in countries like India or around the world. Look in our own backyard. I'm based in South Florida and we deal with it here you know where there may be multiple people trying to access the same virtual classroom and the teacher is on what should be a good enough connection and it doesn't work well enough for them.
Kalyan: And that's also interesting right. Times are changing so when you look at the new infrastructure bill that they're trying to pass, Broadband is one of the things. It is not just bridges or roads anymore, broadband is part of that. So people are realizing that digital infrastructure is as critical as physical infrastructure.
Dan: Very true. On top of that, also that the actual skill set of the users you know. Are they proficient enough on this technology? We can look at the the K-12 generation and they have always had some form of digital in their life but you know when we think about the Educators they may not always necessarily had this as a medium for themselves that they're struggling with as well to learn.
Kalyan: That's very true. That's another important thing right. A lot of teachers that are great teachers in school, it doesn't translate to when you come online right. So what happened with this whole pandemic is, as you mentioned, everything turned on the time. Overnight, everyone had to go to online learning and online teaching and a lot of these teachers, there were not prepared. They weren’t trained enough to be effective. So one thing that you also have to invest on as we do these is to train our teachers to be more proficient with online tutoring. There are a lot of teachers that I know who do really well in in-person training but that always does not translate automatically to online learning.
Dan: That’s very true. As you were experiencing this at EB, when everything was shifting overnight, were there some areas as a company that you looked at and said you know we can help impact this in a positive way?
Kalyan: Yeah so as we've been looking at that right one thing is, when this whole pandemic started and schools were forced to go online with no notice, there was chaos. The first day, II still remember when my eight-year-old then had to go to the school and the first two days the teacher was just trying to figure out how to get the kids on the classroom, how to deal with 20 kids in a zoom session. It was not fun. But then once they went past those problems, they had a tough time for content that they could use for online learning. So at EB, we realized that this was an issue. So we started working with our schools. So what we did was so we have this product called Launchpacks, which is our science and social studies classroom platform, that's created to support the needs of teacher, student, and classroom with dynamic and flexible resources. So what we said was we were going to give this product free for all of the students, people that wanted to. Over 2,000 schools across the U.S. signed up for this and then they started using the classroom for science and social studies classes. But then as we were working through the onboarding and everything and started tracking the data usage, which is critical in this whole platform, we realized alot of students did not have access to Internet to access the platform. Again, a lot of them did not have proper devices or internet. What we did was immediately look at other ways to provide this content. And so, we started working on partnerships. This is not a problem that some people can solve on their own or companies. We worked with HP where we provided print capability for the content on Launchpacks, and then ith the capability right people that did not students that did not have access to Internet schools when able to print the content to them and give it to them. It's critical as we go through all these problems right to look at the data that comes out of this and then figure out how we can tweak things to make things better.
Dan: And it's great to hear that you know knowing that partnerships were able to develop in a way that, were not competing with each other, but it helping the final outcome of teaching.
Kalyan: That’s true. The other thing is right, from a technology point of view, the key thing was infrastructure here right we had to scale up fast and quick so what we also did was, from an infrastructure point of view, as things were getting heating up, we fast-tracked migrating some of our applications to the cloud as a key priority. By doing that, we were able to create a stable platform as we had more students and teachers starting to use some of these products. We were able to expand and create a stable platform for our users. When I talk about migrating to the cloud, it's just not about taking something you have on prim, lift and shift it. That does not help. You need to upgrade your application to make sure that its able to take 1 pages of the pictures that's available on the cloud. For example, you need to make sure your applications are investing on the CICD platform because things like that right, will not only help you reduce the time-to-market but it was also help improve productivity of all the teams around. So as we are getting into this whole world, more people learning online it's just not the product alone that We need to focus on. We also need to focus on the infrastructure that it runs on and make sure that you're building something that is scalable, reliable, and available at all times.
Dan: That's great to hear that that scalability and you're really, if nothing else, be able to set up for success in the future. You know so as we start to think about what the future of EdTech is, now that we had this massive digital transformation in an area that has traditionally lagged behind many other sectors, what would you say that you and your teams are preparing for the future of what the classroom environment and hybrid environment will look like?
Kalyan: As we are looking at it, one thing I want to do is make sure we use this pandemic as a learning. We have a lot of areas of what is lacking right now, but that alone is not enough. We need to take action on it and make sure there's an impact that comes out of it. My hope is that as things start getting back to normalcy, knock on wood, soon, we are going to probably go back to in person school this fall and then once that happens, I don't think we should just go back to the old ways of doing things. We need to know what we're doing well during this remote learning and start integrating those in our classroom sessions every day. For example, I may say that there are a lot of kids that are very shy about asking questions or raising their hands, but then right now I see when I'm sitting with my daughter and sometimes when I look at what's happening at school, a lot of kids are sending text messages or in the chat room to teachers. They may not be comfortable raising their hands and asking questions, but then they are more comfortable in a way where they can say “Okay I can type to my teacher.” So how can we start integrating things these right and just not go back to the old way of doing things? As we are looking at it, we will have to look at it from an EdTech industry, information is information right? And starting from having books to using Google, the way we access this information has been changing, the consuming the information has been changing, and for all you know 20 years or 10 years down the line they may be a chip in our body that may be used to be the source of information consumption for people. You never know. So what we have been doing is investing a lot into artificial intelligence and machine learning research so that we could help surface our huge content users in a meaningful way and so that that can help them achieve their goals. The other key aspect, as I am looking at technology in EdTech, is personalization. Education cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution anymore. We have to be constantly looking at opportunities where we can personalize the content and assessment based on students skills. For example, if I look at assessments, some of the data that we can start collecting with all these online learning and assessment, they could be a scenario where the teachers sees that 50% of the class got a certain concept wrong in an assessment. So the teacher can go back and focus on those, or take an example right I may have scored 100% in my math exam but then as the teacher is looking at my results, let's say that I spent 12 minutes answering a question. I may have got the right answer, but the way I may have solved it may not have been the most efficient way. If you're just doing this on a pen and paper and submitting it, the teacher wouldn't know how much time I spent on a certain question. Here, the teacher is armed with that information. Saying, “Oh Kalyan got this right, but he probably didn’t do it the right way, he spent too much time on it, how can I help him improve on that specific concept? By doing this, this will help students learn at their own pace, without facing peer pressure, and it will also help the teachers identify areas that the student needs to focus on. These advancements would help students go from just focusing on getting a grade and a certification to improving their skills and experience that will prepare them for the future.
Dan: Those are some great points to think about how artificial intelligence, the AI, machine language learning, the ML learning of this is going to change the world for the better. I think some people might be a little concerned with putting chips with the information into ourselves, I'm sure there's a whole other podcast we can have on that Kalyan!
Kalyan: We may be surprising ourselves. It may not be 10 years down the line, it may be 5 years down the line!
Dan: I think you may have watched too many terminator movies! I’m on board if learning is done by a microchip or if we could figure out how to feed ourselves through that too as well.
Kalyan: That would be fun!
Dan: It would! So, our last question as we wrap up, so as a leader in the industry, the EdTech industry, what would be your advice that you would have for your peers and your customers of your lasting thoughts to this?
Kalyan: Okay so one thing is right, today's education as we look at it right, it's very extrinsic, we just look at a character learn, we teach kids. But then, learning is different from education. Learning is driven by curiosity and it’s and intrinsic motivation. EdTech companies, as we look at it, will have to look at how we can look at new trends and constantly innovate. And if you look at it, most of the jobs that elementary school kids would be working on in 15, 20 years, those jobs don't exist today. There are going to be a new set of jobs that these kids need to be prepared for and we don't know what those jobs are today. A lot of the jobs are going to be automated so what we need to do is, EdTech plays a key role in ensuring we prepare our kids and provide them a path going from education to employment to economic independence. That is key and the teachers, parents, and EdTech teams, EdTech companies play a big role in this and we got to take this seriously and make sure that we make a difference in the next Generation that's coming. This is a huge responsibility for everybody in this field.
Dan: Kalyan thank you so much for joining me for this episode of Tech in EdTech brought to you by Magic EdTech and I hope you have a great day and thank you again for joining us!
Kalyan: Thanks Dan! I appreciate you having me and you have a great day too.
Dan: You as well! Thank you.