Dan: Hi everyone! This is Tech in EdTech brought to you by Magic EdTech where we discuss technology that powers education and improves learning for all. Welcome to our 2nd episode "using technology to create an engaging learning experience." I'm your host Dan Gizzi, Vice President of sales for Global Accounts at Magic EdTech, and today we have with us Mike Rodbell, Vice President of Technology from ExploreLearning. Mike, welcome!
Mike: Good morning! Thanks! Good to be here!
Dan: Absolutely! So I understand you've been with ExploreLearning now for several years but you have had a very interesting background that’s taken you through multiple different industries and areas and I'd love to hear just a little bit about that and how you ended up in EdTech.
Mike: Sure - happy to do so! So he journey started in computer software and psychology in undergrad - work for the first seven years or so doing embedded systems and a variety of different industries. I decided that I enjoyed working with people as much as technology - moved into consulting work for a large government consulting firm Booz Allen for about 6 years doing embedded systems and secure communications luxury for the defense department. As I was going into that we had some events in our family that our oldest, turns out, had some needs to address his learning disabilities and that cost some money. So I went off on my own consulting, doing my own business but I've learned a lot through the Consulting business and largely ended up gravitating towards the needs of companies who were building communication systems. So I got to learn a lot. Eventually I teamed up with a large fiber optic company called Sienna Company Corporation. We made fiber optic multiplexers - went from there into a number of other ventures. After I left there in the early 2000s, I did some time with online advertising, enterprise software and this opportunity showed up around 2013-2014. Fascinated by the opportunity to meld a lot of the technology side work within the past and also use it in the application of helping students learn and grow, much like the experience we had as parents so it's an exciting time. It’s great to be here and thank you!
Dan: Absolutely that's a great journey. I obviously have an invested interest in the name of your product, your Gizmos, with my last name being Gizzi, so this has definitely been more than once I've seen this come up in my life. I'd love to hear a little bit about that, you know, what the kind of work you're doing for Stem, what the company is all about and the mission of if you don't mind.
Mike: Sure! Our general mission statement is “We believe all students can succeed.” Our focus is in math and science and it's also important to us that they're having fun doing it. We believe that is a key facet in terms of a good learning experience, you want kids engaged, you want them challenged, you want them learning and with a smile on their face. We got several award-winning products: Gizmos reflects that and hopefully, Frax, we just launched. Our experiences are engaging. We have interactive simulations, games, and a range of learning tools that help students master skills and develop the conceptual understanding of the topic.
Dan: That's great. You know, some of the things, obviously, as we've learned in the last year or so with education is that we had a change on a dime and would love to just understand, you know, what are some of the things in areas, as a company, that you were able to take advantage of or potentially assist in the learning of when that happened?
Mike: As in the pandemic? That's the context of the question?
Dan: In the pandemic Yes Yes in the context of the pandemic.
Mike: It’s interesting. We were doing well ahead of that.
Dan: It’s very hard to talk about it without saying it. Right?
Mike: Yeah, yeah. The company has been doing well even leading up to that. We're, certainly there's a lot of attention and interest in growth. When it first hit, if you go back to about March of 2020, everybody was in the state of “Oh my gosh. What does this mean? Everybody’s going home. What's going to happen?” So those kind of those brief pauses of “oh my gosh, let's be careful and not get it get ahead of our headlights” And then we were starting to find as the year were on, ever if you look around this time last year, the fact that everybody was remote really drove up a lot of interest in demands four our product, which were all delivered online. With a caveat that we’ve built these products believing strongly that the teacher involvement is important. We don't want kids just going “Here Johnny. Just go plug into this machine and learn.” We want the teachers involved. What we found is that, in particular era, Gizmos product, which is built a series of simulations and case studies that are meant to drive conversation but also provided a nice surrogate for things that would be impractical to put in the lab. The demand for those just spiked. Something significantly, which gave us an opportunity to do more with them: continuing to add content, to invest in teachers that will help greater. What we have also seen is a growing demand for integration services with the districts’ information systems for things like rostering and authentication. So the interest and need in the product has grown. We’ve been fortunate that that's had a positive impact on our business which has also led to, from the tech side, a pretty busy year which is making sure that we're keeping customers satisfied. Generally, it's a very very nice industry to be in and as I kind of mentioned earlier, I have been in a lot of other industries, I have found that there is kind of a unifying goal that seems to drive everybody we work with, whether they're within the company or your customers, teachers, directors, where it tend to be much more of a collaborative engagement even when they're challenged. So it’s fun. It’s a nice industry to be in, and even amidst all the headaches and challenges of the last year, I would count us, as a business, as fortunate. Certainly there have been personal things that have impacted all of us. I think it's worth noting a little bit earlier. It feels a little bit liberating for those that are now able to get their families fully vaccinated and not feel like they have to stay removed from one another. Certainly, isolation is something that I think we all need to attend to and make sure that we’re understanding how much people are social creatures and that’s a need and a really good thing and hope the progress continues as it has.
Dan: Well that's great to hear. I think in a lot of the interesting things we've seen, as the world had to shift to remote so quickly, was that loss of that interaction and that human element that, you know, makes learning fun and I think what stands out to me when I when I look at some of the areas with Gizmos and what you guys are doing is how you focus on the play aspect of learning. It’s so key for that age group, the K-12 especially, to understand that you know we're not just learning general concepts here but there's a reason why I'm in applying those to life. Have you found that you know there was some acceptance to that? You know, obviously digital transformation in education has always been a very hard talking point. Did you see any kind of shift in that you know because of the way your products were developed? For the positive for or even you know maybe necessarily be able to overcome some challenges that you may have encountered prior?
Mike: I can only express that in terms of feedback. We got a couple of parts of a product line that meet that, not just within Gizmos. Certainly, within Gizmos, we talk about engagement through a variety of models that we handle, one of which is through the traditional Gizmos and simulations is through learning through inquiry words, that conversation with the teacher posing more open-ended questions and getting the kids to think actively. We also, over the last couple years, introduced a line of simulations, not just a line of simulations but interactive tools called “stem cases.” It came through a company we acquired called ‘Cogent Education.’ With those, what we're doing is putting the students in the position of a stem investigator, trying to understand what may have happened and walking them through those steps and giving them that experience. Now, Gizmos, largely we've been successful in the upper grades of elementary school on up. Our products that speak to the younger kids, we have got a product called ‘Science4Us’ that is intended to introduce science and literacy concepts to students in K-2. “Reflex Math” is kind of a game and fun element to help students learn the basic math facts which is certainly a key foundation of their future success in math, certainly a lot of life skills. We’ve, earlier this year, introduced a Frax Math product that has similar sort of just as Reflex. Although some interesting twist with that, where its more of a curricular progression, where you you got to make sure that the students are learning things in sequence of building a foundation of knowledge that can move them forward. So, you have to hit in a lot of different directions. What we are seeing is that the feedback on all fronts has been positive with the learning through inquiry, start to continue to encourage teachers to stay involved. In a lot of cases are doing things, similar to what you and I are doing now, where they might be online with the students. They could do exercises offline. Not offline but separated from one another. That, again, those conversations and just helping kids embrace thinking and acquiring is really key. So, a lot of stuff going on. Certainly, one of the things it was a little bit of a scramble for us that we were fortunately able to handle is, along with the uptick in business, the traffic that our systems for were seeing had a certainly profound uptick that hit roughly last August, September and we were fortunate to have been well prepared to be able to deal with that. So, that was kind of, when you look at all the stuff I talked about before that relates to lights to students and remote classroom and all of that tying back into the tech challenges, that was certainly one that led to a few head-scratching moments that we were very fortunate to be able to see through.
Dan: Now that's very interesting that you bring that up because that always seems to be one of the areas that companies tend to forget about, in a planning situation, is the systems and upkeep. You know, it's great that the interactives are built and it's great that you know that all of the data and analytics is being provided but there's got to be something on the back-end that can handle that. Would you mind expanding a little bit on that? On just the impact on your own systems alone that you may have seen during the immediate change over. You know, how was that? How quickly did you have to pivot over? Some of the steps you guys took?
Mike: Fortunately, we've been pretty good about continuing to invest in new equipment. We’re able to look year over year so you can, generally, plot a fairly linear path. The problem is like you got a hockey stick going up. We’re fortunate is the nature of these applications, at least on the server side, is that they’re less CPU intensive than they are memory intensive. So, in our case, we’re able to just buy a good bit more memory and put them in the same servers, which is fairly straightforward thing for us to do. When you start looking at provisioning new systems, that can get to be a little bit more of a challenge with Gizmos. We do have some initiatives to leverage a lot of more modern technologies. We’re moving into new architectures, which has been an investment we've been working on for a number of years. The Gizmos products are solid as it stands now. Although it’s a little bit aged, it's something that is well suited for the environment it's in, although it lives right now it's a separate product. We’re working towards migrating that with the Reflex and Frax and Science 4 Us products into a common framework that will allow us to leverage more modern technologies through cloud services, not just cloud delivery, but also things like containerization using things like kubernetes to be able to have a much more elastic computing architecture that allows to scale as needed and also scale down. There’s times where we think we’re getting into one of those that is kids finish school and go off for the summer that typically our traffic will drop a little bit. Each year’s a little bit different. It’s interesting. I was talking to the gentleman that runs the stem case R&D team. I've been looking at the traffic and trying to look year over year and it kind of like we don’t really have a model per se. So, last year was a huge anomaly, where there was this kind of major kind of disruption that had effectively step function into society that also drove our business. For all of a sudden, there was a need for kids to continue in the summer. It's not as clear this year. It feels like it may need it, but it’s not like the kind of thing where in the past we could look at prior years and there’s a fairly heavy seasonality that I'd suspect is still kind of at the core of what we're looking at; although, it's likely that is going to be somewhat altered by just general events and what’s going on in society.
Dan: Yeah It’s amazing how scale is never something anybody has to think about until it's almost too late and thankfully, it was glad to hear that the planning was there and you know the future of what is coming is going to make it easier for you guys to think about what that scale could be if there's ever that giant shift back. You know, hopefully, if nothing else, this is areas that’ll find their way back into the classroom in the fall with whatever the fall looks like around the country and around the world.
Mike: Right. We’ve been pretty good about it. I'm pretty pleased with how lucked I’ve been in other industries. One of the ones I mentioned, I’ve been in in the online advertising business you would get, the scale problems there were even more profound, where you would get a spike, right around, it would starts shortly before Thanksgiving and run just after New Year's and that would account you would get about 60% of your business in a month. So, this one, it is a little bit flatter, but every business, and EdTech not being unique, has their own kind of patterns and trends. Particularly, looking at it in a macroscale, probably, in our case, while we do have some international business, the bulk of it is domestic U.S. who generally follow fairly, and Canada, follow a fairly consistent trend.
Dan: Definitely. As we start to get into the future of EdTech, and now that we've seen a direction and understood that not every home in America needed to have a wet labs but there's actually ways to do these things more effectively, what are some of the areas as a company that you're looking at that you would say would be say maybe some assistance in the classroom or or from a professional development standpoint that you think you're going to be planning on offering?
Mike: We tend to go fairly incremental as opposed to the disruptive path, and certainly, worked in a number of industries. I'm not sure I am going to give you all that enlightening of an answer to it and a lot of cases it's built on on a baseline of what we’ve got. It was interesting to me coming into this job of, once I mentioned, it wasn't unusual for me to come into situations where there were teams that had been frantically chasing time-to-market. While it is important to us, we are much more emphasis on quality. A lot of cases, I would come in to places and they've been so busy, “do this, do that, do the other,” that they were often deploying applications or shipping applications that were constrained more by time and cost and quality, which leads to some not really fun problems where if you don't keep your eye on the ball with quality you’re going to end up with customer issues, a lot of residual blow back. In our case, we tend to spend as much as obviously fits within our constraints, but the main constraint, our main target that we tend to live towards is making sure that we are providing optimal quality and that's kind of vague in terms of an answer to your question but what I would expect from us is just continuing to stick to our knitting, make sure that we're delivering products that address broader populations. Our Gizmos product is supplemental which we were able to focus on delivering topics that are A. in demand and not necessarily a curriculum and then B. in the process of doing that, making them valuable in in the context of teachers that are fitting them into a broader curriculum. So what we are looking to do is providing really gems in people’s tool boxes to be able to teach - that’s Gizmos with Frax. Certainly, we have got plans to continue to deliver that. We look at all the things in those spaces but generally, for us, is Explore Learning to provide value. The goal is to continue to make sure that what we're doing is providing high-quality experiences to teachers and students, and then grow that. As far as Champion learning goes, that’s a much bigger picture, which I'm not fully qualified to speak to in total, although, a lot of the things I mentioned in terms of making sure we're making a difference for the things that we all well take pride in, whether that's through literacy or homeschooling, we've got a division that tackles that and other other forms of topics that are largely in the primary and secondary school space.
Dan: That's great Mike! As we wrap this up, one last question for you would be: what kind of advice would you have for your peers and your customers as we move into the next age of learning?
Mike: That's a good question. So, I would say, you know, first off, you'll be proud and embrace and enjoy and celebrate all that you do. It's a valuable mission. I know that I work with a lot of people that have been teachers and are teachers and they just get a kick out of seeing kids learn and grow. I know it's not always the easiest thing on Earth, but it's certainly, there’s this kind of rush you get off of that so take pride in that. Also, pay attention. As we discussed earlier, the world’s pretty curious and evolving and things keep changing, you know, I think you kind of need to keep your head on a swivel and make sure that you're responding to things and not entrenched in what a year or two ago is going to work. You know, that’s probably could be peplum but applies here as much as anywhere. You know, people are continue to innovate. You know, the needs of kids have some consistency but within that context of all those innovations, teachers only have so much time to attend to teaching the children and make sure that we're providing the tools that makes that job easier and I think we will all benefit.
Dan: Mike, thanks so much for joining us today on the 2nd episode of our Tech in Edtech podcast. Maybe we'll bring you back at the end of the year and see how we did, hopefully good, great, and better things have happened. Thanks again Mike and to those who are out there listening, we hope you will tune into our future podcasts.
Mike: Great! Thanks Dan! It’s been nice talking!