In this episode of Tech In EdTech, Annu Singh, Magic EdTech talks to Jeff Imrich, Rock by Rock about how leveraging technology can ensure kids and educators gain an all-settings access to project-based learning.
Annu: Hi, everyone. This is Tech in EdTech. In this podcast, we discuss technology that powers education and improves learning for all. Welcome to today's episode where we are going to be talking about the role of tech and project-based learning in improving learning opportunities. I'm your host, Annu Singh, Chief Product Officer at Magic EdTech. Our guest today is Jeff Imrich, co-founder of Rock By Rock. Jeff, thanks for joining today. Welcome.
Jeff: Thanks for having me today Annu, excited to talk.
Annu: Great! So just to get so our audience knows you well, just want to ask you very simple questions. How have you been doing over the last year or so?
Jeff: Good. You know all things considered the last year has been a whirlwind. I think it's been a whirlwind for just about everybody. Starting a business during the pandemic has brought blessings and challenges we never would have anticipated when we first conceived of Rock by Rock. But I would say that the last year has led us to partner with some really amazing educators. In school, in homeschool and some other partners and we're just really really grateful that we've had the opportunity so I would say it's been a challenge but really good in a lot of ways.
Annu: Glad to hear that, you're so right. A new startup during this time is definitely a challenge but glad that you're doing well. So How did you get into EdTech? Specifically into project-based learning and how did Rock by Rock happen? Help us understand. What problems is your company trying to solve? What makes this problem crucial in current times and ahead?
Jeff: Yeah, so those are some really good questions there. Let’s start by saying that Rock by Rock seeks to empower kids to gain the skills and the confidence and the agency that they need to shape their futures and better our world. We really are focused on like empowering kids to thrive in the future and we do that by providing educators and I use the word educators because we want to support classroom teachers, home educators, micro-school, after-school; we provide educators with high-quality curriculum and support that they can use to accelerate learning and motivation through real-world relevant project-based learning experiences and how we sort of ended up focusing on real-world project-based learning is sort of grounded in me and my co-founder Sung-Ae’s education journey. I want to tell you a little story. That's sort of, I think, helps spark some of the reason why we did rock by rock. This happened about 3 years ago, the summer before the pandemic. I was standing outside of a school in East New York and I want you to picture sort of like a New York City school yard. But instead of buzzing with the joyful sounds of recess and lunch, it was buzzing with kids sharing these amazing projects they'd created in partnership with members of the community. It's like the air was electric. It's like that kind of moment in education, you know that gives you chills you look around and you think yes like this is what learning is supposed to feel like, we had 1 group of students who was sharing all about the brain and they had done a sheep's brain dissection and they had done all of this studying about what makes the brain work and brain health and they were presenting that. We had another group that had done these really cool graphic designs in partnership with local non-profits and they were using them to promote the causes of those nonprofits. There was another group that had done this study of runoff and how it was affecting Marine life in the community so they were sharing all of these strategies that you could do to help protect marine life through your sort of daily actions and kids at all chose in a different career and pathway to study and they were like on fire sharing this, sharing what they had learned and it's like closest thing you can come to magic in education. We, Sung-Ae and I had spent about a combined 12 years in school innovation. We had designed schools. We had worked in partnership with communities to rethink after school programs.
Jeff: And a lot of what we worked on, we felt like was really great for that 1 particular place and community but a lot of those solutions, they just weren't scalable like that moment that powerful moment outside that school yard in East New York, we're like gosh, there's got to be a way to help all kids in all contexts have access to this type of learning without it requiring like a multi-million dollar innovation effort because like that's the thing that like makes learning so powerful. That's what gets kids motivated. That's what inspires them. That's what makes them on fire to read and write and we were like there's got to be a way to take this and to scale that. And so that's basically what led us to start rock by rock was to try and think about project-based learning has been around for a really long time but it hasn't scaled like it hasn't caught fire in that way consistently. So we're like how can we leverage technology to empower kids and teachers to be able to do this everywhere? So that was a long answer to your question but that's kind of why we got started.
Annu: Well thanks for painting that - Love the story. Especially when you talk about powerful moments and the words you're using: electric, on fire, close to magic in education. But also for me the fact that thought process you have about how to scale it without bumping into multi-billion because now, you can do it at scale and a lot of people can step in and help out right? So That's Great. So how is your approach to curriculum and technology different?
Jeff: Yeah, so we're really trying to leverage technology to lower the barriers of entry for teachers to engage in real- world learning with their kids. And I would say that this is different in a couple of ways. A lot of traditional approaches to project-based learning focus almost exclusively on teacher training so teachers go, they get some really high quality training and then they're asked to design these game changing project-based learning experiences from scratch. And I mean you know I've been a teacher. I know how hard that is to do. On average our teachers today are spending thirteen hours a week planning and looking for resources and a lot of them are relying on google and pinterest and trying to piece together everything that they need to teach in a given week. And so you know we thought like 1 of the barriers to being able to do project-based learning well is just having access to the experiences that you need and so the first thing that we've done is you know we're we're curating a library of project-based learning experiences that have everything a teacher needs from beginning of the project to the end of the project in order to implement the project with their class. And we're designing that so that if you're looking for something that's more off-the-shelf, you've got everything you need to do that; But we're also doing it in a way that's flexible. So you can customize it for your setting. You can add to it. You can take things out like you can. You can also view our library as a mix and match experience. And so you can use it as off the shelf.
Jeff: So I would say what we're trying to do is provide teachers 2 entry points for doing project-based learning that make it a lot easier for them. The first is our library provides fully planned projects. So teachers and kids have a choice over which project, which real world mission they want to solve, and they can use that fully planned project and it has everything they need. We're also offering all of the materials that make up our projects as part of a mix and match toolkit. So if you're looking to customize your own project or make it much more content, context or community specific. You can use all of the resources that we've generated to sort of customize your own but the big thing that's different and the thing that we consistently hear from all of our teachers is that it's just so easy to use because everything that I need is provided. I don't have to go looking for the video or the texts or the interactive activity or the hands-on experiences. They're all there and you know we found that. That's just 1 big thing that's different is starting with all of the student facing materials teachers need instead of having them plan all of them from scratch.
Annu: Definitely. Teachers have a lot going on now and looks like you're kind of providing them a quick jump start that they can customize to their needs right? Yeah, very helpful. So how does your approach learn from some other lessons in the last year and a half during the pandemic?
Jeff: Yeah, it's a really good question. I feel like the pandemic has surfaced so much. And I think it's both really highlighted how stark the opportunity gap is for so many kids in education. I think it's illuminated even more starkly just how hard a teacher's job is. We were visiting some of our teachers in Alabama last week and you know we've been talking to them for months but just seeing firsthand the number of challenges that they're grappling with on a daily basis. Teaching is still the hardest thing I've ever done and seeing teachers work through all of the challenges presented by the pandemic makes it even more challenging and I think 1 of the things that really stands out is that teachers and educators in all contexts want to be providing really motivating experiences for kids that like help them thrive in the future and it's just really hard. And they don't always have the time or the resources to make that happen and I think for kids they've spent so much time over the last year and a half mostly using technology to learn which is great and without all of the things like zoom and google classroom like we wouldn't have been able to support kids through the pandemic but it also means that they've mostly been using 1 mode of learning for a really long time and kids are craving social interaction. They're craving social-emotional support. They're also craving different modes of learning, hands-on learning, discussion, debate and projects. like they're looking to like sink their teeth into something and grapple with it in a way that they haven't been able to do remotely and so I think it's both increase the need for this type of learning that's also highlighted just how hard it is to do and so I'm hoping that the pandemic presents us with an opportunity to think about how can we go beyond sort of rote learning and skill and drill practice to really help kids thrive and sort of seize this moment as as kind of an opportunity to try and do that.
Annu: Yeah I think this blend of multiple strategies and approaches right like you said, hands on learning, project based learning, and blend of technology, is going to be crucial to kind of close some of those gaps that have been introduced right? So, what does that imply for how to approach instructions going forward?
Jeff: Yeah, it's a really good question. 1 of the things that we've been talking about with our teachers is just about the importance of Interdisciplinary learning. You know we were talking with 1 of our teachers last week and she said, my kids just graduated from college and they're going out and they're in the workforce now and she said at no point in their jobs is anyone asking them to do a reading worksheet and then twenty minutes later do a math worksheet and then thirty minutes later do a little science activity and then thirty minutes later do something related to social studies. She said you know my kids are engaged in complex problem solving where they're using all of the skills they learned in school at the same time to solve a problem that has a real world impact and she's like that's just not the way we're teaching in the classroom. And so, I think what this means for instruction going forward is that I think we really need to place a higher premium collectively on relevance like is what I'm doing having an impact in the world? Like, how does this relate to real life? I think it also has to do with interdisciplinary learning. How am I using skills and resources and knowledge that I'm building in an authentic context that challenges me to think critically to problem solve to engage collaboratively with a team? How can I use reading and writing authentically? Because I think that's just so much more motivating for kids. And so I think the big question - I think for instruction going forward is how do we up the relevance, the motivation and sort of integrate what we're doing in school? And you know it's interesting we were on our site last week with our teachers in Alabama, we visited 7 teachers in 5 schools that were urban, suburban, and rural. And 1 of the biggest things we heard from teachers is that kids are just on fire when they're really motivated to do something that they know is real and matters and. You know we're hearing things from teachers like the level of discourse in my classroom is higher than it's been before. The level of interest in reading is higher than it's been before. The quality of written responses I'm seeing from students is higher than it's been before and that's because kids feel like what they're learning really matters and so, I think if we can think about how to leverage authentic motivation that could have a really catalytic approach on academics.
Annu: Excellent for me, you know students being motivated by what they are doing matters is so impactful and your take on how to take these real world problem solving and the combining skills applied and, I love the word that you use higher premium on relevance. That’s excellent. I think you and Rock by Rock are looking at it very correctly. So, moving on to how do you work and empower teachers?
Jeff: Yeah, this is such an important question. Teachers are like the most important factor in a student's learning and whether that's your classroom teacher, your home educator, whether that's the coach or tutor in your after school program like the the engagement, the relationship, the challenging questions you get from an adult are just so important and we really want our tools and resources to empower teachers. I've been on the receiving end of curriculum which are like highly scripted. You know down to the point of read this, read that and that's not necessarily the most empowering experience for teachers all the time because it takes the teacher decision making and choice out of the equation and so we're really trying to think about how can we set teachers up with tools that give them what they need, but position them to make the choices that are right for them in their kids in their context. And so you know we're trying to do that in a few ways. 1 is we're really trying to develop all of our tools and projects in partnership with teachers. We're working really closely with homeschool parents, couple after school programs, teachers in public charter and catholic school settings or or faith-based settings because we really want to understand what do teachers need and how are they using it? And how do our tools give you lift, instead of being constraining.? And so we really want our design to give teachers choice: choice over what projects to use with their kids, choice over how they can flex those for their context, And choice for how they apply it. And so part of the reason we're using technology to support pbl or project based learning is that we're putting the whole student facing experience in, sort of the format of an online course or an lms and that means that, all the student facing lessons context text and video that you need are there and you can use them as is or you can customize them. But what we're finding is that our teachers are using that in really different ways. We have some teachers who are putting all of their kids in pairs or or triads and they're saying okay this is you're going to work on a project with your group and I'm going to lightly facilitate by coming in and checking in with you and then a couple times a week we're coming together and so we're seeing like really self-directed.
We're seeing some teachers who are saying group a, you're going to work on this more independently and you can do that because all the student facing materials are there and I'm going to sit with group b and we're going to do all the reading together so that I can lead that conversation. And then we're also seeing teachers who are doing a mix. Teachers say okay, you're going to do this part of the project independently or in a small group and then thursday we're all coming together to have a whole class discussion and debate and so 1 of the things that we've been really excited by is that our platform is sort of giving teachers a springboard to use a whole bunch of differentiated methods based on what their class needs and so that's another way that we're trying to empower teachers is both through the choice of the content but also like giving them tools that allow them to flex the types of learning environments they're creating in their classroom.
Annu: Great. You kind of covered a lot of things I was going to ask about your product, how the product addresses some of these challenges and how we can support educators with project-based learning so teachers play an active role. Do you want to add anything to that or do we want to talk about how the productive assistant challenges and what some of the most notable key takeaways.
Jeff: Yeah, you know there's 1 thing that I would like to add is that 1 of the things that we're, we've been working to figure out is how to help teachers bring the real world into the classroom more. And so you know having a real-world motivating question and doing an integrated project is really valuable but like getting to see and hear from experts and other organizations also like really ups the motivation and so 1 of the things that we've been trying to do is partner with cultural and scientific organizations and then professionals so that when kids are doing the project they're actually like getting to hear from experts who do that work in real life. So let me give you 2 examples. So like 1 is we partnered with the Birmingham Zoo. So our projects that focus on the environment or species or conservation, kids get to take sort of asynchronous virtual field trips to the Birmingham zoo where they get to meet some of the species there, they get to talk with some of the conservationists and the caretakers, they get to learn about why those species are threatened in the wild and how the zoo helps with conservation and so we've integrated those experiences into the online platform and we've also been working with other experts like we partnered with an African American neuroscientist, a podcastering graphic designer who is actually, - the first podcaster featured in the new African-American Museum of History at the Smithsonian - and you know we've interviewed them ask like well what, what can we learn from you about being in that career? How did you achieve that career? What are tips and strategies that you can share with kids that will help them with their projects? So kids are making a graphic design. What's it like to be a graphic designer and like what are some strategies you can use to do it really well? And so we have also found that by working with a diverse set of role models, we've been able to showcase for kids like the stuff you're learning is stuff that real people do and hopefully when we're when we have a full library of projects built out, kids will get to see over time a whole set of experts that look like them and share their backgrounds and they can see like like that's really interesting, and I see someone who looks like me and I know I can do that job too and so it's, a piece of the the program that we really believe deeply in and we're working to build out because we think it could have a really big impact so that's the other thing I would share about 1 way we're also trying to think about integrating real-world learning and.
Jeff: You know we know from talking with our teachers that nothing can replace sort of like the in-person field trip but at the same time a lot of schools are really limited by, especially because of the pandemic, the number of field trips they can take. And so we think that this could be a really nice supplement for making it easier to give kids access to the broader world.
Annu: That's great. In addition to the real world problems, for getting the role model that look like them and share a background. Yeah that that should be pretty sticky for them. So it feels to me like you look literally looking under every single rock to figure out ways to help the educators and help the students out so Kudos on that.
Jeff: Thanks! I also like that you use the word rock because Rock by Rock. We're trying to help people take action to lead to change 1 rock at a time. So I like that analogy of like looking under every Rock. We're trying. We're trying to think of every way like what can we do to make this as easy as possible for folks?
Annu: Yeah, that's great. So moving on to the next era topics - the future of project based learning and tech role they're in. So in that context, which direction do you see technology moving in? How are you and your teams preparing for it?
Jeff: Yeah, it's a really good question. You know in full disclosure Sung-Ae and I we've been in education for a combined 40 years now. We've been working in Ed-Tech from the curriculum developer and support side for 2, and so I think there are a lot of folks out there who have a better pulse on the long-term trends of Ed tech. But I think for project-based learning, in particular, I think that there are really big opportunities and really big challenges. You know the thing we just talked about, related to virtual field trips, like imagine if every classroom had the ability to and to have VR or augmented reality headsets, like you could take a virtual field trip to the Louver or to the Congo or to a Peruvian rainforest right? Like how amazing would that be to have that immersive experience. So I think the ability to learn in and acquire content and experience is going to be huge. I think another thing that's going to be hard about that is you know when the pandemic hit, we had so many schools that didn't have 1 to 1 devices for kids and folks were scrambling to get chromebooks and I think because of the pandemic and the extra funding a lot of kids have been able to get access to devices that they haven't had previously but as we move into this new era of augmented and virtual experiences for kids I think it also presents a real opportunity, a real possibility that we have a widening, opportunity gap related to technology with schools that I can afford this type of headset and learning and schools that can't. And 1 of the things we're trying to think a lot about is how do we make sure that our projects are affordable and accessible and so I see a lot of opportunity with technology in real-world learning and I also see places where we're going to have challenges to ensure that all kids have equitable access to that.
Annu: That’s great and how do you make your solution scalable?
Jeff: Yeah, we we care a lot about scale, having worked on a lot of education initiatives over our careers, we really want this to be something that all kids and educators can have access to and so I think there are like 3 main things that we're thinking about: So the first is, access and choice. So the reason we want to have a library of experiences is that we really want to have a diverse set of offerings that really give educators and kids choice and we think that that will help at scale because rather than saying these are the 3 projects you have to do. We're saying here are the 60 projects you can choose from which we think positions more kids and more communities to have access to stuff that's going to work for them. I think the other thing we're thinking about a lot is, price and we really are aiming to have our platform be accessible for educators for less than the annual cost of a Netflix subscription because we really want this to be something that's affordable for folks. I think the last thing we're trying to think about is training because we know teachers are so important and we want teachers to have the training that they need to be able to use our projects and our tech platform. And so we've been experimenting with a couple of different things. We've done sort of a more robust traditional using air quotes but you can't see it, traditional training. Where we have like 6 hour How do you use our projects and experience them? We've also done a more modular, much shorter on-demand training that kids, that teachers can do asynchronously. In part because we're trying to figure out how do we provide teachers the training they need but do it in a way that meets them where they are with the time they have at an affordable price and 1 of the feedback pieces of feedback we've been getting from teachers is that they really like the shorter modular on-demand training and you know they've said that they're like the training was like just enough. It gave me enough to understand what you were offering and how to get started and then I could take it from there and they said we've really appreciated that you're giving us just enough when we need it. As opposed to something that's much longer and intensive. Because they said sometimes we feel like when we're trained on something, folks overestimate how much support that we need and we like that what you're giving us is bite-size. So we're still early on our journey of figuring out what's the right amount and how do we support teachers over time.
We're really trying to think about providing teachers with bite-size, on-demand training that meets them where they are in part because we want them to have the just in time support and in part because that's like a more affordable scalable model for us and it's a way for us to reach more folks.
Annu: That's great. On-demand training to meet the teachers where they are at a price they can afford at a bite-size that makes sense with them. Yeah that does make a lot of sense and how can EdTech companies, overall, be more prepared in the future?
Jeff: Yeah, this is also another really good question and I think 1 of the things that we've been thinking a lot about is that when we were doing when we were working on Sung-Ae and I partnering with districts and communities to sort of redesign school, 1 of the things we found was that there were a lot of Ed Tech tools that focused on something that was like really really niche. So like this is gonna help you do multiplication really well. This is going to help you write a really strong single paragraph. This is going to help you with this 1 particular aspect of your learning and we found that there were fewer options that took a more holistic interdisciplinary approach that focused a little bit more on like the bigger picture things like critical thinking, prob solving um, etc. And so 1 of the things that we're you know, hoping to create and hoping to see more of, are are solutions that think a little bit more systemically about the challenge kids and teachers are facing, and find ways to integrate some of these more individual solutions into something a little bit more holistic. That can kind of help prepare kids in an authentic way for the inter Interdisciplinary creator economy. And I know there are a bunch of folks out there who are doing that and there are a lot of really innovative programs and so I think there are a bunch of folks who are already on this bandwagon but it's something that we're hoping to see you know more of and that we're hoping to be able to contribute to ourselves.
Annu: Last but not least, what advice would you have for your peers and customers?
Jeff: Advice for our peers and customers, for our customers and we're really hoping that our customers feel like they're part of a community like we want aligned educators who want to do right by kids by providing them these real-world experiences. We want them to feel supported as part of a community of folks who are trying to solve this problem and I think our advice to them is that, it's not as hard as you might think to try something like this and that by starting small, by maybe integrating 1 project at a time into your existing Program, you can actually start to get a lot of traction and so you don't need to change everything about everything you're doing to to be able to try this out and that if you start small you can actually start to realize change and then organically figure out how can we capitalize on this momentum in the way that's authentic for us and so you know we're really hoping that we can support educators in any context to kind of seed these type of innovative experiences. And then let them grow in organic ways that empower them in their communities.
Annu: Any advice for the peers? That's for the customers.
For me, give me support for what you are doing right. As part of the community I think it'd be great right. As you're building that customer community right. and I feel pretty excited about what you're doing. I like to figure out ways to kind of come out contribute to that.
Annu: Right. And yeah and the clarity and the mission that you have for me is very exciting.
Jeff: Ah, right? Well I appreciate you sharing that? I would say support from peers. 1 of the things that we have found a little bit surprising in terms of some of the feedback we've gotten from some of our um educator partners is that they have a hard time finding age-appropriate material that position kids to grapple with real-world content. So texts for second graders that are age-appropriate but talk about endangered species and the threats that they face. Or texts about climate change or um or materials related to issues of food sustainability and hunger in the community or, you know there's a lot of talk right now about artificial intelligence but artificial intelligence also has a lot of bias in it. Because a lot of the databases rely on less diverse data sets. Those are things that kids could really engage with in an age-appropriate way to help them understand, grapple with, and influence our world. But there's less stuff written or produced for kids at that's for some of these complex issues. So I think for advice or requests of support from peers the more that we can create materials, opportunities, videos virtual field experiences that like really put kids in the driver's seat of understanding the complexity in our world. And how we can navigate that and influence it I think it's just really beneficial and valuable. And I think the more that we can really honor the fact that like kids are, kids are super driven smart individuals who can grapple with complex stuff and the more we can and more we can provide that I think I think the better.
Annu: Yeah, putting students in the driver's seat to handle real world problems that give them meaningful problems. Yeah, for me, that's a really great call to action for me. I really appreciate that. Thank you Jeff. As we close out Tech in EdTech, I do want to say how much I've appreciated your insights, your thought leadership you brought to the topic and this podcast. I also want to thank you and Rock by Rock for providing such a fundamentally important solution, for providing equitable access to empower learning experiences and improving learning outcomes. Jeff, thank you for your time today. Wishing a great year ahead.
Jeff: Well, Annu thank you so much for the opportunity to speak with you all. Really appreciated the conversation.