Since taking his first online class in 2002, Sandy Khaund has always been drawn to online learning. “I loved my experience, and even then, I imagined how it could be a solution for time-constrained adults who needed to extend their education,” he says. “But it lacked the convenience and engagement that would’ve encouraged me to continue in the program.” As online education gained credibility, the entrepreneur in Sandy began to see the opportunity to tap into an unstoppable growth engine. Then, as new technologies emerged, the engineer in him began to see the pieces fit together for a new product. When Sandy left his last company, he considered offers to join other companies, but decided to pursue his dream, bootstrapping and consulting in the first year as he spent the rest of his time developing the idea for his social apps that complement online course materials—a blended learning solution that makes classroom time more effective—and one that he describes in this interview with edtech digest.
Victor: What does the name of your company, “irynsoft” mean?
Sandy: Irynsoft is derived from the names of my two daughters, Iris and Robyn. In addition to reminding me why I am doing this, it also reminds me to maximize my integrity in this business as I’d never want to do something that would take their name in vain.
Victor: What is Irynsoft’s “VIRT2GO” solution all about?
Sandy: As we like to ask, what if online learning combined the convenience of your smartphone with the browsing experience of Netflix and all your Facebook friends could join you? That’s VIRT2GO. As a software platform, VIRT2GO provides customizable solutions for learning institutions looking at innovative ways to distribute digital learning content to students around the world with their own branded solution. VIRT2GO complements desktop offerings with enhanced flexibility and interactivity to improve retention and enable new ways to monetize existing content.
Victor: What does it do? What are the benefits?
Sandy: Irynsoft enables customers to learn and share, anytime, and anywhere. Students watch multimedia content and take notes, rate and discuss the content, and share among the community, all within a rich smartphone interface. VIRT2GO’s portability and community helps students to overcome the biggest hurdles that plague online education today: finding the time and finding the help.
Victor: How is it unique from other similar products or services? Anyone else in the same market?
Sandy: Mobile learning is still in its infancy, but a host of competitors are beginning to present themselves. Some companies have tried to do similar efforts for corporate training, which traditionally has an easier sales cycle. In addition, there are free options such as iTunesU and YouTube EDU that support schools posting their content online for free. However, Irynsoft clearly offers a significant value advantage over both types of competitors.
- Our community component is unique and we are the only solution that has successfully integrated Facebook Connect to help personalize the experience.
- Our ability to do in-app purchases to enable a “Kindle-like” marketplace of purchasable content is unique.
- We offer a unique interactive video that allows users to take notes and/or surf the web while the video continues to play, so that the flow of the content is not disturbed.
- As a platform play, our software is completely brandable and can stand alone on the App Store, as we’ve done with multiple apps on the App Store.
- Our News Feed feature serves as an excellent broadcast mechanism for the schools, turning the app into a valuable marketing device.
Victor: When was it developed? Anything interesting about its development history?
Sandy: After I conceived of the idea and started to solidify the design, I put together a prototype and did a tour of the East Coast, where I brought it to several colleges and asked every one: “Is this something that makes sense for the evolution of Higher Education?” The answer was unequivocally yes. They had suggestions (many of which were captured in the current version of the platform), but they clearly validated my hypothesis that this is where distance learning was headed. In some cases, some of the schools claimed that they had been thinking about this for several years and we were the first ones to actually present something that made sense.
Victor: Where did it originate and where can you get it now?
Sandy: Our primary platform was the iPhone, but we have expanded to Android and will have an iPad-specific version coming out soon. We have multiple apps on the Apple App Store (most for free) at http://bit.ly/irynsoftonitunes and also have a beta on the Android Market (search on “virt u”). We’re continuing to work with more schools and learning providers, so stay tuned.
Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?
Sandy: Prices are set on an app-by-app basis. We work with the institutions to determine what their strategic goals are and the best approach to achieving those goals. In some cases, the app could be free, but some of the classes could be priced. Most of our pilots are free as the content is Creative Commons licensed and we are respecting the non-commercial use of that content. But with other schools, we have talked about offering a nominal charge for the app, a charge for the classes, or both. We’ve also floated the idea of just offering the content for free as a way of recruiting future students into degree programs in a sort of “try before you buy” approach. The pricing structure selected by the institutions determines how we charge the institution.
Victor: What are some examples of it in action?
Sandy: We have four apps live on the Apple App Store: VIRT U (a collection of Creative Commons classes from top schools), Cornell U., MIT Open CourseWare, and Khan Academy.
Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?
Sandy: This isn’t for an 18-year old student enrolled full-time at the university that resides on campus. While it could feasibly work for them, they have been afforded the time and opportunity to take classes in person and I am convinced they should take full advantage of that. I believe this is best suited for adult learners, especially those who are trying to juggle education with full-time jobs or parental responsibilities and therefore can appreciate the flexibility offered by a mobile device.
Victor: Your thoughts on education these days?
Sandy: Higher Education is dealing with crises on several fronts. Traditional schools are seeing dwindling endowments, funding cuts, and astronomical inflation of costs that are hurting the quality of education. In turn, students are saddled with mountainous debt. It’s even worse for adult learners who need to go back to school to strengthen their skills in this ultra-competitive job market. How do you find the time and how do you find the money to change your station in life?
Online education programs offer a growing alternative, but offerings are still too expensive and deal with poor retention issues as students still struggle to search for sufficient flexibility and the support to succeed. The largest issues with online education faced by students are finding the time and finding the help. The students are struggling, but the institutions are also shooting themselves in the foot by not addressing this problem more effectively. Billions of dollars are being lost from dropouts leaving money on the table and others who don’t bother even trying or try to cobble together their own education (a group known as DIYers or “EduPunks”).
Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating Irynsoft?
Sandy: I spent eight years getting four degrees across three institutions in higher education and I loved every minute of that time. I recognize the valuable impact of the education on my life and I also recognize that I am very fortunate that I was given theopportunity when many of my peers did not have the same choices. With technology today, we have the opportunity to extend education to so many more people at more affordable price points. We like to say we’re appealing to the lifestyles and wallets of lifelong learners.
Victor: How does Irynsoft address some of your concerns about education?
Sandy: I think we are a distribution vehicle that can help increase retention and reach a wider audience of potential lifelong learners. We’re trying to increase accessibility of education. The ubiquity of smartphones, not only as devices that go everywhere with you, but also as devices that project to eventually have greater penetration than PCs, suggests that we’re nearing a tectonic shift in how people primarily access all content. While nothing matches a 60” HDTV to watch the Tennessee Titans play football on a Sunday morning, content like education benefits more from utility and ubiquity than fidelity. People respond to the opportunity to learn and share, anytime and anywhere. That’s our motto. While running a physical campus is an expensive proposition, creating a virtual classroom in your pocket is low on marginal costs and even see the room for schools to offer courses the way iTunes offers songs—as individual nuggets for learning instead of having to buy the whole album/degree. We’re clearly experimenting here and, by using the smartphone as our vehicle, we are appealing to more and more people who are open to new ways of doing everything.
Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?
Sandy: The digital age has transformed several industries and every one goes through the same revolution evolution that Mahatma Gandhi once described: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” The music industry did it. The movie industry did it. The book industry and newspaper industries are in the middle of it. Higher Education has gone at a slower pace than those industries, but it is happening The success of the for-profit institutions that have focused on distance learning is going to force the traditional schools to adopt different business models and distribution models and those who don’t adapt will be subject to Darwinism. I don’t think the Harvards and Yales have much to worry about, but there are a lot of schools that aren’t quite as high on the totem pole that should be nervous about where they’ll be in 10 years if they keep relying on tuition increases while facing growing competition from these alternatives.
Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of Irynsoft?
Sandy: This business couldn’t have existed five years ago as the technology and the social graph didn’t exist. But now, we are leveraging social and mobile technologies to adapt to the lifestyles and wallets of online learners. We are an intersection of three primary trends: online learning, social networking, and mobile devices. By taking advantage of increasingly powerful mobile devices like the iPhone and integrating the social graph through Facebook connect, we are able to bring valuable learning content and the equally valuable learning community to students wherever they go.
Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of Edtech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com