As an engineer, Bhargav Sri Prakash’s passion and perhaps, obsession, has been to dream of and implement scalable technologies to solve the world’s biggest problems. Bhargav was one of the many immigrants to the United States who left everything behind in pursuit of a graduate education. “Considering the criticality of education,” says Bhargav, “as it relates to being an enabler of human ability, the unfortunate circumstances surrounding its economic viability, the lack of scalability intrinsic to traditional models, and the sheer personal opportunities it has afforded me—I felt the urge to do some thing in this space.” Before FriendsLearn (an educational company delivering gamified 3-D experiences), Bhargav founded Vmerse, a commercially successful and patented 3-D MMO (massively multiplayer online) gaming platform to help universities recruit students. “It got me thinking more broadly about ways by which social gaming can deliver a scalable impact on education,” says Bhargav. Today, FriendsLearn exists to enhance human potential, through games on social networks and mobile devices. Educational gaming also happens to be a rapidly evolving space that according to NextUp Research, is a $2.8 Billion dollar a year market, growing at 35 percent a year. “My team and I are also inspired by some of the most insightful minds in tech, like Marc Andreesen, who predict that education is about to be disrupted through technology and is likely to generate the next Internet phenomenon. I created FriendsLearn to participate in this exciting opportunity,” says Bhargav, and he has a lot more to say in this interview. Enjoy!
Victor: What does the name mean?
Victor: What is it and who created it?
Bhargav: FriendsLearn is an educational gaming company that is producing a pipeline of learning experiences on social networks and mobile devices. It was founded when I was a Fellow of the Kauffman Foundation’s KLABS Education Ventures initiative in 2011 and began to leverage my experience with games for college recruiting. Several key employees from Vmerse – my previous company – are now the people behind FriendsLearn. FriendsLearn is committed to define the cutting-edge of education using technology. Our first product “Your 5 Steps to US Study” has the distinction for being the world’s first and the only official gamified advising adventure from the US Department of State’s EducationUSA, to inform and compel all international students to the United States of America.
Victor: What does it do? What are the benefits?
Bhargav: The gaming medium delivers almost unprecedented levels of cognitive engagement for the user. “Your 5 Steps to US Study” creates an immersive 3D experience for international students and delivers gamified information to them based on their chosen field of study within realistic environments. This demystifies the college search-match, financial planning, and visa-immigration processes for an international applicant. Our pipeline of social games has a learning objective and is designed to initially target our current user base of prospective international applicants. Our games deliver tremendous value for the user by offering richly engaging and social entertainment, highly personalized learning, goal oriented objectives, learning impact measurement, embedded analytics, credential tracking and publishing, through a highly scalable technology platform, which is available 24×7 on mobile devices. All this will be available at little, to no, direct cost to the user.
Victor: How is it unique? Any competitors?
Bhargav: FriendsLearn brings together a proven team, patented technologies and a revenue generating business. There are very few social gaming companies that combine educational objectives with user engagement. We also have a strong brand that is backed by our track-record in delivering success through educational games. As the company chosen by the U.S. Department of State to create the official product that attracts all international students to the U.S. every year, we now have a unique platform, with access to our existing user base of several million users around the world. We are already building on this momentum. However, given our direct-to-consumer distribution channel, we compete with all social gaming companies and that is a pretty crowded space.
Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?
Bhargav: As a result of the significant and measurable increase in applications from international students at the universities where we had implemented Vmerse and our previous track-record, FriendsLearn was approached by the U.S. Department of State’s EducationUSA around the middle of 2011, to create and develop a gamified advising adventure to engage and compel international students to the United States of America. This led to our first product – “Your 5 Steps to US Study” – and now, we are working on a pipeline of direct to consumer social games for learning. Our first game title is “Fooya” and aims to help people learn about diet, nutrition and wellness. It is designed to cater to our user base of international students. As a former international student to the US myself, I know it would resonate with applicants from around the world, who may have limited exposure to food options in the US.
Victor: Where did it originate and where can you get it now?
Bhargav: “Your 5 Steps to US Study” can be obtained at U.S. consulates and EducationUSA Advising Centers around the world. We are soon going to launch it as a Facebook App. Our own pipeline of games can soon be played on our website, Facebook and also on iTunes and the Android marketplace.
Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?
Bhargav: Our games are always free to play. Our business however has two channels of revenue. One allows FriendsLearn to gain revenue from B2B engagements, such as the one with the U.S. State Department, which are likely to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis and can resemble ERP revenue models. The second component to our revenue is our direct-to-consumer channel, which will include a freemium model, sale of virtual goods/in-app purchases, and revenue from online advertising.
Victor: What are some examples of it in action?
Bhargav: We have already launched “Your 5 Steps to US Study”, which can be obtained from U.S. Consulates and EducationUSA Advising Centers around the world. In the next few weeks, we will launch the same game on Facebook. In the next couple of months, we will launch “Fooya” on Facebook, which is our first title that aims to teach students about the health impact of the foods they encounter. We intend to develop games that revolve around more curriculum based topics in the future. You will be able to see examples on our website – www.friendslearn.com
Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?
Bhargav: Our initial games are specifically tailored for international students who are interested in studying in the US. This basically means a teenager-young adult demographic comprised of prospective undergraduate/graduate students. Down the road, we intend to reach this demographic more broadly. We do not intend to cater to young children or K-7 in the near term.
Victor: Your thoughts on education these days?
Bhargav: Education today is largely the same as it has been for centuries. The model revolves around transmittal of knowledge from a teacher to several students, with the teacher (assisted by tools/technology/support staff etc) helping to mediate any exchanges between the students themselves. There clearly are limitations of scalability associated with such an approach. Also, due to the need for the teacher-student to participate synchronously, it relegates learning to a more theoretical exercise for a student, instead of providing an experientially contextualized and instantly reinforcing technique. Unfortunately, such a contextually relevant learning experience will need to be delivered to the student at any place and at any time, which means the teacher must be available always. The economic unsustainability of traditional education is what will drive disruptive technology enabled models. I think we have passed the proverbial “tipping point”, where the tools at hand will fundamentally transform education.
Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating FriendsLearn?
Bhargav: I grew up in India, where the theoretical rigor and emphasis on exams were almost unhealthy! The college that I went to for my undergrad in engineering had nearly 200,000 applicants for an entering class of 400. We were trained and fine-tuned for mental calculations, which was the only way to achieve more on time-constrained examinations. This uni-dimensional approach to education develops very strong analytical capabilities with a bias against risk-taking and experimentation. The lack of practical reinforcement of such theory, also limited my ability to gain hands-on experience, and therefore fully grasp, scientific concepts. I then moved to the U.S. to attend the graduate program in Automotive Engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor because of my passion for cars. It was when I was a graduate student in Ann Arbor that I started my first company to commercialize my graduate research work in automotive simulation and design optimization, which gave me my first taste for entrepreneurship. I would say that my educational journey defines who I am today.
Victor: How does FriendsLearn address some of your concerns about education?
Bhargav: FriendsLearn is defining new boundaries with respect to a highly scalable social gaming platform, which is intended to serve as a solution to the problems faced by education. While we are positioned to tackle the constraints surrounding traditional methods of learning, we fully expect to learn and iterate quickly as we build a learning platform, which engages users at scale, provides a socially rich experience, delivers value to our users by providing them marketable credentials, and ultimately captures value by monetizing our platform in ways that do not impede the growth of our user base.
Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?
Bhargav: The world spends nearly $4 Trillion a year on education. Education is, however, dominated by traditional models that are not market driven and have thus largely been unchallenged by new models or ventures. Unfortunately, this affords those that thrive on the traditional model, the luxury of not having to to do more with less. With economic pressures mounting, it is only a matter of time before market-driven and user-centric innovation will drive the mantra of “cheaper, better, faster” into the world of education. Few can argue against the value of a well-educated society — we spend too much money, time and resources on education, for us to ignore higher standards and measurable results.
Victor: Got anything quirky or funny to share regarding your company?
Bhargav: The game ideation and development phase is always the most exciting and tense period because everybody on my team brings their creative passion to the table and we have a culture of total creative freedom and camaraderie. Recently, one of our new college recruits went on to passionately defend an idea he proposed, which was opposed by the rest of team and lead to intense debate. I wanted to ensure that he has a fair shot at being able to communicate his idea, despite the fact that he was new to game programming itself. I went up to him and said, “listen dude, it sounds like you have a good idea and a lot of conviction for it. A good way to win over the others on the team, is to create a prototype of the game mechanic and let them play it after the company’s weekly happy hour”. A couple of weeks later he came back to thank me because it worked so well and I was thrilled at having helped new talent integrate in to our team. Just the other day, he came up to me and said “We have so many awesome ideas during the day and the best way to resolving debates, to drive consensus and increase productivity – daily happy hours”! We now meet twice a week at the end of the work day, for a team huddle, intense game demos and to resolve our debates on the company tab.
Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of FriendsLearn?
Bhargav: FriendsLearn is aspiring to help make an impact on education through innovative technology and business models.
Victor: What makes you say that?
Bhargav: The real value to educators is that they can save increasingly scarce resources and achieve greater scalability, while reaching students through a medium that resonates with them. We know that we need the support and participation of educators to make a more insightful impact and will always keep this philosophy at the core of our company’s mission. We are keen to partner with educators and leaders in the space, who want to contribute towards defining the future of learning.
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. Innovative CEOs, founders and educators: enter the EdTech Digest Awards Program.