An edtech CEO discusses why learning is personal, and what he’s doing to help others.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Henry Ryan came from a lower-income family and often struggled at school. He was fortunate to get the help that moved him forward to a successful career, but not every kid gets the same chance. “For me, this is personal,” he says. In 2011, he founded Learning Bird, an innovative e-learning application to help students succeed by providing them with the best lessons aligned to their curricula and textbooks. Teachers also get rewarded for the digital lessons they share. In developing the platform, the founding team set out on a year-long trek across the continent to talk with teachers and parents about what they needed and wanted to help their children do well. From those
Teachers get it. They understand the power of differentiated instruction. They have just struggled to find the tools and the time to integrate it effectively in their classrooms.
insights, the company was born. It’s a web-based application that crowdsources digital lessons made by real teachers and aligns them with curricula and texts in order to match them to students based on their needs. With the cost of private tutoring rising and with great teachers being under-rewarded for their work, Ryan feels he has a unique way to help struggling kids with their schoolwork while creating a merit-based opportunity for teachers. Here he explains why it is so effective, shares his insights into education, and talks about lessons from a little village back in Ireland.
Victor: How is Learning Bird different from other online tutoring programs?
Henry: We offer the learning advantages that come with differentiated instruction. We provide students with fast and easy access to a range of digital lessons created by real teachers from across the country. For every curriculum topic, we collect several different ways of understanding that idea, so that if one lesson doesn’t give the student the clarification they need, there is always another lesson available. By providing students with a library of different approaches and perspectives on each topic, we are giving them the opportunity to find the answers they need, boosting their confidence, while fostering one of the most important 21st century skills, self-directed learning.
Victor: You solicit lessons from teachers, why? And what’s in it for a teacher to contribute their lesson to Learning Bird?
Henry: The nation’s schools are full of talented, passionate teachers who know how to teach, how to inspire, and how to connect with students. They are also experts on the curriculum and requirements of their local school or district. Learning Bird is totally free for educators and we have worked hard to make it easy for them to add their own perspective to this vast array of curriculum-aligned lessons. Our system also works to get teachers’ lessons to the students that they will help the most. When a student is helped by that teacher’s lesson, we share half of our revenue with them. With our platform, we are enabling teachers to build the largest collection of quality, aligned lessons in the World. This democratic, crowd-sourced, resource helps teachers and students across the country and gives financial resources back to educators.
Victor: How can a teacher use Learning Bird in the classroom?
Henry: The sign of a great tool is when a teacher can use it in different ways to suit their own teaching environment. We have teachers who use it as a form of “tivo” for their classroom to allow their students to replay lessons they may have missed or need to see a second time, when they are at home. Others show a lesson made by various educators during class to offer their students different perspectives. The most exciting and powerful way that teachers are using Learning Bird is when they encourage their students to use it as a self-directed, differentiated learning resource in class and at home to help them understand better and overcome their own learning obstacles. In this way, Learning Bird is simultaneously helping kids pass today’s exams while instilling skills for tomorrow.
Victor: Let’s talk more about your inspiration for starting Learning Bird.
Henry: I was raised in a small village in the west of Ireland. My parents helped me understand that the education of children is one of the most important responsibilities that a family has. They also showed me that a love of learning is one of the greatest affinities that a child can develop. I can’t say that I was always the best student but I had two distinct advantages. The first was that even in my tiny 300 person school, I had a number of dedicated teachers that never gave up on their students. They knew that even if I didn’t understand something it only meant that I didn’t understand it yet. The second advantage I had was that my parents always believed that I could do it but understood that I had to find my own way. Looking back now, I can see that those two simple principles shaped both my career and helped create the DNA of Learning Bird. While my parents supplied the spark, the real fuel came when I made the decision to travel across North America to talk with teachers. Twelve months and fourteen hundred conversations later and that spark had become a burning conviction that teachers were, are, and will be at the heart of the solution to reshaping education in North America. Teachers get it. They understand the power of differentiated instruction. They have just struggled to find the tools and the time to integrate it effectively in their classrooms.
Victor: Does it cover all subjects?
Henry: We cover a wide range of subjects today, math, science, and the humanities. We are currently adding more subjects like coding, Spanish and French. Eventually, if it’s taught in classroom, then you can bet it’ll be available in Learning Bird.
Victor: Is there a Parent/Teacher/school connection?
Henry: The student’s account was designed to bridge the gap between the classroom and the home. It is important to us to have a seamless experience for a student regardless of where they access Learning Bird from. We know that parents and administrators want to be in the loop as well. To this end, we give parents and administrators the ability to log in to track kids’ activity and progress.
Victor: What ages or grades does it serve?
Henry: We have a current concentration in middle and high-school grades. We are rapidly expanding this range as teachers add new lessons every day, so that we will soon have full K to 12 coverage–a day our team will surely celebrate!
Victor: Alright, now let’s back up from everything. Broadly speaking, what are your thoughts on education in general these days?
Henry: If the purpose of education is to help every student achieve their learning potential regardless of wealth or zip-code, then we must overcome any problem that stands in their way. Education needs to be that vehicle for social mobility, it needs to be an institution that the people can rely on to give their kids an advantage, to educate young people so that they can do their part to make our world a better place than it is today. When I think of education, I think of progress and I have a great deal of hope knowing that so many intelligent and passionate people are dedicating their lives to it.
Victor: What are your thoughts on technology in education these days?
Henry: Beware of techies bearing gifts! There are a huge number of apps out there purporting to revolutionize education, created by techies in basements. Many offer little more than one coder’s view of what they think a dream teacher should be, which they have tried to recreate in a piece of software. Ask yourself, has it been shaped by real teachers or anyone with real classroom experience?
Beware of the myth that anyone can teach anything to everyone. If the content comes from a non-certified teacher then one should heavily discount it. If the content comes from just a tiny number of “elite” educators that a business decides are the ‘best’ in America, then question the notion that 99.999999% of America’s teachers are not part of the solution and have nothing of value to share.
Beware of the hundreds of ‘free’ apps out there. The sheer number of these apps can drown out the truly valuable tools. Look for tools designed with teachers. Look for tools that offer ongoing PD to get the most out of them in your teaching practice. Look for tools that give back to public education and support teachers as they use technology to reshape their classrooms. Look for tools that have a viable model that means they will be around tomorrow and in three years time.
Victor: Dare to offer any advice to educators out there?
Henry: Apply for jobs and consulting roles at Learning Bird! My number one secret for our success so far has been to hire as many teachers in as many departments as I can, and once I have hired them I listen to them. If a teacher can manage a room full of kindergarteners or a room full of teenagers then they have great credentials to succeed in a company. Technology is reshaping education in unstoppable ways simply by expanding what is possible. Teachers must engage with edtech companies to shape the conversation so that what is possible becomes what is effective. The most effective classroom is one where a committed teacher is amplified by the tools around them to maximize each student’s potential.
Victor Rivero is the editor in chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org