A Personal, Digital Tutor

Former Google and Venmo employees get busy building a mobile app for education. 

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Socratic team grid.pngBack in 2013, Chris Pedregal and Shreyans Bhansali (pictured below), both experienced tech entrepreneurs, met and realized they had a shared passion for education. Chris has spent four years at Google, working on Gmail, Google Maps, and other consumer-facing products. Shreyans had been the first employee and VP of Engineering at Venmo. Both wanted to contribute their skills towards big, important social problems. “We realized that for many of the problems in the world, education was the root solution, empowering people to solve the problems they experienced and understood best.” Thus, their company, Socratic, was born. “The company started with the insight that students everywhere constantly turn to the Internet for help, but usually find low quality resources that don’t effectively teach them,” says Sheryans. From its inception, the company’s mission has been to make learning easier for these students.

We’ve found that when kids are stuck on homework, they use the tools that they are most familiar with.

Over the past four years, the company has grown from two to 12 people, has transitioned from a website to a top-ranked mobile app, and has helped over 60 million people answer over 100 million questions.

What real problems in education does the Socratic app solve?

Shreyans: A lot of learning happens after school, when a student is doing homework, catching up on lessons they missed, or preparing for a test. One-on-one tutoring is proven to produce significantly better outcomes than any other method of instruction, so those who can afford it hire tutors. Most families, however, cannot afford tutors. The vast majority of students turn to the Internet for help, where they have to navigate low quality sites with complex explanations and contradictory answers.

Our mission is to make learning easier for these students. We are building a personal digital tutor for every student – low cost, high quality instruction, and available at any time for all subjects.

Our app makes it as easy as possible to ask a question – simply take a picture of the question – and the Socratic AI does the heavy lifting. Like a tutor, the app figures out what underlying concepts the question is about, and teaches the student those concepts using content that was designed from scratch to be consumed on a mobile device.

What’s the role of educators in creating this app?

Shreyans: Educators have been closely involved at every stage of the app’s design and development. All the content in the app was designed, created, or curated by educators. To design the content, educators looked over thousands of real questions asked by students in the app, designed content and algorithms to find the right content for each question, and tested their results with real high school students. Educators on our team are constantly examining the results we show in the app to make sure any weaknesses are discovered and fixed.

How have parents and teachers reacted to it?

CREDIT Shreyans Bhansali.png

Shreyans: Both parents and teachers have reacted very positively to the app.

For many parents, a challenge is knowing how to help their kids with their schoolwork. This is already challenging for parents that spend all day at work, and becomes increasingly challenging with age, as material becomes more challenging and parents never studied it or no longer remember it. So when parents hear about us, their most common reaction is: “Amazing! Now I can finally understand what my kids are learning and can help them.”

Teachers know that their students go online for help every day, and often end up on unreliable sites. So when they hear about Socratic’s approach and content, the most common reaction is: “Finally a resource I trust my kids to use since it doesn’t just give them answers, it also gives them good explanations”. Teachers want their kids to have reliable resources to supplement their in-class lessons.

We’ve heard a lot of buzz around “artificial intelligence”. How would you define this (in light of education and learning), and how do you believe this technology will impact educators and classrooms in the next decade?

Shreyans: “Artificial Intelligence” means many different things in different contexts, from big things like self-driving cars, to small things like saying if a comment is spam or not.

We believe AI will impact education in massive ways in the long run, and in many small ways in the short run. AI will start by giving both students and teachers superpowers. Many tasks a teacher does outside of instructing students – things like spotting plagiarism, grading tests, suggesting practice problems, etc., – will all become easier, faster, and more accurate. AI will slowly get better at learning the patterns of each individual students, and making predictions based on it – where will a student get stuck, what are they most likely to find confusing, what would be most helpful to learn next.

We believe that AI will not replace teachers, nor should it. Instead AI will help teachers focus their limited time and effort where it is most needed.

In the long run, AI will help realize our vision of a lifelong personal tutor for every person on the planet. It will be by our side from our earliest lessons, and will guide us through all our educational journeys. It will learn what we enjoy and what we are good at and will encourage us to pursue those fields, and it will also know what we need to learn and are struggling with, and will supplement our in-class education. Used correctly, AI will help us continue on our collective journey of unlocking all human potential.

What do you think educators need to know about students in this age of rapidly changing tech?

Shreyans: Over the last few years smartphones have slowly but surely gotten into most student’s hands, and that has transformed how students study and get help. Students have more choices for where they get educational help than ever before, and they will increasingly find the tools that work best for them, and will rely less on the tools that are sanctioned or provided by schools, unless these are highly effective.

We’ve found that when kids are stuck on homework, they use the tools that they are most familiar with: Google and messaging. They first go to Google to get help, and when that doesn’t work, they message their friends. Teenagers are highly social, spending their days sending and receiving hundreds or thousands of texts and snaps. They use these same tools for their homework. Since it’s difficult to type out most questions, they rely heavily on photographs – both to ask questions, and to provide answers. They will message individual friends often, and will sometimes participate in group chats set up specifically for school work.

Students are so used to using their phones, we’ve found that they will often search for help on mobile devices even when a desktop or laptop computer is available. When they do consume content on phones, they find that most existing educational material was not meant for the phone, and the experience is painful and slow. Desperate students will swipe dozens of times through one page to find their content.

We’ve also found that students tend to treat the Internet like a tutor, not a textbook. This means they go to the Internet with very specific questions, and usually end up on Q&A sites like Yahoo Answers. Only later, if they are still stuck, will they search for the concept behind the question. The more granular the content, the better it is for students.

What’s the vision for your company; where will it be five years from now?

Shreyans: Our vision is to be a tutor in your pocket, giving you high quality and personalized answers for all your educational questions in all subjects. We will be a tool you start using early and will be by your side all through your education. We will answer specific questions you have while doing homework, we will assess whether you learned the material, and we will create custom study guides that will help you prepare for tests. And we will do all this for a fraction of the cost of a tutor.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest and oversees the annual EdTech Awards program, featuring edtech’s best and brights innovators, leaders, and trendsetters. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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