A couple of Northwestern grads answer the question, and question the answer.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Albert.io Will Yang.jpgWill Yang studied economics at Northwestern. He graduated high school from Winter Park High as valedictorian, taking 6 APs along with a full IB diploma course load. He previously co-founded College Creed which helped students with college admissions.

(Will, pictured here.)

Luke Liu graduated from Northwestern in 2012. He started Albert.io because of the pain he experienced taking 11 AP exams and wrote all of Albert.io’s AP European History program because that was his favorite subject.

“Albert” (used to be called Learnerator) is an interactive learning platform for tackling difficult academic subjects.

One of my ventures in high school was running a tutoring business; I worked with 20-25 students every week.

With over 60,000 practice questions in a variety of subjects such as the APs, SATs, and ACTs—students and teachers use their site to improve their outcomes.

Each of their questions features detailed explanations so learners can fully understand why they got a question right or incorrect.

For educators, their analytics tools save grading time and help identify student trends to better differentiate instruction.

In other words, try it out.

A couple of smart, albeit frustrated, students concocted it.

And now with their team of more than 30 employees, they’ve really tackled the problems they saw, and made a much smoother path forward.

We chatted with Will and here’s what he had to say.

What prompted you to start Albert? What problem were you trying to solve? 

CREDIT Albert LOGO.pngWill: Our CEO, Luke, remembered how frustrating it was to prepare for his 11 AP exams in high school.

When we started a few years ago, we were just an AP site known as Learnerator.

Learnerator’s goal was to be the go-to AP test prep site for detailed practice questions and explanations. Since that time, a lot has changed.

Once we achieved significant traction behind the idea of learning by doing and saw millions of questions answered by students, we expanded our vision.

Our greater goal is to bridge the gap between learning and mastery with interactive content and a world-class platform. Nowadays, we are much more than just an AP test prep site.

We’ve since grown to cover a plethora of core curriculum areas that middle and high schools need supplemental materials for.

Schools around the world use Albert to support their burgeoning APSATACTCommon CoreNGSS, and general learning initiatives.

Our site is home to more than 60,000 practice questions that our team has written from scratch.

This strong foundation empowers educators to worry less about where to go when seeking curriculum-aligned practice materials, and instead to turn to Albert for support.

Aside from our content, Albert also serves as a powerful data solution for schools; we track every student engagement point.

That means teachers can create fully customizable assignments from our practice questions, and administrators can regularly monitor teacher usage to ensure high fidelity of their Albert investment.

Who did you talk to in the early days? What questions did you ask? 

 

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Will: In our early days we talked to AP teachers most.

We asked questions such as what their biggest classroom challenges were, what they thought about resources that existed, and how they spent most of their classroom time.

From these early conversations, we worked hard on creating an addictive learning experience for students in which they’d get the repetitions they needed for deliberate practice to impact their growth while activating those ‘lightbulb moments’ when a student fully understands why they were right or wrong about something.

As a smart guy in school, did you tutor other students? If so, what did you learn?

Will: Yes! I loved tutoring growing up.

One of my ventures in high school was running a tutoring business; I worked with 20-25 students every week.

The most important things I learned from tutoring is to always put your clients’ needs first and to constantly exceed expectations when it comes to great service.

A lot of times students I worked with simply needed the discipline or guidance to commit to improving at a subject.

As in any relationship, you need to be able to listen first and truly understand the reasons why there are misconceptions and how to best solve them using the learning method that is most appropriate for that client.

With respect to constantly exceeding expectations with my service, I would make myself easily available at any time during the week when my students and I were not in session.

I’d check in regularly with parents to ensure the homework I assigned was done, and would pre-prep sessions so we made the most of our hour or two together.

At Albert, we do many of these foundational things with our clients.

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We seek to first understand where the school’s programs and students are at the moment, where they aspire to go next, and whether or not we feel Albert would be a good fit for their school.

We’re not afraid to turn away schools that we don’t think are a good fit for us because ultimately it’s best for both the client and the company to be aligned in what they view as success.

When schools purchase an Albert license, they buy more than a product — they buy an experience.

Our Schools team works diligently to ensure teachers are properly trained in using Albert regularly in their instruction and that administrators are equipped with the necessary data to make smart decisions on where to focus their efforts next.

What are your thoughts on the state of education these days—and technology’s role in education?

Will: Over the past few decades, Americans have witnessed an increase in both the scale and complexity of the school system.

Once a homogeneous factory-based model, U.S. public education has slowly embraced a pluralistic approach around individual students.

Classrooms are growing more diverse, both socioeconomically and pedagogically, while standardized testing has attempted to maintain some semblance of an “apples to apples” comparison.

One might assume the establishment of a national standards framework (Common Core), along with standardized testing, would be at odds with an individual approach to student learning, however the accompanying technological revolution has created a symbiosis of sorts between the two.

Last year, public schools spent over $3 billion on adaptable, fresh, personalized digital content, and that figure is trending upwards every year.

The Internet, along with big data, has increased the flexibility and accessibility of learning materials. Now individual students can receive customized content with immediate individualized feedback.

Last year, public schools spent over $3 billion on adaptable, fresh, personalized digital content, and that figure is trending upwards every year.

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While technology has led to a remarkable boost in the efficiency of managing an increasingly complex system, it has been slow to drastically alter the way we teach.

Students are still consumers rather than producers of information. Teaching students as information consumers is a legacy of the factory model of education, where job training for a manufacturing economy valued procedures and rote information.

However, the economy of the US is quickly transforming to an information economy, which requires creativity, advanced problem-solving skills, and resourcefulness.

New pedagogical models are only recently being implemented which put the students, not the teacher, in charge of the intellectual responsibility of the classroom.

This decentralization of the learning process is the golden opportunity for technology to really revolutionize the classroom, and only through this independent model will students truly be prepared for a 21st century economy.

What important lessons are you learning along the way as an edtech startup?

Will: We’ve learned a lot of lessons over the years in growing our company.

One lesson is that adoption at schools takes time.

Sometimes we’ve had educators who reached out to us more than a year ago reinitiate conversations because they’re now ready to implement Albert.

The time it takes for some schools and districts can definitely be a challenge for any edtech startup, but we’ve always committed to constantly adding value to anyone who connects with us, which helps us stay top of mind when they do need to address their pain points.

Another important lesson is to hire the right people.

Former educators or individuals who have worked in education better understand the daily challenges facing teachers and their passion towards education bleeds into their work.

There is a huge difference when you hire an educator or someone passionate about education versus a person with no connection to education.

Former educators or individuals who have worked in education better understand the daily challenges facing teachers and their passion towards education bleeds into their work.

Being a teacher is one of the grittiest jobs out there as you have to meet the needs of not only your students, but also their parents, your peers, and your administration.

What is something interesting about Albert that our readers might be interested to know?

Will: Unique to any other site, Albert questions are all individually tagged to a topic, subtopic, and conceptual level. This means you have full control over your learning experience.

Say for example you’re learning Single Variable Calculus. If you know you’re struggling with the Mean Value Theorem (MVT), you can isolate for all the questions on Albert related to the MVT.

This level of classification is something very few edtech companies have. You can imagine the implications this has if you only have 15-20 minutes to study and want to focus on where you’re struggling most.

What is behind the name Albert?

Will: When we rebranded to Albert, we wanted a memorable two-syllable name that people could relate to.

Learnerator was hard for some students and teachers to spell.

Two-syllables make it super easy to remember your company, and if you think about it, many of the well-known companies in the world follow this rule:

Google.

Facebook.

Twitter.

So when we started listing out names on the drawing board, Albert really stuck out.

It’s friendly.

We’ve never personally met anyone who knows an Albert they don’t like.

And it was memorable.

You already have nearly 40 employees – what is your ideal employee? What kind of company culture are you creating?

Will: We love hiring intellectually curious and gritty employees who are intuitive problem solvers.

The people who work at Albert are the type who view mastery as a process and something that you have to commit to over time.

We’ve learned a lot over the years and continue to improve the way we support our school partners, but it requires a team that is passionate about that process and isn’t afraid to constantly rethink how to best serve a client.

Implementing edtech at a high fidelity takes several years.

We’ve learned a lot over the years and continue to improve the way we support our school partners, but it requires a team that is passionate about that process and isn’t afraid to constantly rethink how to best serve a client.

The culture we’ve built is grounded on the idea that people work best when they’re able to be their authentic selves at work.

We adopt radical honesty, which makes it so that when you have a team where everyone understands feedback is not meant to be personal and merely meant to come from a place of wanting the improvement of the greater good, it’s special.

Your holding company is Learn By Doing – is that really your philosophy behind Albert? 

Will: Albert is 100 percent built on the idea that students learn best when they learn by doing. It’s only through getting the exposure and gaining confidence from that deliberate practice that students consistently see growth.

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Learning by doing is at the core of becoming good at anything, so that reflects our entire company’s approach towards building a product and service that makes educators and students more productive.

Whether its creating highly rigorous and standards-aligned curricula or building insightful data dashboards for educators, everything on our site falls back on the idea that when students learn by doing with intention, growth is inevitable.

Any last thoughts?

Will: If you are an educator or administrator passionate about using data to drive student growth, we’d love to learn more about your school or district to see if we can collaborate.

You can learn more about how we partner with schools here or e-mail us at schools@albert.io.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com