[Transcript] Building a Global Network of Education Innovators

[Transcript] Building a Global Network of Education Innovators

Below is the transcript of the Sora Learning Lab podcast episode with Alberto Arenaza of Transcend Network. Transcend Network brings together people from around the world who are innovating education along global trends.

Garrett Smiley  00:03

From Sora Schools it’s Sora Learning Lab, a show where we dive into the world of learning research and innovative pedagogy. Through interviews with education researchers, advocates and innovators, we’ll explore the ideas and trends behind the future of learning. Alberto Arenaza is the co-founder of Transcend Network, the first global network supporting founders who are building the future of learning and work. Previously, he was a part of the inaugural class of Minerva Schools, now known as Minerva University, which took him on a journey through six different countries, where you spend time exploring projects, and venture capital, and startups, and economic development, and education. Alberto has a unique perspective into the trends of early-stage companies, which is why I was so excited to have him on the podcast today. Thanks so much for being on the show today, Alberto.

Alberto Arenaza  00:54

Thank you, Garrett. Really excited.

Garrett Smiley  00:56

So let’s start the way I like to start all these conversations, which is: tell us about your story. What brought you to the field of education? What made you care about this industry? And then jump into some of the work you’re doing with Transcend at the end?

Alberto Arenaza  01:09

Oh, that’s a great question. I think the focus on caring about education is really important because I think a lot of people don’t necessarily work in education for a really long time. But they always sort of carry that interest or that passion. I actually think for me, it wasn’t something that I knew from an early age that I wanted to do. So I’m joining today from Madrid in Spain, which is where I’m from. So I grew up here in the city. I wouldn’t say I was particularly interested in education growing up, I don’t think I was particularly curious. Anyway, it was just kind of weird. I was really focused on playing basketball at an early age. So I was really passionate about that. People can’t usually tell on podcasts or on Zoom, but I’m pretty tall. 

Garrett Smiley  01:56

[Laughs] You are super tall!

Alberto Arenaza  01:59

Right? Yeah, so I grew up playing basketball, which is pretty big in Spain. And when I was about 17, I had this one experience in my life where I had a heart condition. I don’t usually talk about this in podcasts, but I guess we went there, I had a heart condition that I was diagnosed with. And so I had to stop playing basketball. And that was a big sort of shake-up in my identity and sort of what I knew that I could do. And all of a sudden, the thing that I felt most comfortable and more certain about, sort of fell through. So I couldn’t play basketball anymore. I think there was a couple of years of sort of rethinking who I was and what I felt comfortable doing. 

I think at that process, there was a lot of change and a lot of growth. So I think that’s when something changed in my mind that started getting really excited about education. And so I went to study in Scotland at the University of Glasgow and somehow I learned about this new university that was just getting started and looking for its first class of students, called Minerva, at the time was called Minerva Schools. Now, it’s called Minerva University, because it’s fully accredited now. And yes, I joined. I was in the first graduating class. So that was quite an experience. I showed up there in San Francisco feeling massive impostor syndrome because I was the only Spaniard I felt really self-conscious about my Spanish accent—

Garrett Smiley  03:30

The only one in general? In the whole program, the only Spaniard? 

Alberto Arenaza  03:33

Yeah, I mean, for the first year. Yeah. So the first couple of years, I think, are—

Garrett Smiley  03:37

Wow, representing the whole country!

Alberto Arenaza  03:39

[Laughs] So yeah, I think there was just so many things that I felt like, oh, I don’t have any sort of certain kind of foundations to fall back on, I don’t have one thing that I’m really good at, that everybody sort of recognizes and respects me for, it was like, “Oh, I just have to learn really quickly.” And I have to learn from all these wonderful people. So I think Minerva was really transformational for me, and that it really sort of taught me to be comfortable with being the dumbest person in the room. And I was all the time.

So Minerva is a really interesting new university. For those who don’t know about it, you basically do your university degree in four years over seven different cities of the world. It’s got a really interesting pedagogy, where the first year is all focused on habits and concepts that are fundamentally interdisciplinary, and that you can apply to whatever you’re studying or whatever you’re doing at work. And it’s really focused on sort of going into the cities, building new projects and kind of applying that to your learning. So because we were the very first graduating class, I, we had to build a lot of stuff. So I got together with a group of friends and we started the student government. We did a lot of initiatives with the students and I think that was really the best environment for me where I think this sort of passion for learning and growing, really, really took off.

So towards the end of my time at Minerva, I started thinking about what I wanted to do after, after Minerva. And obviously, education was very present at the time, because I’ve just been thinking about it for four years, and really kind of embodying it in playing, playing with real models. So I think there was this one very specific problem that I kept kind of running into when I thought about the future of education. And it was the very local nature of education. 

When we think about its recent history, when you think about people going out and building a school or building a company in the education-technology space, they tended to be kind of founded with other local folks addressing a local need, often funded locally. And to me, the biggest change in education wasn’t necessarily automation, or artificial intelligence (just yet) or blockchain. But it was that education was going global. And that you’re able, you’re now able to spin up a discord, and bring in a bunch of engineers, and teach them the new kind of a new framework or a new language or a new skill, and really teach anybody anywhere in the world.

So I think, through Minerva, I got to see that, and it felt like this new change, this change in how founders were building education, was not reflected in how they were supported in the early stages. So there’s a bunch of funds, a bunch of accelerators, incubators, but they’re operating so locally, right. So that’s kind of the idea that we started Transcend Network with, which is the company that I run right now was, what would it look like to have a global community of founders building the future of education and the future of work, where they support each other, but we also sort of funnel resources, connections, trends, and analysis to them at the very, very early stages. So that’s kind of how Transcend came about. And we’ve been running it for two years now. We run mostly founder fellowships. We kind of have one for seed-stage founders. We have a new one for idea-stage founders. So these are basically aspiring founders. And we’re building new programs every day. So I’m sure we’ll get to talk more about it. But that’s sort of how I ended up here.

Garrett Smiley  07:30

Awesome. Let’s jump into your experience with Minerva. So I know you said it was very formative, it was transformative for your life. How did it prepare you specifically for this journey you’re embarking on in entrepreneurship.

Alberto Arenaza  07:43

So I think there was a very important part of Minerva, to me, which was, and I already mentioned it when I first spoke about it, but it’s the other students in the classroom. So there are folks from, I think it was like 40 countries in my first class. And it was so diverse from a passport perspective, but also from just the things people were interested in that their skills, their interest. That was really formative for me. Because if you’re going to you make friends in your university in there come from the same local background, you have so many references, so many local get so many shared cultural references, that it’s a lot easier to get started and build a relationship. 

When you’re talking to somebody from Nigeria, and somebody else from Argentina and somebody from Russia. It’s like, it is so hard to have that shared kind of language, cultural language. And so you have to really rethink the way that you think about friendship, the way you think about collaboration, there’s just so many things that you need to think about, including a completely new light.

So I think that really prepared me for one, COVID Because all of our classes were online, right? So when March 2020 came around in the, I guess, the US and Europe and most of the world went into lockdowns. I had been doing that for five years, I had done zoom university for five years before. So that was kind of a very clear thing that I was prepared to do. But when building a global community, there’s just so many things that you can’t assume you can’t assume that everybody’s going to be carrying about the same things. You can’t assume that everybody’s going to speak about certain things in the same way that you might say something and assume that everybody got exactly what you would you said. But it might be interpreted in 20 different ways. And you just have to be really aware of it. There’s no, there’s no silver bullet for that cultural diversity. It’s just something you need to be aware of.

So I think that was something that was really present through my Minerva days. I’d say the traveling component also taught me to sort of learn really quickly how to adapt to new cities in new environments. So I think in a lot of cities, I was a bit of a kind of, I would just kind of go my own way and meet new people and try to kind of read the local newspapers until I understood what was going on in that country. It those were really formative experiences that I think as a founder, it’s like that, but multiply by 100, right? Like you have any challenge, you have to learn everything there is to know about this thing with such level of detail, and then move on to the next thing. So I think there was an aspect of like a bit of a growth mindset there that I think I learned through Minerva, as well. So those are some of the things that come to mind.

Garrett Smiley  10:45

So you said you were in another university before Minerva, and then you transferred in or did you come in? Was that your first university experience?

Alberto Arenaza  10:52

So I transferred in but at Minerva, you basically have to start over. So I did my first year at this, this university in Glasgow, which was founded in I believe that 1450s So this is a university that’s 500 years old, plus.

Garrett Smiley  11:09

Traditional doesn’t even start to explain.

Alberto Arenaza  11:13

Exactly what it looks like Hogwarts. The campus is beautiful, but yeah, very, very different.

Garrett Smiley  11:19

So you, you have a unique perspective, then you can compare and contrast a traditional university, and I’m sure it was well regarded and, and people assumed it was great. But then you got to run to this very progressive environment. So how can you compare and contrast? I know we’ve touched on a little bit, but did you see those same skills of being open-minded and problem-solving for yourself developing in that first-year program? Or was that really just a light bulb that switched? When you’re put in the Minerva pedagogy?

Alberto Arenaza  11:48

It’s such a big question I could take on this question from so many different angles. It was definitely a radically different experience. I think I, there are people that thrive in the more traditional, bigger school, where the academics are generally a big part of the experience, and where everything else is sort of like you’re left to your own devices, kind of like go figure out how to make friends go figure out how to learn that cultural exposure. But in reality, most people don’t figure that out. There’s some people who thrive in that in that environment, I learned pretty quickly that that wasn’t for me, and that I wanted to be in the in this kind of very early stage, “university place” where like, nothing is established, you have to go out and like basically build everything that you want to see happen.

I would say one huge difference that I identified was at Glasgow, and in any traditional university, the incentive structures are completely different, right? The institutions are funded very differently. They are, they spend their money very differently, right. So I remember looking into their financial statements of the university, which we’re going to open to the public. And I believe it was around 60%, or even closer to 70% of the total spending of the university in a given year, that was related to the physical buildings, it was either like kind of paying for like, I don’t know, the electricity or staff that is in those buildings or actually running stuff in those places. It’s obviously a revenue generator as well in other ways.

But that’s something that Minerva didn’t have. So that was a very clear difference. In Minerva, you go into different cities, and there’s really just the residents, for you. But there’s no campus, there’s no lecture halls. So that has its disadvantages, of course, but I think overall, for me, it was a lot better. But I think the main difference really was at a more traditional university experience. There’s the academics, and then there’s everything else that you need to go out and figure out on your own. I learned pretty quickly. I was not going to get too much out of the academics if I just focused on that. The real value for me wasn’t going to come from joining the clubs and societies after school. So I went out, it was just I went crazy. I signed up to so many clubs, and so many activities every day. I’ll probably have like —

Garrett Smiley  14:23

I think that’s true. Most universities, yeah. Generally.

Alberto Arenaza  14:27

I signed up for like, basically two events every day or something like that. I signed up to so many clubs, I joined two different tea societies in Glasgow [laughs], this is like there was more than one in this university. So I felt like that was where I was learning the most where I was channeling most of my energy. And I think at Minerva, there was an interesting push to put that more at the center and say, “Look, if you’re really putting yourself out there, that should be a part of the part of the academic experience.” 

I think Minerva still has some room for improvement there and that it could integrate that even more. I know they’ve been trying to improve this in the years after I graduated. But I feel like it could be even a bigger part of the experience. So I mean, yeah, the differences are endless. But I think for me eventually, ultimately, it was the right decision. And I think also, if Minerva, if I were enrolling in Minerva, now, with six or seven classes that are already enrolled, I think I would benefit less than I did. At the time, I think there was a lot of value for me in joining the very first, the very first class.

Garrett Smiley  15:40

That’s great, thank you for your perspective and your story. Let’s go into what you’re doing currently with Transcend Network. So could you super quickly tell the audience what is the mission of the Transcend network.

Alberto Arenaza  15:53

So Transcend Network is really focused on basically supporting early-stage founders in education and future work. So we help them from idea to the seed stage roughly, we’re trying to extend that with new programs. But we, we have this around this global community of founders that are building in some way a project in this space. But it’s also incorporating a global perspective. So we have founders from 35 countries, and we’ve graduated about 120 fellows from this fellowship, which is our main program. And now we have this new program that we launched this summer called Exploration Lab, which is focused on basically aspiring founders. So we help people that might be full-time teachers, or engineers, or whatever they might be doing, go out and validate an actual startup idea in the future of learning and the future of work. And we’ll be building new programs next year to support founders after that seed stage. 

To talk about the fellowship, which is kind of the main program we’ve been running. As of 30 minutes ago, we just closed our sixth fellowship cohort, which is really exciting. And a little bit sad. But yeah, that program is really focused on kind of bringing funders together. This sounds like a bit of a cliche, but when you’re building such a global community, you end up learning that the founder in Singapore and the founder in Argentina, and the founder and their friends are actually facing really similar problems because their solutions are looking a lot more similar than they did maybe 20 years ago, right? Twenty years ago, they were probably all building a product that would get distributed through schools. And so they needed to incorporate those local nuances into the companies. Now they’re all building online-first learning experiences. And it’s a– there’s a lot more that they can learn from each other than I think most people realize. So we take that community building really seriously. 

I think anybody who’s gone to Transcend will tell you that we probably spent most of our time trying to build that sense of vulnerability and peer support in our fellowship. But then we also really focus on product-market fit. So a lot of the founders that come through usually have a team, they might have gotten a little bit of funding, but they’re not 100% sure that they found product-market fit. So they need a little bit of accountability, a little bit of direction. And we sort of help them with that. So running weekly experiments, making sure that they’re measuring the user experience and seeing, asking– they’re asking their customers, they’re really kind of finding an experience that is sort of lights their eyes up, right. And so I think I would say that’s the main benefit that the founders come for. And they’ve been doing great. 

They’ve gone on to raise about $70 million after the fellowship. And so it’s, it’s really exciting work. And, yeah, our team has been growing as well. So we started about two years ago. And really, until the start of the year, it was me and my co-founder and one more person, that was very part-time. And now we have a team of seven. Some of them are full-time, some are part-time. But yeah, we’re starting to grow the program for operations and starting to focus on new challenges. So I think the next frontier for us is starting to invest in some of the founders that go through the fellowship. So that’s something we’ll be talking about more in the coming weeks. But we have some really exciting updates on that front as well. So that’s at a high level what Transcend is.

Garrett Smiley  19:32

You said there’s this trend for direct-to-learner companies, people who aren’t necessarily trying to reform their local school system, but are creating these global, especially online-first, direct to learner companies. So is that something that you’re filtering for you’re actively seeking out or selecting those companies or is that just generally where the talent is deciding to spend their time nowadays?

Alberto Arenaza  19:54

So I would say we definitely filter for companies that are building either for a global audience or building on a global trend. I wouldn’t say we necessarily filter for direct-to-learner. So we still work with a lot of B2B companies, or K-12 companies, but we really prioritize that they’re building on a global trend because that’s kind of at a high level. That’s where we, you know, when we started transcending, we sort of sat down and tried to really zoom out and say, “Okay, there’s all these trends going on in the world, but which ones which are, which are the ones that are really kind of shaping up globally?” If you look at, for example, US higher ed, I think there’s, there’s such a unique higher ed system in the US that has created very unique challenges around student debt. 

Those are problems are very, they’re very common in other parts of the world, just not to the extent of the US data in the US, it’s extremely, I don’t know, it’s just a really, really big problem. So we tried to sort of sit down and we did this exercise, we call the open thesis. So we basically came up with eight trends that we saw, kind of taking, taking place globally. And each one of them will basically kind of write about them, we have an ocean page on our website that is called the open thesis. And these open thesis basically sit on an ocean, we update them pretty frequently. And we, whenever a founder comes in and apply to our fellowship, we try to see if there’s a fit with one of these features so that when they join, we tell them. Welcome, Garrett, we see you building on this trend. These are some people that have built in it before, these are some of the trends that we’re seeing. So that helps us kind of guide the work that we’re doing a little bit more. So that’s generally

Garrett Smiley  21:48

What is the open thesis? You’ve intrigued me with them see if you can rattle them off if it’s top of mind.

Alberto Arenaza  21:53

Yeah, so we have eight of them, right. So some of them are focusing kind of closer to your world. So we have one that is probably the most active one for us, which is about learning communities and sort of how a lot of the kind of the really interesting learning experiences are fundamentally just about communities. And we’re starting to kind of recenter around community is the main place for learning. But some others are in upskilling at work there about universities, sort of transforming more into a platform for higher education of unbundle higher education models. We have another one about global hiring, and how all of a sudden, I guess, we’ve been thinking a lot about how work is going remote. But we’ve been thinking very little about how this world actually enables us to hire without knowing the credentials of an Indian software developer or a Filipino market marketer, right? Like, all of a sudden, we have all these credentials that we don’t understand. And because we don’t understand them, they lose value. And so I think that’s, that’s a really exciting trend. In terms of economic empowerment. 

We have one about work going remote and requiring a very different type of experiences and very different types of tools. We have another one around how kind of K-12 is moving away from kind of distribution first and more into learning. First, John Danner talks about it as first-class users, right? I think there’s a lot going on in that world. And it’s something you know, a lot more than I do, but sort of focusing on the learner. First, we have another one around educator tools, in sort of building for educators. First, the last one is new vocational pathways. So when you think about how way a lot of people go to college these days is to get a job. And there’s often a lot more efficient ways to get a job. And I think vocational training, and vocational pathways have sort of lost a lot of their prestige in the last couple of decades. But I think we’re now kind of realizing that a lot of these, these models are really interesting. And whether they’re apprenticeships or their boot camps. We’re seeing a lot of global trends around how to basically get people into jobs as quick as possible and as efficiently, effectively as possible. So that’s the that’s the last one that we see, globally.

Garrett Smiley  24:27

So which of these seems most popular with the people applying to your fellowship? Or your network? Is it heavily skewed towards one or another in a couple are more forgotten? And the reason I ask is because I think a lot of people who are technology or venture capital adjacent at least know that a lot of funding goes towards very visible problems, especially problems visible to middle class or higher type people. But that doesn’t mean that Other problems are important as well. So there’s a natural grouping of interests around. I mean, the absurd examples are, you know, providing lunches for people for technology workers at offices, right. It’s like there’s been six companies, because that’s, that’s the problem. People who know how to build technology understand, but we have to take a more holistic view that there are a whole lot of problems plaguing especially our learners, our teachers, and, and these communities that get overlooked.

Alberto Arenaza  25:26

Yeah, absolutely. So I kind of break down this question into two. The first one will be, what are the kind of the most common trends, I would say the number one thesis by activity, and we sort of have this notion with a lot of relational databases going on there. But the one, the one that’s most populated is learning through communities. This is a very sort of, it’s a very transversal one, I guess. It’s very common in other sectors, right. So we think a lot about this as our own kind of as our own playbook as we build our own playbook for how to run this, this programs. And our approach to the fellowship is, you’re coming in with all these ideas of what you want to learn as a founder, all the things that you want to grow in kind of all your goals as a business. But the very first sessions are all about the people getting to know each other. 

So very, very quickly, they realize we’re, we’re here to put our guard down and really talk kind of human to human. And once we have that human connection, and a sense of shared purpose, and why we’re doing this work, then we can go on to learn together and build something together. Right? One really interesting exercise we do is we ask founders, to share what it means to them to be a founder in one word, a lot of the words are sacrifice, hustle, pain. And when you ask them, what it means to them to be a founder in the future of learning and the future of work, that the descriptions are a lot more exciting to learn more aspirational. So they’ll say, impact, they’ll say, supporting, they’ll say, dreams, it’s really, really inspirational, I would say. So we really tried to put that front and center of our fellowship. 

We think that there’s this is going on, in a lot of other trends. A lot of other people that are building, learning experiences are putting community experience is at the center. And then sort of once you get to that point, then you can move on. So that will be the most the most popular one, I would say. And to date, I would say this is like still, to me the biggest trend going on in education right now, like, kind of moving away from, here’s the content you need to learn to. Here’s a group of people that all want to learn similar things. Now go like learn something together, I don’t really care what it is that you learn, right? So I would say that’s still to me the biggest trend going on in this space. Now to answer the question of kind of which trends get more resources and more, perhaps noise and hype,

Garrett Smiley  28:05

Or which ones would you wish more people would focus on?

Alberto Arenaza  28:09

Right? So that’s for friends–

Garrett Smiley  28:11

I think naturally, there are a few problems that get a lot of attention in every industry, especially in venture capitalism involved. But what are the problems that’s like, hey, yeah, this is still a huge problem. It may not be as sexy or whatever. But this is a huge problem, and not many people seem to want to address it. So from your perspective, what are those things?

Alberto Arenaza  28:31

I think the disconnect usually happens when the user is not the buyer, right? And when, when you can’t assume that the person that you’re designing for is going to be able to scale their satisfaction with a payment. And so I often I would say, of learners being any student of any institution, it’s really hard for any founder to build for them. And to have them as there this is one of the main reasons why startups in this space fail. It’s because they’re designing for a persona that actually has no say on the, on the purchase decision. So that’s, that’s a pretty clear one, I would say building for educators is a very clear one as well. There’s, there’s very little incentive for the founders to do that. And it’s just a lot easier to go out and build something for a learning development kind of manager, right? Because you know, that that’s the person that they’re probably not even doing the learning courses or whatever, you’re selling them themselves. 

They’re just kind of checking the boxes and then deciding if they buy the product or not. So I would say that’s how that’s the high-level sort of bit of mental model that I see. And so that ends up leaving learners and educators out for the most part. I think it’s interesting for example, that tutoring is like such a massive, such a massive industry. But when you actually look at how those resources are distributed within the tutoring world, like, it’s very clear that the people who need it most are not getting it right. So I think there’s really exciting projects in this space like, School House, I don’t know if you’ve come across their work, but I think they’re doing really important work in bringing some of this leading technology and, and resources and, and people that want to support other learners to the masses. And I think that’s, that’s really important. And I think we need, not only do we need more founders that have that sense of, of impact, we need a lot more resources for them to go out and build it. I think it’s great that venture capital has roughly doubled is projected to double in 2021, compared to 2019. That’s crazy. 

That’s a crazy number. But I think that’s good. I think overall, like there’s a lot of problems and education that require venture capital funding, I think there’s a lot of problems that don’t end and they’re not going to get solved by venture-backed companies. So one of my goals with Transcend is to eventually be able to support the world in figuring out what sort of more patient capital looks like for four founders in the space that sort of sits somewhere between venture funding that has very clear financial returns and expectations, but also grant money, which is really hard to scale that right. So when there’s something in between that is a little bit more patient, but still might want some returns look like that’s, I think something is going to be really important

Garrett Smiley  31:37

Hypothesis: What do you think that attack vector is? Now, I don’t know if I have one. But do you have any idea of what that more patient capital will look like outside of just increasing the size and scope of government activity?

Alberto Arenaza  31:49

I think actually, governments will play a big role, not necessarily in often running those programs themselves, but in actually funding it. So I think a really interesting example that comes to mind is the UK. About five years ago, they passed this new project called The Apprenticeship Levy, where basically, all employers that earn above a certain amount of revenue, they have to put 0.5% of their, of their payroll, total payroll, mass into a digital wallet. So that money is locked up there, it looks like a tax right because it’s kind of taking away from their revenue. But that money gets locked up there, and can only be used for training. And specifically, it’s used for apprenticeships, so you’re encouraged to go out and find an apprenticeship provider, and these are approved by the government. 

So you’re, you’re incentivized to go out to find one of these organizations, and take on new students that are perhaps studying at university, but most likely, they’re just sitting at home, there might be an 18-year-old, that doesn’t want to go to college or might be somebody else. So they come into your organization, the government will basically kind of allow you to spend the money that’s locked up in the wallet, and they will also match 50% of our mature spending, they will help you connect with this training provider that will be taking up half of the week. And then the other half of the week, the student is actually learning in the organization. So it’s a really interesting apprenticeship scheme that is now starting to kind of get noticed outside of the UK. And I think a lot of countries are going to take up on this idea. This is not new, this has been done for ages, you can look at impact bonds that have been sort of happening in different local environments, you can look at kind of outcome-based financing for schools. The Dell Foundation is kind of a leader in this space in India specifically. So there’s a lot of ways I think, to kind of bring money that is either it’s going to be spent anyways. But you might as well spend it in more efficient ways. You might have well defined an outcome very clearly and say, whatever increases my chances of achieving this outcome, we’ll get the funding. I think that’s just a very important transformation. 

Garrett Smiley  34:17

It’s such a dangerous game. I think that’s a very dangerous game. I agree. We have to measure what matters. But that sentiment gets so warped, that it becomes we’re going to optimize around what’s easy to measure. Right. And I think a lot of the pitfalls of also U.S. education, but then many other countries have followed suit, which is okay, you want us to have impact-driven decision making impact-driven decisions to impact these metrics. Okay, well, then first you have to find metrics, and then know what’s most easy to measure student’s short term retention effects, right? And then just it becomes this absurd dance where we’re all optimizing around student short-term retention of effects, not even long-term retention effects, right? 

We see that these retention numbers fall almost to zero, give it a few years because of the way that we induce cramming. So I just think, yes, we should try to make these quantitative decisions on what actually is creating impact. But first, we need tests and measures that actually that, that even quantify the things that we truly care about, which is probably if we actually ask yourself a society, it’s probably the competencies like critical thinking, you know, teamwork, collaboration, yes, contents important, but it’s only part of the equation. And then later on long-term retention of content, we need to create institutions that incentivize remembering things for a long time, just until the end of the year. Right. So I completely agree, I just— we have to— step one of that is how do we quantify things we actually care about? So we’re not continuing just to pour money on this race to the bottom?

Alberto Arenaza  35:57

Yeah, no, I love that you said that. I think first step is sort of wanting to measure something, I think most of the world is not even measuring anything at all. So I feel like in the U.S., I think looking at the U.S., you’ll see that there’s actually a lot of resources to even think about it and like try to so I feel like the US is, is not a perfect system. But there’s also I guess it’s ahead of most of the world in at least in K-12. So I think that’s kind of scary. But when I think about this, I often think about it from like unlocking funding for the rest of the world, which has less resources. So I think that’s one trade off in a way like, if using this metrics, which might be a little bit rigid, helps you unlock a little bit of funding for more funding for other parts of the world. I think it’s an initial step. I totally agree that it’s kind of what do you measure is what you’re going to get, kind of get at the end? Right. And I think one of the really interesting things about Minerva, for example, is that it proposes very different skills, taxonomy, it’s a very different way of measuring, measuring learning, and it’s not perfect, but I think it has a lot of legs. And I guess I’m just surprised that there’s not more work being done around kind of scaling this taxonomies, around perhaps social emotional learning or more kind of competency based and there’s some great work happening around that. But I think those skills clicks on, we really need to be kind of at the center of the of the measurement and kind of of the funding after that. 

I also don’t think that everything needs to be measured, right, I also think there needs to be a lot of space for doing things that might take a really long time to, to show any effects. Or you also need to listen to a lot of the educators, I think often in this measurement, impact measurement exercises, the voices of the students, and the voices of the educators are left out as well. So I fully agree, I don’t think it’s a perfect system by any measures.

Garrett Smiley  38:09

I think that’s an important level of nuance for us to add to the conversation, though, which is, if we figure out that we can’t measure the things, we deeply care about whatever that may be, because I also am not sure if there is a perfect metric to measure learning. I mean, that’s such a moving target. So okay, what are we going to do instead? It’s not just “forget about it.” It’s what you’re saying, let’s hold let’s interviews, let’s gain empathy for their perspectives. It’s not just okay, we can only measure short term retention of facts. That’s the only thing we’re able to operationalize and measure. It’s not just okay, then that’s the only thing that exists. And let’s, you know, put our heads in the sand. It’s no let’s do our best to try to get empathy and perspective on the other facets as well, even if it’s not perfect. Yeah,

Alberto Arenaza  38:52

I’m curious, how do you try to measure any of this at Sora? I feel like you’ve probably learned a lot more about this then than I have in the last couple years. I’m curious, your perspective on this?

Garrett Smiley  39:05

Yeah, it’s tough. I’m more of an optimist, that we can eventually create meaningful metrics. It requires us to rethink how school works from the ground up in which we are pretty far along that journey. But competency-based assessment, having students demonstrate their their mastery, cumulative, low stakes, instead of this top down punitive style of assessment we do now that is requisite for this conversation to even begin. But there are things that we can do like in Sora, we don’t have a perfect metric for for everything. So we do things like we have what we call ability scores, and quality level demonstration. So we can tell a student in a formative way, kind of a one point, rubric style, this is what needs improvement. 

This is this is where I think you should go and it’s it’s qualitative at the end of the day, we’re not doing these to have something like a critical thinking or open-minded discussion, demonstration. If we don’t have this super intense rubric, because how would you actually break that down any level of granularity? It’s instead, here’s “From my observations of your participation, here’s where I think you can improve.” And I roughly peg you on this scale. Right? So it’s a starting point for conversation, formative. And I’m not sure if we’re ever gonna be able to create a test to see if the student has critical thinking. But that is much better than ignoring it.

Alberto Arenaza  40:27

Yeah. And I think a big part of that transformation is the instruments that you use to measure things, right. So I think exams to me are, yeah, they’re tough. I come from a country where there’s a lot of, there’s a huge presence of standardized testing at all levels of society. And I really struggled with it, I can see how it scales really well. And it’s, it’s very easy to scale. But I struggle with it. Because I feel like when a student is making a choice about what they want to learn and what they’re interested in, like, if they want to get to a certain outcome, they know if they, if the input is a lot of hours into preparing for this exam, the outcome is roughly going to scale with how many hours they cram. 

If you’re doing things such as having peers evaluate each other’s critical thinking, if you are trying to evaluate somebody, somebody’s critical thinking in a conversation, or in a real life project, that doesn’t scale as well, right? Like, if you do 10 hours of cramming, you 10 extra hours of, of cramming, the marginal benefit on your score is going to be pretty good. If you do 10 hours of preparing for a conversation, I’m not sure that you’re going to be that much better off prepared for the conversation, right? So it’s sort of the incentivizes you from that sort of cramming, of like, studying for the test, right?

Garrett Smiley  41:52

I think you’re exactly right. And this is why our approach standardized testing as a society is pretty crazy. It’s kind of silly, because you’re measuring one moment in time, a couple hours max, and you’re measuring their short term retention on a pre selected scope of subjects, right. And that is not at all like how life works for one. But also, that’s not even what we care about. We like what you’re saying, we care about your ability to demonstrate increasing improvement or mastery on these things over a longer time horizon. So that’s the way it is at Sora. We say we don’t have tests, and they parents go, what the heck, what do you mean, you don’t have tests we all know not because we’re some weird “shoes-off” hippies. 

We don’t think that measuring things is important. But because when you have this approach, that every time a student demonstrates their learning that we’re measuring and giving feedback at that point, you no longer need tests, because we now have data points. And every single thing a student has done, we’re building up this, this map of what they know, and what they need to improve to the point where having one more multiple-choice assessment, whatever schools do is simply not helpful to us. Yeah, right. We’ve evolved past that almost,

Alberto Arenaza  43:03

I think it’s also one of the opportunities of learning online, like you have a lot more, you’re able to connect those data points to assessment, for example, right? Like, we could, if this were a project, final project of my communications class, you could go back and you or my professor or whatever, or my teacher, you could go back to my presentation and point out precisely where I could have done things differently. Or you might kind of be able to nudge me, after the fact, because you have all this really rich data, which I think it would be really hard and a physical and a physical school. And I have one last question for you, which is how do you think about peer learning in this context, because I am assuming a lot of the students that are going through this experience, they they’re thinking a lot about the skills that they’re learning. And they have a great understanding of why it’s important and what success looks like, if you’re putting out some sort of clear rubric. I always felt like, it was weird that it had Minerva, we didn’t have a chance to kind of grade each other more, because like we had a very clear rubric of what success look like. So I’m curious if that’s something that plays a role in that sort of school? 

Garrett Smiley  44:22

Yeah, I think pure peer to peer learning peer to peer grading– whatever aspect of peer peer you want to focus in on– I think that is the pinnacle of education, reform of the future of education. But to get there, there are a lot of stepping stones we have to get right. I don’t think having– well I think having your you know, your DeskMate grade your paper as a data point for teachers to reflect upon like some schools, traditional schools do. I do think this is better. 

But this is just that’s not peer to peer. In my mind. Peer to peer is when we understand exactly, or have a good idea of what students know where they’re on in their progression of mastery, and we can connect human ends with each other, hopefully also knowing their social graph, if you will, how, who they know, right, which relationships are existing and connected with each other to both help them improve the quality of their output to improve their learning, but then also to give them or give teachers or give the institution, these data points so that that is not just a one time assessment a teacher does, but it’s instead of part of the learning process, right part of this revision, heavy process that I think every education institution should move towards this revisions instead of one time assessment, right. So I think peer to peer learning is absolutely essential to this. But what I mean by peer to peer is usually a little different than what most educators in conferences are meeting when they talk about it. Alberto, I know we have to run now, but I’m sure we can riff on this for quite a long time left to schedule another one, I suppose. But thank you so much for being on the show. Is there any parting thoughts you’d like to leave the audience ways that if they want to follow your work, transcend network, whatever, they can engage with you? 

Alberto Arenaza  45:59

Yeah let’s definitely do a part two. If they found any of this stuff interesting they can follow me on Twitter, at Alberto Arenaza, which is my last name on Twitter, and I’m no expert in any way thing. So I would welcome everybody’s thoughts and feedback, always trying to get better. So thank you guys. This is great.

Garrett Smiley  46:22

Awesome. Well, thanks again. Keep up the good work. Thank you for listening to this episode of sores Learning Labs. Check out our other episodes for more thoughtful conversations with experts on learning pedagogy and more.

If you’d like to learn more about our innovative high school program, click here to request information about Sora.

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