Founded in 1996 as a pioneering social learning network, ePals has continued to evolve over the years. Today, ePals combines a safe and secure learning management platform with communication and collaboration tools and high quality content to connect teachers, students and parents “around the world—and around the corner,” as Miles Gilburne, CEO of ePals, puts it. “Think of the basic equation as platform + communication + collaboration + content,” he says. “That’s why we call ourselves an integrated media company. We connect students and teachers around the world locally, nationally and globally, for purposeful, authentic collaborative learning and cultural exchange.” Here, Miles discusses how he came to lead what may now be the world’s largest K-12 social learning network, what’s happening in China and Europe, more about entrepreneurship, making connections—and partnering for a purpose.
Victor: Can you talk a little bit about your personal and professional background and how that’s led you to your current position as CEO of ePals?
Miles: I’ve been an early stage venture capitalist working at the intersection of media, communications and computers for many years. In 1994 I sold a little company to AOL and then spent five years running corporate development and strategy at AOL during its growth period. Since then, I’ve focused much of my venture capital activity on more mission driven markets, principally health and education. I believe that education media is undergoing the same type of fundamental change that other forms of media have undergone. ePals is an opportunity for me and my wife, Nina, who is co-founder and Chief Learning Officer, to play a meaningful role in an important industry at a time of great disruption and opportunity. It also provides me an opportunity to work with a remarkable group of executives, many of whom I have worked with in the past and are well-suited to building and delivering the kind of innovative products which are a hallmark of ePals success to date.
Victor: ePals has recently announced an expansion into China and the establishment of ePals Europe. Why is the timing right for ePals to be taking a more aggressive approach to a broad global presence?
Miles: There is enormous demand from classrooms around the world for global communication and collaboration around everything from climate change to language learning. And standards around the world, including in the US as reflected in the Common Core Standards recently adopted in most of the states, are focusing on the kind of higher level skills for which collaborative, project based learning is so well suited. ePals already has the world’s largest global community of classrooms, but our growth has been mainly viral outside the US. Now it is time for us to more systematically meet the demand we are seeing for our products around the world by partnering with world-class companies and entrepreneurs that can adapt our products to other cultures and bring other cultures into our global community.
Victor: You have talked about how entrepreneurship is key in choosing the right local partner when expanding into another country. You’ve also mentioned how it is more difficult to find young entrepreneurial companies outside the U.S. Why are entrepreneurial skills so key to expanding globally? And how does the US “grow” entrepreneurs in ways other countries don’t?
Miles: Well, first, I have to say that since I’ve been working internationally over the past 20 years, I’ve seen the world become increasingly entrepreneurial. So there have been tremendous strides and I see that continuing to grow. China is a good example and there is every reason to think that they will be as focused and increasingly entrepreneurial in the education market as they have been elsewhere.
As far as why the U.S. is more naturally entrepreneurial than other countries, I think it’s partly rooted in our being a nation and a culture forged by waves of immigrants needing to make new starts and having to take big risks along the way. Our education system and our capitalist system encourage risk-taking, and is more forgiving of failure than other countries’. And I think that our focus in the post World War II years on technology and science has been a big driver of the entrepreneurial success in this country.
Victor: How does connecting students and teachers with peers globally add value to the learning experience? How does this kind of connection impact students in ways that were not possible before such technologies and tools existed?
Miles: Like many of us, as a kid I had very few opportunities to connect with kids in other cultures or communities. Giving students a chance to have meaningful exchanges with their peers in other countries and circumstances opens up vast possibilities for promoting understanding and global citizenship.
Beyond that, it allows teaching moments to occur around timely, real world events, such as the tsunami and the World Cup. Project-based learning activities that let kids read, write and create around such events are extremely motivating, and when students are motivated, teachers get motivated.
Victor: What have been some of the unique aspects and/or challenges involved in working with business partners and education systems in other countries?
Miles: As you might imagine, knowledge of and sensitivity to the conventions and values of other cultures is crucial to successfully conducting business around the world. This is why we partner with carefully-chosen local entrepreneurs in the technology and education fields who understand the nuances of the local education systems. Beyond certain cultural protocols, such as how you talk to parents, there are also all the usual issues around the sensitivity of student data, who has access to it and how to protect it. Education is one of the vertical markets that requires more cultural and regulatory sensitivity than other markets. It’s easier to take an online game company to scale in another country than it is to take an online education company to scale in the same country.
One of the particularly interesting aspects of going global is that we get a close up look at how countries around the world approach education. These differences allow us to try different things in different countries. In certain European countries, for instance, teachers may have more flexibility to try new approaches to instruction and are given more opportunities and encouragement to share ideas and best practices with colleagues than in the U.S. or China. Those countries are likely to be early adopters of the publishing aspects of our platform. In China, product adoption is likely to be more top down than in a more balkanized market like the U.S. Also, learning English is crucially important in China, and so teachers, parents, grandparents and students are extremely interested in extended learning opportunities that let students work at home and after school hours to reinforce such skills.
Victor: ePals has recently announced partnerships with Microsoft, Dell and the Smithsonian as well as the acquisition of the Carus publishing company. What is ePals’ partnership strategy going forward?
Miles: We partner with great content companies such as the Smithsonian and National Geographic by threading their content through our community and creating collaborative activities around that content. The Carus acquisition brings 14-plus reading- leveled magazines into the fold and nearly forty years of accumulated, high quality content to help us further enrich our learning community. As we begin building our language learning center, global news desk, nutrition center, etc, we will be partnering with great companies able to help us deliver compelling new collaborative learning products in those areas, These organizations would can not only provide us with content but also integrate their employees as mentors. As with our other partners, Microsoft and Dell, whose tools enhance ePals’ collaborative offerings, we can supply these companies with a multinational footprint and the broad distribution channel of schools and homes that let them reach into the hearts and minds of teachers and students around the world. Our enterprise-grade LearningSpace platform is not just U.S.-centered, but global.
Within the next month or so, we’ll be rolling out a new global community that is an even more powerful and seamless iteration of the current LearningSpace platform. So stay tuned for that.
Victor: What impact do you see ePals having on the transformation of education from a traditional to 21st-century model?
Miles: For more than a decade, we’ve had a clear view of where we’re going, and we’ve spent that time building pieces of the puzzle—building a high-quality platform, rolling out the different elements, doing research-based testing, listening to what our users have to say, and gradually growing the large community that we need to have to be a social network that successfully lets teachers find other teachers to do what they want to do. I think it’s accurate to say we’ve been among those in the industry that are clear-eyed about where they’re going. We’ve been one of the early influencers and a constructive part of the dialogue. Right now, we’re at the point of executing on our big vision, which is to connect students, teachers and families globally for authentic learning and cultural understanding. Every day we’re seeing more and more of the impact ePals is having on individuals and classrooms worldwide, and we believe we’re well-positioned to have a meaningful impact on education in the years to come.
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.