Indexing Education

HotChalk promises to provide the online numbers.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Edward Fields, CEO of HotChalkTheir own company numbers are pretty astounding. Now they’re spreading the number love. Founded in 2004, HotChalk is one of the leading providers of free education content on the Internet and a turnkey technology and services provider for non-profit universities committed to bringing their curriculum online — with a mission to make meaningful education outcomes available to everyone, everywhere. Now, they’re expanding that committment with the HotChalk Education Index, an information source for the education industry, providing market research based on the extensive platform they have developed in this space. Specifically, they’ll analyze more than 30 billion data points and 25,000 surveys every quarter. Edward Fields, HotChalk CEO (pictured), discusses how — and why.

Victor: Where does the Index information come from?

Edward: Our survey respondents encompass teachers, parents, students, administrators and tutors from every wired country on the planet. We published our first Index Report this month, and have been blown away by the response from the education industry. People want this information. We plan to publish subsequent reports quarterly.

Victor: Who will use the Index?

Edward: The HotChalk Education Index delivers insights to publishers, policy makers, and educators about how the Internet is influencing, changing and satisfying an education-hungry planet.

Victor: Can you tell us more about the source of your information?

Edward: The HotChalk Education Index is based on anonymized education data from the HotChalk Network. This is imperative, as we are COPPA compliant. We use a proprietary collection of more than 300 education focused websites, serving more than 600 million pages of free content to 50 million unique visitors from around the world each month.

Victor: What is your intention around the HotChalk Education Index?

HotChalk Education IndexEdward: We are here to start the conversation around how to best use the data in the Education Index to help education innovators, publishers, investors, and philanthropists understand the online education market.

Victor: This is a global data set, 30 percent of your audience is international. In fact, you literally have visitors in every country in the world.  What benefits do you see for this project internationally?

Edward: Our audience comes from almost every country of the world. And our mission is firmly aligned with serving everyone, everywhere. We have users from every country in the world. To answer the question let me share with you a couple of personal experiences. Education tends to be very similar anywhere you go in the planet. And every classroom anywhere in the world looks very much alike: a blackboard (sometimes a whiteboard, too); children with their individual desks disposed in a row/column squared distribution, and a teacher standing delivering content.

However, not everywhere there is Internet connection or electricity. Nor an actual building to hold classrooms. Nor a teacher. Nor can every family on the planet can afford a computer. There are over 800 million illiterate people worldwide, 60 percent of whom comes from India and China. Literacy in India is at 61 percent level — there are over 400 million illiterate people. Most of them in rural areas where there are no schools nor teachers, nor roads, nor trains. But guess what! There are mobile phones. And a phone becomes an article of first necessity as sometimes it’s the only way to communicate in vast rural areas seeded with mountains and valleys and rivers.

While at MIT, our Chief Academic Officer, Rafa Cardenas, started up a venture with some classmates to address this immense stigma of so many illiterate people—most of them women. And he connected a few dots leveraging the penetration of mobile phones in those areas with the potential to develop an application to teach the people how to read and write.

It was simple, like most good ideas, and not very sophisticated from a technology perspective so it could be used in low-end phones. A software based on the Snakes & Ladders game where every win was derived from an acquired knowledge of a given part of the alphabet in Hindi. He partnered with local NGO’s so the application could be properly downloaded on the phones and with local operators. And 50,000 thousand people, most of them women, learned how to read and write in six months.

The MIT Media Lab came up a few years before with the One Laptop Per Child project, aimed to deliver low cost computers to students in emerging countries and trying to overcome the lack of resources in those countries.

Through the HEI, we know from which devices people are accessing educational content around the world. From where, at what time and what is the actual content the use the most. We can track trends that will enable the educational community to better design learning experiences.

Those women in India, without being able to read and write will never be able to acquire skills and confidence to think about who knows if building a small business that brings prosperity to their families and their communities.

Victor: What is the potential power of the HEI from a product development lens?

Edward: In order to create products that truly meet people’s needs you need to meet them where they are, but figuring that out can be really difficult. However, with the data in the index, we can now get perfect information about people’s behaviors, preferences, and needs. Measuring what people do, not what they say they do, is critical.

For example, we did a lot of ethnographic research about how students do their homework — visiting their dorms, libraries, and coffee shops. When we actually sat down and watched them work, it  became clear that, even though they said they studied for an hour, most of that time was spent doing other things, like email, chat, SMS, and talking on the phone. If we had listened to what they said they did without knowing what they really did, we would have built the wrong product to help them.

We have only cracked the surface of the power of the HEI — this really is the beginning of a journey and of a conversation with all of you.

Victor: What can we learn from the index about education outside the classroom?

Edward: Our education network is  mostly accessed outside the classroom. This gives us a unique view into things like what types of help students and teachers (and parents) are looking for, what types of teaching and learning aids they are downloading (flash cards, quizzes, exercises, lesson plans, and so on). Also, what disciplines people are struggling with most.

Victor: What does the future of the index hold?

Edward: Well, initially, we started storing the information on a local computer in our office, parsing and placing the data into a sql database, which was pretty inefficient, and we quickly realized this wasn’t going to provide us the volume and speed we would need to sustain this project long term.

Over the course of a month we extracted approximately 100G of data to store, sort, and analyze. This data includes geographic and chronological data, details about the computational platforms people use, as well as contextual information about referring sites. Using the amazon elastic compute cluster ec2 we will use the Map/Reduce framework implemented in the python library “Disco” as well as numeric tools developed by continuum analytics to explore our data.

Our data reflects the interface between online educational content (OEC) and the people who are seeking it. By exploring the correlations in our data we will be able to better understand how people interact with OEC, facilitate improvements to the interface, and identify trends in online education seekers behavior.

We added our data scientist Jeremy McMinis who graduated for the University of Illinois with a Ph.D. in computational physics. He is an expert  in identifying  correlations hidden in noisy data sets and reducing complicated models to extract essential physics. We’ll use those skills to uncover non-obvious, interesting, and important aspects of how education seekers interact with online educational content.

Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. Get your story told through case studies, white papers and other materials you can share at trade shows and on your website. Write to:


Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: