It’s a Magic Planet

A classroom staple gets a 21st-century facelift that literally brings students the world. 

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero 

CREDIT magicplanetThe globe has been a classroom staple for hundreds of years “because it’s such an important learning tool,” says Mike Foody, co-founder of Global Imagination, makers of Magic Planet digital video globes. “Just as the other two main classroom staples — chalkboards and textbooks — evolved into interactive whiteboards and tablets respectively, the globe needed a 21st century facelift,” he says. One reason that globes have been a classroom staple is that the alternative, flat maps are always

The educators who will be most successful are the ones who figure out how to convey subjects to students in a way that interests and inspires them.

distorted. “They’re unable to represent a 3-D globe accurately on a 2-D piece of paper,” says Mike. “We conceived the Magic Planet to evolve the globe into an interactive digital media device that could capture the imagination of today’s digital natives, and to display the huge breadth of information about our world that’s available now in an accurate, undistorted way.” The Campbell, California-based company was formed in 2002 to commercialize a new way to display information about planets and to make its benefits as broadly available as possible. Founders Mike Foody, Steve Utt and Phil Rubesin are three Silicon Valley executives, each with over 20 years experience building successful private companies. Here, Mike talks about a prominent first customer, how entrepreneurism factors into the company, the benefits of using a Magic Planet, some interesting partners and the magic involved in sparking students’ global imaginations.

Victor: What’s something interesting about its development history? 

Mike: The first system we sold was in 2003 to NASA. It was used at headquarters to educate about 40,000 visitors a year on earth science topics. Today, more than 40 million people a year see a Magic Planet. It’s in over 150 informal education institutions in 39 countries, including the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, the California Science Center, NASA, NOAA, Cité de l’Espace, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the European Space Agency, and many others.

Victor: Anything interesting about your own background that informed your current approach?

Mike: As a serial entrepreneur, I guess the common theme of my startups has been finding new and better ways for people to engage and interact with information. The first company I started was in the computer graphics field, focused on helping people visualize and understand scientific information. The second was in user interface design tools, helping UI teams create engaging and interactive user interfaces, and the third was an enterprise software company, creating systems that connect web UIs to large data servers with highly scalable performance. At Global Imagination, I get to leverage my experience from all three organizations; we’ve created a product that helps students visualize and understand information about our world much more effectively. It’s highly interactive and engaging, and as schools worldwide gain its benefits, our software infrastructure will scale to meet global needs.

Victor: Benefits of the Magic Planet? 

Mike: Imagine you’re looking at a globe, but instead of a dreary printed “map on a stand,” it’s alive with interactive 360° video! You can watch hurricanes moving around the earth, take the class on a “trip” to Jupiter, or watch the progress of civilizations over centuries – all on a bright “physical sphere.”

The Magic Planet grabs and holds the attention of today’s demanding “digital natives” – students used to video games, iPads and television. Using animations, images, professionally developed movies and other rich global media, the Magic Planet literally brings subjecs to life, whether it’s Earth and planetary sciences; a wide range of social science topics (religion and language around the globe; World War II history, civilizations, etc.); or even current events and geo-located social media.

Beyond simply grabbing attention, the Magic Planet has proven its effectiveness as a teaching tool. In a year-long study of 1,400 students, use of the Magic Planet in classrooms raised student comprehension an average of 16 percent (from 79 percent to 92 percent) across a wide range of K-12 subjects – and it substantially increased student desire to participate in class as well.

Victor: Do you have any direct or indirect competition?

Mike: We only have indirect competition – school spending on other types of education technology such as iPads, interactive whiteboards, classroom management software, etc.

Victor: Any interesting feedback or reactions? 

Mike: People’s first impression of the Magic Planet has been universally positive. It’s common that we hear people say “That’s one of the coolest products I’ve ever seen!” We’ve found that its impressive efficacy (average comprehension improvement of 16 percent) is what leaves the lasting impression with educators.

Victor: What else can you say about the value and benefit of Magic Planet or Global Imagination? 

Mike: In addition to the classroom, the Magic Planet can be used in the library or other common area for enrichment. Numerous museum exhibits and IMAX-like movies from organizations such as NASA, NOAA, California Science Center, UNESCO and many others are included with the product – and they’re free, so schools can get some of the world’s best museum exhibits right in their own libraries – without the hassle and cost of field trips!

Victor: Anything else in the works?  

Mike: Through our numerous informal education customers like NASA, NOAA and the Smithsonian, we have amassed the world’s largest library of “global content” – and we now make that whole library freely available to our customers. Incorporating professionally created global maps, images, animations and movies into an existing school lesson takes just a few mouse clicks and no out-of-pocket expense.

Victor: Your thoughts on education in general these days? 

Mike: With all the talk about “disrupting education” in order to improve it, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that fostering a lifelong desire to learn requires sparking students’ imaginations. This means fully engaging their intellects through interesting ideas, and capturing their hearts through compelling stories told in an easy-to-consume fashion. Educators must deliver a steady stream of intuitive insights that simplify pieces of the learning puzzle so that the students’ overall understanding can grow — and together these will create a cycle of motivation. The best learners, after all, are those who want to learn.

Victor: Good point! Got any guidance or advice for educators? 

Mike: The world has changed dramatically since most educators were in K-12 themselves. Kids don’t typically research a subject by going to the library and looking up trusted sources; today, they simply type their questions into the Google search box and get instantaneous results. They don’t write in paper notebooks with pens and pencils; instead, they type on their laptops and iPads. They don’t read newspapers and magazines or watch the six-o’clock news; if the topic isn’t on a YouTube video, they just might miss it. The educators who will be most successful are the ones who figure out how to convey subjects to students in a way that interests and inspires them.

Victor: Anything more you’d like to add or emphasize? 

Mike: China is investing heavily in both its teachers and in new education technology, and that investment is definitely paying off. A global survey released in December 2013 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showed that Shanghai’s students are the best in the world at math, reading and science. Why? Because China invests in teachers, training, and technologies – the Chinese culture prioritizes academic achievement. I see this first-hand every time I go on a business trip to China (the Chinese Ministry of Education is our largest customer). When CNN asked why Chinese students did so well on the PISA testing, Jiang Xueqin, the deputy principal at the Tsinghua University High School in Beijing, responded, “A lot of it is that the students are engaged in learning.” More engagement yields better learning.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:

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