Now an Amazon company, their GM says they’re still an edtech startup at heart.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Rohit Agarwal spent his early childhood years in India, where math is a strong focus of education. “I realized the value of a strong foundation in math, and tutored students in math through my graduate school years to pay for school,” he recalls. He also realized that students who don’t have a strong math foundation by middle school “are more likely to accept that ‘math isn’t for me’ by the time they get to high school,” he says, “severely limiting their career options.” Rohit also realized that “one of the challenges was that students wanted to get math, but weren’t comfortable asking for help—so why not create something where they could learn using hints and videos, just when they realize they need the help while working on problems.” It’s been several years now since he embarked upon an adventure to make math more meaningful for all students. “TenMarks has had an amazing journey over the past six years with numerous milestones.” In this EdTech Digest second EdTech Digest interview, a lot has happened since we first chatted with Rohit. Here, he talks about iterations, adaptive learning, the startup mindset, working with a larger company, and in what state he thinks education is today.
We learned to grow in a methodical and meaningful way, and also learned how and when to double-down on areas of strength.
Could you briefly walk us through some of the milestones you are referring to?
Rohit: First, getting validation from our customers that the idea of real-time feedback and embedded learning – via an adaptive teaching method was positive and helpful—teachers told us it worked with their students and resulted in improved outcomes and increased passion for math. The response from our customers—students, parents and teachers—helped us to know we were on the right path.
Next, we adopted a “freemium” model in 2010, which was new to ed-tech at the time. Opening it up so that any teacher in the country could use TenMarks free, got the program be adopted by tens of thousands of teachers across the country.
Finally, in 2013, Amazon acquired TenMarks, which validated both our efficacy and go to market approach to serving educators and families. We knew we were on the right track with the concept of personalized learning and the depth and rigor of the new curriculum. The Amazon acquisition allowed us to grow at a pace that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
Victor: How have your own schooling and/career highlights informed your current approach?
Rohit: This is a great question and a couple things come to mind right away. When I was in graduate school I tutored young adults in math, and I saw a major deficit in the foundations of their math education. I realized there was a large gap between the comprehension high schoolers graduate with and what is expected of them in college.
From a career standpoint – I spent more than 20 years in the technology industry. I learned that there are several tech concepts that could be applied to education. These include using video in the classroom to reinforce instruction, and employing algorithms to plan and personalize a student’s coursework.
The most important lesson I’ve learned, though, is that technology is the catalyst for change in any industry. But within the ed-tech space, new technological advances need to complement educators, and help them keep students engaged. TenMarks is successful not just because it helps students, but because it gives great teachers the tools to do what they do best.
Victor: Could you tell me about the Summer Math Program – it’s history, value, benefits, and current results?
Rohit: The TenMarks Summer Math Program is an adaptive online program that provides students with both an upfront assessment and personalized lessons that are tuned to their individual needs. The program helps students their math skills sharp over the summer to help reverse learning loss. From day one of TenMarks, we understood that parents were a key part of the education lifecycle, so we listened to them very closely. Many parents said their children had summer reading lists, but none had work to keep their math skills sharp – and evidence showed they students were losing 3 months of math learning during that break.
With that insight, we used our algorithms to create the first iteration of our program and charged families $39 for the summer, which was very successful – parents saw immense value. This is another area where the Amazon acquisition was helpful for us, as we were able to start offering it free to families across the country, to have a national impact that is orders of magnitude greater.
Hundreds of thousands of students have used the summer program so far, and last year participants showed an average 11 percent increase in scores from grade level assessments conducted at the beginning of the program. This is a huge improvement in such a short period of time, especially since students will otherwise lose roughly two to three months of grade level equivalency during the break.
Victor: Why are summer math programs so essential these days?
Rohit: These programs are much more important than they were in the past because we now realize that math is core to a student’s success—math of any kind, any practice—is beneficial to students. A study by the National Math and Science Institute states, “…jobs in computer systems design and related services, a field dependent on high-level math and problem-solving skills, are projected to grow 45 percent between 2008 and 2018.” Even if students don’t go into computer science, the odds that their jobs will require an advanced level of math proficiency is much higher than in past generations.
Additionally, with math curriculums across the country changing to the new standards. Today’s math curriculum is much more conceptual than ever before. Students aren’t simply asked to solve a problem; they’re asked to understand the concept behind the problem. The TenMarks summer program helps students hone these conceptual reasoning skills.
Finally, summer math programs in general help students and teachers begin the new school year with confidence. Students won’t stress about forgetting last year’s concepts, and teachers don’t have to spend weeks reinforcing previous lessons.
Victor: Are there any updates to the TenMarks Summer Math Program since we last spoke?
First, the depth and rigor of the content has improved and every line of content on TenMarks is less than 3 years old to ensure that when a student works on a program, that learning is aligned to the new curriculum standards.
We also launched a new student engagement model, which our customers really enjoyed. Students can now create their own persona, earn points and badges, and compete with other students. That little bit of competition really motivates and incentivizes students.
And from a technology perspective, as of six months ago, TenMarks is now available on the various device operating systems – iOS, Android and Fire OS.
Victor: How does the company still carry through on that same entrepreneurial and innovative spirit that kept it growing and a success in its earlier days?
Rohit: That’s a great question. What people might not realize about Amazon is that is truly is one of the most entrepreneurial and innovative companies today. It may be a huge business, but culturally it functions like a startup. TenMarks fits nicely with what Amazon has always been about: thinking big, innovating and simplifying, while delivering results for our customers.
Amazon has allowed TenMarks to remain independent, which is great because we get to maintain our sense of an aggressive startup while benefitting from Amazon’s resources. We have greatly extended our reach, revenue and team in the past 18 months.
I should also note that we have learned a lot from Amazon’s culture. We learned to grow in a methodical and meaningful way, and also learned how and when to double-down on areas of strength. Additionally, we’re able to pursue goals that were previously outside our grasp, looking at the future to reach students in different ways—whether through device innovations like Echo or Kindle Direct Publishing or others.
Victor: Since being acquired in 2013, what has changed at the company since the deal?
Rohit: A number of things changed in the 20 months since the acquisition. The core TenMarks team is the same, but we’ve also been able to add some very talented new teams. Also, the TenMarks vision has gotten a lot bigger – with Amazon, we’ve taken on greater challenges and aimed higher than we ever would have as a startup. Everything we’re doing has accelerated beyond anything we could imagine. For example, a new TenMarks platform called Math Teach, web-based professional development and instructional resource for teachers in grades 1 to 8, launched within months of the acquisition. Without Amazon it would have taken much longer to get it to market.
Victor: What is your take on the state of education today?
Rohit: I don’t have a large overall comment on the state of education today, but I will say that it is the most exciting time to be a part of education in modern history. We’re in the middle of a period with core changes to both curriculums and access to technologies in the classroom. We’re seeing that the one-size-fits-all education model is no longer effective. Instead of teachers simply broadcasting their knowledge, we’re seeing more personalized learning for every child. This would be impossible, or at least very challenging, without advancements in education technology. Teachers can use unique ways and resources to change students’ lives; all helped by the role technology plays in the classroom.
I will say that it is the most exciting time to be a part of education in modern history. We’re in the middle of a period with core changes to both curriculums and access to technologies in the classroom.
We’re building a generation of students that not only will be better learners, but they will also become life-long learners because of the blend of education with technology.
Victor: Any words of wisdom for educators, parents, administrators, or others in an around edtech?
Rohit: Stay open and stay adaptive. Educators, administrators and parents realize that education technology is ever-changing. Some concepts will work and some won’t, but if we stay nimble and iterative and open to new ideas, we’ll see that things can be done differently to benefit our students.
Victor Rivero is the editor in chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]